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100 YEARS AGO
- Convoy to the Somme -

On April 6, 1918,  3rd Squadron AFC was urgently sent south, accompanying The Australian Corps, to face the alarming new German threat in the Somme Valley.


AFC Transport Vehicles, 1918. 
[AWM P00522.003]

Contemporary report by Air Mechanic Harold EDWARDS,
3rd Squadron, Australian Flying Corps:

…We had reveille at 4am, and drew our day's ration between 4 and 5am, and straightaway made our breakfast of part of it.  The rations consisted of cold ham (which, by the way, ran out before I came, and I had tinned bully-beef instead), half a small loaf, a piece of cheese and some jam.  We had tea for our water-bottles if we wished it.  By 6.30am we had our gear packed and were up at the top of the 'drome, securing the goods on the lorries and trailers, and picking our 'possies' for the journey. 

There were 16 ‘heavy tenders’, as the lorries are called, and, with one or two exceptions, each had a two-wheel

trailer attached.  Each conveyance had certain goods allotted to carry, and a number of men had also to go with it, finding perches where they could. 

Jack Alexander, Jack Mathewson and I were detailed to the 'extra clothing' tender, number 14 in the train, but it was so heavily laden with wood (for huts) that a half dozen men were sent to another one, which was much lighter.  The lorry behind us contained large aerial bombs, but they are safe enough while being transported so.  It was a dull morning, and inclined to be foggy till 9.30, but from then the day was a bright one. 

We had not been long on the track when we came to a fair-sized town, which was very busy with market day.  The large square in the centre is used by the shopkeepers for the display of their goods, and the scene was both busy and gay.  At 10.30 we passed through a forest of fairly large trees, very straight and even in size.  I suppose the belt of trees was a mile wide, but it seemed to extend for a much greater distance on either side.  Up North, where we had been last, in Belgium, the trees seemed to be more plentiful than in Boulogne, Bailleul, or St. Omer, but a great many of them had been cut down.  We saw many miles of road showing where trees had been cut down only a few months before, and so it was rather nice to see the forest.  By comparison with ours in Australia, the trees are puny indeed. 

Shortly after 11am we passed through Lillers, rather a large town, and here again we saw a market display, and on a much larger scale than the previous one.  Just as we entered the wood at the further end of the square we were overtaken by a car, in which were Sir Douglas Haig and two other officers. 


Lillers, France. c. 1917.  British Army Commander General Sir Douglas Haig
(on the left)[AWM HO9307]

At 12.30 we drew up outside a small town, and after dinner, we three walked back to the town for a cup of coffee and a short look round.  Necessary attention to a couple of busses delayed us somewhat, and it was 2pm before we proceeded. 

During the morning we had seen soldiers at almost every village and town, but as we came further south we passed great numbers of cavalry, artillery and troops of all nationalities, including French, Belgians, Portuguese, Indians, Canadians, Americans, British, New Zealanders, and Australians…

We also saw a large number of Chinese labourers. 

At 4pm we sighted a number of bell tents, pitched on raised ground about 800 yards off the main road to our right.  Our train drew up and a messenger went off in the motorcycle side-car to see about us using them for the night.  There must have been some hitch, for he returned, and, sometime after, went up to the camp again and was away until 5.30, when back he came.  We immediately received the order to fall-out with blankets and kits, and proceed to the camp.  By this time it was raining lightly, so we wasted no time in getting under cover.  The tents had only been up for a couple of days, judging by the dampness on the ground, so we picked out one on the higher side, and collected a few tent bags to put on the ground, below our waterproof. 

A wash was our first consideration, and securing some jam tins from some Tommies' who had been left in charge of the tents, we collected water from the cart ruts, reserving the best of it for drinking.  The latter we heated over some spirits, and made cocoa, which made the difference between a snack and a meal. 

We did a little writing and then retired fairly early to bed.  It was raining lightly, but we were very comfortable.  There seemed to be a heavy barrage of artillery throughout the night, but it was ten or twelve miles away, and we were soon sound asleep.  Next day was Sunday.  Reveille at 6am, a wash, blankets rolled, etc., and then down to the convoy.  We were issued with our day's rations - a tin of bully beef (14oz), three or four biscuits (the nicest Army issue I have yet tasted), a piece of cheese and some jam. 

Then we had breakfast, and at 9am or thereabouts we proceeded on our way.  There seemed to be no hurry at all. 

For a few hours the weather remained misty.  Before midday the air cleared, and we had delightful weather till night.  We passed through Beareval at 12.15.  I was hoping we would draw up for dinner when just the other side of the town, for it seemed one of the finest I had seen, but we ran on for half an hour or more.  We had cocoa again when we drew up, and were leisurely eating our dinner when the convoy moved off.

We hurriedly tossed our things aboard and hopped on just as our lorry moved off.  Jack Alexander's dixie fell off and Jack Mathewson hopped off to secure it. 

He caught up and was just scrambling on again when Jack Alexander's coat went by the board.  Mathewson ran back and got it, but was quite unable to catch up to us.  It is rather a hard matter to stop the bus, for the driver's seat is entirely separated from the van, and we knew other lorries were coming on behind us, so we did not worry.  It was about three-quarters of an hour later when the column stopped and then Jack rejoined us.  We again passed many troops and artillery trains while on the track today, and at one place by the road we saw 10 or 12 tanks parked.  During the afternoon we passed by two rows of trenches just being dug.  They were two or three miles apart and were too expensive to be just practise.  I hope we do not have occasion to fall back to them.  We have to hope for the best. 

We saw some coalmines and several large manufacturing towns.  The whole country hereabouts makes one see what the Germans have to gain by their present Big Push, but I have little doubt that they will not have things all their own way. 

At 5.30pm we reached our present 'drome, and have since been sleeping in one of the canvas hangars… 

Harold’s letter was originally published in the Bendigo Independent newspaper in 1918.  He returned home to Australia after WW1 and lived until the ripe old age of 102, becoming our country’s last surviving AFC veteran.

 

Meanwhile, Back on the Home Front…

Some rather ineffective recruiting propaganda, published in:
The Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate:

A letter from Air Mechanic Thomas G. BOWIE, 3rd Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, France, dated 19th March, 1918

In the course of much interesting gossip, he mentions that he recently had another lucky escape, when:
”A piece of shell about 7 inches by 1½, and an inch thick, struck the bars in front of us, and landed at our feet.”  

Speaking of the French people, he says,
“They are a fine-looking people.  Paris is a beautiful city. London is not in the same class.”

Air Mechanic Bowie says, "We do not have too bad a time here, considering the circumstances.  We get plenty to eat, and always a good bunk to sleep on.

I was sorry to see the results of the [Conscription] Referendum, and to see that reinforcements are not coming forward.  Also the slackness of those who ought to come at once, and give a hand with the job, get it over, and make a sure thing of it as well.
There’s many a one over there that it would be a good thing for Australia if they were out of it, and went through some of the things that we have over here.
It would be the making of them in time to come.

In this quarter we have Fritz well in hand.  He seldom shows his wings this way.  One day, 11 of his machines set out towards our nest, and only one returned to Hunland.  During the last three days our aerodrome has accounted for 21 German machines behind his own lines.  One squadron from our aerodrome got nine to-day, seven yesterday, and five the day before that, so you can form some idea how he will like our spot, if he gets it.  
[This refers to air action around Bailleul, northern France, which was indeed captured by the huge German offensive of late March 1918.]

I saw yesterday where a shell dropped just as a despatch rider was mounting his motorcycle.  Bike and rider were blown to pieces.  All that was left of the lad was a portion of his feet, and a mark on a brick wall where his body had struck.  Pieces of his clothes were found in threads.  You cannot imagine what destruction a shell does, unless you saw for yourself.

I was very sorry to hear that little Jack Holmes was killed.  It will be very hard for his mother, as she was wrapped up in her twin laddies.  Harry will feel it awful, but he is young and will get over it."

 

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