Trench Mortar

01 April 2008 by Dianne Rutherford

On display in the Memorial's First World War Gallery is this damaged trench mortar barrel. The explosion that damaged this Stokes 3" trench mortar barrel in 1918 also sadly killed two young men from the 6th Australian Light Trench Mortar Battery. RELAWM00768

Stokes 3" trench mortars were made up of a barrel with a base plate at the bottom and supported by legs that had traversing and elevating gears to adjust the trajectory. Inside the bottom of the barrel was a striker pin. The mortar bomb was dropped by hand into the barrel, striking the pin. The propellant charge in the bomb shot it from the barrel and it exploded upon impact with its target. The next bomb could be loaded within seconds of the first leaving the barrel.

This mortar barrel was damaged while in use at Ville-sur-Ancre, south west of Dernancourt in France when a bomb prematurely exploded in the barrel. The walls of the mortar barrel are around 1cm thick and the force of the explosion was so great that it caused the barrel to peel back like a banana skin and pieces of shrapnel to fly off. To be near such an explosion spelt death, or major injury. In this instance the explosion killed two young men, 1936 Private James Edwin Ashton and 4475 Private William Stewart McGhee. They were both only 22 years old when they died. Unfortunately there are no eyewitness accounts of the incident that lead to their deaths. They are noted only as being 'killed in action'. James had served in the field with the unit for one month before he was killed. William on the other hand had served with the 6th ALTMB since May 1917. Initially he was attached to the unit from the 24th Battalion, but less than two months before he was killed he was permanently transferred to the 6th ALTMB. Initially they were listed in the unit's records as being killed on 14 June 1918 but, for reasons unknown, this date was later amended to 15 June - the date the barrel was collected by the Australian War Records Section (the precursor to the Australian War Memorial). James and William were buried near a track between Ville-sur-Ancre and Morlancourt. In 1920 their remains were exhumed and reburied at Beacon British Cemetery at Sailly Laurette, 6 kilometres south of where they died. 


Sadly this wasn't the only time the AIF lost men due to a prematurely exploding Stokes mortar bomb. A year earlier, at Warloy, north east of Amiens several men (most from the 6th ALTMB) died from a prematurely bursting bomb during a training exercise with battalions of the 6th Brigade, before moving to the Ypres sector. On 1 June 1917 at around 11.30am, as the last company of the 24th Battalion was advancing with support from the 6th  ALTMB, a Stokes mortar shell exploded in the barrel, killing three men instantly and wounding 22. The three men killed were 5869 Private Thomas Michael Murphy, 4128 Lance Corporal Thomas William Joyce and 5693 Private James Henry Frampton Wright. Thomas Murphy was from East Melbourne. He dropped the bomb into the mortar barrel. He was hit in the chest by the explosion and killed immediately. He left behind a widow, Mary and two children, Leslie and Nesta. He was attached to the 6th ALTMB from the 24th Battalion. Thomas Joyce, from Melbourne was a member of the carrying party and was in front of the barrel when the explosion occurred. Joyce was a member of the 24th Battalion and had just rejoined his unit only two days earlier after convalescing from a wound received during the Second Battle of Bullecourt on 3 May. James Wright from Elsternwick Victoria also served with the 24th Battalion. He had emigrated to Australia from England when he was 26. He was 34 years old when he died and left behind a widow, Florence, and three young children - Winifred, James and Nora. Of the 22 men wounded in the accident, four died. The first was 6399 Private James Robert Thomas Telfer of the 24th Battalion, from Gerang near Dimboola, Victoria. He lost a large amount of blood from a severe groin wound. He died before he even reached the dressing station and was buried, along with Murphy, Joyce and Wright that same day in a full military funeral at the Warloy-Baillon Communal Cemetery Extension. 5072 Private Charles Page from Melbourne was wounded in the chest and leg and died on his way to hospital. He served with 22 Bn but was attached to the 6th ALTMB at the time of the accident.   704 Corporal Edgar Andrew Dyring from Ballarat, Victoria was wounded in the head, wrist and thigh in the accident and died during the night. He had served with 23 Battalion, including a few months on Gallipoli from late August 1915. He was transferred to the 6th ALTMB in 1916. His brother, Hugh Dyring MM also served at Gallipoli and later transferred to the 6th ALTMB. Presumably he was there when the accident occured. The last soldier to die as a result of the accident was 5058 Private Walters Mills from Tamleugh near Violet Town, Victoria. He was 19 years old and had served with 22 Bn, but was attached to the 6th ALTMB when he was wounded in the chest and feet by the explosion. He died the following morning. All four are buried at Dernancourt Communal Cemetery Extension. Subsequent Courts of Enquiry found that all seven men died as a result of the premature explosion of the Stokes mortar bomb and that no one was in any way to blame for the accident.   Other men known to have been wounded in the accident but survived include:

  • 1068 Corporal James Mitchell with a wounded leg.
  • 4509 Private Robert George McShane with a fractured skull.
  • 2104 Private Edward Clyde Andrews with a shell wound to the abdomen.
  • 2357 Private James Gilchrist with a wounded right heel.
  • 1901 Private Percival Herbert Cannington, wounded in the right arm and leg.
  • 3845 Private Harry Stanley Ince, wounded in the arm and abdomen.
  • 4703 Private James Hubert Guyatt was wounded in the right arm and leg.
  • 370 Private George Albert Ellison was wounded left thigh.
  • 6144 Private Alexander Ramsay received a shell wound to his head.
  • 5344 Private Harry James Gow wounded right knee joint.

The Memorial does not hold photographs of the men who died in either explosion. If you have original photographs of these men, please contact a curator on (02) 6243 4593 or email about possibly donating photographs so an image can be added to the online Roll of Honour.