Senate debates

Tuesday, 3 December 2013


World War I

7:43 pm

Photo of Don FarrellDon Farrell (SA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC) Share this | | Hansard source

This is my third speech on my grandfather's World War I letters and my first as shadow minister for veterans' affairs and the centenary of Anzac. When I previously spoke, I reported that my grandfather, Sergeant Edward Farrell, had set foot in France in late July 1917, when he was heading for action on the Western Front. He knew that the war was in earnest, writing to his fiancee, Em, on 30 July 30:

We are in billets, and still a good many miles from the front line. Despite this, the big guns are plainly heard and in the evenings the flashes would remind you of sheet lightning—only more consistent. The German planes bomb the villages all round us and it's nothing to hear the anti-aircraft guns burst out all of a sudden, and the firing taken up all along the route of the German aircraft.

On 3 September Edward wrote that the troops had been inspected by Sir Douglas Haig, and that water was six inches deep in the trenches. It was about the time of the last Australian attack at Pozieres, where Allied troops had casualties of nearly 23,000 officers and men in a mere six weeks on a front that extended little more than a mile. In that battle five Australians were award the Victoria Cross. On 20 September Edward reported his position was near Ypres.

Had two days on the march and it was pretty hard work. Had very nice billets to camp in the first night—a big barn and plenty of dry straw. Not so good here, though, as we got washed out of our tent, and I could not produce much that is dry now except my throat. It looked fine early in the evening and I had a fairly comfy cot in a turnip patch but alas all that rain and mud. It is also pretty lively here about, especially in the air and all night long the big guns are flashing—just like a big thunderstorm coming up.

On 6 October Edward wrote:

We have had a very lively time, part of which was spent in the front line on ground that the battalion we relieved had wrested from the Germans. The scenes up that way were not too nice, and neither are the smells. The way the ground is cut up by the big stuff is beyond description, as indeed everything in connection with it is. The weather has remained delightfully fine throughout, and in fact the moon could not have shone more peacefully one night while we stood by waiting for the Germans, who would not come. It is pretty hard coming out as well as going in. We have been out a few days and are now perhaps 15 miles back and wait hourly for the command to go forward again. A nuisance though, as the weather broke a few days ago, and since then it has been wet and stormy, and not too hot either. Our casualties were light considering the worst is the big stuff lobbing nearby, which puts a nasty taste in one's mouth.

Had a funny experience one afternoon. The Germans started to bombard us during a heavy thunderstorm and hail shower. While the hailstones were coming down, trees, mud, and dugouts et cetera were going up, and it is hard to say which was the loudest, the shells bursting or the thunder. If I grinned it was a pretty sickly one. We are out of range of his guns here, but every night German planes come along with bombs et cetera, but they drop few and far between, and we do not worry our heads about them. Bit of a nuisance though when 'lights out' rings through the lines.

In this camp we have got fairly comfortable wooden huts that are at least dry. Up to now we have been in tents, but they are not too good in the rain and mud. We will be going into the front line again in a day or so and only hope the weather will be fine for our next performance.

Some days later, Edward wrote from the front line:

Did a record sprint one morning just near the line. A few of us were digging in one morning when a German plane came and spotted us, and in a few minutes shells began to arrive. One chap was killed, and we decided to go back to our previous dugout. Got ready to hop out, waited for the next one to lob—it was only about three yards over the trench—and away we went.

The winter is making itself felt pretty well now and the rain and mud is the limit. Marching, or rather scrambling through the mud on a cold rainy night makes one think of Take me back to Dear old Blighty. The troops are cheerful, though.

But on Christmas Eve, Edward wrote from the Australian Red Cross Hospital in Boulogne:

Just a word to let you know I have been damaged. Left Belgium on the 15th. Marched a few miles, entrained, and at 3 am on the 16th there was a collision. It was some bang. I finished up somewhere on top of the next carriage. I was pinned down for perhaps 20 minutes. Eventually I was taken to a French house on a stretcher and then to here per motor ambulance. No bones broken—they must have bent instead. A bit bruised about the hips, thighs, back, arms, legs and two lovely black eyes—otherwise I am not too bad. I have been a bit seedy, but bobbing up well now, and can nearly get my head off the pillow. I am amongst the luckiest as there must have been a good many broken limbs, and one or two deaths.

He wrote again on 30 December, reporting more fully on his accident:

I think I was at the centre of the carriage facing the front. Was sort of dozing when I heard a crash coming from the front like a very sudden stop, which of course it was, and then 'bang'—men, rifles, equipment and wreckage were all thrown forward in sweet confusion.

Some were thrown clean out, others under wheels, and some others, including yours truly, finished somewhere in the next carriage. I knew I was not anything like as badly hurt as most of them appeared to be, but I could only move my shoulders and arms. I remained in the wreckage for the 20 minutes or so, and was highly pleased that the usual fire did not break out. Luckily, I didn't require much attention and was packed into a motor ambulance and brought here about daylight

My appetite just about returned in time for the Christmas dinner, as I had been off my food a bit up till then and I would have been very disappointed had I not been good enough to eat too much. Had a bottle a dinkum English beer to help it down too. Each patient received a Christmas box from the British Red Cross with pipe tobacco and chocolates et cetera. All was warm and cheery inside, but outside it was snowing and blowing a treat—what they are pleased to call a real English Christmas.

Joves, though, I pitied the poor beggars holding the trenches. Just before Christmas we had an air raid, with bombs falling close enough to shake this building. Some of the dead and dying were brought in here.

My next speech will cover Sergeant Farrell's treatment and repatriation to England, and his recuperation, which included a trip to visit his grandmother's family in Ireland.