An incident at Passchendaele

Occasionally one encounters a story or situation that seems to reach out of the mass of historical fact and lend an individual shape to its anonymous suffering. In October 1917 one such remarkable incident took place on the battlefield of Passchendaele in western Belgium; it began a search for the relatives of the dead which has continued for more than a century.

One boy involved was Ekkehard Beinssen — Ekke — born in Sydney on 22 June 1899 to Eugenie Beinssen and her husband, Hermann. Hermann was a successful wool buyer, exporting to Antwerp and his hometown, Bremen. Ekke grew up in the comfortable family home “Rheingold” on Alexandra Street, Hunter’s Hill, opposite the Council Chambers.

Ekke briefly attended school at Tudor House in Moss Vale, NSW, but Hermann wanted his son to be German as well as Australian, and in March 1911 the family left for Wiesbaden, and then moved to Berlin in 1914, where Ekke went to a Herder school. He was fifteen when Germany declared war on 1 August 1914, and reported with some dismay the crowd’s wild enthusiasm that day. In May 1917 he was called up, and on 1 June took an oath to serve the Kaiser and the Bremen Senate. Now keen to go, he begged his father to find him an elite regiment. He joined the Naumburger Jaeger, traditionally a unit of scouts or light infantry, but by 1917 only distinguished from infantry line battalions by their uniform.

By early October 1917, aged eighteen and barely trained, Ekke found himself close behind the front on Passchendaele Ridge, as part of the 195th Division. There, a British artillery bombardment fell on him. For days he took cover in shell craters while men were blown up around him and the dead and the wounded piled up. At one point he was buried by debris and struggled to free himself, but he kept his nerve.

On 5 October it began to rain, and No Man’s Land became a muddy swamp, bogging advancing British and Australian guns and ammunition. Their barrage fell away so much that infantry looking for it couldn’t tell it was there. Yet on 9 October Australians supporting a British assault on Passchendaele Ridge attacked the 195th Division, including the Naumburgers. Floundering in the mud, they were easy targets for German artillery and machine guns. Ekke took part in a counterattack; the Australians didn’t notice it, but by dusk they had retreated to their positions.

When the Australians tried again on 12 October, it was still raining, No Man’s Land was still a bog, and the barrage was still weak. By evening the Australians were again almost back on their start line. Their Third Division lost 3,299 officers and men; their Fourth Division, merely supporting a flank, lost over a thousand. The 195th Division, smaller than Allied divisions, suffered 80% casualties in a week, including 3,233 between the 7th and 13th of October.

On 13 October Germans and Australians searched the battlefield for survivors, neither of their infantry firing, although the shelling continued. Ekke won an Iron Cross 2nd Class and was promoted to corporal for rescuing wounded. In No Man’s Land he encountered an Australian captain, dead or about to die, carrying two letters, one enclosing a couple of “snaps” — photos, which Ekke’s comrade took, while Ekke kept the letters. They were dated 1 and 8 August 1917, and presumably reached the captain just before the attack. They had been written by Dorothy Terrey of “Caloola”, Blaxland Street, Rhodes — only six kilometres from Ekke’s home in Hunter’s Hill.

Dorothy was seventeen. She had signed one letter “from your sincere friend, Dorothy” and the other “with love from your sincere friend, Dorothy Terrey”. Her letters carried local and familial news, suggesting a regular correspondence, familiar but not intimate. In 1924 she married Gordon Logan Gall, of Tycannah Station near Moree, NSW. She died on 29 October 1971.

Her letters gave Ekke the dead captain’s name: “JW Richardson, 34 Battalion”. The letters did not say so, but Richardson’s home was even closer to Ekke’s than Dorothy’s — just 1,200 metres away across the Lane Cove River. Perhaps he suspected that, for on that bleak battlefield he did something very unusual. He took one of the dead captain’s identity discs, later telling his family in Germany, “Perhaps I can write to the relatives of Mr Richardson after the war. I am sending you the letters”. He did not mention the identity disc. He had other plans for it.

In that war, aptly enough, these discs were often called “dead meat tickets”. By 1917 British troops usually wore two, each hand-punched with a number (for other ranks), name, unit and religion. One disc was usually fibre, round or octagonal. This one was designed to be taken from a body as proof of death. Men welcomed this, hoping to spare loved ones the corroding doubt of a “Missing” telegram.

The other disc was aluminium, usually round. It was to stay with the body to identify it. Men welcomed this too. To be known mattered; to lie unmarked was another horror. Soldiers made additional discs from coins to make sure they could be identified, and if a man lost a disc he might cut another from cardboard until it could be replaced. These were usually pointless precautions: in Flanders over half the dead of both armies have no known grave.

Ekke also did something very unusual with the disc. At an aid post he saw an Australian prisoner, a boy like him, with a shattered hip. Ekke gave him the disc and asked him, in English, to get it to Mr Richardson’s family.

The wounded prisoner was Samuel Pittman, who had just turned twenty. Before enlisting he worked on his father William’s farm, “Glencoe”, at Bow near Merriwa in northern NSW. William came to the district in 1886, aged twelve, and worked on district farms until he could buy his own. Sam went to Merriwa Public School, but like many country boys left young to work. His youth meant he needed his parents’ consent to enlist, and when he turned nineteen both gave it.

He enlisted on 15 December 1916 into the 7th reinforcements of the 34th Battalion. His consent form noted “Teeth to be extracted in camp”. Probably that meant all of them, a precaution not a few soldiers took against toothache in the line, but Sam hardly had time for that. By 24 January 1917 he was on his way to the war.

He joined his battalion in billets behind the line on 2 September 1917, the same day its “B” Company commander, Captain Jeffries, rejoined after recovering from a flesh wound in the thigh. Sam was assigned to Jeffries’s company.

Clarence Smith Jeffries was with the 34th Battalion when it was formed at Maitland, NSW, in January 1916. Originally from Wallsend near Newcastle, NSW, he worked as a mining surveyor at Abermain Collieries, which his father managed.

For the attack on 12 October, the 34th was a lead battalion, “A” and “B” Companies left, “C” and “D” right. Jeffries led “B” Company forward through rain, mud, shells and gas until it was held up by a “pillbox”, a concrete bunker, heavily defended. Jeffries organised fourteen men, at least one of them also from Abermain Collieries, and attacked, taking thirty-five prisoners and four machine guns.

By then many, perhaps most, of his company were either casualties or stuck in the mud, but those who could or would advanced until they were blocked by another pillbox supported by a trench of Germans. Again the small squad attacked, but Jeffries was shot in the stomach, and soon died. He was a fortnight short of his 23rd birthday. His men captured the pillbox, twenty-five prisoners and two machine guns, but they were too few to hold the ground, and retreated. Jeffries was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross (VC).

Not far away, a fortnight after his twentieth birthday, Sam Pittman lay wounded. He lay out on the battlefield for three days, until 14 October, when German rescuers took him to an aid post. Ekke found him and gave him the disc.

It belonged to Captain John William Richardson — Jack — born in Sydney on 11 July 1891, the second of John and Sophia Richardson’s five sons and four daughters. His father tried various ways to make a living. In 1893 he was a fuel merchant, by 1902 he ran a horse-drawn bus service to the tram head at Gore Hill until the line was extended to Lane Cove in 1909, when he found work as a quarryman.

The family lived in an “isolated” five-room weatherboard cottage at 27 Northwood Road, near the corner of today’s Northwood Road and Arabella Street, Longueville. On 6 January 1898 it caught fire. No-one was near to help, and the family were trapped until John broke a window and got them out. They lost everything, but John built a new house on the site, “Durham”, which by historical happenstance stood almost within sight of “Rheingold” at Hunter’s Hill.

Jack attended Longueville Park Public School, then became a leather-belt maker at Radke’s Tannery on Tannery Creek, Longueville (now Willoughby), above where it flowed, or drained, among about twenty active tanneries, into the Lane Cove River. He joined the militia aged eighteen and was for four years an NCO until he was commissioned in June 1914. In August 1915 he tried to enlist but discovered a hernia. That treated, on 24 February 1916 he joined Clarence Jeffries as an original 34th Battalion lieutenant.

By November they were in France, in time for the harsh 1916–17 winter. As always there was a steady drain of casualties, and on 29 March 1917 Jack was promoted captain. He went to an officers school in May but was back for the Messines attack in June, where giant mines blew away the German front line. In July he got a week’s Paris leave, and in mid-September a week in a Rest Camp.

On 12 October he led “D” Company forward from the rear. Many men became casualties from shell and machine-gun fire before they reached their own front line, and the survivors, drenched and exhausted, were soon scattered, some trapped in mud, some drowning, some against orders helping wounded mates, some hiding in craters, some standing or kneeling to fire at the Germans.

Jack reorganised the battalion and led it forward, but on its second objective was killed — shot in the head, one survivor said. Another claimed that he went “too far right past our objective”. His men retreated, with 34 Battalion losing fifteen of its nineteen officers and 323 of 509 men that day. Jack was mentioned in despatches for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty”.

When Sam Pittman took the disc from Ekke, both boys expected Sam to live. On 29 October Sam wrote to his mother, Bertha, from Fortress Military Bruederhaus hospital in Coblenz:

Dear Mother, Just a few lines hoping to find all at home well. Well, mother I have been a prisoner since 14.10.17. I was wounded on 10 [12] of the same month and my wound was through the right hip. I am still in bed in hospital and am treated very well … Well Mum I have no more news for this time so I will close with best love to you and all, from your fond son, Sam.

But by mid-November Sam’s wound had become septic. He gave the disc to his hospital administrator, stating “On October 14th when I was taken prisoner, this disc was given to me by a German officer who told me to report that Lieut. Richardson had been picked up by the Germans but that he was already dead”. The disc and its accompanying statement were sent to the Red Cross in Frankfurt am Main, and then to the Army Records office in London via the Red Cross Copenhagen, and finally to Melbourne, where it arrived late in January 1918.

By then Sam was dead, of sepsis on 11 January 1918, one of eight pupils from his small public school killed in the war. He was buried in the French POW Cemetery in Coblenz, grave 114.

On 4 February the Merriwa paper reported that Bertha had got Sam’s letter with its “very satisfactory” news that he was wounded and a prisoner. He was thus a prisoner when his parents were told he was missing, and dead when they read that he was a prisoner.

In March 1919 his effects came home: a pipe, pen, wallet, photos and cards. In 1920 his disc came in February and a German death certificate in December. By 1925 his body was re-buried in South Cemetery Cologne. In 1926 his father wrote sadly, “my Son is the only boy, known to be buried in Germany, that enlisted from our town”. In 1929 Miss A McNamara of Merriwa visited Sam’s grave and found it well cared for.

In its context, that was a consolation. Sam had a grave; many others didn’t. Even from far Australia, people pleaded for permission to search old battlefields in case their soldier had lost his mind and was living in some French or Belgian farmhouse. As a “special favour”, in 1920 officials helped Clarence Jeffries VC’s father search the ground where his son died. He found nothing. He tried again in 1924, and this time learnt that Clarence was buried in Tyne Cot Cemetery.

After Passchendaele the Naumburgers fought in one more significant battle, against the French on the Marne in July 1918, by which time Ekke was a lieutenant. After the war he completed a doctorate in economics in Munich, graduating in 1922, and then travelled in Arabia and Persia.

On his return to Australia in August 1927, he endured anti-German hostility, and late that year went to New Guinea. In September 1929 he joined prospector Otto Soltwedel and geologist Eugene Zakharov to look for gold. They were guided by Hellmuth Baum, an expert bushman and veteran prospector, who had travelled the Morobe mountains barefoot since before the war. The three partners worked deep in the bush west of Wau. They had little success, all three catching dysentery, of which Zakharov died in February 1930. Their partnership was dissolved, and in April 1930 Ekke left for a Sydney hospital to recover.

He returned to Germany in 1931, but left for America in January 1933 after the Nazis came to power. His fiancée, Irmhild von Koch, followed him, and they wed in Los Angeles on 24 April 1934. In 1935 they returned to Sydney, where Ekke once more worked for his father.

In July 1940 he was interned, and in May 1942 Irmhild arranged to join him with their three children in the camp at Tatura, Victoria. They were released in September 1944 but restricted to their property at Orange, NSW, until the war ended. Ekke then resumed exporting wool to Europe and the United States. He died in Sydney on 8 April 1980, aged 80, and is buried in Mona Vale Cemetery.

Jack Richardson has no grave. On 7 November 1917, less than a month after he was killed, his parents received the effects he had left in store, and on 2 March 1918 his disc, “received from Germany”. That might have seemed conclusive, but his parents were gripped by doubts, and made repeated enquiries. In response, in June 1918, 34 Battalion advised Red Cross Missing Persons:

We think there is no doubt these “No Enquiry” reports do refer to the above officer. We did not hold the ground over which we advanced on that date and most, if not all, of our dead were left behind in our retreat — the deep mud making it necessary to leave even the majority of our severely wounded behind.

In August more belongings came home: “card case & Bible, Pencil case & scissors, wristwatch and diary in case”. Nothing more would follow.

Like Jack, most of those killed or missing in Flanders are named on the Menin Gate Memorial. In Australia loved ones had to seek elsewhere for a tangible mark of their missing soldier. In November 1917 the Lane Cove Council named Richardson Street after Jack, while John built a stone fence outside the Congregational Church in Longueville Road where the family worshipped and attached a white marble plaque to its gatepost: “To the memory of / Captain / J.W. Richardson / Killed in France, 1917”.

It wasn’t enough, and on 13 October 1919 the Daily Telegraph published a poem expressing the family’s grief:

Those who think of him today
             Are those who love him best,
This day brings back to memory
             Our dear one gone to rest;
He had a kindly word for each,
             And died beloved by all.

Seismic events like wars can entangle the grief of one family or culture with the memory of another. Ekke’s family still has Dorothy’s letters. They searched for family or children for decades, and now they search for the great-grandchildren of Jack’s brothers and sisters, as Ekke wanted. In that honourable quest, the paths which crossed at Passchendaele continue.
I thank Silke Beinssen-Hesse, Ekkehard Beinssen’s oldest child, for her writing online and her patient and generous responses to my haphazard questions. I thank Silke’s brother Konrad, my friend Denis Tracey, the National Archives’ WW1 records, CEW Bean’s Official History 1917, JF Williams’ German Anzacs and the First World War, Naomi Bassford at Lane Cove Library, and Trove, the National Library’s priceless resource.

Bill Gammage

Bill Gammage is a historian whose work includes The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War (1974). Other books include The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia (2011) and with Bruce Pascoe, Country: Future Fire, Future Farming.

More by Bill Gammage ›

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