The action for which Corporal Otto Wagenknecht was awarded the Military Medal could have been torn from the pages of a modern day Hollywood movie script.
Almost a year after the war had ended, the “conspicuous service” and courage of the Australian soldier with a German name was recognised with an award for gallantry, for the action at Mont St Quentin where Otto had stormed a heavily defended enemy position.
The citation for the award describes the role Otto played in the allied counter-offensive on the Western Front in France, in the last months of the war, when Australian troops seized the strategic position of Mont St Quentin, overlooking Peronne, on the Somme.
According to the citation for his decoration, Otto had been in charge of a double Lewis Gun section on September 2, 1918 during the attack near Mont St Quentin, when men of his company came under heavy enemy machine gun fire.
What came next could have been a scene from a Hollywood film as, according to his citation:
“ This NCO took his two guns and advanced well in front of his Company, and partly outflanked the enemy post. He then very skilfully advanced his guns, enabling his platoon to proceed. He passed from one gun to the other several times under extremely heavy fire, and finally, when the platoon advance continued, he was the first man into the enemy post, where he killed four of the garrison, and forced the remainder to surrender.’
Otto obviously knew he had been recommended for the decoration, as a letter he wrote to Army records from his family’s home in Gympie in April, 1919 indicates he had been expecting to receive his medal.
“Kindly allow me your valuable attention in reference to my decoration,” Otto wrote.
“Having been recommended for a decoration in the field (France) and owing to wounds I was conveyed to England before the dec. came through. I have not received the medal (Military Medal). Could you kindly advise me as to how or where I should apply for same. Trusting you will oblige, 5393 Sgt Wagenknecht, O.H, 25th Btn (Inf) AIF. P.S. At time of recommendation my rank was Corporal.”
The Army wasted no time firing off a reply, and a week later poor Otto was told:
“With reference to your communication of the 2nd instant, I have to state no official advice has been received to date that you have been awarded any Military Decoration. Should such information come to hand later, your mother will be duly notified.”
A diorama of the battle of Mont St Quentin, made by Lieutenant Charles Web Gilbert in June 1919, propped up on a box and juxtaposed against the actual battlefield.
Otto’s award for bravery in the field was finally announced in the London Gazette in July 1919 and then in the Commonwealth of Australia Gazette in October of that year.
On October 3, 1919, Otto received another letter – much more agreeable than the last – from Army records, stating:
“I am directed to transmit per separate registered post one Congratulatory Card issued by the General Officer Commanding 4th Army British Expeditionary Force, referring in laudatory terms to the conspicuous manner in which you conducted yourself on the battlefield in the face of the enemy.”
Otto was the fifth of 10 children of Oscar and Emma Wagenknecht, of Gympie.
Twenty-one years old, Otto had been working as a labourer in Canungra when he enlisted in the AIF in June 1916, just a few months after the Military Medal was instituted as an award for bravery on the battlefield by soldiers of non-commissioned rank.
With the 16th reinforcements of the 25th Battalion, Otto left Brisbane on October 21 aboard the Boonah and landed at Plymouth on January 10.
He trained in England at Rolleston in Staffordshire, but like so many Australian troops of the war contracted mumps, and in late March was admitted to Parkhouse Hospital.
Otto joined his battalion in France on May 2, 1917, just as the 25th was about to play a supporting role at the Second Battle of Bullecourt from May 3 to 17.
The battalion’s next major action of the war was not until September 20 when it was part of the first wave in the Battle of Menin Road in Belgium – where Otto was wounded in action but remained steadfastly on duty.
Victory at Menin Road was followed by the capture of Broodseinde Ridge on October 4, the battalion’s last major action of 1917.
In March 1918, as the battalion was beginning a long and difficult year, Otto was promoted to Lance Corporal.
The 25th Battalion fought to counter the German Spring Offensive in April, but Otto was on leave in England during the Battle of Morlancourt in May. In July, after the Battle Of Hamel, Otto was made Corporal after the promotion of Corporal Henry Marxson to Sergeant.
Otto was with the 25th at the Battle of Amiens in August, which marked the beginning of what later became known as the Hundred Days Offensive, pushing the German Army further towards defeat.
However, the fighting had taken its toll on the 25th, which had been weakened by its casualties and lack of reinforcements. Ordered to disband, its men mutinied and were given a temporary reprieve.
A month after his feat of bravery at Mont St Quentin, for which he was awarded the Military Medal, Otto was wounded in action on October 3.
The successful attack to break through the German defences around Beaurevoir was not only Otto’s last action of the war, but also that of his depleted battalion, which was finally disbanded nine days later.
With a gunshot wound to the right toe, Otto, by then a Sergeant, was in hospital in England when the war ended and was not discharged until December 11.
He embarked on the Ulysees to return to Australia on January 18, 1919 and was discharged from the Army in April.
Otto had no children and passed away in 1957, aged 62.