SUMMARY OF SERVICE
Allan Caldwell was just a lad of 13 years when the Great War broke out in August 1914. In September of 1917, then aged 16 years, Allan decided it was time to become a part of "the great adventure". He added two years to his age and duly enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). By the time the war concluded in 1918, Allan, now at the ripe old age of 17 years, had become a veteran of the Australian Infantry, having made his contribution in active service during the final year of the war in some of the most crucial battles fought on the Western Front, ultimately leading to the defeat of the German army in November of that year.
On 6 September 1917, Allan fronted up to the AIF Recruiting Officer at Balmain in Sydney, armed with a document bearing two signatures purporting to be those of his parents, James and Christina Caldwell. This piece of paper was required by the Army as evidence of parental consent to the active service overseas of any young man aged under 21 years presenting himself for enlistment in the AIF. When recruiting began in 1914, the minimum enlistment age was set at 18 years (subject to parental approval for those under 21) and remained so throughout the war. In the face of high numbers of casualties as the war progressed the upper age limit was raised from 35 to 45 years and both height and chest measurements were reduced.
The following extract from NSW Birth Records confirms Allan’s birth as having been registered by his parents in 1901. A later military record referred to elsewhere in this report indicates his birth date as 11 May 1901. Allan’s stated age on enlistment of 18 years and 4 months had been exaggerated by 2 years.
(Table Source - NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages)
Among the group of approximately 150 reinforcement troops with whom Allan sailed to the war were more than twenty youngsters whose age had been given as 18 years. There were a similar number whose age was stated as 19 years. A quick inspection of a few of the relevant NSW birth records immediately reveals the ages of some of these recruits as having been similarly overstated. One case concerns a 16 year old lad stating his age on enlistment as 18 years (same form with parents’ signatures) but having been born a few months earlier than Allan Caldwell. Within six weeks of arriving on the battlefield of the Western Front in 1918, this young soldier’s actual age had been discovered and he was promptly returned to Australia as "under age".
Two other young members of the group who had dubiously claimed to be 18 years of age on enlistment in 1917 were among the comrades of Allan Caldwell who did not return from the Western Front. No 7037 Private John Beeston Donald, a pharmacy student from Newcastle, NSW, was shot through the neck while working with a fatigue party setting up barbed wire near Morlancourt on 23 May 1918. He died in a Casualty Clearing Station and is buried in Crouy British Cemetery, north west of Amiens.
On 3 October 1918, No 7134 Private Charles Chopin, a bank officer from Shellharbour , NSW, died of multiple wounds to the head and hand which he received while "going over the top" in the thick of battle near Joncourt, beyond the Hindenburg Line. Private Chopin is buried in Bellicourt British Cemetery.
Let us return to the enlistment process of Allan Caldwell. Having initiated his enlistment and undertaken the preliminaries at Balmain on 6 September 1917, including being medically examined, taking the oath and signing his Attestation Paper, Allan was required to report to camp at the Sydney Showgrounds on 13 September. He was to be attached to what was known as a "Sportsmen’s Unit", and it will have been noticed that there are a couple of references to "Sports" and the "Sportsmen’s Unit" on his enlistment documents.
With the failure of the Conscription Referendum in December 1916, one recruitment strategy utilised was to target members of sporting teams and to develop the concept of army units which would consist entirely of sportsmen. The poster seen here is just one example of mass produced advertising material designed to encourage the enlistment of this target group. The concept drew strongly on the belief that young sporting men would possess skills and attributes providing a great advantage on the battlefield.
The concept had a positive effect on recruitment in Australia but, unlike the English experience, its ongoing relevance to army organisation in the field was not as marked. Beyond attaching recruits to the so-called "Sportsmen’s Units" on enlistment, it appears that their collective sporting identity was not formally sustained after embarkation for the war.
(Poster source - Australian War Memorial)
After a week of induction into Army life at the Sydney Showground, Private Caldwell was appointed to "B2 Company" (perhaps the reference is to 2nd Platoon of B Company) within the 1st Infantry Depot Battalion located at Liverpool camp, then some 30 kilometres west of Sydney. The Depot Battalions were holding units for new recruits where further induction and basic training occurred prior to attachment to an AIF unit.
On 28 September 1917, about a week after arriving at Liverpool, Private Caldwell was appointed to the 21st Draft of Reinforcements to the 17th Australian Infantry Battalion (referred to variously as, for example, "21/17" or " 21/17th "). A brief history of the 17th Battalion is provided later, along with an explanation of its make-up and its place within the structure of the AIF.
Some 150 officers and men of the 21st Reinforcements to the 17th Battalion embarked at Sydney on 31 October 1917 on HMAT A14 (His Majesty’s Australian Transport "Euripides"). The vessel would have sailed westwards across the Indian Ocean to South Africa and then northwards along the west coast of Africa, keeping well out to sea in the Atlantic when passing the mouth of the Mediterranean and the Bay of Biscay, owing to the presence of German submarines hunting Allied troopships.
After a voyage of almost two months, the troops disembarked at Devonport in south-west England on Boxing Day, 26 December 1917. From there they would have travelled by rail to the military training camps on the Salisbury Plain of southern England. Private Allan, and indeed the whole group of Reinforcements, were in camp at Fovant by 27 December 1917, attached to the 5th Training Battalion. The severe northern hemisphere winter took its toll and Private Caldwell found himself hospitalised for two weeks at No 3 Command (Convalescent) Depot at Hurdcott. He returned to the 5th Training Battalion back at Fovant until it was time to proceed on to the war in France.
On 1 April 1918, Private Caldwell and his colleagues from the 21st Reinforcements sailed from Dover, arriving the same day in France where they entered the Australian Infantry Base Depot (AIBD) at No 1 Overflow Camp, Beaumarais, nearby to the port of Calais. On 9 April they were discharged from the holding camp and would travel south to the region of the River Somme to be taken on 16 April onto the strength of the 17th Australian Infantry Battalion who were now in action against the Germans just south of Villers-Bretonneux.
Private Caldwell’s active service with the 17th Battalion on the Western Front occurred from 16 April to 27 September 1918.
From March 1918 the Germans had launched a major offensive on the Western front following the collapse the Russian resistance on the Eastern Front. The strategically important centre of Amiens, a major road and rail junction, became a major target in the German push for the coast. The Australian forces were heavily engaged in defending Amiens and halting the enemy at the village of Villers-Bretonneux just to the east. The rest of the war involving the Australians would be fought in this region of the Somme as the Germans were halted and then pushed back beyond the Hindenburg Line in the region of Mont St Quentin and Peronne, some 50 kilometres to the east of Amiens.
Following the first defence of Villers-Bretonneux in a major action on 4 April 1918 followed by the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux when the town was finally saved by the Australians, the 5th Brigade, including the 17th Battalion, were deployed to the area south of Villers-Bretonneux clearing the areas around Hangard Wood. The 17th Battalion was based between the villages of Gentelles and Cachy.
By 3 May 1918 the Battalion had moved to a period of rest at Behencourt, 12 kilometres north-east of Amiens. On this date, a few days before his seventeenth birthday, Allan Caldwell was charged with unlawfully receiving public goods, namely rum, and was required to forfeit 21 days pay. Rum was issued to the troops on occasions following intense periods of action against the enemy, rather than beforehand, as was often thought.
The Battalion moved in areas just north of Amiens during May before moving to the Sailly-le-Sec area in the middle of the month to relieve units involved in the action at Morlancourt. Operations were conducted north of Sailly-le-Sec and in the areas near Vaux-sur-Somme.
Much of the work of the Battalion during the ensuing months entailed undertaking patrols into enemy territory, harassing, taking prisoners and gathering valuable intelligence. The tactics of "Peaceful Penetration" as the strategy was known are outlined in the following information provided by the Australian War Memorial.
Peaceful penetration was the term coined describe the tactics employed by Australian troops to gradually capture sections of the German front line during the lull between the end of the German spring offensive of 1918, and the launch of the Allies own offensive in August. Small patrols and raiding parties would seize isolated German positions with surprise actions, unheralded by the usual hallmarks of attacks and larger scale trench raids such as artillery bombardments. In addition to the local tactical advantage that resulted from these operations they also yield considerable intelligence about the condition of the German forces, their morale, and their future plans, that was vital in the preparation of the Allied offensive. Peaceful penetration was also referred to as "nibbling" or "winkling".
The first half of June 1918 was spent by the 17th Battalion again in the area just north of Amiens, especially at Franvillers. A lot of training was undertaken and the opportunity for bathing was taken. But these areas were not safe and were subjected to shelling, especially with gas. Working parties worked in advanced areas laying communications cabling. The Battalion was moved to Glisy on the eastern outskirts of Amiens. At the end of the month they advanced to the front line north of Villers-Bretonneux.
In July the Battalion maintained operations in and out of the line north of Villers-Bretonneux. They were in support during the notable advance by elements of the Australian Corps at Le Hamel on 4 July. The area was under continuous high explosive and gas shelling.
In early August the Battalion moved into trenches near Blangy-Tronville in preparation for the major attack planned and initiated by the Australian units on 8 August. The 17th Battalion moved through Framerville and Fouilly and established a position north-east of Villers-Bretonneux. In the latter part of the month they had moved to Clery-sur-Somme and would soon be participating in one of the great achievements of the war in the taking of Mont St Quentin.
On 27 September 1918, Private Caldwell became ill, suffering from a fever (P.U.O - Pyrexia of Unknown Origin). The unit were camped on the banks of the Somme at Frise at this time, having withdrawn some 6 to 7 kilometres to the west of Mont St Quentin following their involvement early in the month in the famous battle at that location, along with other units of the 5th Brigade. The taking of Mont St Quentin his had been one of the major achievements of the Australian Army in the whole of the Great War and was in no small measure attributable to the efforts of these and other troops of the Australian 2nd Division as well as the participation of members of the Australian 3rd and 5th Divisions. The unique divisional memorial to the 2nd Division today stands in a small park in Mont St Quentin.
Allan was sufficiently ill to be transported, within two days, to the 5th General Hospital located a long distance behind the lines at Rouen, on the River Seine north west of Paris. After admission to hospital there he was evacuated on the following day, 30 September, to Bristol in western England for admission to the Beaufort War Hospital, suffering from influenza.
Some six weeks later, on 7 November, Allan was relocated to the 3rd Auxiliary Hospital at Dartford in Kent, just south-east of central London. It was here that Allan would have heard the news of the Armistice being declared on 11 November 1918.
Allan appears to have recuperated sufficiently to be discharged on 16 November 1918 and was granted a fortnight’s furlough in England. He returned from leave as required on 30 November but had become ill again. By 12 December he was in No 2 Command (Convalescent) Depot located at the seaside town of Weymouth in Dorset.
His condition had been diagnosed as bronchitis by now and he is also noted as suffering from influenza. He was advanced in the queue of thousands of Australians now preparing to return home and with few ships available to transport them. In the conditions, a young soldier of relatively short service would normally have been lucky to return to Australia much before the end of 1919.
Allan was approved for embarkation on the hired transport, H.T. "Margha" on 18 January 1919. The ship departed London on 23 January and arrived in Melbourne (3rd Military District - 3MD) on 5 March 1919. Allan then proceed by boat to Sydney (2nd Military District - 2MD).
On 5 April 1919, some 19 months after his enlistment, Private Allan Edwin Caldwell was discharged from the Australian Imperial Force in Sydney.
Structure of the Australian Imperial Force on the Western Front
The table below depicts the organisation of the AIF as it had evolved on the Western Front from 1916 to 1918. The 17th Battalion can be seen located within the 5th Brigade among the units of the 2nd Division.
The men related very strongly and proudly to their Battalion and also to their Brigade.
At full strength, a Battalion consisted of approximately 1,000 men organised into four companies - A, B, C and D Companies – each Company being of about 100 men (sometimes up to 200.)
Within the Companies the men were organised into Platoons and Sections within the Platoons. The Section of ten or so men was the smallest and tightest fighting unit.
Divisional strength was of the order of 20,000 men. In addition to front line infantry troops in Battalions, the Divisions consisted also of the Artillery, Machine Gunners, Engineers, Pioneers, Service corps, Medical Services and Veterinary Services.
History of the 17th Australian Infantry Battalion
The following brief history of the Battalion has been provided by the Australian War Memorial.
In reading the history it should be kept in mind that Private A E Caldwell was absorbed into the strength of the 17th Battalion when he arrived with his fellow members of the 21st Reinforcements on 16 April 1918 and that he remained with the Battalion until he was evacuated owing to illness on 27 September 1918. Private Caldwell commenced these 165 days in the field as a 16 year old boy and completed them as experienced soldier, though as yet still one of only 17 years of age. He served alongsidehardened veterans of both the Gallipoli campaign of 1915 and the fighting on the Western Front from 1916, as well as with other young men who had enlisted and travelled to the war during the intervening years. This active service in France of approximately five and a half months formed part of Private Caldwell’s total of just over 16 months service overseas within a total period of service in the AIF of 19 months.
The 17th Battalion was raised at Liverpool in New South Wales in March 1915 as part of the 5th Brigade. It left Australia in early May, trained in Egypt from mid-June until mid-August, and on 20 August 1915 landed at ANZAC Cove.
At Gallipoli the Battalion participated in the last action of the August Offensive - the attack on Hill 60 - before settling into defensive routine in the trenches. For a short period part of the 17th garrisoned Pope’s Hill, but for most of its time on the peninsular the Battalion was responsible for the defence of Quinn’s Post, one of the most contested positions along the entire ANZAC front. The Battalion was evacuated from Gallipoli in December 1915.
After further training in Egypt, the 17th Battalion proceeded to France. Landing there on 22 March 1916, it took part in its first major battle at Pozières between 25 July and 5 August. The Battalion returned to the Pozières trenches for a second time, although in a reserve role, between 18 and 28 August 1916. After a spell in a quieter sector of the front in Belgium, the 2nd Division, which included the 5th Brigade, came south again in October. The 17th Battalion was spared from having to mount an attack across the quagmire the Somme battlefield had become, but did have to continue manning the front through a very bleak winter.
In 1917 the 17th Battalion was involved in the follow-up of German forces after their retreat to the Hindenburg Line, and was one of four battalions to defeat a counter-stroke by a German force, almost four times as strong, at Lagincourt. The battalion took part in three major battles before the year was out, second Bullecourt (3-4 May 1917) in France, and Menin Road (20-22 September 1917) and Poelcappelle (9-10 October 1917) in Belgium.
After another winter of trench duty, 17th Battalion helped to thwart the German Spring Offensive of 1918. With this last desperate offensive defeated, the Allied armies turned to the offensive and the 17th Battalion participated in the battles that pushed the German Army ever closer to defeat: Amiens on 8 August 1918, the legendary attack on Mont St Quentin on 31 August 1918, and the forcing of the Beaurevoir Line around Montbrehain on 3 October 1918. Montbrehain was the battalion’s last battle. It was training out of the line when the armistice was declared on 11 November 1918, and was disbanded in April 1919.
Colour patch of the 17th Battalion worn on the upper sleeve by members of the unit.
Medals of Service
For his service in the First World War, Private A E Caldwell was awarded the two medal depicted below - the British War Medal (left) and the Victory Medal (right).
Details of these medals are as follows.
British War Medal
Authorized on 29 July 1919, the British War Medal was awarded to all ranks who rendered service to His Majesty's Forces between 5 August 1914 and 11 November 1918, or who had served in a theatre of war.
This medal was agreed to by all allies in March 1919. All medals were to be almost identical to obviate the need to exchange allied medals and each was patterned after a French medal of 1870. The medal was authorized in Britain on 1 September 1919. The medal was awarded to all ranks of the fighting forces, to civilians under contract, and others employed with military hospitals who actually served on the establishment of a unit in a theatre of war between 5 August 1914 and 11 November 1918 (inclusive). This medal was never issued alone and was always issued with the British War Medal.
These were the most commonly awarded medals to British and Dominion forces, including Australians. Those who served in a theatre of war between 5 August 1914 and 31 December 1915 were also awarded the 1914-15 Star. In the case of Australians, those who served during the period of the Gallipoli campaign would have been strongly represented among the eligible awardees of this medal.
First War World soldier dossiers commonly contain ink-stamped images of the above three medals with notations concerning eligibility and issuing of the medals. Allan Caldwell’s dossier contains the abbreviation "N.E." on the image of the 1914-15 Star, indicating "Not Eligible" for that medal, and that is consistent with the dates of his service.
Second World War Service
The following extract form the World War Two nominal roll indicates that Allan Caldwell enlisted for service in that war on 2 May 1941, just before his 40th birthday. His recorded date of birth, 11 May 1901, provides further evidence that he had indeed enlisted in the First World War as a 16-year-old.
His service in the second war was of just under four months duration, with discharge occurring on 25 August 1941.
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