The battle for Mouquet Farm
Name: Percy Nuttall
Location: Gallipoli, France, Belgium
The battle for Mouquet Farm, just north of PoziÃ¨res in France, was shrouded in controversy. Thousands of Australian troops died over a period of several weeks while the farm was taken and abandoned a number of times.
Percy Nuttall, who had survived Gallipoli, despite being wounded three times, was by this time a sergeant. He recorded the events in his diary, noting many of the unbelievable orders the troops had to carry out.
[No changes have been made to the spelling or grammar of the original diary entries.]
12 August 1916:
Reveille at 4.15am to pack up ready to move. We marched off at 6am for PoziÃ¨res to await final instructions. Poor old PoziÃ¨res completed razed. Dead bodies smelling awful. Went into firing line, after a march of 4 miles through trenches razed to the ground. Fritz spotted us, turned his artillery on us and cut our battalion up, we lost a big crowd, reaching our line. Dead bodies all the way upâ€¦
On reaching the line we were told to advance over one of Fritz's trenches and make another trench 250 yards ahead. At 10.30pm we hopped the trenches under our barrage of fire. The lads went in line, Fritz turned his artillery on, but we were getting well dig in before he got the exact spot. We lost a few including Sgt Slavin, I lost Wray killed and Opie wounded, also Corp Woods. At 12 o'clock I buried Wray under the parapet. Await Fritz's counter attacks but he was very faint hearted and kept him off and held our trenches. We got a few prisoners, one was handed over to me. I sent him back to work on digging a traverse. He was very eager to work and timid.
At day break we got simply hell when Fritz found out where we were with his artillery, he was good to us. We did not eat or water, as we had no trench connecting to the rear, and all our messengers and duty fatigue men were dead or wounded. The lads were in good heart and viscious at losing so many of our crowd. The day passed quickly, their artillery never ceased. Dead, dying and wrecked were lying all over the place. Fritz never counter attacked on our front. But he got in a bit to the right but did not stay long before he was dug out.
13 August 1916:
We lost a good many during the day and when night came I sent my platoon's wounded to the rear and the prisoners. When all was fixed we got orders to move to the left about 1100 yards. We caught Fritz's patrol red handed and tracker Leonard, Jim Jensen and I shot the patrol's 2 scouts. We let them get quite close to the parapet and fired. They were dead in the morning, the rest sneaked away.
14 August 1916:
Rain and mud galore. No sleep, little drink and nothing to eat. Wounded craving for a drink, but not many casualties until 3pm when Fritz turned his artillery on and he did stir us up and wrecked our trenches. My platoon, who I was in charge of, lost heavily and about 5 o'clock 12 Platoon was handed over to me 16 strong. They having only 1 NCO, 1 L/Cpl left. W Riches and Musgrave were sent to hold a shell hole and are dead. [Someone] told me a shell burst either on or over them. After some persuasion the Major let me go over to see what happened and there I found Riches dead & Musgrave a pitiful sight under Riches, shell shocked and smothered with his mates blood.
About 7pm, orders came that we had to make another advance at 9.30 and dig in between a quarry and Mouquet Farm. Major Herbert wrote back to headquarters that we were not strong enough to undertake the job. They replied it had to be done at all costs. So at the given time we moved out with our 300 men. Headquarters got to know Fritz was going to attack us, and soon as we moved we got full force of their barrage which killed or wounded half our strength. I got one in the ribs, and one half of my body went numb, but I heard the Captain say 'follow on C Company, so I went and took up our position after trying to rally the lads together. When we had dug in about 3 feet, word came that we had to retire as the battalions on our left and right did not join up, which was heart breaking.
I was told to go over to the right flank to take charge. There I went only to find confusion as the lads did not know how far to go, so I called for the bombers and only one responded. So the two of us went down the trench, me with the bayonet and Tom Ryan with the bombs but only ran across a platoon of A Company who were challenged and luckily let in as they came in from 'no man's land'. It proved afterwards they had got lost. We stood to the rest of the night and only Fritz's patrols were seen, but we kept them off at daylight. I was told off to count the battalion, which comprised 156 men and 3 officers unwounded. I was then put on rationing them and the sights I saw is indiscribable. We tried all day to get the wounded back but Fritz's fire delayed operations.
Burying the dead was impossible as they still kept up a terrible fire from high explosives - howitzers and whizz bangs. During the afternoon word came of our relief as were too weak to hold out any longer. After all arrangements the 4th Battalion came along and we started to work our way out. All went well until 9.30pm when going through the 51 Battalion trench the rotters sighted us and sent up three green lights which I knew the meaning immediately. I found myself buried under 5 feet of earth, with my neck bent on my chest, near my knees in a sitting position, my hand clasping my rifle. Another chap Stevens in the 51st Battalion had my leg bent over him. His head was near my feet. I sang out a few times and then settled to my fate, which was a glimpse of the past. I also swore vengeance on the Huns, saying they had three solid days to get me fair and square and couldn't - they had to pick this rotten way. On top the relief party was doing its best, the Huns' machine guns playing on them all the time. After an hour I felt my equipment gripped, when I was on my last breath due to my awkward position, up came my head and what a relief. I immediately freed my arms and set to work burrowing for the chap near my feet, knowing where his head was. Up he came 10 minutes later. We shook hands, of course, pleased we were.
During the next few days, Sgt Nuttall and his men had their first hot meal and drink for some time, resting in billets. Sgt Nuttall attended a board of inquiry into the loss of his field glasses which were buried in the explosion which he barely survived, was detailed as Orderly Sergeant for four courts martial, carried out a route march around the villages and was presented with his Distinguished Conduct Medal. He also became acting Company Sergeant Major.
2 September 1916:
Several fatigues to supply the firing line, up just about all night with them. Plans shown and if all goes well Mouquet Farm will be ours tomorrow.
3 September 1916:
Reached firing line at 11am, slow getting through comm trenches, eventually arriving at 1st Ave, which was in terrible condition, blown to pieces. We then set to work fixing it up. Dead bodies came to light galore. Germans and Australians. At 5am operations ceased as our barrage started. The rest of the Brigade attacked the farm which was a difficult job. A platoon of the 52nd retired into our reserve trench, which told the Huns where we were, so on they turned their artillery and simply blew our trenches to pieces.
One Jack Johnson landed on a section near me, where Australians and Germans were buried, up they came, also killing five 52nd Battalion near me, and two of my company, East & Green were killed and buried. I came to my senses covered in flesh and blood and Sgt Edwards told me I said they had got me. A large piece of dirt hit me in the chest and I was numb down one side. Anyhow, up I got, pulled myself from under a chap of the 52nd who was still alive but had his brains protruding. I set to work digging him out and he died 10 minutes afterwards. Soon afterwards we received word to vacate that portion of Park Avenue trench and get round to Kays trench. The Huns spotted us vacating and their artillery followed us, killing many of all battalions. We passed a company of Canadians who were relieving us. I saw six of them go up in one shell.
My Captain took me to the doctor who said my right ear drum was ruptured and said if we were not relieved he would send me away in the morning. I was quite helpless as I could not receive or give orders, but I did all I could, but my nerves were completely gone. Poor Greeney had both his arms and legs blown off, also his head and a large hole in his chest. East I never saw as he was under 10ft of earth. Also were four 52nd chaps, old dead bodies were mangled all over us and them. My company outlived the barrage on us only by luck.
Percy Nuttall was examined by more doctors who sent him to England for treatment. Although his diaries end on 16 October 1916, at which time his ear was still giving him problems with no cure in sight, Percy Nuttall eventually recovered sufficiently to be sent back to the war. He was promoted to Lieutenant, and earned the Military Cross in the second battle of Villers-Brettonneux, during which he was once again badly wounded, this time by a bullet in his leg.
Back in England for treatment, it was feared he would lose the leg until a young American doctor sought permission to try a radical technique never before carried out.
Dr Charles H. Arnold grafted the ribs of a newly killed sheep onto what was left of Percy Nuttall's leg bone. The operation proved to be a success and the leg was saved. Dr Arnold went on to become commander of the American Medical Corps of the US Army in World War II.
On his return to Australia Percy Nuttall became heavily involved in the RSL and became president of the Kyneton sub-branch in the early 30s, a position he held for 15 years. Percy Nuttall died in 1966.
The material for this article was supplied by Brian Nuttall of Victoria