In the footsteps® of
Private Stuart John Charles George Wooldridge
48th Infantry Battalion,
Australian Imperial Force (AIF)
Suzanne and Wayne Hanley at the grave of Private Stuart John Charles George Wooldridge. [© Ian R Gumm, 2015]
Private Stuart John Charles George Wooldridge was 29 years old when he enlisted in the AIF at Stone Hut,
Southern Australia on 30th March 1916. He stood 5 feet 5 inches tall, weighed 139 lbs, had hazel eyes
and brown hair. On 12th July 1916, Private Wooldridge embarked on HMAT 48 SS Seang Bee at the Outer
Harbour bound for Britain and the Western Front. He disembarked at Plymouth 9th September 1916.
Stuart Wooldridge was taken on strength of the 12th Training Battalion at Rolleston Camp, Wiltshire before proceeding overseas to France embarking at Folkestone on 20th November 1916 on the SS Victoria. He landed at Etaples on the 21st and was taken onto the strength of the 48th Infantry Battalion AIF on 4th December 1917.
He was reported missing in action on 11th April 1917 and was posted Killed in Action in the field following a court of enquiry on 29th December 1917. His remains were found in an isolated grave and subsequently re-interred at Tilloy British Cemetery Arras in June 1922; the means of identification being his identity disc. Stuart Wooldridge is buried in Plot III, row B, grave 3.
On 8th September 1917 his father, John Wooldridge, was granted a pension of 15 shillings fortnightly. A separate record shows that his mother, Elizabeth Amelia Wooldridge also received a pension of 15 shillings fortnightly on the same date.
The only personal effects returned to the family were a bundle of letters which were returned on 25th February 1918 and his identity disc which was returned in June 1922. His father also received the Great War Medal, Victory Medal, Scroll and Memorial Plaque.
Private Stuart Wooldridge was reported missing during the Battle of Bullecourt on 11th April 1917. This British and Australian attack at Bullecourt came two days after the opening of the 'Arras offensive' further to the north at Vimy where the Canadians successfully seized the heights of the ridge from the Germans. It was hoped that some sort of breakthrough might be made at Bullecourt allowing the British Forces to penetrate into the German rear area.
The Australian attack was to be made to the east of Bullecourt, roughly in the direction that the 'Bullecourt Digger' faces, through the thick barbed wire entanglements and into the trenches of the Hindenburg Line. The plan called for the use of tanks to break through the wire rather than the usual preliminary bombardment in the hope that it would take the enemy by surprise.
The attack was initially scheduled for dawn on 10th April 1917, but the tanks failed to appear, because of a blizzard. The historian of the 48th Battalion, Chaplain William Devine, later wrote:
"The hour came and the tanks were still waited for, and the minutes passed whilst the men shivered with cold in the snow. All the time they saw grow the daylight which should make their position an exposed and dangerous one. There they lay for an hour and at last the order was given to retire to the trenches … The men got up stiff and cold and cramped, damning the tanks, the stupidity of the higher command that backed the tanks."
William Devine, The Story of a Battalion, Melbourne, 1919, page 74
The next day the 46th Battalion and 48th Battalion of the Australian 12th Infantry Brigade reassembled in their jumping off positions about 550 metres behind where the 'Bullecourt Digger' stands today. To their right, in front of the village of Riencourt-lès-Cagnicourt the Battalions of the Australian 4th Infantry Brigade prepared to advance more directly towards the village. The tanks initialled failed to put in an appearance, but when they finally arrived at 04.30 hrs the Australian infantrymen had already begun their advance.
By 05.30 hrs the 46th Battalion, despite heavy casualties, had broken through the wire and was in the first line of German trenches known as OG1. These trenches lay just behind the 'Bullecourt Digger' and ran on towards Bullecourt. Coming behind the 46th, the 48th fought its way into the next line of trenches, OG2, which lay roughly along the banks of the sunken road which leads away to the right from the Australian Memorial Park towards Riencourt-lès-Cagnicourt.
For the next few hours the battle raged as the two battalions of the Australian 12th Infantry Brigade tried to hold their positions. The British Artillery, believing that the attack was proceeding well and that the Australians had reached their final objectives well beyond OG2 fired their protective barrage well too far forward. Consequently the Germans mounted strong counterattacks against the Australian infantrymen unhindered by shelling. By mid-morning the 46th Battalion had been forced out of its position, many being captured and dozens killed and wounded. This effectively left the 48th Battalion exposed in the OG2 line and with their positions untenable they had little choice, but to retire and fight their way out back to their own lines.
One who did not make it back was Private Kenneth Anderson. One of his mates saw him, badly wounded but still trying to make his way back down a communication trench to OG1. Another left behind, badly wounded, was Private John Healy:
"He got hit beyond the first line of German trenches. He was carried into the trench. I [Private Percy Sims] spoke to him there a few minutes before we retired. He asked me what we were doing. I said we had got orders to clear out. He was wounded in the face and he said he was also hurt in the back. We evacuated the trench about mid-day."
Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau file, Private John Healy.
Also left behind was Lance Corporal Albert Ticklie who was last seen, wearing his Military Medal ribbon and with his leg shattered, in a support trench just before the 48th were forced to retreat. While Anderson's body was later found and he was buried in Tilloy British Cemetery near Arras; neither John Healy nor Albert Ticklie were ever seen again and their names are commemorated on the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux.
Captain Allan Leane realised that they were in an exposed position and running low on ammunition and bombs. It would only be a matter of time before their remaining ammunition ran out and the only thing to do was to go back over the top of the trench, retire back through the wire and across no-man's-land to the Australian lines. He had the badly wounded made as comfortable as possible and put a rearguard in place to cover the withdrawal. When all was ready, he gave the order to leave. Charles Bean later wrote of the 48th:
"So, a full hour after every other battalion had left the trenches the 48th came out — under heavy rifle and machine gun fire, but with proud deliberation and studied nonchalance, at walking pace, picking their way through the broken wire … carefully helping the walking wounded, and with their officers bringing up the rear. Wherever Australians fought, that characteristic gait was noted by friend and enemy but never did it furnish such a spectacle as here. For ten minutes the attention of half the battlefield was held while, leisurely as a crowd leaving its daily work, the 48th drew clear."
Charles Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1917, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume 1V, p.340.
Some were hit crossing no-man's-land. One, Lieutenant William Watson who later died on 28th April 1917 was awarded the Military Cross for actions. His recommendation stated:
"He with the few officers that remained covered the retirement of the men. He was hit near the spine just outside the enemy trench and crawled 800 yards [731 metres] before he was picked up by our bearers. By his courage and determination he set a fine example to his men."
Recommendation for Military Cross, Lieutenant William Watson, 48th Battalion AIF.
William Watson's younger brother, Lieutenant Herbert Watson, was also killed fighting with the 48th Battalion that morning. Captain Allan Leane was also hit and was last seen hopping towards the German wire where he was captured. He was eventually reported as having died in captivity on 2nd May 1917. Allan Leane's body was never recovered and he is commemorated on the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. In all the 48th Battalion sustained 436 casualties of which 96 are listed as having died on 11th April 1917. Among those who fell was Private Stuart John Charles George Wooldridge.
Following their exertions at Bullecourt the 48th Battalion was withdrawn to recuperate at Bapaume and Charles Bean recounts that they marched into camp 'with brave show, singing'.
In 2015 I had the honour to follow in the footsteps of Private Stuart John Charles George Wooldridge in the company of his great-nephew Wayne Hanley and his wife Suzanne.
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Page last updated: 25 October 2020.