“Now, so long, sister mine”: My family’s Passchendaele storyOctober 3rd, 2017 By Helen Smith
Meeting great uncle Harry
Grandma looked at me through the small, round metal frames of her glasses, her white hair falling softly around her face. For several minutes, it seemed, she looked silently into my eyes and I into hers. I remember feeling that this moment was special; one I must not forget.
I remember the lounge in the old house at 251 Main Road, Karori. The pale yellow walls sighed faintly, the scrim and paper moving in the gentle breeze. Around the long double-hung windows net curtains played like long-ago girls in white dresses. The air smelt of freshly baked fruit cake and tea. Grandma sat in her wooden chair, a woollen patchwork blanket over her knees.
There was someone else in the room. He had kind eyes and a quiet smile. The man in the picture watched us silently from the heavy wooden frame on the wall.
My Grandmother, Bessie, was in her late eighties then and I was about four years old. The man in the picture was my great uncle, Harry Comper.
Our story begins in London
William Henry Comper, known as Harry, was born 6 June 1889 in St Pancras, London, the first child of William Dossetter Comper and Emma Wraight. The family were reasonably well off and William, employed as a chemist and later a stockbroker’s clerk and accountant, was very active and respected in the community. By the time my grandmother, Emma Mary Elizabeth (Bessie), was born, little over a year later, the Comper family had moved to St Augustine’s Road in Camden Town. When a third and last child was born she was christened Alice Sarah but her brother and sister called her Dolly.
William had always lived in London but Emma, who had lived by the sea in Folkestone, Kent, until her marriage, hated the town life and the family often escaped the cramped city streets to walk through Hampstead Heath, Hyde Park and St James Park with their little Fox Terrier, Spot. When, in 1903, Emma became ill with cancer these walks had to cease. The family sang together, especially while Emma was ill, and Harry played the violin. In 1904, when Harry was 14, his mother died.
From this time a woman visited the house regularly to help with the washing and cleaning and from her the two girls learnt the rudiments of housekeeping. A neighbour and family friend kept an eye on the children until their father returned home from work each day.
Harry passed the highest exam at the Wesleyan Middle-Class School in Falkland Road, Kentish Town, and for a year (until his sister Bessie left school) he looked after the house and family while studying part-time at a higher level at the Wesleyan Middle-Class School in Lady Margaret Road. A schoolmaster in one of these small private institutions was a renowned bully. On one occasion, after this teacher had been particularly severe and unjust toward a pupil, Harry defended his classmate and gave the teacher a good hiding.
On 28 March 1907, Harry entered the breakfast-room at home to find his father dead on the sofa. Harry saw at once “a glass containing crystals and a jug” and that his father’s “money, papers and jewellery were arranged in an orderly fashion on the table”, details reported widely in English newspapers over the coming weeks. An inquest was held and the coroner found that William had poisoned himself with oxalic acid. He had been depressed about losing his job and his friends expressed their sorrow that he had not come to them for financial assistance. Harry, Bessie and Dolly never spoke of the tragedy and took their shared secret to their graves.
It was Emma's wish that if anything happened to her husband after her death the children should go to live with her brother Henry in Goonellabah, Australia. Until they could leave England they stayed with their unmarried aunt, Helen Comper, in Torquay, Devon.
To Australia on the Miltiades
Harry, Bessie and Dolly travelled Third Class on the Miltiades, departing London on 30 October 1907. The passenger list, which can be viewed on Ancestry Library Edition, records William, 18, Bessie, 17, and Alice, 16. Harry gave his occupation as clerk. The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Dec 1907, published a passenger list which includes their names.
The Miltiades arrived in New South Wales on 13 December. Harry, Bessie and Dolly then travelled some of the way to Lismore by bullock cart, fording rivers on the way, and found their Uncle Henry’s farm, Kemsdale, in Goonellabah, which was to be their home.
Dolly and Bessie settle in New Zealand
On the voyage to Australia Harry had shared a cabin with a young man called Green Hall, who was on his way to New Zealand. A shipboard romance had flourished between Green and Harry’s sister Dolly. Green continued on to New Zealand and he and Dolly corresponded for the next two years. Finally, on New Year’s Eve 1909, Green and Dolly married at Kemsdale, soon after Dolly’s 18th birthday, and they settled in Havelock North.
After their uncle died in 1911, Harry and Bessie worked on their cousin Maurice Wraight’s farm, Cheriton, in Chilcott’s Grass near Lismore. In late 1913 Harry and Bessie journeyed to Havelock North to spend the Christmas holidays with their younger sister. Dolly, who had two small children by this time, was finding life in New Zealand very lonely and Bessie decided to settle near her sister in Havelock North.
Harry becomes a teacher
Harry trained as a teacher in Sydney in 1912 and the next year became the sole charge teacher at Limpinwood School, Tweed River, New South Wales. The editor of Our Log Book, the organ of the Falkland Road Schools, reported that Harry had introduced many Falkland Road customs into his school “up country from Sydney”.
Harry regularly corresponded with Mr Thornley, the Principal of his old school in London, and sent letters from the children of Limpinwood to those at Falkland Road School, telling them about life in Australia. Bessie, too, sent at least one letter describing life in New Zealand to her old school where it was used in geography lessons for the upper classes.
Preparing for war
In October 1914, after the outbreak of World War I, Harry wrote to Bessie:
I received your long expected letter. I had begun to think that you were busy preparing for the front – although it would be a grand experience, but a very severe one, I was not keen on it. I suppose your salary will be pretty low for a start – it makes me rather anxious to come and see what you are doing. You say if nursing fails it will be alright, what does that mean? I am beginning to think it would be nice to settle down, perhaps you are thinking the same thing. I have just completed 2 years teaching and am looking forward to that rise and a bigger school next year but it is impossible to tell what is ahead and at present I am not worrying, as the conviction is getting stronger with me that God looks after us if we will only trust Him, & do our level best to help ourselves.
Harry’s plan to “settle down” was soon put in motion with his engagement to Victoria Bell of Chillingham, Tweed River. What lay ahead for Harry, however, was war. In November 1915 Harry made his will (with his sisters, cousin and fiancée as beneficiaries), enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces and began his training as a Private in Brisbane. On his enlistment he was described as being 26 years old, 5 foot 7 ½ inches tall, weighing 125 pounds, and possessing a dark complexion, dark brown hair and grey eyes. His religious denomination was Methodist. He had tried to enlist before but had been rejected. This time he was accepted.
Harry’s movements during the war can be traced in his Personnel Dossier which has been digitised by the National Archives of Australia and the 42nd Battalion’s Unit Diary, digitised by the Australian War Memorial. Harry’s army-issue notebook contains brief entries from June until 27 September 1917. What Harry was like as a person - his sense of humour, his sense of honour and duty, his determination, intelligence, sincerity and affection for his sisters - is best revealed in his letters. In these he addressed Bessie as “Puss” and always ended with an affectionate farewell such as “Now, so long, sister mine. Kindest wishes to you all. Love to Dolly & kiddies & the best for yourself from Harry. x x x x”
A Sergeant in the 3rd Australian Division
Harry was promoted to Corporal on 1 March 1916 and, a month later, was promoted again to Sergeant in the A Company, 42nd Infantry Battalion, part of the 11th Infantry Brigade in the 3rd Australian Division. On 5 June, the day before his 27th birthday, he sailed with the 3rd Australian Division on HMAT Borda A30, arriving at Southampton on 23 July.
The 3rd Division, unlike the other Australian divisions, was organised by the Australian Government. Because of this, the 3rd was seen as different: from the start the division had a reputation for its discipline, proficiency in exercises and excellent appearance. Major-General Monash, commander of the 3rd, encouraged the sober determination which was thought to characterise this particular division. To emphasise the distinction, Monash ordered that the 3rd Division wear their hat-brims flat and not looped like the other Australian divisions. With evident pride the 3rd Australian Division was paraded before the King at Salisbury Plain. Harry wrote of the occasion:
Last Wednesday King George came and inspected us, it was a fine sight, there must have been about 40,000 Aust. & N.Z. soldiers there. It was the first inspection of our troops by the King & I am sure he was impressed and must have got a fair idea of what we are doing in the struggle. I had a good look at him as I was on the right flank and as we gave 'Eyes right' I was able to look at him well. He looks very worried and as his beard is turning grey it does not make him look any younger.
In August and September, Harry studied at the School of Instruction at the Chelsea Barracks.
In November 1916, after six months of training at Larkhill, Salisbury, the 3rd Division left England for acclimatisation in the quietest sector of the front line at Armentieres, France. The 42nd occupied the front line for the first time on 23 December and would spend much of the harsh winter there. The line was only held lightly and patrols from either side were sometimes able to enter the opposing trenches. A programme of raids was organised, sending a battalion over to the enemy lines every few days, the object being to harass the Germans and, if possible, to capture prisoners and gather intelligence. When not in the front line the men were hard at work labouring or training.
On 29 January 1917 Harry was promoted to Company Sergeant Major, making him the senior non-commissioned soldier in his company. He was not in this role for long before being wounded in action:on 11 February he received gunshot wounds to both arms.
Harry was shipped to England on the hospital ship Cambria and spent some weeks in hospital recovering from his injuries. Eager to get back to the war, Harry did all he could to convince the army that he was again fit for service:
Today I go to another camp ready for France again, exactly when I could not say. The present camp contains men fit for service in 3 weeks and as there is a lot of messing about I paraded, told them I was quite fit & was marked A class & got a shift this morning. I am not looking for a soft job, could have had that in Australia if I had settled down. It is the general thing to try for such a job, procure a made to measure uniform, bright buttons & then "pretty swank, boss"! Thank you, no; you know me eh?
Having worked his way up through the ranks, Harry was well liked and respected by the men in his battalion. In both his diary and his letters to his sisters he wrote enthusiastically of returning to “the boys”. On 30 April he rejoined his platoon in Armentieres, France. He wrote to Bessie:
To start at the beginning, I joined the Battalion as they marched out for a spell of training. 52 miles we travelled and not a man fell out of the company & only two from the whole Batt… good, eh? The Colonel was highly pleased. I had quite a welcome and settled to work straight away, the O/C kept the position open for me so ‘here I are’. We had good billets along the road and have fair ones here, but the shortage of water is a drawback, & our boys are fond of water, with one or two intolerables who have almost to be driven to it. Q.M.S. & myself have a nice little room & are very comfortable. We are having a busy time, but out of the sound, or practically so, of guns, it is a good rest but we will soon be at it again in real earnest.
On the first day of June Harry’s battalion marched into Messines in preparation for its first major battle: the assault on Messines Ridge. On 7 June, 19 mines were detonated under the German front line with devastating effect and the Australian, New Zealand and British forces successfully pushed forward to take all their objectives. Counter attacks ensued but the Allies held on to the dominating southern face of the Ypres Salient - at great human cost.
With the loss of 377 officers from the New Zealand and 3rd Australian Divisions at Messines, Harry, and others like him, had to step up to fill the gaps. On 18 June Harry was informed that he had been promoted to 2nd Lieutenant. He wrote in his diary: “Before the Brigadier - think it will be O.K. In charge of No 15 Platoon, D Coy - a good platoon, think we shall hit it alright. Have to win my spurs.”
“Hard lines” in the trenches
In his notebook Harry recorded a few of the narrow escapes and casualties, as well as the everyday discomfort - the chats (lice), rain, mud, uncertainty and boredom - endured by the men:
26 June - Rain and mud galore. Dug out just escaped being blown right in had left it about 3 minutes. I wonder where you are tonight my love?
28 June - Ration stunt, got through O.K. Fritz quieter. Have no letters and harder still tobacco nearly nap-oo. Hard lines. Want a Bairnsfather here. If mothers & sweethearts could but see us. "Wires" re peace - doubt foundations.
29 June - Blighty or Resurrection. When shall the powers that be decide that Time is up? Harvey - Can't read, can't read, write it down. Stormy the night, MUD. nuf sed.
30 June - More rain, more mud. Fritz not quite so lively, rumours of him moving. Spare time now spent in hunting, send us a couple of kangaroo dogs. I have not started yet (touch wood).
On 12 July Harry started a month long course of training at a school in Messines. “A month at M. won’t be too hard to take, eh what?” he wrote to himself in anticipation.
“We cannot see home by Xmas”
Harry’s letters to his sisters do not mention any of the hardships of war. Instead he wrote of the comforts he enjoyed when not at the front. On 29 August Harry wrote to his sisters:
We are still training and get very little time to ourselves what with the regular syllabus, lectures & orderly officers duties. That latter is no small detail for it entails moving round all the billets and they are very scattered.
Taken all round this is the best spell we have had, close handy there is a splendid river where we can swim & wash, and also we are the first Australians to be billeted here. The first day the village folk came out to look at us for so far they have only had Tommies & Portugese. They are quite pleased to have us and in the majority of cases do all they can to make us comfortable. Two of us are billeted together and have our cafe every morning and night in addition to sundry odds & ends that go to make us comfortable.
We are fortunate in having a lad who has picked up a fair amount of English and so we have a fair amount of conversation. At present he is studying a book I bought with a view to study - he will beat me hollow for at present all our attention is taken with our training. It is a very pretty spot, the valley, and the hills on either side, every corner is cultivated, wheat, oats, beet, & vegetables, & fruit. The folk are busy harvesting from morning till night but the rain has interfered a good deal with their work & ours as well. The fruit is fairly plentiful & we have had some good plums, tho' the apples & pears lack the taste of our southern fruit, especially when cooked.
Several of the old hands of my platoon have been wounded so that I have many new hands, still some of those wounded early in the game have returned to work. The new men are splendid, and if they are as good in the line as they are here they will do me. I suppose they have their opinions about me also. I am fond of the work and like to be occupied for I am happy when there is plenty to do.
War. We are out of touch with it now beyond reading the headlines of the French papers. So far we see no "Silver lining" but we live in hopes, in any case we cannot see home by Xmas. They tell us only 3 boats will be needed to take us home - one for the officer's batmen, one for the Australians & one for the souvenirs!
The Passchendaele Offensive (Third Battle of Ypres)
A wet August was followed by a dry September and, in order to take advantage of the fine weather and the poor condition the Germans were believed to be in, it was decided that the next stage of Plumer’s Ypres campaign, the battle of Broodseinde, be brought forward from 6 October to the 4th. The main attacking force was to comprise I Anzac Corps (1st and 2nd Australian Divisions) and II Anzac Corps (New Zealand and 3rd Australian Divisions) from the Second Army and XVIII (British) Corps from the Fifth Army. The general object of the battle was to gain a foothold in the higher ground east of Ypres. The immediate objectives of the II Anzac Corps were to secure the Zonnebeke and Gravenstafel spurs and, in subsequent steps, to extend the capture of the ridge beyond Passchendaele.
On 25 September the soldiers of the New Zealand and 3rd Australian Divisions began to leave their far back position at Blequin and Lumbres. The following day Haig issued orders for II Anzac Corps to take over the V Corps front on the left of I Anzac. Preparations had to be made with haste and the nights spent by the division behind the lines were disturbed by frequent German air bombing but, on 29 September, the 3rd Division arrived at the front. According to Bean’s Official History, a soldier from the 1st Australian Division wrote in his diary; “We passed the 3rd Division (11th Bde.) on the road... and I must say they looked magnificent. I’ll swear they knew they were passing through the 1st Division, and their sleeves were rolled up ...”. By 1 October the two Anzac divisions were assembled together at the front for the first time.
Battle of Broodseinde
The front was strangely quiet on the night of 3 October 1917. The full moon shone brightly until a change in the wind brought low clouds with it. Soon after midnight it began to rain. Throughout the night the soldiers filed one after another along the infantry tracks to their jumping-off tapes. The “J” (Railway), “F” and “K” tracks followed by the 3rd Division, though well marked, were difficult to negotiate in the darkness. Duckboards had been laid to enable the 10th and 11th Brigades to cross the swampy bed of the Zonnebeke valley. Despite some of these crossings having been destroyed by shelling, the majority of the men found them; those who could not had to struggle through the mud. Although relatively little rain had fallen prior to that morning, the battle ground of Broodseinde was awash. Continuous shelling had pulverised the earth, causing the many small streams which flowed there to break from their usual paths and flood the ground. Many who were wounded fell forward into the mud and drowned. The dead soon disappeared beneath the mud, thus accounting for the large number of men who would be later recorded as ‘missing in action’.
Harry’s battalion suffered casualties from German shells and, their advance closely watched from Windmill Cabaret (Hill 40), progress had to be halted each time the Germans sent up a flare. By 4 am the soldiers were crowded into their assembly areas. The divisions of the 11th Brigade, assembled on Hill 40, were compressed within a narrow strip, barely ninety metres in depth. There they lay waiting on the wet ground, taking advantage of any shelter afforded by shell holes.
Zero hour was set for 6 am. There was to be no preliminary bombardment on this occasion: the British commanders intended to take the Germans by surprise. Just before 5.30 am, as the rum ration was being issued and the men were preparing for zero, the German barrage opened: unbeknown to the Allies, the Germans had also planned to attack at dawn on 4 October. While the II Anzac Corps escaped this barrage, I Anzac Corps numbers were depleted by about one seventh in the half hour before they received the order to advance under the cover of their own guns.
“Time is up”
At 6am the II Anzac’s artillery barrage fell “like a wall of flame”. According to Bean’s Official History the battalions of the 3rd Division followed it “more or less in one crowded line at the onset, the rear waves pressing upon the front ones in their haste to avoid the enemy’s barrage”. On the crest of Windmill Cabaret ridge, the 43rd Battalion, at the head of the right brigade, encountered the Germans immediately. Bombs were thrown from the hilltop on the left. On the right a machine gun opened fire from a pillbox near Zonnebeke Station and it was during this attack, “before Hill 40 was crossed”, that Harry was wounded. He had been attempting to pull an injured man out of the line of fire. According to official communication, Harry “took refuge in a shell-hole where his batman commenced to dress his wounds. Before this task was completed a shell killed both Officer and batman.”
Counting the cost
The 3rd Australian Division went on to secure their objective near Bellevue Spur, half a mile from the village of Passchendaele, and the Battle of Broodseinde has gone down in history as the most successful attack in the Passchendaele campaign. The casualties suffered by the two Anzac Corps were recognised as “severe”, however, with the Australian divisions sustaining 6500 casualties and the New Zealand forces 1600. Dave Gallaher, the captain of the 1905 original All Blacks, was among the 500 New Zealanders who were killed or mortally wounded that day. Soon after, on 12 October 1917, during the Battle of Bellevue Spur, which marked the beginning of the First Battle of Passchendaele, New Zealand would lose more men than on any other day of its military history. It is hard enough to comprehend so many men dying in this way. It is harder still to appreciate that each of those men had their own story; a life in all its fullness, with all its complexities, from birth to untimely death.
Harry was 28 years old when he was killed on the battlefield. He was mourned by family and friends in England, Australia and New Zealand. In Australia Harry’s photograph appeared in the Tweed Daily on 23 November and his name appeared on Casualty List no 351, published in various Australian newspapers. Because his next of kin were in New Zealand, ‘New Zealand’ was printed beside his name. A year after Harry’s death his Australian cousins published a memorial notice in Lismore’s Northern Star. Harry was one of the few men mentioned by name in Volume 4 of Bean’s Official History, published in 1933.
A headstone on the family plot in the Old Southgate Cemetery in London is a memorial to Harry. His name also appears on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial. Bessie and Dolly were sent a picture of a wooden cross in the Passchendaele New British Cemetery in Zonnebeke, Belgium, which bore Harry’s name. The family were later informed that this cross was “erected by some unauthorised person” and that his body was not officially buried.
Dolly’s daughter, born in April 1917, was named Alma Frances Hall. By strange fate, Alma was the name of the fortified farm Harry was striding toward when he lost his life. Whether the family ever knew of this coincidence is not known but it seems a fitting tribute. A few years later, Bessie married Ted Smith, a returned soldier, and they named their first-born son Henry Comper Smith.
In setting down the story of Harry’s life, and tragic death, I hope I have succeeded in some measure to bring into effect the words of the memorial scroll: “Let those who come after see to it that his name be not forgotten”.