Had finger amputated to pass the medical

Name: Isaac Henry Betteridge
Date: 1917-1918
Unit: 23rd Battalion AIF
Location: France

Private Isaac Henry (Harry) Betteridge was pretty determined to go to war but when he volunteered in 1916, he was turned down on medical grounds because of a deformed small finger.

He wasn't going to take no for an answer so had the deformed finger amputated and then applied again. This time he was accepted and embarked on HMAT Ballarat on 19 February 1917.

This proved to be an eventful voyage with Ballarat only able to travel at 10 knots due to the use of a poor coal supply. For much of the time it was forced to steam on its own at night because of the fire and sparks that blew out of its funnels - a dead give away to enemy shipping.

Harry wrote several letters during the long voyage to England, describing the sighting of whales, the rotten food, the need to wear life jackets and finally the torpedoing of the ship.

"We are supposed to get to port today and anyway we have put our blankets and hammocks in though there is a rumour we have to sit up with our clothes on as we are not out of danger."

(Pencilled entry) 25-4-17

"Torpoeded 10 minutes ago. 2 o'clock water coming in like the deuce. All cheerful. Hit us well aft on starboard side. Hooray, just got the submarine."

The following day he wrote again describing the attack.

"As you will notice things have been happening. I thought we would have to take to the rafts but it wasn't a very bad hit and destroyers were within 40 miles and in an hour we had six around us and 2 aeroplanes buzzing overhead."

"In the first 10 minutes about half of the men were off in boats when the order came to stand fast. We were the last company to leave and we got on HMTB Destroyer at 10 to 4. She had come up to us at 35 knots and we came 80 miles to here by 10 o'clock but we wasted a lot of time steaming round.

"The tugs took her (Ballarat) in tow but I hear on good oil that she sank this morning. We got off here a motly crowd dressed how we were but as I dreamt she was hot the night before it didn't surprise me so I quietly got everything handy so lost nothing.

"I was standing over the place she was struck and saw the torpedo coming. They only travel about 40 miles an hour. All I can tell you about it, it was a sickening sort of a bump and I felt a bit groggy in the legs for half an hour.

"This is a very big barracks, they have 10,000 men here permanent and then they train a lot of navy recruits. We have been having a great time talking to the Jacks. There's hundreds of them. 2 girls came up to the fence and shook hands with as many soldiers as they could. (You see we are sort of heroes, we got the title pretty cheap as we were never in any danger.)"

Harry kept a detailed diary of his war service. It stopped on 30 August 1918, the day before he was killed.

Excerpts provide a picture of what life was like in the trenches.

18 June 1918

Saw a thriller today. A hock plane came over and got one of our balloons. Set it on fire, the observers got out lively in parachutes. One opened up and sailed away splendid, the other poor devil's wouldn't open. He came straight down for possibly 1000 feet, the silk breaking his fall enough to stop him smothering by the fall. He kept kicking and squirming trying to open it but fate landed him in a tree top. Except for a bit of a strained back he was none the worse. The other one we thought so safe caught a bullet in the stomach and lodged in his belt behind.

6 July 1918

All day and every day since the stunt (attack) we have been shelling and shelled like the deuce. Very fierce at times but Jerry doesn't know where we are so don't get many. In fact he is all at sea as his planes keep dropping food amongst us as they think the ground held by their own troops.

10 July 1918

We were told at 2 o'clock we were to go over at 10 past 3. The barrage was to be scattered for 4 minutes then open up heavy for another 4 minutes. In the latter we were to cross no man's land, a distance of 150 yards. By just past 2 we were all lying on a tape behind our own line. Everything most weirdly quiet. At three the dropping barrage opened up. Fritz replied with his SOS, red flares and his artillery started pelting no man's land and the front line. Very soon the intense barrage started and we were up and off. The noise and din were indescribable.

Our own just in front had had a lot of smoke shells that burst in great sheets of fire 30 ft across and looked like golden rain. The place seemed transformed to a inferno the air full of shocks of bursting violence. The old fashioned couldn't be as bad and the line of men dropping and lying still, staggering back wounded or lurching drunkenly forward into shell holes. Falling over wire buffeted by the explosions till they looked like devils in their proper element. Suddenly the enemy trench stood out in front. A line of white cut into the green of the wheat field. I lost all interest in everything but the tenants.

The crowd were firing for moral effect. Some were swearing in a sort of strangled undertone as men do that talk to themselves. The reason was to open one's mouth was to get it full of acid fumes of the explosions, so I pitched a couple of my egg bombs (hand grenades). Don't think they went into the trench but the bang of them going off made me feel good so I run and rolled a couple more in underhand to make sure they got there. Peering in I spotted a Hun levelling his gun. I fired from the hip like a flash. Just as I did the sergeant's revolver cracked. Who got him I dunno, anyway he fell a little further on. Another threw a bomb over my head. I fired on him, he also went down, whether hit or not I dunno. Just then a party of ours came up the trench. They had entered it lower down. Our fellows on the top started blitzing away. I spotted a certain sort of rifle cap and got them to stop. Fortunately they had missed hitting anyone.

Then into the trench, followed it down, had to walk over 2 dead Huns. In a dugout was a poor scared creature what whined and cried like a kiddie that is afraid of the dark. Our officer called on him to come out. The whining continued to be cut short by a shot. Hope his conscience don't worry him later. By this time it was well light and we could see a tank in front like a rhinoserous in a fit. Cleaning out posts and the planes swooping down to 10 ft of the ground firing into masses of Huns in retreat. Just then one of the planes dropped our SOS. As he was counter attacking down came our shells for 20 mins and broke. Prisoners kept coming in from the front.

The trench we were in was another one the Hun had dug but it was a regular shambles. The sides in dozens of places spattered with wet blood. Dead men lying everywhere. With brief lulls all that day and night the guns on both sides kept going, also into the night. The following night or afternoon we crawled round in front and discovered a poor devil of a Hun wounded. He must have lain there 36 hours at least. He was in a awful state.

It was the old system of Tommy trenches the Hun had taken in his advance. There was our equipment, bombs and ammunitions galore. All sorts of signs. Saw here a heap of empty shell cases, here a block thrown hastily across the trench with a heap of bomb pins, mute but eloquent. That night passed with practically every man out in posts and he just did shell the place and we left, tricked him alright. Next night we waited till 2 o'clock to be relieved, then he steadily bombarded all the way out.

29 August 1918

Stayed all night alongside Herbécourt. The country we have been over here is mostly a shell torn waste. Fritz took it in his rush in 14 judging by the graves. It was then held by the French. In 16 we pushed him off it - evidence of graves again, British and Australian. They pushed the Tommies out again last March. More burials, and now we are crossing it again.. The ground is the same as any other but it looks poisoned. Instead of the nice crops of grass only a few thistles mixed through the weak looking weeds. Fritz has made no use of it and the villages are mostly a name. Perhaps a few rasberry canes and a couple of feet of brick wall mark a house. Often its only a few loose bricks. The owners wil have to fetch a surveyor with a theodolite to find where they live. We had good news, the Aussies were across the river in front of us and the French were in Alsace Lorraine.

30 August 1918

There is a big stunt on our left this morning. Successful as the guns have moved up and his have left off firing at us. One of our prisoners asked us didn't we think we had broke Germany's power enough without punishing her any more.

31 August 1918

There seems to be evidence that the soldier Hun is a bit fed up.

That was the last entry in the diary. Harry Betteridge was mortally wounded later that day and died the following day. He is buried at the Assevillers New British Cemetery near the Somme.

The material for this article was supplied by Phyllis A Barnes of Western Australia


Last updated: 31 May 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Had finger amputated to pass the medical, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 August 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/had-finger-amputated-pass-medical
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