Eyes Grey, Hair Brown, Complexion Fair
Robert Gill - An Australian Soldier, A Hero and a man
Robert “Bob” Gill was born in 1880 at Mount Moriac, near Colac in Victoria. He was the 4th Son and 10th child of 13 children of Richard Gill and his wife Mary Ann Donohue. Richard was a hotel publican who licensed a hotel known as Irrewarra or Ondit Crossing Hotel. He died in 1889 when Bob was just 9 years old. His mother sold the hotel and moved to Colac. Bob ended up in Geelong with a number of his family members including his brothers Patrick and James.
Off to War
Bob enlisted on the 4th September 1915 at the recruiting depot in Melbourne. His next of kin was his older brother Patrick, as both parents were deceased. His younger brother James had enlisted the year before and was part of the 14th Battalion. He was twice wounded throughout the war, before returning home in 1919.
Early in 1916, the 29th Battalion was assigned to the 8th Brigade of the 5th Division, after a reorganization that saw the AIF expand from two infantry divisions to five. On 14th June, they embarked on the troop ship HMT Tunisian in Alexandria, bound for France arriving at Marseilles nine days later. The soldiers were taken from the southernmost part of France to the north by train to Hazebrouck. They went on to Steenbeque and by the 26th were encamped in Morbeque, about 30 km from Fleurbaix.
On July 9th they then moved to Erquingham, just outside of Fleurbaix and on the 10th they got their first experience in the front-line trenches. They were back at their billets in Fleurbaix on the 14th. A gas alarm was sounded on the 15th, but there was no effect on the troops in Fleurbaix.
On 19 July, Bob was with the 29th in the trenches, ready for the attack. The 8th Brigade’s position was on the left side of the 5th Division, in the Cellar Farm area.
By 8pm the soldiers were ready with A company and Bob’s D company in the front trenches. In their initial charges, many of the men broke through the forward lines of German trenches, looking for what they had been told was a second line. Instead, all they found were a series of shallow drainage ditches.
At 10.00pm, the 30th Battalion was asking for support and D and C companies began carrying supplies over No Man’s Land. Unfortunately, they found that a number of the grenades in these supplies had no fuses.
At 2am the German counterattack began, but, as noted in the War Diaries [AWM], “After a struggle, Germans content to stop at their own trench.”
The attack resumed on their right, but they became exposed in a salient jutting into the German lines and were quickly enfolded by German machine guns. In the end, they basically had to fight their way back to their own lines, 'run for it', or be killed wounded or captured. [VWMA]
The nature of this battle was summed up by one soldier from the 29th: "The novelty of being a soldier wore off in about five seconds, it was like a bloody butcher's shop." [AWM]
When bombardment ceased on the morning of the 20th, the 29th Battalion reorganized and were busy holding their front line, Bob was injured with a Gun Shot Wound to the chest and transferred to the Clearing Station on the 20th July 1916. Bob's fate was unknown for another month or so, when he was first listed as killed in action. This was changed to died of wounds once his family had been notified.
To further confuse things, evidence was given to the Red Cross that Pte Robert Gill was one of nine soldiers killed on the evening of 19-20 July and buried on 22 July as part of a larger group of twenty or thirty in a grave in a sap near Water Farm, Pozieres. This reference to Pozieres was a common mistake of the times relating to French placenames. The sap (a short covered trench / tunnel dug towards an enemy position to provide cover for advancing troops) is probably on the Mine Ave end of the trench (marked in blue in the map above) near where the water hole is marked.
Corporal F. WEBSTER, 356, A Company, 29th Battalion, undated statement:
All the above men [166 L.R. BATEY, 1470 M.L. BRUNN , 80 S. FARLOW, 2033 R. GILL, 2050 J.I. HIGGINS, 320 F. PARRY, 361 H.J. WESTMORLAND, 1314 E.J. WILKIN, 1314, 1262 F.S. WOODCOCK] were in No. 3 Platoon along with himself and his brother ... The nine above named men were killed on the afternoon of July 19th. or in the morning of July 20th, 1916, when the Bn went into action at Fleur Baix (sic). All the above were killed either by Shellfire (sic) or Machine Gun and were buried at the left hand of the sap which runs in to the back of Water Farm (POZIERES). This was a very large grave and contained about twenty or thirty bodies and is marked by one big cross. They were all buried by a fatigue party from D. Company and some of the bandsmen. Informant was at the burial on the 22nd. July and saw the remains of the nine men named above, properly buried. Informant and his brother were the only two men left alive out of the Platoon, his brother was in charge at the time.
There is also a note on most of their AIF file that they are buried at Fleurbaix giving a map reference, sheet 36. A similar note appears on eight of the nine soldiers listed - with the exception being Private Robert Gill who died at the casualty clearing station.
Despite being identified as being buried in the sap, four of these nine men - Ernest Wilkin, Frederick Parry, Samuel Farlow and Norman Brumm – were identified in 2010 as being buried in the Pheasant Wood Cemetery! Was the original grave disturbed by shelling or otherwise re-opened necessitating re-burial by the Germans?
With four already identified, are the remaining four (Herbert Westmoreland, Francis Woodcock, Lemuel Batey and James Higgins) still amongst those soldiers now buried at the Pheasant Wood cemetery but unidentified?
It would have been chaos in the trenches during the battle and in the immediate aftermath, and it is no wonder records of deaths and burials are often non-existent or contradictory.
Researchers investigated the young men identified as buried in the sap and hope to identify more of the nine by persisting in the search for suitable DNA donors.
Bob is buried at Bailleul Communal Cemetery Extension (Plot II, Row F, Grave No. 37). 104 known soldiers of the 29th Battalion were killed in action or died of wounds from the Battle at Fromelles in 1916 and many more were wounded, of those, 17 have been found at Pheasant Wood. Bob is one of three known soldiers from the 29th Battalion buried at Bailleul Communal Cemetery Extension.
Robert is commemorated at:
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