Grim pre­mo­ni­tion as hun­dreds killed in fi­nal mo­ments

Sunday Mail - - WORLD - JUSTIN LEES

THE Great War had only one week left but Aus­tralian Cor­po­ral Al­bert Davey could not shake the feel­ing he would be killed.

“Cap­tain, noth­ing you can say will re­move the con­vic­tion that I will be killed. Will you please do me the favour I ask?” he begged his protest­ing com­mand­ing of­fi­cer.

Sadly, Davey died 100 years ago to­day, one of six Aus­tralians killed in ac­tion — three engi­neers and three pilots, be­lieved to be our last com­bat ca­su­al­ties of World War I.

A tun­neller from Bal­larat, Davey had re­vealed his pre­mo­ni­tion to Cap­tain Oliver Wood­ward (played by Bren­dan Cow­ell in the movie Be­neath Hill 60) 24 hours ear­lier as they pre­pared to as­sist a Bri­tish push across the Sam­bre canal, ask­ing him to send his per­sonal be­long­ings to wife Mar­garet if the worst hap­pened.

Cap­tain Wood­ward viewed Davey as a good op­er­a­tor and told him not to be fool­ish – how­ever, the cor­po­ral was hit by shell­fire be­fore they even moved for­ward. His fel­low sap­pers Arthur John­son and Charles Bar­rett were also killed that day.

“Davey must have seen that the war might soon be over and felt that go­ing into one more heavy bat­tle was chanc­ing his hand too far,” wrote Peter Bur­ness in an ar­ti­cle for the Aus­tralian War Memo­rial.

Also killed on Novem­ber 4, were three fighter pilots of the Aus­tralian Fly­ing Corps, at­tacked by Ger­man Fokkers as they es­corted Bri­tish bombers on a raid. In the brief and sav­age dog­fight South Aus­tralian air ace Cap­tain Thomas Baker was shot down (see main story), as were Lieu­tenants Parker Sy­mons and Arthur Pal­lis­ter.

The six were in an ex­tra­or­di­nary po­si­tion: Their units had stayed in front­line op­er­a­tions af­ter the vast ma­jor­ity of Aus­tralian forces were with­drawn in Oc­to­ber for a wellde­served rest af­ter two years of bit­ter fight­ing in France and Bel­gium.

That rest was to pre­pare them for an Al­lied of­fen­sive in 1919. But events moved faster, chang­ing ev­ery­thing. With Ger­many’s al­lies, the Ot­tomans – our old foe from Gal­lipoli – and Aus­tria-Hun­gary sud­denly col­laps­ing, Ber­lin was in an im­pos­si­ble po­si­tion. Af­ter three days of in­tense ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Al­lies, the in­creas­ingly des­per­ate Ger­mans – fac­ing ri­ots at home – signed the terms of the Ar­mistice at 5.10am on Novem­ber 11, 1918. They agreed fight­ing would of­fi­cially end at 11am.

The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month has gone down in his­tory as a mo­ment to pause and remember.

Yet even as the news was tele­graphed across the world and crowds in cities be­gan cel­e­brat­ing, the dy­ing con­tin­ued – on a mas­sive and sick­en­ing scale. Thou­sands of men on all sides were killed, wounded or went miss­ing on that day.

As­tound­ingly, some gen­er­als, well aware the end was within grasp, de­lib­er­ately ordered their men into ac­tion for a fi­nal thrust, in search of glory or be­cause they felt the Ger­mans needed to be smashed.

One point­less US as­sault – to take the bath­house in the town of Ste­nay – cost 365 ca­su­al­ties.

The last per­son to die be­fore fir­ing ceased was an Amer­i­can, Pri­vate Henry Gunter, shot dead at 10:59am. Anec­do­tally the Ger­mans, who knew cease­fire was mo­ments away, shouted at them to stop but as the Amer­i­cans at­tacked, the Ger­mans fired back. Of­fi­cial records said of Gunter: “Al­most as he fell, the gun­fire died away and an ap­palling si­lence pre­vailed.”

Aus­tralian troops were not in ac­tion on Novem­ber 11 – yet an es­ti­mated 18 died, of wounds, ill­ness or ac­ci­dent. Ar­tillery­man Syd­ney Harper drowned at a French port.

For the vast ma­jor­ity, it was time for cel­e­bra­tion; although many grap­pled with the enor­mity of what was hap­pen­ing. “The war is over and no one quite re­alises it yet,” wrote Hec­tor Brewer, of Syd­ney, whose war had taken him from Gal­lipoli through to the Western Front.

One who cer­tainly did re­alise it was air­man Frank Smith, who had been shot down be­hind enemy lines days ear­lier.

Mates thought he was dead and had ex­tra rea­son to cel­e­brate when he wan­dered in through the old front lines, where he had been evad­ing the Ger­mans up till 11am.

LAST DAYS: Aus­tralian troops be­fore ad­vanc­ing on the French vil­lage of Har­bon­nieres on Au­gust 8. Pri­vate Tow­ers of Coota­mundra, NSW, on the far right, died on Novem­ber 11 of pneu­mo­nia.

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