4) John Francis Coyle: 1918 – The Western Front

Officers and NCO’s of the 12th Machine Gun Company , Meteren, France – March, 1918 – 2355 Cpl J. F. Coyle (7th from left, back row) 

The MILITARY MEDAL – Awarded  on 6th May, 1918

“Relating to the conspicuous services rendered”… for “Bravery in the field”

*For gallantry and good work at DERNACOURT (SW of Albert) on March 27 – 28th, 1918. When in charge of a machine gun detachment he took up a position forward of our infantry and did great execution among the enemy. By his fearless example he was able to maintain his ammunition supply and keeps his belts filled. He greatly assisted to beat off an enemy attack at dawn and later throughout the day. His utter disregard for danger set a wonderful example to his men.”

JFC – In his own words……

“We now shift across to the shell-shattered village of Dernancourt. At this stage of the campaign the German Army was breaking through the British lines at a terrific rote and it looked as though he would take a lot of stopping.  So once again the Aussies met the crack Prussian Guards in mortal combat. We expected to be up against the much boomed Horse Regiment, ie, “The Uhlans” in this sector but fortunately or otherwise, the German Light Horse did not put in an appearance.

In this engagement we again suffered heavy casualties. As we were going into action we lost our Lieut., Sgt., and Corporal. The last two mentioned were wounded shortly after we left advanced HQ. As far our Lieut., who was with the Company only a few days. We never found out just what did happen to him. Either he was blown to pieces or got lost and wandered into enemy lines. At all events, this left Corporal Coyle in charge. A job certainly did not relish but could not get out of.

It was a pitch dark night and not one of us knew our surroundings too well. Before we had left Headquarters – a huge chalkpit in an open field – we were told that in the event of the gun crews losing contact still must get to the positions (pointed out on a field map that day) at all costs and consolidate as quickly as possible.

After two or three hours stumbling over various obstacles (I had by now lost contact with the three other gun crews) we, in the No. 1 Gun crew, stumbled into a large shell hole close up to the German front lines.  Fritz heard our movements and immediately sent up a few flares. This helped us a lot because we could see our Infantry front line on the embankment behind so we edged back a bit.  Still groping in the darkness we finished up in a disused communication trench.

After resting a little while we decided to stay in this trench until daylight. Luckily the German did not attack that morning, and this gave us a chance to survey the surroundings better. We were still in a precarious position being open to, not only a frontal attack but both our flanks were undefended as well.  I felt very uneasy about this and got word back to the O.C. 47th Aust. Batt’n.  asking him to send us a few men to cover both flanks of our possie, which we (five of us all told) had no hope of defending.

That afternoon he sent us two men with a rifle each of course, and a few mills bombs between them. I placed these two men – with one of our gunners – about twenty yards to our right down the trench, just before dark we heard a rifle shot close by. Upon investigation I found that one of our reinforcements had a nasty wounded right foot. He said his rifle exploded accidentally but it looked to me like a S.I.W. (self-inflicted wound. But I felt sorry for the poor bloke and got him back to his own Batt’n.

Soon after his mate said he was unable to carry on so we had to dispense with his services and back he went. But no more reinforcements came and there we were, posted, lying low and as quiet as mice wondering what was in store for us.  During the night, however, our morale got higher so we watched and prayed hoping for the best .

Next morning at daybreak Fritz launched his attack.  It was a foggy morning and visibility was poor. As expected he first came at us from the right flank and treated us to a few hand grenades which did little damage (three of us got fragments in the face tho’). The fog was lifting and we could now see Fritz directly in front and coming in from both sides. A few bursts from our gun gave them our exact position. His men in front lay low whilst the side levers worked around leaving us no choice but to retreat back to the 47th’s line.

I told my four men to retreat by way of the parados (over the back) while covered them as best I could.  It was hopeless though … so I quickly removed the lock and firing pin from our gun-rendering it useless for the time being and made for a sunken road to my left.

On the sunken road was a German Sgt. and several men poised ready to shoot.  The Sgt. ordered  me to surrender  and in quick time fired a shot from about 20 yards, that missed me by inches. Then came my turn, I took aim, at no particular part of him that 1 can remember but my luck was in because the bullet hit him on the right wrist. The revolver dropped from his grip and was dangling in the lanyard.

Away I raced up the sunken road, still under fire, but the good Lord was with me all right because not one bullet hit its mark. How Fritz didn’t get the five of us that morning was a miracle. Just nearing our infantry line on the Railway embankment a ghastly sight met my eyes. One of my best men, Eric Stevens*, had been mortally wounded by our own 47th men who had mistaken us for Germans. The other three men were flat on the ground with Eric trying to dodge the Lewis Gunners of the 47th.  Frantically I kept getting up and down calling out “We are Aussies” – “12th Machine Gunners” till they finally recognised us and bade us come in. Poor Eric had both legs almost severed above the knees and died before we could get him away from the line.

By this time the enemy had switched his frontal attack and pushed around our line from both flanks. The 47th men were in a state of confusion and though they had their Lewis guns, rifles etc., not one man fired a shot for minutes.  In anger or despair I shouted, “who’s in charge here”. A 47th Sgt., replied just as angrily “I am” and with one hand on his Lewis Gun  I screamed “Can’t you see the Hun,  he’s cutting us off”. The Sgt. bawled “they’re Portuguese (the few Portuguese soldiers we had with us in France had uniforms and equipment similar to that of the German soldiers).  My reply was if you don’t get that gun into action and do something I’ll have a go myself. With that he took sight, opened fire then that was the end of a carefully planned German attack.

It was an easy target, some 500 Fritzies all in one big cluster on a rise.  The poor fellows either dropped where they were hit or kept rolling down the steep railway embankment dead and wounded by the score. The few that did escape were picked up as prisoners later in the day by an English Unit posted to our right.

Had the German succeeded in his pincer movement it would have meant the loss of a Brigade of Infantrymen, two Companys of Machine Gunners , a number of guns, large quantities of ammunition and field equipment which our army could ill afford to lose at that stage of the game. All things considered we got out of it light and our Heads were very pleased about the way things turned out in this important engagement as they termed it.”

A few more chosen words from Gen. Rawlinson.

The Award reads: To SGT.  J.F. COYLE.  M.M   4th M.G. BATTALION  A.I.F.

“I congratulate you on the gallantry and devotion to duty for which you have been awarded –  the Military Medal.”

*346 LCpl E. T. Stevens* (killed in action 28 March 1918)

Bar to the Military Medal – Awarded on 30th October, 1918

“Relating to the conspicuous services rendered”

“In the operations against the HINDENBURG LINE, East of LE VERGUIER, on 18th September 1918, this N.C.O. displayed conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. On arrival at the objective he showed great courage, ability, and initiative in the effective placing of his guns, and later under heavy shell fire personally reconnoitred both flanks which he effectively covered. By his untiring energy, and exhibition of coolness under heavy fire, he set a brilliant example to his men.”

12th machine gunners

Members of the 12th Australian Machine Gun Company behind their Vickers Mk machine guns.

John Francis Coyle was made Technical Sergeant in August of 1918. In that month he was also detached from his unit to attend machine gun schooling/further training. Soon after that he was requested to attend an official briefing/hearing (at the beginning of September, 1918).

The records here are very difficult to read but it would appear that there was to be a “consideration of revision” of his earlier Court Martial sentencing. In view of his ‘gallantry in action’ and the subsequent medals awarded, that his record could be revised but not expunged. His sentence was ‘remitted’ and the penalty was then commuted to 369 days pay forfeited.

The Battle for the Hindenburg line took place in September of 1918. John Francis was back in action and was again commended and recommended for his gallant actions. This was the decisive battle of the Western front and began the process of the dismantling of the german offensive.

John Coyle was then awarded his Bar to the Military Medal at the same time as he was promoted to full Sergeant in November, 1918. He had attended a Cadet Battalion in November also at Cambridge. He therefore was in England at the cessation of the war.

The Armistice was signed on the 11th November, 1918.

World War One had officially come to an end.

After being in the theatre of war for over three and a half years, it was almost time for John Francis Coyle to return to Australia. Unfortunately like so many Anzacs he would not be home for many months yet.

The legend of the Anzacs lives on in their spirited remaking of the damaged worlds of northern France and Belgium….

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