This is an interesting story – Remarkable Rescue: Four Days in a Shell Hole – and I’m not sure why it wasn’t printed in the Australian newspapers, particularly as the story is noted as originating from Sydney. Perhaps Selwyn’s mother, Mrs Annie Robin, sent details of a letter to the papers. As I have been researching Selwyn’s older brother Herman recently I hope you don’t mind me putting some flesh on the bones of this story.
Selwyn’s full name was Hedley Selwyn De Quetteville Robin and prior to the war he was working as an accountant. Militia service was a requirement of all young men at the time and Selwyn served with the St.Georges Rifles and the Australian Infantry Regiment, where he claimed three and a half years service as a commissioned officer. We forget that men at the time were militarised to some degree long before the war commenced.
Selwyn enlisted on the 9th May 1915 with the 7th Reinforcements of the 13th Battalion A.I.F, shortly after the Gallipoli landings. His elder brother Herman also enlisted amongst the same reinforcements on the 20th May 1915. The 7th reinforcements left for Egypt aboard the HMAT Shropshire on the 20th August 1915.
A younger brother, Rollo Renfrey Robin, had enlisted in February 1915 with the 19th Battalion A.I.F. He had embarked from Sydney aboard the HMAT ‘Ceramic’ for Egypt towards the end of June 1915. Rollo served at Gallipoli with the 19th Battalion but was transported off the peninsula suffering illness for Malta around the 27th September 1915.
After Selwyn and Herman landed in Egypt they were separated. Herman would be sent initially to the Island of Mudros towards the end of October 1915 and then onto Gallipoli in November 1915. Selwyn did not go to Gallipoli with the 13th Battalion although he was amongst the line of communications troops supporting the campaign; instead he was taken on strength by the General Head Quarters, Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, on the 29th September 1915.
Selwyn’s records indicate that the A.I.F utilised his clerical skills by employing him in the records section of G.H.Q, then based in Cairo. The A.I.F adopted the British ‘Third Echelon’ system where soldiers serving overseas had their records returned to Australia for safety and security. The ’Third Echelon’ was established to receive extracts of those records of soldiers serving in the area and maintain them at the General Headquarters ‘Third Echelon’, Mediterranean Expeditionary Force .
Selwyn was promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant in early November 1915 and remained in Egypt. Herman survived Gallipoli and returned to Egypt just before Christmas 1915. During the Australian evacuation from Gallipoli on the 20th December 1915 Herman had sprained his ankle which led to him being hospitalised in Cairo when he returned- oddly this entry is recorded incorrectly on the last page of Selwyn’s service record.
Both brothers would go on to serve on the Western Front. Herman transferred to the artillery and left Egypt for France first in June 1916. Selwyn did not leave until late September 1916 continuing his service with the records section of the 3rd Echelon General Head Quarters, then based in Le Havre.
At this point in his military career Selwyn had not served in the front line. This would change when he was taken on strength by the 45th Battalion on the 19th April 1917, reverting back to the rank of sergeant as he did so. The 45th Battalion were formed in Egypt in March 1916 from a nucleus of 13th Battalion officers and men during the “doubling of the A.I.F”, which explains how Selwyn ended up serving in this battalion.
When Selwyn joined the Battalion they were resting and training at Bresle, southwest of Albert. On the 12th May 1917 the Battalion was sent by train up to the France/Belgium border town of Bailleul. Preparations were then underway for the Battle of Messines; General Plumer’s first strike at occupying the high ground that overlooked the towns of Ypres and Passchendale.
The 45th Battalion were later moved up to Neuve-Eglise, only kilometres from the front line, to prepare for the attack which was scheduled for the 7th June 1917. Allied artillery had been softening up the German defences for the previous seven days when the attack commenced at 3.10 am on the morning of the 7th June with the firing of nineteen underground mines beneath the German lines along the Messines Ridge. The scale of the explosions was immense and it is reported that they were heard in the south of England.
The recent Australian film ‘Hill 60’ concerns the preparations and detonation of these charges which claimed the lives of approximately 10 000 German soldiers. The explosions however were only the first stage, and were quickly followed up by an advance by Australian, New Zealand and British infantry to clear the surviving Germans from their positions upon the ridge. The British 25th Division was on the left, the New Zealand Division at the centre and the 3rd Australian Division on the right.
The objective of the three Divisions was to take the ridge line and the village of Messines. The 2nd New Zealand Brigade and the 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade took the village from the stunned Germans. The New Zealand soldiers who later found Selwyn on the 11th June 1917 likely came from one of these two brigades.
The attacks were successful but late in the morning the success began to slow ironically due to the low number of casualties the allies had incurred leading to overcrowding along the ridge line as the advancing men poured into the trenches. The Germans had retreated to the second Oostaverne line and began counterattacking with machine guns and artillery. The Oostaverne Line was the final objective of the allies and it was here that Selwyn was lining up at the jump off point amongst the reserve battalions of the 4th Australian Division awaiting 1.10 pm when they would push forward the advance.
General Plumer at this stage fearing further counter attacks and concerns that the supporting artillery would not keep up postponed the attack for a further two hours. The time of attack was now 3.10 pm and the 45th Battalion were forced to wait out in no mans land amongst artillery and machine gun fire. Another soldier of the 45th Battalion lying and waiting was Private Edward Lynch who later wrote of his experiences in the novel Somme Mud; Nulla, the books main character described those two hours as-
“Machine-gunned and sniped at from the front, enfiladed by machine-guns from the right- how many of us will be alive when those two hours are up? But we can do nothing but cower down and wait for a bullet to smack into us or a shell to come and blow us sky high. Criminal mismanagement some-where, but what can we do?” (p.143)
Criminal mismanagement? A little harsh, but it is understandable how men would feel that way. The 45th Battalion went into the attack at 3.10 pm with the support of three tanks which were needed as the Australians moved forward and came under fire from concealed German pillboxes. It was around this time, according to the story, that Selwyn received a gunshot wound to his left eye and nose, his service record also had the word ‘severe’ added to the notation.
The Allies eventually prevailed, however the battle continued on officially for a further seven days, operations were largely mopping up, staving off counter attacks and surviving shell barrages. It is not surprising to read that Selwyn lay in the open for four days; indeed the book Somme Mud mentions another man that stretcher bearers brought in on the night of 10th June 1917. A man who was shot in the lungs, a man whom-
“Leaving him unconscious out in that shell hole has saved his life. Had he been moved three days ago he would most surely have died.” (p.160)
The New Zealanders may well have taken Selwyn to the field hospital, from where he was transported to the 83rd General Hospital at Boulogne on the 14th June 1917. A full week had by then elapsed since he had received the wound. The following day Selwyn was transported to the 2nd London General Hospital for recovery.
Three months later Selwyn was placed on a supernumerary list due to his being absent from his Battalion for three months. The loss of an eye however meant that he would not fight again and on the 11th January 1918 he left England aboard the Hospital Transport ‘Port Darwin’ for his return to Australia. Shortly after he returned to Australia on the 16th April 1918, Selwyn was discharged from the A.I.F.
Selwyn returned to civilian life post war and I would like to think that he adapted to his disability and lived out a reasonable life. It is known that at some stage prior to the 1930’s Selwyn was living and would remain at Gordon in Sydney’s north. Records indicate that he later served two terms as an alderman at Kuring-Gai Council, commencing 1932 and 1940.
Selwyn passed away in 1960, aged 70 years. The three Robin brothers are named on the Mosman War Memorial.
- National Archives of Australia, B2455 Service records of Hedley Selwyn De Quetteville Robin, Herman De Quetteville Robin and Rollo Renfrey Robin
- C.E.W Bean, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18, Angus & Robertson.
- Les Carlyon, The Great War, Pan Macmillan Australia, 2006.
- Will Davies, In the Footsteps of Private Lynch, Vintage Books, 2008.
- E.P.F Lynch, Somme Mud, Random House, 2006.
- Ian Passingham, Pillars of Fire- The Battle of Messines Ridge June 1917, Sutton Publishing, 1998.
- Graham Wilson, The relevance of miscellany administrative, support and logistic units of the AIF, Sabretache, March 1, 2003.
Researched & written by Scott Wilson 11/2012.