Cecil Healy was one of the heroes of the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, not just because he won a gold medal in the 4 x 200m freestyle relay but especially for his gallant sporting gesture — when he refused to swim in the 100m final unless Duke Kahanamoku, the famous Hawaiian, was allowed to swim. Kahanamoku, the race favourite, had been disqualified after US officials got the start time wrong. Cecil knew it wasn’t the Duke’s fault and refused to swim without him.
‘Under the circumstances, Cecil Healy’s second place was worth a lifetime of firsts,’ wrote a Swedish reporter.
‘In terms of great sportsmanship by an Australian at an Olympics,’ says John Coates, President of the Australian Olympic Committee, ‘Cecil Healy’s is certainly the most outstanding.’
Six years after Stockholm, Cecil found himself in a far more perilous place. He had enlisted in 1915 and spent the first two-and-a-half years of his military service in a relatively ‘cushy’ job, as a quartermaster sergeant. But that same sense of honour that had been on show at the Olympics compelled him to do more, and against the advice of friends and his commanding officer he sought and obtained a transfer to the front, as a second lieutenant with the 19th battalion. In a recent speech, the NSW Governor General David Hurley pointed out that Healy must have known that he was taking on a role with one of the highest mortality rates among Australian soldiers in the Great War.
On the early morning of 29 August 1918, as the Anzacs prepared for what would be an epic assault on Mont St Quentin, Cecil was leading his platoon across open ground when they were surprised by German machine-gun fire from a nearby wood. A colleague would later say that ‘his fearlessness supplied the enemy with too good a target to miss’. Healy was 36. He remains the only Australian Olympic gold medallist to die on the battlefield.
Cecil’s remarkable life and death is celebrated in a major biography, co-authored by two-time Olympic gold medallist John Devitt and award-winning author Larry Writer. The following extract describes the final few days of a great Australian’s life …
UNIT COMMANDING OFFICERS WERE summoned to 5th Brigade headquarters in Rivery Town Hall at five o’clock on the afternoon of August 25 to receive orders passed down from corps commander Sir John Monash. When the senior officers returned, units were assembled and informed that they would be part of a massive Allied push that would ultimately force the German Army back to the Hindenburg Line. Success would almost certainly spell defeat for the enemy, which by now had neither the numbers, the weaponry nor, increasingly, the will to mount another counterattack.
The 2nd Division’s first objective was to cross the Somme and snatch the town of Péronne from its German occupiers. Péronne was about 50 kilometres to the east of Rivery. But before it could be liberated, the Germans had to be driven from Mont St Quentin, 1.5 kilometres to the north, which though only about 100 metres high, held huge strategic value as it overlooked not just the town, but the river and the territory for kilometres around. The Hindenburg Line was another 25 kilometres further east.
Péronne, an ancient town protected by a star-shaped fort built in the 17th century by King Louis XIV’s military engineer Sébastien le Prestre de Vauban, served as a vital transport and communications hub for whoever was in control. The 2nd Division, with the 19th Battalion prominent, would seek to advance to Péronne along the south bank of the Somme. It would be accompanied by artillery companies, field engineers and ambulances, all the while keeping in close touch with the 3rd and 5th Divisions on either flank.
The weather was rainy and humid, which turned the tracks and fields of the region into thick, sticky, boot-gripping mud. The units had more than 20 kilometres to cover before reaching the Somme, where they would be forced to conduct an opposed river crossing.
The 19th spent the night of August 26 near the village of Morcourt, ten kilometres east of Villers-Bretonneux. On August 27, they occupied old German dugouts north-east of Chuignolles, still 40 kilometres from Péronne. The entry in the battalion’s war diary for that night reads in part: ‘Men help themselves liberally to large German stack of straw and make comfortable sleeping positions. Night dark and cloudy, but quiet. Scattered enemy shelling by long-range and other guns.’
What sleep was had was broken just before dawn by welcome news. The Germans were being forced back towards the Somme at Péronne by the 6th Brigade, and the 19th was ordered to make haste to support them, continuing along the Somme’s south bank to Salmon Wood (an area of trees and other vegetation known today as Bois Nanteuil). Battalion headquarters were established in nearby huts at Eclusier Quarry, just east of the village of Cappy. The plan was to spend the night there before linking with the 6th Brigade at Péronne during the following day, August 29. The town centre was now 25 kilometres away.
The battalion was pressing forward across farmland through late summer showers to Salmon Wood where it was detected by the Germans and shelled. This action might have slowed the men of the 19th’s progress, but it did not stop them. There was a certain excitement in being engaged in the rapid movement of mobile warfare, pursuing the enemy, which was a far cry from the foetid trench warfare of, say, the Ypres Sector in 1917. However, after four years of war, every AIF unit was understrength. The 19th’s ‘bayonet strength’ was less than 300 men. In C Company, the strength was about 40 men, including four officers; Cecil’s platoon was about 20 strong, although every platoon was carrying extra Lewis guns to beef up their firepower.
Cecil must have been grateful for his fitness. Each man was dressed in ‘Battle Order’, which for a rifleman included rifle, bayonet, entrenching tool, webbing ammunition pouches with at least 120 rounds, water bottle, small pack, some tinned rations, soap, razor and toothbrush, a multi-purpose rubberised groundsheet, a steel helmet and a gas mask in a bag worn across the chest for easy access. This gear, including the uniform and boots, weighed more than 20kg. Lewis gunners carried the gun and their No.2 men had extra 47-round magazines. Officers dressed almost exactly as the men, but were armed with a service revolver (some also chose to carry a rifle) plus a compass, binoculars, whistle and map case. For this rapid mobile style of warfare, everything you needed was on your back.
Cecil spent the night of August 28 in the company of his comrades, eating cold bully beef (for no camp fires were allowed), perhaps playing cards by dim candlelight, yarning about better, safer times to keep his nerves at bay. Tomorrow, he would be commanding his C Company platoon in his first ‘stunt’: an attack on a flagging but desperate and still lethal enemy. The camp was targeted by sporadic shelling throughout the night, and by a chemical irritant known colloquially as ‘sneezing gas’, but no damage was done. Sleep was fitful.
Well before dawn, the men of the 19th rose, packed up their groundsheets, wolfed down what food was handy, donned their equipment and at zero hour, 5am, moved out of Salmon Wood. Their orders were to ‘mop up’ the German-held village of Halle, just west of Péronne, and support the 17th Battalion by guarding its right flank.
The first part of the move was a road march by a column of companies, from Salmon Wood towards the village of Frise, in the dark before sunrise. They were led by men from the battalion’s Intelligence Section, who had reconnoitred the intended assembly area on the south-eastern side of Frise. This was a quick move and on arrival there companies shook out into their open formation for the advance towards the River Somme.
Within the battalion, A Company was left forward, Cecil’s C Company right forward, B Company was in depth behind them and D Company was the battalion reserve. On the 19th’s left flank was its sister battalion, the 18th; on their right flank, the 23rd Battalion of 6th Brigade. In front of them were several kilometres of generally open, gently rolling hills that led down to the Somme Canal, west of Péronne. This was the arena into which Cecil would lead his men.
The immediate obstacle of Mereaucourt Wood was easily cleared and the advance moved steadily forward in the early-morning gloom, but at 6.58am, as the sun rose, 19th Battalion patrols were fired on by riflemen and machine-guns in and around Bazincourt Wood and Ticker Copse, dense thickets on high ground just west of the Somme Canal. These positions were occupied by veteran soldiers of the 25th Bavarian Infantry Regiment, who had been ordered to halt or at least slow the ‘British’ advance.
THE BAVARIAN COMMANDER HAD chosen his position well. The ground in front of Ticker Copse sloped gently upwards and provided an almost unrestricted 180-degree view to front and flanks, allowing — from the German perspective — ideal fields of fire. The whole area was covered with trench systems left over from the 1915 skirmishes between French and German forces. Arnaud Alley, Callis Trench, Olmutz Trench and others provided excellent defensive positions — it was much easier to temporarily refurbish old trenches than dig new ones. And the tree-lined heights provided excellent withdrawal routes to the Somme Canal and the foot-bridges that were covered by small arms and artillery fire from positions in and around the village of Halle. They would provide protection for withdrawing troops after they had delayed the oncoming advance.
The key to the Bavarian commander’s delaying tactics was the positioning of his machine-guns. His principal weapon was the 7.92mm Maschinengewehr 08 (MG08), a heavy machinegun mounted on a folding four-point sled and manned by a six-man crew. Its rate of fire was about 450 rounds a minute, with an effective range of more than two kilometres. At this point in the war, he also had available a number of MG08/15, a lighter bipod-mounted machine-gun with a crew of two.
We will never know exactly how many of these weapons were on the battlefield this day: possibly ten or more. It is well recorded that one MG08 was firing from Bazincourt Wood to the north of Ticker Copse. What else is known is that these weapons were always sited in pairs and positioned to work together, by firing across each other’s front. The experienced German commander and his men had the ground in front of Ticker Copse well covered with both machine-gun and rifle fire.
AUGUST 29 WAS, ACCORDING to the 19th’s war diary, a ‘fine, bright day’. In the minutes immediately after 7am, with Péronne and squat Mont St Quentin, which stood sentinel above it, visible on the horizon a few kilometres away, the Australians walked into a killing zone. Some movement was noticed at the top end of a long, thin stand of trees known then, and today, as Sword Wood, and Cecil’s platoon opened fire. There were probably no more than a few grey-clad German riflemen concealed there, for this was low ground, and they were sent scurrying down the tree line to the canal to make good their escape. The Australians pressed on.
Only now the Germans by Ticker Copse, a kilometre to the north, had the advancing men well within range and in their sights. They waited expectantly in their trenches, invisible to the Australians who, coming from the west, had the rays of the dawn’s sun shining in their faces, accentuating their presence. As Cecil and his men moved down the gentle slope towards Sword Wood a machine-gun fired upon them. A member of his platoon would later say that ‘his fearlessness supplied the enemy with too good a target to miss’.
Cecil might have heard the dreaded percussive clatter of the machine-gun. He was hit in the back of the neck by a single bullet. The impact sent him sprawling and he lay bleeding from the wound, as a comrade, possibly 19-year-old Private Carl Bentin of Hobart, scrambled to his fallen leader’s side and tried to drag him to cover. The frantic movement drew another burst of machine-gun fire from near Ticker Copse. The second soldier fell dead, and Cecil was hit again, the bullet tearing into the right side of his chest. Prone on his back, Cecil lay breathing raggedly, unable to speak. His eyes, which were open, were losing their light. His heart beat on, and on. It took him an hour to die.
It may be that as he lay dying he was beyond thinking, or perhaps in his last moments he thought of home … of his close friend Muriel … of his family and mates … of good times on the beaches of Manly, some of Sydney’s finest … of the grand days when, in Sydney’s baths and ocean pools, he was Australia’s finest swimmer … and of the Stockholm Olympics in 1912 when he raced the great Duke Kahanamoku, and thousands cheered …
He died about 8am. At this hour, in peace-time in another land, Cecil Healy would likely have been careening down the face of a Manly wave.