Did you know…about Passchendaele?

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
      Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle…
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells…
This paraphrasing of the opening stanza of Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen sums up the tragedy that was the battle of Passchendaele.
ChateauwoodFought in Belgium, the goal of the campaign was to gain control of the ridges south and east of the city of Ypres, putting the Allies  within striking distance of the vital rail junction at Roulers.
Also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, the campaign began on the 31st July, 1917, making  Monday this week its centenary. The battle saw approximately fifty Divisions from Britain and her Empire, support by a further six French Divisions engage more than eighty German Divisions and lasted until mid-November 1917 with the capture of the village of Passchendaele before being called off, having failed to produce the breakthrough desired.
Both sides suffered huge casualties for very little gain. Though there are conflicting reports on the final casualty figures, the minimum figure given is in excess of half a million with the higher estimates approaching 900 000 killed and wounded for an advance of less than 10km.
Along with the Somme and Verdun, Passchendaele has become synonymous with the ‘blood and mud’ misery of the First World War.
Want to know more? Check out the books on the Passchendaele Campaign or other accounts of the First World War.
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100th anniversary of Victoria Cross award

Saturday 23 July marked the 100th anniversary of former Redwood Park local John Leak being awarded the Victoria Cross.

John Leak

Private John Leak. There is a framed photograph of Private Leak in the Tea Tree Gully Civic Reception.

Private Leak received the highest award for gallantry for his action during the battle of Pozières in France.

He was born in Portsmouth, England in 1892 and came to Australia as a young boy. In January 1915, Leak enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force  and served on Gallipoli.

He next accompanied his unit to France, in time to be thrown into bloody fighting at an intense battle at Pozières. Leak’s solo attack with bombs and a bayonet on a German post stood out.

His citation reads:

No. 2053 Pte. John Leak, Aus. Infy.
‘For most conspicuous bravery. He was one of a party which finally captured an enemy strong point. At one assault, when the enemy’s bombs were outranging ours, Private Leak jumped out of the trench, ran forward under heavy machine-gun fire at close range, and threw three bombs into the enemy’s bombing post. He then jumped into the post and bayonetted three unwounded enemy bombers.

Later, when the enemy in overwhelming numbers was driving his party back, he was always the last to withdraw at each stage, and kept on throwing bombs.

His courage and energy had such an effect on the enemy that, on the arrival of reinforcements, the whole trench was recaptured.’

Later in the war, after his heroic efforts at Pozières Private Leak was severly gassed, but managed to survive and returned to Australia.

After a few jobs, Leak became a garage proprietor in Western Australia, before retiring to Redwood Park South Australia, where he lived and later died.

Leak suffered greatly from his experiences during the war and tried to sell his Victoria Cross medal several times in his life.

Did you know about…the Battle of Jutland?

I love battleships!

Did you know that this week marks the centenary of the Battle of Jutland? Involving over 250 warships, Jutland was the largest naval battle of the First World War, and one of the largest sea battles in history.

The battle was the culmination of an almost 20-year naval arms race between Britain and Germany. In the late 19th Century, German naval commander Admiral Alfred Von Tirpitz (with the support of Kaiser Wilhelm II) began to increase the size of the German High Seas fleet. This build up was seen as a serious threat by the Royal Navy, who maintained a fleet as large as the next two largest battle fleets (the ‘two-power’ standard).

HMS Dreadnought

HMS Dreadnought

In order to meet the German challenge, the British increased battleship production, culminating in the launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1905. A technological revolution, Dreadnought was larger and faster than any other battleship afloat and had two-and-a-half times the firepower, mounting a total of ten 12-inch guns to the average of four ‘big guns’ on preceding battleships. Dreadnought was followed by HMS Invincible, the world’s first battlecruiser (battleship-size hull and armament, with cruiser speed and protection) in 1908. Germany responded by building her own ‘dreadnought battleships’ and battlecruisers, beginning with the launch of the Nassau and Von Der Tann launched in 1908 and 1909 respectively.

By the outbreak of the war, Britain could boast a fleet of 29 dreadnoughts to the 17 German vessels.

It was expected that these two powerful fleets would immediately engage one another in a pitched battle that (in the words of Churchill) could decide the outcome of the war in a single afternoon. Instead, the two great fleets sat at anchor, with the British Grand Fleet conducting a long range blockade of the North Sea with skirmishes being fought between small groups of vessels.

Knowing that they could not fight the Grand Fleet head on, the Germans drew up a plan to draw out a small portion of the British Fleet (such as the battlecruiser force) by using its own battlecruisers as bait to lure them into the guns of the entire High Seas Fleet.

The German battlecruisers, under the command of Admiral Hipper set out at approximately 01:00 hours on the 31st May 1916, 90 minutes ahead of the main German Fleet (16 battleships; 5 battlecruisers; 6 pre-dreadnoughts; 11 light cruisers; 61 torpedo boats)  under the command of Admiral Reinhard Scheer. Unfortunately, the British had cracked the German codes and the entire Grand Fleet (28 battleships; 9 battlecruisers; 8 armoured cruisers; 26 light cruisers; 78 destroyers; 1 minelayer; 1 seaplane carrier), commanded by Admiral John Jellico, had already departed their harbour at Scapa Flow two and a half hours earlier with his battlecruisers (under Admiral David Beatty) acting as advance scouts.

The opposing battlecruisers sighted one another at approximately 15:22 and opened

HMS Invincible explodes

HMS Invincible explodes

fire about 25 minutes later. Though the British would lose both the HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary, they successfully lured the Germans north into the waiting guns of the Grand Fleet. The battle raged through the night, with the German’s performing two ‘battle turn-away’ manoeuvres before finally breaking contact and escaping.

The badly damaged German battlecruiser Seydlitz

The badly damaged German battlecruiser Seydlitz

Far from the decisive action that both sides had expected, the battle was as much of a stalemate as the trench warfare on the western front. Both sides would claim victory in the battle, with the German’s achieving a ‘tactical win’, sinking three battlecruisers, three cruisers, and eight torpedo boats and destroyers, almost twice their own losses (one battlecruiser, one pre-dreadnought battleship, four light cruisers and five destroyers). The Royal Navy however, could weather these losses thanks to its fare greater size, and more importantly, retained strategic control of the sea for the remainder of the war.

Why not read more about the ships that fought in the battle or check out some documentaries on naval combat.

Bravest of the Brave Exhibition

This moving exhibition tells the stories of the eight South Australians awarded the Victoria Cross in World War I.

Up close

It will be on display for everyone to see in the Tea Tree Gully Library throughout October and tells the personal stories of eight ordinary men who on one day of their lives, under extraordinary circumstances, demonstrated extraordinary heroism for their comrades and country.

All of the men have some kind of connection to South Australia. Some were born or educated here, some enlisted here, while others lived here either before or after the war.

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The eight men were Arthur Blackburn, Phillip Davey, Roy Inwood, Jorgen Jensen, John Leak, Arthur Sullivan, Lawrence Weathers and James Park Woods. They came from all walks of life, both from the city and the country. Among them was a lawyer, a banker, a former miner, teamster and a vigneron.

Although it serves to commemorate their bravery and sacrifice, Bravest of the Brave nevertheless attempts to also show how the war affected these men for the rest of their lives.

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Bravest of the Brave is one of many projects that has been prepared to commemorate the centenary of World War I in 2014. The exhibition gives an introduction to World War I and South Australia’s part in the conflict, a brief history of the Victoria Cross and a short profile of each of the eight men.

It will be on display throughout October.