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They fought for their friends and family and the game they loved

Toward the end of March 1918, having been strengthened by the capitulation of Tsarist Russia, the German Army launched their Spring Offensive against the Allies with the force of a massive sixty-three divisions over a front of seventy miles. 

Colin McCulloch - Gordon cricketer

This would be the assault that would destroy the allied forces once and for all; or so they thought. The German command however, were not aware that of the 52 Gordon cricketers who had enlisted in the war, 40 of them were still on the western front and preparing to take on the German Army. If they had known that possibly the Spring offensive may not have happened and Armistice day may have arrived early.

Over the three years of the war to this stage, five of the seven Gordon cricketers who died had met their fate and their fellow cricketers were no doubt wondering when this hell would stop and they could return to their homes and that pleasant memory when they could look forward to their game of cricket at Chatswood oval on the weekend.

The remaining seven cricketers not on the Western Front who had survived, had returned home with major injuries that would see them unable to play cricket again and in some cases be in and out of hospital for the rest of their lives. But at least they were at home.

Harry Fry - Gordon cricketer

How remote that must have seemed for these battle-weary soldiers, many of whom like Harry Fry, Alister Maclean, Alan Bruce, Cliff Geddes, Dr. Claude Tozer, George Swan and Robert Prior had started at Gallipoli and were now into their third year in the trenches of the western front. Others, stirred at home by the need to keep volunteers coming to the war front, had only been there for a few months but they were soon learning the scope of the job they had ahead of them to firstly stop the German army and then somehow push them back.

Importantly, now however, the Australians were all together. The five Australian divisions, who had been split into the I Anzac Corps and II Anzac Corps alongside the New Zealand Division, were officially grouped together at the end of 1917 to form the Australian Corps. In May 1918, General John Monash would assume command of the Corp. 

All the Australian divisions, which had been stationed in the relatively quiet area of Messines since November 1917, were now called in to defend against the Spring Offensive. During the following months, they would fight at various levels of intensity through small French villages in the Flanders region which had avoided substantial damage over the three previous years, as well as the burnt-out or destroyed countryside around the perimeter of Amiens. 

Johnnie Moyes - Gordon cricketer

On 26 March, the Australian 3rd and 4th Divisions were positioned near the village of Hebuterne between Amiens and Bapaume and facing an onslaught from the German advance. Alister Maclean, who started with the club in its first season in 1905, and had been in reserve since Bullecourt following the losses incurred by the 4th Division, had moved back to just behind the front line with his 4th Field Company Engineers. Alister received a Military Cross for his actions that day which were described in his citation as follows:

On the afternoon of the 26th March, 1918, near HEBUTERNE and SAILLY–au-BOIS, for most conspicuous gallantry and coolness in pushing up to the villages, which were reported to be strongly held by the enemy. Although sniped at from the outskirts of the village he boldly advanced, and by a thorough reconnaissance, ascertained that the enemy only had a few scouts forward. He was thus able to furnish information which aided the Brigade, to which his unit was attached, to take up a fine position after cleaning the village of HEBUTERNE, and subsequently inflict heavy losses on the enemy.

After the brigade commanders had read Alister’s report, the 48th Battalion was called urgently into action. Johnnie Moyes, a future Gordon cricketer who had now been promoted to major, was in command of the 48th Battalion and was ready to take his men forward. 

Alister Maclean - Gordon cricketer

Due to the bravery of Alister, Johnnie and their fellow soldiers, the brigade was in a strong position to repel a counter attack the following day. From 30 March to 5 April, the German Spring offensive in the Somme was at its height as both armies centered their attacks and defense in the Amiens area and in particular around Villers-Bretonneux where one of the major turning points of the war was to occur later that month on Anzac Day. 

Colin McCulloch, who had written about his journey to the Western Front, his experiences at Bullecourt and a moving letter to the mother of a fallen comrade, had now arrived in Amiens. His battalion had arrived in preparation for moving out to the front line when they were loading a train at the St Roch Railway station. Seemingly out of nowhere, a number of enemy aircraft appeared above the battalion, ready to unleash their shells upon the unsuspecting troops. Sergeant Major T D Brown was nearby at the time and explained the event:

On 11/4/18 the company was in the St Roch Railway Station, Amiens, entraining back to Belgium, during the German push. Lieutenant McCulloch was supervising loading Army Services Corps wagons on the train, when a shell came over and burst about 5 yards from the Lieutenant killing him outright, together with about 4 others. I was about 100 yards away at the time,  and saw the explosion; I rushed over to the spot at once and saw the Lieutenant’s body; there was no doubt he was killed instantly. I had been speaking with the Lieutenant about half an hour previous to the explosion. I saw no more of the Lieutenant as I had to entrain at once, but a party was left behind to see to the interment.  The Lieutenant was the most popular officer imaginable. 

Colin had written several times in his letters about his concern for shells landing in his vicinity and ironically wrote the following in his diary during the Battle of Bullecourt:

The whole sequence of sights and sounds is a nightmare that one will never forget. In one way, it is worse to listen and see a bombardment like that at night, than it is to be actually in the line where they burst – for in the latter case, one has plenty to do and besides one thinks instinctively and yet unconsciously of one’s own safety and that of the others - but in the former case one feels a great fellow feeling and sympathy for the poor chaps who have to suffer the shells, and each shell as it is fired seems to send a sudden throb through one’s heart - and then one hears the shriek and burst of a shell coming from Fritz - and one’s emotions quickly change only to change again and again all the time. It is an awful conflict of emotions.

Colin was the sixth Gordon cricketer killed in the war and he is buried at the Saint Pierre Cemetery just down the road from the station. I had the privilege of visiting the grave site of Colin McCulloch in 2008 and took a photo of his head stone. His grave sits in the first row of the Australian War section of the cemetery, and reads:

11TH APRIL 1918, AGE 26

Colin McCulloch had lived in Lane Cove Road, Warawee, and had been a student at the Sydney Church of England Grammar School in North Sydney. A recent Law graduate from the University of Sydney, he had spent three years in the Commonwealth Senior Cadets before enlisting as a reinforcement in the 2nd Battalion, in January 1916 at the age of twenty-four.

He played for the Club in the 1913-1914 and 1914-1915 seasons and, after scoring a couple of 50s in Second Grade, was promoted to First Grade for one game in 1914. He only scored 1 run in his debut match. Unlike so many talented cricketers who have played for the club since, he would not have a chance to regain his spot in the team. Having read his letters and diary, however, Colin would be the first to wish them well. He embodied the true spirit of our club.

In comparison to the overall number of Australians on the western front, the remaining Gordon contingent of 40 was small, but they formed part of an impenetrable wall that refused to be broken against the greatest of odds. The Gordon District Cricket Club has developed its culture and values from this group of men and also from the seventy cricketers who went to the Second World War. We will continue to play in their memory and for what they sacrificed for their families and fellow cricketers. 

They didn't fight just to be able to come home and win cricket matches at any cost, they fought alongside their New Zealand mates to allow themselves the opportunity to enjoy the freedom to play the game they loved and play it in the spirit of comradery under which the game was first established. As our Australian cricket team go through the recovery stage from their recent misdemeanors they only need reflect on what the members of Gordon and other grade cricket clubs endured to enable them the privilege to grace the same turf as our fallen heros.

Paul Stephenson


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