[2nd Lieutenant, later Captain, Magnus Graham Saunders MC, chief cashier with Dalgetys in Adelaide SA, joined the Army on 16 September 1915 aged 28. He received his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant on 3 March 1916 and embarked from Adelaide on HMAT A70 Ballarat on 12 August 1916 with the 10th Battalion, 19th Reinforcements. He served in England and France and was wounded several times. He was awarded the Military Cross "for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty" on 31 September 1917 as a result of the action east of Ypres on 19 to 22 September 1917, which he describes in this letter. He returned to Australia in 1919, and also served in World War II.]
[Printed letter. Some line breaks introduced to aid readability.]
Letter from Lieutenant M. Graham Saunders, M.C., describing his first battle, 20th September, 1917.
25th September, 1917.
I told you in my last letter that possibly I would have more news for you when I next wrote, so possibly you gathered we were about to go into action. Well, my dear, such is the case, as we have been in a big stunt, and we are now in a peaceful spot away from all the noise and dust, with a view to straightening things out and getting ready for other events. Just at present I am sitting against a tent pole with the writing paper on my knee.
Well, my dear, I am afraid it is quite impossible for me to describe what has happened in the last few days, as it is all beyond description. Whoever used the term "Lifting the lid off hell" was just about right. In my last letter I think I mentioned about a 12-in gun keeping us awake, and just where that gun was was our last place before going into the line. From this place another fellow and myself had to get up at 4 o'clock in the morning and go up nearly to the line, so that when the Battalion moved we would know the way, and therefore things would be easy.
At this particular place, where we were camped right up to the line, guns were going off in all directions. However, we started off, and it was not very long before we were amongst the falling shells of the Germans. This, of course, was my first taste of the real thing, but it did not worry me. As we were a good way back from the line, the shells were not very thick, but lobbed here and there. However, as we got nearer so things became hotter, and judgment and care was needed. They had one particular corner picked which was made fairly hot, but we got past all right. We did what was required of us and then returned. On our way back we had to get down several times for safety, as you will imagine the explosions were pretty near when I tell you we were splashed with filthy water and mud. When we got back it was a case of get ready, as we were to move that night for the real thing.
As I said before, mother, I will not attempt to describe the stunt, because it is impossible. Only those who have seen and heard for themselves can understand. The whole thing was wonderful, the organisation perfect, the discipline of all was beyond praise, and I know now why it is that our boys are thought to be the finest this old world can produce. Don't think I am sentimental when I say that it makes one swell with pride to know he is one of them. Whoever said Australians are not, and cannot, be disciplined is nothing short of a fool, and I should say he has never been in action with them. As things are, some of them may not win prizes on the parade ground, but their natural instinct and initiative is simply wonderful.
By this time you will, of course, have read about our success in the paper, and all praise is due to our C.O. (Lieut.-Col. Wilder-Nelligan) for his forethought and training. From the highest to the lowest every one knew just what was to be done, when it was to be done, and where it was to be done.
[Lieutenant Colonel Maurice Wilder-Neligan CMG, DCM, DSO and Bar, born Maurice Neligan in England in 1882, enlisted in the AIF on 20 August 1914 as Maurice Wilder and served at Gallipoli with the 9th Battalion, and later in France. He had a distinguished service record and was officially known as Wilder-Neligan from September 1915.]
Well, my dear, we got into position, not without mishap, as the Germans were shelling us very heavily, and then at a given time things started to move. It was the most wonderful thing I have ever witnessed, and I understand nothing of its kind has ever happened before in this war.
There was a comparative calm, and then at the exact moment the "lid of hell was lifted," not for us, thank goodness, but for the Germans. There must have been hundreds and hundreds of guns of all shapes and sizes, and these just wiped the German position off the face of the earth. As soon as this barrage opened, so we all hopped out, and the action was launched. It was just before daylight on Thursday, the 20th September, and if you look up the papers just after that date possibly they will have mentioned such places as Nonne, Boschen, Glencorse Wood, and Polygonwald, as these were the places we took.
We first rushed into a wood, and in a few minutes everybody's face was just about black with the smoke from the enemy's shells. The smoke was very thick indeed, and you could not hear yourself speak for the terrific din. A bit on our left through the thickness could be seen an old tank blazing away for all he was worth, and no doubt giving the Huns some hurry up. I had a look back at our artillery, and it reminded one of a moving picture show with a very bad flicker. Of course, the other side was heaving stuff at us just as hard as they possibly could, but I am now convinced that their artillery is not in any way to be compared with ours. Gee, it is wonderful.
The German "pill boxes" (a concrete structure and fearfully strong) were much in evidence, and had to be dealt with, but very soon strings of prisoners were being taken to the rear. As we passed over the ground we could see just what work our guns had done, and really there was not an inch of earth that had not been disturbed.
Well, mother dear, we did what was asked of us, and then proceeded to prepare to hold our ground. It was rather swampy country, and we could not "dig in" on account of the water which came into the trenches as soon as a spade was put in. However, breastworks were erected, and we got prepared for the usual counter-attack. They tried it on but with no success at all.
Did it mention in your papers about the Australians reading papers under the shell fire? They mentioned it in the English papers, and it is quite a fact. It was a novel idea of our C.O.'s, so when we got settled down in position I handed some "Mails," "Mirrors," &c., around to the men. It was purely a battalion idea. Each man was well equipped with eatables as follows:– Bully beef, bread, &c., chocolate, sandwiches (with ground-up meat in them), and they were just great, and everybody was happy). Also, the men had more cigarettes than they could smoke. Talking of cigarettes, it was good to see all the chaps smoking as they were doing their work, and coolly getting a light off one another.
Well, the stunt is all over and we are out again. The "heads" are wonderfully pleased, and no doubt the whole thing was a success, you will be pleased to hear that I have been recommended for the work I did (not that I did much), but I will not get anything out of it, as others have been recommended who are old soldiers and have been due for decoration many times before this. Still, it is nice to know that one gave satisfaction, as I was not too sure how I would go on my introduction. Don't mention this, as it would not do, but the C.O. congratulated me personally and told me of his recommendation. Still, everybody did well, and I am convinced that our chaps did fine.
Last night I heard that Percy Wald's Battalion is not far from us on their way to the line, but I expect, as usual, I will not run into him.
We are living quite near to a fairly large town, and just at present a concert party is showing there under the management of Doug. Walsh. I think I have already told you that he is in charge of the Divisional Concert Party formed for the purpose of amusing the men when they are out of the line. Doug. is very lucky, but still he has seen a good deal of fighting. The party is very good indeed, and amongst its members is one Lindsay Kembell. Do you remember this chap? He was once in the Courts in Adelaide for dressing up as a girl, and deceived many people, including one of our leading lawyers. He takes the part of a girl in this, and really in voice and appearance he is great; you would mistake him for a girl anywhere.
Well, my dear, by the time you get this I expect you will have started to unpack your summer clothes, while in these parts winter draws on, but for the present the weather is perfect. There is a bit of talk about the originals of the 1st Division getting a holiday to Australia, and it will be fine for them if it comes off, as they have had a long go in.
Give my love to all the people that we know. I am fit and well save for a little bit of a cold, but I have got the tincture of quinine going (which you sent me), and should be A1 in a day or so.
[Sergeant, later Lieutenant, Percy Britten Wald, No 980, 43rd Infantry Battalion.]