Here he lies……….

This is a story about another of our relatives whose WWI story we followed when we were in France last month – Robert WACHMAN, David’s second cousin once removed.

Robert was born in Dublin Ireland in 1894 to Moshe WACHMAN and Seina (Sina Tzia bat Rachel Leah) JACKSON. This gets a bit complicated but Seina’s mother was Rachel Leah Wachman who married Urel Jackson. Rachel is the sister of David’s great grandmother Tsipe Wachman. If you’ve been following my blogs for a while, you’ll remember that this was the massive brick wall I had in trying to discover the link between Moshe and Tsipe. Well, we think there is a double link in that Seina is Moshe’s cousin. Anyway, as I said, that’s complicated. Enough to know that David and Robert WACHMAN are definitely cousins.

Moshe was born in Tels Lithuania in 1865 and Seina in 1871 in Memel (now Klapedia) Lithuanis. Somehow they both arrived in Dublin where they married in 1885 and started their family. Robert had two older brothers also born in Dublin – Abraham (1891) and Simon(1892). The family then migrated to Capetown South Africa where they had four more children – Edward (1899), Harry (1901), Albert (1903) and Saidie (1904).

They then migrated to Australia arriving in Albany Western Australia in May 1905. Ernest was born in Broken Hill on 7 May 1907 and Betty was born in Australia somewhere in 1909.

So, now to Robert, himself. in 1914 at the outbreak of war, he was a traveller, according to his army record. We presume that means what we used to call a “commercial traveller” and we get a further clue from an item in the Melbourne Herald on 28 May 1914 stating that he and his brother, Simon, applied for a patent (No 12757) for a “push coin vending machine”. I am unable to find further information on the success of this patent and I wonder if anything came of it.

He enlisted in the AIF at Blackboy Hill, east of Perth, on 25 November 1915 when he was 21 years 8 months old and living at 258 Newcastle Street Perth Western Australia. On 10 February 1916 he is shown as being a member of the 16th Battalion 15th Reinforcements. Blackboy Hill seems an interesting place. It was the birthplace of the Australian Infantry Force (AIF) in Western Australia and over 32 000 men did their basic training there for about 10 weeks before heading for Egypt or England. Because of the number of casualties on the battlefields, some battalions had up to 27 reinforcements of 100 men in training here, ready to head overseas. Robert was 5ft 7ins (170cm) tall and weighed 158lbs (72kg). He had black hair, brown eyes and a dark complexion and was of the Jewish faith and he noted that he was a British subject. I think this is because his father was naturalised in South Africa when he was still a minor. His next of kin was his mother, Seina who was living at 137 Lake St, Perth.

On 12 February in Freemantle he embarked on the HMAT A28 Miltiades and he shows on the Australian War Memorial Embarkation roll number as 23/35/3. He joined the 14th Battalion 16th reinforcements on 13 February 1916 and he disembarked at Port Suez on 11 March 16. On 14 May 1916 he was allotted to the 12th Training Battalion at Tel-el-Kabir and it was here that he was awarded 28 days punishment on 28 May for refusing duty and insolence to a Non-Commissioned Officer.

He was transferred to the 48th Battalion, part of the 12th Brigade 4th Division, on 2 June 1916, the day that he embarked on HMT Caledonia at Alexandria. He arrived in France at Marseille on 9 June and they went to the Nursery Sector, to an area around Bailleul, a French Flemish town close to the border with Belgium. The Nursery Sector was so named because it was supposed to be relatively quiet and an area where units new to the Western Front could be sent to get ready for trench warfare. Whilst here they visited the front line trenches at Houplines. In July they were under heavy shelling form the Germans in the Fleurbaix area and were moved by train from Bailleux to Doullens, about 100km south in the Somme.

In July 1916 there was intense fighting around Pozières in an attempt to capture Old German Lines (OGL) 1 & 2. By August 6 and after 10 days of fighting, the Australian 2nd Division had lost 6848 officers and men and it was replaced by the Australian 4th Division which included the 48th Battalion and Robert Wachman. On 8 August, they captured OG1 & OG2 but suffered heavy casualties with 102 killed, 404 wounded and 76 missing in action (MIA). Many were shell shocked and the battalion numbers were very low. They were moved to Albert on 16 August and marched to Warloy Baillon and then back to Albert but by the end of the month they were back near Pozières attacking Mouquet Farm.

On 2 September they were moved back to Albert and from there travelled to Belgium where they had huts and tents, were able to wash and change their socks. What a relief that must have been! They had a church parade – I wonder if there was a Rabbi amongst the chaplains? In October they were at Vierstraat in Belgium at the front but were not in the action. They were billeted in Boeschepe and then moved to Villers sous Ailly where they were also billeted. They were cleaning up the streets and here they were able to attend a concert which was held in a barn.

November saw them moved from Villers sous Ailly to Berthencourt where they were billeted and underwent training and then moved to Vaux which was a good area where they underwent training and even played football. They were then moved to Dernancourt where the billets were poor and extremely dirty. They were cold and wet. Then they moved to Fricourt and then to Switch Trench at Flers which was a very bad area where they dug trenches in the mud and water. They saw action at Flers and here conditions were so bad it was not possible to give the men a hot meal whilst in the firing line. Rain was torrential and the mud was up to the men’s knees. This was the start of the worst European winter for 40 years. To move from rear camps up to the front line with full pack on, the men could take 6 hours to cover the 3 kms so bad was the weather and the mud. Sleep was impossible in the trenches and men could have to remain standing for the full 24 hours as they couldn’t lie in the mud.

The 48th then moved back to Mametz in the mud over bad roads. In December they were in Dernancourt where they were visited by General Birdwood, the British Officer who was in command of the Australian and New Zealand Forces at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. The Battalion was moved to Flesselles and then to Vigancourt and in both places were billeted.

On New Years Day 1917, the Brigade held a sports day and the 48th was the successful battalion winning most events. On 2 January, they marched to Franvillers, a distance of 14 miles in full kit in 6.5 hours. The official war diary states that the men marched well – no one fell out. On 3 January, they marched from Franvillers to Dernancourt in 3.5 hours and again, no man fell out. On the 5th they marched for three hours to Fricourt along roads that were very difficult to march on and again no one fell out. Here they were joined by the 25th reinforcements. On this day, Robert Wachman is promoted to Corporal (Temporary). On the 6th, they marched to Bazentin, back near Flers, and took up lines near Gueudecourt. They moved forward then to support the lines at Bulls Road.

The war diary for the 8th is very interesting to read. All cooking was done in Flers and carrying parties carried the two meals per day to the men in the trenches. This took 3 hours each way each meal. The men were also given hot soup at 3am. Their wet socks were sent back daily and dry ones provided. On the 9th, an easier route was found for the carrying parties and the return trip took only 2.5 hrs. There was heavy artillery fire from the German lines.

On the 10th, it appears that there was debate about how the meals should be delivered efficiently but there is conviction that without hot food helping to keep the men warm and fed, they would not be efficient. Army rations would not be enough. On the 12th enemy artillery fire is heavy and three men are killed – one is buried for 7 hours under debris. Some men are suffering from trench feet with the extreme cold even with the dry socks.

By January 12, the problem with trench feet had become worse with two men evacuated. The other sufferers go to the Battalion Rest Station where the Medical Officer is pleased with the results of a new powder they have been issued with. The porters carrying supplies leave at 5pm and finish their second trip about 5am as it all has to happen under the cover of darkness. Three men are evacuated with mumps. The 15th saw heavy shelling and headquarters was hit and a store containing gum boots was blown up. After 10 days at the front, the 48th was relieved by the 47th at 7:45pm. The men moved to Brisbane Camp and there was a heavy fall of snow.

On January 19, fatigues arrived and all men had a bath and a clean set of clothes. All rifles were cleaned and inspected. I can’t begin to imagine how good that must have felt. I imagine it took a lot of soaking and scrubbing to remove the mud from their poor tired bodies.

On 24th they moved into Bazentin Camp where it was still very cold and the snow was still on the ground. The men worked on the roads and the rail tracks. The diary of the 31st states that the Australians are not used to the extreme cold and they need sufficient fuel to allow them to have a stove to keep them warm and get them ready for their next tour of duty. The lack of sufficient food and heating is not good.

In February, the 48th continued with the railway work and moved to the Albury Camp, to the Flers Sector and then to Bulls Trench and back to Mametz.

During March the weather was still extremely cold and the men were busy cleaning arms and equipment and training. They were wet and cold. On March 17, Robert Wachman was promoted to Corporal.

On 1 April, they marched 6 miles into to an area near Bapaume with full pack and one blanket. It was wet and cold. The men then worked on fatigues. The officers undertook some training on the 5th and then inspected the frontlines at Bullecourt and Noreuil on the 6th. They arranged to relieve the 52nd and did so on the 8th. The next day was quiet and some patrols went out into enemy wire at Bullecourt and discovered that the barbed wire was strong. Bullecourt was part of the German’s defence lines known as the Hindenburg Line and the Allies wanted to break through thi s line

On April 10, the 46th and 48th Battalion were ordered to attack enemy lines on a frontage of 600 yards. The battalions were to be in position to attack in conjunction with the tanks at 4:30am. There was to be no artillery fire so as to surprise the Germans. But the tanks failed to appear and orders to retire were given at 5:30. This had to happen in daylight in full view of the enemy. There was a barrage of enemy fire and five men were killed and 17 wounded.

The attack on Bullecourt did take place on April 11. It was timed to occur at 4:20 but the tanks were late and slow at moving forward so the 48th couldn’t attack until 6:19. This meant that the men were exposed to heavy rifle and machine gun fire and the battalion suffered heavy losses – 14 Officers and 421 men. They breached the enemy position and held it for 70 minutes despite the withdrawal of the other battalions on their flanks. They retired in an orderly manner but were unable to collect the wounded and the dead. A very sad day for Australia.

Sadly, Corporal Robert Wachman was one left behind. He was reported Missing in Action (MIA) on 11 April 1917. He was one of the 3000 casualties of that battle. Another 1170 men were taken prisoner.

The field at Bullecourt where it is thought that Robert’s body lies.

His brother Simon who was in the Transport Section of the 44th Battalion was making enquiries in July 1917 to try to find out what happened to his brother.

His mother, Seina, was his next of kin and on 23 January 1918 she wrote to the army requesting information on Robert’s whereabouts as she had been informed that he was MIA. She received an answer on 30 January saying that there was no further information.

It wasn’t until the 8 March 1918 that Simon received notification that Robert had been killed on 11 April. The Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau Files contain a statement by Second Lieutenant Brockelberg that Corporal Wachman was badly hit and subsequently died at Bullecourt on 11 April 1917. It’s awful to think of those men lying wounded in that dreadful field and being left behind as their mates retreated.

His effects were returned to his mother on 21 February 1918. All she received were some letters and a book of views (postcards maybe?). She received a pension of 30 shillings per fortnight.

A memorial to the Bullecourt Digger
A digger wearing full pack at the Bullecourt Memorial

He was entitled to two medals: the British War Medal and the Victory Medal and although Seina was his next of kin, his medals were sent to his father, Moshe, on 23 January 1923 as that was the law at that time.

Robert’s name on the Australian War Memorial at Villers Bretonneux. Myriam of Walkabout Digger Tours and David Edelman are pointing to his name during our visit in April 2019.

Visiting the battlefields and war cemeteries of the Somme and learning the stories of those brave men who suffered so much in the mud and the cold under enemy fire is heartbreaking. The noise must have been deafening, the smell horrible, their homesickness overwhelming, the mud suffocating, the cold and wet intolerable….. How did they do it?

I wonder what Robert would have achieved if he had made it home? Would his patent for a push coin vending machine have been developed? What else would he have patented?

If you think about all the young men and women killed in wars and you ponder what they collectively could have achieved, it really is mind-blowing. What a waste!

2 thoughts on “Here he lies……….

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