Archive number: 1417
Date interviewed: 08 December, 2003
You are listening to the interview audio
As well as I can do, as well as you can do.
I’m sure you’ll do just famously. Peter how old were you when you enlisted for the war?
Where did you enlist?
On the 12th day of March 1917,
no 1916 I think. The twelth of March, went into camp the same day, in there for about two, three or four days on leave and then we got shipped off to Melbourne for training and we were in Broadmeadows camp out of Melbourne for about two or three weeks
and then shipped away out for France and when we got shipped away there was about 20 ships. The one I was on was the Escanius and when we arrived out off Fremantle we all anchored in east of
Rottnest. All the ships anchored east of Rottnest. I was only two miles away from Melbourne, my mother and I couldn’t see her so as soon as we pulled anchor off, I went down below and wrote a letter to my mother. I put it in a bottle. I put it over the side and my mother got it again. It was washed ashore down around
Esperance somewhere so I called it ocean post.
That’s a fantastic story Peter. Peter, did you have a good voyage to England?
Yes, we stopped at every stop and port but no trouble at all, not like the Emden there now,
as the one before us, but speaking on the Emden, I’ll switch into that just for a break. At that time there were twenty ships of Australian soldiers left to go to Egypt, to the Middle East. The German cruiser Emden was cruising
around the ocean at that time and if the [HMAS] Sydney had not been there, that would have been the biggest sea tragedy of all time. The Emden could have sunk the whole twenty ships full of soldiers. You can cut that out but that’s just something I just wanted to tell you. You can leave that out. Anyhow
getting back to going to England. When we arrived in England we went to a place called Borden and camped and the same day as we arrived in there, the first Americans arrived there the same day as us, and President Wilson addressed them and told them that the most likely,
when they got across the pond, the most likely friends would be the Australians and there’s one particular Yank. Through the night, he had this in his mind and just breaking day in the morning he arrived to one of the humpies we were in, pulled the blankets off a bloke on the floor and the bloke said “What the hell’s going on?” and he said “My God damn me man, you wake the same
as our God damn selves” so I called him the “God damns”. Now you can carry on from there.
How long were you in that camp for Peter?
How long were you at that camp?
That camp? Only about three weeks I s’pose, something like that then straight across to France or to Le Harve. We landed at Le Harve first and then from Le Harve we went via
train up as far as a place named Poperinge in Belgium and from there we shifted around again.
Why were you being moved to Poperinge?
Why were you going to Poperinge?
Well they got out of the train at Poperinge from Le Harve. There was a full train of us, just our one company. We were the Second Light
Why was the Second Light Railway Company going to Poperinge, Peter?
Well weren’t sure what work we’d do, delivering ammunition. We didn’t even; the Light Railway is this, George Page, Dooge Lilley and myself, a locomotive,
steam locomotives only here and we were never separated. We were together for the whole turnout and they were like that all through the company and those locomotives, trucks and that, they were on the go 24 hours a day and our work was delivering ammunition through to all
artillery positions in that sector. That sector would cover about 13 or 14 mile in a big arc there and that was our job all the time. We never changed and course getting towards the finish we went down into France in different, towards the finish but that
ceased our light railway work when we were there. We went down to Amiens for a while.
Excuse me Peter, how long were you taking ammunition to Poperinge for?
How long was? Half hour, oh to deliver the
How long did it take?
How long did it take to deliver the ammunition, that what you’re talking about?
Might be a half hour trip, quarter of an hour, one hour but we covered a big, we had a big sector. All the artillery, that sector, we supplied the ammunition to the lot.
How long were you supplying that sector for?
Well for pretty well for the whole of the time we were there. We’d been there I suppose about three years I s’pose, not three years, about two and a half I s’pose years.
What kind of ammunition
were you supplying them with?
All heavy artillery stuff, from 18 pounders. You know what a shotgun cartridge looks like?
Yeh well the 18 pounders were in a cartridge about that big, that long and that was loaded with,
I can’t think, but it had one ball in the front and they weighed about 18 pounds so they called them 18 pounders and then from then on, we delivered up to eight inch shells all through, right around. Whatever artillery was in the positions, that was the ammunition that we were supplying
all the time but, and our, where we were quartered, just humpies we built up ourselves, in our quarters there was myself, Harry Oliver, Gillie Vautin and another bloke. I forget
his name but we were quartered like that all around different open space and we, our camp and all our work at all time, we were in range of German artillery all the time. We were in range of them and a shell went past my bloody head like that one day, down in front of the, never exploded there so
I think I might have been lucky. There was plenty of that went on, plenty of that.
Was the railway line bombed?
Two foot wide. The Germans had their two foot wide light railway too. I run under the German light railway as well where we’d captured and we used up.
Did the Germans bomb the railway?
They bombed anything that could be bombed. I’ll give you one particular bit about that. There was one night we had, it was a night time job cause we were going all the time and Will Travers said “That way, cover the line.” and
I looked ahead and I see a feller walking along the middle of the railway track, showing a red light, like a guard’s hand lamp, showing a red light and just as well he was there because then when we went through and passed him, the other crowd, Fritzy [German] had put a shell like straight underneath the
edge of the line and cantered it up that way. It never broke it and these people coming this way they were running full speed at that and they just turned over. When we went up the locomotive was down in a swamp with its wheels in the air so we’d have been, if he hadn’t have been there, we’d have been in on top of them yeh, that two foot gauge railway. The broad gauge,
Australia had two Light Railway Companies and one Broad Gauge. That was our railway, yeh.
Did the Germans stop the supplies getting through on the light railway?
Did they what?
Did the Germans stop you from getting the supplies through?
Well wherever there was Germany artillery, you had to try and keep away from it but
you see our sector that we were in, as I say we were quartered at a place called Voormezeele. That was the name given to it. We were at Voormezeele where our camp was. Well I was only just close to Ypres. You know of Ypres I s’pose at all?
I’ve heard of Ypres.
But in our own home, when we
get back there, I’ve got a book of it all, home there. I’ve got nothing here.
How bad were the weather conditions Peter?
Well just the ordinary weather. Whatever the conditions were, you were in at that time just the same, snow, sleet or snow or what.
What about food? What was food like?
All tinned stuff mainly. In fact when we first lobbed in Voormezeele, Lieutenant Anderson pointed to me. He said, “You’re the cook.” and anyhow I wasn’t at that long and a bloke named Gillie Vautin, when we went further up the track towards Ypres. Now Ypres, I’ve got a photo of all Ypres new cathedral.
I’ve been through the cathedral myself. I’ve got a lot home there in a book but home’s over there. We’re here.
I understand you were issued with a shot of rum each day?
Every day, every day. Lots of days I got two and three. Some blokes didn’t want theirs. I had theirs too.
I still got rum in the cupboard here now, not much. They pinched me rum off me here a few weeks back, confiscated it. I kicked up a whole hell after I got it back here too. I’ll still kick up a whole hell if I think I’m right.
How important were your mates during the war?
We were all like brothers together,
all like brothers together. I don’t think there’s a day go past today that I don’t think of old George Page. He was an old Englishman. He was the engine driver in our, there was him, Dooge Lilley and myself. I was the guard and one day he called, “Peter.” he called out to me across the track. “What’s wrong George?” “When we get
home,” he said, “You come round to….” wherever he was living. He said, “Marry one of my daughters.” He said, “They’re two really good Catholic girls.” he said, “The same as yourself.” I never got there. I got trapped in Bunbury.
Did you write letters home Peter?
not regularly but you got them every now and again but you wouldn’t be describing this incident or that incident or anything. You’d describe anything that you thought fit but not the other.
Was mail transported on the light railway?
Was mail transported on the light railway?
Did you transport the mail in the railway?
Did you carry the mail on the railway?
No that just come by truck or train or whatever but just the whole thing in a nutshell, it was just plain ‘ell,
just plain hell wherever you were in the area. I’m one of the lucky ones. They nearly got me a few times but another mate of mine, Stan Verney, he got me a few times. A bloke named Jack Chandler he had a narrow squeeze, a very narrow squeeze. He was in a truck and a shell
lobbed in the truck with him and the driver and fireman went back to see what was wrong and see him crawling out of a heap of black smoke and on his hands and knees and I said to him, “Have you been in an R I P today Jack?”. “Yes Peter.” he said, “Bloody near Ripped In Pieces.” oh gee, but
all bits of things like that.
Was a good sense of humour important?
Well you really needed it, you really needed it but we were a crowd together. I never knew of any trouble in between us at all. All good mates right through. If you went out somewhere, if you had twenty francs and the other bloke
never had any, you’d give him half of it.
When did you move from Ypres into France, Peter?
Where did I live, when? I lived in North Fremantle.
No sorry Peter, when did you leave from Ypres in Belgium and go to France?
When did I leave?
Yes, during the war?
I couldn’t tell you for sure. We’d been in camp in Melbourne at Broadmeadows camp for two or three weeks training and then we were away on the ship. What time or dates and that, I wouldn’t know, not now but.
What happened when you left Belgium and went into France?
Well Belgium and France is all joined up to
look like one country, yeah France and…. Belgium, they were the first people that struck the Germans advancing through and they were very near all wiped out, the Belgians.
What did you think of the Germans?
Well just the same as our own blokes.
Whatever you were, that’s what you were but I had no great grudge against the German or anyone else, only we were there to do that job and that’s what we did and they were doing the same thing for their country only they got sick of it at the finish.
Were you doing the same job in France as you were in Belgium, was it the same job?
Yes, well as I say, well I told you there a while back that we looked after a sector of about thirteen miles in length. Now while I’m on that, when the war, I’ve got a map of it over, the young one sent me
this map home of the full length of the frontage for when the war finished and that measures round about 100 mile, that’s in a straight length along and while that was all in operation, as we’re getting towards the end, the
You were servicing those thirteen miles in that sector?
Our 13 miles was all included in that. If you come some time visit my home I can show you the maps with all the names, the whole collection. I could show you the lot.
I’d rather talk to you
Peter. What did that 13 miles of front look like?
Just either dugouts and shelters, whatever you could get anywhere, abandoned trenches, barbed wire fences, was plenty of barbed wire ditches and all barbed wire entanglements and all sorts everywhere.
Who was holding that section?
Who was defending that section?
Who was defending that section? Which troops were defending that section?
Anyone who was ever there.
There’s bloody millions of bloody men there man. You can’t hold us down to any one or two little bits of frontage. As I told you the whole sector
measured 100 mile and that was sent to me by the government since we’ve been here and when that war finished there, the Bishop of Amiens, I’ll say a bit more about Amiens. The Germans were trying to break through from Amiens to Paris and they rushed the Australians
from another check along, helter skelter, down to get through. They get through and they broke the German advance up and when the whole thing was settled up, fired up, the Bishop of Amiens put up over his altar: “Australia, the saviour of Amiens and France.” That’s right.
You can put that in. “Australia the saviour of Amiens and France.” and in amongst our troops with ourselves and early, first, wherever you were, we were all lousy, covered with lice, all our clothes. At night before you go to bunk
you’re killing lice between your thumbs.
What was the most difficult part there, Peter? What was the most difficult part of your job?
Keeping going, keeping going. You never had anything you could write praises about.
Yeah, whatever you had to do was always difficult. We never played football or anything like that, a different game altogether.
What did you think of the leadership? What did you think of the allied leadership?
Well our leadership was first rate but
our three officers, the captain’s name was Garn and two lieutenants, Anderson and Lesley. That was the extent of our officers. That’s the officers with tabs on the shoulders, yeah and Garn, we hardly ever seen him at all but the other two lieutenants, they were with us all the
time. Talk about lieutenants, one day we’re taking up a crowd of Tommies, that’s the English soldiers, had two truck loads of them. They were open trucks and the full width would be about three foot I s’pose but there was two truck loads of these troops and the two lieutenants
in the back truck with me and this shell come. As I say, really, I don’t know, still don’t know how it missed my head and anyhow these two lieutenants jumped out of the truck and off like hell and the two trucks loaded with Tommies, they jumped out of the trucks and off
after them and we were left there. One fellow was carrying a pole of some sort, I don’t know but there’s the two trucks. He dropped it end on down between the two trucks and they were still moving and course that made like a jack knife affair in between and put the
trucks off the track and we were left there isolated. We could not go forward or backward and up on the locomotive we had a V shaped steel plate, shaped like that and in the middle it had a raised ridge along the middle of it, up to the point and you fitted it to the rail
and go backward or forward whichever. We got it on, got the trucks on again. I went up to the engine. I said to old George, I said, “Alright George, got it on.” He said, “Alright boys, we’ll have a bit of dinner.” I said to him, “We’ll bloody well go back down here again now for a bit of dinner.” He was the man that wanted me to be his son in law.
What a gentlemen he was. I hope some of his relations see what’s going on and get an idea of what a father they had, absolutely wonderful but anyhow that was another narrow squeak.
What other difficulties did the Light Railway have, Peter?
No difficulty, bar getting off the track here or there perhaps but nothing more. Another bit about the railway. In our work with the railway, whatever we were doing away out, away from our camp, when we come in, a rule was that we would re-coal
the engine and re-oil all the outside working parts and just as we got in, we got a heap of coal say between here and the lady. There was a heap of coal there and just as we pulled in, a shell lobbed in the heap of coal. We had to just jump in and re-coal it but there was coal flying everywhere so
a little bit risky now and again. It wasn’t too risky there.
What size locomotive was it Peter?
What size was the locomotive?
They might weigh about five or six ton I suppose, only small. The names were
Cook and Baldwin and they were two different types of engines and the Cook was the most reliable. It had leading bogies back and front and the other one only had it on the back section but the Cook I think was the most reliable and it’s the same type that I was on all the time.
How many locomotives in the railway?
We only had two in our company and the other company would have two I suppose. They looked after a sector around the Passchendaele area. There was Ypres there and Passchendaele there. We were here all around but.
How were the locomotives loaded and unloaded?
all by hand and we had to get our water for the locomotives out of shell holes. We had a suction pipe like that on and we had certain shell holes that we had them in mind all the time, you know what we had, the section we were on. We never shifted out of that sector in that time.
One morning or part way through the night, we had to get water for the, we had to make a steam for you to get along and the shell hole that I went to was iced over and I couldn’t break through it. We used to carry a little ice pick, to pick
holes in the ice to put the hose down in for the engine to turn on the gear to suck the water out into there and I was on the ice, picking a hole in it. I broke through. I went in up to my waist in water and then we carried on, got the water and carried on with our work and a little while after
I started walking about I could feel my clothes cracking. They were all iced up, not very comfortable.
Why did you get the water from the shell holes, Peter?
Well for the locomotives to boil it up to get the steam for power, had to have your steam for power.
But why did you get it from a shell hole?
Well that was the only place to get it
from. They were the only place to get the water from.
No don’t talk reservoirs. Look, I don’t think you could understand really what a warfare frontage looked like. I don’t think you could quite understand it, no matter what I told you,
about all I told you. We never had no water taps. I’d never seen a water tap till I come home I don’t think.
How did you wash, did you wash?
Well sometimes you might chuck your shirt into something or hang it out somewhere but never, ever thought of anything
flash about clothing. Had the same clothes when we come home as when we went there I think but it’s very hard, very, very hard to explain to anybody what warfare’s really like unless you see some of it, unless you see some of it.
You were singing a cheery song earlier,
what was the cheery song that you sang earlier, Peter?
The song that you sang earlier today?
The song, can you sing us a few bars of the song?
I was singing one about the warfare.
The tattooed lady I thought?
A little bit of one about the warfare.
“Up to your waist in water, up to your waist in slush,
using the sort of language that makes the Sergeant blush.
Who wouldn’t be a soldier, tiddly I- di-i.
Pity the poor civilian, sitting beside their fire.
Oh oh oh it’s a lovely war.
What do you want with eggs and ham, when you’ve got plum and apple jam?
As soon as reveille has gone, you feel just as heavy as lead,
and you never get out of bed
until the Sergeant brings your breakfast up to bed”.
There that’s enough of that one.
That’s a beauty. Is there another one that you can sing?
There’s plenty of them man, plenty of them. Like that one I sang here earlier, the French Tattooed Lady. You got a recording of that?
I’d like to hear that one again?
“I paid ten francs to see a French tattooed lady.
She was a sight to see, tattooed from end to knee.
On her left jaw was the Anzac Flying Corps,
Down her back was the Union Jack and a good old kangaroo
And right across her bits was a fleet of battle ships
And on her deaf and dumb was the digger’s rising sun.
Right on her kidney was a bird’s eye view of Sydney.
Around the corner, the jolly lorner, was my home in Tennessee”.
Have you got that, lady?
That was a great one. I’ll have to applaud you Peter. What did you do on Armistice Day, Peter?
Day? Yes that’s a good; I’ve got a good one about that. We got on the bus. We had a night, a real night out round, just around our camp area and I seen a feller named Dave Thomas. He was a New South Wales feller, sitting down with his legs stretched out in front of him and I
thought “What the hell’s wrong with Dave?” and I went over to see him. I said, “What’s wrong Dave?” He said “Don’t stand on them Cass, don’t stand on them.” I looked down and he had a return of the swallows. He coughed up his teeth on the ground. Yeah, “Don’t stand on them Cass.” Anyhow
I had the nice job of sorting them out and cleaning them up and giving them back to him, yeah. That’s on the night the Armistice was on, yeah.
Where were you that night?
I don’t know, somewhere in France, somewhere in France.
What does Anzac Day mean to you, Peter?
Nothing any different, only that I’ve never been to any Anzac Day turnout. I’ve never been to any but they’re just their parades and everything just the same, their parades and everything just the same.
It’s not an important day?
Well it gives you a bit of back thinking
to what went on and all the bloody millions of bloody men. There’s 90,000 men, Australian men are still in France. They’re the things you’ve got to think about, apart from, between there and Gallipoli 90,000 men never come back here, yeah.
That’s something to think about?
Something to think about.
Talking about that and when this last turnout finished against Japan, when it’s signed up I think one great condition that should have been put on them, that Japan should have been isolated from the rest of the world, trade wise
money wise, any way and that would be the end of warfare cause all warfare is all money and my poor Mum had never been to school in her life, over in Victoria.
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