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Page history last edited by Lenore Frost 6 years, 6 months ago

Volunteers of Essendon and Flemington, 1914-1918


Dale J    Pte    3095    John Walter       5 Inf Bn    21    Butcher    Single    C of E        

Address:    Maribyrnong, Park Rd    

Next of Kin:    Dale, John, father, Park Rd, Maribyrnong    

Enlisted:    15 Jul 1915        

Embarked:     RMS Osterley 29 Sep 1915  

Dale was serving with the 58 Inf Bn at the time of his death.


Relatives on Active Service:

Dale E Pte 3094 brother


Date of death:  24/09/1917

CWGC: "Son of John and Mary Ann Georgina Dale, of Park Rd., Maribyrnong,

Victoria. Native of Melbourne".



Private John Walter Dale


Rod Martin


A bricklayer by trade, John Dale of Park Road, Maribyrnong, was one of the record 36 575 ‘Fair Dinkums’ who signed up in July 1915.  He had tried to enlist earlier but was rejected, probably because he was only 164.5 centimetres tall, when the original minimum height requirement was 167.5 centimetres.  By mid-1915, however, the physical requirements had been liberalised to allow more men to enlist.  The prime minister was keen to send more troops to the fray (in December that year, he promised the British that he would send an extra 50 000 men to the war).  He was not going to get them without reducing those requirements.


And so, twenty-one year-old John signed up on the sixteenth of the month.  He was a small man in height and stature, weighing only fifty-seven kilos, but his obvious desire to do his duty indicated that he was game for a fight.  However, his physical frailty may have had an adverse effect when he got to the battle zone.  He was assigned to 10 Reinforcement of 5 Battalion, probably did his training at Seymour and Broadmeadows, and sailed on HMAT RMS Osterley on 29 September.


HMAT Osterley (AWM PB0793)


10 Reinforcements probably reached Egypt sometime in early November. They would then have proceeded to a base camp at Heliopolis, near Cairo.  By this time, the fight at Gallipoli had degenerated into a stalemate, and troop numbers were being wound down in preparation for a probable evacuation – which started later that month and was completed by 20 December.  Therefore, John was not sent to that battlefield.  Instead, he and his comrades stayed in Egypt until the new year. 


5 Battalion tent lines at Heliopolis, January 1916 (AWM P00851.004)



5 Battalion men (probably) on a ten-mile route march to Kalib-el-Abassin, Egypt 14 January 1916  (AWM A00083)


In February 1916, with troop numbers bolstered by the arrival of men such as John, the Anzac command decided to create two Anzac corps, and to seed each battalion with fifty per cent veterans and the other fifty per cent new arrivals.  New units were created in order to do this, and John was transferred to the fledgling 57 Battalion on the seventeenth of the month.


The half of 5 Battalion which became part of 57 Battalion, Heliopolis, February 1916 (AWM 00069)


Things were obviously not set in concrete after that move, however, because he was relocated again on 19 March, this time to 58 Battalion.  The men in this group were part of 2 Anzac Corps, destined to sail for France and the Western Front in June (1 Anzac Corps had gone before it, in March).  Before he sailed, however, John was sent to hospital with sciatica.  He was based at Ferry Post on the Suez Canal, having reached there earlier in March after a nightmare three-day march through the desert, carrying full kit.  A number of men collapsed from the heat on the way or soon after arriving.  This would have been gruelling for any man, but especially for one who had a light build.  John’s sciatica may well have been caused by his exertions on the march.


John returned to his unit on 1 April.  It was still based at the canal, being sent there to defend that vital waterway from possible attack by the Turks.  On 24 May, he was sent to the Number One Hospital at Ismailia (also on the canal), suffering from appendicitis.  The attack was only a mild one, however, because he was back with his unit by the twenty-ninth.  On 13 June, only a couple of weeks later, he and the rest of 58 Battalion were transferred to Alexandria and shipped off to Plymouth in England – which was reasonably unusual as most of the troops in the corps journeyed to Marseilles and then travelled north to the Western Front in the area of Armentières.  The move to England may be because some of the men in the battalion were going to held in reserve, or were going to receive specialist training.  Whatever the case for John, he was allocated to 15 Training Battalion and remained with it until 2 September, when he headed for Etaples, near Boulogne in France. On the twenty-first of that month, he rejoined 58 Battalion.


When John arrived back at his unit, it was located opposite the village of Fromelles.   However, it had already been through the mill.  Having only been in the country for a few weeks, 2 Anzac Corps was thrown into the deep end at Fromelles on 19 July.  Wanting to prevent the local German units from moving south to the Somme to reinforce their comrades who had been under attack since 1 July, the British commander in the area, General Haking, devised a feint attack on a fortified German 


stronghold called the Sugarloaf, at Fromelles.  Despite the fact that the raw Australians were being expected to cover twice the distance across No Man’s Land than the British themselves deemed achievable and, despite the fact that Australians such as 58 Battalion’s brigade commander, ‘Pompey’ Elliott, labelled the idea as being akin to suicide, Haking insisted on the attack going ahead.  In the early evening of 19 July, after an ineffectual bombardment, the troops moved forward, many of them being mowed down by machine gun fire or high explosive shell and shrapnel blasts.  In the space of that evening, 5 533 Australian soldiers were killed or wounded.  In 58 Battalion, two companies moved forward at 10.00 pm, but neither reached the enemy trenches.  The battalion commander reported heavy losses and noted that continual shelling by the Germans overnight prevented the Australians from bringing in the dead and wounded.  Those who did survivecrawled’ back through the night and early morning.  ‘Pompey’ was there at the front line to comfort them, tears streaming down his face.


58 Battalion’s casualty figures for this unmitigated slaughter were thirty-seven killed, 161 wounded and forty-nine missing – numbers equal to almost one-third of its strength.  Forever after, in the minds of the survivors, Haking would carry the epithet of ‘Butcher’.


5 Division, of which ‘Pompey’’s brigade was part, was decimated and devastated by the attack at Fromelles and was effectively withdrawn from combat for the remainder of the year.  When John rejoined 58 Battalion on 21 September as one of sixty reinforcements of good standard, the unit was still opposite Fromelles and still suffering some casualties from German bombardments.  However, there were no more attacks on the enemy lines, the concentration of the war still being focused on the Somme, further south.  In between the German bombardments, the men carried out such activities as laying underground cable, cutting out dugouts and shoring them up with timber supports, and thickening and fire-stepping the parapets in the trenches.  This schedule continued until 21 October, when the battalion was sent into reserve at Montauban, about six kilometres distant.  There the men rested and carried out a variety of training activities.


On 2 November, the battalion commander was ordered to prepare for a sudden move to Dernancourt, located on the Ancre River, a tributary of the Somme.  The unit arrived the next day and then moved on to Flesselles, north of the major rail centre at Amiens.  The greatest battle of the war had been in operation on the Somme since the start of July and even as late as November, when an extremely bitter winter was approaching and the fighting was winding down, it would seem that reinforcements were still needed in various sectors.  58 Battalion continued to be in reserve but was obviously ready to be used at short notice should the need arise.  Conditions were not all that good for the men, however.  On 7 November their commander noted in the war diary that


Iron rations are difficult to keep intact owing to biscuits going mouldy.  Rats were very troublesome in trenches vacated at Fromelles and these accounted for much loss.  Enclosing the whole emergency ration in a metal case would prevent much damage and waste.



A member of 2 Battalion writing a letter in the mud at Flesselles, November 1916  (AWM E00030)


Whether the conditions played a part we do not know, but three days later John was evacuated to hospital at Camières, suffering from pleurisy.  Six days later he was transferred to a hospital at Rouen and then evacuated to the Southern General Hospital in Plymouth on 20 November. He was back where he started in England!


Pleurisy is an inflammation of the membranes that surround the lungs and line the chest cavity.  It causes pain when breathing.  The most common cause is a viral infection, but other possible causes include pneumonia.  It is obvious that John’s case was a bad one as he stayed in Plymouth until 13 February 1917, when he was transferred to 3 Auxiliary Hospital in Dartford and then sent on a furlough for a month to fully recover.  In late April he was assigned to a new battalion – 66 – being raised in England from evacuees such as himself and destined to provide reinforcements for France. It was based at Windmill Hill Camp, Perham Downs.  While there, John went absent without leave on 12 May and was not apprehended until 8.00 pm the next day.  For this offence, he was awarded four days of Field Punishment Number Two (hard labour) and he forfeited six days’ pay.  One can only hope that the cause of his offence was worth it!


Attrition in the ranks of the existing units in France meant that 66 Battalion never saw action.  It was disbanded shortly afterwards and the men sent back to their original units.  John rejoined 58 Battalion on 20 July.  At that time, the unit was in reserve at Contay, west of the town of Albert in the Somme Valley.  While John had been away, 58 Battalion had been involved in reinforcing the gains made as a result of the Second Battle of Bullecourt the previous May.  This was the first time that Germany’s fearsome Hindenburg (Siegfried) Line had been penetrated.  By late June, it was preparing for the next major battle on British supreme commander Sir Douglas Haig’s mind: Ypres.  In early June, the first stage of this conflict – the mining of the strategic ridge at Messines, south of Ypres -   and the subsequent battle had been successful, ten thousand German casualties being caused.  Now the next stage was planned, to begin on 31 July.  Haig’s ostensible reasons for concentrating again on the Ypres area (two earlier battles had occurred there, in 1914 and 1915) were to capture the German submarine pens at Ostend and to demoralise the German forces in the area.  The first step in this grand plan was the planned capture of the village of Passchendaele.   


Starting on 5 July, 58 Battalion began moving north towards the Belgian border.  On one route march on 16 July (of just over seventeen kilometres in distance), nineteen men fell out of the parade.  The commander recorded the cause in the battalion’s war diary:


This is accounted for through men having been paid the previous day and in consequence, numbers of the men had obtained too much liquor, which rendered them unfit to undertake a long route march.  The drink which is being sold to troops in the back areas is of doubtful production.  Even a little of it appears to effect [sic] the men.  In future it is the intention of this unit not to issue pay to troops just prior to a route march.


Boys will be boys!  Even by the next day, only six of the nineteen were considered able to undertake a special (punishment?) ten-kilometre route march.  It must have been a very potent elixir! 


By 31 July, the first real day of the Third Battle of Ypres, 58 Battalion reached Steenbecque, not far from the Belgian border.  It then spent the whole of August and half of September in training.  On the eighteenth of that month, it headed for Reninghelst, south-west of Ypres in Belgium, carrying out a route march lasting two days.  On 21 September, it was ordered to move into the front line on the night of the twenty-third and twenty-fourth.  At that time, hostile aircraft were becoming very active over the local area.  The front line was just short of a place called Polygon Wood, not far east of Ypres.  Three days earlier, 1 and 2 Divisions had made a successful attack at the Menin Road, also outside of Ypres.  At a cost of 5 000 casualties, they had driven the Germans out of the area and into nearby Polygon Wood.  Now 4 and 5 Divisions were scheduled to attack the wood on 26 September.  58 Battalion would be part of this.  The men moved into position at 10.00 pm on the twenty-third, two companies occupying the two forward lines and another two occupying a shell hole area in the rear, as far back as Glencorse Wood.  It is likely that John was a part of the two companies in the front lines.  By midnight, four men had already been wounded.

(Gibbs: From Bapaume to Passchendaele 1917)



Looking towards Zonnebeke and Polygon Wood, 21 September 1917 (AWM E00783B)


At 5.30 am on 24 September, the Australian artillery put over a practice barrage on the German lines.  Despite a retaliation by the Germans that the battalion commander described as ‘feeble’, by 6.00 am two men had been killed and fourteen wounded.  As no other casualties were listed for that day, it must be assumed that John was one of the men killed.


The records indicate that John was buried where he fell, in the vicinity of a feature called Anzac Ridge.  There are no extant reports of his death.


A shelter ruined by shellfire, Anzac Ridge, 28 September 1917     (AWM E00890)


John’s grave was obliterated in the ensuing fight and his body was never found. As a result, his name was inscribed on the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres.


5 Division Memorial Polygon Wood       (longlongtrail.co.uk. Reproduced by permission)


Back home, John’s mother was awarded a pension of twenty shillings per fortnight from 11 December 1917.





Australian War Memorial

Commonwealth War Graves Commission


Gibbs, Philip: From Bapaume to Passchendaele 1917, London, William Heinemann, 1918

Google Earth

National Archives of Australia

Travers, Richard: Diggers in France: Australian soldiers on the Western Front,  Sydney, ABC Books, 2008 





War Service Commemorated

Moonee Ponds West State School 



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