One of the best war diaries we’ve ever read is Backs to the Wall, by George D Mitchell. Evocative and touching, it is a hidden classic of Australian literature. ‘Mitch’ was there at the Gallipoli landing and, much to his chagrin, managed to make it all through the Western Front campaign without being wounded.
He won a Distinguished Conduct Medal at the First Battle of Bullecourt in April 1917, a murderous battle that pitched unsupported infantry into the impregnable line of German defence known as the Hindenburg Line.
Historian Bill Gammage wrote of Mitch’s actions:
On 11 April, after six hours of bitter trench fighting in the first battle of Bullecourt, France, Mitch covered his comrades’ retreat, then shouldered his Lewis gun and strolled through heavy enemy fire to his lines. He won the Distinguished Conduct Medal and was promoted second lieutenant. His walk entered A.I.F. legend, and Charles Bean’s official history used it to characterize Mitchell’s brigade in the battle.
In honour of Anzac Day, we turn today’s Daily Reckoning over to Mitch and his eyewitness account of the retreat from Bullecourt. We’ll get back to reckoning about markets and other absurdities tomorrow.
‘Back to the old front line,’ called Imlay, as a bloodied messenger raced in. I glanced around the trench as I swung my gun on shoulder. Bright mess tins lay about. There was half a loaf of bread with an open tin of jam beside it, and bloodstained equipment lying everywhere. The dead sergeant still lay massive on the parapet. Other dead lay limp on the trench floor. Wounded sprawled or sat with backs to the parapet, watching us with anxious eyes.
‘You are not going to leave us?’ asked one of me. I could not answer him, or meet his eyes as I joined the party moving down the sap. For some reason I felt the guilt of deserting them was mine alone.
Here was a tangle of dismembered limbs and dead men. The air was heavy with the reek of explosives. One man, with his foot blown off, leaned wearily back. He had a mills in his hand with the pin out. He would not be taken alive.
Our party – about sixty strong, with our two remaining officers – spread along the German front line, mean with ready bombs and bayonets on the flanks. No other Australian force was left in the Hindenburg Line.
Our shells still screamed about the parapet. When this fire died down the might of the German Army would fall again on our outflanked few. Between us and our line stretched masses of brown wire, and fifteen hundred yards of bullet and shell-swept level land, over which for a long time no messenger had lived in attempting to get across. Wounded men stood and sat silent on the upper steps of deep dugouts. I leaned on my gun, pondering the utter hopelessness of the position. A Fritz machine gun sat askew on the parapet. I was forming a project to bring it into action.
Word came from the left flank, punctuated by bomb bursts, ‘Enemy bombing back. We have run out of bombs’. All stores of German bombs had been used up by our men. An officers’ voice called clear, ‘Dump everything and get back.’ Discard my beautiful gun? They mightn’t give me another!
Our few unwounded climbed the parapet. Heavily I started to climb the steep trench wall where a shell had partly blown it in. I looked up to see Bill Davies standing on the top amid the bullets, with hand extended to help me up. A vast indifference settled on me, as I stood on the parapet. Three yards out a man lying over a strand of wire called, ‘Help me, mate.’ I put down my gun and tried to heave him into a shell hole. He screamed with pain as I heaved, so I stopped. ‘I can’t do anything for you, old chap’, I said, and hoping that I would be forgiven the lie, ‘I will send the bearers back.’ ‘Thank you’, he said. I picked up my gun and walked on. A shrapnel from the enemy flank churned the ground just in front, as I picked my way through the wire. A piece of shell fragment cut my puttee tape, and dropped the folds around my boot.
In complete indifference I trudged over the field, making the concession of holding the gun flat so as not to be too prominent. A man reaches a blasé stage after too much excitement. Once I thought of settling down and blazing defiance at the enemy with my last solitary magazine. But the thought of our wounded in the track of the bullets made me refrain.
Five-point-nines burst black on either hand, and futile bullets zipped about. They could no nothing to me. Silly cows to try. Someone ought to tell them…
Following the retreat, Mitch then went back out to recover some of the wounded…
Later in life, Mitch re-entered military service at the outbreak of the Pacific War. He led a band of troops known as ‘Mitch’s Maniac’s’. It was an impressive crew, and contained such emerging luminaries as Captain Nigel Bowen, Corporal (Sir) Ninian Stephen and Captain (Sir) Frank Packer.
However, an impetuous and unauthorised assault on what he thought was a Japanese force turned out to be a deserted island. It led to Mitch being relieved of his command, an ignominious end to his military career. In a passionate and somewhat bitter farewell letter to his men, he wrote:
The war marches to its end. Soon you will enter as recruits into civil life, which many of you left as boys. Do not imagine it will be easy. Here you have learnt to rely on and trust your comrades. If you carry that trust and good faith blindly back to civil life you will find, as we did after the last war, that hordes of parasites will be waiting to cheat and chisel you out of what little you have.
You will find that when you return a large body of people regards you as fools for risking your life overseas, for not being clever enough to malinger out of active service. Do not let this embitter you, but rather make it strengthen your determination to fight the better. For when the war with Japan is over, the fight for Australia will be but beginning.
The profiteering and corruption you will find in high and low places will disgust you. Do not take the weak way of turning aside. You owe it to your comrades, the living and the dead, to carry on. You owe it to Australia to play your peacetime role as well as your wartime task.
It is the duty of each one of us to fight for honesty and decency, for good government, for the dignity of man, and the right of the children of grow up in a healthier, happier and wiser Australia…
All life is a fight, to keep on in peace as now, with zest and determination to reach the objective. Our objective is the well being of Australia, but the way is full of traps and pitfalls, the climb will be steep, long and hard. The march will demand a more enduring courage than any battlefield.
So I wish you the success you have earned, and good fortune in the fighting both of this war and of the peace to come.
Lest We Forget.
for The Daily Reckoning Australia
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