A WWI soldier’s death is explained

Otha's letter to Percy

Otha’s letter to his brother Percy

Otha Everleigh Bassett was killed in action in France on 3 July 1916. He had written home a couple of weeks before, telling his family about life on the battle front and comparing what he saw of the countryside with his experience as a farmer back in Condobolin in western New South Wales. That letter was published in the local newspaper, and was transcribed last year, on the 100th anniversary of his death.

The words ‘killed in action’ are a very broad description, and must have been heartbreaking for the family back home, trying to imagine what had happened to their son or brother or husband.

The Australian War Memorial has the Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau reports for soldiers killed or wounded, which can be searched by name along with other records of military personnel. There is no report for Otha, another disappointment for his family, who must have been waiting for official word of what had happened.

We are more fortunate in that we can access less official records. Percy Ellesmere Smythe was writing a diary during the same events, and his diary has been transcribed and published online and donated to the Australian War Memorial. He had first-hand knowledge of the events of that night. He wrote the night before:

July 2 1916

After tea we got our wire ready. Can’t do much tonight, as a bombardment starts soon after midnight, and we have to be in by 12. There is to be a raid from the 52nd Battalion’s lines. They are immediately on our right, and it will be pretty lively here. All parties have received orders to be in by midnight.

The next night he wrote again:

July 3 1916

… Heard that B Co’s wiring party and patrol were not warned about the bombardment, and consequently were out in front all the time, suffering many casualties. It was a terrible blunder on somebody’s part, and those men were simply murdered through carelessness. …

Coming back we learned more particulars of B Co’s. terrible blunder. Poor old Tiny Bassett was one of the victims. He and Ireland, who were in the wiring party, were blown up by the one shell. They were both killed instantly. A young fellow named Green who was out got tangled in the barbed wire, and while struggling there was fairly riddled with bullets. Frost was also out, and got three machinegun bullets in the hip. Roach told me he was to have gone out, but being ill, was exempted.

Otha died of ‘friendly fire’ through a lack of effective communication. Perhaps it’s just as well that his family wasn’t informed of the details.

Percy’s diary covers the period from his enlistment in 1915 to his discharge and return home in 1919. His diary was transcribed by his daughter, Betty, and has been made available online. It’s well worth a read, and I am grateful to the Smythe family for making it available.