William Thornley Rankin
Service number 6374

By April 1918 there had been so much death and bloodshed on the Western Front that four men killed and six wounded were considered “only 10 casualties”.

The 26th Battalion’s war diary for 1918 records that in northern France near Baisieux from April 8 to 10 “the enemy at times shelled the area heavily”. It was a sign of the times that it was noted “only 10 casualties were sustained, and these by A Company, four killed and six wounded”.

Among those was Private William Rankin, wounded in action for the second time and suffering what was described in his service record as gunshot wounds to the back and hand.

William was treated in hospital in France and then evacuated to England but there was still shrapnel embedded in his back. In years to come, his small daughter, Iris, would help her father by picking fragments of metal out of his skin as they worked their way to the surface.

Bill, as he was known to family and friends, was born in Bundaberg on September 17, 1890.

He was the fifth son of George and Maria Rankin who established their home at Beechmont on the Bonnie Brae farm in 1903 and as a young man helped work the family farm.

Bill married May Watkins on October 10, 1916 after enlisting in the AIF on September 22. His brother George Rankin, cousins James Sharp and Tom Sharp and his brother-in law Bert Watkins had also joined up.

After leaving Sydney on December 22, 1916, on the Demosthenes with the 18th reinforcements of the 26th Battalion, Bill landed at Plymouth, England on March 3, 1917.

Bill went to the 7th Training Battalion at Rollestone but within the fortnight was sick in the Parkhouse Hospital. The next month he forfeited six days’ pay for being absent without leave from midnight on April 23 to 8am on April 25.

“Wounded during heavy enemy shelling.”

Around one seventh of the Australian troops were casualties before the battle had even begun.

On June 19, Bill left for France, via Southampton, and was taken on strength of the 26th Battalion in France on July 9.

It was not long before the focus of operations moved to Belgium and in September the 26th was one of 10 Australian infantry battalions to fight in the Battle of Menin Road.

Supported by British artillery, the troops succeeded in taking entrenched German positions and resisted fierce enemy counter-attacks to capture the ridge east of Ypres crossed by Menin Road.

Like many of the men whose names are listed on Canungra’s memorial, Bill was part of the massive operation by 12 divisions, including 16 Australian infantry battalions, to capture Broodseinde Ridge on October 4.

Heavy enemy shelling before the allied attack began at dawn left around one seventh of the Australian troops casualties before the battle had even begun. Those who were able to carry on found themselves facing the Germans who, by coincidence, had also chosen October 4 to launch their attack.

The Australians pushed on through waves of attacking Germans, taking the ridge that day at a cost of 6500 casualties, including Bill Rankin.

With severe shrapnel wounds to his left arm and right shoulder, Bill was treated at a casualty clearing station and that day transferred by ambulance train to France.

From there, he was put aboard the hospital ship Princess Elizabeth and transferred to England where he was admitted to the Devonport Military Hospital the next day.

It was December 19 before Bill was released from hospital and February 1, 1918, before he had recovered sufficiently to return to the front.

Among Australian infantrymen of 55 battalions to repel the German offensive.

From the Sandhill Camp at Longbridge Deverill he travelled to Southampton and then to France, rejoining his battalion in Belgium on February 7.

The battalion returned to France where it helped to repel the German Spring Offensive. Launched in March and continuing through April and May, this was the last desperate attempt by the German Army to win the war before the arrival on the Western Front of more men and material from the United States.

For Australia alone, repelling the German onslaught involved the fledgling Australian Flying Corps, artillery, and infantrymen of 55 battalions, including the 26th.

Just two months after rejoining his unit after being wounded at Broodseinde Ridge, Bill was wounded in action for a second time on April 8.

According to the battalion war diary for 1918, the 26th was operating in the Baisieux area which had come under heavy enemy shelling. With wounds to his back and hand, Bill was treated at a casualty clearing station on April 9, then transferred by ambulance train to the 56th General Hospital where he was admitted on April 10.

Three days later, Bill once again boarded the hospital ship Princess Elizabeth for England and, arriving on April 13, was admitted to the Fort Pitt Military Hospital at Chatham.

Bill was released from hospital to furlough from May 3 to 17, then reported to the command depot at Sutton Veny.

On July 10, Bill left the camp at Longbridge Deverill to return to the front via Folkestone.

Bill rejoined his unit in France on July 17 and was with the 26th Battalion at the start of the Allied offensive on August 8. However, by August 24, Bill was being treated at a casualty cleaning station for an injury to his back linked to his “old wound”.

Australians move up past Hooge to take over positions captured on Broodseinde Ridge on 4 October 1917.

(Image: Australian War Memorial; Public Domain.)

Served in the Volunteer Defence Corps in World War Two.

Boarding the Archangel for England on August 27, Bill arrived in England the next day and was admitted to the Bath War Hospital.

After leaving hospital on September 16, Bill went on furlough and should have reported to the command depot at Hurdcott on October 2.

Instead, he paid a high price – 12 days’ pay – for being absent without leave in London from 10,30am on October 2 until 10am on October 6.

The war had been over for 10 days when Bill returned, via Southampton, to his battalion in France. It was not until mid-May 1919 that he returned to England to begin the voyage home to Australia.

Bill left England on the Chemnitz on July 7 and arrived in Sydney on September 8. He was discharged from the AIF on October 17.

Back at Beechmont, Bill worked the family farm, Bungledoona, on Binna Burra Road, with his wife May. They raised three children Ian, Iris and Bert.

Bill’s war wounds continued to cause him pain but he rarely complained. His great granddaughter, Amanda Brook, told a gathering to commemorate ANZAC Day 2015 that her grandmother, Iris, could remember as a small child being asked to pick pieces of shrapnel from her father’s shoulders as they worked their way out of his skin.

In World War Two, Bill was back in uniform as part of the Volunteer Defence Corps. His grandson, Wayne, served in Vietnam.

After the death of his first wife May, Bill married Laura Taylor. He passed away in December 1969, aged 79.

HMAT Chemnitz.

(Image: Public Domain.)


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