History Parkes

stories, photos, anecdotes….. sharing the past

Diaries from the Battlefield: Memories from Bogan Gate’s Major Sydney Walker Part 2

Major Sydney Walker’s experiences continue to be ones of trying conditions. Yet he manages to write them down, something that all of us can read to get a better understanding of life for a soldier during the Great War.

“1/7/16 I left Roven about 5.30pm and arrived at Etaples the following morning at 5.00am. This place is a big concentration depot where there is no distraction at all. I was with the 4th Division and had to work [sic] about three miles* every day to the training ground where we had to lecture to recruits until about 4.30pm. I was here about a week and during that time visited Paris-place which is right on the coast. We used to go in there and have strawberries and cream. i was particularly struck with the varied architectural [sic]. The effect was very pretty and striking. I also saw a shil that had been wrecked here on it’s [sic] way from Australia. After leaving Etaples I joined the 4th divisional Artillery at Sailly. I left at 5.00am which meant rising at three as I had a few miles to walk to the station. It took three days from Etaples to Bach-St-Mur where Huns were. After arriving there I was posted to the 110th Howitzer Battery. I remained at the gun pit for a few days and was then sent down to take charge of the W. Lines. we only stayed in the position for about a week and then pulled out to go to the Somme. We concentrated at Bach-St-Mur when we were suddenly ordered back to the line and a few days afterwards we had the battle of Fleurbaise. This battle was a ghostly affair. We bombarded for all we were worth. The heavy artillery were to blow up a machine gun stronghold (sugar loof) but owing to the mist they were unable to do so. The Infantry attacked in force and took the first two lines of trenches, then the German Machine guns got on to them and were wicking them out. They were then ordered to retire and it was during this retirement that the loses [sic] were enormous. The infantry were almost annihilated. The Australians alone had five thousand killed. It was a dreadful sight after the battle (three days) to see the dead being buried.”

(Source: Major Sydney James Walker, personal communication, 1916)

* Three miles = 4.8kilometres

Distinguished Service Order (DSO) which was awarded to Major Sydney Walker

Distinguished Service Order (DSO) which was awarded to Major Sydney Walker. Source: Australian War Memorial website

Major Walker was a keen observer for the natural and man-made environment around him. It was world’s away from his home in Bogan Gate yet he was determined to make the best of his overseas experience.

“1/7/16 Every house was shattered I saw the ruins of the Cloth Hall, the Cathedral, Railway Station and all the other principal buildings. I also had some very interesting times at our observing Station near Vierstadt. Some of the night bombardments were magnificent, grand. It was intensely cold up there at times and I nearly froze during a few nights. The rain came through my dugout and was dripping all over my bed all night, fortunately my bed as waterproof but it did not keep out the cold. We were forbidden to light fires owing to our exposed position so that whilst we were up there we got very little warm food. It rained a great deal now and the mud was simply dreadful. The ground is very clagey [sic] and the water does not soak through. For weeks we worked in mud about two feet deep. It used to pull our boots off almost. Anyone who has not actually experienced this mud cannot form any idea of what it is like. There is no getting away from it at all.

4/11/16 I was transferred to the 4th DAC to allow the Officers there to go to a Battery for experiences. The mud in their lines was worse if that could be possible. I was with them a week when we commenced our famous trek down to the Somme. We were going to rail down but at the last moment they decided to trek. The first day was bright and fine and we went as far as Wippen Hoek (about 6 miles) and stayed the first night. The next day we went through Godewoersvelde up the very steep Mt Des Calts, through Le Coude Paille (starting Pt) to Fletre where we stopped for lunch. One could not help noticing how densely populated the country was up to here. No house had a complete circle of 100 yards round it without striking another house. It is also very dirty in these thickly populated areas. The difference at first between Belgium and France seemed very marked to us. After leaving Fletre we went on to Strazeele and then to Vieuse Berquin where we camped in the open that night. During the night we went to the cinema. and then to bed. It was a clear night and we woke up in the morning with all beds covered in frost. It was rather cold during the morning. We set out at 10.15am. Went through Neuf Berquin to Melville which was the first big town we passed through from there we went to St Venant – another big town – to Busnes and Lillers which is a fine big town and then to our billets at Ecquedecques. We reached this village in the dark and had to park in an extremely small paddock with no place at all to tie the mules and horses. Everything was confusion for about two hours owing to the other sections getting misced [sic] up with us. It was also very cold. We then (4th day) went on through Bellery, Ferfay & Aumerval then through Pernes – a fairly large town – to La Thieuloye where we billeted for the night. At this village we were threated [sic] exceptionally well by the people. They had a nice fire burning for us and we had a nice big meal. We woke the following morning and all the ground was frozen hard. The water was all turned into ice and it was bitterly cold.”

(Source: Major Sydney James Walker, personal communication, 1916)

While the Australian Imperial Force received a warm welcome in many places they stayed, as Major Walker records some places gave a reception as cold as the weather the AIF troops experienced.

“4/11/16 …to our billets at Etree-Wamin. The people were not favourably disposed to us here and we had great difficulty to find billets for the men. We ourselves had no place to cook in so we borrowed a Tommies Cook house, had a good meal and then slept on some straw in a barn with practically only a roof to it. The weather had been very fine up till now, but during the night it got extremely cold and snowed. In the morning when we woke our beds were covered with snow and the country and village were white. We felt the cold very, very much now. We were almost frozen and could not get warm. Our feet were like ice blocks. We set out at 10.30am for our 6th day trip with the snow falling. During this day we had snow, hail, sleet and in the afternoon it rained. This was indeed and [sic] experience for us but nevertheless everyone was cheerful and making the best of things.”

(Source: Major Sydney James Walker, personal communication, 1916)

Major Sydney James Walker in army uniform

Major Sydney James Walker standing proudly in full army attire

“5/12/16 The sun was shining for a few hours yesterday and melted the frozen mud I think it would have been better if it had not. Tried to draw some money for the men. Practised revolver shooting. Lt Gordon called to see me last night. Went for a ride into Meaulte to-day [sic]. Sleet was falling all the way home. Firing very intense last night. It was so intense that a number of the men could not sleep. A German plane brought down yesterday. There were aerial duets all day. A horse of ours was strangled last night. We have been salving ammunition for some days now. It is surprising the enormous amount of ammunition there is lying about. In the “big push” they just had to dump it anywhere and consequently we collected millions of rounds of SAA and thousands of  rounds of Gun Ammunition. At one place about a mile from here they were very anxious to push the light railway along and as there were no sleepers handy they just emptied the heavy shell off the motor lorries and ballasted the rails on them. We are now digging those shells out. Any lay person cannot credit the amm. there is here. The dumps extend for miles and there is enough here, if properly used, to kill every Hun. I am sure that no one here has any idea what amm. there is until we salve it all and then count it. We are losing a big percentage of animals owing to the weather, shell holes and mud. The mules are a constant source of amusement to us. Mule humour is certainly very funny. Received a photo from George to-day [sic]. We have now managed to make a bit of a mess shed. It keeps out the rain, lets in the icy cold wind and does not allow the smoke to escape still we are very lucky. Wet, cold and miserable day. Still salving ammunition.”

(Source: Major Sydney James Walker, personal communication, 1916)

View of the Somme, with Vaux and Vaire in the distance, taken from Bray-Corbie Road. Photographer unknown. Date of photo 1918

View of the Somme, with Vaux and Vaire in the distance, taken from Bray-Corbie Road. Photographer unknown. Date of photo 1918. Source: Australian War Memorial website 

“8/12/16 On duty at Quarry Dump salved one million six hundred thousand rounds of SAA. Received a letter from D Ford. I am not feeling the cold to-night so will write a description of the “Stunt on the Somme”. “On the Somme” What memories are awakened by this phase [sic]. To those who have only read the picturesque, though graphie [sic] account of war correspondents such as Beach Thomas, it conveys just what he has seen and heard, bu to those of us who have felt, well it throws other shadows on the wall. Coming down from the Ypres salient after spending some (8) months under wet, muddy exacting conditions, we found the long trek – 14 days – even though we experienced rain, sleet, snow, and wintry winds on the way, very interesting, and were in a measure prepared beforehand for what the Somme held in store, by those who had already been there, but I shall never forget my own impressions as I traversed the Somme valley that had been literally torn back from the German tentacles by heroic scarified of the allied sons of France and Britain. Follow me as I ride from Ville-sur-Ancre where night and this morning the ground was white. The sky was clear and the frost soon melted. The aeroplanes were busy at daylight and anti-aircraft fire very intense. The sausage observation balloons were up all along the front. About mid-day it got cloudy and the balloons in the air were entirely hidden from view. This afternoon rain fell. Last night of very early this morning, planes of the enemy dropped a large number of bombs all around our camp but I don’t think they did any damage. They were like firing machine guns on us from the aeroplanes. Trickett and I visited soem of the other trenches taken from the German [sic]. The work put into these trenchess must have been enormous. They are very, very deep and splendidly made, there was no chance at all to enfilade them and you would think they were laid out with a theodolite. The dugouts are exceptionally deep and strong. One machine gun emplacement we saw was made out of concrete two and a half feet deep, with a strong iron door and top. The Germans evidently though [sic] they could hold these trenches for all times. To reach the trench we waded through mud over our knees and when I got back I was muddy from my boots to my shoulders. Fritz shelled our camp to-day with 5.9. One of the first things he got was a cookhouse. It seems an extraordinary thing that so many cookhouse [sic] get blown out. The only casualties in the 111th Battery W Lines in the cookhouse. To-day’s news was very black but we will prove our superiority shortly. Had some revolver shooting. I am improving muchly [sic] and can hit a jam tin at 35 yards.”

(Source: Major Sydney James Walker, personal communication, 1916)

Reading Major Walker’s accounts of the living conditions alone makes one thankful for our peaceful and comfortable homes. It would be easy to assume that the soldiers were longing for home and an end to hostilities. An entry dated 16th December 1916 declares otherwise from Walker.

“16/12/16 Fine in the morning. Snowed all the afternoon and was bitterly cold. Good news from the French. They have taken the offensive again. Much talk about peace. We are all dead against it in our little camp. It is unthinkable after all the sacrifices we have made and I will be sorry I enlisted if we don’t fight on until we are the absolute victors. Trickett leaves to-morrow to layout our winter camp for the animals. Fritz shelled our camp but fortunately did not get any of us.

2/1/17 Sent Rundle to pay the men at the Quarry Dump. Put the pony in a stable. Went for a ride to the Quarry. Revolver shooting. Received letters from Jack, EL and Rick also Gloves from England. Wrote to EL. It rained this evening. Had a bath yesterday. The first for about six weeks so I began the New Year well. Heavy bombardment at 12 o’clock 31/12/16.”

(Source: Major Sydney James Walker, personal communication, 1916/17)

The remainder of this part of Major Sydney James Walker’s diary details the absolute misery being a soldier with influenza while enduring a European winter. The combat with the Germans becomes more intense, and Walker details the loss of several friends and many more of the animals that were also a part of the Australian Imperial Force.

To view the entire Part 2 of Major Sydney James Walker’s diary click on the link below. This diary is reproduced in exactly the same way it was given to Parkes Library, with some portions repeated on different pages.

Major Sydney James Walker’s World War I Diary Part 2 (PDF, 3.68MB)

Parkes Library would like to express its appreciation to Parkes resident and regular Library user, Margaret Jackson,  who shared her father’s diaries and allowed them to be part of the Parkes History blog.

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This entry was posted on June 16, 2015 by in ANZAC, Bogan Gate, General history and tagged , , , , , , .
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