No.3303 Private Harry William Sadler
[Listed as W.H. Sadler on RSL Honor Board]
Harry William Sadler was born in Geelong around 1894. His parents, George and Agnes, lived at Metropolitan Farm, Werribee by the time that Harry enlisted on 28 January 1916.
Aged around 21, he was single and had worked as a labourer before joining up. He had also spent three years with the 29th (Port Phillip) Australian Light Horse Regiment in Geelong. The presumption is that he was working in Geelong before enlisting because he spent his early days in the army at the Geelong Depot before heading to the famous Broadmeadows Camp for basic training in March 1916.
By early July, he was on board ship heading for England. He and his mates disembarked at Folkestone. Next destination was Lark Hill on the Salisbury Plains…its closest neighbour the ancient monument of Stonehenge.
His unit was sent to France on 25 April 1917 where he was taken on strength with the 29th Battalion. At this point of the war, the battalion was based in the Lagnicourt sector, about 30 kilometres north-east of Albert.
The 29th Battalion was formed in 1915 in Victoria. It fought in both France and Belgium.
It’s introduction to modern warfare was at Fromelles during the early days of the Somme offensive in July 1916 when an unnamed soldier of the 29th Battalion wrote “…the novelty of being a soldier wore off in about five seconds…it was like a bloody butcher’s shop.”
Australia suffered around 5,500 casualties in less than 24 hours. More than 2,000 were killed in action or died of their wounds. This chilling entry on the Australian War Memorial website describes the horror of Fromelles.
“Over two years after the battle, on the day of the Armistice of 11 November 1918 when the guns of the Western Front finally ceased firing, Australian official war correspondent, Charles Bean, wandered over the battlefield of Fromelles and observed the grisly aftermath of the battle. ‘We found the old No-Man’s-Land simply full of our dead’, he recorded, ‘the skulls and bones and torn uniforms were lying about everywhere’.
Soon after the war these remains were gathered to construct VC Corner Cemetery, the only solely Australian war cemetery in France. It is also the only cemetery without headstones.
There are no epitaphs to individual soldiers, simply a stone wall inscribed with the names of 1,299 Australians who died in battle nearby and who have no known graves. The unidentified remains of 410 are buried in mass graves under two grass plots in the cemetery.
By September 1917, the 29th Battalion was in Belgium and participated on the assault on Polygon Wood near Ypres. 3303 Private Harry William Sadler was wounded on 27 September – the second day of the attack. His military record calls the shoulder wound ‘slight’, but the force of the bullet was sufficient to fracture his shoulder. After initial treatment in Belgium and France, he was evacuated to Canterbury in England for further treatment and recuperation.
The action at Polygon Wood proved costly for the 29th Battalion. The war diary records that they lost two officers and 40 ‘other ranks’ killed, eight officers and 186 men wounded, and one officer and 19 others missing. Three more were to die of their wounds.
Private Sadler wasn’t to return to his unit until 17 April 1918, by which time the Western Front had erupted with the launch of the German Spring Offensive. The attack was launched on 21 March with the Germans unleashing 1.1 million shells on allied positions in just five hours.
The situation was so serious with the enemy advancing on all fronts that Field Marshall Haig issued his famous order on April 11. Almost Churchillian in tone, it made it clear that retreat or surrender wasn’t an option:
“Every position must be held to the last man; there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each of us at this critical moment.”
As the German attack petered out, the allies prepared its own offensive that was launched in August 1918. It was during this time that Private Sadler was taken ill and evacuated to England.
His mates in the 29th Battalion, battled the Germans at Amiens and St Quentin Canal forcing them back behind the Hindenburg Line during the allied advance.
The battalion’s last battle of the war was fought near Bellicourt (close to St Quentin) in concert with soldiers from the American 30th Infantry Division where they breached the German lines and forced them to retreat.
The 29th Infantry Battalion lost 485 men killed and 1,399 wounded in France and Belgium during World War I between July 1916 and September 1918.
3303 Private Harry William Sadler never returned to France or his unit. He left England in mid-January 1919 and was demobilised in April.
After the war, he was worked as a labourer in Werribee. He married Dorothy Irene, but the date of their union is uncertain. It’s also not known if they had children. In the 1940s they were living at Footscray where Harry’s occupation is described as a carrier.
He died in Melbourne on 5 August 1960 aged 66.
Medals and Entitlements:
- British War Medal
- Victory Medal
Lest we forget
B2455 SADLER WH
Background on 29th Infantry Battalion, the battle of Fromelles and war diary entries: Australian War Memorial