|Percy Charles Richards M.M.|
By Rod Martin
5 November 1882 - 6 December 1917
As a soldier in the Australian Imperial Force, Percy belonged to a number of different units, each proportionally larger in size than the next. First and foremost, he was a member of F Company, 39 Battalion (between 700 and 800 men). This was the unit to which he was assigned while he was completing his training. His commanding officer in 39 Battalion was Lieutenant-Colonel R.O. Henderson.
39 Battalion, in turn, was one of four battalions in 10 Brigade. This unit was commanded by Brigadier-General Walter Ramsay McNicoll. It was McNicoll who approved the award of the Military Medal to Percy in 1917.
10 Brigade was part of 3 Division, commanded by Major-General John Monash. The division was composed of four brigades.
3 Division was, in its turn, part of II Anzac Corps, commanded by British Lieutenant-General Sir Alexander Godley. The corps comprised three divisions. (The two Anzac corps were later merged to form the Australian Corps, under a promoted Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash.)
Finally, II Anzac Corps was attached to the British Second Army, commanded by General Sir Herbert Plumer.
Where possible, I have referred to the deeds of 39 Battalion, as one can assume that, whatever actions it undertook, Percy was involved in them. When such referral is not possible because of lack of information, I have referred to the next largest unit for which information is available.
Percy Richards was born in the small settlement of Rokewood Junction, in western Victoria, in 1882. Family records and the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages indicate that it was on 5 November that year. That would have made him thirty-three years and eight months old when he joined the army in July 1916. While enlisting, however, Percy stated in writing on no less than three separate occasions that he was aged thirty-three years and six months – which would have meant that he was born in either January or February 1883. Unfortunately, confirmatory church baptismal records are unavailable, having been destroyed in a bushfire in 1944. So the confusion remains, and the mystery is deepened by the age listed on his gravestone (p. 31).
Percy was the sixth son and seventh child of William and Louisa Richards. Family memories have it that William was a gold miner, born at the Cape of Good Hope in 1845 to Frederick and Charlotte Richards, and brought to Australia with the rest of his family in 1853. Given that the family arrived in Victoria just a year before the Eureka Rebellion, it is likely that Frederick came in search of gold. The family moved several times in their first few years in the colony, as evidenced by the family records, probably following a string of new gold discoveries. A daughter named Charlotte was born in Emerald in 1854 (gold was discovered in Emerald in the 1850s), a son – John – in Raglan in 1857, two children – Sarah and Eliza – at Rokewood in the early 1860s, and another daughter, Louisa, at nearby Pitfield in 1865.
The evidence indicates that William and his wife Louisa, as well as his parents Frederick and Charlotte, were back at Rokewood Junction on a farm by the start of the 1880s.
William and Louisa Richards’ grave, Rokewood Cemetery. (Rod Martin)
The family’s information is that the men were still searching for gold, but were increasingly relying upon the farm for their livelihood. Percy was born at Rokewood Junction in 1882 and Charlotte died there in 1888. Frederick also passed away there in 1898.
Little is known about Percy’s childhood. Neville Richards, a family member, has reported that he worked on the farm, as would be expected, and became a competent shearer. He also became a keen gold-seeker (he and his brothers actually found quite a sizeable reef in the local area that was mined commercially for several years). With six older brothers, living in a rural area, he is likely to have been involved in plenty of rough and tumble in his early years, and to have grown up as a ‘nuggety’ type with the ability to defend himself when needed. It is remembered that he had the strong hands and thick-set shoulders of a labourer. His recruitment papers indicate that he had scars on his right shin and left knee, perhaps souvenirs of an active boyhood or reminders of some particularly difficult labouring tasks as a young adult. We can presume that, in line with the requirements of the 1872 Education Act, he went to the local school until he was fourteen and then left to seek employment. Exactly what he did and when is not known, but it would appear that he gained no further qualifications (his response to a question on his enlistment application indicates that he had not been an apprentice), working in a variety of positions in more than one place. Family memories suggest that he travelled widely in search of work. At the time of his enlistment in 1916, he was working as a labourer at Lake Boga, near Swan Hill in northern Victoria. A man who saw him die described him as a “bushman”, and said he knew him in Kerang before he enlisted. One could speculate that he may have been a bit of a wanderer, an itinerant. This is suggested by the fact that he cited Rokewood Junction as his permanent address on his enlistment papers, even though he was signing up at Swan Hill. Certainly, he was still single at the age of thirty-three so he had not “settled down”, to use a well-established phrase, and labouring jobs would not have been likely to bring with them much money, status or security.
When war broke out in Europe in August 1914, there was a rush of young men at the recruiting offices, eager to fight for king and country. Percy’s response to this is unknown. It may be that, at the age of thirty-one, he felt that he was a bit old for what was promised to be a young man’s brief adventure, one that should “be over by Christmas”. It may be that he considered the job he was doing at the time to be more important than going off on some imperial venture overseas. He may have had a moral objection to war and killing. There again, he may have tried to enlist, but been rejected. In terms of height, chest size and age, he fitted within the parameters set by the military. However, as Les Carlyon relates, the doctors at this time could pick and choose in a way they would not be able to do later in the war. They were particularly hard on men with bad teeth and flat feet. Perhaps Percy suffered from one of these afflictions. After all, coming from a large family as he did, being in his thirties, and not being wealthy, it is quite possible that he had had a lifetime of dental neglect (his enlistment papers have written across the top of them a date in August 1916 and the statement : ‘dental treatment’). And did years as a youth in the Australian nineteenth century countryside, many of them probably spent running around in bare feet, possibly lead to flat footedness?
Percy as a young man.
By Christmas 1914, 52 000 men had enlisted in what became known as the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), and 30 000 of them had departed for the Middle East in the first convoy on 1 November. As Carlyon puts it, enlistments were still averaging about 8 000 a month for the first four months of 1915. But then came Gallipoli. At first, enlistments soared, reaching a peak of 36 575 in July of that year. However, as the casualty lists in the newspapers mounted, numbers dropped off and had declined to about 6 000 a month by July 1916. By that time, the Australian forces were stationed on the Western Front in France, involved in the Battle of the Somme and the butchery of associated confrontations at Fromelles and Pozières.
What caused Percy to change his mind and enlist in the armed forces in August of that year is, again, unknown. We know that, by that month, enlistments had dropped to a new and alarming low of 4 144 and that the British War Office called for urgent reinforcements to rebuild the five Australian divisions in France. The aim was for 32 500 extra men by the end of September. A massive recruitment campaign was launched, and it may be that Percy decided that he could no longer hold off, that it was his duty to support those other men in what had become a protracted and desperate struggle the length and breadth of the Western Front. As the official war historian, Charles Bean, writes, the “members [of what became known as the Australian 3 Division] volunteered in no spirit of adventure (the “adventurers” having rushed to the Ist Division), but from sober determination to see the war through.” It may also be the case that, along with many other men, Percy was subjected to moral pressure here in Australia. Stark propaganda of the type seen below became increasingly common “as recruiters tried to convince Australians that it really was their war”. In addition, the long-established and often indiscriminate practice of sending white feathers (symbols of cowardice) to men who had not enlisted was becoming increasingly popular and was used, with devastating results in some cases.
Propaganda poster popular at the time
Whatever the reason, Percy volunteered by signing an attestation paper at Swan Hill on 28 July 1916 and stated his age as being thirty-three years and six months. His medical examination details state that he was five feet seven and a half inches tall (approximately 169 centimetres) and 146 pounds in weight (approximately sixty-six kilograms), with a medium complexion, his eyes being grey and his hair brown.
The attestation paper indicates that he was then transferred to Melbourne and formally inducted into the military forces on 4 August, exactly two years after the outbreak of the First World War. At that time, he underwent another medical examination. From there, it is likely that he travelled to a base camp at Ballarat, as did many of the recruits from central and northern Victoria. Evidence of this is the fact that he was disciplined for going absent without leave in Ballarat for one day on 4 September (for which he was fined the day’s pay). While at the camp, he was provided with basic military training for two months or so. On 22 August, he was given the regimental number 2425 and allocated to F Company, part of the Fourth Reinforcements for 39 Battalion AIF.
Along with 150 new compatriots, Percy moved to a base at Royal Park in Melbourne on 5 October and then sailed for Europe on 20 October on the troop transport HMAT Port Lincoln.
Fourth Reinforcements, 39 Battalion, waiting to board HMAT Port Lincoln at Port Melbourne, 20 October 1916.
(Australian War Memorial)
The ship crossed the Indian Ocean to the Cape of Good Hope, and then sailed north along the west coast of Africa towards Europe. Percy’s statement of service indicates that he transferred to another vessel at Sierra Leone on 2 December. He and his compatriots finally docked in Plymouth on the south coast of England on 9 January 1917. Once on shore, Percy was taken to the training camp at Durrington in Wiltshire, not far from Salisbury Plain, arriving on 10 January. There he joined 10 Training Battalion and received intensive instruction on the finer points of trench warfare from men who had survived on the Western Front in France and Belgium.
Charles Bean tells us that these later recruits, who were destined to form part of 3 Australian Division, were treated with kid gloves by the military. It was the opinion of the overall Australian commander, General Birdwood, that the Australian government, having itself organized this division, had to take a special interest in it. Not for 39 Battalion the experience of the men of 4 and 5 Divisions who had been “forged out of half-veteran material in the dust and sweat of Egypt and then flung into battle like a learner of swimming thrown into deep water”. Instead, its members had the intensive training on Salisbury Plain and then, on 25 April 1917, the third Anzac Day (as it was called by then), Percy and the Fourth Reinforcements were transported to the port of Folkstone in Kent. From there, they sailed across the Straits of Dover to France, probably arriving at the port of Boulogne. After that, they were conveyed to billets in Armentières, a French town not far from the front, deliberately allowed to acclimatize, and issued with equipment such as steel helmets and gas respirators. The area around Armentières was the quietest corner of the British Front. It was known as the “nursery sector”, where new or exhausted divisions were stationed to enjoy a relatively quiet period. When they were selected to go to the front, the troops were marched to their assigned sectors and stationed in reserve trenches, waiting to relieve exhausted and shell-shocked men after their spell in the front line.
For Percy, this happened around 13 May. On that day he marched about eight kilometres, probably saw plenty of the red poppies for which Flanders is famous, and joined the rest of the battalion, which was attached to the Australian 3 Division, commanded by Major-General John Monash. In May 1917, 3 Division was stationed at Messines in Belgian Flanders, close to the French border and Armentières, and at the far southern end of what had been known since 1915 as the Ypres Front. By this time, the war on the Western Front had been going on for almost three years. Despite incredibly bloody conflicts such as the First and Second Battles of Ypres (1914, 1915), the Somme in 1916 and Arras and Bullecourt in April 1917, the Allied forces had failed to break the stalemate and trench warfare that had developed along the front after September 1914. The Germans were well-entrenched, even more so after they tactically retreated to the stronger fortifications of the so-called Hindenburg Line in February 1917. When Percy arrived at the front, a new offensive in Flanders was being prepared. It would officially be known as the Third Battle of Ypres, but more incorrectly and infamously as the Battle of Passchendaele, after the name of the town that would be its final target. Monash’s 3 Division was going to be a part of the opening encounter – at Messines.
The Ypres Front in 1917 at the beginning of the Third Battle of Ypres (“Passchendaele”). The location of Messines is marked with a rectangle. (bottom left) (Carlyon, The Great War)
3 Division is described by Bean as being the ‘baby’ of the AIF, untried so far in major engagements. Because of its newness, its appearance and proficiency in exercises, plus the belief that it was the darling of the Australian Department of Defence, the division was often referred to derisively by other units as the ‘neutrals’, the ‘Lark Hill Lancers’ (after the name of their training camp at Durrington) or, most generally, as the ‘Eggs-a-cook’* on account of its oval shoulder patches.
* A term picked up in Egypt by troops. It was evidently the cry of Egyptian sellers of boiled eggs.
39th Battalion shoulder patch
Monash added to this apparent uniqueness by ordering the men to distinguish themselves further by wearing their hat brims flat, instead of looped as was the case in the rest of the AIF. According to Bean, the troops wanted desperately to be accepted as comrades by the rest of the army, not to be seen as something separate and distinct, subject to resultant ridicule. They were not happy about their hats!
As part of this ‘new’ force, Percy and the Fourth Reinforcements appeared at Messines just in time to be involved in the action planned for 7 June. The intention of the British commander-in-chief, Sir Douglas Haig, was to “turn the German flank from the Ypres salient, occupy the Belgian coast and capture the enemy’s submarine pens [at Ostend and Zeebrugge]”. Haig argued that such a move would place enormous pressure on the Germans, who would be forced to transfer extra forces into the Ypres area to avoid losing it, thus taking pressure off the beleaguered French Army further south, already suffering mutinies. In addition, capture of the submarine pens would remove much of the threat to allied convoys in the Atlantic, involved in transporting troops, equipment and food from North America. Moreover, he argued, German morale, already crumbling, would be devastated by the inevitable losses in Flanders.
Sir Douglas Haig
(Imperial War museum)
The validity of all of these reasons has been disputed and often discounted by historians in the years since. Many believe that Haig’s real purpose in ordering the attack was a desperate effort to win the war before the Americans arrived on the Western Front (they had joined the war in April that year) and seized the glory for themselves. The thought of this, they say, made him hang on grimly at Ypres, despite massive casualties and increasing pressure from all sides to call off the battle. As John Masters argues,
What no one, looking back, can understand is why he hoped to succeed. The year before, on the Somme, the British Army attacked for four months, suffered 400,000 casualties, and advanced an average of about 3 miles on a front 20 miles wide. Nothing had happened, and nothing was proposed, that would alter this state of affairs – but the men were now expected to advance 35 miles, the first 15 of them in under two weeks.
Whatever Haig’s real reasons, the Germans had the advantage of holding what high ground there is in Flanders, most notably Messines Ridge, whence they could watch the British preparing for the new offensive. The ridge had long been a problem. Philip Gibbs describes it as “a curse to all our men who have held the Ypres salient – a high barrier against them, behind which the enemy stacked his guns, shooting at them every kind of explosive”. Therefore, it made sense to the British planners to capture this first of all. In doing so, they would remove a large thorn in their side, and then use its natural advantages in a move to sweep the Germans north and then east, hopefully causing the collapse of their army. The British had been planning to capture the ridge since late 1915, taking the bold step of tunnelling beneath it and planting nineteen huge mines at depths of fifteen to thirty metres, immediately below the German trenches. The mines were in place and ready to be blown by 7 June. Their detonation would mark the beginning of the Third Battle of Ypres, hopefully, in Haig’s mind, the decisive conflict of the war. 3 Division, the only Australian force to be involved in the first phase of the battle, was the southernmost of the nine divisions scheduled to attack, and was assigned to capture the southern shoulder of Messines Ridge.
The Germans, of course, had not been sitting idle while all these preparations were going on. They had detected some regrouping of the British divisions, and were curious as to what was happening. As a result, they staged a number of raids on the Australian lines in May, and Percy may have been involved in
fending some of them off. In addition, they bombarded the area around Ploegsteert Wood, where 3 Division was based, with gas shells on a number of occasions. However, it was apparent on 7 June that the Germans had no idea about the mining operations and the British plans. Following a preparatory bombardment of the German lines on the ridge during the previous seven days, the mines were detonated at 3.10 am on the morning of 7 June. Approximately 400 000 kilograms of TNT exploded over a period of forty-five seconds. At that stage, it was the largest man-made explosion in history. As Carlyon has described it,
One hundred and thirty miles away Londoners heard it as a distant roar. Fifteen miles to the east German soldiers in Lille ran in panic, fearing an earthquake. Buildings swayed and window glass fell into the streets. Perhaps 10, 000 Germans died as the mines went up, some of them simply atomised. The earth trembled, a wave of hot air ran up the ridge and beyond, black clouds of dust and smoke rolled over the German rear positions and blotted out the light of the sinking moon, craters hundreds of feet wide opened up and the sky rained clods of Flemish clay.