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DOUGLAS, Gerald James (1894-1989)

DOUGLAS, Gerald James (1894-1989)

Gerald James Douglas was born on 23 August 1894 in Hawthorn, Melbourne, the son of Percy James McDonald Douglas and Nora Lydia nee Morris. He was educated firstly at Menzies Creek and then as a boarder at the Geelong College from 1908 to 1910. In 1909, he won the 1st Prize for Geography and 2nd Prize for History in the Upper IV Form and in 1910 was awarded the prize for Drawing. The only identified sporting activity reported was his participation in a number of rowing events in the Senior Fours at the College Regatta.

During World War I he enlisted in the AIF on 15 August, 1916, embarked on HMAT Shropshire on 25 September 1916 and arrived in France on New Year's Day, 1917. He served in the machine gun section and was wounded twice.

He was at Albert on 6 February, joining 59 Battalion at Bernafay the next day. He served in the Machine Gun Section, and was wounded in action twice, firstly at Bapaume on 14 March 1917, then six months later at Polygon Wood, on 26 September.

During the war, Gerald maintained a detailed diary which described his activities in much detail from the time of his enlistment. It includes his training in Australia and England, and his service in France from March 1916 to December 1918. It also contains accounts of the daily weather, his health, sporting activities including cricket, soccer and Australian Rules and the irregularity of incoming and outgoing mail. The diary has been deposited with the Australian War memorial (AWM).

His diary noted the circumstances of his first wounding at Bapaume:
‘14th March. Slept OK. Never bothered about breakfast, or any of us. Slept on, and glad to be able to rest my weary bones. Dave1 went to sick parade, and other two on fatigue. I wanted to go, but was not ready by the time the others shoved off, so stayed behind. About 2.30 or so Dave came back, got orders from the doctor to report back at camp and commenced to pack up. I started on a bit of tucker, biscuits, jam and cheese. Fritz had been lobbing a few shells, not very close, when I heard the usual whistling of a fair-sized bit of ironmongery, meant this time for us or close to us. What-oh, all over in less time than it takes to write this. Poor old Dave, his troubles were over, and also an RGA chap just outside. Thank goodness it was a merciful end for both. The shell, presumably about 6", had lobbed just in front and between our dug-out and the neck not more than 5' from where I was kneeling at the time. Dirt and gore and splinters and what not everywhere. Got myself out of the debris and found I'd a bit of a scratch on the forehead. Found my gum boot after a hunt, and a bit of other clobber and departed down to Bde HQ to AMC. Had a bit of iodine put on and then lay down in bunk in hospital. Bonza underground place, bunks two high.'

He also described some of the Bullecourt 'stunt':
‘My mate Charlie Bunn2 while taking his bayonet off, accidentally set his rifle off, blowing off his right thumb, hell of a shock for him. Bandaged it up. Hope to goodness they don't haul him off for a self-inflicted wound. Hurried away up the sap, luckily only a few shells coming over. Saw some Fritz prisoners. Long trail of wounded passing down and asking for stretchers. Guess they were glad to be out of it. Crossed railway line and up sap. Hell of a stink, dead lying about, some ghastly sights. Went like blazes and no time to think over things. Gun, weighed like lead and pretty well drounded in sweat. Bit of shelling most of High Explosives, went to railway line. Death trap there. Spent a day of rest in our little possies.’

Douglas named the men who attended an Old Geelong Collegians’ reunion at Albert on 7 July 1917-Cavanagh, Paddy Fenton, Joe Porter, Keith Doig, Jim Kininmonth, Rowley Hope, Flo Pearson, Tod Sloane, Broncho Hearne, Hal Sewell, Jugger Simson, F G Herman, WO McPherson, Nonnie Thomson, Cockie McLennan, Jack Rogers, Yabby Gadd, Peter Campbell and Selwyn Scott.

His diary is again the source of a long description of his wounding at Polygon Wood:
‘September 24th Monday. Left Melbourne a year ago today. Moved up to dug-outs on bank of Zillebeke Lake. Fine and warm. Bit foggy to start with. Finished reading letters. Erskine (Collins) came over to see me about 10. Just on the point of moving back. Gave him three whizzbangs to post. Cleaning gun and filling magazines. Sun came out very warm. (Here commences an account of Polygon Wood ‘stunt’, also of preceding events, and those afterwards).

Busy getting all things ready for moving which we did about 5. All well loaded up with tucker, ammunition etc. Only went about three miles via Shrapnel Corner and camped on small dug-out affairs at edge of Zillebeke Lake. Great drinking water, no one allowed to wash or bath in it. The lake is artificial. It was a glorious evening, and a half moon looking down on us and reflecting itself on the water of the lake. It should have been a peaceful scene, but it was anything but that. Nearby and at periodic intervals some of our big guns would open up and send over souvenirs to Fritz. The roar from the 8 in howitzers was deafening, and the concussion can be felt for hundreds of yards, if in front or to one side quite a warm blast of air can be felt on the face. In the dug-outs any lighted candles flicker and at times go out. On the opposite hill and the other side of the lake Fritz was busy putting over his souvenirs, and we could see men running when a shell was unpleasantly close. Streams of transports carrying shells etc. would now and again halt as some luckless transport, limber, or G S Wagon was sent to the four winds. On and on ever moving towards the guns, no time to pick up the pieces. Each and all anxious to get his job finished and get away back out of it all. Wonder what the mules and horses think of the War. It's marvellous how quiet some of them are even when shells are bursting close.

September 25th Tuesday. Moved from Zillebeke Lake up to near Hellfire Corner and then in even up to the front line, waiting for hop over. Fine and warm. I don't envy the drivers their job by any means, not when it comes to being under shell fire. They've got to look after their wagons and teams and besides are higher off the ground and thus more exposed. Every now and again the still lake waters would be unceremoniously disturbed by shells lobbing in it. Some would make only a dull plonk, little splash, and not explode; those with more sensitive fuses (nose-caps) would explode upon touching the water, and my, what a row and displacement of water there was. Guess there can't be many live fish in the lake.

About 9 pm an SOS signal was sent up from some part of our line, and on two toos every gun within cooee from 18 pounders upwards was sending over 'iron and rations' to Fritz a darn sight quicker than he could digest 'em. Evidently he was counter-attacking. The flash of the guns was like small flashes of lightning, lighting up and dying out almost as quickly. At odd times Fritz would send over an incendiary shell and the country-side for many yards around would be lighted up for a minute, two, or even longer. Woe betide any dump, transports etc. that get any of the blazing oil (I suppose it is) over them. Saw in one place where one or more of these shells had done its work only too thoroughly, and there wasn't much left of any use. So much (barring the last paragraph) I could see from the bank of the lake. We didn't get any shells near us till nearly daylight, and then no one was killed, several wounded and our cooking utensils, dixies etc. and the tucker therein blown up. The dixies weren't damaged, but we went without bacon or tea and whatever else was on for breakfast. All in the game of playing soldiers.

About dinner-time we moved up closer to line near a place called Hellfire Corner, and it’s not misnamed either as anyone who has been there knows only too well. We waited there till dark and then the Lewis Gun section I was in was attached to B Company No 6 Platoon. Sgt Geo Walken3 (sic:Walkem) was Platoon Sergeant. Ever and anon Fritz's 'Heavies' would be falling here there and everywhere, searching for our batteries or trying for some of the roads. One landed very near us, quite close enough tho'. About 8 we started for the line for some distance along corduroy road then along track. Continually stopping owing to blockage somewhere up in front. Passed several old tanks, battered beyond all hope of repair. Various smells told their own tales. Shells of the 'whizzbang' variety (Fritz 77 mm gun corresponds to our 18 pounder and the French 75 mm gun) with now and again something heavier would land rather near.

While lying in a shell hole during one of the numerous stoppages, a whizzbang bent on making close acquaintance with the three of us, self, Bob Le Fevre4 and Cargery5 (sic), who were lying too close to each other. Exploded and partially buried us. No one hurt, Bob went out with shell shock. He being on our gun team, it made more for us to carry. Fritz flares were going up all the time, and at times, seemingly on three sides of us. It took many hours winding round picking out the track by means of a white tape, until we reached the place where the hop over was to take place from. We were then so close to Fritz that some of his flares fired in our direction fell almost on top of us. Trenches up in this part are practically a thing of the past and all the way in we were on the top.'

'September 26th Wednesday. Wounded - second time - left upper arm and shoulder. Near Ypres. Went over the top Menin Road battle. Polygon Wood. Fine and hot. Wrote note to Sgt Wilson (Company Clerk) re sending on letters to Grannie. It's extremely wet ground mainly, had been a wood, and no trenches would be of any use, 'cept p'raps on an odd rise or so. Then any that have at any time been dug by either us or Fritz are mostly blown in. The country being blown about as badly as many places on the Somme. Worse in some cases, and goodness knows what an awful quagmire it would be after rain. It had not rained for more than a week and that I guess was the chief reason why this stunt and the other just preceding it were so successful. Fritz has many Pill Boxes scattered about the country, and they are his strong points. They have taken (or practically so) the place of trenches. A pill box is a kind of a blockhouse made of reinforced concrete and is shell proof, except for the heaviest stuff. Has loop holes for machine guns, and is only troublesome at a distance, but when rushed by us becomes a veritable death trap for the Germans. When close against the structure the machine guns are of course useless, and then all that needs to be done, unless Fritz surrenders in a body, which usually happens, is to take the pins out of a couple of Mills grenades and throw 'em through one of the holes. They will settle all arguments and any Hun that is left alive won't be fit for much. Only a direct hit by a heavy shell would have any effect on a pill box, and then unless it were a 15 in. the structure would only be partly demolished. Besides it would be very fine work indeed to get a direct hit as they're not very big, say 10 ft high, perhaps 20 or 30 ft long, and 10 or 12 ft wide. That's only a rough estimate of the size.

Fritz found that the trench system on the Somme and elsewhere was not a success. They're too easily spotted by planes and then blown level by artillery. Well we reached the possy where the hop over was to take place from about 3 am and waited in shell holes until Zero hour. (the moment when the barrage takes place and the hop over commences). I was dozing. You can imagine how tired we were and suddenly at 5.50, Zero hour came. A moment before things were practically quiet, and then without a moment's warning a raging inferno of H.E. and Shrapnel was let loose for Fritz's benefit. The din was appalling, and it was impossible to make oneself heard unless right agin the chap spoken to and then only by shouting loudly. There was a mist and that combined with the smoke from the barrage made it difficult to see more than say 20 or 30 yards. The ground we had to go over was a mass of shell holes and trees, fallen and stumps, boggy too, so where possible one had to pick the ground to move on. As our barrage advanced so did we, in fact some of us went ahead further than the edge of the barrage and some of these became casualties. My tin hat did me a good turn. A pellet of shrapnel from one of our own shells hit the hat on the left side and made a big dent in it and a large bruise on the side of my head. It was like getting a crack with a sledge hammer, and I sat down for a minute or two to recover things in general. All the tin hats were covered in hessian, and it was due to that that I have the particular shrapnel pellet with me now. The hat broke the force of the blow and the pellet stayed between hat and hessian. Souvenir, eh. We kept on going and I only saw a couple of Fritz running thro the bushes. On the particular sector I was on there wasn' t a pill box, tho there was one handy on the left. Fritz didn't show much fight, and many prisoners were captured. We were like a mob of schoolboys chasing rabbits or some other vermin. Plenty of ironmongery in suspension, and of course some of the poor fellows went WEST and others more fortunate, got blighties.

We reached our objectives and then made use of shell holes etc. and dug ourselves in bits of trenches so as to be ready for any counter-attacks. We had the Lewis Gun mounted No 1 (Ted Wilson6) and No 2 (myself) were looking over the top that we were pipped. Poor old Ted, he was only just 19. I got my equipment off and clambered out of our trench and a Sergeant (Clurrie7) (sic) was nearby, so got him to bandage my arm up. Waited a few minutes to recover equilibrium and then lost no time in getting away. Would make a dash for a shell hole, then stay a bit, up and dive for another, such precautions necessary I reckoned, 'cause Fritz was sniping with machine guns at the wounded going along and stretcher parties. Dust was kicked up unpleasantly close on several occasions. Found the white tape and followed it back. When out of sight of machine guns, the shells were the next trouble. I'd got one 'blight’ and I didn't want another on the way out. Moved some I can tell you. Saw a couple of tanks making their way towards the line, and they'd been spotted and drew a lot of shell fire. The mist had cleared and so had most of the smoke of the barrage, which had eased off very considerably at that time. It was about 8.30 when I was pipped. Was not lonely on the way out as there were many pipped ones losing as little time as possible. Lucky indeed were we to be the walking cases. I felt sorry for the wounded waiting for stretchers, they'd a long way to go and some of the most advanced dressing stations were in pill boxes. Passed all these stations as I was not in need of attention. At last came to the main dressing station where stretcher cases were taken in motor ambulances to CCSs and walking cases embarked on a light railway train, or rather, trucks they were. This was on the outskirts of Ypres and we passed thro one end of the town in the Light Railway. Then a slow journey to 6th CCS near Poperinghe, where our wounds were dressed. Had tea and waited for Red X train. It left about 9, and it was daybreak when train destination was reached a few miles from Boulogne.'

'September 27th Thursday. Travelling all night from 6th CCS. at Poperinghe to No 7 Convalescent Camp near Boulogne. It was a rough long tiring journey and I was thankful to get out. Fine and warm. Nurses gave us biscuits and cocoa. Ambulances and Charabancs were in waiting. I got into a Charabanc, great spin along thro a bit of a town not far from the sea, which we could see. Then turned inland a bit till we got to No 7 Convalescent Camp, near which is 03 Canadian Hospital. Names and a few particulars taken then breakfast. Then allotted to Company E in my case and tents E3. Beds, mattresses and blankets. Oh so nice, tidy and clean. At 8.30 fell in for inspection by CO.'

Later that year, on 27 November, Gerald received the sad news from home that Erskine Collins, his long-time friend from College days, with whom he had corresponded regularly throughout the war, had been killed at Ypres on 1 October. He attended the Australian Corps School at Cerci from 13 July until13 August 1918, and an OTC at St John's College, Oxford, from 6 September until 17 December 1918, after which he was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant on 4 January 1919, and Lieutenant on 4 April. The Pegasus of December 1918 reported him in Cornwall: ‘Lieutenant Gerald Douglas, when we heard in October, was in Cornwall taking a course in the School of Mines. He hoped to be home before Christmas.’

After he returned he travelled through Victoria and New South Wales learning about agriculture and worked with a Melbourne Real Estate agent as well as on the family's farm at Menzies Creek. In June 1926 he married Keren Guils nee Swale and moved to a newly selected block in Victoria's north-west Mallee district at Werrimull where he established a farm. He retired from active farming in 1960. Geralds's three sons also attended the College as boarders.

Gerald died on 19 September 1989.

1. (Pte David Thomas, born at Heart, Gippsland, the son of John, and Elizabeth Thomas, of Oakleigh, was killed on 14 March 1917, and buried at Guards Cemetery, Les Boeufs, Grave III A 9.)
2. (Charles Herbert Bunn, born 1885 in Lambton, the son of Charles and Sarah Ann Bunn, of Newcastle, returned to Australia shortly after Bullecourt, embarking on 19 October.)
3. (George Leupolt Walkem, born at Launceston, the son of John Walter and Lilian Grace Walkem, was educated at Launceston Grammar School. He was a sheep station manager at Kyneton prior to the war. Awarded the Military Medal at Delsaux Farm on 18 March 1917, he was killed near Villers Bretonneux on 8 August 1918 and buried at Heath Cemetery, Harbonnieres - Grave VI D ll 2.)
4. (James Robert Le Fevre, of Richmond, the son of William Le Fevre, of Huon, Victoria.)
5. (John Francis Cargeeg, born in 1897, the son of Francis and Martha Jane (Oliver) Cargeeg, of Invergordon near Numurkah, returned to Australia, embarking on 31 January 1918.)
6. (L/Cpl James Thomas Wilson (No 15243), 59 Bn, son of James Joseph and Annie Wilson, of Dutson, near Sale. He was killed on 26 September 1917. He has no known grave; his name is commemorated on the Ypres (Mellin Gate) Memorial, Belgium.)
7. (Sergeant Arthur William Currie, the son of Albert Alexander and Elizabeth Currie, of Northcote, was killed later that day, and buried at Oxford Road Cemetery, Ypres Grave. His younger brother, Cpl Albert Alexander Currie, also of 59 Bn, had been killed in action at Gueudecourt-le-Transloy on the Somme on 12 December 1916 and buried at Map ref. 57CN 28 C8, according to Lt Spedding' s8 list. His grave was lost in subsequent fighting, however, so his name is commemorated on the Villers Bretonneux Memorial.)
8. (Quentin Shaddock Spedding, the son of John Spedding, of the Daily Telegraph, was educated at Sydney Grammar School. He was a journalist at the time of his enlistment, embarking with 38 Battalion, and wounded in France in June 1917. He transferred for temporary duty with Admin HQ, AIF Records Section, where he remained for the rest of the war with the Graves Registration Detachment.)

Sources: Pegasus December 1909 p57; Pegasus December 1910 p30; Pegasus April 1911 p5; James Affleck, Geelong Collegians at the Great War pp 175-179 (citing The Pegasus; Australian War Memorial; National Archives; Douglas Family Papers); Irene Douglas (Compiler), Jim's Slideshow; Correspondence with Jim and Irene Douglas, 2003.

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