Thursday, 8 August 2013

Schwartze Tag

Today is the 95th anniversary of the day that General Erich Ludendorff called the schwartze Tag des deutschen Heeres (the dark day for German forces). August 8, 1918 was the first day of the Battle of Amiens that (with hindsight) came to be recognised as the beginning of the 100-day offensive that ended the Great War.

It was also the day on which Sergeant Jack Wilkinson of the 15th battalion AIF earned the Military Medal for his part in the capture of the occupied village of Cerisy on the bank of the Somme.

Jack Wilkinson was a grandson of John Davies (1846-1920) and so was our first cousin at three generations removed. Both his parents had migrated to Australia as adolescents with their parents; which meant that Jack, his siblings, and their cousins were the first Australian-born generation of that branch of our family tree.

Born 16 December 1895 and named John (the given name of both his grandfathers), Jack Wilkinson was apprenticed as an Iron Turner at the Bundaberg Foundry.

He did not rush to join up at the first sounds of the clarion call. It was 1 March 1917 when he signed up at the age of 21 years 2 months. By this time, the demand for fresh reinforcements was becoming acute and the first Conscription Referendum had been lost. Three cousins (two older and one younger) were already serving in France.

When describing his previous military experience prior to enlistment, Jack listed 4 years in the Senior Cadets and 2 years with the Citizen Forces 4th Brigade, and (most significantly) almost 18 months on the Instructional Staff where he held the rank of Sergeant.

With this background, Jack's initial deployment in Europe was obvious. He spent the first year of his service with the 11th Training Battalion in England, preparing other new recruits. In November and December of 1917, he was an instructor at the Rapid Wiring School where he could apply his knowledge as a metal worker to a task vital to the preservation of life and limb in static trench warfare.

When Jack left Australia he had been designated as part of the 8th Reinforcements for the 41st Battalion. However when he eventually joined a fighting unit in France in March 1918, it was the 15th Battalion where (unusually) he retained his Citizen Forces and Training Battalion rank.

The 15th Battalion was one of the original battalions of the 4th Brigade raised in 1914 and was made up predominantly of men from Queensland and Tasmania. In 1916, it had been divided to provide a core of men with battle experience for the newly-created 41st (also a Queensland-based unit) when it arrived on the Western Front. One must assume that Jack's deployment was part of a plan to strengthen the now battle-weary and depleted 15th before a planned long summer campaign.

In the manner of many military records, Jack Wilkinson's summary of active service is not very informative.

  • 15.04.18 Taken on Strength 15th Btn
  • 25.10.18 Admitted to Hospital sick
  • 03.11.18 Awarded Military Medal

A little more detail can be found in the formal recommendation for the decoration that (then) ranked behind only the Victoria Cross and the Distinguished Conduct Medal for other ranks.

For most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on Cerisy on 8th August 1918 E of Corbie.

This NCO, when the Company was temporarily held up by heavy machine gun fire, pushed his Lewis Gun forward and enabled his platoon to advance. When reaching the village, he started mopping up and captured a number of prisoners and material. He showed great coolness throughout the attack and gave most valuable assistance. He has previously been commended for his good work.

B Sampson (Maj-Gen)
CO 15th Bn

Perhaps the news (almost three months after the "stunt") that he had been awarded the Military Medal helped to boost Jack's spirits as he was moved through four different hospitals with a case of bronchial pneumonia that it was feared would be fatal. He eventually recuperated in the 4th Canadian General Hospital in Basingstoke until he was able to return to Brisbane for discharge in April 1919.

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