Grim premonition as hundreds killed in final moments
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position: Their units had stayed in frontline operations after the vast majority of Australian forces were withdrawn in October for a welldeserved rest after two years of bitter fighting in France and Belgium.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.