” We are set up away here in the funniest and most peculiar country in the World “ ( February 14, 1916 ).
So began one of the first letters home , from Percy BLYTHE, to his mother in Bunbury. This correspondence was sent from Egypt, where BLYTHE was with the 8th Reinforcements of the 28th Battalion, waiting for deployment to the battlefields of France.
The young man had signed up for King & Country in June 1915, leaving Fremantle in January the following year, for the Middle East.
Like most young men who enlisted in the Army, he was keen to see the World, and the chance of travelling the globe, was a wonderful opportunity to be grasped.
The 20 year old, who was married when he left the family home in Albert Road, Bunbury, was a prolific writer, sending home more than one hundred ( 100 ) letters and postcards to his young wife and family.
His communications with those he left behind in Australia, serve as an amazing insight into a soldier’s experience, not solely on the battlefields, but the daily routines that the Anzac’s experienced.
The farmer was also a talented writer,his words painting pictures for the family back home, as he tells of his own and fellow Soldier’s experiences. Writing on February 28, 1916 :- ” I am having a real decent time over here, so much so that I am beginning to believe that I am a tourist, instead of a Soldier, because when my work is finished and time will allow, I go and see all the sites.
I went for an excursion down the Nile River yesterday with eight other Sergeants, and what a time. On the way down we went by native villages, past fields of green barley and oats, right on down past flocks of wild ducks, and past those old time water wheels, with an old water buffalo. Then we passed parties of peasants working in the field , with the old oxen and wooden ploughs, which seem to belong to the age of about 2000 years ago. Then we saw women washing clothes in the Nile and carrying large pitchers balanced on their heads
When we landed, we went to a native village and hired a donkey each and a guide. We went along terrace after terrace of absolutely magnificent scenery with borders of beautiful hedges and flowers, and small rills and brooks until we thought we were in paradise itself “.
Not all soldiers spent their time sightseeing.
The previous year, just before the landing at Gallipoli, Australian and New Zealand troops took part in what became known as the Battle of the Wazzir, a riot in Cairo at a street called Haret el Wasser, an area known for brothels and drinking establishments, where more than 2500 Anzacs went on a rampage, the majority being intoxicated. Percy BLYTHE added the following lines to his letter, to put his parents and young wife’s minds at rest :- ” Mum dear, I don’t want you to worry about me. I suppose you have heard lots about the immorality and baseness of certain parts of this country but you need never worry about me. I will never stray from those broad paths of honour, and it will be my aim to do those things only, that will make me a worthy son to you and a worthy husband to Mary, and I am going through this great undertaking as a man of honour who is doing his best to be a credit to you all “.
General Sir William BIRDWOOD, despite the events in Cairo the year before, had fought with the Anzacs in the Dardanelles Campaign and witnessed his men’s dedication and determination in battle. Percy BLYTHEwould have been at BIRDWOOD’S inspection, where he addressed the men in relation to their imminent transfer to France. He spoke of the need to uphold the honour of the AIF and to solidify the excellent name they had earned at Gallipoli. In March 1916, BLYTHE and his Battalion boarded a troop transport ship to set sail for the shores of France.
A month earlier, the Germans had launched a major offensive at Verdun, in the North East of France. In an attack that German General Erich Von Falkenhayn said, ” would bleed France white”, the British Army was forced to launch a counter offensive to ease pressure on their Allies, who were to suffer more than 500,000 casualties during that Battle in less than 12 months.
British Commander Sir Douglas HAIG had developed a plan to reduce the pressure on the French Army at Verdun, by mounting a major offensive in the Somme area, over 250 kilometres west of the fortress city. Shortly after BLYTHE and the 28th Battalion arrived in France, HAIG inspected the men, later writing :- The men were looking splendid, fine physique, very hard and determined looking. The Australians are mad keen to kill Germans and to start doing it at once “.
By April, the men of the 28th Battalion had moved up to the front line, with Percy BLYTHE experiencing his baptism of fire on the Western Front at Armentieres, in Northern France , the Battalion being shelled at Fille Farm. Percy wrote :- “ first received an insight to a real fight. The 5th Brigade was attacked and had a nasty setback. The din from the bursting of shells and bombs and the rattle of rifle fire was terrific “. During this month, BLYTHE was promoted to Lance Corporal, the first of a string of Promotions for the young soldier, culminating in his promotion to the rank of Lieutenant.
The Battle of the Somme began on 1 July, with the Battle of Pozieres beginning on 23 July. Despite British Divisions being involved, the fighting is primarily remembered as an Australian Battle. The Australian troops acquitted themselves very well, leading to the Anzacs being regarded as a significant fighting force. Official Australian War Historian, C.W. BEAN wrote that Pozieres soil ” is more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on Earth “.
On the night of 26 July, opposing armies launched massive, relentless artillery barrages. Troops were rendered deaf, some losing their minds and others buried alive, as trenches collapsed. Percy and his 28th Battalion mates had moved cautiously towards the battlefield as shells exploded all around them. He wrote :- ” Towards evening on the 26th, we moved off through Albert up to the firing line. Next day we were told we were going into it and our job consisted of taking two trenches and a windmill beyond. We were all lying out between the lines, all perfect in four lines. It was a glorious and impressive sight to see those brave boys out there with their bayonets fixed and everyone keen and eager, not one of them doubted himself or his comrades “.
The men had 10 minutes to wait before moving off and charging the enemy trenches, then Percy was disgusted to hear an officer called loudly, thereby alerting the Germans of their presence. BLYTHE wrote :- ” A Captain, who must have been excited, roars out to an Officer in charge of the front line. Are you ready? Move forward front line, and our artillery had not even started. Besides this. he gave the show away and may just as well shouted we are coming Fritz “. The Germans were alerted to send up flares, which preceded the crackling sound of machine gun fire that struck the men who were readying to attack. Percy wrote :- ” The slaughter was awful. When the barrage lifted, we flew and made straight for those Deutscher’s trenches with our bayonet’s when all of a sudden we were brought up standing by their barbed wire entanglements, which were left almost intact. We were all up on his wire, some working feverishly hard with the wire cutters. But it was no good, the entanglement was too sound and the machine guns too numerous, consequently we had to get into the shell holes for cover.
To our eternal sorrow we left a long line of our best and bravest boys that Australia ever produced lying on that wire. Some fell across it with the wires in their hands, others with the wire cutters still on the wire, but they were glorious lads every one of them
I took the risk of going from one shell hole to another trying to get the boys together for another try when I found my Platoon Commander “.
Corporal BLYTHE then ran among other shell holes to find another Officer to organize a further attack , when word came to withdraw. Percy had other ideas :- ” I stayed and did my best for several wounded fellows and attended to them all the way back until daylight “.
Withering fire forced the survivors to return to their original starting point, showing no result for their heavy losses. However, one week later ,on 4 August, the Battalion was sent to take the trench objectives which had eluded them during the previous month. On this occasion, a more precise bombardment had destroyed much of the wire entanglements, enabling swift movement to the enemy trenches, where the enemy surrendered. Percy BLYTHE wrote:- ” The wire entanglements were blown to blazes, we went in and cleaned the front line and got a whole lot of Deutchers who would not put up a fight. Then away we went for the second line. Here we had another victory; we had those Lagershifters flying all roads from the point of our bayonet. Just after morning, the Germans counter-attacked and this was just what our machine gunners had been praying for, they literally mowed them down and gloried in their work because they knew that they were avenging the deaths of their brave comrades who were killed the week before “.
After the enemy failed in this attack, they unleashed a massive artillery bombardment on the men of the 28th Battalion, which Percy described as follows :- ” There were guns of every calibre, whizz bangs, high explosives, shrapnel, coal boxes and gas shells, munition factories and iron foundries galore were thrown at us and he exerted every possible method to blow us clean off that ridge. And such an inferno, a real hell on earth, and it seemed impossible for a mosquito to live in it. I got a pellet in my left leg just above the ankle and hung on a bit longer. On my way back I got one clean through the right cheek. A small one in my right arm just above the elbow and finally I received a shrapnel graze across my left shoulder blade “.
Percy BLYTHE was eventually evacuated from the front line and transported to Hospital in Birmingham, England for treatment to his extensive wounds. He was awarded a Military Medal for the courage he showed on the night of 28-29 July, 1916 , in maintaining communications between Officers, while under severe enemy fire and placing the wounded in positions of safety. BLYTHE proudly wrote home :- ” I was presented with my Medal before a master parade of seven thousand troops and I tell you I felt some soldier that day “.
Percy BLYTHE subsequently spent a year in England and Scotland, recovering from his wounds and completed Officer Training at Pembroke College, Cambridge. He was immediately promoted to the rank of Second Lieutenant. His war experiences were now becoming evident in the tone of letters he was sending home. In a letter dated September, 1917, he philosophized :- ” When one leaves all that is near and dear to him to go on such an uncertain quest it brings a lump to one’s throat and makes him wish to God that all this awful business was over “.
When Second Lieutenant Percy BLYTHE returned to action with the 28th Battalion, he received gunshot wounds to his left arm and leg at Broodseinde Ridge on 4 October, 1917. He was again evacuated to England for treatment, where he was to spend six months in convalescence .
BLYTHE rejoined his Battalion in April, 1918 and re-assured his family and young wife that he was in good spirits :- ” You will be worrying about me and wondering how your white-headed boy is, well if you could see me now your mind could be set at rest and you would know that there is a bright side to a soldier’s life and there is only a minute portion of it that is not bright “.
Tragically, during an action at Morlancourt, in the Somme area of France , on 10 June 1918, whilst leading his men in battle against machine gun emplacements, Lieutenant Percy BLYTHE was mortally wounded. Two weeks previously, Percy had sent a cheerful letter to his mother- his final piece of correspondence which captured the spirit of the then 23 year old Anzac :- ” A pal and myself went fishing today but instead of a line and bait we went in for a more speedy way of acquiring them. You see you strip off and put two or three bombs in the river and run downstream a few yards and as they come past bellies up you just dive in and throw them out on the bank, and we have been getting some that would make father green with envy. I must be off now I am taking a working party up into the line to dig new trenches. I will write again soon…Your most loving son, Percy “.