|By the 20th of October 1917 the Third Battle of Ypres was nearing
its end. Having begun with dramatic success at Messines in June the Allied
offensive had slowed amongst the devastated and sodden landscape of Flanders.
Already hundreds of thousands of troops on both sides had become casualties
in one of the most infamous battles of the 'Great War'.
To the east of Ypres the guns of the 101st Howitzer battery, Anzac Corps were deployed north of Polygon Wood. With the other batteries of the 1st Field Artillery Brigade they had bombarded the German positions by day and night. But German counter fire had inflicted heavy damage on the Brigade destroying guns and equipment, a forward communications exchange and a dug-out during the 19th and 20th.
Around 10am as a nearby eighteen-pounder battery searched and swept roads and tracks behind the German lines, my great-uncle Driver Alfred Lawrence Jessop was packing ammunition for the 101st's six 4.5 inch guns. But from the east German shells began to rain down. Major Selmes, commander of the Battery reported to Brigade HQ that they were under fire and requested counter fire from 'heavies'. But before the enemy guns could be silenced a shell crashed into the battery and shrapnel shattered Driver Jessop's right leg.
With his right femur fractured he was evacuated through Ypres to the 2nd Canadian Casualty Clearing Station at Poperinghe where he died of his wounds on the 22nd of October.
From Launceston, Tasmania, Alf a painter by trade and one of six children had embarked from Melbourne on 17th June 1915 on the troop carrier H.M.A.T A62 "Wandilla". At the age of 21 he with thousands of others landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula where he served until being evacuated to Alexandria at the end of 1915. After two months in Egypt he moved on to France via Marseilles serving with the 1st Divisional Ammunition Column until January 1917 when he transferred to the 2nd Battery of the 1st Field Artillery Brigade. For the period between his departure from Australia and the middle of 1917 I have little information about the action he saw. But in October 1917 two weeks before his death he wrote to his parents of leave he had taken in May of that year:
"To my loving Mother and Father...I will try to write you a long letter as you say that you have not heard from me for months....I was surprised that you have not had any letters from me for I wrote telling you of my leave just after I came back, telling you of the good time I had, yes I had a lovely time, but it was terribly short, just ten days is all they would give me but I think they were the sweetest ten I ever had in my life, you cannot imagine how nice it was after all this time to have a nice bed with lily-white sheets, plenty of good food be amongst your own speaking people, get up whatever time you like and do just as you pleased, it was grand, but it takes a lot of the cream off when you come back."
He made no mention of the fact that a month after returning from leave he spent two months in hospital at Havre but he did write of the weather conditions he had endured at the front:
"We are now into winter again and today is as cold as any you get in the middle of Winter in Tassy....keep those parcels going....socks are always welcome....I would like you to send me one of those black waterproof suits, with the hat attached for we want something like that to combat the weather....I pray to God that the War don't go another Winter, for the last one was awful"
Discharged from Hospital he was posted to the 101st Howitzer Battery just before the successful attack of 4th of October 1917 which drove the Germans back over a wide front in the Ypres sector. That day the 101st supported the advance of the Australians with the standard 'creeping barrage'. And when Lieutenant McDougall MC, Observation Officer of the battery reported German reinforcements were moving forward into trenches in Celtic Wood ahead of the advance, the battery fired one hundred and thirty rounds at the counterattacking troops.
Alf wrote of the day:
"I have just done a big days work, we were up at 3 o'clock this morning carting ammunition, our boys had hopped over and were very successful...." but he added later: "she is not such a bad show, but we are now in action, and we are not having too good a spin, so I will not boom it up."
Two weeks later he was fatally wounded.
Alf was buried in the military cemetery at Lijssenthoek just outside Poperinghe. His brother George who served in the 38th battery of the A.I.F visited his grave in 1917 making an uncomfortable journey there in the back of a farmers cart.
Ironically when Alf had been on that last leave which he had so enjoyed, presumably in London, George had been there also, both of them unaware of the others presence. Alf lamented the fact that they had not had a chance to enjoy the time together. Sadly it was to be the last opportunity.
George survived the war and a number of his photographs of the Western Front may be viewed on the website of the Australian War Memorial.
Subsequently no family members were able to return to Alf's grave site until I made a brief trip to Ypres in 1991.
The Lijssenthoek Cemetery was impressive with well maintained lawns and beds of flowers. Quiet and peaceful, it is surrounded by flat open farm land which I explored on a bike hired from the railway station at Ypres. The farmhouses and broad fields of crops gave no hint of the events which had occured nor suggested why such costly battles should have been fought there.
Ypres itself is quite beautiful encircled by a broad moat which reflects the town's fortress-like walls. It is a pleasant quiet walk around the wall from the Menin gate memorial to the Rampart Military Cemetery near the Lille Gate.
In the more bustling heart of the town the rebuilt Cloth Hall and surrounding buildings are a stark contrast to the ruins past which our ancestors marched on their way to the Western Front.
For a direct link to the author of this article, email Philip Eagles
Copyright © Philip Eagles, September, 2002.
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