Audio

Ieper (Ypres) – Belgium

At home, or as you tour the twelve locations of the Australian Remembrance Trail in France and Belgium, listen to a four-minute audio-cast featuring the extraordinary stories of Australian soldiers 'on this spot'. Listen to the audio-cast from your device.

Also available are all 12 audio-casts.

Audio transcript

This is the Cloth Hall in the great market square at Ieper in Belgium. Before 1914 Ieper was a quiet, provincial centre where on Saturdays the square bustled with a weekly market and farmers’ wives sold fresh vegetables from stalls in the covered area under the Cloth Hall; where dozens of women, young and old, bent over cushions making the famous Belgian lace. The great buildings spoke of wealthier times, when Ieper had been the centre of the Flanders cloth trade and merchants came from all over Europe to buy and sell at the Cloth Hall. During the First World War Ieper became famous again, not for its produce, but for its ruins.

In late 1914 war came to Ieper. On 22 November German shells fell as the front line between the Allies – British and French – and the invading Germans was established within kilometres of the town. The Cloth Hall caught fire, burning out its interior, but the people of Ieper remained, often in the cellars under the wreckage of their homes.

In late April 1915, a great battle occurred near the town and German bombardments rendered normal life impossible. On 28 April 1915 a local photographer, known simply as ‘Anthony of Ypres’, took his camera to the Cloth Hall and recorded what he called the ‘derniers fugitifs a Ypres’ – the last fugitives of Ypres – a man pushing a wheelbarrow with an elderly woman on a mattress on top of it, and beside him a woman pushing another barrow with a bundle of belongings. Dominating the scene is the burnt-out frame of the Cloth Hall. Pictures like this appeared in newspapers throughout the world, including Australia, illustrating the destruction of war and the plight of civilians. Ieper now became a military ghost town echoing to the tramp of thousands of soldiers and the intermittent explosions of shells.

On 3 September 1917 Australia’s recently appointed official photographer to the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), Captain Frank Hurley, pulled up in a car in front of the Cloth Hall. In his diary he wrote:

This magnificent old [building] is now a remnant of torn walls and rubbish. The fine tower is a pitiable apology of a brick dump scarred and riddled with shell holes. The figures are headless and the wonderful columns and carved pillars lay like fallen giants across the mangled remnants of roofs and other superstructures ... it’s too terrible for words.

During the next two months, as he ploughed through the mud and death of the battlefields east of Ieper, recording the experiences of the men of the AIF, Hurley and his assistant, Lieutenant Hubert Wilkins, returned again and again to the town. These bleak ruins captured Hurley’s imagination and he produced a series of images of the town, many with the Cloth Hall as their focus. As he confessed to his diary:

For my part, Ypres as it is now has a curious fascination and aesthetically is far more interesting than the Ypres that was.

For him there was pathos and sadness in this rubble, and Frank Hurley captured those sentiments for all time in his famous visual story of the destruction of modern war.

Toronto Avenue Cemetery, Ploegsteert

At home, or as you tour the twelve locations of the Australian Remembrance Trail in France and Belgium, listen to a four-minute audio-cast featuring the extraordinary stories of Australian soldiers 'on this spot'. Listen to the audio-cast from your device.

Also available are all 12 audio-casts.

Audio transcript

This is Ploegsteert Wood, Belgium. In May 1917 the 38th Australian Infantry Battalion was based in the wood and, according to battalion historian Private Eric Fairey, it was an idyllic spot—it was spring; the sun glinted down through the leaves of the pink chestnuts and copper beeches; the grass was covered with daisies, primroses and buttercups; and the air was filled with the melody of birdsong. Snaking through the trees were raised wooden tracks known as 'duckboards', with names on fingerposts of London streets such as Picadilly Circus, Regent Street and the Strand. On the night of 6–7 June the battalion returned to the wood on their way to the front line, but this march, according to Fairey, was a 'fearful ordeal'.

That night thousands of Australian soldiers were on the move through the wood. They were part of a mighty British Empire force heading to attack the German front line, which stretched for twenty kilometres to the north just beyond Ploegsteert Wood. Aware for some time that a great attack was in preparation, German artillery opened fire on the wood and its surroundings with high explosives and gas. The gas shells fell with a sound, reminiscent to official historian Charles Bean, of 'heavy drops before a thunderstorm'. It was a dreaded combination: high explosive fragments brought death and severe wounds, while gas caused men to reach quickly for their only protection against this noxious vapour—their 'small box respirator'.

The soldiers were weighed down with full battle gear: rifles, ammunition, grenades, rations, tools, and much else. Respirators shielded them from the gas, but movement became slow, breathing laboured. For many, the small mica eyepieces fogged up and men, looking for direction, stumbled around in a darkness lit only by exploding shells. Hundreds collapsed. According to the historian of the 39th Battalion, the tracks through the wood were strewn with 'prostrate men coughing and gasping in agony'. Lacking masks, pack animals—horses and mules—struggled for air until they too fell across and beside the tracks.

This shelling could have had disastrous consequences for the impending attack, scheduled for 3.10 am on 7 June. To prevent this, leaders worked to keep things going. Bringing up the rear of the march, Captain Robert Grieve and Major Charles Story of the 37th Battalion, finding the way ahead blocked by motionless soldiers of other units, got these men on the move, allowing their own unit to get forward on time. By 2.20 am only seven men of the 39th Battalion, led by Captain Alexander Paterson, had staggered into clearer air beyond the wood, and they were eventually joined by 113 more stragglers. Paterson, despite being slightly gassed himself, sought out ammonia capsules for his men to breath to help neutralise the gas, then reorganised them and led them successfully into the attack to capture the battalion's objective. He personally silenced an enemy machine gun; captured two others with their crews; supervised the consolidation of their position; and then fell wounded. Paterson's efforts were recognised by the award of the Military Cross.

The attack at Messines was a huge success. For the Australians, subjected to the ordeal of the night-march through gas-drenched Ploegsteert Wood, it was perhaps a double victory. Although sometimes greatly reduced in numbers, all the battalions scheduled for the attack went forward at 'zero hour'. It was an achievement which Charles Bean put down to the 'determination of the men themselves to reach the jumping-off position in time'.

Toronto Avenue Cemetery, Ploegsteert

At home, or as you tour the twelve locations of the Australian Remembrance Trail in France and Belgium, listen to a four-minute audio-cast featuring the extraordinary stories of Australian soldiers 'on this spot'. Listen to the audio-cast from your device.

Also available are all 12 audio-casts.

Audio transcript

This is Ploegsteert Wood, Belgium. In May 1917 the 38th Australian Infantry Battalion was based in the wood and, according to battalion historian Private Eric Fairey, it was an idyllic spot—it was spring; the sun glinted down through the leaves of the pink chestnuts and copper beeches; the grass was covered with daisies, primroses and buttercups; and the air was filled with the melody of birdsong. Snaking through the trees were raised wooden tracks known as 'duckboards', with names on fingerposts of London streets such as Picadilly Circus, Regent Street and the Strand. On the night of 6–7 June the battalion returned to the wood on their way to the front line, but this march, according to Fairey, was a 'fearful ordeal'.

That night thousands of Australian soldiers were on the move through the wood. They were part of a mighty British Empire force heading to attack the German front line, which stretched for twenty kilometres to the north just beyond Ploegsteert Wood. Aware for some time that a great attack was in preparation, German artillery opened fire on the wood and its surroundings with high explosives and gas. The gas shells fell with a sound, reminiscent to official historian Charles Bean, of 'heavy drops before a thunderstorm'. It was a dreaded combination: high explosive fragments brought death and severe wounds, while gas caused men to reach quickly for their only protection against this noxious vapour—their 'small box respirator'.

The soldiers were weighed down with full battle gear: rifles, ammunition, grenades, rations, tools, and much else. Respirators shielded them from the gas, but movement became slow, breathing laboured. For many, the small mica eyepieces fogged up and men, looking for direction, stumbled around in a darkness lit only by exploding shells. Hundreds collapsed. According to the historian of the 39th Battalion, the tracks through the wood were strewn with 'prostrate men coughing and gasping in agony'. Lacking masks, pack animals—horses and mules—struggled for air until they too fell across and beside the tracks.

This shelling could have had disastrous consequences for the impending attack, scheduled for 3.10 am on 7 June. To prevent this, leaders worked to keep things going. Bringing up the rear of the march, Captain Robert Grieve and Major Charles Story of the 37th Battalion, finding the way ahead blocked by motionless soldiers of other units, got these men on the move, allowing their own unit to get forward on time. By 2.20 am only seven men of the 39th Battalion, led by Captain Alexander Paterson, had staggered into clearer air beyond the wood, and they were eventually joined by 113 more stragglers. Paterson, despite being slightly gassed himself, sought out ammonia capsules for his men to breath to help neutralise the gas, then reorganised them and led them successfully into the attack to capture the battalion's objective. He personally silenced an enemy machine gun; captured two others with their crews; supervised the consolidation of their position; and then fell wounded. Paterson's efforts were recognised by the award of the Military Cross.

The attack at Messines was a huge success. For the Australians, subjected to the ordeal of the night-march through gas-drenched Ploegsteert Wood, it was perhaps a double victory. Although sometimes greatly reduced in numbers, all the battalions scheduled for the attack went forward at 'zero hour'. It was an achievement which Charles Bean put down to the 'determination of the men themselves to reach the jumping-off position in time'.

Stan Arneil

Stan Arneil was a sergeant in the 2/30th Battalion and a member of F Force when he became a prisoner of the Japanese at Singapore. In this audio interview he recollects an experience where an officer forced an unconscious, almost dead prisoner to be carried by other prisoners to attend a roll call by which time he was dead.

More about illness and death on the railway

Audio Transcript

Well, the [cholera] camp broke up. We were to come back, there were around twenty of us left, the cholera had subsided, and we were come back to the camp, and we had to be counted, as all Japanese or Korean guards, they want everybody counted. We went over there. I was in charge of this little camp. And we lined them up there, and of course we were one short. And the officer said to me ‘you’re one short’. I said ‘It’s Dusty Blackadder, sir, I don’t think he’ll last an hour’. He said ‘Well, the guard wants him here’. I said, ‘Well look, he’ll be dead in an hour, why do we want to bring him over, leave him in peace there, he’s on his own, there’s not even anybody with him’. He said, ‘Go and get him!’ So I went back with four men and one of those big bamboo stretchers, which we’d made ourselves, great big unwieldy things, and it was filthy and the mud was waist deep almost with bamboo thorns in the mud, and we had bare feet, of course. I went into see Dusty, and he was unconscious, and we had a look at him, and a little talk about him, and we said, well, he’d be dead, we’d give him half an hour. And I went back again, and this fellow said, ‘Why didn’t you bring him?’, and I said, ‘He’s only got half an hour left’, and then he started really ranting and raving (that might be the words) ... that the Korean guard was going to hit him, if he didn’t bring the body over. My feelings were, well, what’s wrong with a few hits? Physical pain is very easy to take; physical pain won’t break you, it’s mental pain that beats you. But no, I had to go back. So we went back again and he was still alive, and we put him on the stretcher, went back. Now, it wouldn’t have been more than 150 yards, but it would have taken us half an hour to get that far through this morass of mud and cut bamboo and so forth, and of course we slipped and Dusty fell off the stretcher into the mud and covered with mud and slime. We got him back into the stretcher, and got over there — he was dead — and laid him down, and the Korean guard counted everybody and everybody was correct, and the officer went off and everybody was quite happy so we then struggled and took Dusty back to the cremation pit and cremated him. [©Copyright ABC]

Doctor Rowley Richards

Dr Rowley Richards was a doctor with Australian prisoners in Burma (now Myanmar) who helped save the lives of many POWs. Having been initially imprisoned in Singapore, and then sent to work on the railway, he later became a slave labourer in Japan. In this audio interview Dr Richards discusses the hierarchical honour based culture of the Japanese that led to ritualised brutality with prisoners considered as dishonourable and the lowest of the low in a chain of command.

More about the treatment of prisoners

Audio Transcript

“ ... It became essential for us to try to understand why we were being treated the way we were. We learned fairly early of course that the Japanese despised anybody who became a prisoner; in their own culture, it was a matter of honour to arrange for somebody to decapitate you rather than submit to become prisoner or to commit hari kari. Therefore those of us who did not do this in the eyes of the Japanese were the lowest form of animal life. In addition to this, we learned very quickly the hierarchical structure of the Japanese, in that a colonel would have no hesitation in dealing out physical punishment to a major, and then he, in turn, to a captain and so it went on, so that you’d have a first class private would have no hesitation in beating up a second class private. And then right at the bottom of that hierarchy was the prisoner of war, and he copped it from everybody. But it was important to realise that in many cases, while we saw cases of bashing of prisoners of war, we also saw similar cases of Japanese versus Japanese, or perhaps more correctly, Japanese versus Koreans, and then the Koreans down the line. [©Copyright ABC]”

Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop

Lieutenant-Colonel E.E. ‘Weary’ Dunlop*, one of 44 Australian doctors on the Thai–Burma railway, was renowned for his untiring efforts to care for the sick. In this audio interview ‘Weary’ Dunlop recalls his ongoing battle with the Japanese works boss in the camp who would force prisoners to work on the railway although they were very seriously ill. He also describes how these prisoners were subject to abuse and how Dunlop and the prisoners would sometimes succeed in countering this brutality.

More about Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop

Audio Transcript

Well, this was a continuous treadmill in which I used to have to attend the number 1 works’ boss of the Japanese, and he would say, ‘Tomorrow so many hundred men’, and I would say, ‘Impossible! We can’t turn out this number’, and we would argue until 10 o’clock during which time I could usually beat him down a few men. Then I’d have to wait up and see the last of the workforce in — around 2 o’clock in the morning they would come in practically crawling. So then you’ve got to make your assessment of how many men would be regarded by the Japanese as ‘very fit men, very fit men’ and how many would say ‘little sick men, or little byoke men’ and this really wasn’t official, but I used to have a group of ‘little byoke men’, and these would be fellows standing shivering with fierce attacks of malaria, pouring dysentery, tropical ulcers, great raw ulcers on their legs or their feet like raw tomatoes, just looking like they had no skin on them, and there they would stand in a dejected group. But I had still another group: people who we carried out physically and laid on the parade ground, and so these men can’t stand up. Sticks would be waved over them and they would be kicked, and if they didn’t get to their feet, they might even be given a hammer to crack stones with, it was a relentless business. We had all sorts of tricks. I would instruct people to collapse on their way out of the camp, and we’d rush and carry them to the hospital. We could usually win a few tricks, but you know, that was a sick parade. [©Copyright ABC]

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