Letters of Captain WM BRAITHWAITE, MC

Date of enlistment 8th July 1915
Age at enlistment 22
Profession Tanner
Town Preston, Melbourne
Status Single
Rank at enlistment 2nd Lieutenant
Company C Company
Significant events while with the AIF Embarked with 16th Reinforcements on HMAT Nestor, 2nd October 1916

Served in France and Belgium

Wounded in Action twice, including 3rd May 1917, Bullecourt

military-cross-george-v-300x300Awarded Military Cross at Bullecourt

Promoted to Lieutenant, and then Temporary Captain

Officer Commanding ‘C’ Company from October 1917, Broodseinde

Killed in Action, 3rd October 1918, Beaurevoir

Braithwaite 2.pngPhotograph of Capt. Braithwaite, standing 9th from left, back row of the C Company banner photograph on the project website.

Capt. Braithwaite’s full WW1 service record can be located in the National Archives of Australia. Full details are available online, NAA Series B2455.

The following extracts are taken from the letters of Capt. Braithwaite while on active service with the 22nd Battalion in France and Belgium. The letters, including letters from senior officers following his death, were collated into a book and are stored in the Australian War Memorial research centre in Canberra. Acknowledgement goes to the family of Capt. Braithwaite and the AWM enabling the subsequent publishing within this commemorative project.

France

21st December 1916: There is one lad in my Company who has a girl in Boulogne, three in England, and two in Australia. He writes to them in terms of undying affection and he really must have a very lively brain to keep each romance separate.

12th January 1917: It is very cold here. Impossible to obtain coal and other fire materials scarce, so we do not know what a fire is. Great writing but my hands are frozen. There is not much to tell you mum….daily routine with not much happening in between and we don’t get out of camp much for incidents to happen.

I will try and give you some idea of my present abode. Imagine the West Melbourne swamp for 10 miles. Then in the wettest and muddiest patch dig a trench, then make a dugout by digging out of the side of  the trench a couple of square feet and putting a piece of iron over the open space. I must mention the swamp must have shell holes in every available inch. Holes average diameter 6 feet. The highest temperature since I got up here should be somewhere in the neighbourhood of 30 degrees. Water in shell holes is frozen all the time and now I hasten to inform you it is snowing. All the time shells are going both ways. The dugout dodge is a great idea. The floor is a waterproof sheet. I am above the average height and cannot sit straight in it. It is about 2 feet high. It is built for three and the legs of any person will not fit in it so we are really sitting on the ground with our legs out in the snow or rain or just with a piece of iron over our heads. But enough of it. It is impossible to imagine the frightful ruin and devastation that is everywhere on this battlefield and war is No Good! Rotten idea I think.

England

11th May 1917: [Account of Bullecourt] Here I am [3rd London General Hospital, Wandsworth] and very pleased too. I am suffering from five small wounds in my right upper arm and a small one in my left forearm but I was never better in my life. They are practically all right now, and I was hit about 4.15am on May 3rd. I will try and give you some idea of our show which believe me, was no good. I had told you in my previous letter that we were in for a hop over and it duly came to hand. Our battalion’s job was to occupy a certain section of the Hindenburg Line between Bullecourt and Riencourt and then go further in about 280 yards and take possession of a sunken road. The 21st battalion were to go and take Hendecourt. Our line was a railway embankment about 1,200 yards from the Bosch line and to start off we had a tape laid about 500 yards from his wire. We moved up from Favreuil about 7 o’clock in the evening of the 2nd and reached the railway embankment at 2.45am and moved straight out to our Jump off mark. We had not got 50 men into position and lying down before the gentle Hun turned on a searchlight and of course that was the finish. Flares went up and he immediately started off with trench mortars and machine guns. However, eventually we got our men out into 4 waves and had them lying down until zero time at 3.45am. By 3.25 approx. his batteries started their tune and for 20 minutes we lay in shell holes whilst around us were falling ‘minnies’, which were big trench mortars with explosions like the end of the world, ‘pineapples’, a sort of aerial torpedo, machine gun bullets and every class of German shell from the highest to the pip-squeak both high explosive and shrapnel. All this time Willie was trying to push his tummy further and further into the earth. All we had to do was lie there and wait for something to turn up. We lost a good few here, but when you realise the amount of iron that was flying through the air it is really marvellous how few got hurt. At 3.45 zero time our barrage started and that was goodoh. It really is wonderful, a show like this. We had all Fritz’s machinery going then ours started. Talk about noise. No use trying to speak, what with Hun’s fireworks display of rockets, the smell of the explosives and the dust and all to start with in the dark space before dawn, it was uncanny. By this time, all our waves and those of the 21st were mixed up. However we got to the 1st and 2nd trenches and some parts had Huns in and others were Australians and talk about mix up. You couldn’t imagine it. One minute would be quiet and then you would see some speedmaster bombs coming through the air and you would know that you were being shown the way out. Then we would push him along with our gentle Mills which is five times better bomb than the German one and so it went on until he was gradually pushed out of our show. I did not see any more of the show as I had had  enough then! I got a piece of HE in my left arm on the way over and a bit bruised on my heel. The speedmaster had caught my right upper arm so I decided to go home as I had my share. I could see that Fritz still had both villages but I could use neither of my arms so did not see the force of staying. But when I went to go back I nearly changed my mind. In front of what had been his front line trench, machine gun bullets were whistling all ways and Fritz had also brought up his barrage nearer so that it looked extremely unhealthy. However I made up my mind to chance it and also had a brain wave. There were three Fritz prisoners there so I determined to take them out and use them as a bit of cover. I thought that perhaps their pals might stop firing but just the opposite. They picked us up and chased us 1,200 yards back. The only way to go was from shell hole to shell hole. I went first, I thought it was the best place. It took me about three hours to get back to the railway line and I left what remained of one Fritz behind as he was last out of one hole and the machine guns got him properly. From the railway I walked back to the dressing station at Vaux. Motor bus to Grevillers Hospital Train and I was at No.7 station in Boulogne at 6am on the 4th. Crossed over on the 7th to Dover and reached my present abode that night. Been here ever since. Have seen Arthur Mitchell who had had a rough time but is now improving, and Major Dooley, my O.C. is here also. He gets his Military Cross at Buckingham Palace tomorrow. I will tell you next time all about the hospital which is a fine place, and I am not surprised at patients marrying their nurses. You don’t know how lucky you are to get out of a show like our last one with a nice Blighty. I am in no hurry to go back. It is funny. I was not at all frightened in the stunt somehow I thought I would get a blighty and shells and bullets did not worry me at all. Other times, one I remember in support with perhaps a dozen shells a day I had the wind right up. Perhaps it is because two consecutive ones landed on the roof of the dugout. I thought that Providence would look after me and it did.

Belgium

14th October 1917: [Account of Broodseinde] On the night of 2nd I had just gone to bed when I was sent for and told to go up to the line and take Billy Woolf’s place as he had been wounded. It was a rotten re-entry into the war and I rode through Ypres about 2 o’clock in the morning with the wind right up. I then got into the area where shell drops now and again which caused me distinct uneasiness after just five months absence. However in the end I reached BHQ and saw the CO and get orders for the stunt and found myself in command of C Coy. I had three others with me Jacky Kohn a fine little chap, Tales from Hampton who is a good man and Beckingsdale who has turned out to be a complete washout. We had 24 hours before the show and during that time Fritz gave us a fairly rough time so that by the time for the show came I was quite accustomed to the blasting of the shells. We got out on our jump off tape which was situated in our front line at 4 o’clock and our barrage was not to open till 6am. We soon had the Coy ready and then all we had to do was to sit down and wait. Things were fairly quiet until 5.30 when Fritz opened up for half an hour with the most intense bombardment that I think is possible. I was laying in a shell hole with my Batman and three runners and I think that a shell landed on every part of the lip of the hole. I was quite certain I would not get out of it alive and so was everybody else. My word, we were waiting anxiously for our barrage to open. I was buried twice in that half hour and have never been 1/100 so frightened in my life before. It was glorious when our guns opened up 2 minutes late but so great had been the strap that Fritz had given us that I thought I and my band of heroes were all that were left of the Battalion, but they rose up from everywhere and the show had started. We very soon ran into Huns and until we reached our objective (1,000 yards away) ours was the 1st objective. I never had such an enjoyable time. Fritz’s barrage was preparatory to an attack he was going to lodge against us. Imagine his surprise when ours opened up but just as he was thinking of coming against us we were on him. Well if the Germans we met on the 4th are a fair sample of what we have against us we are certain to win this war. They are a craven lot of brutes. As soon as they saw we were a force they either up with their hands or rushed off to Berlin. The Blockhouses were frightful death traps to them, a couple of bombs in the back door did very well. Our lads were in their element. I have seen Fritz’s bombed, bayoneted and shot. They were frightened. We reached our objective all right and the barrage stopped 200 yards in front whilst we dug in. Then it went forward and other battalions went over us to go on to the 2nd objective. I think the stories that accumulated about this show will have to wait. It was funny. You would see a bunch of Germans rushing down with their hands up and Billgims ratting him for souvenirs. I had no time because I had to get a place for our people to dig in and generally act the ass. However we dug in alright and until about noon of the 4th all was quiet but then for 18 hours he gave us hell with his artillery and it was also raining and I was wet through. We being in here for two days and were relieved but came back to support with plenty of rain and no place to live but in the mud. We were all absolutely done and imagine our feelings when we got orders to return to the line and do another hop over. I had the remnants of B, C & D Coys and we did our small job all right but our left copped it. We then had to wait another night until relieved spent a night in support and finally got out of the line at 2am on the 12th. For a hard experience and absolutely awful time I do not thinks that mine for 10 days could be beaten. I had so many escapes that it makes one wonder how it is that anyone could possibly live. However the great majority weathers the storm and only the unlucky ones get knocked. The conditions at the end were awful, always over your ankles in the mud and slush. Sometimes above your knees and the men live in this for nine days with constant shelling and in our last position plenty of sniping.

Our future movements are uncertain but they cannot be worse than they were last time. Little Frank Kellaway, son of Rev Kellaway of Northcote was killed. I was frightfully sorry as he was absolutely as fine a boy as you could possibly meet. He got a MC at Pozieres. I think we are just about finished stunts for the year and we should get through the winter alright with the shelling it takes a great many to hurt anyone. It is rather a compliment to get a Coy to take over and I do not think I messed things up so that I think that the powers that be still smile upon me. Things lately seem to make me think this war is reaching the end. I thinks that if it does not end soon the German soldiers will chuck in the sponge. He is no soldier. You should see the ground we have taken from him. Three ridges which if he had any stomach at all he should have held. Where he had us at the disadvantage we have him now and I think that if we are spared for the next twelve months that things will be working themselves out so that we will all be home once again.

27th March 1918: One of the bravest men it has been my experience to meet died this morning. A shell lobbed in his post and blew his left foot off and knocked both his legs about very bad. He was conscious at the time and died at the RAP. He was wonderful, he said it was no good, had a cigarette and we gave him a whiskey but he died all the same. His name is Harry Parsons and he had just obtained his commission a few months ago. If you ever meet any of his relatives tell them he was absolutely the bravest lad I ever knew.

France

7th April 1918: We are now down where the Hun has made his great effort. You may read about the wonderful resistance of the English Tommy but in my honest opinion some of them are much better hands at long distance running than they are at fighting.

9th April 1918: I think I told you my views of a London air raid. They are humorous when you see people tearing about on the slightest rumour. I think one could stand one of those things every day. We get them on any fine day we are here and it is interesting to watch Fritz’s giant planes come over. There is always the chance of seeing one come down although I will say that when a bomb lands close it is not the nicest thing in the world.

As you say some days the War looks like being over soon but I believe since I got down here that we are in for a fairly sticky time for the next few months. I am still at the transport and the battalion are having a quiet run though very uncomfortable. Laying in the mud for four days is not the most pleasant occupation especially with rain all day and the necessity for keeping down so as not to get shot and always the likelihood of the fearful Hun trying to come and take you home with him. However the Hun is up against something harder to shift now than he had at the start.

16th April 1918: The battalion are once again in the line so little Willie is having a rather excellent run at the present moment. What do you think of Fritz attacking the positions we were in up north 5 days after we moved down here. The French are very disgusted at the British. It pays to wear an Australian hat these days. We will have to be lucky to lick the old Kaiser now. If only the Tommies had stuck to their places all would have been well but a retirement of 36 miles in 36 hours seems to be a rather hurried rear-guard action. It was a rout and in fact the British Amy’s name is mud. They are fighting better up north but the whole show at present is absolutely critical and not much different to the early days of 1914. To think the lives lost in the Somme to have been thrown away for nothing. Positions won by continuous fighting for months lost in a few hours by a mob (nothing else) of panic stricken Englishmen.

17th May 1918: It pays to wear and Australian hat these days. I think an Australian will always get a welcome in Picardy. The French people look upon the Australians as the people that kept the Bosch from Amiens.

2nd November 1918: [letter from Capt. Rodda to Mrs Braithwaite]

I, who am proud to be able to say was counted amongst Billy’s friends, want you to know something of what we thought of him in our Battalion. A big, strong, forceful man, a magnificent officer, brave to recklessness, generous and kind hearted, he won the admiration and love of every officer and man in the Battalion. He was the idol of his Company – his last words were truly typical of him – those of encouragement to his men and of utter disregard for himself – he indeed died a soldier’s death. I trust I may someday be able to call and see you – I feel I cannot adequately express my feelings in a letter. I mourn the loss of the best friend I ever had and the finest man I ever knew. Yours very sincerely, Harold Rodda, Capt.

 

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