April 25 was the one-day of the year Ashley met up with his old army buddies. He left early in the morning to march down the main street of the town and then visit the Returned Servicemen’s Club. It was a long day, the only day of the year he drank alcohol because his stomach had been ulcerated by chlorine and mustard gas a long time before. At the end of the day he would be violently ill but said it was worth the agony and the inevitable lecture from his wife. He stopped at our house on his way home, not feeling good, and it was my job to stand beside this 5’5½” heaving shell of a man, with one arm holding him up and the other pressing his medals to his chest while he threw up. I protected his medals and his suit, walked him home and listened when he was told he was “a silly old fool” for drinking when he knew he would be sick. He never talked about the war, only about his friends in the Army, the good times he had on leave and swimming in the cold water of the Somme to get rid of the mud. I never knew, until many years after his death, that the medals I so carefully protected from his vomit included the Military Medal awarded for bravery during the Battle of Amiens.
Throughout 1916, 1917 and 1918 the Allied and German losses on the Western Front were huge and the gains few. World War I was the most costly war for Australia. From a population then of less than five million people almost 417,000 enlisted, 60,000 of them were killed and 156,000 were wounded, gassed or taken prisoner. Many more suffered mental and physical illnesses they carried for the rest of their lives.
Ashley was my father’s older brother. He died at the age of 81 from complications caused by his ulcerated stomach, but he was one of the “lucky” survivors of the Great War. Shortly after his death my Aunt handed me a shoebox that contained his medals and other memorabilia. She said in her broad Scottish accent: “He wanted you to have this because it holds his most precious memories and it may answer your many questions.” The shoebox lay in a drawer unopened for more than twenty years before I looked inside. In the box were his three medals, old postcards and French coins, two letters, pay books, a note book, small diary, photographs of his unit and of himself in England; and a photograph of a young German officer and his wife.
The pay book showed his army pay was fifty cents per day with thirty cents paid to his mother and ten cents deferred pay due on completion of service. One letter, written in March 1918 to a young girl in Scotland, talked about his train trip back to London before returning to France the next day, how much he looked forward to seeing her again and his encounter on the train with a soldier just released by the Germans after being captured at Bullecourt. The other letter was postmarked Pope’s Point, Gallipoli. It described the soldier’s boat trip to Egypt, where he received three weeks training before going to war, and the terrible conditions at Gallipoli. The soldier was Ashley’s cousin who had arrived at Gallipoli in August 1915. He became ill from blood poisoning in late October, shortly after he wrote the letter, and was evacuated to Lemnos the day before his 22nd birthday. Following surgery he was transferred to Heliopolis but died of lymphatic leukemia septicemia en-route from Suez to Australia and was buried at sea the following day.
Ashley was a farmer who became a gunner in the light machine gun section. After hearing of the death of his cousin he enlisted, as a volunteer, and was shipped to England for brief training before joining his unit in France for the Battle of Messines. The Brigade had just recovered from the bloody battle at Bullecourt where it suffered 2,339 casualties from the 3,000 men sent to attack the Hindenburg Line without armoured or artillery support. Ashley was one of the reinforcements to fill the gap.
His war service record showed that Ashley fought with the 13th Battalion A.I.F during the British offensive in Flanders and the capture of Messines (June-August 1917), and then near Ypres south of Lille Gate. He was with the 13th Bn when it marched into Ypres and rejoined the front at Passchendaele, where the 4th Brigade suffered huge losses, and fought at Peronne in December 1917 and January 1918. During this time the entries in his diary described his duties as out with the guns, or water carrying or up the line on fatigue working like hell, with frequent mention of gas shelling. These cryptic entries gave little sense of what he was experiencing. The diary also recorded that he was in camp at Neuve Eglise in Belgian Flanders in March when their positions were heavily shelled during the German offensive. The battalion sports were being held and the 13th Bn tug-of-war team was having a final practice when a British shell fell short and killed the entire team.
On March 25, the 13th Bn was rushed to Hebuterne, west of Bapaume, to meet the German attack. Ashley’s diary entry simply said: Left camp and marched away to another place nearer the line. In June the Battalion was north of Villers-Bretonneux facing Vaire Wood where it became involved in the Battle of Hamel. Ashley’s diary entry for that momentous battle read: Hopped over the bags and knocked off a couple of Huns, plenty of stoush but gained our objective. Ashley fought at Aquenne Wood, south-east of Villers-Bretonneux and on August 6 his diary read: Got shelled out of our homes and had a few casualties. This was the beginning of the Battle of Amiens. Ashley won the Military Medal for bravery but his diary entry simply read: Went over the top and advanced about seven miles. He didn’t keep a copy of the citation which read: During the advance near Morcourt on the 8th August 1918, Pte Peacock was in charge of a Lewis gun of one of the leading Companies. Throughout the operation he used his gun with great effect, and when covering the consolidation of the RED line he moved forward under heavy fire to engage an enemy machine gun which was proving very troublesome. He was continually sniped at from a flank but kept his gun in action until he had overcome enemy fire. His bravery and determination had a big effect in minimizing our casualties.
In August, the 13th Bn fought in the Villers-Bretonneux area and then at Mont St Quentin north of Peronne. Ashley’s diary had a simple entry: Fritz raided the Tommies again today and we had a rather rough time all day, and out digging again at night. On September 18 they attacked the Hindenburg Line between Templeux-le-Guerard and Bellenglise and Ashley’s diary said: Battalion went over the bags and went to the Hindenburg Line as Company had very heavy casualties. There were 1,200 casualties.
Ashley married a nineteen-year-old Scottish girl at Glasgow on June 16, 1919 and four days later sailed for home, scarred, traumatized and suffering from the effects of gas poisoning. His new wife followed him several months later. They were never able to have children. In the fifteen months from June 1917 to September 1918 Ashley fought in some of the major battles on the Western Front. He was gassed several times and hospitalized but was one of the “lucky” survivors. He never told his story, but he proudly wore his Military Medal on the one day every year when he marched with his old comrades. Like many others who fought in World War I and other conflicts, Ashley was an ordinary man who just did what was expected of him. He never talked about the hardships and suffering, the killing and the horrors of war, only about the few good times. Ashley left behind, in a small shoebox, the memories important to him so I could understand. I will salute him with a few beers on the 100th anniversary of what many historians called the Great War which wasn’t so great for those who were there.