Arthur Henry Cavell
Service number 3060

In a letter to his mother, Private Arthur Cavell gave a dramatic first-hand account of the now legendary attack to drive the German Army from Villers-Bretonneux on ANZAC Day, 1918.

Arthur, serving with the 52nd Battalion, refers in his letter of June 23 to his younger brothers, Lloyd and Walter Cavell, his brother-in-law Sydney Rhoades and the “treat” at having received a Queensland newspaper – a scarce commodity in a mostly South Australian battalion.

“I see that arrangements are being made for Anzac Day to be observed as a holiday,” he writes.

“At about the exact time that a minute silence was being observed I was in a hot a place as a man could wish to be. We were engaged in that attack on Villers Bretonneux. We did not wait till daylight to attack but went over about midnight when he wasn’t expecting us. We had only gone a few yards when up went his flares lighting all the place up and then the machine guns started and how any man got through it alive beats me.

“Men were falling all around but the advance never wavered, we went on routing him out of his trenches and machine gun positions. We captured several thousand prisoners and hundreds of machine guns. When we reached our objective we had to dig in for our lives as he started to shell us. The digging was good and by daylight we were well under cover, and just as well too for about midday he started to shell us and for two and a half hours the din was terrific.

“It was hard to distinguish the burst of one shell from another, it was one continuous roar. At the same time our artillery was going just as hard at him, and the whistle of our shells as they passed just over our heads added to the din. We had very few casualties during the bombardment. It is not too easy to put a shell into a narrow trench. There might be only one in a thousand actually go in the trench.

“We were relieved early next morning and we wasn’t sorry either. I don’t know what the Australian papers had to say about the stunt, the English papers couldn’t praise us enough. You see, had the Germans not been driven back he would have held a position overlooking the country for miles and have been able to watch all our movements for some distance back.

“I am expecting to see Walter soon, according to his last letter he leaves for France today and his battalion is handy to us. I heard that Sid Rhoades is going home, if he is he is jolly lucky to get back now with only the loss of a thumb. If Lloyd begins to think about coming tell him to see Sid and he might change his mind.”

Enlisting in May 1917, Arthur was among the soldiers who, during the last year of the war, were moved between battalions, filling gaps in the ranks depleted by heavy fighting and a lack of reinforcements from Australia.

Previously rejected as unfit for service for medical reasons, Arthur, 27, was accepted into the 8th reinforcements of the 42nd Battalion on May 3, 1917. It was the same battalion in which his brother, Walter Cavell, had enlisted when it was first raised in Brisbane in 1915.

A son of Francis and Sarah Cavell, of Boyland, Arthur stated his occupation as motorman on his enlistment papers. He had been working on the Brisbane Tramway and was living in South Brisbane with his wife, Violet, Sydney Rhoades’ sister, whom he had married in 1913.

“A dramatic first-hand account of the legendary attack.”

Remembered as a keen rifleman and a quiet man.

Arthur left Sydney on the Hororata on June 14, 1917, and arrived at Liverpool at the end of August. Within days of arriving at Lark Hill for further training, he was admitted to Parkhouse Military Hospital, suffering from mumps.

It was not until early March 1918, that Arthur finally embarked for France. From training at Fovant, he left England via Southampton, to reinforce not the 42nd Battalion but instead the 52nd.

Arthur joined the battalion at Locre in Belgium, and was with the 52nd when the German Army launched its Spring Offensive in late March.

He was at Dernancourt on April 5 when the battalion helped to repel the largest German attack against Australian troops of the war.

The German threat continued through April, culminating in the Australian attack to dislodge the enemy from Villers-Bretonneux on ANZAC Day, 1918.

Defeating the Germans had taken its toll on the AIF and the heavy casualties combined with a lack of reinforcements from Australia resulted in the 52nd Battalion being disbanded on May 16 to bolster other battalions.

That day, Arthur was transferred to the 50th Battalion, where he served as a Lewis gunner. The battalion was part of the Allied offensive launched on August 8 and fought on until its last major action of the war on September 18.

Although the war had ended with the Armistice on November 11, Arthur was promoted to Lance Corporal on January 1, 1919, and then to Corporal on April 21.

A month later, Arthur returned to England, arriving at Hurdcott on May 21. He was hospitalised with influenza on June 17 and finally embarked for Australia on July 12.

Arriving in Sydney on the City of Exeter on August 28, Arthur was discharged from the Army the following month.

In a brief biography compiled in 1998 by Arthur’s niece, Mary Cameron, he is remembered as a keen rifleman as well as a quiet man and a crossword fanatic who took an interest in local affairs.

After the war, Arthur returned to his job on the Brisbane Tramway where he remained until retiring in 1940. He and Violet moved to Darra where they operated an orchard before moving to Bundaberg where they spent many years. In later life, Arthur would remark that he had spent more time in retirement than working.

Arthur outlived Violet and at 90 developed cancer. As the couple had no children, Arthur went to live with his niece Mary who cared for him until two weeks before his death in the Beaudesert Hospital on April 13, 1982.

Arthur’s body was cremated and his ashes interred in the wall of the Beaudesert Cemetery.


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