Tyne Cot, Zonnebeke
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 the Tyne Cot blockhouse at Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium. The blockhouse is covered by the Great Cross, but a small section of the original concrete of this German defensive position is visible behind the ornamental wreath at the front. From here, there is a view out over the countryside back to the spires of Ieper, some ten kilometres away, and well beyond. Tyne Cot is the largest British Commonwealth War Cemetery in the world, with more than 11 900 British Empire soldiers buried here, 1369 of whom are Australians. Towards dawn on the morning of 4 October 1917 this cemetery was an Australian battlefield—the battlefield of Broodseinde Ridge.
The concrete blockhouse, often called a 'pill-box' by the British, was the characteristic feature of the German defences in this part of Belgium. Behind its reinforced concrete walls, enemy soldiers could sit out the massive artillery bombardments which preceded British attacks. Barbed wire, strung between the blockhouses, was positioned to funnel attacking troops into the fixed fields of fire of heavy machine guns, and German light machine gunners, riflemen and bomb throwers manned surrounding trench positions.
Captain Frank Green, who later wrote a history of the 40th Australian Infantry Battalion, fought with this all-Tasmanian unit on the morning of 4 October 1917 at Tyne Cot. According to Green's account, 'On the top of the ridge the trench system and line of pill-boxes seemed alive with men and machine guns … the only possible way to advance was from shell hole to shell hole by short rushes'. Much of the wire in front of the 40th had survived the artillery bombardment, and gaps in the wire were covered by German machine guns. Here many Tasmanians were killed or wounded and the advance slowed. As often in such situations, individual actions saved the day.
Captain Cecil McVilly stood up, leading his men forward until he was severely wounded; Captain Henry Dumaresq led a charge into heavy machine-gun fire; and Captain William Ruddock, through what Frank Green described as a 'perfect tornado of machine-gun fire', worked his men into a position to fire across a particularly strong German blockhouse position at Hamburg Farm. Looking from the Great Cross at Tyne Cot, Hamburg lies beyond the bottom right-hand corner of the cemetery wall, on the other side of a large field. Ruddock's covering fire enabled Sergeant Lewis McGee to make a direct personal assault on the Germans. Green tells the story: 'Sergeant McGee rushed straight at the pill-box in the face of what seemed like certain death, but he got across that 50 yards of open ground and shot the crew with his revolver'. For his bravery McGee was awarded the Victoria Cross. Shortly after 9 am the 40th Battalion were digging in on all their objectives, successfully captured around what is now the Tyne Cot Cemetery.
For the Australians, the Battle of Broodseinde was a stunning success. In his official history Charles Bean called it 'an overwhelming blow' driving the Germans from 'one of the most important positions on the Western Front'. The Australian units suffered more than 4600 casualties, killed and wounded. An inscription beneath the ornamental wreath at the Tyne Cot Great Cross reads: 'This was the Tyne Cot blockhouse captured by the 3rd Australian Division 4th October 1917'. It could, perhaps more accurately, read 'captured by the Tasmanians of the 40th Battalion'.