Belgium 1917: Battle of Messines
Ploegsteert, Toronto Avenue Cemetery
Fell out by the way
At the end of a long, straight stretch of road on the N365 leaving Mesen (Messines) for Ploegsteert, and just before a bend, is a small road leading off left into the countryside. Less than a kilometre along that road is Prowse Point Military Cemetery on the right, and just beyond that a Commonwealth War Graves Commission signpost for Mud Corner, Toronto Avenue, Ploegsteert Wood and Rifle House cemeteries. From there the road is well signposted to Toronto Avenue Cemetery at the edge of Ploegsteert Wood.
Stand in Toronto Avenue Cemetery where the wind rocks the trees and the sunlight glints down through the rustling leaves. Try to imagine this place during the night hours of 6–7 June 1917. Then it was full of columns of Australian soldiers, thousands of men of the 3rd Division, in full battle dress laden with rifles, ammunition, packs and all the other sundry equipment of war, along with hundreds of pack animals, all struggling through the dark towards the lines from which they would have to attack the Germans shortly after first light. As they moved forward, the enemy deluged the area with gas and incendiary shells.
The men of the 40th Battalion, the only all–Tasmanian infantry battalion of World War I, had to put on their gas masks (small box respirator) and wear them for hours as they laboured up towards the line. While these masks gave virtually complete immunity from gas, wearing them with a heavy pack, extra ammunition and a rifle caused laboured breathing and much physical distress. As the battalions struggled through Ploegsteert Wood, always ‘Plug Street’ to the men of the AIF, they passed transport animals collapsed on the sides of the roads, gasping piteously for air. In the wood itself things were worse:
The … battalions …were meeting with steady gas–shelling, and on their entering Ploegsteert Wood, in whose stagnant air the gas lay densely, the difficulties increased. Long stoppages occurred, intervals of tense anxiety for all ranks. The Germans were shelling the wood more heavily, using high–explosive and incendiary shells as well. One of these exploded a dump near the track of the northernmost column … checking the march for a moment … A high–explosive shell burst in the leading platoon of the 39th Battalion as it reached ‘Ploegsteert Corner’. Here and there officers and men were hit direct by gas–shell. Wherever the slowly–moving columns were locally dislocated by such incidents, and excitement or haste occurred, men tended to be gassed by the steady shower of shell, and fell out by the way, retching and collapsed.
Charles Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1917, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume IV, p.589
Four marked tracks lay through the wood but in the dark, and in these appalling conditions, units lost their way and confusion reigned for a time. Numbers of men were killed, wounded or gassed. The sides of the ‘Bunhill Row’ and ‘Mud Lane’ tracks were strewn with men who could move no further. Somehow, the battalions made it through and most were at the jumping off positions north of the wood by dawn for the start of the great attack of 7 June 1916. Behind them, in the wood, more than 500 men had been put out of action in this night march.
Official historian, Charles Bean, recorded stories of the dogged determination to prove themselves among the men of the 40th Battalion. Private John Jeffrey, of Lower Barrington, Tasmania, became unconscious and was taken to an advanced dressing station. Recovering, he set out for the front carrying up extra machine gun magazines then promptly turned around and carried two wounded men back to a dressing station. Although wounded next day, Jeffrey refused to leave saying he could still carry ammunition. Lance Corporal Francis Cunningham, of Dunorlan, Tasmania, collapsed from gas, recovered enough to lead his section forward, collapsed again but stayed on and was wounded in the late afternoon. Private Wilfred Gale, of Elliott, Tasmania, also collapsed, recovered, and then continued to carry messages despite frequent relapses.
In Ploegsteert Wood today are the remains of eroded shell craters. In Toronto Avenue Cemetery are the graves of 78 World War I soldiers, all of them Australians, two of them unidentified. They stand in three rows, most of them joined together signifying that this is a mass grave. This is the only all–Australian cemetery in Belgium and the only one on the Western Front with headstones identifying those who lie here. VC Corner Cemetery at Fromelles, France, contains more than 400 Australian burials, all of them unidentified. They lie in mass graves with no headstones.
Toronto Avenue is in a low–lying area and it is difficult to keep the headstones from growing mould but, to keep up appearances, they have been successfully coated with a white substance. A wire fence has been sunk around the cemetery to deter the rabbits and other burrowing creatures. For years, few battlefield pilgrims came to Toronto but more are doing so now. On occasions, the Menin Gate buglers come to sound out those the mournful notes of the Last Post above this little group of Australians hidden in Ploegsteert Wood.
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010