A hundred years ago in Belgium

There was a special commemoration in Belgium yesterday.

ALMOST 1000 people have made an emotional journey to Polygon Wood in Belgium to honour the 5700 young Australian soldiers killed in battle there 100 years ago.

Descendants and friends of the fallen gathered among the headstones at the Buttes New British Cemetery outside the township of Zonnebeke for a dawn service, honouring the sacrifice of the young soldiers killed a century ago on September 26, 1917.

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I thought of two of my family, an uncle I knew and an uncle I never knew.

This man was for sure my favourite Whitfield uncle – well, the only one I ever met in fact. [There was Uncle George of course, but he was “by marriage”.] But he was a really good man, as I recall, with snowy white hair and a crack shot with a rifle – he had competed in that sport. See my April 2014 post Shellharbour.

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Kenneth Ross WHITFIELD (b.1897  d. 1967) m 1920 Esma H. EAST (b. 1895 d. 24 Mar. 1971)

The other uncle — great-uncle actually — was David Belford Christison.

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His life was short. He married Flora Fletcher in 1907 and had three children, all daughters as far as I have been able to find out. According to one source Flora died as recently as 1971. I never met her. David died four years after returning from World War 1.

His military record is available. He was a sapper.

Engineers, also known as sappers, were essential to the running of the war. Without them, other branches of the Allied Forces would have found it difficult to cross the muddy and shell-ravaged ground of the Western Front. Their responsibilities included constructing the lines of defence, temporary bridges, tunnels and trenches, observation posts, roads, railways, communication lines, buildings of all kinds, showers and bathing facilities, and other material and mechanical solutions to the problems associated with fighting in all theatres.

In civilian life he had been a postman.  He managed to get himself blown up by an exploding shell in 1918 leaving a permanent knee injury.

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David Christison was in 14th Field Company Engineers, attached to the 5th Division AIF which did indeed take part in Polygon Wood in 1917. His injury came in April 1918.

Initially, the division was stationed on the Suez Canal. In June 1916 it moved to France, taking over part of the “nursery” sector near Armentieres. There it became involved in the disastrous attack at Fromelles in July. In October it joined the First, Second and Fourth Divisions on the Somme around Flers.

In March 1917 a flying column of the Fifth Division pursued of the Germans to the Hindenburg Line, capturing Bapaume. In May the Division relieved the First Division in the Second Battle of Bullecourt, holding the breach thus gained against furious counterattacks. In September it managed to turn an allied defeat into a major victory at the Battle of Polygon Wood.

In March 1918 the Fifth Division was rushed to the Somme region to help stem the German Offensive. There it guarded the vital Somme River bridges. In April it counterattacked at Villers Bretonneux, recovering the town.  

The Fifth Division fought in the Battles of Hamel in July and Amiens in August. In September it forced the Somme River at Peronne and fought on to the Hindenburg Line.

Ken Whitfield arrived in England in December 1917. He has part of a reinforcement for the 3rd Battalion AIF. However, his service with the 3rd Battalion was cut short somewhat by illness. He returned to Australia invalided quite late in 1919.

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