William Dick Stevens
An Australian Soldier's Diary
Those researching the military service of soldiers in the Australian Imperial Forces in the Great War are fortunate. Our records were not damaged or destroyed during the Second World War, as were those in the UK and Germany, nor did they "perish through neglect", which fate Denis Winter tells us befell New Zealand's records of the war. The Nominal Roll of all who served in the AIF is on the Internet, and dossiers of soldiers can be ordered the same way, and cost only A$15.
However, this official material only gives the barest of bones. The Army Form B.103 Casualty Form Active Service for William Dick Stevens of the 18th Battalion AIF comprises only 20 typewritten lines, a very brief memorial for one whose active service began on Gallipoli in September 1915 and ended the following August in France.
I was fortunate enough to be given a copy of William's diary by relatives on his father's side, and this shows us a wealth of detail of people, places and events. Most of these I have been able to explain or expand upon from The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 by C E W Bean (which many public libraries hold) and a few other books and maps. I have had much less success finding out more about some of the friends he refers to.
William Dick Stevens
|William Dick Stevens was born in Hamilton, a suburb of Newcastle,
New South Wales, on 10 February 1893. His father, Alfred Stevens, was born
in Glaston in Rutland, England, and his mother, Elizabeth Dick, was born
in Edinburgh, Scotland. Elizabeth's brother was my mother's maternal
William had served an apprenticeship as a boilermaker with Morison and Bearby, an engineering firm in Newcastle. He enlisted on 15 June 1915, and his attestation papers give his height as 5 feet 3 inches (1.6 metres), his weight as 130 pounds (59 kilograms), his hair brown, his eyes grey, his nationality "British Born", and his religion Methodist. William's cousin, my mother's mother, was Methodist too.
His Army Form B.103 shows that William was initially in the third reinforcement for the 19th Battalion, of which the first elements had only arrived at Gallipoli on 6 August. His diary commences with his departure from Sydney on a troopship only 8 weeks after enlisting. Perhaps William had served in the Militia, but as he was in action in Gallipoli only 8 weeks after sailing he cannot have had very much training.
9.8.15 Left Sydney Heads 4-5pm.
10.8.15 Nothing out of ordinary; passed 1 steamer.
11.8.15 Stopped at Port Phillip Heads to put off mails and two Sergeant Majors.
12.8.15 Sick; done nothing all day. Rough sea blowing like blazes. A lot of albatrosses following the steamer; wonderful birds, wind does not seem to trouble them. On the 11th and 12th we watched a race between porpoises, hundreds of them about the boat.
13.8.15 Rough sea; sick.
14.8.15 Rough, but not sick.
16.8.15 Beautiful day; saw a few whales.
17.8.15 Boat rolling but not very rough. Seen the last of Australia for a little while. Passed Cape Leeuwin about 3.
19.8.15 Passed a steamer, supposed to be a transport returning to Australia. Boxing tournament commenced.
21.8.15 Practice with the 4.7 guns; also washing day.
23.8.15 Hot. Boxing tournament.
24.8.15 Sharks followed boat. Most of 3rd 20 dipped in a tank. Saw a lot of flying fish. Stinking hot.
Perhaps the third reinforcement of the 19th Battalion, of which Stevens was one, comprised 20 men. Two days before William and the others "dipped", the 19th Battalion had first been in action at Asmak Dere, about 1250 metres WSW of Hill 60. A photograph shows "Men of the newly-arrived 19th Battalion with the Gurkhas at Demakjelik Bair;" Bean, C E W, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume II, (Angus and Robertson, 1940), p742.
25 to 27.8.15 Nothing but hot.
28.8.15 Very hot. Crossed the line at 9pm. Sea very smooth like glass.
29.8.15 Very hot. Sea smooth.
31.8.15 Raining and windy at night.
2.9.15 Nothing; blowing at night.
3.9.15 Met Tom Jones; been ill with German measles. Our company won tug of war 1st heat. One of our Company won heavyweight boxing, also one came 2nd middleweight. Very hot, no parade.
4.9.15 Sighted land at 9am. Passed Aden at 12 noon. Very barren place. Sighted a liner at daybreak; passed us about 9am. Also passed a few steamers. Land all the way. Very hot. Passed an island at night, also a few steamers, land, volcanoes. Very rough.
5.9.15 Came through Hell's Gate about daybreak; a lot of islands about, very hot. In Red Sea. A few of these volcanic hills have lighthouses which stand out conspicuous. Had 10 minutes Church Service, all Sunday Services conducted by Capt. Woods. Very hot at night. Liner which passed us a few days ago stopped at Aden and passed us again today; turned out to have Victorian troops aboard.
I could not find Hell's Gate in my atlas. However, from an article entitled "A Soldier's Diary" by Sgt-Major T Murphy: "20/11/14 Enter Red Sea [from Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean], and ships change course near a place called Gates of Hell, near Perim Island"; Anzac Memorial (NSW Branch, Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia, September 1919), p312.
8.9.15 Passed two big flat rocks about 9am. Passed a lot of rocks similar to Aden.
9.9.15 Arrived at anchor in Port Suez at 9am. Ready to go to moorings when cancelled. Port Suez composed of land and rocks and water, a few battleships here, two oil works. Had a bit of excitement in the way of a shark; caught and killed him aboard. Saw white women, first since we left Australia. On the one side of the Harbour is a high fort, out the other, sand.
10.9.15 Moved from moorings at 7am alongside first troopship, left 9.30. Niggers very funny diving for coins. First train left 2pm for Zeitoun; arrived 9pm.
1l.9.15 Went to Heliopolis: saw a native funeral, had tea in town. Convalescent Camp in Zeitoun.
12.9.15 Went to Cairo.
13.9.15 In picket.
14.9.15 Went for a route march.
17.9.15 Route march; saw the oldest landmark in world; came from where Christ was.
18.9.15 Went to Cairo; visited Pyramids and Sphinx's head; had a ride on camel and donkey.
19.9.15 Entrained for Alexandria at 8am. A queer coincidence: left Australia 9.8.15, arrived at Suez 9.9.15, left for front 19.9.15, and we are 3rd reinforcement of 19th Battalion.
20.9.15 At sea.
21.9.15 At sea, run into a gale about midnight.
22.9.15 Wind still blowing hard.
23.9.15 Wind still blowing and boat pitching, a destroyer coming up and zigzagging along in front of us. Big islands to be seen all day.
24.9.15 Arrived at Mudros about midnight, harbour full of warships and transports to reach port. Tucker very bad, rotten. Plenty of Hospital ships, these ships are painted white with a green stripe and with a red cross; at night there is a line of green lights and a red cross which makes them conspicuous.
25.9.15 Saw a French submarine and two hydroplanes. 3 of our Company swam over to a warship lying near.
26.9.15 At anchor in Mudros Bay.
27.9.15 The same; nothing doing.
28.9.15 Left Mudros Bay after dinner aboard Sarnia. Had to leave Marks aboard the Georgian, making 4 of my mates down with the mumps. Arrived at Anzac about 8pm. Heard first gun fired at 7pm, and was under rifle fire when the boat stopped. Marched over hilly country to a resting place, it is Shrapnel Gully. Marvellous how the boys took the place, shrapnel to be found everywhere.
While William was initially in the third reinforcement for the 19th Battalion, Army Form B.103 shows him being "taken on strength of 'B' Coy 18th Bn from 3rd Rein. 19th Bn at Gallipoli Peninsula 29.9.15". This change was probably due to the 18th Battalion's urgent need for reinforcements following its part in an ill-conceived and disastrous attack on Hill 60 on 22 August 1915: "The attempt to round off the capture of Hill 60 by setting a raw battalion, without reconnaissance, to rush the main part of a position on which the experienced troops of Anzac had only succeeded in gaining a slight foothold, ended in failure Within a few hours the 18th Battalion, which appears to have marched out 750 strong, had lost 11 officers and 372 men, of whom half had been killed"; Bean, op cit, Volume II, p744.
30.9.15 Went to beach for a swim.
1.10.15 On beach fatigue, saw Beachy Bill firing.
Beachy Bill was a Turkish battery located at the Olive Grove south of Gaba Tepe: "This battery, afterwards known as 'Beachy Bill', was during the campaign reputed to have caused over 1000 casualties on the Beach alone"; ibid, p76.
4.10.15 Turks bombarded for about 1/2 hour, got a few donkeys on the beach.
5 & 6.10.15 Nothing happened; very quiet.
7.10.15 Turks gave another demonstration at night; thought we would get called out.
8.10.15 Rained all night; everybody wet. More demonstrations.
9.10.15 Sapping Russell's Top; caught a chill.
10 to 14.10.15 Ill.
15.10.15 Stand to all night; demonstrations. These are well worth looking at, but it's no fun being woke up.
16.10.15 Nothing. Turks threw bombs over and accounted for 1 dozen. Awful things these bombs.
17.10.15 Met Jack Riddley.
20.10.15 Received a parcel from home.
25.10.15 Turks sent more bombs over, dropped one in a chap's dugout, but he was out visiting so he escaped but his home was blown to pieces. Had a trip to Pope's Hill and had a look at the trenches, saw some of our chaps dead in the valley opposite in among the Turks' barbed wire.
Pope's Hill looks across Waterfall Gully to the Turkish trenches at the Chessboard; the 1st Light Horse attacked here on 7 August, losing 2 officers and 56 other ranks killed; ibid, Map 18.
26.10.15 Turks sent 7 bombs over; 3 failed to go off at first. Saw the inside of these, they are filled with dumps and cast iron. One fell almost in our line, smothered a lot in mud; to see us running away from them when they come over would make you laugh.
27 to 31.10.15 Nothing happens.
3.11.15 Turks dropped a few more bombs over at 4am.
4.11.15 No damage done. Demonstration about 9pm. Turks threw two stick bombs, one lodging near our lines; smothered a lot in dirt.
8.11.15 Sent to Courtney's Post; put in firing line at 12pm. Had a few shots at night; could not see anything.
Following the Suvla Bay failure, of which Hill 60 was one of the final battles, the mood changed at Anzac as Sir Ian Hamilton was replaced and evacuation became inevitable. The 5th Brigade (17th, 18th, 19th and 20th Battalions) took over the sector from Russell's Top through Pope's Hill to Quinn's Post, and appears to have retained responsibility here until the Evacuation. From William's diary it also appears that the 5th and 6th Brigade overlapped in their coverage of Courtney's and Steele's Posts, with the 18th Battalion being at Courtney's during the Evacuation, ibid, p877.
9.11.15 Saw a Turk, but was too late firing; he ducked.
10 & 11.11.15 In trenches.
12 & 13.11.15 In supports carrying sandbags at Steele's Post.
14.11.15 In trenches.
15.11.15 Taken ill in trenches.
19.11.15 Left Anzac.
23.11.15 Arrived at Number 1 Australian General Hospital [at Heliopolis, near Cairo] with Pleurisy.
5.12.15 Allowed up. A lot of chaps came in from Anzac with frost bitten feet, 2 trains of sick and wounded arrive.
"At Anzac casualties from frost-bite and exposure numbered only 414 But in the Suvla valley the sufferings were terrible. Over 200 men died in the open trenches from exposure, literally frozen to death. Between November 30th and December 8th, of 15,791 casualties evacuated, some 12,000 were due to the weather"; Butler, A G, The Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914-1918, Volume I, (Australian War Memorial, 1930), p440.
10.12.15 Removed to Number 1 Auxiliary Hospital, Luna Park. 1000 or more expected at Number 1 Australian General Hospital so all was cleared out of 10 and 11 wards.
12.12.15 Met W Oakes; received word of Campsie's death.
One week after enlisting, William made out his last will and testament, and appointed David Campsie Taylor, a woodturner also of Newcastle, as co-executor. Taylor does not appear on the Nominal Roll, which indicates that his death was not connected with military service.
15.12.15 Sent back to bed.
19.12.15 Evacuation of Anzac.
20.12.15 Evacuation of Anzac finished.
24.12.15 Went to Cairo, had my pocket picked, lost my purse and all.
31.12.15 Sisters' concert, saw New Year in. Had motor ride in afternoon.
1.1.16 Lady Maxwell's Concert.
Lady Maxwell was the wife of Lt-Gen Sir John Maxwell, C-i-C forces in Egypt. Maxwell only reluctantly fulfilled Lord Kitchener's intention and instructions that he supply troops and support to the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force: "whenever Hamilton directly or indirectly sought troops from Maxwell, the Turks mysteriously became active in the Sinai Desert, new roads and encampments were detected, hostile tribesmen became threatening. Even when Kitchener came down robustly on Hamilton's side, Maxwell released the troops with ill grace "; James, Robert Rhodes, Gallipoli, (Batsford, 1965), p83-84. Maxwell's military career ended with far-reaching consequences: "relieved of his Egyptian command early in 1916, he was sent to Ireland to handle the Easter Rising in Dublin. It is not to exaggerate to say that his severity in executing the leaders of the uprising destroyed any last hopes that remained of conciliating Ireland"; ibid, p349.
3.1.16 Visited zoo. The thing that took my eye was the paths which were worked with coloured stones. Met J McQueen in Hospital.
4.1.16 Bitter cold like real winter's day at home.
7.1.16 Visited Cairo, and looked round Heliopolis.
20.1.16 Removed to details Ghezireh.
The A & NZ Base Details camp at Zeitoun was part of the organisation by which "a sick or wounded man would ultimately pass from convalescence back to the control of the combatant branch in an 'overseas base dépôt'", (Butler, op cit, Volume I, p91), effectively the first step of return to duty from sickness or wounding. On the above day William's Army Form B.103 records his discharge to duty from 1st Auxiliary Hospital. He does not record when he physically rejoined his comrades of the 18th Battalion, but B.103 shows "to Zeitoun to rejoin unit" on 28 January.
21.1.16 Met Jim Curtis at Ghezireh.
22.1.16 Went to Tel-el-Kebir; saw Garratty and Scotty.
28.1.16 Left Ghezireh for A Details Zietoun.
30.1.16 All leave stopped. Disturbance in Cairo; all troops ordered to "stand to". Met Lovell.
No such incident is referred to in the Australian Official History at this time, but " minor brawls and unpleasant incidents had occurred leave was consequently cut down [some hotels] were placed out of bounds "; Bean, op cit, Volume III, p21.
12.2.16 Visited Mary's Well and Fig Tree.
13.2.16 Visited Gizeh hospital.
5.3.16 Left Zietoun for Ismalia.
17.3.16 Moved off from Ismalia to Alexandria 12am.
18.3.16 Arrived at Alexandria and aboard Ascania (E8266) at 2pm after a very windy, rainy and blowy trip.
19.3.16 Left Alexandria destination unknown, passed through entrance 4.45; 4 or 5 other transports following; passed one torpedo boat destroyer patrolling coast. Very windy and cold. This is a fine big boat, a Cunard Liner, and said to be a hungry boat and it is, not so bad the last couple of feeds we have had. Running with all lights out and everybody to sleep with a lifebelt on.
20.3.16 Pretty choppy otherwise a fine day. Everybody ordered to wear life belts at all times and no bugle calls.
21.3.16 Very calm. Passed three trawlers and one torpedo boat destroyer on the look out for submarines.
22.3.16 Very blowy, more trawlers kicking round.
23.3.16 Arrived off Malta about 6.30am but never entered. Trawlers and gunboats flying here and everywhere. Very calm.
24.3.16 Very calm, land to be seen all day, arrived through heads 4pm and was in harbour in Marseilles about 6pm. You get a very fine view of the place from the water.
25.3.16 Route march through town to a fountain which is the loveliest one I've seen, the water from this is distributed all over the town and allowed to run to waste. Entrained for Flanders at 9.25pm.
29.3.16 Arrived at Thiennes about 7.30am and billeted in houses 24 miles from firing line. Very cold, had a small fall of snow in afternoon.
7.4.16 Left Thiennes for front; after 15 miles march we were billeted at Outtersteene; passed through Hazebrouck about 12pm. This is a very big place.
8.4.16 Left Outtersteene for 9 mile nearer line at Bac St-Maur.
9.4.16 Had a look round town.
10.4.16 Left for firing line about 7pm. Arrived at Moat Farm Avenue about 8pm.
Following the expansion of the AIF after Gallipoli, the 1st, 2nd and 4th Divisions were formed into I Anzac Corps. William's 18th Battalion, in the 5th Brigade, was part of the 2nd Division.
" I Anzac Corps was informed that the 2nd Division would be required on April 8th to begin taking over the line south-east of Armentières "; ibid, p92. Bois Grenier was towards the southern end of this position, 1km behind the front line; Moat Farm Avenue was a communication trench about 300m east of Bois Grenier (as shown on trench map 36 NW 4, Edition 8), and White City Post another 700m closer to the front line; ibid, Map 4. Culvert Farm, mentioned on 22 May, was between White City Post and Bois Grenier, where the road crosses the drainage ditch which is the Laies River.
This sector was, by a sort of tacit agreement between both sides, very quiet, and was used by the British as a "nursery". Although "the three divisions of the I Anzac Corps were not regarded in France as untried part of the artillery was quiet raw and the general training of the divisions had been interrupted [by the expansion of the AIF]". Had the Australian artillery been fully equipped, I Anzac may have been employed in the opening battles on the Somme, ibid, pp93-94.
11.4.16 Had a look round village, not a house left alone, all shot to pieces. Beer bottles lying everywhere, the Huns seem to have had a good booze up.
12.4.16 Moved to firing line at Bois Grenier.
14.4.16 Moved to rest camp. Very cold; snow fell during evening.
15.4.16 Germans shelled a town near here, and set fire to a few houses.
16.4.16 Engineers' fatigue in firing line, raining.
17.4.16 Moved into Moat Farm Avenue about 12pm. Raining.
18.4.16 Engineers' fatigue at night carrying stuff from White City to firing line.
19.4.16 Went to firing line.
20.4.16 Firing line; post all night, Engineers' fatigue through day. Not allowed to sleep during night.
22.4.16 Returned from firing line about 7, moved to Command Post to take guard over; 4 hours on and off, no fatigue at night ([this will] do me [nicely]).
24.4.16 Ditto; Huns shelled village and knocked more buildings over.
25.4.16 Ditto; German plane brought down.
26.4.16 Moved again to Moat Farm.
27.4.16 Supposed gas attack. Artillery duel at night.
28.4.16 Moved into firing line. Building up parapet that was knocked down the night before.
29.4.16 In firing line.
30.4.16 In firing line. Fritzy shelled us and killed two of my mates and wounded two others, sand bags and dirt flying all round, had to repair parapet which he knocked down.
1.5.16 Fritzy had another go at us with high explosives. Got a smack on the knee. Left firing line for rest at Canteen Farm.
Canteen Farm is shown on trench map 36 NW, Edition 8A, 1500m NW of Bois Grenier on the road between Fleurbaix and Armentières. The sensitivity at that time to the possible presence of spies and enemy agents is demonstrated in a reference to Canteen Farm: "On April 26th (1916) Lt-Col Wisdom of the 18th Battalion wrote: 'Our attention has also been drawn to the movements of a team of sometimes one, sometimes two, horses working in a field opposite Canteen Farm. It has been noticed that during shelling these horses have been manoeuvred in a peculiar and suspicious manner, as though working in connection with artillery observers'"; ibid, p141. Although Bean here seems to support the suggestion that French civilians were betraying their Allies, he had earlier realised that the real problem was intelligent German observation from behind their own lines taking advantage of careless Australian habits: "it was you who burnt that house - you and that working party which moved past the cross-roads so often"; Bean, C E W, Letters from France (Cassell and Company, 1917), p17.
2.5.16 Fritzy gave us some iron rations for tea with the result we had to clear out and just as well we did for one landed in our billet and riddled our hut.
5.5.16 Fritzy shelled the salient and killed 25 of the 20th. We were sent for from Canteen Farm, so had to come down to the firing line. Germans attacked the salient and entered but were driven out. Germans shelled the road we were coming down; 2 of the 18th were hit with shells.
" a portion of the 18th Battalion (was) sent up to rebuild the parapet and other works, if possible, before daylight. The casualties in the bombardment had been about 100 "; Bean, op cit, Volume III, p200.
6.5.16 Moved to firing line.
7.5.16 Went over parapet for listening post.
8 to 10.5.16 Same.
11 5.16 Relieved from post in firing line but had to stop back and build barbed wire in front of trenches.
12.5.16 Moved to Moat Farm Avenue.
13.5.16 Back working in firing line to 16 May.
16.5.16 Moved to Command Post.
22.5.16 Was in firing line working all day, had to go back at night to Culvert Farm and build a new trench.
25 & 26.5.16 Fatigue, and moved to Moat Farm.
27.5.16 No fatigue, but stand to on morning of 28 May.
31.5.16 Moved into firing line.
1.6.16 Received 4 parcels, one from Ben with smokes and chocolates, and 3 from home with shirts and cake, cake and envelopes writing material, sweets.
2.6.16 Kept a German sniper busy all day, every time he opened his loophole he got one. An aeroplane brought down in German lines one of our new battle planes. Our Observation balloon also got adrift and went over Germans' way, watched the two observers jump from it with parachute.
4.6.16 Big artillery duel in 4th Battalion's line lasted a couple of hours.
6.6.16 Demonstration opposite our lines lasted from 11.30 to 12.30, shells and bombs falling all round us. 25th Battalion made a raid and got a few prisoners, our guns blew Fritzy's parapet to pieces in places, not much damage done to ours. Felt very nervous at start but when a couple broke near us soon got my legs. Leaving for Command Post. At night on guard.
The first formal raid conducted by the AIF was a joint effort of the 26th and 28th Battalions on the night of 5-6 June. Either Stevens or the transcriber of his diary was in error, as the 25th Battalion was not involved in a raid until that planned for the night of 18 June (but subsequently abandoned); ibid, p257 (footnote).
"On June 14th - evidently after the receipt by Haig of Joffre's appeal for an earlier launching of the Somme offensive [to relieve the pressure on Verdun] - an order was issued that as many raids as possible should be undertaken between June 20th and 25th. Next day, however, this was modified by the instruction that 'between the 20th and 30th of June' there was to be, if possible, 'a raid each night on the Corps front This means about three per division '"; ibid, p258.
7.6.16 Arrived at Command Post.
17.6.16 Saw an aeroplane fight and artillery bombardment.
18.6.16 Artillery bombardment at night.
20.6.16 Germans shelled billet and put a couple of shells through orderly room mucking things up completely. A short bombardment on 1st Division lines on our right.
21.6.16 Moved into firing line.
24.6.16 Bombardment every night.
25.6.16 Raid by 18th Brigade; 4 prisoners taken.
The 18th Brigade did not exist, and is perhaps an error in transcription of the diary. However, a raid was conducted on this night by the 5th Brigade with volunteers from all its Battalions (including the 18th Battalion), with 4 prisoners taken; ibid, pp260-2.
26.6.16 Bombardment. Fritzy made a raid and lost a couple of men. Moved to reserves; our chaps (18th Battalion) made a raid in the small hours of the morning of 27 June and brought back 4 prisoners and lost one signaller; had to leave him in the trench. Raid was led by Captain Bruce.
The 18th Battalion conducted a raid on this night during which 4 prisoners were again taken and a wounded Australian "left in the hands of the enemy"; ibid, pp263-4.
28.6.16 Relieved by the 13th battalion and moved off to Fort Rompu, our chaps bombarded Fritzy. Fritzy made a raid on the 19th Battalion but fell in the stew.
The location mentioned is unclear in the transcription, but I have interpreted it as Fort Rompu, which was 7km behind the front line, 5km W of Armentières on the road to Bac St Maur.
1.7.16 Went on fatigue to 6th Brigade through Chapelle d'Armentières or Post Bertin digging a cable sap under shell fire, it was a 6 mile walk to the job. Came through weeping gas, made my eyes smart.
What I have interpreted as Chapelle d'Armentières is also unclear in the transcription; Chapelle d'Armentières is a suburb south west of Armentières, and is consistent with a billet at Fort Rompu. However, I may be wrong on both these locations. I have not been able to locate Post Bertin.
As the Battle of the Somme approached, Haig contemplated shifting the main British offensive to Messines if the Somme battle drew sufficient enemy reserves south. To this end, on 30 June I Anzac Corps was ordered to be ready to move south at any moment. However, Haig's Messines ambitions were impractical at this time, and on 7 July the transfer of I Anzac to the Fourth Army was ordered, with the move to be completed by noon on 13 July. Hence William and his comrades in the 18th Battalion began the march which would take them to Pozières.
9.7.16 Left Erquinghem 10 o'clock for Strazeele; arrived at 5pm after 15 miles march.
10.7.16 Left Strazeele for Ebbinghem (12 miles); left Ebbinghem 11 o'clock for Arcques and had 8 hours ride in train.
11.7.16 Arrived at a station 2am. Walked through Amiens about 5am. Had breakfast outside Amiens and marched the remaining 7 miles to billets in Argoeuvres.
14.7.16 Route march through St Sauveur in afternoon.
16.7.16 Left for Gardonette 4 hours march.
18.7.16 Left for Rubempre 6 hours march.
20.7.16 Left Rubempre for Warloy-Baillon 4 hours march.
In the second week of July the Somme battle was being held up by failure to take the strong German position at Pozières, and "it had been rumoured that Rawlinson hoped to employ the [Anzac] Corps in its capture"; ibid, p455. A major attack on 14 and 15 July failed to make any impression on Pozières, and Haig's intention that the eastward advance of the Fourth Army would eventually outflank Pozières and Thiepval was not being realised. An assault by the British III Corps, planned for 18 July, was abandoned following failure of a preliminary attack the previous day. Haig transferred responsibility for the attack on Pozières to the Reserve Army (on the Fourth Army's left), and allotted to it I Anzac Corps, with the 1st Division to make the initial attack and the 2nd and 4th Divisions in support and reserve. An ominous portent of the Australians' future relationship with General Gough was his first order to Maj-Gen Walker (commanding the 1st Division): "I want you to go into the line and attack Pozières tomorrow!"; ibid, p468.
22.7.16 Left for Albert 3 hours march. Slept outside the town. Big bombardment all day and night.
24.7.16 Moved into reserves, passed through Albert and Fricourt Wood 4 miles march.
25.7.16 Had a look through German dugouts and trenches etc. Moved off to reserves at Ovillers. Shelled all day and night (proper hell).
The Australian 1st Division's 3rd and 1st Brigades began to relieve the British 2nd Brigade (British 1st Division) and the 68th Brigade (attached to 34th Division) respectively on the night of 19-20 July. On 25-26 July the 2nd Australian Division in turn began to relieve the 1st, which had captured Pozières village at the cost of 5285 casualties. "The 2nd Australian Division, which now took the strain of the Pozières offensive, had never yet been engaged as a whole in any major operation except the evacuation of Gallipoli. Though at that time only half-trained, it had not, like the 1st Division, lost half its original personnel in the reorganisation in Egypt. Its fighting units, therefore, were probably at least as well-seasoned as those of the 1st, although its commander, Major-General Legge, and part of the divisional staff, had no experience of attacking on a large scale"; ibid, p600. William's 18th Battalion relieved the 10th Australian Battalion in a position around 500 metres SSW of "the Pozières windmill, then a mere heap of stone, on the actual summit - a point not perceptibly higher than other parts of the ridge, but actually one of the highest on the battlefield" (ibid, p456), and today an Australian memorial.
26.7.16 Went to Pozières to dig trenches and got lost and had to turn back.
27.7.16 Dug trenches and Huns turned machine guns on us when coming back.
28.7.16 Harry Renolds received shell shock. Went to finish trench but were driven back by Artillery. 20th Battalion raided but were cut up. 7th Brigade charged and were cut up. 6th Brigade failed in their charge too.
29.7.16 Went into firing line, new trenches.
30.7.16 Digging trenches, bombarded by Fritzy all night, been bombarded every night since we came here. Shelled by our own artillery, 2 killed and 4 wounded. George Marsters wounded and L.P. killed.
1.8.16 Relieved from firing line to support in Black Watch Alley.
The 18th Battalion stayed in the line, so perhaps only William's company was relieved to Black Watch Alley, a communication trench 1100m south of Albert-Bapaume road and parallel to it. At 9:18am on 4 August the 5th, 6th and 7th Brigades launched a major attack, which succeeded the next day when "the 18th Battalion found contact with the 7th Brigade at the windmill"; ibid, p698. However, William's Army Form B.103 reported that he had suffered a gunshot wound to the back on 4 August. The Regimental Aid Post was in Pozières, with a 1km carry from the firing line to the Field Ambulance near the Chalk Pit (Butler, op cit, Volume II, p62). The ambulance route was then down Sausage Valley to Advanced Dressing Stations at Bécourt and Albert, with the Casualty Clearing Station at Puchevillers (ibid, p66). William would have been evacuated by this route to the 11th General Hospital at Camiers, where he arrived the next day. He died at 12:50am on 21 August 1916.
The 18th Battalion casualties in this battle were 625, and for entire the 2nd Division 6848 killed, wounded and missing (Bean, op cit, Volume III, p724). By the end of September, when I Anzac Corps had wrested not only Pozières but also Mouquet Farm from the enemy, its losses totalled 23,000 (ibid, p862).
In April 1997 I visited Pozières with my family. My wife and I had been here twice before, but then we did not know about William Dick Stevens. The detail of the maps in the Official History, the flatness of the terrain and the unmistakable landmark of the Windmill made it the work of only a few moments to locate the 18th Battalion's jumping-off position on 4 August 1916 and its final position in the Old German Lines. This, then, was the field in which William was wounded, and from which he made his final journey.
A few days later we drove the pleasant hour and a half to Etaples from Arras, where we always stay. The number of hotels and guest houses suggest that the town and its beach, Le Touquet-Paris-Plage, really bustle during the tourist season. On this beautiful spring day, however, the town and the beach were empty. Distant mist concealed the English coast across the Channel.
Etaples is the largest British cemetery in France. Its seaside location and the sound of distant waves breaking gives it a different atmosphere to any other I have visited. William's grave is near the very middle of the cemetery. He is in the splendid company of men (and women, for nurses served here too) from many units and many nations: England, Canada, New Zealand, China, India, Germany.
William's diary and the photographs and postcards which he sent home give us a lot of detail of his life in and out of the firing line. He does not write directly about himself or his feelings, but his excitement at the opportunity for travel and for seeing distant lands which the war offered is often evident, as is his pride in his Battalion. He does not betray any emotion when he learns of the death of one of his closest friends, and only once, in the terrible fighting around Pozières in July 1916, are we able to detect signs of fatigue or, perhaps, desperation.
The diary resonates with published accounts I have read and with my experiences when visiting the ground over which he and his comrades fought. His account of the raiding around Armentières is largely corroborated by the Official History, and it gives one an eerie feeling to read William's words, then refer to the History, and realise that he was there: he saw it first hand.
When he writes of seeing "our chaps dead in the valley" from Pope's Hill, I recall the times I have stood there and realised how comprehensively enfiladed that position was: the Turks could fire on Pope's from The Nek, from Baby 700 and Battleship Hill, from The Chessboard and Turkish Quinn's, and from German Officer's Trench. Kick away dirt on the crest of Pope's and you will find spent bullets fired from anywhere in that intimidating 180 degree arc. How William and those manning the trenches managed to see anything at all in such close quarters is incomprehensible.
And when one stands at Pozières, it is impossible to reconcile today's tranquillity with the horror conveyed by William's account of the last week of July. Instead of the sounds of battle, the only noise now is from vehicles on the road to Bapaume, or a tractor working the field over which the 18th Battalion advanced on 4 August 1916, or perhaps the fluttering of the flags at the memorial at the Windmill. Can this be the same place that William described, and of which the stone tablet there says "Australian troops fell more thickly on this ridge than on any other battlefield of the war"? Then the fields yield up their secrets of metal and bone and we realise the truth.
William Dick Stevens was one of the 331,781 Australian soldiers who took the field during the Great War (Bean, C E W, Anzac to Amiens (Australian War Memorial, 1952) p532). William did not choose a soldier's career, but, like hundreds of thousands of other Australians, he placed his country's interests before his own. He served, he fought and, like 59,342 of his countrymen, he still lies in foreign soil. From this distance in time we cannot share the grief their families felt at their loss, but we can still honour their brave self-sacrifice. We will remember them.
Heather Croussos of Newcastle, one of William's relatives, now has his diary, photographs, letters and postcards, and graciously gave me access to these to prepare this article. Heather lives in the house from which William departed to the war in 1915.
Copyright © Geoff Moran, August, 2000.
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