Soldiers in action during Bullecourt Battle, April 1917
Soldiers in action during Bullecourt Battle, April 1917

My time as a POW during the war

BULLECOURT in northern France was at the heart of the Allied attempt to push through the defences of the Hindenburg Line in April 1917.

The first Battle of Bullecourt was fought on April 11, 1917, and it was fierce.

The Australians spearheaded the attack with men from the 4th and 12th Brigades.

Casualties and prisoners

During the fighting there were 3300 casualties with another 1170 taken prisoner.

Among these prisoners were two young men who later escaped while being held in Belgium.

The soldiers were Sergeant Frederick A.W.C. Peachy (15th Battalion) from Grafton, accompanied by Pte John Lee (14th Battalion) from Victoria.

On their return to England both soldiers were awarded the Military Medal for their ordeal and they were asked to write down details of their experiences.

Pte Lee was only 18 and his account is limited.

However, our Sergeant Peachy gives a very detailed and fascinating account of their capture, treatment, escape, and journey to safety.

Detailed account

He states that on April 11 the infantry was working with tanks which had gone forward to pave the way.

Tanks had not been used in the early part of the war but by 1917 they were proving their value.

The troops were met by heavy German machine gun fire and it was found that most of the barbed wire was still intact.

Getting through proved hazardous and many soldiers were caught there.

German resistance too strong

Light artillery was called up to assist and it helped but the German resistance was too strong and soon afterwards the men were surrounded and taken as prisoners.

They had to collect the dead and place them in trenches 20 or 30 at a time.

All items were taken from the bodies except identity discs.

Any wounded men lying on the barbed wire were removed.

Shot in the head

Those who could not walk were shot in the head and added to the dead in the trenches.

Wounded Germans were carried several kilometres to a village.

By then there was a blinding snow-storm which did not help.

Over the next few days the men were billeted in various buildings, were given scanty food and made to work digging trenches, repairing roads, and burying the dead.

During bombardments from the Allies they had to continue working outside.

Several days later some of them were taken to Belgium to work with horses.

Soldiers make their escape

It was here that four of the soldiers, including Peachy and Lee, escaped while other soldiers kept the guards occupied.

Peachy obtained a map from a friendly Belgian girl and they set off.

Later the two other soldiers, having separated from Peachy and Lee, were re-captured.

Lee and Peachy had some near encounters with the authorities but generally got assistance from the Belgians including being given clothing.

Peachy took note of enemy troop movements, depots, submarine bases, etc. and this information was of great value on his return.

Twice they had to cross small rivers, once in a rowing boat and another time in a punt.

No identity papers

Mainly they tried to avoid crowded areas but on two occasions they were lucky enough to find a bridge while there was heavy traffic going across.

There were too many people for the sentry to check for identity papers.

Rubber helps them home

Early in the adventure Peachy had found a piece of rubber.

When they came to the Dutch border it was used to get through the electric fence.

They knocked out a sentry when he challenged them and were lucky enough not to be hit when a second sentry fired at them.

Over the border they were treated well by the Dutch authorities and eventually found their way to the British consul at Rotterdam.

Peachy later worked at British HQ where he proved of great value.

He returned to Australia in August 1919.

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