Thursday 3 March 2011 by Andrew Currey. No comments
Personal Stories, Family history, Collection, Collection Highlights

“I had a very close shave...”

(Pte C H Lester, 1 October 1917)

As many soldiers will testify, war can be as much about luck as it is about training and equipment. Luck can take many forms, such as being in the right place at the right time, and the closely related not being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The men listed below are a few examples of these places and the sometimes very short distance between them.

Lt William Henry Guard (2DRL/0879)

William Guard was a 21 year-old locomotive fireman when he enlisted in May 1915. This was not his first time in the army in the First World War – he had already been a part of Australia’s first overseas military contingent, the Australian Naval & Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF). This force was raised soon after the declaration of war and sent to take control of Germany’s territorial possessions in what is now Papua New Guinea.

A quick and almost bloodless campaign, some of the AN & MEF remained as an occupation force & military administration, while the rest returned to Australia and were discharged. Most of these men immediately sign up in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), and Guard is one of these. Appointed to 20 Battalion, he is quickly promoted to Sergeant.

The 20th is sent to Gallipoli in August 1915 and spends most of the time until evacuation at Russell’s Top, overlooking the carnage of the Light Horse’s charge at the Nek. On 11 November he receives a shrapnel wound to the head, which sees him evacuated to Egypt.

After Gallipoli the AIF spends some time re-organising before they are transferred to France. In mid-1916 Sgt Guard and the rest of the battalion find themselves near a small town called Pozieres. The Battle of the Somme had commenced on 1 July and the first Australians were in action on the 23rd.

Commanding 14 Platoon of D Company, on 4 August Sgt Guard is involved in his unit’s successful attack on the German OG 1 and OG 2 trenches just beyond the town. The rest of the battalion is relieved that night, but possibly acting as a guide for the new unit, he is sent to a post forward of the lines, leaving his gear behind in the trenches.

Returning later to the lines during a heavy bombardment with a wounded man, he himself is wounded. When he collects his belongings he discovers that his possessions have been wounded as well. The result being the hole through the notebook, and presumably, at least the coat that he had left it in.

In November 1916 he was again wounded slightly, but remained on duty. Soon after the action at Pozieres he was commissioned as an officer and promoted to Lieutenant. He survives the war and returns to Australia, later settling in Queanbeyan and Canberra. He donates his pocketbook to the Memorial in 1936.

Pte Charles Henry Lester (PR00129)

Pte Lester was a 22 year-old electro-plater when he joins the AIF in November 1916, and he’s appointed to 53 Battalion, joining it in Belgium in September of 1917. A mere 8 days later he is in the thick of the fighting for Polygon Wood, part of the Battle of 3rd Ypres, or Passchendaele.

He is one of 42 men of his battalion evacuated over these couple of days with shell shock, and this is not really surprising when you read the letter he composed a few days later. In this he describes that day’s events in which he is hit no less than 5 times by bullets, shrapnel and shell fragments!

The first hits the stock of his rifle he is carrying in his hands. The second travels through his haversack damaging various items such as his eating utensils, a tin of food, his shaving brush and ending in a tangle in his housewife.

Two other close shaves punch holes in his trousers, one grazing his leg. After helping evacuate a wounded officer he is heading back towards the line when a shell explodes in front of him. He is knocked to the ground winded and escorted to a dressing station where he discovers he has only a bruised and painful breastbone.

Examining his gear he finds the cause of the bruising to be a shell fragment, roughly 2x2x2cm has pierced his jacket, tunic pocket, testament and ended up lodged in his writing wallet. While he is recovering from this experience he writes this letter home to let his family know of his amazing luck.

In looking through the war diary for his unit there is reference to how the new method of carrying entrenching tools has saved at least three lives by acting as a type of body armour and stopping bullets! Pte Lester it certainly not alone in having luck intervene for him during the battle.

After this exciting day he spends a couple of months recovering before returning to his unit. In January 1918 he is evacuated to hospital sick with diphtheria, which while he is there turns into tonsillitis, but he recovers and rejoins his battalion.

In September 1918 he is involved in the attack on Mont St Quentin, near the town of Peronne, but sadly his luck has run out and he is killed. He is buried in the Peronne Communal Cemetery Extension.

Pte John Hector Croft (PR82/107 & PR03842)

John Croft was a 23 year old labourer, born in Mittagong when he enlisted in November 1914. He joins 3 Battalion which is involved in the initial landings at Gallipoli on 25 April. For him the fighting becomes intense around midday and he reports many men are being killed and wounded around him.

He has a couple of close shaves at this point, including a spent shrapnel ball which hits him in the shoulder, but does no harm. He picks this up, (noting it is hot to touch), and shows it to an officer next to him who is then shot through the shoulder. He doesn’t have long to reflect on this however as he receives a blow to his heart which he fears is the finish of him.

He soon learns this is not the case as his pocket book has saved him, though the fact the bullet passed through his arm first also helped! The doctor tells him later that this took speed off the bullet and caused it to turn and hit the pocketbook side on. He notes that he was on the shore a grand total of seven hours before he was hit.

He is evacuated to Egypt where he undergoes a period of convalescence before being returned to duties. During this recovery he discovers that his wound has badly damaged the soft tissue of his arm and he cannot perform drill. He writes that he was nearly sent home to Australia, but managed to get sent to another hospital where he undergoes surgery to have his arm fixed.

This is a fateful decision, as he rejoins his unit and travels to France with them, but falls ill and has a couple of weeks sick in hospital. Four weeks after being discharged from the hospital he is fighting in the Battle of the Somme, where he is badly wounded in the left shoulder. He is evacuated by ambulance train, but dies on the hospital ship crossing from France to England. Initially listed as being buried at sea, he was in fact taken ashore and is buried in the grounds of what was the hospital at Netley Military Cemetery, United Kingdom.

Most of the above comes from two letters written by him that we have in our Private Records collection in which he describes that eventful day. With one of the letters he sent the pocket book, which is a very interesting object. While most of the pages are blank, it seems that it was purchased by his friends the Catt family, who wrote a few cheery messages and greetings in it before presenting it to him, possibly around the time he enlisted.

2/Lt Graham David Spinkston

One for those who think books are of no use! Have a look at our catalogue entry here - it says it all.

A book "Taste of Courage" carried by 2/Lt Spinkston on patrol A book "Taste of Courage" carried by 2/Lt Spinkston on patrol

Listen to an ABC 666 radio broadcast on Close Shaves here.