Oliver Mosten ROBERTS


ROBERTS, Oliver Mosten

Service Number: 4575
Enlisted: 12 July 1915, Bendigo, Victoria
Last Rank: Private
Last Unit: 57th Infantry Battalion
Born: Bendigo, Victoria, Australia, August 1892
Home Town: White Hills, Bendigo, Victoria
Schooling: White Hills State School, Bendigo, Victoria, Australia
Occupation: Gardener
Died: Died of wounds (accidental), France, 3 March 1917
Cemetery: Dernancourt Communal Cemetery Extension
Plot VI, Row b, Grave No. 2, Dernancourt Communal Cemetery Extension, Dernancourt, Picardie, France
Memorials: Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour, Bendigo White Hills Arch of Triumph, Bendigo White Hills Baptist Church Honour Roll
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World War 1 Service

12 Jul 1915: Enlisted AIF WW1, Private, SN 4575, Bendigo, Victoria
28 Jan 1916: Involvement AIF WW1, Private, SN 4575, 7th Infantry Battalion, Enlistment/Embarkation WW1
28 Jan 1916: Embarked Private, SN 4575, 7th Infantry Battalion, HMAT Themistocles, Melbourne
1 Apr 1916: Transferred AIF WW1, Private, 57th Infantry Battalion
19 Jul 1916: Involvement AIF WW1, Private, SN 4575, 57th Infantry Battalion, Fromelles (Fleurbaix)
1 Mar 1917: Wounded AIF WW1, Private, SN 4575, 57th Infantry Battalion, Wounds received accidentally when bomb thrown into dugout by fellow Australian soldier

Help us honour Oliver Mosten Roberts's service by contributing information, stories, and images so that they can be preserved for future generations.

Biography contributed by Jack Coyne


Private Oliver Roberts of White Hills was accidently killed by a bomb thrown by a fellow Australian soldier on March 1, 1917.

Oliver enlisted at the Bendigo Town Hall on July 12, 1915. He was 22 years of age, just about to turn 23. He was the youngest of six children of Edward and Elizabeth Roberts of Hall st, White Hills, a former gold mining hamlet three miles north of Bendigo.  His father Edward was deceased and his mother was dependent on Oliver for income. His brother William would enlist a month later. 

Oliver stated that his occupation was a gardener most likely working in the market gardens on the rich alluvial soil downstream of the Bendigo creek. On the same day Oliver enlists, White Hills lad and fellow gardener, William McColough also signs up, possibly mates going off to war together ?     

Recruitment for the Australian Imperial Force known as the ‘Expeditionary Force’ was front page news at this early stage of the war. The Bendigo Independent newspaper reported the next day on July 13 under the headline ‘STILL THEY COME’-                                  

'At a special depot in Pall Mall there were 127 applications to sign up on July 12, 1915, with 87 passing, 25 rejected and 15 deferred.' The article went on to say - 'They are a happy lot, the young fellows who have loyally come forward and indicated their anxiety to take a hand in the stern game of war. They seem lo have thrown off their responsibilities and worries of the work-a-day world, and their higher resolve has put a glint into their eyes that was previously not there'. (Source – Bendigo Independent Tuesday, July 13, 1915.) 

On enlisting Oliver would go into camp at the Bendigo racecourse located at Epsom not far from the family home in White Hills. The training unit was called the 16th Depot battalion. At this stage there would be familiar faces in the camp as a number of White Hills lads had joined in the proceeding months. Oliver would be in camp through till December 9 when he is assigned to join the 67th Battalion who were readying for departure for war. 

The 67th Battalion was raised in Bendigo in 1912 as part of the peace-time Army. It comprised men from northern district towns. Shortly after the outbreak of war in 1914, the 67th Battalion was mobilised as a Garrison Battalion for home duties and at the same time, the 67th men began transferring to the newly formed AIF Battalions. 

On January 28, 1916 Oliver embarks from the Port of Melbourne on HMAT Themistocles for the long journey to the Middle East where the surviving Australian troops are recuperating and rebuilding after the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. Oliver and fellow recruits would have known little of the truth of what happened on the cliffs of the Dardanelles Peninsula, however they would soon witness the aftermath.

On this long voyage there would be four other White Hills lads on board.  George Every, Charles Fasham, Harold Hood and Fred Tuckerman, all Reinforcements for the severely depleted 6th battalion who suffered greatly at Gallipoli. 

They would land at the Suez Canal on February 28 after a full month at sea. And then make their way up the canal to the main port at Alexandria.   

On arrival, Oliver and the 67th Battalion would go into camp at Zeitoun, near Cairo and on the March 20 he would be transferred to a brand new battalion the 57th.  He would be ‘Taken On Strength’ into the 57th on April 1, 1916. 

The 57th Battalion was raised in Egypt on 18 February 1916 as part of the "doubling" of the AIF. Half of its recruits were Gallipoli veterans from the 5th Battalion, and the other half, fresh reinforcements from Australia. Reflecting the composition of the 5th, the 57th was predominantly composed of men from the suburbs of Melbourne. The battalion became part of the 15th Brigade of the 5th Australian Division.  (Source – AWM site - https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/U51497  )

In May 1916, Oliver’s new battalion and three others would come under the command of the legendary Brigadier General Harold (Pompey) Elliot who took command of the 15th Brigade. Elliot had led the 7th battalion at Gallipoli was wounded and returned to lead this new Brigade that went on to create it’s own legend in battles on the western front.

After two months in the sand and dust of Egypt, Oliver and the 57th would embark for Europe onboard the troop ship ‘Transylvania’.  The 6-day sea voyage would have been welcome relief from the heat of Egypt and they would arrive in Marseilles on June 23.

Landing in Marseilles would be their first sight of Europe. “The harbour in spring was a beautiful site after our long stay in desolate Egypt" wrote Private Roy Ramsey of the AIF 3rd Field Ambulance. We all hoped for a few days in Marseilles but the authorities were reluctant to let us loose on the city, no doubt on account of our doubtful reputation earned in Egypt.”

The Australians journeyed by troop train up the Rhone valley heading for Calais, then eastwards to the western front in French Flanders, 200 km north of Paris. Estaples, the British and Commonwealth staging depot in Northern France was their destination.

The 57th battalion would move into billets at the village of Steenbecque near Armentieres close to the Belgium border.

Like many other Australian soldiers at the time, Oliver would struggle with military discipline and be on report for 'foul language' to a Non Commissioned Officer (NCO). For this ‘Crime’ he would receive 10 days Field Punishment No. 2.   

Field Punishment was a common punishment during World War I. A commanding officer could award field punishment for up to 28 days, while a court martial could award it for up to 90 days, either as Field Punishment Number One or Field Punishment Number Two.

Field Punishment Number One, consisted of the convicted man being placed in fetters and handcuffs or similar restraints and attached to a fixed object, such as a gun wheel or a fence post, for up to two hours per day. This punishment was abolished in 1923. In Field Punishment Number Two, the prisoner was placed in fetters and handcuffs but was not attached to a fixed object and was still able to march with his unit. This was a relatively tolerable punishment. In both forms of field punishment, the soldier was also subjected to hard labour and loss of pay.                                                                                (Source - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Field_punishment)

Having only arrived in France in late June, the 57th became embroiled in its first major battle on the Western Front on 19 July. The battle of Fromelles was a disaster. Fortunately for the 57th it was allocated a supporting role and suffered relatively light casualties compared to its sister battalions. This, however, meant that 57th carried the burden of holding the line in ensuing days for the battalion. Despite its grievous losses, the 5th Division continued to man the front in the Fromelles sector for a further two months. 

The Australian War Memorial describes the battle as "the worst 24 hours in Australia's entire history."  It was a decisive victory for the German defenders, and the Australian and British losses were sustained without the Allies gaining any ground. After a night and a day of fighting, 1,500 British and 5,533 Australian soldiers were killed, wounded or taken prisoner.                                              (Source – AWM site –https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/U51497)

This battle is perhaps most evocatively described in an eyewitness account.  Walter Downing, author of ‘To the Last Ridge" published in 1921, produced a gripping first-hand account of the War through the eyes of an infantry soldier. At Fromelles, he was in the Victorian 57th Battalion, the 15th Brigade's reserve. They were on the right of the Australian line and their objective was "The Sugarloaf", bristling with machine guns. His battalion watched in mute disbelief as their colleagues in the 60th and then the 59th Battalions were annihilated. (You can read the full account of Walter Downings description of the horror of Fromelles on the RSL site - https://rslvirtualwarmemorial.org.au/explore/campaigns/2  )

After bouts of illness in September with Pneumonia and then November with Bronchitis, Oliver would stay fighting with the 57th Battalion through the frost, snow and ice of the dreadful winter of 1916/17.

In February, the Germans had staged a strategic withdrawal to the Hindenberg Line and the 15th Brigade was chosen as one of the Commonwealth forces to harass the German retreat. The Brigade made many successful raids on the Germans however were let down by intransience of High Command and the often unwillingness of British troops to advance when faced with hard fighting.

On March 1,1917 the battalion moved between the French villages of Fricourt and Mametz north east of the town of Albert in the region of Picardie in pursuit of the German forces. (source - 57th battalion Official war diary - https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1345660?image=2 )

It was on the evening of March 1st at 10:30 pm, that a tragic incident would take Oliver Robert’s life.

Two soldiers, Privates Higging and Sherlock were out checking positions on the front line late at night 10:30 pm, when they heard the ratting of some tin cans in a former German dugout.  Calling out they got no reply, Private Sherlock threw a bomb into the dug out. They heard some one yell out and thought it was a German. They returned to battalion HQ. 

Private Oliver Roberts had been mortally wounded by the bomb thrown by Sherlock. He was taken to the 45th Casualty Clearing Station but died of his wounds to both leg and Abdomen on March 3rd.

A Commission of Inquiry chaired by Commanding Officers of the sister Battalion the 59th, cleared Higgings and Sherlock. It was said they (Higging and Sherlock) were justified in taking all precautions they thought necessary, and while deploring the incident consider no blame be attached to anyone. This finding was endorsed in letter by Brig-General Elliot while deploring the incident.

In the Bendigo Independent newspaper of March 22, 1917 the following was reported - PRIVATE O. M. ROBERTS.                         Word was received from the Defence department by the Rev. Mr. Matthews, Church of England minister, White Hills, last week that Private Oliver Moyston Roberts had died from wounds in the 45th Clearing Station, France, on the 3rd March. The deceased soldier was the sixth son of the late Mr. Edward Roberts, a well-known athlete and fireman. The Rev. Mr. Matthews conveyed the sad news to Private Roberts's mother, who is at present on a visit to Mrs. Ern. Stuckenschmnidt, at White Hills. Deceased was a fine hardworking lad, and was a great supporter and comforter of his mother since his father died: It is a severe blow to her. Only by yesterday morning's mail she received a trenchcard from him, saying he was well. The deepest sympathy was expressed in the hamlet yesterday when the sad news became known. Another brother is fighting in France. (See article in attached documents)

Private Oliver Roberts is remembered by the people of White Hills. The names of the local lads who sacrificed their lives and those that were fortunate to return from the Great War are shown on the embossed copper plaques on the White Hills Arch of Triumph, at the entrance to the White Hills Botanic Gardens.