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The village was Villers Bretonneux and our boys have won it back

On Anzac Day 2018, we will again commemorate the Gordon cricketers who fought in all wars. This year in particular we will hear a lot about about the Battle of Villers Bretonneux. Two Australian brigades took part in the counter-attack to stop the German spring offensive on the night of April 24 in 1918. The Australian troops displayed great bravery, but also suffered a terrible loss. Some 2,400 Australians died in the battle to recapture the town. Many historians say it was the turning point in the war and one of our Gordon cricketers was in the vicinity of Villers Bretonneux and recounted in his diary details of the period surrounding the battle. 

That cricketer was Cliff Geddes, a third grader with the club who, on 19 August 1914 enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces 3rd Battalion. Cliff would be foregoing his cricket creams for an Australian uniform which would become his mode of dress for nearly five years.

The GDCC wreath for the Anzac day dawn service.

He was born in Warialda to William and Sarah Geddes. Interestingly two of his grandparents were convicts, one was from Ireland and one from England. Cliff and his family moved to Chatswood and lived in a cottage called Cyrene in Railway Street.  He was a bank clerk when he enlisted on 19 August 1914 at the age of twenty-eight and sailed on the HMAT Euripides to England on 20 October 1914.

Cliff, who had taken 54 wickets at 7.89 with the Vets team, and had just been promoted to Third Grade. It was near the end of the season and he took 7 wickets for 31 runs with his medium fast deliveries, off 24 overs with 10 maidens. His performance resulted in his promotion to Second Grade, where he took 2 wickets for 70 runs in the remaining three games of the season.

Cliff Geddes in 1914

Having enlisted only 2 weeks after the declaration of war, Cliff was destined to be part of the first landings of the ANZAC’s at Gallipoli and on the night of May 19, Cliff was on alert for an expected Turkish offensive that night. Throughout Cliff’s time in both Gallipoli and the Western Front he would make a diary note of the day’s events wherever possible and his first published entry was made on that night.

Cliff was sleeping in full kit when the attack came and the thunderous gunfire brought him instantly to his feet. His notes on that night detail the attack:

'Along with others I was ordered to lie on the ground above the trench. When we climbed out a startling sight met our eyes. The darkness of No Man's Land was lit by the fire of blazing rifles from the grass, and the Turks were within 25 yards of our trenches.

The orders of my particular group from Captain Austin, company commander, were that if the Turks got very close to jump across the trench and charge them with the bayonet, but on no account to fire our rifles and let them know we were there.

Thus I was a spectator of the most thrilling game I have ever seen'.

The Australians were magnificent. Every man who could was firing across the trench at the line of fire from the dark ground as fast as he could pull the trigger and pull back the bolt to reload. When the rifle got too hot to hold, or jammed, the man below on the floor of the trench handed up his with more cartridges. The machine-guns poured back their hail of lead.

The scene on May 19, 1914

Many of our grand chaps fell shot through the head, but immediately another man took the place of him who fell.

The dawn now began to break and what a sight lay before our eyes. It seemed as if an army lay asleep in the grass. So confident were the Turks that they attacked with blankets strapped to their backs, presumably to sleep the next night in our trenches, but the majority were sleeping their last sleep in No Man's Land. The remainder could stand the fire no longer, and raced back towards their own trenches.

I was struck by the magnificent running of an athletic Turk, who ran like a deer for his own trench. Bullets threw up the dirt all around his feet, but on he sped and I really hoped that he might get there as he was such a wonderful runner. Just as he reached his own line and was about to jump into the trench an Australian bullet ended his great effort, and he rolled back down the slope in front of the banked-up earth.

On 28 July, suffering from dysentery, Cliff Geddes was transferred to a hospital on Malta for treatment where he stayed for many months. Unfortunately, the strain of battle and the horrendous conditions he endured at Gallipoli saw his condition worsen and being further diagnosed with enteritis and cardiac strain he was discharged from his AIF duties and was transported back to Australia arriving in March, 1916.

The adventure for Cliff was over as he settled back into life in Australia, taking time to recover from his illnesses. Like all Australians over the next 18 months, he observed in horror the continued losses of Australian troops as they fought throughout the Western Front.

In October, 1917 Cliff surprised his family when he visited the AIF recruitment office in Sydney and offered to re-enlist and return to the war. Cliff of course had a major difference to the other recruits signing up in that he had already been to Gallipoli and knew what would be facing him in Europe. He knew the job wasn’t done and in his eyes who better than him to continue the fight.

I had the fortune of meeting Cliff’s son Geoff in July 2015 and when I asked about why he returned to the war he said that while he hated the loss of life, his sense of adventure was still stirred and his willingness to fight for his country in its hour of need was not diminished.

Viller Bretonneux on April 25, 1918

On his arrival in France, Cliff was posted to the 13th Battalion, which also included Gordon legend Jack Prowse, and fortunately he had brought a new diary with him enabling him to write about his daily experiences in the Somme. His early experience was totally different to Gallipoli, but certainly not better. His diary on April 19 1918 read as follows:

‘Passed a field where there were 11 dead horses & mules, poor brutes, that they should be victims of shells. The rain was running of the top of my steel helmet, & underneath it the perspiration was trickling. At last we halted by a sunken road, & the cooker was there, & we each got a drink of hot cocoa. Moved on again, & I thought we were about at our destination, but I’ve never had such a tramp in my life. Talk about hard work, the clay was sticking to our boots, the load on our back was heavy, & we were getting weary. Then we tramped across ploughed fields with the grain just growing, which the old Frenchies have had to abandon, & I thought we were never going to stop.

I don’t know how we kept going, no halt, on & on across the heavy ground. I was so weary I wouldn’t have cared if a shell hit me. Then we drew near a hedge on the side of a village, & the field was simply honeycombed with shell holes, there were thousands, & Lor’ knows how any human body lived in such a place. And yet, as we walked across the field, not a single shell was falling there. The village was Villers-Bretonneux, it was taken by the Germans last Wednesday, but our boys have since won it back. We got through the hedge, & came, without warning, on several dead Germans lying in the open, a most gruesome sight.

We had breakfast under difficulties, our hands were very muddy, but we extracted some bully beef, bread & cheese from our tucker bags, & then commenced to try & sleep. For a start the chats were biting me, I’ve had these clothes on for over a month, then it was pretty cold on the clay floor of the trench, & aeroplanes were droning overhead, not to mention shells. What a life, eh! I’d give many quidlets now to be back in Sydney harbour.

One of the pastimes of the Australian soldiers during the war was to play a ‘make up’ game of cricket. While there are no scorecards to record the various cricket matches that Cliff Geddes was able either to organise or be part of during his travels across the Somme, it is a clear example of the Aussie love of cricket and in particular Cliff’s passion for the game. There was even an Australia vs England match. It is probably just as well that it didn’t make the record books, because England won.

Cliff’s diary relates some stories about the cricket matches:

'After dinner I played in a cricket match, D Coy. v. Bn. Headqrs. We went to one field, & some chaps were having a practice, then we were told the match would be in a field where the Bn. parade ground is, so we went there, but the 14th Bn. were playing there. Then our band arrived, so we had a band & no ground or gear. Lt. Col Marks & the Adjt. came along then, & we adjourned to where we were first. Couldn’t persuade the others there to give up the wicket they made, so we played on the grass, it was a very rough wicket. I was sent in first with Wilkinson, & after I had scored 2, a shooter got me. We got 60, & they won by 3 wickets''.

'In the afternoon, I played cricket with the 13th Bn against the Honourable Artillery Company (Tommies) on their ground. We finished at 8 p.m. then there was the long trip back, so a chap is about knocked up. The Tommies won by 30 runs, they had a good batting team, one chap had played with Somerset, & one with Yorkshire seconds. They gave us tea, the usual army issue plus boiled eggs, very decent of them'.

During Cliff’s travels through France, he would have been encouraged by the many letters he received from his girlfriend Elsie Gall. In his diary, from 31 March to 5 September, he mentions Elsie twenty-eight times, either receiving her letters, writing to her or receiving parcels of ‘goodies’. In all, Cliff received over forty letters during his time in the Somme.

Elsie Gall in 1914

The following are examples of some of the references to Elsie and her letters and parcels:

Luckily I put some things out of Elsie’s parcel last week in my haversack, & I had a tin of salmon for breakfast.

'In the afternoon I got a lovely mail, 10 letters, 6 from Elsie, & I’ve now received every one of hers up to No. 30 which is splendid'.

'I got a parcel from Elsie, a tin of biscuits she made, coconut macaroons, & they were very tasty & acceptable'.

'I got a huge mail in the afternoon, letters galore from home. I also got letters No. 31 & 32 from Elsie'.

'Got a lovely parcel from Elsie tonight, butter scotch, chocolate ginger, figs & butter – won’t it be a treat here in the front line where there’s no canteen eh'.

'5 letters from Elsie, didn’t have time to read them before we fell in, so when we were allowed to break off'.

Cliff Geddes was becoming very concerned with the gravity of the fighting when he stated in his diary that he hated the sight of the dead and wounded lying about and hoped this awful affair would end soon. Fortunately for everyone, the end was coming soon and in September 1918, Cliff’s Battalion was sent behind the front lines to rest.

One of the final days of Australia's involvement in WW1 at Peronne.

Cliff’s final entries in his diary at that time read as follows:

Oh well, the 4th Brigade & the 13th Battalion particularly have suffered pretty severely in these big attacks against Fritz during the last six weeks but our losses are light compared to what we've dealt out to him. His prisoners alone exceed our casualties. As this big advance has continued on all fronts, day by day with ours, it is evident to all of us that the war has completely swung our way at last, & the German menace seems at last to have its back broken.

Who would have thought last April & May such a sudden change would come over things? The Aussies have more than done their bit in this great push. Just on our own sector prisoners constantly poured back & we advanced a terrific distance since it first began. We have lost some grand men though, part of war's hellish price.

God grant, there may never be another one on this earth! Our brigade are all out for a thoroughly well-earned rest, but there are French, English & Yanks galore to carry on the big advance unceasingly & Fritz will get no respite.

The whole of the Aussie divisions are to have a long spell, so I won't be destined to see any more German stoush & fireworks. Our numbers are so small now that I think the heads have brought our chaps out because they're too weak to carry on without being re-organised & several battalions have been cut out altogether.

This Rouen front, on which I conclude this diary, is certainly more cheerful than that celebrated "health resort", Villers-Bretonneux where I passed so many exciting moments, where gas & shells were as plentiful as rabbits in N.S.W. I am truly thankful to be alive & sound as I close this off.

On his return, Cliff married his sweetheart Elsie and they lived in Chatswood where he continued to play for the club from 1919 to 1924.

The inside of the front page of Cliff's Diary

After he finished playing, Cliff would regularly visit Chatswood Oval and following the Second World War, would take his teenage son, Geoff, who was playing Green Shield for the club, to the oval to watch the legendary Gordon cricketers, Ginty Lush, Sid Carroll and Jack Potter. During this period, Gordon won two First Grade premierships in the 1945-46 and 1947-48 seasons when crowds of three to five thousand were not unusual.

Tragically one Saturday in late 1947, while sitting near the Macartney Scoreboard at the oval, Cliff suffered a stroke. His distraught son urgently sought medical attention and he was rushed to hospital. Geoff still recalls that terrible day as if it were yesterday. Unfortunately Cliff wasn’t able to recover and he died one month later.

Cliff loved his cricket and his club before, during, and after the war and will be remembered as one of our true heroes.

Lest we forget

Paul Stephenson

 

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