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
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'.