Arthur Robertson Lang
Service number 2920

Private Arthur Lang was just one of the 37,000 Australian casualties during eight disastrous weeks of bitter but ultimately futile fighting during the Third Battle of Ypres.

Known among the soldiers as the Battle of Passchendale for the ruined Belgian village which had been its final objective, the 1917 offensive was a series of battles between July and November epitomising the horror of the Western Front

Images abound of a shell-blighted landscape with an occasional shattered tree stump. As the region experienced its wettest summer in 30 years, the battlefield became a morass of mud, swallowing men, horses and gun carriages.

When Arthur Lang was wounded in action on August 23, the Flanders fields had become such a quagmire that sometimes 10 men were needed to carry a single stretcher case to a casualty clearing station and it could take 14 hours to bring a wounded man back from the front lines.

A farmer from Tamborine Mountain, Arthur was 31 years old when he enlisted on September 5, 1916. He had left behind a wife, Gertrude, and four children when he boarded the Marathon in Brisbane on October 27 with the 7th reinforcements of the 52nd Battalion.

The ship arrived in Plymouth on January 9, 1917 and Arthur and the other new recruits were sent to Codford for further training before heading to France via Folkestone on April 10.

Arthur joined the troops of his battalion already in the field on April 16 but only a few weeks later was admitted to hospital on May 27.

He was still in hospital while the 52nd Battalion took part in the battle to capture Messines Ridge between June 7 and 12. In an otherwise flat and featureless landscape, Messines Ridge represented the ‘high’ ground for the planned Third Battle of Ypres which would be fought in atrocious conditions and at great cost to the Allies.

“Passchendale epitomised the horror of the Western Front.”

ONE OF MANY MEN WHO FACED A LONG RECOVERY.

After leaving hospital, Arthur had rejoined his unit on June 21. The next entry in his service record shows him wounded in action on August 23, suffering gunshot wounds to the right leg, left buttock and left side.

From hospital in Calais, Arthur was shipped to England on the Stadt Antwerpen on August 27. He was admitted to the 1st Southern General Hospital in Birmingham, where he remained until October 6.

Arthur was then sent to Harefeld, a stately house outside London which had been taken over by the 1st Australian Auxiliary Hospital. When the house first became a hospital in 1915 it was estimated that it would cater for 50 wounded soldiers, but as the war continued and the casualty numbers continued to climb, Harefield House had 1000 patients at its peak.

After 10 days at Harefield, Arthur was transferred to the Australian depot at Weymouth, which accommodated injured men facing a long recovery.

On January 30, 1918, still suffering from his leg wound, Arthur boarded the Euripides to return to Australia.

He arrived in Melbourne on March 21, then travelled to Brisbane and was finally discharged from the Army on June 8.

Arthur had lived through the worst year in Australia’s experience of war. In the 12 months of 1917, some 20,000 Australians been killed and a further 50,000 had been wounded, maimed or taken prisoner.

In recent years, military historians have estimated that the five miles (eight kilometres) gained by the Allies during the Third Battle of Ypres at a cost of 140,000 dead alone equated to a mere two inches (five centimeters) of ground for each man killed.

The futility of months of bitter fighting – and the tragedy of lost lives and broken bodies – is cruelly highlighted by the fact that when the Allies withdrew from the sector five months later, the Germans had reoccupied the ground with few casualties.

Harefield Manor House in Middlesex was used as a hospital, donated by expatriate Australian Charles Billyard-Leake. Fifty thousand Australians were treated there and the more than 100 soldiers who died at the hospital lie in the Harefield village cemetery.

(Image: Public Domain.)

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