2767 Private William Barbin of the Australian Imperial Force was a patient at Beechlands between October 1917 and January 1918. His entry in Nurse Oliver’s album reads:
When days are dark and friends are few
Dear friend I will think of you.
Roses may wither flowers may fade.
Some may forget you, but never will I
No 2767 Pte W Barbin
Australian Imperial Force
Barbin shares this page in the album with an entry by 268791 Private Arthur George Whipp of the 2/7th Sherwood Foresters.
William Barbin’s full service record can be viewed at The Australian National Archives. Here's a summary:
He was born in May 1895 and attested at Charleville, Queensland on 12th October 1916 aged 21 years and six months. His given profession was labourer and his next of kin as his father, William Barbin of Finch Hatton, via Mackay, Queensland.
He was posted to the 42nd Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force and left Sydney on the troopship A64 Demosthenes with the 5th Reinforcements to that battalion on 22nd December 1916. During the voyage he fell sick and spent four days in the hospital aboard ship. He arrived in Plymouth, England on 3rd March 1917 and after three months’ training was sent to France, arriving at Rouelles on 26th June 1917. He was taken on strength with the 42nd Battalion (3rd Australian Division) on 13th July.
The Third Division had trained in England for six months and been nurtured in the quiet Armentieres section since February 1917. By the time Barbin arrived in France, the Australians have suffered heavy casualties (3,000 at the First battle of Bullecourt in April 1917 and a further 7,500 at the second battle of Bullecourt in May. The heavy toll of casualties had led to all four Australian divisions involved drawing heavily on their reserves which led directly to the disbandment of the 6th Australian Division forming in England.
In June 1917 the 3rd Division was involved in the battle of Messines. It was the division’s first action and it sustained 4,122 casualties.
William Barbin was wounded on 12th October 1917, the opening day of the Second Battle of Passchendaele. On the night before the attack, the division suffered between 500 and 1000 casualties due to a German gas attack which meant that some battalions went into the assault ten per cent under strength. The official history describes the build-up to the battle and the conditions which it describes as “lamentable”.
“The sodden battleground was littered with wounded who had lain out in the mud among the dead for two days and nights; and the pillbox shelters were overflowing with unattended wounded whilst the dead lay piled outside. A stretcher case required up to sixteen men for the carry back across the mile of mud to the duckboard tracks and the advanced dressing stations. The survivors, in a state of utter exhaustion, with neither food nor ammunition, had been sniped at by Germans on the higher ground throughout the 10th, with increasing casualties.”
“Passchendaele in Perspective” continues in similar vein, describing the assault as even more futile than that at Poelcappelle. Artillery support was inadequate and the weather and muddy terrain had made it almost impossible to move the guns up and get them into their allotted positions. One Australian artilleryman described how the battery’s guns were bogged in the mud for three days and only finally removed with the assistance of 26 horses on each gun which pulled them to the position with the mud up to the horses’ stomachs. On the day of the attack, many guns lay temporarily abandoned or out of action. Those guns that were in position found the supply of shells difficult. When guns did fire, the recoil drove them further into the mud making it impossible to accurately register on the targets. Casualties amongst the artillerymen were also high because they were exposed to counter battery fire and were unable to dig protective pits because of the waterlogged landscape. Guns sank in the mud until they disappeared. Battery positions were dotted with red flags where the guns had sunk from view.
The limited shellfire that the Australian guns did deliver failed to make a mark on either the German artillery, strong points or barbed wire. The creeping barrage was so feeble that it could not be distinguished from the German artillery fire and provided no cover to the advancing infantrymen. This meant that they advanced with no cover. The Australian battalions came under persistent enemy shelling on their way to their jumping-off positions and when the 3rd Australian Division troops advanced through the mud of the Ravebeek valley to take their first objective they were forced back under enfilade fire on their exposed flanks. One patrol managed to reach the village of Passchendaele which it found deserted.
Overall the 3rd Australian Division suffered over 3000 casualties. On their right, the 4th Australian Division suffered 1000 casualties and the New Zealanders on their left advanced straight into a thick belt of uncut wire. Their casualties amounted to 3000 dead and wounded. Men bunching on the firmer ground when they were advancing, made them easier targets for the Germans. The advance was also held up when men stopped to give assistance to those who were sinking in the mud.
Overall the attack on Passchendaele Ridge produced 13000 British casualties, the equivalent of a division of troops, for no significant gain. It totally failed in human terms, the cost to the 3rd Australian Division was 35 men for every yard of ground taken.
On the 13th October Barbin was admitted to the 11th General Hospital at Camiers with gunshot wounds to his fingers but by now, his feet were also in a poor condition. Fifteen days later he embarked for England on the Hospital Ship Newhaven and was admitted to the 2nd Eastern General Hospital at Brighton with Trench Feet. He probably spent a short while at the Dyke Road hospital before transferring to Beechland House in Newick where he remained until the 15th January 1918.
On the 16th he transferred to the 2nd Auxiliary Hospital at Dartford and was also given two weeks’ leave. On 12th March 1918 he rejoined his battalion in France and a little over a month later on 16th April, he was wounded in action for the second time; admitted to the 11th Australian Field Ambulance with gun shot wounds to his right thigh and left hand. The following day he was transferred to the 50th General Hospital at Abbeville and then embarked for England on the Hospital Ship St Andrew on 2nd May.
On 3rd May 1918 he was admitted to Norfolk War Hospital with “gun shot wound right thigh” given as the cause for his admission. On 17th June 1918 he reported to No 1 Command Depot and after spending more time in hospital at Sutton Veny, Wiltshire, was returned to Australia on 23rd September 1918. On 13th December 1918 he was discharged from the army as medically unfit.
The rhyme he includes in Nurse Oliver’s album is a mis-remembered combination of two couplets popular at the time. “When days are dark and friends are few / Remember me as I do you” is the first one. “Roses may wither, leaves fade and die / If others forget you, never will I” is the second.