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Think Piece – The Cods

Thursday 25 May, 2017

‘A special patrol of one officer and 10 other ranks encountered an enemy party in a trench. About 300 enemy present. A bomb fight ensued. We had 3 wounded, and 2/Lt WL Thomason missing. Enemy losses unknown.’

So recorded the 32nd Battalion Unit War Diary for 16 May 1917. Such entries were of necessity brief, businesslike and, with rare exceptions, emotionless.

The writings of two of the wounded from this action provide a more immediate insight into the reality of the experience to those present: ‘When we arrived at the hospital we were put into clean sheets and it was ok after three days of agony’, wrote Frank Cummings, of Murray Bridge, South Australia; he was single, in his mid-twenties, Presbyterian and had been a storeman before enlisting. Another survivor wrote that after roughly two months in hospital, ‘I have been out for an hour in the sun and was able to walk about 15 yards with assistance’. 

On 16 May 1917, the ‘heads’ had sent out a patrol to determine whether the Germans near Bullecourt were preparing to withdraw from the Hindenburg Line. Corporal Cummings was one of the patrol. They soon learned the answer to the ‘heads’’ enquiry: ‘We got across No Man’s Land through barbed wire, struck a strong point … Then the bombs started to fly’, with rifle and machine gun fire rapidly joining in. Some ‘of our boys were knocked rotten. Three of us managed to get back a little way and some of our pals picked us up’.

Subsequent patrols searched for traces of the missing officer, 2nd Lieutenant William Leigh Thomason, but no trace was found. For weeks he remained missing, while his family in Australia waited anxiously and wrote repeatedly to the authorities for news.

Cummings knew what had happened to Thomason. ‘The Germans took our officer prisoner. I saw the Germans hop out and pick him up. He was a game little chap and was alongside of me, so I think myself very lucky in getting back’. But Cummings was in hospital, out of contact with his unit, and Thomason’s family could do little but wait and hope. Eventually news reached the allies that Thomason was a prisoner of war with a ‘bullet wound (skull fracture) and paralysis’.

Thomason was eventually repatriated to Switzerland, England and Australia. Doctors would remove bomb splinters from Cummings’ back and legs, and he would recover to fight on, only to be gassed and suffer severe burns from mustard gas in June 1918. This would keep him in medical care or repatriation until returned to Australia in the weeks following the Armistice.

Remarkably, given his wounds, in 1920 Cummings became a member of an amateur rowing crew, the Murray Cods. The Cods, coxed by Cummings brother Bob, were a dedicated working class crew, known as the ‘raggedy eight’ because of their imperfect, by the standards of the time, rowing style. Despite this they were Australian Champions in 1913, but were left tattered and battered by the war.

The Cods appear to have been a happy and hard-working crew, and their coach believed that ‘miles make champions’. We can only imagine how rowing miles and miles on the peaceful Murray River with such men might have assisted the returned soldier, soothing shattered nerves and helping distance the trauma of the war that was supposed to end wars.

Cummings rowed with a bomb splinter still lodged in his back and still suffered from the effects of the mustard gas. His wounds would see him one day confined to a wheelchair. But for now, despite his injuries and presumably in pain, he rowed on without complaint.

The Murray Cods’ greatest achievements were yet to come: in 1924 Cummings would return to France to represent Australia in the Paris Olympics.

Lest We Forget

James is the author of Game to the Last, the 11th Australian Infantry Battalion at Gallipoli, now in its third re-print. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Western Australia and has recently been awarded his Doctorate from  the Australian National University for his thesis ‘Dissecting a Legend, Reconstructing the Landing at Anzac, Gallipoli, 25 April 1915, using the experience of the 11th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force’. He has published articles on the Gallipoli Campaign in newspapers and journals, and presented his research at several international conferences.

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