As May turned to June, a stalemate set in, and with it came a sense of frustration and futility. The front lines were digging deeper, barbed wire was being raised and rolled out, fire lanes cleared and tunnels dug. For Douglas Marks, the routine was simple but deadly: a day or two up under bombs and sniper fire on the ridgeline at Quinn’s Post or Pope’s Hill, a ‘rest’ under shrapnel and rifle fire on the beach, then back up Monash Valley – which had become known as ‘the Valley of Death’ – for another stint at the front. There was nowhere that shot and shell could not find you. And all the time the smell of death was about you like a shroud and the flies appeared thick with dawn, swarming squadrons of death and disease. There was no plan for a breakout, no chance of victory, no end in sight and no way off this terrible, filthy peninsula. Australia was a distant memory.
On the night of 10 July, a German patrol planted a small German flag in no-man’s-land, tempting the Australians to come and take it. The Germans were watching the exposed area carefully, and had even placed fluorescent markers to detect any movement. The challenge was accepted by two men, Lieutenant Charles Boccard, a Gallipoli veteran born in England of French parents, and Private Lawrence Ruhan, a Gallipoli veteran from Wellington, New South Wales. They crept out of their trench and began crawling across the flat landscape of no-man’s-land. Dashing the last few yards, Boccard and Ruhan grabbed the flag from the ground and turned to race back towards their lines. The Germans immediately opened their machine guns on no-man’s land and lit the sky with flares, but the two had fled, laughing as they went. Suddenly, on their left, an Australian Lewis gun of the recently arrived 29th Battalion opened on these two fleeting figures, catching them both before they could fall puffing and exhilarated into the safety of their trench. Lieutenant Boccard was severely wounded, while Private Ruhan was killed, a tragic end to a typical digger exploit. Sadly there would be numerous such unfortunate cases of nervous gunners and mistaken identity before the end of the war and although procedures and tactics were devised, many men would lose their lives to ‘friendly fire’.
Now German resistance stiffened. The Germans counterattacked, their bombers outranging the Australians. Two of Murray’s corporals, Roy Withers and Malcolm Robertson, called on their men to attack over the parapet and into the open. German machine guns swept left and right along the parapet, taking out many Australians, but the determined diggers fought on. The battalion history tells us that, standing on the parapet, Withers, ‘a big strong lad who could hurl our bombs sixty yards, threw bomb after bomb, exposing himself recklessly’.
Murray was slowly being encircled. He had German bombers on three sides and closing in. Ignoring the rain of German bombs, he charged over the top of the trench, racing towards the nearest enemy bomb post. Flinging himself into the midst of six surprised Germans, within seconds he’d shot three and captured a further three, rendering one side safe. But the German bombs were causing Australian casualties. Returning to the trench, Murray found three men he’d left at the post seriously wounded, so he quickly carried them, one after the other, back to safety. As Charles Bean wrote, ‘Murray flung himself into the most famous fight of his life. He was a leader whose presence always raised other men to heights of valour and energy.’
On the left of the battalion’s line, the Germans had ranged their guns along Grease Trench and the eastern end of Stormy Trench, falling heavily upon D Company. Following close behind the barrage, German bombers loomed out of the smoke. Determined to retake the trench, they made five separate assaults upon this section of the new line, but in each case were driven back with Mills bombs and rifle grenades, suffering heavy casualties.
The fighting was now desperate and violent, with many casualties on both sides. Germans surged against Murray’s right flank, showering the bomb post with grenades and killing or wounding seven of the nine defenders. At 10.58 pm the German bombers swarmed forward again, but SOS flares were quickly fired; within thirty seconds they were answered by a ‘beautiful barrage’ of the advancing Germans and their attack was easily repulsed. In the centre of the line, the commander of C Company, Captain Norman MacDonald, a gallant Gallipoli veteran, was killed after leading his men into an attack and firing his green success flares.
At this moment, Roy Withers grabbed a bag of bombs and called out, ‘Who’ll come over the top with me?’ records the battalion history. He then climbed out into a ‘hail of bullets’ and, although wounded in the knee, ran along the top of the trench, bombing the Germans and leaving a line of dead behind him. Sent to the RAP where the wounds incurred were dressed, Withers returned to the fight, bringing more flares and bombs and carrying back wounded mates.
At 11.30 pm, Murray made an urgent call for more bombs, sending this message to Douglas Marks: ‘1 gun knocked out. We have only one gun in action. Keep up plentiful supply of bombs and send plenty of rifle grenades.’
Corporal Malcolm Robertson, who was protecting Murray’s right flank, twice had his bombing section wiped out; reorganising his men, particularly those new into the line, he ‘inspired them and with them held fast,’ the history says. Nearby, Sergeant Andrew Gove, a Scotsman from Aberdeen and one of the first into the German trench, ‘immediately organised a party of carriers and made three trips through the intense barrage and hail of machinegun (MG) fire. Within half an hour he had carried over 1,000 grenades into the captured line.’
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