Where a moment ago a column moved there is now nothing but smoke

Name: Stewart Boyden
Date: 1915-1918
Unit: 19th Battalion AIF
Location: Gallipoli, France and Belgium

Captain Stewart Boyden was not a typical soldier, even though he had been a member of the Reserve before the war. He was a firm believer in God and when World War I ended, he joined the Ministry.

But while war lasted he gave it his very best shot. In letters home he recounted some of the horrors he had witnessed in the most graphic terms, the loss of life, the horrific wounds, the cries of pain.

He took part in the fighting at Broodsiende in Belgium and gave a horrifying and emotional description of the fighting in a letter to his mother.

18 November 1917

"I tell you mother dear at times I feel very, very proud to think that I'm a Captain (he was later promoted to Major) & privileged to lead some of the finest troops the world has ever seen - do you not think that I am justified in being proud. It is an honour given to few to have such lads as I have."

"Never shall I forget our last stunt, the battle of Broodsiende, part of the 3 battles of Ypres; one of the greatest battles ever fought.

"On the cold dawn of an October morning I stood on one of the ridges as the battle commenced; right in front of me & to the left & right as far as you could see were thousands of troops, mostly Australians moving in artillery formation (that is, small parties of 15 to 20 men in single file) picking their way between shell holes; behind me to either side & in front were thousands of guns, one to every 10 yards, varying in calibre from the small loud barking 18 pounders to the great heavy grunting 15 inch.

"The noise in the air alone from these thousands of shells passing over was like a raging tempest through a forest, noise so terrific that to make the man next to you hear, you had to shout your loudest, & the earth under ones feet shook as the platform of a station shakes, as the express goes through.

"In the far distance practically invisible for the smoke was the ridge that had to be taken that morning.

"What did it look like as those thousands of shells fell on it? I don't think there is anything could describe it or picture paint it ... imagine a stone thrown into a sand heap, have you noticed how the sand spurts, imagine that a thousand times intensified & 5 thousand of these spurts going up altogether, only black earth & mud instead of sand; and above those spurts, thousands of little white & black clouds of smoke, is the bursting shrapnell. That is our barrage, with a depth of 1500 yards & about 5 miles in length.

"To all appearance there is not a square inch of ground on that ridge, but what has not a shell bursting on it.

"That barrage moves forward at the rate of 100 yards every 5 minutes.

"Behind it moves the first attacking troops, like little dots extended behind a rolling cloud of earth.

"On the ridge this side of that to be attacked faces the Huns barrage very similar to our own in general appearance, but much thinner & more scattered.

"In the valley in front where these little columns of men are winding their way across; here & there huge German shells burst, sending the earth up in great columns; a 100 feet or so above is the black shrapnell (H.E. we call it - high explosives) which is far more deadly to advancing troops; a big puff of coal black smoke, 50 yards in front & 100 ft high & where 15 men were, there are now only 3, the remainder are lying in all sorts of attitudes, while a few are crawling to some place of shelter.

"What of that column 100 yards behind! do they stop & turn tail? No, on they go right through that broken column, never a halt or a waver; then to the right one of those terrific 5.9 shells burst; the Germans' deadliest shell, & where a moment ago a column moved there is now nothing but smoke, one little section blown to atoms. Half a minute after right through that stinking smoke passes another column, & so on they go, some get through, others don't; each one takes an equal chance & into the smoke they disappear.

"Presently coming out of the smoke are dozens of grey clad figures, these are the 1st of the prisoners. Poor brutes one cannot help pitying them, many of them bleeding from head to foot. How they ever lived to come through God only knows, perhaps the prayers of some poor mother, had protected even them.

"Some are carrying a torn & bleeding comrade, many are bearing stretchers of our own wounded lads. Presently out of the smoke proceed stream after stream of all descriptions, Germans any amount, Australian, Scotties, Tommies, some just crawling with a torn & bleeding limb, others on stretchers, but most, walking with bleeding heads or torn arms & blood stained clothes, not one a sight for women's eyes. Most of them just a mixture of mud & blood.

"And this is one of the most pathetic sights of all, a big hulking German, with blood running down his face but with an arm around a poor wounded Australian, helping him along Oh, so gently, & there is an Australian helping along a German, both sides knocked & cut about, the Australian in the head, the German in the leg. One sees many such sights, friend helping foe, now no longer enemies, each one torn & bleeding somewhere but forgetting the pain of their own wounds, to help back the man who is worse than themselves be he friend or foe.

"Could I paint what a picture it would make, but it would need a name, could any of you suggest one?

"Oh if one wants to realize what war is, they want to stand, where I stood that morning & watch the streams of torn & bleeding men, crawling back out of that awful inferno; for 2 hours I stood & watched it & then comes the runner with a message to move forward to the next ridge. Now comes our turn to face this hell. Up to the present we have been fairly safe for we were outside the barrage, but the next ridge has been getting it pretty hot - over you comes the well known 'dentist chair' feeling, your mouth seems to go dry, and you feel you would very much rather stop where you are, but orders are orders.

"To try & appear calm, you light a cigarette, just as you do when you are waiting on the wharf for the boat, only you get very indignant to find your hand shaking & then with a prayer in your heart, a little tightness of the lips, you glance round to see that all is ready & without any blaring of bugles or blowing of whistles, neither of which could be heard, you give the signal to advance & at the head of one of those little columns you start to pick your way across that shell torn valley, wondering whether you will get as far as that next ridge or whether you will be fortunate enough to get a nice little wound in the leg or arm, that will entitle you to a ticket to blighty & home."

Stewart Boyden had already been wounded at Pozières. He also fought at Passchendaele, Messines Ridge, Morlancourt and Villers-Brettonneux but was later wounded at Harbonet and was invalided home in the latter months of the war.

The material for this article was supplied by Ron Boyden of the Australian Capital Territory and Mrs Elinor Walker of New South Wales


Last updated: 31 May 2019

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Where a moment ago a column moved there is now nothing but smoke, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 August 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/where-moment-ago-column-moved-there-now-nothing-smoke
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