119 William “Billy” George Pitt
19 year old “Billy” as he was best known, attended Paddington Public school and later became a carpenter and was already actively serving in the 5th Field engineers prior to enlistment.
“Billy” Pitt gave his account of the landing and the work accomplished by the engineers from a Cairo hospital in a letter to his parents in Paddington, NSW, it was later published………..
THE SAPPER’S PART
Published in “The Sydney Morning Herald”, Friday 16 July 1915
“The task of removing the wounded was a very formidable one. The engineers where then called out of the firing line, and set to work making a road up the hill to the firing line. We worked for two days and nights without any sleep, but each man knew what the job was for, and worked with all his might.
Besides this work we were engaged in building barbed wire entanglements for six nights and we also started a sap towards the Turkish trenches. I worked all one night in wet clothes, and as a result had to be carried out of the firing line to the hospital ship, thence being taken to the El Hayat Hospital, Egypt. The doctor said I was suffering from rheumatism, but I hope to be back in the firing line again in a few weeks.”
As Billy hoped, he did return to the firing line and returned to Gallipoli nearly seven weeks later. After a further six weeks at Gallipoli, suffering with Dysentery he was again admitted to hospital, only to recover and return yet again to Gallipoli and then remained until the company was finally evacuated in December.
Billy was young and resilient and each time he was sent away sick from what he described the “firing line”, he obviously couldn’t wait to get back with his mates.
The Western Front
Still with the 1st FCE, he proceeded from Alexandria to join the British Expeditionary Force on 21st March 1916 and disembarked at Marseilles, 28 March 1916, and the company gradually made its way towards the Western Front.
It was on 20th September 1917 he was appointed Lance Corporal, the following day, the men of the 1st FCE we thrown into the maelstrom of the front line.
2oth/21st September 1917 “The attack on Polygon Wood”
At Polygon Wood the 1st FCE were now well and truly on the front lines and engaged heavily in support of the infantry. Lance Corporal 174 Everleigh Edward Hodges was in charge of a party engaged in digging communications in the immediate vicinity of the front line, he was later awarded the Military Medal for his actions. Sergeant 18 Reginald Dobbie was the senior N.C.O of a section of Sappers also engaged making up communications in the immediate rear of the front line.
128 Wilfred “Bill” Batten had successfully completed and wired a strong point under heavy fire. During a counter attack he got in touch with the troops on his left, and kept up communications at great personal risk. He set a magnificent example to his section and was awarded DCM for his actions on this day.
At dusk on this day both Sgt Arthur Baldwin and Cpl James Hamilton were consolidating the position at a place known as Lane House Hooge, widening and deepening a sap from the supports to the front line which ran through the ruins of an old house. They were in a trench together when a shell came over and blew them up. They were both killed instantly.
Billy Pitt was recommended for a Military Medal for conspicuous courage, devotion to duty and valuable services as a runner.
The full citation was as follows………….
“During the operations along the MENIN ROAD, on the 20/21st September , Sapper Pitt acted as a runner between StrongPoint in Polygon Wood and HOOGE. At great personal risk he delivered despatches and returned quickly to his work. His conduct during consolidation inspired his comrades and urged them to further efforts, and during progress of counter attack kept a continual watch.”
Recommendation date: 3 October 1917
4th October 1917
The attack at Polygon Wood two weeks previous was a major stunt for the 1st FCE, with casualties and the loss of two originals, however October 4th would prove to be the most significant day in the history of the 1st Field Company Engineers, since the landing day at Gallipoli.
It would see a tragic casualty rate, the loss of three more “originals” and the greatest number of citations and medals awarded for a single action, such was the significance of this single day.
On the 4th of October the company helped to capture Passchendale Ridge. They followed the second wave of the Infantry and when the ridge was captured the company proceeded to consolidate the position by forming a strong point. At 1.30 in the afternoon a German aeroplane came over at a low altitude and had spied their position and turned back to inform the German batteries. The German batteries then opened fire and sent a salve into the company’s position on the ridge.
During the attack upon the ridge the company was engaged in the construction of a strong point in the vicinity of the front line. Under heavy shell fire and harassed at the same time by snipers. The company broken into small groups worked tirelessly often retreating to safety from heavy bombardment and then returning to continue their work on the strong point.
Shortly after the work was commenced the enemy secured several direct hits on the trench inflicting casualties. The men maintained their position while assisting the wounded, dressing their wounds and digging out those who were buried by the heavy shelling.
During the whole day the position was constantly shelled and the men were considerably shaken, and fatigued but had successfully endured and successfully completed their work.
Unfortunately two original’s sappers were killed on this day, 32 James Claude Nicholls, and 190 Jack Raymond Hollingworth and Billy Pitt was one of those severely wounded during the stunt and was carried back to the advance dressing station. 1891 Sapper F.Curry was also killed .
Original sapper now Sergeant 128 Wilfred Batten DCM tells the story of Billy’s final hours correctly as he was with the company and wounded as well on this grim day. Wilfred was a close friend to many of the originals. He knew both Billy and his brother Henry very well.
“On Oct 4th we were in the attack for the Passchendale Ridge. We hit our job at about 9.45 am. At about 9.30a.m on the way up, I was hit twice and got one slight wound out of it. At about 10.30 Bill (L/Cpl.Pitt) and the rest of the boys were digging in on our side of the German Military Railway Embankment. A big explosive shell came over and burst just behind the group of 3 of the boys. It killed outright a chap named Bob Mair( a well known scotch wrestler) wounded a chap named C. Jarvis and wounded Bill in about 6 places , both arms , both legs , face , left shoulder blade (this was the worst of the lot & he probably would not have survived if brought back to the hospital) One of the boys told n me about the smash & a few of us got Bill in, bandaged him up & had him carried on planks back to the dressing station where the A.M.C took charge of him and promised to send him back to a rear station as soon as stretchers were available.”
“Sgt Batten was sent to England and on his return made enquiries as to the fate of L/Cpl Pitt and found that the dressing station to which he was sent, had been destroyed by shell fire at about midday on Oct 4th and several of the men were killed and as none in the battalion saw L/Cpl. Pitt after he was taken to the dressing station, it was presumed he unfortunately shared this fate. “
Source : AWM 1DRL/0428
Further witness accounts were made to the inquiry into Billy’s death.
“ Billy got an awful crack in the last stunt we were in. I saw him as he was getting carried out, he was covered in bandages and personally I did not favour his chances too much”
2196 Spr A.J Robertson 11th Reinf. 1st FCE
“At Ypres, wounded by shell under right arm, left arm and left leg. He was wounded just beside me. I helped carry him part of the way and then on by stretcher to Canadian D.S advance D.S”
Witness – 2162 Pte Denny 1st FCE
After the court enquiry in March 1918 it was finally declared that Billy died of wounds received in action in the field.
Earlier in January 1918 Billy’s father received an official letter from base records detailing that Billy was Mentioned in Routine Orders and a “Congratulatory” from the Army Corps Commander expressing appreciation of his gallant services rendered during recent operations. – see below
In 1920 Billy’s mother Elizabeth requested a cross for her son’s war grave, but there was still no evidence or mention of his burial. Sadly his mother had few memories or something to help bring some closure to the loss of her son Billy, no known burial and no personal effects to draw some comfort as his personal effects had been lost at sea while on board the ‘Barunga’ which had been sunk on its voyage back to Australia.
Billy’s mother, like so many other mothers and wives would have received the “Mother’s and Widow’s Badge” – see below.
Location on the Roll of Honour
119 William George Pitt’s name is located at panel 24 in the Commemorative Area at the Australian War Memorial .
Roll of Honour name projection
William George Pitt’s name will be projected onto the exterior of the Hall of Memory on:
- Sat 26 September, 2015 at 4:52 am
- Tue 24 November, 2015 at 4:45 am
- Fri 22 January, 2016 at 10:47 pm
- Mon 21 March, 2016 at 3:58 am
- Mon 9 May, 2016 at 1:16 am
- Mon 20 June, 2016 at 7:52 pm
- Tue 2 August, 2016 at 12:35 am
- Mon 19 September, 2016 at 4:11 am
Sources and Images: AWM, NAA, NLA
Story Compiled – Copyright© Vance Kelly2015
Photo Source: GPO original locations or series – St6231 -Information from NSW Government Printer – Copy of original photograph. On plate 8 1/2 x 6 1/2. Note in Register: Killed at Paschendale, France.
1.Brothers: 1757 Pte Henry James PITT, 20th Bn, returned to Australia, 11 January 1918; one other returned, to be identified.
2. The First World War Mothers’ and Widows’ Badge was issued to the mother and/or widow of all members of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) or the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force who had been killed in action, died of wounds or other causes while on active service, or who, after discharge, had died of wounds or sickness directly attributable to that service.
The black ribbon was machine-embroidered in gold with wattle sprigs, a Rising Sun badge and the words “For Australia”. The badges were suspended from a white metal bar which bore laurel leaves. Stars were added to the bottom bar, each indicating the death of one man. The badge was promulgated under Military Order 64 of 1919. – Source – AWM