Stories of E.P. Wright
This is a small history that my grandfather, Edgar Percy Wright (1891-1979), told to me in my teens, one summer’s day as we sat in the long grass of the fruit orchard on the sheep property Knockalong, Tombong, N.S.W. Australia.
The first histories deal with the so-called ”Great War” though my grandfather (in this text called EPW) did not see it in that light. It was a subject that he very rarely (never) discussed. He enlisted in Sydney on the 19 January 1916).
He trained in Egypt before seeing any military “action”. He was part of the 53rd Battalion. The battalion became part of the 14th Brigade of the 5th Australian Division.
On one of these training expeditions they, (a large number of troops), were caught in a dust storm and became lost in the desert. EPW was an extremely good horseman and from his experience knew that the horses that they had with them had a far better sense of direction than any of the human contingent present. His suggestion to his superiors was to “free” the horses and follow them out of the sandstorm. This was done and the contingent returned safely to camp. (Disembarkation to France was on the 9th Sep 1916).
France, 1916 -1917 Somme Valley
It was here that the Australian soldiers among others, fought during one of the coldest winters in living memory. EPW was a grenade thrower, which meant that he was always very close to the “front line”.
On this occasion he was chosen for a “listening party”, which is where two or three individuals manned a trench that was dug directly towards the enemy line into “No-mans-land”. The enemy, in this case Germans, also had listening-parties and of course the same forward-dug trenches.
The purpose of these listening-parties was to listen for increased “noise” or activity that might indicate that the enemy was preparing for an attack. Now it so happened that the opposing listening-parties were not that far from each other.
It was just prior to Christmas and while at his post a snowstorm swept the area filling the trenches with snow. It took a number of days before the trenches were cleared and supplies reached the hungry and cold listening parties. They received extra rations to make up for those that they had not received during the past few days and so he had a number of cans of “Bully beef” (preserved beef).
Now my grandfather is a real practical joker and he decided to give the German listening party a bit of a fright. He took a number of cans of supplies and with top precision threw them over into the midst of the enemy knowing that their impact into the trench would be construed as an enemy grenade about to go off.
What surprised him was that after a while the Germans threw objects towards their post but they landed short of their mark. In due course the Germans raised and waved a white “flag” and cautiously walked to the objects thrown earlier, picked them up and then handed them to EPW and his company with a smile and then returned to their trenches.
The objects were loaves of bread that of course did not have the same throwing characteristics as a can of bully beef.
So under this time of war, two so called “enemies” exchanged more than just food rations, inevitably the German trenches were stormed and the “Great War” went on.
Belgium 1917 Ypres sector, Third Battle of Ypres
EPW was appointed lance corporal 15 September 1917
Map of The Front 19 September 1917.
Belgium September 1917, a causality of war.
On the 20th September, 4 divisions, including 2 Australian divisions began their assault towards Passchendaele. The first obstacle was Menin Road and then the assault on Polygon Wood which began on 26th September.
On the 25th September EPW was making an assault against the German infantry. The losses were extreme as all higher-ranking officers in his unit were killed and he was then the highest ranking soldier remaining, a Lance Corporal. This offensive was receiving support from a barrage of allied artillery that was “clearing” the resistance ahead of their advance. EPW believed that they, the infantry, had now advanced too far or too quickly and ended up in their own allied artillery fire.
A shell exploded in front of him and at the same time partially buried him up to his waist. Some of the shrapnel from the shell tore his helmet and ricochet off into his right eye. He was then shot through the side of his mouth by machine-gun fire, which knocked out a number of his teeth. Another shell exploded right beside him, which blew him out of his buried state, but in the process injuring his legs. He lost consciousness.
He said he remembered just being conscious the next day as the medics searched for survivors. As they came to him he heard “he’s gone” and just then managed to get the attention of the medics by moving his fingers and then he passed out. Next he awoke being carried on a stretcher and looking up to see the face of a uniformed German. He thought to himself in despair that he was on his way to a German prisoner-of-war camp, but that was not the case. It was the Germans carrying him whom were the prisoners.
Lord and Lady Stradbroke had one of their residences in England transformed into a hospital to take Australian casualties. It was here that EPW was sent to recover initially. He suddenly realized that it was from here that one of their breeding horses had been shipped to the sheep farm in Australia.
He told me he was very angry with the medical staff for not having kept his helmet as he had requested. He said it was torn up in strips like a piece of paper.
Sitting in the orchard with him that day was the only time in my life that he ever mentioned his experiences of the war. He died an old man at the age of 87.
He had lost his eye, and some of his teeth, had had his legs badly hurt and yet he didn’t let it hinder his achievements. He was a crack shot with a rifle and a competent golfer and he worked the land and stock with a passion. I only ever knew him as an old man and was unaware of his hidden scars of the past. It certainly places a perspective on today’s values.
See Australian War Memorial – 1916 ANZACs in France
Other stories on the property
It is hard to imagine how the early settlers managed the land, their stock and their businesses. I know of eleven house sites that today are only piles of rubble or overgrown mounds of earth and foundation rock. In my daily work on the property I can find old bottle & china pieces, rusted metal items of past habitation. There were far more people in the valley in those days and managing the land was a labour intensive business. They travelled long distances on horseback to see bank managers, buy supplies and purchase breeding stock. There is one photo that depicts part of those early days and that is the photo of my great grandfather A.H.Wright, conveying stud rams across the Snowy River in a crate slung from cables. How times change.
In the blink of an eye: When I was a child I would follow my father to milk the cows in the morning. I would go down to the old homestead and greet and be greeted from the kitchen window in French by “aunt” Daryl (my grandfather’s second wife). It was very continental. I would then go in to meet my grandfather who was occasionally “caught” in the bathroom getting ready for the day.
He had a special trick that he performed for us (the younger generation). He would take hold of his eyelash and pop!, he was holding his eye ball in his fingers. He would pop it into his mouth, take it out and replace it in its rightful place. We were oblivious to the fact that he had a false eye and no matter how hard we tried, we could not perform the trick ourselves.
Values change: My sister and I would dig through the ashes of our first home that was burnt down when I was five. The ashes were dumped with the daily rubbish in an eroded gully (common practice of the time). We would dig up remnant trinkets of the past, parts of old toys but most sought after, coins. I remember one day at the rubbish dump as I searched for pennies I found masses of golf and shooting trophies that had belonged to EPW. They were discarded like empty tin cans. Prior to this I hadn’t know that EPW was a golfer. And now the past was revealing itself in the rubbish dump. How our values change with time.
Poisoned, another story of my grandfather’s escapades. In the early years of keeping stock healthy, they would use a small amount of copper sulphate solution to drench the sheep. It was a very hot day and EPW reached out to take a swig of water from a demijohn (Glass bottle, brown in colour or clad in woven cane), he grabbed the wrong container and gulped down the poison, lucky to survive (no worm problems since?).
How about the story of the close encounter with a Tiger snake. Back in the early 1900’s men wore long baggy trousers, EPW even wore a tie at work on the farm even in the middle of summer. I can’t ever remember him without a tie. Well this summer’s day he was kneeling down on one knee sorting through a box of nuts & bolts in the old Tombong woolshed, when right beside him came the movement of a large Tiger snake. EPW was not in a position to flee and decided to keep as still as possible. Unfortunately the snake took refuge in his trouser leg and EPW nervously bided his time as the cool snake traversed past his crouch and eventually slithered out the other trouser leg.
EPW loved practical jokes. This one was played out just after the Second World War. Many immigrants came from war ravaged Europe and worked in rural areas. The carnage of war was fresh in everyone minds. Two of the immigrants that worked on the property wanted to go to the dance in town Saturday night and asked EPW if they could borrow his car. They were reminded of the responsibility of using the car and with their reqest granted, they set off.
Over confident, the driver took a corner a little too fast and left the road, crashing the car into a drainage culvert. EPW was not a happy man when he was told of the accident the following day, no one was injured. He arranged to have the local garage tow the car out of the ditch and have it repaired.
That same day the mechanic rang EPW to tell him that there was blood all over one of the front fenders and running board. It was now that EPW realised he had forgotten to wash the blood off the car after he had slaughtered a sheep, having transported the carcase on the fender the previous day. So, after a little thought, he told the mechanic, “you know how it is, there was another bloke with them, he was killed in the accident so they shoved him up the culvert pipe”, there was a very long silence as the idea spun in the mechanics head….,
One of the great sports of the valley was devised by EPW. As the motor industry developed, we consumers consumed, and we began to accumulate old worn out tyres. The countryside in the Tombong valley is real “Tiger country”. River canyons of granite boulders, high ranges and steep slopes. There was one particular ridge top that was ideally suited to the sport at hand, “Tire bowling”. Yes this sport was usually carried out when we had visitors. The aim was to bowl a tyre down this 45 degree, narrow doglegged ridge to the creek 1000 paces below us. What a spectacle as the car tires, and tractor tires, gained tremendous speed down the slope, bouncing high into the air as they hit hidden logs and rocks in the scrub. You would just about have given up on a tyre as it disappeared into the scrub only to see it wobble out the other side and gain speed once again. The delayed sound of bouncing and crashing tires echoed in the valley. Now that is bush entertainment! I have only ever seen one tire reach the creek and jump the two meter high bank on the other side and that was one bowled by my little brother Damien, just amazing! What is your bush sport?
More snake stories. A few years ago I caught a large (1.8m) Red-Bellied Black snake in the garden, they are mostly passive by nature. I do not like to kill snakes and so I planned to relocate this one. I placed it in a bag and took it to the next valley.
I placed the bag on the ground and distanced myself from it. I saw the snake slither away and went to retrieve the bag. The bag still had some weight to it and so I looked into it only to see another snake in the bag. It was a dead 80cm brown snake that the other snake had regurgitated under the stress of the ordeal. So if you do have a Red-Bellied Black snake in your garden, you can be sure that there will be fewer of the other more aggressive species.
Snakes and visitors. When my Swedish wife-to-be was visiting here at the property one summer, she chose to do what most tourists do, and that was to expose as much of her bare skin to the sun as possible. It is the one thing you can take back to Europe that doesn’t affect your baggage weight, a tan. Well there she was, lying on her stomach in a bikini, reading a book when she felt this movement over her ankle. She did not react thinking it was me fooling around. Alas, it was not me as I was 400 meters away building yards.
When she eventually did look she saw the tail end of a large brown snake finishing it’s crossing of her ankle, she luckily had the sense to remain still a while (I think they call that being petrified). She then raced off across the paddocks barefoot to where we were. Her arms waving some kind of sign language we could not understand, she could not find the words, full of fear & fright. So at a guess I asked her, “Snake?” Yep that was it. We drove back to the garden, I had the intention of catching it, so I said to Maggie, “grab your camera, it will make a great picture for the folks in Sweden”. I found the snake coming through the grass and planned to hold it down with a rake just behind its head so I could pick it up. Well as I brought the rake down gently towards the snake the rake hit something in the grass, the snake reacted like lightning and I followed suit. So any picture taken would show me one meter in the air, throwing the rake to the side and not looking back. I have great respect for snakes.