Topic: Ernest George Pratley (1894 - 1917)

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A 2013 Memoir and Local History Competition.

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A Family Contribution,  WWI

Graeme Pratley

 It was two years since the war’s beginning.  George had seen friends and family members gladly enlist and with a sense of pride and enthusiasm, sail off to fight in foreign lands in the name of king and country.

His father’s farm in Sawyers Bay kept him busy.  The news from the battlefronts, though slow to get through, did not engender confidence or hope.  The Otago Regiment who firstly fought the Turks in Egypt had been diverted to Gallipoli on the Turkish peninsular where the landing and ongoing battle had taken a heavy toll on the regiment.

They were calling for reinforcements and with fewer enlisting because of the now visible cost in loss of life and the injured returning; there was talk of introducing conscription. The words of Hamilton, who led the Gallipoli invasion, however, made an impression on 21-year old George.

“Before us lies an adventure unprecedented in modern war,” said Hamilton, encouraging his troops.

An innate, loyalty in the young Kiwi, coupled with a sense of national honour and of adventure stirred up by Hamilton, inspired George to enlist before being conscripted. Besides he was known as being ‘a good shot’ on the farm and with this, coupled with his horsemanship, well-practised from an early age, he felt he had something to offer.  

As he lined up in the bare recruiting hall, he expressed a preference to be enlisted to reinforce the Mounted Rifle Brigade.

“Infantry is what we need and an infantryman is what you’ll be,” the recruiting sergeant barked. “Do you have a horse?”

“I do,” said George, confidently.

“You can donate him to the war effort,” said the sergeant.  “You may meet up with him in the war zone.”

Not what he had envisioned, but nevertheless a seemingly good idea. George filled in the necessary form and consigned Bess to join with 18,000 other farm-fit animals throughout the country on ‘military service.’

After spending two weeks at the local army camp parading and learning to assemble and disassemble the army-issued Lee Enfield 303, parting from the family and from his beloved horse was difficult for George before he sailed out of Port Chalmers for Wellington.

Once in Wellington he boarded HMNZ 59, the troopship Waitemata, and set sail, destination undisclosed.  After briefly calling in to Albany, Western Australia, where Australian Expeditionary Force troop carriers joined the Waitemata, the ship arrived in Plymouth, England on 5th September 1916.

Bess, along with several hundred other New Zealand bred horses, was also transported to Wellington, crowded on to a multi decked ship fitted out for the purpose and sailed directly to the foreign pastures of Egypt. Many a horse and owner were never to meet again.

Sling Camp on Salisbury Plain, England, became the 4th New Zealand Infantry Brigade Reinforcements camp and George’s home for the next five weeks. The camp unmistakably housed New Zealanders with a gigantic kiwi etched out of the limestone rock on a nearby hill.

The family were comforted to receive a postcard some weeks after his arrival which said briefly, “Did Bess get away? Weather cold and uninviting; English girls warm and friendly. Miss you all.  Your loving son, George.”

At Sling Camp he was taught the principles and ever-changing strategies of engaging in modern warfare as an infantryman. George was spared the horrors of the initial battle of the Somme in Picardy, Northern France, but in early October 1916 was on a troopship bound for Marseilles and ultimately Flanders fields.

Grim battles, yet to be conceived, were to confront the enthusiastic young soldier as he checked gun and kit in preparation for his part in the ‘unprecedented adventure’.

Mid-October, George’s division under Major Franks (later to be known as ‘Franks Force’) was sent by army commanders to relieve the 5th Australian Division in the Sailly sector, ‘to make good the wastage at the Somme’.

The reality of this war and carnage of the first Somme battle that confronted the relieving division numbed the hardest of the Kiwi soldiers.

The battle fought by the 5th Australian division cost 5500 casualties with 1900 dead.  Their prostrate bodies, now three months and still not gathered, were strewn across no man’s land, a sobering sight to the newly arrived Kiwi division.

As relievers they were immediately introduced to trench warfare, the enemy lines being only a hundred yards away.  So close and so linked were the trenches that George’s first practical experience of trench warfare was to learn to flood the enemies trenches as the enemy did theirs. 

In the evenings on many occasions George was sent with two others to reconnoitre the enemy lines.  They shared one front line group of trenches with the enemy called ‘the chicken run’, as they probed each other’s defences and battle lines moving backward and forward.  George was involved in skirmishes attacking the enemy lines and with the 2nd Otago, vigorously defending their own. He particularly disliked retrieving the nametags of enemy killed, a measure of their relative success in combat.

Often they fought in gas masks as nerve gas was used against them and reciprocated.

As the Somme encounter tailed off, it was understood how costly it had been, with the 2nd Otago taking a heavy toll in killed and wounded. George had somehow survived the enemy raids, attacks on the enemy, gas attacks, and the incessant enemy shelling and bombing.

Intermittent breaks during the brief summer gave time for recreation behind the lines.  George loved swimming in the Lys and Douve rivers, doubled up as bath time, rivers that criss-crossed the battlefield.

An all-out attack at Messines was carefully planned and prepared and seen as the best way to overcome a well-organised enemy who continued to hold the high ground.  The transition from the Battle of the Somme to Messines and later to Ypres was almost seamless.

Such was the intensity of the battles George rarely communicated with home and received few letters.  He did wonder what had become of Bess, hoping she was being cared for wherever she was.

Preparation for Messines saw the 2nd Otago withdrawn from the front line. George found himself engaged in multifarious tasks, some of which were more in keeping with his farming experience. The clearing of obstacles from roads and trimming hedgerows to give an unobstructed view of enemy positions was a relief from the tension of confronting the enemy and gave George time to rest and mentally readjust. Such was their sense of freedom often together they burst out in to song:

 

“Far, far from Wipers I long to be,

Where German snipers can't get at me.

Dark is my dugout, cold are my feet.

Waiting for whizz-bangs to send me to sleep.”

 

Singing was invariably shut down by a well-meaning mate shouting, “Shut up. You’ll wake up the Hun.”  

The highly organised attack on Messines township began and used lessons learned from the Somme. A light front-zone garrison to minimise losses, greater depth of defences and powerful reserves for the counter attack.  George was elated to be amongst the ‘powerful reserves,’ the fourth line of the counterattack that successfully leapfrogged earlier attacking divisions resulting in the capture of Messines.

The 2nd Otago successes flowed through into confidence and pride at what could be achieved with planning and preparation despite the appalling conditions and enemy strength.  

With Messines ‘done and dusted’, the British turned their attention to Ypres where the enemy was well dug in. Following orders from a British General, who , it is said ‘knew nothing of the enemy strength, fortifications or the impossible ground conditions’ an ill-planned, ill-prepared and badly executed attack on the strategic positions of Passchendaele and Goudberg Spur was a defining moment for the ANZACs and their future leadership. 

In early October 1917 given the Spur to capture, the 2nd Otago along with the New Zealand Division faced an almost impossible task.  The day prior to the arranged attack dawned cold and bleak.  Exposed to the bad weather, battle-weary, confronted with ‘unbroken wire’ because of artillery unable to advance sufficiently to bombard the enemy position due to ‘oozy ground’, small enemy machine gun ‘pillboxes’ named because of their unpleasant contents and difficult to remove without artillery, all discouraged the ANZAC infantry.

The buoyant confidence built up in Messines became one of subdued anticipation. Despite the infantry’s awareness of the futility of the situation, on 12th October British orders were given to advance. At 6am, George with the 2nd Otago left the relative safety of their trench and (it is said) ‘with grim determination each man steeled his heart’ and bravely headed for the enemy lines. 

Such was the intensity of the German machine gun fire that unable to advance they retreated. When a head count was taken and those who had fallen identified, George was counted among the fallen. George’s ‘unprecedented adventure’ had come to a sudden and largely predictable end.

Ypres became known as one of the greatest and bloodiest battles in history with gains hard-won. Goudberg Spur where George had made the supreme sacrifice eventually fell on 6th November, three weeks after the 2nd Otago’s ill fated attack.

An ANZAC grave, one of many in Poelcapelle Cemetery, Belgium, marks the brave World War 1 family contribution of Ernest George Pratley, aged 23 years, of whom we will remain eternally proud.

It was said of the brave men ‘they poured out their blood like water’ for our freedom. 

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A version of this article was archived in August 2016 at Perma CC https://perma.cc/B6N5-KZU6

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