3) John Francis Coyle: 1917 – The Western Front

JFC – Pictured with a young Belgian child

A little sweetie and myself (John Coyle) in Belgium 1918

Awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre.

Decorations conferred by His Majesty, the King of the Belgians

 “For gallantry and devotion to duty at MESSINES during operations on 6th June, 1917 and at YPRES (POLYGON WOOD) on during operations on 26th September, 1917.”

JFC – In his own words…..

“During the battle for Messines Ridge in the summer of 1917 the Australian suffered very heavy casualties. D. Section: 12th Machine Gun Company to which I belonged was positioned some 300 yards behind the 12th Infantry Brigade.

The Germans were putting over a particularly vicious barrage of artillery and machine gun fire. The Sgt.*  in charge of our Section, gave the order to withdraw from our open positions and take cover in a nearby trench until the barrage eased a bit. But the Hun kept pasting us unmercifully for hours. Sgt.   however, directed that no man was to return to the guns until he gave the order to do so.

Feeling that our infantrymen were badly in need of support and seeing so many wounded being carried out, also a lot of walking wounded going back to casualty clearing station, it struck me that the position was becoming desperate. I visualised Fritz charging our weakened troops in the front line and not only capture, the front line men but round us up as well.

Despite the order not to return, I did go back, my old cobber Mick Vause, shouting as I left the trench, “Coyley, you won’t get there alive”.  I reached the nearest gunpit safely and began putting over a few bursts on the given target. It wasn’t long though, it seemed hours, before Sgt.   and those who didn’t get hit came back to the other pits and within a short time our four guns were again in action.

We must have been helpful in saving the situation on this Sector for it was told us later than the concentrated fire from our guns found its target and scattered the enemy to such an extent that it stopped him reinforcing his front line for several hours. It also prevented him assaulting our much weakened front line, men with trench mortars and hand grenades as was a common practice after a heavy artillery bombardment. So the 12th Coy. Gunners did help save the day.

Adding further to the victories gained by the Aussies in holding Messines, the fatigued and much depleted (4th)  12th Brigade Infantrymen, attacked the commanding Ridge the Germans had held for months and catching him by this surprise move, not only wrested from him this very important line of observation posts but chased  him back over a mile beyond our first objective, capturing quite a number of his fresh troops, brought up that morning  – several of his machine guns, mortars and a lot of field equipment fell into our hands.

The 4th Division as a whole was mentioned in despatches for its good work in this engagement and quite a number of all ranks got individual awards.

By Royal Consent – The National Minister for Defence has the honour to award for service rendered

The Cross of the War with this Certificate and the Imperial Seal of Belgium.

(*For obvious reasons we will leave the Sgt’s name out).


After the action in the battle for Messines Ridge the records show that John was hospitalized twice (once only for scabies) in July and August, 1917. After the events described in the following account of his actions at Polygon Wood he was wounded and sent to Rouen Base hospital in September, then rejoining his unit around the 13th of October. On the 24th of Nov. he was given leave to England and we assume it was during this time that he visited his father’s birthplace in Donegal, Ireland. He returned to his duties in France on the 16th of December, 1917.

Australian Official Photo Australian War Memorial. Injury site at Paschendale.

John Coyle’s photo (from his war album) with his own notation of his shrapnel wound received – injured with Bill(?) on 26th September, 1917 . The position as occupied by the 12th M.G. Company near Anzac Ridge in the Ypres Sector, where very heavy casualties were sustained. 28th September, 1917.

The day before the scheduled operation, a German counter-thrust fell upon the British 10th Corps immediately south of the 5th Division’s Flank. This was a potentially disastrous event, because although the 15th Brigade helped its neighbouring British units to fight off the attack and secure its own start-line for the next day, it was not possible to clear all the enemy from this area. Thus the Australian right faced the prospect of having its flank insecure when the time came for the advance.

At 5.50 a.m. on the 26th the protective artillery barrage descended as planned, and the two Australian divisions went forward behind it at the centre of a front extending nearly ten kilometres. All the objectives along the Australian front and points north were, with minor exceptions, quickly captured. On the exposed southern flank, the 15th Brigade – reinforced by two battalions of the 8th Brigade – managed to take not only its own final objective but also part of that of the 10th Corps. Again, any German counterattack was thwarted by the curtain of artillery fire lowered as soon as the troops had reached their positions. Australian losses in the action amounted to 5,770 men.

JFC – In his own words….

“This time the M.G’s were boxing on at POLYGON WOOD (it was also referred to as the “PASSCHENDAELE STUNT”). About the muddiest, dirtiest joint I’ve ever been in. I did very little here. In fact it was a shame to take the money let alone the medal. At this stage of the carnival I happened to be a full blown Sergeant.

My job was to look after four gun Crews and keep the guns firing on the set target until the infantry in front of us he gained their objective. This we did to some effect, because they got there as planned and with fewer casualties than reckoned on (I often wondered how the poor fellas got through the mud so well and with such good results as we were just about up to the seat of our strides in this same slimy slurry – in some parts of the ditch anyway).

The only dangerous part I took in this stunt was to keep moving to and from each gunpit checking the guns and issuing orders to each No 1 as to how many shots and at what intervals he was to give the bursts. Jerry was putting over quite a lot of shrapnel and eventually got uncomfortably close to our well concealed positions.

A Tom Brown from Queensland kept telling me to take cover or you’ll certainly catch a pellet or two. I had hardly finished saying to him “That’ll be just bad luck, Tom” when a piece of  ‘shrap’ smacked me behind the right shoulder. Tom applied a field bandage and I stayed for a while but the bleeding continued.  Later the barrage died down and the battle was just about over, so down to casualty clearing went Sgt. Coyle.

From there they sent me to Rouen Base Hospital where I spent five beautiful, restful days and nights lying about in a lovely clean bed. Then they tramped me back to my Unit.  I wasn’t very sorry about it because hadn’t two bob to my name and had no chance of getting any pay until I rejoined the Unit.”

“Up to Polygon Wood and the filthy mud once more. We were only there four days then we were withdrawn for a spell. And that was the last stunt I had in [that area of] Belle France. Our 12th Coy. Machine Gunners were again mentioned in despatches so we must have done a satisfactory job here.”

All said with the humility and humour, typical of most Anzacs – and more so from Pa Coyle who would have made light of his enormous contributions and courage.


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