Frederick William HIGGINS

HIGGINS, Frederick William

Service Number: 551
Enlisted: Not yet discovered
Last Rank: Sergeant
Last Unit: Army Pay Corps (AIF)
Born: Yandoit, Victoria, Australia, May 1895
Home Town: Kew East, Boroondara, Victoria
Schooling: Not yet discovered
Occupation: Public Servant
Died: Kew, Victoria, Australia, 2 June 1969, cause of death not yet discovered
Cemetery: Boroondara (Kew) General Cemetery
Memorials: Kew War Memorial
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World War 1 Service

6 Dec 1916: Involvement Private, SN 551, 4th Machine Gun Company
6 Dec 1916: Embarked Private, SN 551, 4th Machine Gun Company, HMAT Orsova, Melbourne
17 Oct 1917: Wounded AIF WW1, 4th Machine Gun Company, 2nd Passchendaele , Gassed
19 Nov 1918: Promoted AIF WW1, Corporal, 3rd Machine Gun Battalion
26 Jun 1919: Promoted AIF WW1, Sergeant, Army Pay Corps (AIF), Promoted Acting Sergeant

Help us honour Frederick William Higgins's service by contributing information, stories, and images so that they can be preserved for future generations.

Biography contributed by Allen Hancock

HIGGINS, Frederick William (1895-1968)

11th Machine Gun Company, 3rd Infantry Brigade, Australian 4th Division

Frederick William Higgins was born in 1895 in Yandoit, a small community established during the Victorian gold rush near Daylesford. Fred was the eldest son of Austin Higgins and the grandson of William Bridgland Higgins who had originally migrated to South Australia with his father from Kent in 1840.

When the future associated with gold mining began to die out in Yandoit Austin Higgins moved his family from Yandoit to Melbourne and settled in Tennyson Street, Kew. Not far from their home the Melbourne Outer Circle Line lay dormant at the end of the street. Although by the time the family moved into Tennyson Street the line had already closed, its link with Fred’s future had already been set in place.

The Yarra River brick and steel viaduct over the Yarra at Alphington, not far to the east of Tennyson Street, was built for double tracks although only one track was ever laid. It has three brick and two stone piers between its abutments supporting four 110-foot steel spans, three over the land and one over the Yarra. The brickwork has bluestone footings and there are stone cappings to the piers. Work on this bridge commenced in February 1889 but was not completed and tested until November 1890.

In charge of the line’s construction, a young engineer named John Monash had a narrow escape during the building of the Yarra viaduct. He was supervising the lifting of heavy stones on the bridge works when a rope snapped and a huge stone dropped close to his head. He recorded the incident in his diary saying:

“I seemed to live over all my life in a flash. By good luck I was paralysed with a moment's hesitation; had I moved a step it would have been all over with me".

Had he moved that step then Fred’s story may have been much different.

After Federation in 1901, one of the first acts of the new Commonwealth was to create a national Defence Department.  In 1911, compulsory military training in peacetime (referred to as Universal training) was introduced. All eligible males of a specific age group were liable for military training in peacetime and for service within Australia in time of war. This new army consisted of a small permanent garrison, a paid part-time militia and a force of unpaid volunteers. Before the First World War, Australia was the only English-speaking country to have a system of compulsory military training during a time of peace.

Between 1911 and 1929 Australian males between the ages of 18 and 60 were required to perform militia service within Australia and its borders.  There were three levels of training.  Boys between the ages of 12 and 14 had to enrol in Junior Cadets, which were mainly school-based and did not wear uniforms, from 14 to 18 they became members of the uniformed Senior Cadets and from 18 to 26 years they became members of the Citizen's Military Forces, requiring 16 days' paid training per year up until they reached the age of 20, after which they had to attend an annual muster.

Exemptions were given to those who lived more than five miles (8 kilometres) from the nearest training site, those passed medically unfit, to resident aliens and theological students.  Those who failed to register for military training were punished with fines or gaol sentences.  Many boys did not register for their military training, and between 1911 and 1915 there were 34,000 prosecutions, with 7,000 gaol sentences imposed.

Fred did his duty for two years as a Senior Cadet and then for nine months as a non-commissioned officer with the 56th Infantry Battalion (Yarra Borderers). He was promoted 2nd Lieutenant on 1 July 1914 and served in that capacity for a further 2 years and 3 months. He was again promoted to 1st Lieutenant when he transferred to the 53rd (Glenferrie) Infantry Battalion at the Drill Hall in Burwood Road, Hawthorn. Although the original timber building has long since been replaced the drill hall is still in use for the Army Reserve in 2013.

In 1912 he passed his Senior Public Examination at Melbourne University and qualified for entry into the Commonwealth Public Service. Fred worked as a clerk with Customs at Customs House in Flinders Street, the building now doing service as the Immigration Museum.

When war broke out in 1914 the government pledged Australia's whole-hearted support to Great Britain.  "To its last man and last shilling", according to Prime Minister Andrew Fisher. Australia recruited a force of volunteers for overseas service with the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). With the landing at Gallipoli by the ANZACs on 25 April 1915 Australia formally entered the Great War in Europe. Things did not go well in that campaign and the call of King and Country for young men to join in was loud and insistent, particularly to those already serving in the units of the militia. Fred’s cousin, Charlie Vessey, enlisted on 20 July 1915 but Fred was torn in two directions. Should he go or should he stay?

O 8 October 1916 Fred applied for a commission in the Australian Imperial Force. His record shows no details as to why this was not granted but one reason may have been that by 1916 the Army had sufficient soldiers with experience in the front line to fulfil its needs. What the Army really needed were replacements for the thousands of ordinary soldiers lost during that first year of the war. Fred finally enlisted on 14 October 1916 as a member of the 9th Reinforcement, 4th Machine Gun Company.

On 16 November Fred embarked on the SS Orsova at Port Melbourne, appointed as Acting Sergeant for the voyage only. He arrived at Plymouth and after a few days waiting at the Australian Details Camp at Perham Downs, he was transferred to the Machine Gun Training Centre at Grantham on 24 February 1917.


In the early days of the war, the allied armies suffered from the murderous effects of the German firepower, in particular their use of machine guns. Although all infantry battalions had two machine-guns and the number was increased to four by February 1915, the experience of fighting in the early clashes of the war had proved that the machine guns required special tactics and organisation.

The British War Office decided to form one Machine Gun Company for each infantry brigade using the existing Vickers Machine Guns. At the battalion level they would be equipped with new, lighter weight Lewis Guns. The Australian Army followed suit and the Australian Machine Gun Companies made use of the centralised British training facilities at the Machine Gun Training Centre, Belton Park about 3 km north of Grantham in Lincolnshire on what is now the Belton Park Golf Club.

The Vickers Machine Gun had been the primary machine gun for the British Army since November 1912. It had an effective range of 2,000 metres but could deliver indirect fire for over 4,000 metres by firing at a high angle at target areas well behind enemy lines.

This plunging fire was used to great effect against road junctions, trench systems, forming up points, and other locations that might be observed by a forward observer, or zeroed in at one time for future attacks, or guessed at by men using maps and experience. Sometimes a location might be zeroed in during the day, and then attacked at night, much to the surprise and confusion of the enemy.

The weight of the gun 11 to 14 kg depending on the gear attached with a 20 kg tripod. The ammunition boxes for the 250-round ammunition belts weighed 10 kg each. In addition, it required about 4.3 litres of water in its evaporative cooling system to prevent overheating. The heat of the barrel boiled the water in the jacket surrounding it. The resulting steam was taken off by a flexible tube to a condenser container.

The gun and its tripod were carried separately. The tripod would be set up to make a firm base, often dug into the ground a little and perhaps with the feet weighted down with sandbags. The water jacket would be filled with water around the barrel. The evaporative cooling system, though heavy, was very effective and enabled the gun to keep firing far longer than air-cooled weapons. If water was unavailable, soldiers were known to resort to using their urine. It was sometimes claimed that crews would fire off a few rounds simply to heat their gun's cooling water to make tea, despite the resulting brew tasting of machine-oil.

A typical machine gun crew consisted of up to 6 men. The commander acted as the gunner and was the one responsible for firing the gun. The loader sat to the gunner's right, and fed in belts of cloth, into which the rounds had been placed. The weapon would draw in the belt, pull each round out of the belt and into the breach, fire it, and then drop the brass cartridge out of the bottom. The cloth belt would continue through to the left side and wind up on the ground.

Two additional men were required to carry the ammunition and there were normally two spare men as part of a crew. These men also acted as observers to identify targets and to watch the fall of shots as well as handloading the ammunition into belts and providing protection for the gun crew.

Each machine gunner would spend up to six weeks training at Belton Park before being sent to the front. Fred’s record shows that he arrived on 24 February, but he remained there until September, except for a fortnight from 11 to 28 April when he was in Belton Hospital suffering from influenza. It’s likely that the centre was making use of his experience as a militia officer in some sort of training or administrative capacity. Unfortunately, the facts may never be known since the centre’s archives were destroyed in a fire during WWII.


On 27 September Fred crossed the channel via Folkstone and Etaples to finally join his unit, the 4th Machine Gun Company. On the same day, the 11th Machine Gun Company left Steenvoorde in Belgium and route marched to Poperinghe. That night they camped in tents about one mile south of the town where they spent two nights. At about 8:00 pm on the night of the 29th, just as the sun was beginning to set an enemy aeroplane swooped low overhead and dropped two bombs close to the tents in which the 11th Machine Gun Company was camped. Nine men were killed while another 42 were wounded.

Poperinghe to Ypres where they marched through to their new bivouac area on the Menin Road near Polygon Wood where Australian units had been involved in major actions at both locations only days earlier.

On 4 October the 11th Machine Gun Company lined up for action with 12 other allied divisions along an eight-mile front facing the otherwise unremarkable Belgian village of Broodseinde. By the end of the day the below-strength company was depleted by the loss of another 9 casualties.

Fred hardly had time to drop his kit at the Australian Depot Camp in Etaples before he was sent to board a train bound for Flanders. One thing the Australians were learning was that even a successful operation could be costly. The 11th Machine Gun Company was at the end of a two-day rest break at the hutted camp near Brandhoek, about midway between Poperinghe and Ypres when Fred and other reinforcements caught up with them. Fred was assigned to a gun crew and that night the unit took over in the front line from the 198th Machine Gun Company.

After Broodseinde, for the first time in years, British troops on the Western Front stood face to face with the possibility of decisive success. An essential condition was good weather. [1] Nevertheless in two and a half months, British, including ANZAC, casualties had been over 200,000 for advances of less than three miles. The British Prime Minister was bitterly opposed to what he saw as General Haig launching division after division into the Ypres bloodbath.

Rain recommenced late on 4 October and had not ceased by 9 October, the date set for the next attack on Passchendaele. Most officers saw this as the end of the offensive, but Haig was adamant that the recent successes should be taken to a decisive conclusion. The 2nd Australian Division fanned the flank for an attack by the British 66th Division, but they were forced to struggle at times through water up to their waists and, in a desperate fight, both the British and Australians were driven back, the 2nd Division suffering 1253 casualties.

It was decided to go ahead with the attack on Passchendaele, scheduled for 12 October, although, with the 9 October failure, the distance to be traversed was now much greater. The 3rd Division was given the main role, to attack Passchendaele ridge and village, while the New Zealand Division attacked Bellevue Spur. The 4th Division was to provide a supporting role.

For the operation of 12 October, the 16 guns of the 11th Machine Gun Company were detailed to form a barrage covering the brigade’s front as the left flank of the 3rd Division’s part of the attack. 1 hour before the attack was to begin the sections on the front line were withdrawn and taken to concrete dugouts to await further action. The previous afternoon the reserve sections and stores were moved to Judah House. Two men were left in charge while the sections returned to the dugouts.

Once the attack had commenced the company moved up to Judah House and from there, they followed the attacking infantry. Their intention was to set up gun positions near Crest Farm and provide indirect fire into the enemy’s rear.

In the muddy conditions, the infantry units had been unable to reach their objectives and the machine gun sections came to a halt on a spur near Augustus Wood. At about 12:45 pm the infantry began to withdraw necessitating the withdrawal of the machine guns as well. During the withdrawal, the company lost three of its guns in the swampy ground.

The 11th Machine Gun Company’s casualties during the advance, the halt and the withdrawal amounted to 2 men killed and 9 wounded. Although 20 Australians penetrated to the village, little ground was gained and held in the entire operation. The 3rd Division and the New Zealand Division each suffered some 3000 casualties.

Active participation of Australian infantry at Passchendaele virtually ended on 12 October with the Australians providing only support tasks. Canadian troops were brought in and began their attack on 26 October, eventually taking Passchendaele on 10 November.


On 17 October the 11th Machine Gun Company had eight guns dug in on Abraham Ridge providing barrage support against the German lines and their rear areas. The Germans retaliated with intense artillery fire with both shellfire and mustard gas.

Chemical weapons in World War I were primarily used to demoralize, injure and kill entrenched defenders, against whom the indiscriminate and generally slow-moving or static nature of gas clouds would be most effective. The types of weapons employed ranged from disabling chemicals such as tear gas and the severe mustard gas to lethal agents like phosgene and chlorine.

The most widely reported and, perhaps, the most effective gas of the First World War was mustard gas. It was a vesicant, a substance that causes painful blisters, that was introduced by Germany in July 1917. The Germans marked their shells yellow for mustard gas and green for chlorine and phosgene; hence they called the new gas Yellow Cross. It was known to the British as HS (Hun Stuff) while the French called it Yperite, named after Ypres.

Mustard gas was not a particularly effective killing agent, although in high enough doses it could be fatal, but it could be used to harass and disable the enemy and to pollute the battlefield. Delivered in artillery shells, mustard gas was heavier than air, and it settled to the ground as an oily liquid resembling sherry. Once in the soil, mustard gas remained active for several days, weeks, or even months, depending on the weather conditions.

The skin of victims of mustard gas blistered, their eyes became very sore and they began to vomit. Mustard gas caused internal and external bleeding and attacked the bronchial tubes, stripping off the mucous membrane. This was extremely painful. Fatally injured victims sometimes took four or five weeks to die of mustard gas exposure.

The 11th Machine Gun Company maintained the position on Abraham Heights for three days before being relieved by the incoming Canadians but one of the early casualties was Fred who was taken from the front to the 11th Field Ambulance and next day to the 44th (British) Casualty Clearing Station at Nine Elms, 5 km west of Poperinghe.

On 19 October Fred had reached the 1st Australian General Hospital at Rouen.

More than 14,000 British and allied casualties had been produced in the first three months of its use and by the end of the First World War, more than 120,000 British mustard casualties had occurred. The most injured areas of the body were: eyes (86.1%), respiratory tract (75.3%), scrotum (42.1%), face (26.6%), anus (23.9%), back (12.9%), armpits (12.5%), neck (12%).

Of course, it was not only the Germans using chemical weapons during the First World War. A German corporal described his personal experience with exposure to mustard gas.

“During the night of October 13 to 14th (1918) the British opened an attack with gas on the front south of Ypres. They used the yellow gas whose effect was unknown to us, at least from personal experience. I was destined to experience it that very night. On a hill south of Werwick, in the evening of 13 October, we were subjected to several hours of heavy bombardment with gas bombs, which continued throughout the night with more or less intensity. About midnight a number of us were put out of action, some forever. Towards morning I also began to feel pain. It increased with every quarter of an hour, and at about seven o’clock my eyes were scorching as I staggered back and delivered the last dispatch I was destined to carry in this war. A few hours later my eyes were like glowing coals and all was darkness all around me.” (Hitler A. 1924. Mein Kampf Vol 1)

After a mustard gas attack, soldiers might think nothing more about it for a few hours or even a day. But eventually, red spots would form on the skin that quickly turned into painful blisters. If a soldier underwent a direct attack and inhaled mustard gas, it wouldn't take long to feel pain and swelling in his nose and throat as the blisters developed, sealing the airway.

Some of the more serious respiratory symptoms would take longer to surface, needing anywhere from 24 to 48 hours to appear. This latent period played havoc with soldiers exposed during the war, rendering troops incapacitated, filling infirmaries, taking up valuable human resources, bogging down reinforcements and generally demoralising soldiers.

Military doctors couldn't purge the effects of mustard gas in the body. Medical staff could treat the skin with ointments consisting of bleaching powder and white petroleum jelly and flush the eyes with a saline solution which helped some. For the more severe respiratory symptoms, medics treated patients with a menthol solution soaked into gauze administered through a metal breathing mask. This treatment alleviated dry cough but didn't cure the bronchial infection. For the most severe casualties, medics quarantined the affected patients and hoped for the best. In the end, early detection proved to be the best way to defend against the most serious respiratory effects.


After 2 weeks at the 1st Australian General Hospital Fred was transferred to the 11th Convalescent Depot at Buchy, a village about 30 km north-west of Rouen. Fred remained there for a full two months eventually rejoining his unit on 29 December at Le Bizet, 2 km north of Armentieres. The next day they were in the front line again in a sector comprising farmland between Ploegsteert, a little further north along the road to Messines, and Touquet, about the same distance to the north-east of Armentieres.

The relief of units in the front line was nearly always carried out in silence in the dark and the times and days would be random in order to stop the enemy taking advantage of the vulnerability of soldiers moving in and moving out. It doesn’t always work.

On 28 January 1918, the 11th Machine Gun Company was relieving the 22nd Machine Gun Company in the line between Ploegsteert Wood and the River Lys. As the company was moving towards the line German artillery began shelling the road. Two men were killed and nine were wounded during the relief.

At this time the company strength was 13 Officers 149 Other Ranks and was capable of putting 16 guns in the line. For purposes of control, the company front was divided into three sectors. The right sector had 5 guns, the centre sector 6 guns and the left sector 5 guns. Gun teams each consisted of 1 NCO and 4 men. Company reliefs of two men per gun team were carried out every four days. 8 anti-aircraft guns were mounted in the support line during the day, but enemy aircraft flew too high to be engaged.

Between 4,000 rounds and 6,000 rounds were fired each night on targets identified by infantry scouts and observers, and from intelligence reports. The principal targets were Duriez Farm, where enemy working parties were active at night, and roads used by enemy transport. Neutralising fire was also directed at machine guns in Soap House and Laundry, while the division’s patrols were operating. Reports by scout officers indicated that casualties were inflicted by the unit’s fire, particularly at Duriez Farm. Close touch was maintained with infantry scout and intelligence officers.

On 7 March the 3rd Division was relieved from Le Touquet – Warneton Sector during afternoon and evening and moved back to hutments in Le Nieppe – Romarin area. The next day the division boarded trains at Steenwerck and travelled Desvres. The 9th, 10th, 11th, and 23rd Machine Gun Companies concentrated at Bournonville for the purpose of re-organising and forming 3rd Australian Machine Gun Battalion. The marked a significant change in the way the Australian machine-gun companies operated since the companies attached to each brigade would now come under the control of their own Battalion Headquarters which itself was under divisional control.


On 21 March 1918, the Germans unleashed an attack which, in scale and destruction, surpassed any other in World War I. 32 German divisions, with 25 more in reserve, advanced over a 43-mile front. By nightfall a German flood had inundated forty miles of the British front; a week later it had reached a depth of nearly forty miles and was almost lapping the outskirts of Amiens, and in the ensuing weeks the Allied cause itself was almost submerged. These weeks rank with those of the Marne in 1914 as the two gravest military crises of the World War.

The British defended stubbornly but were steadily forced back. British casualties were over 300,000 as they achieved miracles of heroic endurance.

By 30 March, the Germans, having failed in their main objective of achieving a major breakthrough in the British lines, were attempting to force a divide at the point where the British and French armies met. They had come too close to the strategically important town of Amiens to give up without a further effort to take control.

On the night of 31 March/1 April, the 3rd Division was in the line east of Amiens supported by the 3rd Machine Battalion. The divisional front extended from the River Ancre in the north between the villages of Treux and Ville Sur Ancre to the River Somme between Sailly-Le-Sec and Sailly-Laurette. Battalion Headquarters was at Ribemont.

The 9th Machine Gun Company, with the 9th Brigade, had been detached to the British 61st Division operating south of the River Somme in the Villers-Bretonneux area. The 10th Machine Gun Company was in the line on the left half of the divisional front with its Company Headquarters in the Chateau in Treux. The 11th Machine Gun Company, along with two sections of the 15th Machine Gun Company was in the line on the right half of the divisional front with its Company Headquarters in Sailly-Le-Sec. The 23rd Machine Gun Company was in Ribemont with half the company being in reserve and the remainder manning the Ribemont defences. At 7 am on 1 April the 23rd Machine Gun Company left Ribemont to change over with the 10th.

On 3 April the 9th Machine Gun Company, with an attack appearing imminent, was kept busy improving their positions on the front line east of Villers-Bretoneux and in the village itself. 2 sections from the 10th Machine Gun Company were detached to the 11th Machine Gun Company to take over from the sections from the 15th Machine Gun Company. In the meantime, the 11th endured heavy shelling around Sailly-Le-Sec throughout the day.

At 5:45 am on 4 April the Germans opened a heavy bombardment on the town of Villers-Bretonneux, the trenches and the area behind. When the shelling stopped about an hour later the German infantry could be seen through the early morning mist, gathering in platoon-sized groups about 700 metres away. The Germans struck with 15 divisions on a front of 21 miles, two thirds French, one third-British. In the northern sector, the 9th Brigade, including the 9th Machine Gun Company, and the British 18th Division.

The four guns on the line immediately opened fire and inflicted heavy casualties causing the Germans to fall back. Five minutes later the Germans came on again but this time they came close enough to force the infantry to the left of the machine guns to withdraw. This left the 35th Battalion and the machine guns exposed on their flank and allowed the Germans to move through. The left flank of the 35th Battalion fell back to form a defensive line against the Germans while the machine guns remained in place to protect the movement. Before the guns themselves could be withdrawn into the defensive line the enemy had captured one gun and put another out of action.

Half of the reserve guns were moved to the front line and by 8 am the company had 10 guns firing with four in reserve in Villers-Bretonneux. On the left flank, the British and Australians continued to be forced back to the very edge of the village while the machine guns of No 3 Section continued firing and inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans. After three hours of isolation, the guns were reinforced by a company of the 34th Battalion and a unit of British Cavalry.

At 5 pm a heavy bombardment fell on the right flank of the line and when it ceased the German infantry attacked en masse. Six machine guns opened fire inflicting heavy casualties. Still, the Germans advanced and eventually, the right flank was forced to give way along with the machine guns. The line was almost at the point of collapsing completely when a counter-attack came from the British Cavalry, the 9th Brigade reserve and a battalion of Londoners and the line was restored.

The other Machine Gun Companies had their own issues to deal with. In the afternoon the 11th Machine Gun Company was bombarded by German light mortars (Minenwerfers or ‘Minnies’) killing two of the company’s officers. To the north at Treux information was received of an imminent attack. The 23rd Machine Gun Company prepared themselves to give a warm reception. At 7:15 am on 5 April the preparatory bombardment began against the line from Treux through to the 3rd Division’s Headquarters at Ribemont.

The next morning the 9th Machine Gun Company was relieved from the front line along with the rest of the 9th Brigade. Villers Bretonneux was shelled heavily through the day but no other action took place. The 10th Machine Gun Company undertook barrage work along with four guns from the 11th. The 11th Machine Gun Company was shelled throughout the day losing one gun.

To the north of Ribemont the 4th Division was attacked by the Germans in an attempt to drive through to Amiens along the road from Albert. This attack also included the left flank of the 3rd Division where 23rd Machine Gun Company in the line around Treux.

At 7:15 am a heavy bombardment opened up on the forward areas with high explosive and shrapnel. After a short time, the bombardment moved back from the front line to include the villages of Treux, Buire, Ribemont, Merricourt and Heilly. An hour after the barrage began the German machine guns opened fire sweeping over the village of Treux.

At about 9:45 am a party of German infantry, estimated to be around 500 men, were seen advancing toward Treux. The guns opened fire immediately causing heavy casualties among the Germans. When a group of 200 or so became bunched up on of the gun crews ran forward and engaged them. Most of the enemy soldiers were killed by sustained machine gunfire. When another party of around 300 came from the direction of Ville Sur Ancre they were immediately met with machine-gun fire and artillery dispersing them and forcing their withdrawal.

At Sailly-Le-Sec the 11th Machine Gun Company was having its own problems. The enemy had captured Bouzencourt, immediately to the south across the Somme. German machine guns had been moved almost to the south bank of the river and fired several bursts at the village. When several rounds entered the Company Headquarters the Australian guns let loose and quickly made the German positions untenable.

As the war progressed the technology associated with military aviation had developed too. Aircraft now played a big part in the battle to regain control of the Somme. One of the most famous was Baron Manfred von Richthofen (the Red Baron) and the four squadrons he commanded as Jagdgeschwader 1 (the Flying Circus). By 1918, he was regarded as a national hero in Germany and was very well known by the Allies.

Just after 11:00 am on 21 April Richthofen was fatally wounded while flying over Morlancourt Ridge, near the Somme River. Richthofen was hit by a single .303 bullet, which caused such severe damage to his heart and lungs that it must have produced a very speedy death. In the last seconds of his life, he managed to make a hasty but controlled landing in a field on a hill near the Bray-Corbie road, just north of the village of Vaux-sur-Somme. When Australian soldiers reached the aircraft, Richthofen was still alive but died moments later. Sergeant Ted Smout of the Australian Medical Corps reported that Richthofen's last word was "kaputt".

It is now generally agreed that Richthofen died following an extremely serious and inevitably fatal chest wound from a single bullet fired from the ground, penetrating from the right armpit and resurfacing next to the left nipple. Many sources have suggested that Sergeant Cedric Popkin was the person most likely to have killed Richthofen a machine gunner with the Australian 24th Machine Gun Company. He fired at Richthofen's aircraft on two occasions: first as the Baron was heading straight at his position, and then at long range from the right. Given the nature of Richthofen's wounds, Popkin was in a position to fire the fatal shot, when the pilot passed him for a second time, on the right.

On 24 April, at 4:45 am on a dull and misty morning, heavy German artillery fire descended on the British troops who were now occupying the line in front of Villers- Bretonneux. Behind the town, Australians met young soldiers withdrawing who told them the Germans were advancing with flame-throwers and with tanks. Amiens, now a dull, deserted and shell-damaged city, was under direct and serious threat. Most of the German thrust fell on the southern side of Villers-Bretonneux.

At that time the 3rd Machine Gun Battalion was operating with the 3rd Division in the area to the north of the Somme. The 9th Machine Gun Company was in Bonnay, about 1 km north of Corbie, although heavy gas shelling during the day forced them to move further north to Franvillers. The 10th Machine Gun Company was in reserve at Ribemont. The 11th Machine Gun Company was in the line at Mericourt. The 23rd Machine Gun Company was in Treux engaged in barrage and direct fire tasks supporting the 10th Brigade.

The 1st and 2nd Divisions had been moved to Amiens from Flanders when the first attacks had begun but the 1st Division had been turned around to meet another German advance on Hazebrouck.  South of the Somme, the Germans fought through to the Amiens side of Villers-Bretonneux, which was being pounded by artillery fire. It was essential that the allies mount a quick and powerful counter-attack before the enemy could consolidate. However, only the Australian 13th Brigade (4th Division) and 15th Brigade (5th Division), which were in reserve, and some British battalions were available.

The two Australian brigades were each under the most redoubtable leaders of the AIF: Brigadier Generals William Glasgow and HE "Pompey" Elliott. Both were tough, courageous and battle-wise. At the appointed time of 10 pm, the supporting artillery opened fire, but the infantry was not ready. German flares fizzed into the sky, falling in red, white, green, and golden bunches, and their artillery began to retaliate. Heavy fire fell on the town, bringing down roofs and walls and setting buildings on fire. Glasgow's men eventually moved off from their start positions with bayonets fixed, and more than an hour later Elliott's did too. Each group was met by heavy machinegun fire.

The Australian advance rolled forward, often straight into the face of machine-guns. To the south, the men were finding their way over unfamiliar ground in the darkness. The fighting went on throughout the night, and the Australians eventually got to the other side of Villers-Bretonneux.

The Australians lost about 1,500 men in the action, killed or wounded. Later an officer from the 4th Division looked over the battleground. He wrote:

"All about us lay the dead, pitifully boyish-looking Tommies who had been driven out of Villers. Among them were the equipment of our 13th and 15th Brigade men who had died in the recapture ... and had been buried. The price to the enemy was shown in the grey-clad clusters of [their] dead."

With the re-taking of Villers-Bretonneux, the German advance was stalled although the constant raining of artillery continued. Having spent 42 strenuous days in the line between the Rivers Ancre and the Somme the 3rd Machine Gun Battalion went into reserve at Querrieu for ten days from 11 May. Even well back from the front things were not quiet as bombing by enemy aircraft continued.

On their return to the line, the battalion took over the defence of the Villers-Bretonneux Sector. Each company maintained a small nucleus at the Rear Headquarters at Lamotte-Brebiere. Throughout the time in that sector, the personnel of the nucleus was changed every second or third day. The couple of days out of the line gave the men the chance of a spell, swim and change of clothing. The weather of late had been “real surfing weather” as the battalion’s war diary put it, “and a daily sight in the area is to see some men swimming, others clothed perhaps in a digger hat meandering up and down the Somme in all sorts of weird tubs ranging from horse troughs to classy gondolas. Their serenity is not disturbed in spite of the occasional whine of an HE shell or the bursting of a “woolly bear” (a German shrapnel shell that burst with an explosion of black smoke) and other types of Hun shrapnel”.

On 30 May 1918, as a consequence of the Australian government's directive that all senior commands be held by Australians, Lieutenant General John Monash was appointed to command the Australian Corps and General Sir William Birdwood selected Major General Gellibrand to take Monash's place in command of the 3rd Division.


During July the battalion was moved to the Hamel sector where a captured German prisoner provided information about the effects of the harassment by the long-range machine-gun fire on the enemy morale. On 15 July Fred Higgins was promoted to temporary corporal.

On 4 July, operations by the Australian Corps against Hamel and surrounding areas were launched using the under-strength 4th Division as the attacking force supported by the 11th Brigade, which included the 11th Machine Gun Company and the 6th Brigade from the 2nd Division. The attack was also supported by the attachment of several US troops. For the first time in the war, American troops acted as part of an offensive, and the first time in history that US troops would fight under a foreign commander. Ten companies were sent as attachments to the Australians, to give the Americans some first-hand battle experience, each American platoon attached to an Australian company and integrated into the battle plan.

The day before the attack the commander of the American Expeditionary Force in France, General John J. Pershing learnt of the plan and ordered six of the companies to withdraw. This meant that battalions had to rearrange their attack formations and caused a serious reduction in the size of the Allied force, the 11th Brigade now attacking with 2,200 men instead of 3,000.

At 3:02 am on 4 July, a day chosen in deference to the Americans who were mostly no longer participating, the supporting artillery opened up with its usual harassing bombardment. Having been conditioned over the past two weeks to expect a gas attack, the German defenders pulled on their gas masks. This restricted their movement, situational awareness, and ability to communicate. Masked by the noise of the bombardment, 60 tanks moved while No. 101 Squadron of the British Royal Air Force provided additional cover by dropping 350 25-pound bombs to the east of the Australian front.

Then at 3:10 am the main barrage began with flanking smoke screens laid down by the artillery and trench mortars. The creeping barrage began 180 m in front of the attacking troops and continued 550 m beyond that. The infantry rose along the whole line and began following the barrage at a distance of 70 m. Although the barrage was mostly accurate, some rounds fell short at the junction of the 4th and 11th Brigades, virtually wiping out one American squad and one platoon of the 43rd Battalion.

At 03:14 am the barrage advanced and the infantry continued to follow it into the cloud of smoke and dust caused as the chalky ground was churned up by the exploding shells. This made observing the line of the barrage difficult and obscured some of the objectives in front of the infantry. Some American troops, keen to keep up with the experienced Australians and unsure of where the barrage was landing, dashed headlong into the shellfire and had to be turned around. The attack was then put in, coming up against three major German strong points: the "Pear Trench", the Vaire and Hamel Woods, and then Hamel village itself.

Situated south-west of Hamel, on the reverse slope of a gentle spur, the Pear Trench formed the centre of the 4 km front over which the Australians attacked. The 4th Brigade was assigned to assault the position supported by three tanks that became lost in the darkness and failed to arrive on time for the attack. The trench became the scene of heavy and confused fighting as the Australian infantry met grenades and machine-guns with bayonets. The Australians reached the designated halt-line and had stopped for "smoko" when the supporting tanks finally arrived.

To the south of both the village of Hamel and the Pear Trench, the Vaire and Hamel Woods were joined by a narrow strip of trees. The Hamel Wood was the northernmost of the two and situated in the low ground that rose towards a hill where the Vaire Wood grew. To the west of the wooded area, on the other side of the road that linked Hamel with Villers-Bretonneux, the Germans had constructed a kidney-shaped trench, which the Australians had dubbed “Kidney" or "Vaire Trench". Occupying a commanding view of the ground to the west, over which the Australian infantry had to assault, the position was reinforced with barbed wire, and anchored with multiple machine-gun posts. As the British tanks moved up in support, the 4th Brigade advanced through the trench and into the woods.

The task of taking the strong points around Hamel was assigned to the four battalions of the 11th Brigade supported by the 11th Machine Gun Company. 98 minutes after setting out the 11th Brigade had captured its objectives and the 11th Machine Gun Company had set up new gun positions on the eastern slope of the spur.


On 8 August 1918, the Allies launched their Hundred Days Offensive to the east of Amiens and the 3rd Division was tasked with leading the Australian Corps in the attack. For the first time, the Australians would fight side by side with the Canadians who would attack on their right flank to the south of the railway. The British would attack on their left flank north of the Somme. The weight of the Allied fire support was intense as over 2,000 artillery pieces opened up on the German defences.

The assaulting infantry battalions were each assigned a frontage of about 900 metres which they assaulted with two companies forward and two in support. Thick smoke meant that the attackers found it difficult to maintain their spacing and some of the supporting armour was also delayed. Nevertheless, the attack proved successful, as the Australians overwhelmed the German defenders and by the end of the day the division had achieved all of its objectives. 

To the north, the British had struck difficulties and had been unable to move as quickly. Enemy fire from the north bank of the river caused heavy casualties on the exposed Australians until the US 131st Infantry Regiment was able to leapfrog past the British and take care of the threat.

The Battle of Amiens became a major turning point in the tempo of the war and the Germans were forced to withdraw to the Hindenburg Line once more. A daylight attack on Proyart by the 10th Brigade on 12 August, the capture of Bray-sur-Somme by the allies to the north and a steady advance eastward saw the 3rd Machine Gun Battalion at the end of August facing the formidable barrier of the Somme near the town of Perrone and behind it, Mont Saint Quentin. The battalion had been in the line for the whole of July and August. At the beginning of July, its strength had totalled 972. By the end of August, despite the addition of 42 reinforcements, the total strength was down to 865. 

On a hill, dominating the Somme River and its lakes, Péronne was a well-fortified place during the early Middle Ages. The ramparts were built in the 9th century. All that remains today of the ancient fortress is the Porte de Bretagne. Mont Saint-Quentin overlooks the Somme approximately 1.5 km north of the town. The hill is only about 100 metres high but because it is situated in the bend where the river turns from flowing north to flowing west it dominates the whole position and is of strategic significance. It was a key to the German defence of the Somme line and the last German stronghold before the Hindenberg Line.

Originally built in the 1700s to connect the Somme and Scheldt Rivers, the Germans made use of the St Quentin Canal as an additional defensive barrier forward of the Hindenberg Line. East of Peronne the canal ran through a tunnel for approximately six kilometres between Bellicourt and Venhuille. Fearing an attack across the canal would be costly, Lieutenant General Monash decided to assault over the top of the tunnel.

With the Australian Corps exhausted from almost continuous operations since 8 August, Monash had only two divisions in a reasonable state for combat - the 3rd and 5th - and was thus reinforced with the 27th and 30th United States Divisions. The plan was for the numerically superior Americans to breach the Hindenburg Line above the tunnel, and another defensive line a kilometre to the rear. The Australians would then pass through and assault the German line near the village of Beaurevoir, another four kilometres back. The attack would be supported by 90 tanks and heavy artillery concentrations.

The inexperience of the Americans was telling. An operation launched to secure the start line on 27 September 1918 was unsuccessful due to their failure to properly clear dugouts and trenches. The same mistakes were repeated by the 27th US Division when the actual attack was launched two days later. With all of the tanks destroyed or disabled, and the uncertain position of the forward troops preventing the use of artillery, the advancing 3rd Australian Division was forced to fight for the ground that the Americans were planned to have already taken. In the confusion of battle, some American pockets that had been left without effective leadership willingly went along with the Australians as they advanced and there are documented accounts of soldiers from both nations fighting alongside each other in ad-hoc mixed outfits.

On 2 October the 3rd Division was removed from the line for rest and reorganisation and was out of the line when news of the Armistice came on 11 November 1918. By 5 October, the 3rd Machine Gun Company was in its new billets around the town of Airaines about 20 km south of Abbeville and spent the next several weeks resting and training. Many even managed to take leave in England. Fred’s permanent promotion came through on 9 November, two weeks after his return from leave, as the battalion began to reorganise itself ready to return to front-line duty.

News of the Armistice reached the town first, the power of rumour proving that it was faster than official information. Cities, towns, and villages were decked out in red, white and blue and the citizens celebrated. For the soldiers, training continued as the autumn turned to winter, but with less intensity. The training was more to keep them busy and often consisted of sports rather than anything war-like. And it rained almost constantly.

Demobilisation became the word on everybody’s lips. How soon could they get home? At Monash’s insistence a policy of ‘first in, first out’ was adopted with the longest-enlisted soldiers being sent home first. Each division was required to classify their men according to their date of enlistment and put them into “quotas” of 1,000 each. 1,000 men being a normal trainload, a normal shipload, and also a number readily organised as a battalion. Each “quota” was to have, if possible, its brass band, its education staff, and organised provision for recreation.

It was recognised early that men with other than soldierly skills were needed to administer the drafts for demobilisation. Initially, 150 soldiers were identified and transferred to the Chief Paymaster’s Office in London and immediately put to work. Fred Higgins was one of these and on 14 January 1919, he was transferred to the Australian Army Pay Corps.

Partly because of the urgent desire of the Australian government and of the A.I.F. itself to get on with repatriation, partly because the British Command preferred to have more docile troops in the army of occupation, the Australian divisions in France had not been sent to occupy the Rhineland. The divisions remained mainly among the friendly Belgian towns between Dinant on the Meuse and Charleroi. There the force spent the next six months, quickly shrinking.

The groups were brought successively to the camps on Salisbury Plain and by the end of May, there were 70,000 Australians in residence. Through the energy of Prime Minister Hughes and of the transport staff, ships were allotted by the British Shipping Control much more quickly than had been expected; and as each ship became available a quota was called on to fill it. The 40,000 convalescents went separately, under medical control and arrangements.

Fred remained in London until his turn finally came. On 26 June he was temporarily promoted and on 7 July he departed for home on the Chemnitz as its Pay Sergeant.

From January 1918 an unusually deadly influenza strain involving the H1N1 virus began to infect people across the world. To maintain morale, wartime censors minimized early reports of illness and mortality in Germany, Britain, France, and the United States; but papers were free to report the epidemic's effects in neutral Spain. This created a false impression of Spain as especially hard hit – thus the pandemic drew the nickname ‘Spanish flu’.

For men crowded onto troopships the risks associated with the virus was aggravated. The severest test to the discipline of the A.I.F. during demobilisation occurred when some of the troops on arriving transports found themselves quarantined almost within sight of their homes because of the discovery of, perhaps, one case of suspicious sickening for influenza among 1000 men. But in, only one such instance was there serious trouble. In most others, the good sense of the men and the efforts of ships’ captains and officers and quarantine authorities in organising recreation enabled this tedious delay to be borne with good humour. As Australia was the only country to escape, for at least a few months, terrifying influenza that raged elsewhere, the soldiers’ tolerance of this last trial was possibly of very great value to their nation.

On 23 August Fred was admitted to the ship’s hospital, probably with flu-like symptoms that were exaggerated by his earlier gassing. When the ship docked in Melbourne two weeks later, he was transferred directly to hospital.

After almost a year since the Armistice Fred was discharged from the Army on 25 October 1919 and he returned to the Public Service. Fred married Kathleen Meares in 1926 but the couple remained childless. He died in 1968.