Nursery trenches at Armentières 1916
Before engaging in major operations on the Western Front, troops of the four Australian Imperial Force (AIF) divisions completed extra training near the Belgian border. Between March and June 1916, the men were sent to a quieter section of trenches at Armentières, dubbed 'the Nursery sector'. Here they learned about battle conditions on the Western Front. They also experienced new weapons of modern warfare, such as gas.
Quieter times in the early days
On Anzac Day 1916, Lance Corporal James Belford of 1st Battalion (New South Wales) wrote to his family about the 'Nursery':
It is a lovely day today, and the place where we are now is about 500–600 yards from the firing line … There is an orchard, so I guess our boys will make short work of the fruit when it gets a bit ripe. If you were here just now you wouldn't know there was a war on, everything is so quiet.
[Belford, quoted in Charles Bean, The AIF in France, 1916, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Vol 3, Sydney, 1929, p.137]
Sadly, Belford learnt only too quickly that there was a war on. In the early morning of 19 June 1916 Belford was hit in the stomach by shrapnel from a German mortar shell and evacuated to Estaires. Major Ronald Campbell, 1st Australian Casualty Clearing Station, wrote to the Australian Red Cross:
… he was admitted to this station from the 2nd Australian Field Ambulance, at 6 am on 19 June, suffering with severe bomb wounds abdomen. He was operated on immediately after admission but very little hope of recovery was given and he died at 10.45 pm the same day. I enclose a note from Chaplain Alexander who saw him during the day and conducted the funeral service.
[Australian Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau file, Lance Corporal James Belford, Australian War Memorial]
Belford was buried in Estaires Communal Cemetery and Extension well behind the lines. One of the witnesses to his death informed the Australian Red Cross that Belford received his wound shortly after he had passed along a communication trench called 'Convent Avenue' to the front line, near the ruins the Abbaye de La Boutillerie.
Private Jackson's Victoria Cross
Some periods of heavy fighting occurred at the Nursery, involving barrages and trench raids. By the end of June 1916, over 600 AIF men had been killed there.
Private John Jackson of 17th Battalion (New South Wales) was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) for rescuing others under heavy fire at Armentières. It was the first VC won by the AIF on the Western Front. At age 18, Jackson was the youngest-ever Australian recipient.
On the night of 25 June 1916, volunteers from four Australian battalions raided a German trench. As they withdrew, several of the men were seriously injured by enemy fire in no-man's-land.
After safely reaching his own lines and handing over a prisoner, Private Jackson went back into heavy fire and brought back one injured man. He went out again, under heavier fire. He was coming back with another wounded man when shell fragments virtually severed Jackson's right arm above the elbow. He struggled back with the injured man he was helping. Then, with his wound in a tourniquet, Jackson went out to search for others still lying in front of the trenches. Jackson’s commanding officer wrote:
Private Jackson's was condition serious; but throughout he showed wonderful fortitude.
Dangerous German snipers
Charles Bean wrote about the deaths of two other Australians in the Nursery. Privates Albert Smith and Arthur Matthews of the 4th Battalion both died near La Boutillerie.
In the official history, Bean described their deaths as an example of how dangerous the area was because of German snipers:
if a man exposed his head above the parapet for more than a few seconds, or showed himself several times at the same point, he was likely to be hit through the brain
Entries in the 4th Battalion's war diary reveal that Smith was 'shot through head while looking over the parapet' and Matthews was 'shot through head while observing over parapet'. Both men were buried not far away in Rue-Pétillon Military Cemetery.
Devastating shelling near the Nursery
Also buried at Rue-Pétillon Military Cemetery is a row of 36 men of the 11th Battalion (Western Australia). They were all killed near la Cordonnerie Farm. On the night of 29 to 30 May, the Germans laid down a fierce barrage on the 11th Battalion area:
The great bombs dug huge craters in the soft agricultural soil and the flimsy breastworks [of the trenches] and shelters were flung up into the air in shredded and splintered fragments.
[Charles Bean, The AIF in France, 1916, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Vol 3, Sydney, 1929, p.211]
According to the 11th Battalion's historian, Captain Walter Belford, one of the old Gallipoli hands was heard to remark of this experience:
'By cripes! We never had shelling like that on Anzac'.