Remembering the Past Australia

Soldier's Letter: Sapper O. G. Pettit, 6th Field Coy. Engineers, 10 December 1918

First published in the Traralgon Record (Victoria), Tuesday
4 February 1919.

Writing from Boulogne, Dec. 10/18, Sapper O. G. Pettit, 6th Co. Field Engineers, gives the following interesting narrative:

My last letter was written prior to leaving Bettencourt (Somme), en route for Germany, and I have delayed writing further, hoping that we would have reached our destination before this, but through divers causes we have been delayed, and are still on our way, hundreds of miles from German territory. I now learn that it is the intention to take the Australians only as far as Charleroi, distant about 30 miles from here, where they will go into billets, and remain there until the demobilization is commenced. A composition Division of our boys, I believe, alone represent Australia in the occupation of enemy territory, so it is not at all likely the Engineers will be included in that unit, although I should like to have the experience of visiting Rhineland. I am not at all disappointed at the alteration of arrangements, for travelling at the present unfavorable season is not very pleasant, and already we have had many hardships to contend with, which damp the most ardent spirit. Difficulty occasioned by the demolition of portion of the railways by the Germans in their hurried retreat, has always been met with as regards the rations, and for the first three or four days on the move we had scarcely anything beyond a small supply of ” bully” and ” Anzacs,” (army biscuits, which I might state are not very palatable.) Now, however, things have improved materially, and we are enjoying the usually millitary (sic) rations.

Leaving Bettencourt, we entrained for the north at Vignacourt — a journey per road of about four hundred miles. From five in the morning until that hour in the evening, we traversed over a hundred miles of devastated war stricken country, the ride being more and more enjoyable owing to the fact of our being crowded to the number of over thirty into an ordinary cattle truck. Officers, of course, occupied finely fitted up first class carriages, but they are considered by the military as being far above the ordinary rank and file and superior beings in every respect — an absurdity which causes more dissatisfaction and friction in the army than any other of their autocratic ideas. We detrained at Bertray, and from there to the place we are billeted at — Boulogne — we “padded the hoof,” doing about 10 miles per day at an average. At night we rested at various towns and villages along the route and it was suprising (sic) how comfortable we could make ourselves in old houses, lofts, etc, which the ravages of war had rendered untenable to the ordinary civilian.

And now a word about this country, which had been for four long years in the hands of an unscrupulous enemy, and ruled by his tyrraneous (sic) Government. On all hands was palpable evidence of malicious destruction, and ill-treatment of the unfortunate inhabitants who had been in bondage for so long. The women folk in particular, wore expressions on their haggard faces which told only too plainly of untold suffering, and so accustomed had they become to the brutal treatment of their merciless captors that even yet they scarcely recognise their deliverance. The little children still wear the look of abject terror when we enter a village, where no one but Germans have been known for the past few years, but a friendly word and a smile seem to work wonders with them, and they soon become great friends with the “Aussie” and the British troops. Pitiable tales of ill treatment are continually being told us, and the brutal coercion exercised by the German officers towards young French girls and women generally is almost incredulous. In many cases the poor creatures have been robbed of that virtue which is so sacred to them, and the violation, according to the version of eye witnesses, to which they have been cruelly subjected is simply heartrending. If these modern-time barbarians are made pay for their devilish misdeeds I am sure humanity will rise as one, and recommend it.

Yesterday I visited Aviens, the recent headquarters of Hindenburg, the Kaiser and his staff, and it was whilst here that I was told by one of the inhabitants, who had been through the mill, of the indignities and cruelty practiced upon them by the Germans. Old men and women were alike employed in the arduous work of cleaning and repairing the streets, and were publicly chastised if, in the unreasonable opinion of their guards, they were shirking their jobs. In one instance a British soldier, similarly employed, was so enraged at their inhuman treatment, that he floored one of the German officers, thus chancing death rather then sink his chivalrous principles. Testimony is never wanting of similar outrages inflicted upon the unfortunate French people, whose feelings naturally are of bitter and rancorous hatred towards these Hun fiends. Then there is the damage to property, which, after all, is of only minute importance compared to the atrocities described above. Apart from the destruction incidental to warfare, the most despicable acts have been committed by the invaders, showing in themselves with what malignity the Boche have conducted this warfare. The most glaring evidence to my mind was the cutting down of fruit and ornamental trees in the parts he was forced to evacuate, and leaving the attached portions lying where they had fallen — these examples of senseless wanton destruction. For days, in fact weeks, after the enemy’s retirement, the demolition of public property, which could have no bearing whatever on the military situation, was continued by means of delayed action mines, and the day after we had passed out of Bohain the Town Hall, a fine building which had suffered considerably from bombing raids, was utterly destroyed by this means. We were lucky not being there at the time, as our billet was only a few doors from the spot. Roads, railways and bridges had also been blown up to impede the Allies advance, but with all his efforts and ingenuity he was unable to avert the decisive defeat which our troops eventually inflicted upon him. The price of indemnity which Germany must pay for all this wholesale destruction, independent of other important matters, must alone keep her poor for years to come, and if just retribution is insisted upon for all the damage wrought, well, I predict she will never lift her head again and should remain subdued for all time. But they will need watching!

Another pitiable sight to be seen every day is the return of thousands of refugees to their old homes — or whatever is left of them — which in numerous cases amount to mere brick heaps. But the spirit of the people is surprising, and far from being discouraged, they soon set to work and make a shelter for themselves, their goods and chattels, and eventually “home is home” again to them. I have often passed old men and women wheeling all their worldly possessions in a barrow, followed by children likewise engaged. Sometimes the poor old folk harness themselves with huge straps to little hand-carts, and in this manner wend their weary way towards the journey’s end — which is “home” to them, and we all know what that means. I can assure you I do at the present moment, and on thousands of other occasions which I can readily remember, but I’m indeed thankful that the same conditions as here do not exist in fair Australia. There the grim evidences of war fortunately have not arisen, nor the horrors and suffering of it all been brought home to its people. Fair France will be disfigured for many years to come, but her cause (and that is ours also) has been vindicated, and there is consolation in the fact that she has not suffered in vain. Her fields for centuries have been bespattered with the blood of many nations, but at last her emancipation is complete, and the consummation of her ideals is at hand.

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Soldier Identified:Sapper Ormond Gladstone Pettit, Service No. 15430, 6th Field Coy. Australian Engineers, AIF. Returned to Australia, 27 April 1919.

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