Mildura Weekly : Friday February 7 2014 Vol 8 No 14
Mildura Weekly – 07/02/14 9 www.milduraphonebook.com.au IN mid-July every year I wear a brown and yellow vertical battalion lapel badge. This is in memory of my uncle Sgt Rod Mackenzie, of the 31st Battalion, First AIF, who sent it home to my grandmother from Egypt. His life and many others had been needlessly sacri- ficed in the 5th Division’s first battle on the Western Front at Fromelles, in an unsuccessful attempt to deter the enemy from moving troops south- wards towards the Somme. Roderick, one of seven brothers to serve, joined the Royal Australian Navy on May 19, 1913. He was with HMAS ‘Encounter’ when the Australian Naval and Military Expedition Force landed at Bitapaka near Rabaul in Ger- man New Guinea September 11, 1914. They captured a German wireless station that was used to maintain contact with en- emy ships operating in the region. Months of inactivity fol- lowed their return to Sydney, and Roderick deserted from Garden Island, swimming ashore with several mates, and taking the train to Bris- bane. Enlisting there July 24, 1915 under the name ‘Alan Mackenzie,’ he was allotted regimental number 250 in A Company of the 31st Battal- ion. It comprised two com- panies and Headquarters from Queensland, and two companies and Details from Victoria. While training at Ferry Post, Ismailia, Sgt Mackenzie was involved in a training mishap involving a live gre- nade, and Corps Commander General Godley issued a spe- cial order commending him for his courage for picking up the grenade and throwing it clear of 20 men in the imme- diate vicinity. Sailing to France on HMAT ‘Horata,’ and disem- barking at Marseilles June 23, 1916, his battalion was allot- ted to the 8th Brigade of the Fifth Division, commanded by General McKay, and sent to a quiet section behind the British Section of the Western Front. A plan to use the Division on raids on enemy trenches was abandoned due to the inexperience of the troops, and instead High Command decided that an attack near Armentieres would form a useful diversion, with the nu- merically weak British Divi- sion and Australian Division to participate. Bombardment began on July 14, and advertised a sub- sequent infantry attack, with Rod’s battalion having moved into the line several days ear- lier. Unfortunately, our bom- bardment did not break the wire entanglements in front of the German lines, and when the attack started with the first wave at 5.53 am July 19, the enemy machine gun and artillery fire was heavy. The Australians were able to advance several hundred yards, however over two days fighting the attack was not generally unsuccessful, and our men in the forward area were surrounded by the en- emy. On 20 July, with machine guns firing at them from front, flank, and rear, some 150 men attempted to charge through the German trench back to the Australian lines. Many were successful, in- cluding the Commanding Of- ficer, Lt/Col FW Toll, however our family was informed that my uncle received gunshot wounds to the back and ab- domen, and died in a German field hospital at Haubour- din on July 21, 1916. He was buried at the Cabaret Rouge British Cemetery in Souches, France. In 1987 I made contact with Warragul’s Robert Henry, also a member of A Company, who recalled the grenade inci- dent and was in the German military hospital the night Sgt Mackenzie died. He was told that Mackenzie, being in pain, managed to cut the rope sup- porting his broken leg, and that caused his death. My family always told us that he died of bayonet wounds, as they no doubt did not appreciate the cir- cumstances of his death, and felt there was dishonour in being shot in the back. It was not until later years that I discovered the truth. Casualties of the 800-strong 31st Battalion were 573 men! The Victorian 15th Brigade also suffered severe losses, particularly the 59th and 60th Battalions, with many of these men coming from North-Western Victoria. Fromelles, opposed by senior offices of Anzac Corps, was a disaster, the Australian 5th Division losing 7000 men killed, wounded, or being taken prisoner! General Haking blamed the newness of the infantry for the failure, although he said Fromelles “had done both divisions a great deal of good!” I grew up in the Red Cliffs Soldier Settlement, and lis- tened with wonder to the vivid discussions of some of the 700 men who returned home. General Haking ran a close second to Major General JM Antill, of The Nek infamy, in the least popular officer stakes. Unbelievably, both of- ficers were promoted immedi- ately after Fromelles and The Nek disasters! The attack was hastily and badly planned, there was an inadequate supply of guns and ammunition, and the enemy was in no doubt that this was not a general attack. Never again would Australia be involved in such a plan. And for a long while the AIF would be reluctant to fight beside a British Division. There was little in quality be- tween the five Australian di- visions and their supporting units, but the same could not be said about some other Al- lied divisions. Roderick Mackenzie’s six brothers all served. The eldest, Jim, was a sergeant in the NZ Canterbury Mounted Rifles and was wounded; Alex was with the 23rd Battalion on Gallipoli, severely wounded in the head, and was lucky to survive; Colin was a gunner with the 4th AFAB in France; my father Charles served on HMAS ‘Melbourne’ from 1913-18 in the Suez, West In- dies, and the North Sea, and died at an early age of war- caused illness; Mac’s troop- ship was recalled when the war ended, but he also served in the Middle East and New Guinea during WW2; as did the youngest brother Mal- colm. After the war, my grand- mother and uncles were regu- lar visitors to Red Cliffs, and all enjoyed life on the block. It could be said that Mildura’s Ken Wright is in his ‘twilight years,’ but there’s nothing wrong with his memory. Over the years he has provided Mildura Weekly readers with graphic, interesting and entertaining accounts of Australia’s involvement in major conflicts, whether it be on land, sea or in the air. The following is yet another example, simply titled... Disaster at Fromelles BY KEN WRIGHT Chairman/historian, Mildura RSL RAAF Museum • The unveiling of the original First Division Memorial at what is now the Pozières British Cemetery, July 1917. [AWM EZ0126] • Sergeant Rod Mackenzie, 31st Battalion 1st AIF ansd INSET: inexperienced Australian troops the 5th Australian Division ready for the attack at Fromelles. DEA0007DeakinUniversityCRICOSProviderCode:00113B HEAD TO DEAKIN UNIVERSITY FOR EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION NOW. Study Deakin’s Bachelor of Early Childhood Education in 2014 at SuniTafe – Swan Hill • Specialise in early childhood education (birth – eight years) • Stay close to home while you study and work • Enjoy excellent career opportunities in child care, kindergarten and primary school teaching • Victorian Institute of Te aching (VIT) Accreditation. You still have time to enrol! 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Friday January 31 Vol 8 No 13
Friday February 14 2014 Vol 8 No 15