Service Number: 27
Enlisted: Not yet discovered
Last Rank: Private
Last Unit: 11th Machine Gun Company
Born: Not yet discovered
Home Town: Not yet discovered
Schooling: Not yet discovered
Occupation: Not yet discovered
Memorials: Eton War Memorial, Mackay Old Town Hall Honour Roll
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World War 1 Service

5 Jun 1916: Involvement Private, SN 27, 11th Machine Gun Company
5 Jun 1916: Embarked Private, SN 27, 11th Machine Gun Company, HMAT Borda, Sydney

Military history of Harry Bisley WW1

during the
Great War 1914-1918
France & Belgium
Written by Rita Bisley  

Harry Bisley (1894-1943), (27)

Harry Bisley was born on the 11th March 1894 at Shoreditch, Islington in London. He was the first of two sons born to Alfred Henry Bisley and Gertrude Hart. After the death of Harry’s father in 1897, his mother left her sons with their grandmother and aunt and returned to work as a stewardess for P & O Orient Lines. Harry had an unhappy childhood and he soon ran away to sea and worked on passenger ships as a steward.

At the outbreak of World War One, Harry enlisted at Mackay, Queensland on the 1st April 1916. He joined the 11th Machine Gun Company [3rd Machine Gun Battalion] which was attached to the 11th Infantry Brigade of the 3rd Australian Division. The A.I.F. Machine Gun Companies were formed in February 1916 from the four battalion machine gun sections in each brigade. Each was equipped with 16 Vickers Machine Guns. They bore the same numbers as the brigades of which they were part, and usually had the state affiliation.

The 11th Machine Gun Company was formed in April 1916, with the personnel to be found from Queensland recruits. Included in the Battle honours of the 11th Infantry Brigade history is the Third Battle of Ypres, Broodseinde, Passchendaele, Morlancourt, Villers-Bretonneux, Hamel, Mericourt, Suzanne, and the capture of Mount St Quentin and Peronne and the Hindenburg Line.

Colour patch for 11 Australian Machine Gun Company, AIF, consisting of a light blue horizontally aligned oval above two crossed guns in yellow. Worn as a distinguishing unit indication at the head of each sleeve from 1916.

Harry left Australia on the 5th June 1916 on HMAT Borda. The company disembarked at Port Said, Egypt in July 1916, before leaving for England to train on Salisbury Plains. In November they prepared for their move to France. They arrived on the 24th November 1916 and marched to Houplines, where they were billeted near Armentieres. They were joined to the 2nd Anzac Corps. On the 22nd December, they relieved the 9th Machine Gun Company. There, the men of the brigade had to suffer the terrible winter conditions. They remained in the field till the 14th March 1917. In April, they moved to Le Bizet and Ploegsteert in Belgium, where they remained till May, before withdrawing to Watterdal near Armentieres for rest and further training.

The town of Armentières-although barely a mile and a half from the line—was a thriving "War Town," with shops of all descriptions carrying on business to supply the wants of the troops at fairly reasonable "War Prices." The restaurants were a special feature; it really seemed grotesque that officers and men could sit down to a well-appointed dinner table and a well-appointed menu in less than half an hour after leaving the front line trenches. The swimming baths and cinema were also great attractions to the men out of the line, and were patronised to the fullest extent.


Australian machine gunners returning from the front line trenches to their billets, in France.
On the 17th May the company commenced marching back to the front lines and resumed action near Armentieres from the 22nd May till the end of June. They moved into the Messines sector in Belgium, taking part in the Battle of Messines launched on the 7th June 1917. Throughout the night of the 6th June, Ploegsteert Wood, through which battalions of the 3rd Australian Division approached their jump-off lines, was saturated was gas shells temporarily putting 500 men out of action.

The battle for Messines ridge which commenced on June the 7th 1917 was hailed as a triumph in strategy. Following the harsh lessons learned on the Somme the previous year, the taking of Messines ridge preceded the main Third Battle of Ypres (or Passchendaele), and was General Plumer's more cautious approach using "bite and hold" tactics. Rather than attempting to make sweeping gains on a wide front with very large numbers of troops, the attack on Messines ridge was one of limited, but realistic, objectives, utilising a "creeping barrage" and preceded by the detonation of nineteen mines. The overall front of the Messines offensive was around nine miles, stretching from near Hill 60 in the north in a crescent shape reflecting the German held salient or bulge here, to St. Yves just above Ploegsteert Wood in the south.

Slowly but surely the watches ticked away the seconds, minutes and hours until at last the Zero hour was heralded with the greatest thunderbolt the world had ever heard. The greatest concentration of artillery ever known in one second belched forth, the string of mines carefully prepared through long and strenuous months were fired, the earth quaked, but no human ear could measure the volume of noise. The sight the spectacle presented can hardly be described, the myriad lightning flashes of the roaring guns behind, the huge geysers of flame from the exploding mines, and the thousands of coloured rockets fired from the German lines in every direction to warn their waiting artillery that the dreaded day had arrived too soon, impressed a picture on the eyes of our forces, grand, glorious but awful, and across the darkened stretch of no mans' land, our first waves began to move. The great attack had commenced.


The 3rd and 4th Australian Divisions suffered nearly 6,800 casualties in two days. The Company was relieved from the 11th till the 25th June. At the end of July, the Company was engaged in heavy fighting at Ferme de la Croix during the 3rd Battle of Ypres. The men had great difficulty getting guns to fire owing to wet belts and mud and grit getting into them.

The 11th Machine Gun Company was relieved on the 6th August, again withdrawing for training and re-equipping and were absent from the line for the Battle of Menin Road and Polygon Wood. On the 29th September the company sustained heavy casualities at Poperinghe in Belgium as the result of enemy bombing. Nine men were killed and 42 wounded.

Private Maclean of 11th Machine Gun Company, posing with a Vickers water-cooled machine gun. Pte McLean was one of eleven men killed on the night of 29 September 1917 whilst in camp south of Poperinghe, when an "enemy aeroplane dropped two bombs close to the tents in which the company was camped".
The Vickers was a water-cooled weapon. A jacket around the main barrel held about one gallon of water and to keep water loss to a minimum, a rubber hose was attached to a container that condensed steam. The machine gun used the same ammunition as the Lee Enfield (0.303 inch bullets) and could fire at a rate of 450 bullets a minute. Such a rate of fire could cause havoc for an attacking force - though bullet wastage was high as many bullets failed to hit a target. However, this would have been true with any machine gun in World War One.
The Vickers machine gun weighed about 20 kg and invariably had to be used with a tripod. Therefore, it was not the easiest weapon to transport around a battlefield. A Vickers gun team could be as many as six men. However, used in a defensive and static position, it proved to be a deadly weapon of war accounting for many German casualties.
The failings of the Vickers as stated above, led to it being phased out on the Western Front by the end of 1915. It was replaced by the Lewis gun, though it was used in other campaigns involving British forces. However, the Vickers, despite the difficulty in transporting it, retained its reputation as a hard-hitting and reliable weapon. In an attack it was awkward to move and set-up - but in defence it was a very dangerous weapon for anyone attacking a position defended by Vickers machine guns.

Vickers machine gun team
The Lewis Machine Gun was gas operated. A portion of the expanding propellant gas was tapped off from the barrel, driving a piston to the rear against a spring. The piston was fitted with a vertical post at its rear which rode in a helical cam track in the bolt, rotating it at the end of its travel nearest the breech. This allowed the three locking lugs at the rear of the bolt to engage in recesses in the gun's body to lock it into place. The post also carried a fixed firing pin, which protruded through an aperture in the front of the bolt, firing the next round at the foremost part of the piston's travel. The gun's cyclic rate of fire was approximately 500–600 rounds per minute. It weighed 12.7 kg, only about half as much as a typical medium machine gun of the era, such as the Vickers, and was chosen in part because, being more portable than a heavy machine gun, it could be carried and used by a single soldier. By the end of World War I over 50,000 Lewis guns had been produced in the US and UK and they were nearly ubiquitous on the Western Front, outnumbering the Vickers by a ratio of about 31. The Lewis Machine Gun was also the first machine gun to be fired from a plane.

From the 3rd till the 6th October, Harry’s company took part in battles at Gravenstafel and Broodseinde and the Battle of Poelcapelle which were part of the 3rd Battle of Ypres at Passchendaele of the 12th October 1917. It involved the Australian 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions next to the New Zealand Division.

The ANZACs attacked on a broad front from the tiny hamlet of s-Graventafel to beyond the town of Zonnebeke. Also present during this battle were Bernard Cripps, Patrick Marshall and Dan Dwyer. Bernard and Patrick were both wounded at this time.

One of the tasks of the machine gunners was to quickly bring up their heavy Vickers machine guns into positions newly captured by the infantry and then prepare for enemy counter–attacks. The 3rd Division began their attack at Douchy Farm. Harry’s company assisted Bernard Cripps’ 11th Infantry Brigade near Zonnebeke. Harry would later marry Bernard’s sister Lily.

The fulfilment of the battle plan depended on the weather. On the 4th October, it began to rain and continued for several days, making the roads and tracks across the battle area gravely deteriorated.

Conditions became almost impossible. Shells and supplies had to be carried by pack animals from the wagon lines to the guns and this journey, which normally took about an hour, now required any time from six to sixteen hours. The mules and pack horses frequently slipped off the planks into the quagmire on either side, where they sometimes sank out of sight. The sodden battle ground was littered with wounded who had lain out in the mud among the dead for two days and nights.

The survivors, in a state of utter exhaustion, with no food or ammunition, had been sniped at by Germans on the higher ground through the 10th October, with increasing casualties. The men of the 11th Brigade helped to evacuate the wounded. Because of the conditions, it had not been possible to send up extra supplies of ammunition for the machine guns, so that the rounds carried by each man were soon expended. On the 10th and 11th October, the field batteries were unable to advance further, so the artillery barrage designed to support of the infantry became thin and erratic.

Battle of Broodseinde 4th October 1917

From the 12th to the 16th October, 16 men of Harry’s company were killed, 15 wounded and 12 gassed. The battle plan for the 12th October, the First Battle of Passchendaele, was that the village of Passchendaele was to be taken by the 3rd Australian Division under the command of Major-General Monash.

Owing to the weather, no progress was made and casualties were high. It was decided to cancel any further attacks until the weather improved and roads could be constructed for the forward movement of the artillery. Nearly one-half of the area in front of Passchendaele was water or deep mud.

The attack on Passchendaele on the 12th October was conducted by the battalions of the 3rd and 4th Australian Divisions and the New Zealand Division. The New Zealand attack was a disaster and hundreds were killed or wounded as they were caught on the barbed wire. The 3rd Division were so confident that one man even carried an Australian flag to plant in Passchendaele.

This so–called ‘dash for Passchendaele’ ended in retreat and, by late afternoon, the Australians were back again where they had started just forward of Tyne Cot. Australian losses for the 12th October were 3,000 casualties for the 3rd Division and 1,000 for the 4th Division for no gain.

In the middle of October, the weather improved and by the 22nd October, the artillery section was opened along the whole front. The Battle continued into November, when Sir Douglas Haig decided to close down the Flanders campaign. Although the battle had not been won, the Allies were still in possession of the crest of the Ypres Ridge from Messines to beyond Passchendaele. The time spent in the Ypres area by the Brigade was perhaps the most nerve-wracking experiences many of the men had undergone and they were removed to camps in France till December.

First Battle of Passchendaele 12th October 1917
From the 31st July to the 10th November 1917, the Allied casualties in the battles around Ypres amounted to 238,313, killed, wounded and missing. German casualties have been estimated at 400,000. More than 11,200 Australians were killed or died of wounds. Of the million men who were killed in the Great War, a quarter of a million lay in the few square miles around Ypres. Under the farms, woods and villages of the Ypres salient lie the unrecovered bodies of more than 40,000 soldiers who died or drowned, wounded in the mud.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely sing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
John McCrae, In Flanders Fields

Harry’s company was removed from the field on the 21st October till the 29th November when they were stationed at Le Bizet till mid December. During the winter of 1917-18 there were some 117,000 Australian troops stationed in France who played a quiet but active role in the defence lines.

In late January 1918, they returned to the front. During this time the conditions were appalling with persistent rain turning the battlefields of the Ypres sector in Belgium into a quagmire. In February they encamped at Le Bizet, occupying the sector between Ploegsteert and the River Lys. Ploegsteert is about two miles north of Armenitieres, close to the French border and eight miles south of Ypres. Troops were sent here to recuperate and retrain.

Ploegsteert Wood

During March 1918, Harry’s company moved into France to defensive positions between Sailly-le-Sec and Mericourt l’Abbe. The War Diary for the 31st March states :
Our Brigade piquet line, consisting of two companies, was never at any time penetrated, and held their line throughout. At one time the enemy attempted to envelope our right flank next to the River Somme but was entirely checked by the prompt action of the Vickers gunners who were firing on that flank.
The German offensive began on the 21st March 1918. Australian units were hurried south from their winter positions in Belgium to help stem the enemy advance. On the 27th March elements of the 3rd Australian Division relieved exhausted British infantry in the triangle between the Somme and Ancre. The Australians were ordered to straighten the line by moving to the ridgeline overlooking the village of Morlancourt. As the men arrived at Doullens, they saw refuges of all ages carrying bundles with all their valuables and personal belongings. As they toiled along, they seemed weighed down with anxiety and looked as though they hardly dared glance back, for fear that they might see the hated Germans appearing over the horizon. As far as the eye could see down the long wide road was a might stream of traffic, wagons and carts piled high with furniture and other possessions and accompanied by dogs, goats and cows. The 3rd Division had now been transferred to the 10th Corps, 3rd Army.
The Australian artillery forced the Germans to abandon their defensive positions and after three determined assaults, they were beaten off. The 3rd Division dug in and throughout April, successfully patrolled towards German positions. In March 1918, the four machine gun companies in each division were consolidated into machine gun battalions.
In April, Harry’s Company was still near Sailly-le-Sec, but Harry’s war was soon to come to an end. In April 1918, he was hospitalised with trench feet. Trench foot occurs when feet are cold and damp while wearing constricting footwear. During the winter of 1914-15 over 20,000 men in the British Army were treated for trench foot.
“If you have never had trench foot described to you, I will explain. Your feet swell to two to three times their normal size and go completely dead. You can stick a bayonet into them and not feel a thing. If you are lucky enough not to lose your feet and the swelling starts to go down, it is then that the most indescribable agony begins. I have heard men cry and scream with pain and many have had to have their feet and legs amputated. I was one of the lucky ones, but one more day in that trench and it may have been too late.” (Harry Roberts)

Harry spent several months in England, but was eventually discharged and returned to Australia on the 12th December 1918. He had trouble with his feet for the rest of his life. After his return to Australia, Harry moved to Townsville. Perhaps it was in Townsville that he became reacquainted with Bernard Cripps after sharing their experiences in the 3rd Division during the war. Harry met Bernard’s sister Lily and they were married on the 24th February 1923. He became the first secretary of the Townsville RSL in 1928.
Harry also became a member of the Kennedy Regiment rising to the rank of Captain. He died on the 29th April 1943 after being struck by a military vehicle on his way home from work.

Written by Rita Bisley (Rita is the wife of Harry Bisley – grandson of Harry Bisley WW1)

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