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The Fate of So Many

 

(All pictures and text by Ken Wright)

 

Godfrey George Manning is on the left

 

It’s not the nicest of experiences clearing out a deceased estate. The presence of two generations of the Manning family who lived in the house seems to permeate every room and everything one touches. The feeling of being watched while removing the paintings from the walls which were the mothers pride and joy. Or when moving the furniture in the sunroom where the family would spend time watching television or chat about the day’s events. Again, when carrying the study desk on which the son, an extremely well-liked and respected Roman Catholic priest perhaps drafted his sermons, wrote to the needy or read chapters from his extensive collection of religious books. All gone! It is as though they never existed.

Most of the house contents went to charity but a mountain of private papers had to be sorted. A very time consuming task and as time was short, cursory glances were made of each piece of paper, diary, folders and anything deemed not important was placed in the waste paper recycling bin. As the contents of the desk were being quickly sorted, the photograph of a soldier’s grave from the Great War was almost missed. A relative of the deceased family obviously but whereabouts on the family tree was an unknown factor. As the cleanout continued, nothing further about the soldier was found in the house but in the garage in an old cupboard full of stored household contents, further military paraphernalia was discovered.  Of special interest was the Bronze disk commonly known as a ‘Dead Man’s Penny’ still in its original cardboard presentation folder still with the dedication certificate. Sadly, no personal letters were found which would have been a valuable record of the soldier’s feelings of the time, and perhaps an insight into his hopes and dreams for the future. 1

Sapper Godfrey George Manning, regimental number 99 of the 2nd Field Company Engineers departed Melbourne 21 October 1914 with 1,347 other men of the Australian Imperial Force including 91 officers aboard the 12,130 ton transport ship Orvieto. The transport was part of a 36 ship convoy escorted by HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Sydney and cruisers from the Royal Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy. Soon after arrival at Alexandria in Egypt on 2 December, the troops began acclimatisation and training then took part in the landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 together with troops from New Zealand, Britain and France. The 2nd Field Company went in with the second and third waves.

 

Godfrey George Manning in Cairo

 

With the possible exception of the Crimean War, the Gallipoli campaign was the most poorly mounted and ineptly controlled operation in modern British military history. One of the many mistakes of the ill-fated campaign was the fact that the Australians were landed at least 1.6 kilometres from the original landing point. Another was that surprise had been lost even before the inception of the plan. The British practically advertised their intentions by carrying out a premature bombardment of the outer Dardanelles defences by a British naval force in November 1914. This naturally alerted both the Turks and the Germans to the danger of a future attack. When British High Command finally realised there was no point in continuing the campaign after 8 months and thousands dead or wounded with no end to the stalemate, a very successful evacuation was carried out. Beginning 19 December and over a total of 11 nights, approximately 80,000 men with only 6 wounded were withdrawn from the beaches and cliffs of Gallipoli. The Australians returned to Egypt then in March 1916, sailed for France and the horrors of the Western Front. 2

Sapper Manning rose through the ranks to become Captain in December 1917and attended various training courses before being transferred to 4th Pioneer Battalion which had been formed in Egypt during August 1915. His last course was with the Royal Engineers School in March 1918 at Rouen which was open to officers and NCO’s of Pioneer Battalions. Captain Manning re-joined the 4th Battalion in the field after the 23 day course and the following month, was mentioned in Sir Douglas Haig’s dispatch submitting names deserving of special mention for services in the field. 3

The Battle of Amiens, fought between 8 and 11 August 1918, marked the beginning of the British advance that culminated in the Armistice of 11 November 1918. The preparations for the battle included unprecedented security in order to achieve maximum surprise. The Canadian Corps was secretly moved to the Somme area and took over the southern half of the Australian frontline. The Australian Corps was concentrated between the Canadians and the Somme River while the British held the line north of the river. The infantry moved into their assembly positions in the small hours of 8 August. A dense fog gathered and unseen aeroplanes droning above drowned out the noise of the tanks that would support the infantry.

The fog was still dense at 4-20 am when the artillery barrage opened fire and the advance began. The early attacks were carried out in the dense fog with infantry and tanks’ moving in what they hoped was the right direction.  The first objective was seized by 7-30 and some German positions were bypassed and then attacked in the rear. Most of the German field artillery was over run and quickly captured. By 8-30 the fog had begun to thin out and fresh troops resumed the advance. The Australian official historian Charles Bean wrote, ‘A little later the mist suddenly cleared, and for a moment all eyes on the battlefield took in the astonishing scene. Infantry in lines of hundreds of little sections-columns all moving forward-with tanks, guns, battery after battery.’ 4

When the fog lifted, German guns opened up at the tanks and put many out of action but the Australian infantry kept going and soon overran most of the guns. The greater part of the final objective for the day, the old outer line of the Amiens defence system, was captured. The Canadian and French attacks had gone as well as those of the Australians and 25 kilometres of the German front south of the Somme was swept away in a victory that far surpassed any previous success of the British Army on the Western Front. More than 13,000 Germans were made prisoners and more than 200 guns captured.  A British officer wrote in the 4th British Army’s war diary that the Australian Corps had in the preceding months gained ‘a mastery over the enemy such as has probably not been gained by our troops in any previous period of the war.’ 5 General Eric von Ludendorff, the German commander, later wrote of August 8,

  ‘It was the black day of the German Army in this war. The 8th of August put the decline of that [German] fighting power beyond all doubt. The war must

 be ended.’ 

6 Following up behind the infantry were the Australian Pioneer Battalions. While, in an emergency, they could, and were, used as infantry, their primary purpose was to maintain the roads and tracks so essential to battlefield communications and the carriage of supplies. As the fighting moved further on, 4 Pioneer Battalion advanced about 3 km north of Heath Cemetery along the Somme River. That evening Captain Godfrey Manning and Sergeant Ernest Sumner went out to look for a position for Manning's company to dig in for the night.

Sergeant Sumner recounts the events concerning Captain Manning’s death. He stated; ‘As you will recollect, August 8 was very successful day for us and after the advance on our sector was completed, Captain Manning and myself went out to reconnoitre the position ahead of us for the purpose of selecting suitable localities for consolidation during the night. This work of course entailed a certain amount of risk and exposure to the enemy and as we knew the enemy to be occupying a wood immediately opposite, we took the necessary precautions as far as we were able as usual in such cases. It is not unusual for the enemy however, to have guns concealed in such forward places but owing to the serious reverse he [the enemy] had experienced during the day they apparently had not sufficient time to remove their guns from this wood and after we had been engaged on our task for some little time, they opened direct fire at us with low bursting high explosive shrapnel. The first few shots were rather wide of the mark and we took little heed of them but when they began falling closer we realised we were under direct fire from the enemy's guns. We thought it wise to take cover and just as we turned our backs and were walking away a shell burst a few yards in the rear of us with the result of this, shrapnel penetrated the centre of the Captains back killing him instantly. I immediately turned him over but I found death already imprinted upon his face and anything in the nature of first aid was absolutely useless. I crawled into an old trench nearby and after the shelling had subsided I went and collected what papers he had about him and handed same to one of his fellow officers. That morning, I proceeded to the spot again and had his body carried back to a small village named Morcourt situated on the south bank of the river Somme. His remains were interred in a small cemetery [military] forming part of the civilian cemetery and adjoining the village. A cross was by later erected on  his grave by some of his fellow comrade's and when I had occasion to pass near there about six weeks later I made it my business to have a look at his grave which I found was quite intact. I might be permitted to add, I was greatly distressed by the occurrence of this fatality and my deepest sympathy goes to his dear relatives and friends soliciting enquiries concerning him and it was with universal regret that I made known to his comrades of his sad fate for all realised that they had lost a brave and fearless officer, and one who had the respect and esteem of all. 7

The advance continued on the following days with the Australians taking Etinehem, Lihons and Proyart. Australian causalities for the offensive, mainly from 9-12 August, were 6,000 killed and wounded.

Perhaps a visitor to the Harbonnières, Heath Cemetery in France, might casually stop at  Plot V11, Row C, Grave 2 and read the headstone of  28 year old Captain [Dicky] Manning, 4th Pioneer Battalion, AIF and wonder briefly who he was and what he part he played in the war. In fact, how many headstones have names of those who made the ultimate sacrifice and remain unknown? ‘Who were they and what did they do?’

  Heath Cemetery, Harbonnières, France

 

It is a sad fact of life that so many valuable documents, letters, medals and other personal military paraphernalia of deceased service men and women of all nationalities will and are lost through neglect, uninterested relatives or plain ignorance. Unless their stories are recorded or at least donated to an interested authority and not discarded like a bit of rubbish, their part of history will be lost forever. This was almost the fate of Captain G.G.Manning.

 

The picture on the left is the original grave marker in Heath Cemetery

Footnotes.

1-   The Dead Man’s Penny is a 12 centimetre disk cast in bronze gunmetal which incorporated the following; an image of Britannia and a lion, two dolphins representing Britain’s sea power and the emblem of Imperial Germany’s eagle being torn to pieces by another lion. Britannia is holding an oak spray with leaves and acorns. Beneath this is rectangular tablet where the deceased individual’s name was cast into the plaque. No rank was given as it was intended to show equality in their sacrifice. Engraved on the outer edge of the disk, the words, ‘He died for freedom and honour.’ This disk was an official form of gratitude given to the fallen service men and women’s bereaved next of kin.

2-       Evacuated December 1915.

3-       7 April 1918.Promulagated,’London Gazette’, 28 May 1918.’

4-       Been. Charles. Anzac to Amiens, Canberra, 1940, p.471.

5-       Been, Charles. p 470.

6-       Ludendorff, quoted by Charles Bean, Anzac to Amiens, page 473.

7-       Sumner. E.A.  Sergeant. D Coy. 4th Pioneer Battalion. A.I.F. Belgium.

Special thanks to historian Doctor Richard Reid, Department of Veteran Affairs, Woden, Canberra, Australia, for permission to quote from his web site article about the Amiens battle.; ww1westernfront.gov.au

 

                                                                                                                           [C] Ken Wright. 2011.

 

 

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