Why so much delay Australia?
On Wednesday the 19th of July 1916, Stretcher-bearer Allsop was with the 8th field ambulance, behind the front lines. His diary entry for the start of the battle recorded:
Working hard at dug-out and finished it in the afternoon. 12 aeroplanes up. On piquet at night. Just before 6pm a frightful bombardment opened up indicating that the attack is being made. The deafening roar and clatter of these guns was such that I shall never forget it.5
The preparatory bombardment lasted seven hours. Surely no-one could survive such a pounding? But when the guns lifted, the enemy issued out of their bunkers. According to Allsop:
Just before the attack commenced Fritz hoisted a notice over his parapet reading “Why so much delay Australia? You are a few days late.”
A terrible night
every stretcher bearer was ordered to dress and fall in prepared for the trenches to assist in clearing the wounded away.
We moved down the sides of roads under shelter of the hedges to the Rue du Bois, Fromelles, known to us as Rifle Farm. Star Shells were flashing out in the darkness and guns barked from all round us. When least expected, a terrific report from a heavy gun would almost throw us off the earth. We watched with a look of dread the artillerymen with their tunics off, charging the guns as fast as they possibly could. It was a fine sight.
Continuing down the road, he passed a parapet sheltering reserve troops:
Every step seemed to be a dangerous one. Surely the world has never before known such a terrible night as that which confronted us. The awful din and chaos in the trenches were proceeding from the spot we would have to enter in a few minutes.
A battered building, “Two Tree Farm” was reached. Here stretchers were piled up. His group were given orders: ‘two men to a stretcher and get across this piece of land to Rifle Villa.’ They started off, hitting the ground every 20 metres to avoid the fireworks.
Bullets were flying past in hundreds. My word they had me bewildered. My friend Stan Wilson and I on arriving at Rifle Villa saw the frightful result of war. Here wounded lying in dozens and dozens were arriving from the trenches in front. We picked up our patient from amongst these mangled human beings and carried him right back to the motor about 1½ miles along the road, but this time we took no notice of bullets or snipers.
Allsop notes that before going into action they were ordered to take off Red Cross badges – a potential target for snipers.
Carrying a stretcher, the pair passed German Prisoners being escorted out, one of whom exclaimed:
“Trip to London!”
Dead and wounded lay in heaps
Allsop continued on. Up the ‘trolley line’ along battered old walls ending in a “Sap” (a communications trench leading to the front lines). This, in turn, lead to the ‘R.A.P’ (Regimental Aid Post).
No sooner had I entered this sap “Piney Avenue” than a bullet struck my steel helmet and nearly knocked it off my head. The sound caused my mates in front of me to look round. Happily, the bullet came at an angle so that the roundness of the helmet caused it to glance off. Moving on up “Piney Avenue” to the R.A.P. we kept pretty low and at times nearly lost our breath dodging high explosives and bullets.
At the R.A.P., Allsop, his mate Stan Wilson and 2 others were ordered up into the front lines;
The long communication trench which took us into the firing line was torn about with high explosives. Shrapnel was bursting in the air above us and machine gun bullets hit the sides of the sap in hundreds. Dead lay about on all sides and wounded were coming through though very slowly on account of the trench being used by so many troops. It is also frightfully narrow.
Grim sights confronted Allsop and the other stretcher bearers;
Dead and wounded lay in heaps behind the parapet and worn-out Australians crouched close under cover. The looks in their faces and on the faces of those lying on the ground greatly impressed me. Chaos and weird noises like thousands of iron foundries, deafening and dreadful, coupled with the roar of high explosives or coal-boxes as they ripped the earth out of the parapet, prevailed as we crept along seeking first of all the serious cases of wounded.
Back and forth they traveled between the firing line and the aid post; ‘knuckles torn and bleeding due to the narrow passageways.’
“Cold sweat”, not perspiration, dripped from our faces and our breath came only in gasps. The communication trench was about 1½ miles long. By the time we had completed 2 trips (six miles) with the numerous zig-zag turns in the trench and the stoppages caused by the traffic up and down, we were weak and completely exhausted. Stretcher-bearing is no light work.
Allsop worked through the night and the next day. After the work was done he fell into unconscious sleep, utterly exhausted.
The Fromelles story continued…
1. Cobbers remembered: Fromelles 19/06/1916
2. Cobbers remembered: Allan Allsop’s ‘terrible night’
3. Cobbers remembered: Lost Diggers of the 53rd
4. Cobbers remembered: Mosman’s dead
Cobbers remembered: Fromelles recommended reading
More about Allan Allsop:
Mosman Library Flickr stream: Photos from the private collection of W.J.A. Allsop, kindly shared by his son, John.