Senate debates

Monday, 3 March 2014


World War I

10:00 pm

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

This is the fourth of six speeches that I am in the process of giving about my grandfather's role in World War I and in the lead-up to commemorations of the 100th anniversary of that war. On 6 January 1918, my grandfather, Sergeant Edward Farrell, who had been injured in a troop train derailment near the border of Belgium and France, reported to his fiancee, Emily, that he had regained some of his old spark. He was still in France, and wrote, recalling his front line experiences:

That Flanders Battlefield is the limit, Em. Miles and miles of shell holes and what were once villages. In some places, but for the signs, you wouldn't know a village had been there at all.

And the mud. I have gone down to the waist in it, and at times had to struggle to get out. The night is the time when you can't see a thing in front of you and, of course, most of the work near the front line is done at night. You can't move about in daylight.

In these back areas, Fritz bombs the place every night that the weather permits, and a bomb dropping hundreds of yards away shakes the ground like an earthquake.

See some good scrapes in the air occasionally. Just before we left, a Fritz plane dived straight down out of the clouds at one of our captive balloons. He didn't get it—but the two men in the balloon couldn't get out quick enough (by parachute of course) and they got down all right.

The last few weeks we left Ypres and came down just in front of Messines, what they called a quiet front but we had casualties every night.

Despite the regularity of Edward's letters, it is still difficult to say exactly what battles he had been in by the time he found himself back in England and in hospital, but they could have included the Battle of Polygon Wood, and the Battle of Passchendaele.

During the period July to November 1917 the Australian victories included Menin Road and Broodseinde; at Broodseinde for the first time all the Australian divisions fought side by side. The fighting lasted for eight weeks, and during this time seven Australian soldiers received the Victoria Cross. On 14 November, the five Australian divisions were withdrawn from Ypres. Their casualties over eight weeks had been more than 38,000. Edward recalled one battle in a letter to Em:

Joves, I've been lucky—one Sunday evening going in, the man in front and the man behind me was knocked down, and at times pieces of shell came very close—some spent pieces have hit my tin hat but I never got a scratch.

At Messines we had the first real taste of winter—heavy frost and snow—I felt the cold pretty severely. The only relieving features are that the shell holes and mud become frozen hard.

Of his repatriation back to England he wrote:

Had it pretty quiet coming across the channel in the good ship "St Patrick". Got into Dover in the dark and had several hours in the train.

Am getting along slowly, but nothing much can be done except complete rest. I expect my next move will be to a convalescent hospital.

On 26 January 1918, Edward wrote from Ward 28, No. 1 Australian Auxiliary Hospital, Harefield Park, Middlesex, that the medics had examined him and determined he had concussion and a touch of mustard gas. Four days later he wrote to Em:

I'm nearly OK again, and the doctor says a fortnight out in the country will fix me up. That means I'll be leaving here in a day or so for London where I'll get a ticket to Dublin and county Cork—

adding that a chap in the next bed was joining him for the trip to Ireland.

Edward sent Em several post cards from Ireland but waited until he returned to England to report more fully on his journey. On February 16 he wrote from the Hurcott Command Depot, Wiltshire:

Enjoyed the trip down through Tipperary and Limerick and saw the peat boys and ate lots of cakes. We changed train at Fermoy and arrived at Mitchelstown on time at 1.24 p.m. Got outside the station where a young fellow came up and asked if we were looking for Mrs Kent, who was his aunt. His name was Joe Twomey and—of course—some relation to me, as Mrs Kent's father was Gran's brother. I also met the O'Briens, Caseys, Hennessys, Quinlans and Gearys and so on—who were all cousins of some sort.

Over the next few days Edward met other relatives and a number of Sinn Feiners, and visited Kilbehenny, Carhue, Kingstown and Dublin. He also reported to Em:

Food is very plentiful over there, and—indeed—there doesn't seem to be a shortage of anything. The real butter, eggs and bacon were altogether too much for me and, of course, meeting all the relations was grand—I had no idea there were so many there.

On 25 February, again from Hurcott, he continued his travelogue:

The Irish Sea was very quiet as we returned to Holyhead in Wales, and I didn't see anyone crook at all.

About half way across we heard guns firing behind us. I didn't like the noise at all, but we couldn't see anything. We were escorted by a couple of destroyers and a submarine, and reached Holyhead about midday.

On landing I got on the London express, and the ride to Chester—our first stop—was about the prettiest I've ever been on.

It was fairly sunny and the scenery was exquisite, with the Snowden Mountains on one side the sea on the other.

Some of the rugged peaks are grand, and they towered right over the railway. Seems to be all rivers, bays, bridges, and tunnels etc, and some very pretty little towns and fairly big ones too, the names of which I'd never heard.

Places like Bangor, Rhyl and Colwyn Bay which is some place, I tell you.

Then all the little places called Llan this and Pen that. I was sorry when we left Wales behind. Came on through Crewe, Stafford and Rugby and reached Euston, London, about 6.30.

Throughout late February and March Edward continued convalescing in Hurcott, reporting in several letters to Em that the weather was cold and miserable and that he envied her the heat they were having in Adelaide. He wrote to Em on 25 March:

The news is not particularly bright this morning. We are expecting to see every morning and evening where they've pressed the button between Armentieres and Ypres—that's the part on which the eyes of these camps are turned.

At this time, the Australian 3rd and 4th Divisions were ordered to proceed to Amiens to strengthen the retreating British 5th Army. On 5 April, a counterattack by the 36th Battalion of the Australian 3rd Division at dawn halted the German advance beyond Villers-Bretonneux. The hard-fought action cost the Australians 660 casualties but prevented further advances towards Amiens. On the night of 22 April, British and Australian artillery shelled German mustering areas in the Villers-Bretonneux region. At dawn the infantry was standing ready, but no attack eventuated. Most of the activity on this day was in the air, as planes from both sides criss-crossed the battlefield, bombing, strafing and engaging in dogfights. It was during one of these dogfights that the German 'Red Baron' was shot down over Australian lines, with the strongest evidence as to the shooter pointing to Australian Sergeant Cedric Popkin of the 24th Machine-Gun Company, 4th Division. He was reported as firing the actual bullet that killed Baron Manfred von Richthofen. On 27 April, Villers-Bretonneux was finally secured by Australian forces and was never to be lost to Germans again.

On May 5, Edward wrote to Em that he had moved from Hurcott to the Overseas Training Battalion at Longbridge Deverill, in Wiltshire:

Will have to do about three weeks of pretty solid training here, and then sail across the Channel again. It's a bit like soldiering on again here—only three blankets and the hard floor, so I had to come at the old stint of not taking anything off.

We got news of several of the old boys in the Battalion being killed, also that the HQ staff of the Battalion including Laurie Kelly had been gassed—but I don't know if the gassing was bad or not.

Mr President, I shall continue with subsequent episodes of Sergeant Edward Farrell's wartime experiences when next I speak. In the next part of my speech, Edward will return to the Western Front, and finally the war will end.