Stretcher bearers strayed behind enemy lines

Name: Bill Manly
Date: 1916-1918
Unit: 13th Australian Field Ambulance
Location: Pozières Woods, France

Private Bill Manly was used to collecting wounded Australian soldiers from the battlefield. It was his job while working for the 13th Australian Field Ambulance at the dressing station in Pozières Woods on the Somme.

When the call came to pick up four wounded soldiers he set off into no man's land with 15 comrades, including his brother James, carrying stretchers and white flags. No shots were fired at them but shells began to land in ever increasing numbers.

It was growing dark and finding their way became harder by the minute. Eventually their guide thought he had found the right spot but they were amazed to hear German voices and discovered they had blundered past the German first line.

"Ah come Englander" was the order and being unarmed they had no alternative but to obey, entering the German trenches at gun point. It was the start of their captivity which was to last for the next 15 months.

The group was escorted through the enemy communication trenches to the semi-demolished village of Coureclette which was even then under Allied shell fire. Two of the men were taken before a high ranking German officer while the rest were lined up against a wall where they feared the worst.

But instead of shooting them, the German's moved them there for their own safety to protect them against flying shell fragments. The two who had been questioned said they'd been accused of carrying ammunition which they had vigorously denied.

"At this stage I was under the impression that we would be returned to our own lines," Bill Manly recalled. "But we were to learn bitterly our mistake later."

They were then given a cup of coffee and set off on a march which lasted for several hours, with shells falling around them all the time.

After a short rest they set off marching again, arriving at the village of Neauville about 11am the next day. There they joined several hundred other Australian and British prisoners.

The Germans relieved the men of their badges for souvenirs and also tried to take their Jack knives which the Australians resisted. They were told the Germans thought the knives were used to cut the throats of German prisoners and to gouge out their eyes.

Next day they marched another five miles to a railway line where they were loaded into open trucks. The train reached Cambria at about 6.00 that night. They marched from the station towards the Citadel and were amazed to see the French out in force offering them bread, sweets, cigarettes, fruit and eggs as they passed.

"Whilst the French inhabitants were showering things over us our German guards prevented them as much as possible and frequently used the butt ends of their rifles on defenceless women, some with children in their arms," Bill Manly recalled.

When the soldiers saw this, they tried to stop it but received an extra clout from the guards for their trouble.

That night they slept on straw mattresses in the Citadel but were soon woken by the thousands of body vermin which swarmed all over them. Next morning they tried to get rid of the infestation but it lasted for the next 13 days they were at Cambria.

Several of the men were marched in front of intelligence officers for questioning but played dumb, even going so far as to tell the German officers that the most frequent disease suffered by the Allied troops was "German Measles".

The men were moved to another POW camp where they spent the next 15 months in captivity, suffering appalling conditions and regular beatings. Private Manly and his brother James were eventually repatriated and sent to England for treatment at the 2nd Australian General Hospital.

Bill Manly had been 13 stone when he was captured. On his release he weighed just 6 stone 7 ounces. He suffered eye problems which continued for the rest of his life but which didn't stop him signing up for World War II. However, he was discharged in 1941 and eventually was officially declared blind.

The material for this article was supplied by Mr E. Manly of Queensland.


Last updated: 3 June 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Stretcher bearers strayed behind enemy lines, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 21 January 2021, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/stretcher-bearers-strayed-behind-enemy-lines
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