Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, November 27, 2015

Mystery Solved: Celtic Wood, 9 October 1917

From a 2005 Australian Defence Department Document:

On this day LT Scott of 10 Bn led 84 men on a raid into enemy lines near Broodseinde. The main party was seen to enter Celtic Wood and were never seen again. Extensive investigations since that time have failed to fully account for the fate of LT Scott's party. A total of 37 soldiers are still not accounted for. This is the greatest mystery for the AIF in WW 1.

Dead and Exhausted Australian and German Soldiers After the Action of 9 October
(Australians from Another Battalion)
Subsequent work to solve this mystery is summarized in this 2011 news article I only recently discovered. MH

EVOCATIVE name, Celtic Wood. It conjures thoughts of ancient mysticism and pagan ritual. To many South Australian families last century, Celtic Wood was a place of haunting tragedy.

This speck on a Belgium map was where their husbands, sons, and brothers — including hardened veterans of Gallipoli — disappeared in 1917 as the Battle of Passchendaele reached its crescendo. Here the men of SA's Fighting 10th Battalion, AIF, charged into a little stand of trees in Flanders. Most were never seen again.

Of the 85 men to raid Celtic Wood, just 14 made it back to their lines. The rest vanished without a trace, as did any mention of the raid in the German official records, giving succour to talk of a covert German massacre.

One battlefield tour operator has described it thus: "The Germans had been raided at the same spot two nights before and probably took revenge on the 10th Battalion men by killing them and burying them in an unmarked grave."

There was even talk of a supernatural event swallowing up the Diggers in this mystically named place. How else could so many Diggers disappear? After all, this was the Terrible 10th, so named for its proud fighting reputation forged since landing at the spearpoint of the Gallipoli assault.

The battalion's glory grew in the epic defence of Anzac Cove, and again in the trenches of France and Belgium, where two of its number had earned Victoria Crosses. How could men of this fine unit, the fledgling state's first battalion to sail to the Empire's war, disappear into thin air?

Celtic Wood has lingered as the greatest mystery of Australia's Great War. It is the nation's wartime equivalent of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Only this time, men rather than schoolgirls disappeared into the ether.
Great story. But the trouble is, like Hanging Rock, it's not true. Yes, men did disappear on that crisp dawn 93 years ago in Flanders's sodden fields. But they were not massacred by the Germans or taken by some malevolent mist. Rather, the fog of war was to blame.

ADELAIDE authors Robert Kearney and Chris Henschke — both veterans of their own wars — have riffled through the sepia pages of war diaries and action reports to piece together the real story of Celtic Wood.

What emerges is not a mystery, just a plain, old, garden variety Australian war tragedy. A story of brave men sacrificed to divert attention from the main British attack. A feint, just like Gallipoli's murderous charge at The Nek as depicted in Peter Weir's film, or the butchery at Fromelles. To understand how the myth sprang from kernels of truth – as myths tend to do — we must put ourselves in the 10th's waterlogged trench lines on 9 October 1917. 

Down here in the slosh the men were shelled and shot at for a week leading up to the raid. Wearied but not unbowed, they understood and accepted the task at hand — to charge into the wood, fight like hell for 30 minutes to make the Germans think it was a full-scale attack, blow up dugouts, then withdraw upon a flare signal. Much was stacked against them. Unlike an earlier successful raid on the same stretch of the German line, there would be no protective box barrage around their advance to shield them from counterattacks.

Instead, the shelling would roll forward in lines to replicate the method used in full-scale advances. And, unlike the earlier raid, the 10th would go over the top at dawn rather than midnight. In a further harbinger of the looming carnage, Celtic Wood was bristling with extra machine guns sent into the line after the previous raid.

"It's quite possible the German commander would've been told by his commander — don't let this happen again," Henschke says. "The Germans knew there was going to be an attack and they knew it was going to be at dawn."

Just to the north the 10th's cobbers from the 2nd Division would mount a larger attack to protect the flanks of the main British advance still farther to the north. "I have no doubt that (the 10th men) would've looked at the raid with great trepidation," Henschke says. "But it was mateship. They knew they had to help out their mates of the 2nd Division." Out they went into No Man's Land in the pre-dawn murk, ready to creep as close as possible to the shell bursts when their own artillery opened up. The German lines lay about 180 meters away down a gentle rise.

The barrage erupted and up the South Australians sprang, tramping through the mud behind their commander, Lieutenant Frank Scott, a 22-year-old railway porter from Gawler. But something was wrong.
Henschke says rather than the "rolling curtain of death" laid down to shield an attack, the barrage was light and scattered. Still, they fought their way into the wood (which was a misnomer given that months of constant shelling had turned the trees into mere leafless stumps).

"There's tree stumps and rubbish everywhere, there's craters metres wide and there's mud that in some places would've been knee deep," Henschke says. "As soon as they came under effective small arms fire, the sound would've been overwhelming. At that point it would've been extremely difficult to retain any control using voice command." Despite realising his force was outnumbered two to one, Scott ordered a frontal attack on a trench bristling with Germans, while he led a group around to attack it from the rear. "A fierce struggle ensued," battalion commander Lieutenant-Colonel Maurice Wilder-Neligan reported.

"A temporary mastery was gained; the enemy commencing to retreat as soon as the fire from Lieutenant Scott's party was brought to bear from his rear. A desperate hand encounter followed, in which heavy casualties were inflicted upon the enemy."

Suddenly, the German artillery opened up, laying down a wall of explosions between the raiders and the Australian trenches. They were suddenly cut off.  German reinforcements joined the fray and the game was up.

With bullets buzzing all around, shells from both sides whistling past, and hand grenade explosions adding to the din, how Scott managed to arrange such a deft flanking maneuver is to his eternal credit.  "Once you start waving your hands around you become targets," Henschke says.

AND SO it came to pass. Soon all five Australian officers were dead or wounded. Survivors said Scott, a decorated veteran of Gallipoli and the Western Front Battle of Pozières in 1916, was shot through the head.

"The last seen of Scott he was trying to fight his way out with his revolver," a survivor reported. Another recounted, "His belt and revolver were brought in by one man whose name I don't know, but his body was left in no man's land, and as far as I know was not buried." Like Scott, 2nd Lieutenant Albert Rae, 21, of Kilkenny, was an original Anzac who wrote a graphic account of the landing at Anzac Cove.

"We clicked the old bayonets on and there was such a yell, and off we went," Rae wrote of his hand-to-hand fight with the Turks. "Everybody was swearing. You never heard such language, but Mr. Turk did not wait for us. The few that did stay got a foot of steel through them."

Rae survived Gallipoli to be killed at Celtic Wood. In the confusion, 2nd Lieutenant Walter Wilsdon, of Farrant St., Prospect, was cut off from his men. "On our return Lt. Wilsdon was reported missing," a comrade reported. "I think that it is possible that he was wounded and captured."

It was a forlorn hope, for Wilsdon too was dead. With all the officers struck down, it was left to Sergeant William "Old King" Cole — another Gallipoli veteran — to fire the flare signaling the withdrawal. "Cole, just as he was firing the flare, was killed," Henschke says. With the situation hopeless, the survivors were left to run the gauntlet of the shell bursts to safety or lie doggo in craters to crawl back under the cover of night.

"I am only able to account for 14 unwounded members of the party," Wilder-Neligan wrote after the action. This one line sowed the seed for the myth. Historians both professional and amateur mistook it to mean only 14 men — full stop — made it out of the wood. This error laid the fertile ground for talk of mysteries and massacres. "I thought, 'Hang on, there's always wounded blokes'," Henschke says. Kearney and Henschke say a massacre was almost impossible.

They reason that after the raid the British gunners opened up with a heavy barrage to avenge the defeat, while the Germans continued to rain down shells on the battlefield.  So no organised party of Germans could have made it into the area where Scott made his stand, let alone shepherd a string of prisoners out of the wood.
The shelling blew the wounded and slain raiders to smithereens, rendering them "Known Unto God". As for the mystery, well, that is solved by rudimentary detective work.

By cross-referencing all the available records and building on Kearney's earlier research for his 10th Battalion history, the authors say they can account, beyond a reasonable level of doubt, for every one of Scott's party.

Looking West Toward Where Celtic Wood Once Stood

"We've pieced a story together from the after action reports, the war diaries and the eyewitness statements from the Red Cross files," Henschke says. "We've only used eyewitness accounts that are able to be verified. Anything that was hearsay we haven't used. We hope to change (the misconception) by showing the result of the raid wasn't a great mystery, but it was simply a raid with a very high proportion of casualties.

"And all the casualties were accounted for through the military system. So you're waiting for this big administrative machine to say 'He's in hospital in France', or 'He's in a hospital in England'. It is a story of a typical small unit action that went wrong."

At the end of the killing, the 10th's valour under fire was for nothing. The general advance stalled in the mud and the only objective captured by the British was a village on the far north of the line, for which the Battle of Poelcappelle is now called. As for Celtic Wood, a week later the Germans withdrew 500 meters and the area became No Man's Land. Today all the trees are gone.  Celtic Wood is no more, just like the myth.

Article from Sunday Mail (SA), 24 April 2011


  1. A fascinating story. As with Gallipoli, there's no doubting the bravery of the Aussies. DB

  2. Very interesting article. The forlorn hope, men going forward with sure knowledge many would not return. The amount of artillery fire used during the war rendered hundreds of thousand men missing with no known grave.

  3. The myth may be dispelled. However, at least when it was a mystery the sheer useless wastage of men's lives was hidden by the mystery or myth. It was compelling to read. Thank you.