Dear everybody at home: a Tasmanian's letters from the great war.
Dear Everybody at Home,
If you receive this I will by then have passed to the Great Beyond. We are just preparing to go in on a fairly large stunt which may be the end of a good many of us and I may be one of the number. Up to the present altho' I've been in the Firing Line and about there a good deal, have not yet participated in the actual advance and now the time comes.
Well, I leave myself in the hands of the Almighty and trust him absolutely. You may depend on it, I've done my job and you'll have no need to be ashamed of me. I would have liked to have got back again but 'twas not meant that I should. Never mind girls, there'll be someone else to take my place.
Am leaving this with a pal of mine who is on the reserve of officers and not going in; he will post it for me if I do not come back. Well Dad goodbye! Goodbye girls! Let the remainder of the family know I think of you all and hope to meet you all again later on. 'Tis rotten having to write this but c'est la guerre! One thing we know Fritz has a much worse time than we do, I guess there'll be great rejoicing when it is all over. We are all thoroughly sick of it. Well goodbye again to you all, from your son and bro, Len.
This was the last letter of Lennard Lewis Wadsley, 26 years old, Lieutenant, 52nd Battalion, 4th Division, AIF, killed 3 September 1916. Len was killed in the carnage on the Somme Battlefield, at a place called Mouquet Farm near Pozieres. The War Historian C E W Bean wrote that the Pozieres Ridge was "more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth". 19 attacks were launched by the Australian Divisions through the mud and devastation against strongly defended objectives. In all some 23,000 dead and wounded in just seven weeks.
What was it like for a young Tasmanian orchardist to go on his longest, and ultimately his last, journey? Len's letters, written to his family in the small farming community of Cygnet, give us an insight into that time, when family meant everything and war was an adventure.
The Wadsley's had an orchard, "Pendennis", up the Golden Valley Road. The family had moved to Cygnet after the crash of the Van Dieman's Land Bank in 1891. Their original orcharding property, at Florence Heights above Moonah, had suffered so much through the bank's collapse, as did many other Tasmanian businesses and families, that they were forced to find other opportunities.
Len was obviously close to his family. His letters reflect a feeling of oneness with their lives, even though he was in Egypt and France. He was the youngest of eight children, living on the farm with his widowed father, Wright and his sisters Dora, Gwlad and Annie. His brothers James, Ted and Arthur were working in Hobart and Launceston and Mary had married.
He missed the fruit picking season and daily tasks of the farm terribly, yet he showed a cheerfulness in facing the dangers ahead; he was, perhaps, an example of the self-assured colonials eager to prove themselves in the world.
Len enlisted on 18 November 1914. He had been in the Militia for eight years and so he was automatically considered for officer rank. During 1915, as a Second Lieutenant in 1st Depot Battalion at Claremont Camp, he trained recruits.
It was an uncertain time, but Len tried to put the family at ease:
I can tell you that it won't be long before I get away, I had no idea I was so well up the list ... but this is just to prepare you for a sudden break. Now, Dad don't be downhearted. It's up to me to go if I can do any good and I have every confidence in coming through alright.
In November Len commanded reinforcements to the 15th Battalion transferred to Broadmeadows Camp near Melbourne. For many it was their first sea voyage.
It was rather rough when we got into the Strait next morning, but had a cup of tea and went on deck to see how the men were faring. Poor beggars, they were ill, about 2/3 of them were down. The attractions of Melbourne lured many of the new soldiers. "Leave here seems to be the trouble, was speaking to one officer and he told me out of 300 men he could only get hold of six as the remainder were absent without leave.
Len had his fair share of fun too:
went to "High Jinks", it was alright, we could see the girls that were on board [the boat from Tasmania]. They were almost unrecognisable because of paint etc, but it was good, there's no error about it. I think I'll go again before the season closes."
He was in high spirits:
There are plenty of apples over here ... but they are not a patch on Tassy's, no flavour hardly. Cherries, strawberries and other fruits are plentiful but none of them come up to those at Pendennis.... Heaps of love to all, don't worry about me. Am feeling bonza will be alright here, remember me to all enquiring friends. Love to all, Len.
Finally on 29 December 1915 they embarked from Williamstown. "Everything has gone off splendidly. There are 1600 on board ... a fine lot of men". With the evacuation of Gallipoli only nine days before, the future of the Australian Imperial Force in the war was somewhat uncertain. For Len and his companions the stay in Egypt was to become a frustrating interlude while strategists decided their fate.
At Sea, 20/1/1916 Dear Everybody at Home, Here we are still slogging along, and if we don't get a wriggle on guess we'll arrive when the war is over, and will just turn round and come back ... dropped anchor just after dark alongside another trooper going back to Australia with wounded. At once the native craft swarmed around and the guard had their work cut out to keep off the curio sellers ... there were coolies galore also the usual native boatmen who will dive for sixpence and come up grinning and show it to you and put it in their mouths, some of them had their mouths full in no time ...".
They arrived in Egypt in early February and so began a period of training in the dust, sand and heat, seeing the sights of Cairo and coping with the locals;
the natives thrive on filth and I always feel when near natives or near their quarters I'd like to have a good bath and change of clothing, they seem so lousy. The camp here is not too brilliant as regards freedom from insects, feel pleased I brought my sulphur bags now, they are most useful.
What a change for the boy from the cool climes of the Huon Valley! Len was also missing some important family events.
20/2/16 Dear Madge What's this I hear? During the past week I've been lucky enough to receive a budget from home and in every letter or card there was the same thing mentioned ... Well, I don't know whether to congratulate you or not because if you knew Ted as I do, all you would want would be sympathy ... I hope and am sure you'll be quite happy, in fact it gives me much pleasure in placing my hands on your heads and solemnly pronouncing the Benediction 'Bless You! my children' ... How did you find Pendennis ... I wish I'd been home to give you a right royal welcome and to rub your face with raspberries and thus inaugurate you as one of the family."
The AIF was growing and while Len was in Egypt, a new Division, the 4th, was formed. Officers and men for the new battalions were drawn from veteran units that had served at Gallipoli and the fresh troops from Australia, thus blending experience with exuberance.
13/3/16 I received a note from Hunt ... he had a job for me if I was tired of Training Battalion duties, so I went to see him. He is to get a company in the 52nd Battalion in the new organisation and had been given carte blanche to select his subalterns by the Second in Command, Major D.A. Lane of Tas and he at once offered me a job ... I'll like the change as I have lost all my own boys ... of course the faithful James will still be in attendance as the Barman is regarded as the personal property of an officer.
On 22 April Len was promoted to full Lieutenant:
I'm greatly pleased and now have to prepare for my third [star], which as things are now I won't be able, unfortunately, to get unless there are a few casualties which I don't want by any manner of means.
Finally, the 52nd had a short stint in the trenches defending the Suez Canal:
can tell you if Johnny Turk does come he'll get a warm reception ... all the men are quite excited at a probable chance of a scrap. All of them have been in camp for months and are quite eager for something to break the monotony.
They were to be disappointed. In June the Battalion began its journey to the Front Line in northern France. Len's letters show a keenness and anticipation for what lies ahead. The sea voyage to Marseilles left the desert and flies behind, while the train journey to the staging areas behind the Front brought pangs of homesickness as the troops passed through green and pleasant lands.
it is beautiful and no wonder the French fight so for their country. All the way there is nothing but gardens and vineyards, the avenues are great and the people most hospitable.
At first the Battalion was billeted at Fletre and Sailly near the Belgium border. They moved into the Front Line in an area called "The Nursery" where new units could become accustomed to trench life.
The shells hurtle overhead and whistle through the air and crash up against old Fritz's parapet ... you could see Fritz's trench going up to the skies, boards, posts, sand bags and dirt ... one of the officers here says he'd be quite satisfied to read about it in a book, so would I. Yet there's something fascinating about it; 'tis great sport, yet awful.
In late July, after being pulled out of the Front Line and returned to billets for further training and preparations, the 13th Brigade, of which the 52nd was one of its four battalions, moved towards the Somme battlefield.
We are A1 again and working as per usual getting ready for the next spasm, when and where it Will be we know not, but suppose it will be some where in the 'great push' France 30/7/16.... We are camped in an old orchard, the huts for the men are quite shaded from the sun, but ours are in the open and extremely hot ... I can imagine a Sunday like tonight at home, we (the girls and I) would be going to Church and Dad would be piloting Tot and Herb up the hill. The drive to church down to the Port would be at the usual pace and we would just arrive in time ... Do I sound very homesick because I don't feel so. 'Twas just a reminiscence so jotted it down. The country here is very similar to Tassy and the evenings are just the same ... My Platoon is still going strong and I get on with them better than ever since we had a spasm in the Trenches; they reckon I'm game. I wonder?"
On the night of 14 August units of the 13th Brigade attacked Mouquet Farm along with the 4th Brigade. However, the 52nd was used as a reserve and did not take part in the attack. There were a great many Tasmanians within the various battalions involved and Len was able to meet up with some of his old friends from his original unit, the 15th Battalion. This action did not prove successful and Mouquet Farm remained in German hands. Even now this area had developed an ominous reputation as the Germans realised that the defence of Mouquet Farm determined the rest of their line at Pozieres. The farm was in name only; its buildings had now been obliterated by the intense shelling. However, the Germans had dug deep under the ruins and reinforced their positions with concrete fortifications. This position would not be won easily.
Len's unit was pulled out of the line with the rest of the Brigade to rest and reinforce. But preparations were in hand to send them back in. The attrition rate was so horrendous that battalions could only hold the line for a few days before their casualties became overwhelming. On 1 September orders were received that another attack was to be made on Mouquet Farm. The 52nd Battalion was billeted at La Boiselle, just behind the lines and began preparations for the next "stunt". 100 rounds, 2 bombs [grenades] and 2 sandbags per man were issued; reconnaissance of no-mans land was completed and troops prepared themselves for what was to come. It was to be a bloody encounter. Sergeant Roy Pollard from Len's Platoon in 'C' Company wrote to the family on 30 November 1916 on his way home after being wounded:
a few minutes before the charge commenced, he [Len] told me that he felt as if he would not come out of it; I admired him then more than ever I did before, because, he, believing it to be so, led us on with exceptional dash and carrying out his duty as well as any officer has ever done on the Battlefield.
The War Diary of the 52nd Battalion provides graphic details of that furious charge:
the Companies commenced their assault about 5.14 am leaving their 'Jumping Off point very nearly at the same moment. The assault was delivered with much spirit and dash, and in some cases a short, but fierce and bloody hand to hand conflict ensued, Bayonets and rifle butts coming into free play. Each Company seized its objective and 'C' Company [Len's unit] evidently pushed forward under our own barrage. The Company Commander (Capt Ekin-Smyth) drew them back towards their objective but was unfortunately about this time mortally wounded. The Company again pushed forward and as an organised Unit ceased to exist.
From letters written to the family after the event, it appears Len Wadsley was wounded and placed in a shell crater. Another soldier was brought to the same place, and Len directed that this man, who was severely wounded, be taken to the rear first. When the stretcher party returned, they could find nothing of Len. It is most likely that the fury of artillery fire had buried him in the morass of mud. His body was never found. The 52nd Battalion lost twelve officers and 438 men in that brutal encounter. The 13th Brigade lost, in total, 41 officers and 1,305 men killed or wounded. It was a high price to pay, but the troops had won, and held against numerous counter attacks, an important objective. For Len his time was over. But through his letters we can sense the spirit of this young Tasmanian who ventured across the sea to do his duty, never to return.
John Wadsley (1)
(1) The article is based on over 70 letters and diary of Lieutenant Lennard Lewis Wadsley. It was originally published in the Leatherwood Journal, No. 12), August 1994.
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|Date:||Dec 1, 2005|
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