The Third of August
In the early hours of the morning, the Australians waiting in the assembly area knew what was about to happen but the noise still came as a shock. Seventy Australian guns of all calibres crashed and spat in a bombardment that made Private Bill Kelly – Ned to his friends - wonder how the enemy could survive. He was among the waiting diggers.
After the second salvo, the enemy replied with an even bigger barrage creating havoc among the advancing Australians. Bill crouched behind the mound as German artillery shells shrieked in at the advancing diggers causing screams of agony as fragments hit the Australians. The infantrymen around Bill stalled and cowered, eyes wide with fear, some unable to move. A soldier making for the mound disappeared when a shell landed near him. Bill lifted his head to see where the soldier went but couldn't see him. Seconds later, the chest of another running digger exploded spreading blood over Bill. Bill's palms began to sweat, and his heart raced, as he smelled burnt flesh and spilled blood. The percussion and the noise battered him. When he touched the old wound in his shoulder, the memory of the pain flooded back and he couldn't see how he could live through the night. He pressed his body as hard as he could against the ground and hoped he could stay there and never move. The earth was his friend, his only friend, and he wanted to burrow deeper into it so he would feel safe.
Artillery shells and machine guns set up a constant barrage and he could hear the screams of his mates during lulls in the firing. Officers and NCOs shrieked, "Move out, advance, advance." Bill thought it was madness; there were not enough of them left. Diggers filed past in the early morning darkness and Bill slowly lifted his head and joined them, sure, he would never see daylight again.
He crawled away trying to stay lower than the raking machine gun fire and found it was safe to stand after crawling for fifty yards. Corporal John Cross – Angry to his friends - motioned towards the first enemy machine gun nest. "We have to take it out. Ned, reckon you can get close enough to lob a grenade in?" Bill rolled over and clipped his bayonet onto his Lee Enfield; the task was difficult because his hand was shaking.
He looked towards the enemy. "I'll get behind them."
"As long as it fucking takes. Blast shit out of them."
Bill crawled away on his elbows and knees with his rifle across his arms; he was in no hurry. Tommy guns, Bren guns and rifles started and the Germans returned fire while Bill checked for mines as he crawled. He had to keep his fear in check and concentrate. Get the hate out, hate these bastards hate, hate, hate. He kept telling himself the enemy were just as scared as he was. Slowly he, made it to the blind side.
Bill heard a shout in German during a lull in firing. This was followed by a shout in English. "Come on you English bastards. Fight, instead of hiding like sniveling cowards."
"We're coming," whispered Bill. "And we're Australian not fucking English."
The Germans were firing at his section as he slowly came to within ten metres of the nest. He slipped a grenade off his belt and pulled the pin. Holding the lever with his hand, he looked for a target. The Germans had stacked sand bags around them to form a safe area to fire from. The grenade had a six second fuse; he let go of the lever, counted to three and lobbed it over the sand bags then lay as flat as he could.
The explosion was not as loud as he expected with the sandbags muffling the noise. Scrambling up onto what was left of them, he peered into the nest as the dust cleared and saw four German soldiers lying on the ground, one with his head missing. Feeling sickened, Bill jumped into the nest. He realised he had killed and he felt bile rise in his throat. I hate these bastards. I hate these bastards, he thought. He yelled, "Aaaaaahhhh," at the top of his voice, and then rushed at the soldiers ready to use his bayonet if any of them were still alive.
The rest of the section arrived.
The grenade had exploded near the machine gun; one of the soldiers had much of his stomach oozing onto the ground. Another had been thrown hard against the sandbags and from the angle of his head his neck was broken. That left only the soldier with his head missing and one lying three metres away from the others against the sandbags on the other side of the nest. As Bill approached the German moved.
"This bloke's not dead," said Bill.
"No prisoners. Haven't got time," said John.
Bill nodded, sickened by what he had to do, but strangely exhilarated, needing the hate. Bill screamed again, the German put his arms up and shrieked in English, "No! no."
The cry made Bill pause. The use of familiar words made the German appear not as alien somehow. He was human and not just the enemy. This must be the one who yelled, he thought. The German's eyes were locked onto Bill's, pleading with him. Bill yelled to cover his hesitation; the soldier screamed, "I surrender. Please don't kill me."
Bill yelled, "Fuck you."
He slammed the bayonet into the man's stomach and was surprised how easily it entered the flesh, but still threw his weight onto the weapon until he felt it stop when it hit the ground. The German screamed louder as blood pumped from the wound and he clasped the bayonet with his hands. Their eyes met again as Bill placed his foot on the man's stomach. The bayonet was stuck so he twisted the blade causing the soldier to scream again as he ripped the weapon free.
"Die you Hun bastard!" Bill screamed, "Die like the Hitler shit you are."
The German was whimpering. Bill felt disgusted. He had to shut him up. He smashed the butt of his rifle into the man's head; he stopped screaming. Bill stopped and stared at the misshapen jaw, and then watched blood oozing onto the ground from the stomach wound. He knelt down and touched the unconscious body and felt bile rise in his throat but forced it down again afraid of what the others would say if he was sick.
"He was a noisy bastard," said Private Daisy Day as Bill helped the diggers destroy the German machine gun. "Why didn't you just shoot the bastard? The sticker's a bit messy."
An officer rushed up to John and yelled at him to retreat. The main attack had failed.
* * * * *
To the left and right of Bill's best mate Private Steve Nason, men were dropping from shell fragments and machine gun fire. He wondered what in God's name had hit them ‑‑ he saw artillery shells pounding the diggers waiting to advance, and bodies being thrown in the air. Three engineers, with Bangalore torpedoes, moved forward to blow a gap in the wire to make way for three bridges to be used to cross the tank traps. The torpedoes exploded before the engineers could clear the area and blew them into the air. Half of one landed near Steve. The rest of the digger was left tangled in the wire. The other two were intact but not moving, from the blood loss it looked like they were dead too. Steve's section couldn't stop to look. They went through the gap in the wire blown by the torpedoes. Another soldier and Steve carried the bridge.
Steve carried his end of the bridge to the edge of the tank trap. A mortar landed and his companion copped some shrapnel in his back but carried on. His end of the bridge slipped and crashed into the wire surrounding the tank trap. Steve yanked at it but it wouldn't budge. Two other diggers pushed him aside and were going to jump into the heavily mined ditch when a German machine gun started blasting them from twenty yards ahead. The Corporal told them to stop and ordered the section to withdraw.
Now he didn't have to carry the bridge, Steve felt free and lay down and returned fire at the machine gun. The machine gun followed the eight men left in the section and they were forced to climb to the top of the gap. A mortar howled obscenely and scythed down the section. Steve felt the blast pick him up and slam him to the ground. He couldn't hear, but he could see through blurred eyes. Slowly, he moved his hand and saw traces of black soot. He touched his face and felt over his body; everything seemed intact as his vision cleared and he sat up. The smell of cordite and burnt flesh was all around him with blackened bodies spread about, some with limbs missing. Steve slowly checked the bodies, most of them unrecognisable. His stomach heaved and he was sick. He lay on the ground with the smell of his vomit in his nostrils. The loss of his mates revolted him. Then a movement – one of them was still alive, the soldier cautiously sat up.
They were lost and they argued about which way to go, but finally Steve was persuaded to follow. They came upon a badly wounded lieutenant holding a blackened stump where his leg should have been. They laid him on his back and tried to stop the blood with field dressings. Steve promised to send the stretcher-bearers because they couldn't carry him the way he was. The lieutenant pointed to the way back.
After reaching the post where the medicos were attending the wounded, Steve headed towards the ridge and their lines. Three soldiers were carrying a badly wounded digger on crossed rifles; he needed two men to carry him and one man to hold his horribly mutilated leg. Steve noticed the pearly white jagged edges of his bones breaking through the flesh.
They found a wounded Lieutenant. "What happened, Sir?" he asked.
The lieutenant told Steve, "I copped it in the leg and the shoulder. The medics found me."
Steve looked at the stretcher-bearers in admiration as they came in, dropped their loads and went back again. Wounded men were struggling and helping more seriously injured mates.
It seemed impossible to Steve that anything would be left alive following so violent an eruption. His ears were ringing from the monstrous artillery, deadly machine guns, mines and booby traps with sometimes the crump of grenades.
He had survived; he had no idea why he was still alive when most of his section was dead. He grabbed his shaking hand trying to make it stop. Some of his mates took him to the regimental aid post where he was sedated. The high-pitched ringing in his ears, like a whistle that never stopped, was driving him mad. A nurse appeared with some orderlies; he felt the prick of a hypodermic needle and drifted into oblivion.
* * * * *
Bill looked out from his slit trench when the sun rose. The Germans were still in their positions and the 2/43rd's horrific losses were still being assessed. He watched an Australian ambulance slowly drive towards the enemy lines with a sergeant of the stretcher-bearers holding a large Red Cross flag. A padre was with him standing on the bonnet. They advanced on the enemies' lines shouting at them not to shoot. Bill held his breath as he watched the drama unfold. It seemed as if time was frozen for the Germans to make up their minds to grant a truce or fire on the Australian ambulance. Bill let his breath escape as a German showed himself and walked towards the ambulance. Others followed and brought drinks, then helped to bring the dead and wounded from the minefield.
A German ambulance drove down on the enemy side and as they worked side by side, more soldiers joined the rescuers offering cigarettes to their enemy. After the furious battles in the night, Bill found this moment of peace pushing away the clouds of his despair and left to join the scene. He thought of two knights, in full armour, lifting their visors to glimpse the human faces behind the steel. This act of humanising the beast of war made him think about the German who spoke English. Did the bayonet kill him?
The sergeant and the padre recovered five wounded men and twenty‑eight bodies.
A few hours later, the truce was over and the war started again. The Germans bombarded the Australians with artillery, mortars and machine gun fire. Life for the diggers was back to normal. Bill couldn't help thinking the German behind the guns might be smoking an Australian cigarette.
The enemy bombardment forced him into his trench for some much needed rest. Although he thought the battle was futile, he was proud to be there. He was tested and he'd passed the test. He was tired and tried to sleep despite the noise. But, he couldn't stop thinking about the German who yelled at him in English. The enemy up to now had been furtive grey figures slipping into his vision, not human. But, the pleading soldier was a person and he had died.
Did he have a wife and children? He thought of a solemn faced official knocking on the door and breaking the news that her husband was dead. He saw the woman collapsing and gathering her children in her arms and the official trying to console them. He had no idea how the Germans supported their war widows. Perhaps she would suffer now. Maybe he had not only caused the death of the soldier but his family as well.