The Great War – 23 – 29 November, 1917
For one South Australian family, Friday 23 November 1917 will forever be etched in their memory. On this day, the Edward and Amelia Nicolle family lost their son, Wilfred on the battlefields in Belgium.
Wilfred’s journey from his home of Mitcham to the battlefields of Europe is a common one of many young South Australian men who fought in the Great War. Wilfred was born in Mitcham, went to school locally and eventually found his way into carpentry.
As other South Australian men landed, fought and died on the shores of Gallipoli in April 1915, one can only imagine Wilfred’s desire to answer the call of his country, and on 24 May 1915, he enlisted. Wilfred left from Melbourne on Her Majesty’s Australian Transport A67 Orsova in July 1915.
He was 18 years old.
Little is known about Wilfred and how he died other than the location of his death – Belgium. On his official Field Service record it simply states his place of death as “In the Field”. In the 11th Field Ambulance War Diary, one sentence is written next to the date of 23 November, 1917:
‘No 5284 Pt, NICOLLE. W.G – Killed in action.’
It is quite possible that Wilfred, as a member of the 11th Australian Field Ambulance, found himself well forward at the time of his death transferring casualties from the supported battalion area to the Field Ambulance Advanced Dressing Station and then to Casualty Clearing Stations.
Wilfred’s place of burial is listed as the Underhill Farm Cemetery in Belgium, 12 kilometres south of Messines.
When Wilfred was killed he was only 21.
For the Nicolle family, Wilfred’s death was not the only family death they endured during the Great War. Exactly eight months later, their eldest son, Hartley George, died of wounds earlier that year on the 23 July 1918 in France.
On the Western Front, weather hampered offensives on either side. On 20 November, General Haig launched his last offensive of the year at Cambrai where nearly 400 tanks broke the German line only to be forced back by enemy counter-attacks a week or so later. While initially successful, the initial Allied attack, characterised by a lack of artillery preparation fire to aid surprise, gave rise to a 20 Division German counter-offensive that essentially restored the battle lines to their original location. Approximately 100,000 casualties were sustained on both sides.
By the end of 1917 the Allies were exhausting their reinforcements causing Monash, then Commander of Australia’s 3rd Division, to remark:
I had formed the theory that the true role of the infantry was not
to expend itself on heroic physical effort, not to wither away under
merciless machine-gunfire, nor to impale itself on hostile bayonets,
nor to tear itself to pieces in hostile entanglements … but on the
contrary to advance under the maximum possible protection of the
maximum possible array of mechanical resources, in the form of
guns, mortars and aeroplanes; to advance with as little impediment
as possible; to be relieved as far as possible of the obligation to
fight their way forward; to march, resolutely, regardless of the din
and tumult of battle, to the appointed goal; and there to hold and
defend the territory gained; and to gather in the form of prisoners,
guns and stores, the fruits of victory.’
In the Middle East, the Allies continued their push to capture Jerusalem and solidify the Holy City as a stronghold. The 75th Division were endeavouring to advance from Nebi Samwil to capture the town of El Jib. This village was important as its elevation would provide a commanding height for a mile and half to the north. The Turkish Army attacked the British infantry at Nebi Samwill, and on each occasion the British held their lines.
On the 22nd and 23rd of November, attempting to reach the village, the 75th suffered severe losses. Despite their fierce courageous fighting, the men were exhausted due to lack of sleep, relentless fighting and exposure. On the night of 23rd November they were finally relieved by the 52nd Division.
The 52nd were also confronted with significant resistance from the Turkish military, who realised that, for Jerusalem to be saved, no more ground could be lost.
The 52nd and 75th divisions were later relieved by the 60th and 74th on the front line. From Bethlehem to Nablus, the Turkish Army had six infantry divisions, and were only just holding on. It was later reported that 200 officers and 5000 men were arrested in Jerusalem for desertion.
When speaking of the morale of the Turkish army, Major von Papen wrote in a letter:
“We have had a very bad time. The breakdown of the army, after having to relinquish the good positions in which it had remained for so long, is so complete that I could never have dreamed of such a thing.”
On the Homefront, the nation was in the grip of a second debate on conscription. The debate was of such concern to the Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, that on the night of 26 November he ordered a raid on the Government Printing Office in Queensland to confiscate copies of the Queensland Government Hansard, where anti-conscription sentiments had been raised, that were to be mailed out to Queensland homes. Imagine the reaction such an act such would receive today!!
And on 29 November 1917 the Warwick egg incident led ultimately to the establishment of the Commonwealth police force – later the Australian Federal Police. Two Australians of Irish descent, Pat and Bart Brosnan, threw eggs at the prime minister whose train had stopped at Warwick in Queensland’s Darling Downs. One egg hit the prime minister’s hat, starting a fight as Hughes’s supporters laid into the assailants, who were removed from the station. After order was restored, Hughes began his speech. But Pat had returned and started interjecting. Hughes jumped off the platform and into the crowd shouting: “Arrest that man!” The Queensland Police refused.
While the Warwick egg incident was significant for its downstream effect of the establishment of the AFP, it was more importantly an indication of the deep divisions in Australian society at the time, exacerbated by the hard-fought political campaign over conscription: Irish Australians versus British Australians; Catholics versus Protestants; labour versus capital; empire loyalists versus Australia-first nationalists; the Queensland government versus the federal government.
As we pause and reflect on the courage of brave Australians in battle on the other side of the world, we must also remember those who didn’t come home, like Private Wilfred Gordon Nicolle.
More than just names on a memorial, Wilfred and Hartely Nicolle are a reminder of the service and sacrifice made by many young South Australian men this week 100 years ago.
The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914 – 1918 by C.E.W. Bean
Monash, J. Monash: War Letters of General Monash, Black Inc, 2015, p. 204