Private Victor Wease was among the 5500 casualties of Fromelles, the July 1916 disaster on the Western Front which eclipsed the Gallipoli landings and became known as the worst day in Australia’s history.
Dubbed “from Hell” by the Diggers who survived the slaughter, it was a baptism of fire for the 31st Battalion which had entered the front-line trenches only three days earlier and in its first major action of the war lost half its strength, suffering 572 casualties.
Victor suffered gunshot wounds to the chest, leg, face and arm and must have wondered how he came to find himself in the 31st Battalion.
A farmer, Victor enlisted in July 1915, three months before his 22nd birthday, joining up with two brothers and an uncle. But while his brothers Oliver Wease and William Wease and uncle Harry Shirley were posted to the 25th Battalion, Victor was instead allotted to the 31st.
His brothers and uncle had left Brisbane in August as reinforcements for Gallipoli, just as the 31st Battalion was being raised at Enoggera in Brisbane.
With some of the 31st’s companies also being raised at Broadmeadows, the Queensland recruits travelled to Victoria where all the elements of the new battalion were brought together. On November 9, Victor boarded the HMAT Wandilla in Melbourne, arriving in Suez on December 7.
During training in Egypt he spent four days in hospital from January 22 with an undiagnosed illness.
He rejoined his battalion from hospital but spent another three days in hospital in April suffering diarrhea – a common complaint among the soldiers in the Middle East.
On June 16, 1916, Victor was among the soldiers of the 31st Battalion to leave Egypt with the British Expeditionary Force for France and the trenches of the Western Front.
Arriving on the Hororata at Marseilles on June 23, Victor and his comrades faced a bloody initiation during the Battle of Fromelles, which began on July 19.
Among the 5533 Australian casualties was Victor, whose wounds were initially described as superficial, although his service record indicates he suffered gunshot wounds to the chest, leg, face and arm.
He was evacuated to England and admitted to the Ontario Military Hospital at Orpington, Kent, and remained in England until early December.
Victor returned to France via Folkestone on the Princess Victoria and arrived in France on December 6 but did not rejoin his battalion in the field until January 5, 1917.
By the end of February he was in hospital suffering trench feet, a painful condition caused by prolonged immersion in cold water and mud which was aggravated by unsanitary conditions.
Returning to duty on March 9, Victor was part of the pursuit of the Germans to the Hindenburg line and the fighting that followed. As the 31st Battalion was part of the 8th Brigade, tasked with defending the 5th Division’s flank, it missed the heavy fighting to breach the Hindenburg Line during the Battle of Bullecourt, which began in April.
Victor was wounded in action for the second time during the only major operation of 1917 in which the 31st Battalion played a significant role, the Battle of Polygon Wood in Belgium on September 26.
Suffering a gunshot wound to the right arm, Victor was evacuated to England and was being treated in hospital in Canterbury by September 28.
He left hospital on November 11 and had two weeks’ furlough before reporting to the base at Hudcott, where he was assigned to temporary duty.
Victor did not return to France until January 10, 1918, rejoining his battalion in the field five days later.
As the 5th Division was kept mostly in reserve, the 31st had a quieter time than many other Australian battalions during the German Spring Offensive of 1918.
In mid-May, Victor developed a fever of unknown origin and was treated in hospital, and then suffered scabies in July.
The 31st was part of the Allied offensive which began with the Battle of Amiens in August and continued the pursuit of the retreating German Army during August and September.
Its last major action of the war was in late September at the St Quentin Canal tunnel where the men of the 31st were among Australia’s 5th and 3rd Divisions fighting side-by-side with two American divisions. It was a pivotal battle which not only achieved its military objectives but also convinced the German Army its position was hopeless.
When the war ended some six weeks later, on November 11, the battalion was out of the line, resting and retraining.
Victor had two weeks’ leave in London from January 5 to 14, 1919, and rejoined his unit in France on January 22. However, as he had been with the battalion since 1915, Victor was returned to England eight days later and reported to the depot at Hurdcott.
The 31st Battalion was disbanded on March 21 and Victor embarked on the Trans Os Montes to return to Australia on April 8.
He arrived in Brisbane on May 27 and was discharged from the Army on July 19, 1919.
Victor and his brother, William Wease, were the only two of the five sons of Sarah Wease (nee Shirley) who served in the Great War to survive the slaughter of the Western Front.