Thursday, 20th March 2008 was a particularly special day on which I had the privilege of escorting Reg and Suellen Walker to the battlefield associated with Australians at the Battle of Messines. We were following in the footsteps of Private William George Dunlop as he went into battle as part of the 37th (Victoria) Battalion AIF. It was a very special for them as we were following in the footsteps of their grandfather and great grandfather respectively.
William Dunlop was a 37 years-old labourer when he enlisted in the AIF on 22nd April 1916 at Bendigo, Victoria, Australia. He was assigned to the 2nd Reinforcements of the 37th (Victoria) Battalion and after his initial basic training was sent overseas sailing on the SS Orontes from the Port of Melbourne on 16th August 1916. William Dunlop arrived in England and disembarked at Plymouth, Devon on 2nd October 1916.
On arriving in the UK, William Dunlop was initially taken onto the strength of the 10th Training Battalion before being transferred to the 8th Training Battalion on 13th October 1916. One month later, he was transferred to the 37th (Victoria) Battalion joining them 11th November joining them at Hurdcott Camp, Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire.
Hurdcott Camp had originally been occupied by the East Lancashire Regiment in September 1915 and then other British units until March 1917 when it was taken over by the increasing number of Australians arriving to play their part in the conflict. It was designated No 3 HQ Depot in the West for the Australian Imperial Force.
On 28th November William Dunlop was admitted to Fovant Mil Hospital suffering from tonsillitis.
Fovant Mil Hospital was located in the Wiltshire Downs near the Village of Fovant on Salisbury Plain and opened in 1915. It was initially small, around 150 beds , dealing with illness and injuries sustained by the soldiers at Fovant Camp, but grew in size to 609 beds , 21 beds for Officers and 588 for OR, when it began working to rehabilitate the wounded returned from the fighting on the Western Front. It was a military Hospital staffed by AMC and QAIMNS personnel with medical gymnasts, masseurs, electrotherapists and Dentists. They were assisted by VADs, local girls (and at least one boy), and members of the British Red Cross and St John's Ambulance. The newly qualified village General Practitioner, Dr R C C Clay is recorded as being in charge of 120 medical beds. Today, Fovant is famous for its Regimental badges carved into the chalk of the Downs above the sites that were occupied by the soldiers during the First World War.
William Dunlop was discharged from Fovant Mil Hospital on 8th December 1916 and taken on strength of the 10th Training Battalion at Durrington Camp on Salisbury Plain. He was proceeded overseas to France embarking on the SS Invicta at Folkestone on 4th February 1917; reporting to the 3rd Australian Division Base Depot at Etaples on disembarkation. Two days later, William left Etaples to rejoin the 37th (Victoria) Battalion at the front.
On 11th April 1917, William Dunlop was admitted to 11 Field Ambulance suffering from tonsillitis and was returned to duty on the 17th. On 12th May 1917 he failed to appear for a parade called at 09:00 hrs for which he received 168 hrs field punishment No 2. He was subsequently absent without leave on 29th May and 3rd June as well as failed to report for a fatigue parade and attend a Bath Parade at Pont de Nieppe. For these latter misdemeanours he was awarded 28 days field punishment No 1 on 4th June 1917.
At 23.15 hrs on 6th June 1917 William Dunlop marched out of Rue de Sac Camp and headed towards the frontline in the vicinity of Messines. He marched through Ploegseert Wood along the Brown Route on his way to the Assembly Area. As they trudged on through the wood the Australians were shelled by German artillery with a mixture of HE, incendiary, gas and lachrymatory shells. This would have meant that William would have put on his small box respirator to protect himself from the effects of the gas, which would have restricted his field of vision and would probably have added to the apprehension he would have been feeling entering battle for the first time. During this approach march the 37th (Victoria) Battalion sustained 35 casualties.
The 37th (Victoria) Battalion was to be held back during the first phase of the Battle of Messines and they took up positions along the Subsidiary Line which ran along the southern side of the road in the vicinity of La Rossignol which is the second turning to the right off the N365 heading south after one has passed the Ireland of Ireland Peace Park and Petit Douve Farm. At 03:10 hrs the 19 great mines laid under the German trenches were detonated and the 3rd Australian Division and New Zealand Division began the assault on Messines. As they waited in their trenches for their part in the battle the 37th (Victoria) Battalion was shelled by the enemy in the Subsidiary Line and sustained a further 20 casualties before they began their advance.
At 10:10 hrs on 7th June 1917 the 37th (Victoria) Battalion got up out of their Subsidiary line waiting positions and moved forward towards their start line. They moved forward in two waves with C Coy and D Coy in the first wave, A Coy and D Coy 40th Battalion, which had been attached for this operation, in the second wave and B Coy in reserve. Two further platoons from the 40th Battalion were attached acting as carrying parties for the attack.
As they crossed the battlefield towards their start line the Battalion moved in Artillery formation keeping approximately 15 to 20 paces between lines and 100 to 150 paces between the waves. Keeping this formation was, however, difficult due to ground over which they had to traverse as this had been particularly cut up by the preliminary bombardment as well as hostile fire. The intensity of the enemy's shelling also affected the maintenance of this formation and the distances between lines and waves tended to flex accordingly.
After crossing the River Douve, the Companies had to adjust their direction of advance turning east toward the 'Black Line' and arrived at its allotted position in the vicinity of the Black Line in accordance with its orders. The lines of the Companies were straightened and the Battalions objectives reconnoitred through binoculars.
Once at the Black Line the 37th (Victoria) Battalion had to wait for 2 hours as General Plumer's headquarters delayed the second phase of the assault until 15:10 hrs. The Battalion's headquarters had not been informed of this change until ¾ hour after it had left its assembly area in the Subsidiary Line.
At 15:10 hrs on 7th June 1917 the 37th (Victoria) Battalion moved forward to attack its objectives on the 'Green Line'. This again involved some adjustment of the direction of advance whilst on the move particularly by D Company 37th Battalion and D Company 40th Battalion. This was carried out without any problems under heavy enemy fire that resulted in a large number of casualties being sustained. In addition to casualties inflicted by enemy artillery fire D Company 37th Battalion and D Company 40th Battalion were also subjected to heavy machine gun fire, from guns placed in rear of their respective objectives. Sniping was very active along the whole front and the enemy artillery fire continued without abatement.
The Battalion sustained heavy casualties during the capture of 'Uncanny Trench' and 'Uncanny Support'. The enemy had established well placed machine gun positions between 'Undulating Support' and Uncanny Support particularly in small wooded areas not shown on our issue Maps or on airplane photos. The enemy's trenches had not been materially damaged by our artillery fire and still afford a good degree of protection to them during the fighting.
On reaching their objectives the companies commenced to consolidate their captured positions. A Company, however, commenced its consolidation work approximately 30 yards from Uncanny Support rather than on it as planned.
At 20:00 hrs the protective artillery barrage was switched from the 47th Battalion's area north of the 37th (Victoria) Battalion to the Green Line in their vicinity. This fire was so close to the Battalion's positions that it was judged necessary to adjust their line in order to prevent serious losses from their own fire. In addition the withdrawal of the 47th Battalion to their left had exposed the Battalion's left flank resulting in them being vulnerable to counterattack from that direction. It was decided, therefore, to withdraw the Battalion back to the Black Line and this rearward movement took place between 20:30 and 21:00 hrs.
The barrage continued until about 23:00 hrs and at about 01;30 hrs on 8th June a verbal communication was received by Lieutenant Colonel W J Smith, Commanding Officer of the 37th (Victoria) Battalion, from the Brigade Major of the 10th Brigade that the 44th Battalion would pass through their line at 03:00 hrs and occupy the Green line positions. The 44th Battalion did not pass through the 37th until 03:30 hrs and the line that they took up was not actually on the Green Line, which was partially held by the 37th Battalion, but a line some distance in rear of it.
During the 8th a number of communications were received at the 37th (Victoria) Battalion's headquarters instructing them to cooperate with the 44th Battalion in securing the original Green Line, but it was not until the evening of the 8th June that the 37th (Victoria) Battalion occupied the line that was being consolidated by the 44th Battalion and then it was done without any instructions from CO of the 44th.
Shortly thereafter, orders were received for the 37th (Victoria) Battalion to assume responsibility for the whole line and the 44th Battalion was to assemble at Schnitzel Farm. During the morning it became apparent that D Company 40th Battalion had been withdrawn from the 37th Battalion's command without the knowledge of the 37th (Victoria) Battalion.
At 03:50 hrs on 9th June 1917 an order was received from Brigade headquarters to the effect that the 37th (Victoria) Battalion would be relieved on night of 8th/9th June. However, this order was timed 02;30 hrs, but was not received until 03:50 hrs, so that it was impossible for the relief to take place that night. The Battalion was completely relieved by 11:00 hrs and returned to billets at Rue de Sac Camp.
During this period of action, their first in a major battle, the 37th (Victoria) Battalion sustained 402 casualties: 1 officer and 66 ORs killed; 10 officers and 321 ORs wounded and 4 ORs missing. Private William George Dunlop was one of those ORs reported wounded. However, this was subsequently amended to reported wounded and missing on 2nd August 1917 and further amended to killed in action following a board of enquiry on 18th January 1918.
William Dunlop was married to Isabella Maria Dunlop and they had two children William George Dunlop Jnr and Maud Catherine Dunlop. In October 1916, Isabella left her two children, William Jnr and Maud, with their paternal grandmother, William Snr's mother, Emma. It was Emma who would raise them. Whether or not Private William George Dunlop knew that his wife had left him is unclear, but given his apparent change in behaviour just before going into battle at Messines it is possible that this was case. This is, however, pure speculation on my part. What this does illustrate is that the First World War did not just affect those who fought in the battles, but also had a profound effect on those that stayed at home; the mothers, wives and children that were left behind.
Private William George Dunlop has no known grave and is remembered with honour on panel 25 of the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing, Ypres, Belgium.
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