Lieutenant Samuel McConnel survived a severe gunshot wound during one of the key battles of the war only to return to the Western Front where he became a victim of a German poison gas attack.
A 25-year-old civil engineer, British-born Samuel had graduated from London University in 1909 with a Bachelor of Science (Engineering) with first class honours.
He was a natural choice for the Mining Corps, having been employed in the construction of railways and hydraulic works in England and Australia and also as an officer, having been in charge of large groups of men,
Enlisting on January 13, 1916, Samuel gave his address as care of his mother, Mrs R McConnel, of Canungra, but nominated his brother, George McConnel of Maleny, as his next of kin.
Samuel left Sydney bound for the Middle East on the HMAT Star of Victoria, on March 31, 1916, and arrived at Port Said on May 5. He was there only a matter of days before embarking for the Western Front as part of the British Expeditionary Force which landed in Marseilles on May 17.
After travelling to Etaples in northern France, Samuel joined the 1st Australian Divisional Base Depot on June 1. On July 9 he was attached to the Number 3 Company Mining Corps and that day posted to the Number 3 Tunnelling Company.
The tunnelling companies were tasked constructing underground dugouts to house large groups of men – sometimes entire battalions – as well as tunnels and mines to be used as positions from which to attack the enemy.
In a post-war despatch of 1919, British General Sir Douglas Haig wrote of the “great courage and skill” displayed by the tunnellers who, as well as detecting and blunting the enemy’s mining efforts also “discovered and rendered harmless” tonnes of enemy explosives and traps.
On September 4, Samuel was transferred to the 1st Field Company Engineers, whose inventiveness and ingenuity helped to overcome many of the problems faced by the men in the field.
The engineers devised ways for the troops to cross shell-ravaged battlefields, constructed lines of defence and tunnels and trenches, established observation posts and communication lines, built temporary bridges and repaired roads and railway lines – often under fire.
Illustrations from unit diaries which have been digitised by the Australian War Memorial show how the engineers who could devise something as simple as hot showers for the Diggers in the field or destroy bridges vital to the movement of enemy troops.
As France moved into the winter of 1916-17, the worst experienced in the region in decades, Samuel was admitted to hospital, suffering debility, on November 3, rejoining his unit eight days later.
Samuel had 10 days’ furlough from February 19, 1917, and in June had five days’ leave to Paris.
On October 4, he became one of the Canungra men on whom the Battle of Broodseinde in Belgium left its mark. The massive operation by 12 divisions, including 16 Australian infantry battalions, succeeded at a cost of 6500 casualties that day, including Samuel McConnel.
The 1st Field Company Engineers’ war diary for 1917 records how, on October 4, at nearby Bellewaerde in the Ypres sector, Lieutenant Hugh Lyddon was killed by a sniper and Lieutenant Samuel McConnel was wounded, as the company was busy constructing strong points.
Suffering a severe gunshot wound to the right thigh, Samuel was transferred to France and put aboard the hospital ship St Denis. Just two days after being wounded in action in Belgium, he was being treated in England at the 3rd General Hospital, London.
It was January 10, 1918 before Samuel returned to France, via Southampton, rejoining the 1st Field Company Engineers on January 18. Two days later, he was detached to the Corps Gas School for a week and then spent a week detached to the 1st Australian Infantry Brigade, before rejoining his unit on February 9.
A month later, Samuel was wounded in action for the second time during a poison gas attack on March 11.
The engineers’ unit diary records that Samuel was gassed at Basseije near Ypres during works to build an advanced dressing station on a site named The Caterpillar.
On March 18, still suffering the effects of the gas poisoning, Samuel embarked from France for England on the Newhaven and again admitted to the 3rd London General Hospital.
Samuel was just one of some 16,500 Australian soldiers exposed to the insidious chemical weaponry of modern warfare on the Western Front, poison gas.
The effects of the three main gases used by the Germans – chlorine, phosgene and mustard – were immediate and devastating, ranging from acute lung irritation, to breathlessness, irritation to the eyes and nasal passages, deep chemical burns to the skin and even paralysis and death.
Samuel’s service record shows that for weeks after the gas attack he continued to suffer eye irritation, dermatitis and breathlessness on exertion. At the end of April, a train trip to Maidstone and a four-mile (6.5 kilometre) walk had left him “knocked up”.
It was June 13 – three months after the gas shelling – before Samuel had recovered sufficiently to return to the front. He left for France via Southampton and rejoined his unit on June 21.
Samuel returned to England soon after the Armistice. He was granted paid leave to attend a course with a London firm to obtain experience in reinforced concrete work from January 20 to April 20, 1919.
Leaving England from Devonport on the Zealandia on May 11, Samuel arrived in Melboune on June 28 and then disembarked in Brisbane. His appointment as an officer in the AIF was terminated on August 16, 1919.