George Percival CUTTRISS

CUTTRISS, George Percival

Service Number: Captain Chaplain
Enlisted: 1 March 1916, Adelaide, South Australia
Last Rank: Captain (Chaplain 4th Class AIF)
Last Unit: 43rd Infantry Battalion
Born: Dunedin, New Zealand, 1 September 1883
Home Town: Hindmarsh, Charles Sturt, South Australia
Schooling: Not yet discovered
Occupation: Church of England Clergyman
Memorials: Hindmarsh WW1 Roll of Honour Heroes of the Great War, Long Plains Roll of Honour
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World War 1 Service

1 Mar 1916: Enlisted AIF WW1, Adelaide, South Australia
9 Jun 1916: Involvement AIF WW1, Captain (Chaplain 4th Class AIF) , SN Captain Chaplain, Australian Army Chaplains' Department, Enlistment/Embarkation WW1
9 Jun 1916: Involvement AIF WW1, 43rd Infantry Battalion
9 Jun 1916: Embarked AIF WW1, 43rd Infantry Battalion, HMAT Afric, Adelaide
9 Jun 1916: Embarked AIF WW1, Captain (Chaplain 4th Class AIF) , SN Captain Chaplain, Australian Army Chaplains' Department, HMAT Afric, Adelaide

"Over the Top"

A South Australian army chaplain wrote a book entitled "Over the Top." As he had himself accompanied 'Australian boys "over the top' or in their rest camps not far away, for two and a half years, his stories and sketches had not only the virtue of personal experience, but that of graphic description. He is Chaplain Major G. P. Cuttriss, formerly of the Hindmarsh Church of Christ, who left his pulpit to join the Australian army, and who now is about to resume his pulpit at the earnest request of the members. Major Cuttriss is a New Zealander. He served as a member of the New Zealand forces which took part in the South African War. He came to South Australia several years ago. When the great war broke out he was engaged as a chaplain in the Commonwealth military forces m Adelaide. He offered to serve in any capacity, but it was not, until March, 1918, that he received an appointment with the A.I.F. Then he was attached as chaplain to the 43rd Battalion. Major Cuttriss has made a name for himself as an historian of the deeds of our Australian troops, and naturally, when questioned, he prefers to recount the deeds of the heroes whom he has known so well, than refer to his own services. His first appointment was to the 43rd Battalion. The men were then in camp at Morphettville, and it was during the major's stay there that the 43rd hand was organized, and for the formation of which he was chiefly instrumental in raising the funds. He also was actively interested in the preliminary organization of the 43rd Battalion Comforts Fund committee. The officers and men of the battalion embarked on the troopship Afric, which left the Outer Harbour on June 6,1916, and went to England by way of the Suez Canal.

—A Narrow Escape.--

The troopship narrowly escaped destruction when traversing the Mediterranean. The steamer Virginia had left Port Said about two hours before the Afric, and she was sunk by a torpedo from a submarine. Nowthe Virginia was practically an empty ship, and was hardly worth tackling. On the other hand, the Afric was full of men and material, so that it was apparent that it was the Afric that the enemy was after, and, fortunately, missed.

The Observer Saturday 11 January 1919 page 19

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Biography contributed by Faithe Jones

Chaplain-Captain George Percival Cuttriss was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, on 1 September 1883. On 18 March 1902, he embarked for South Africa on the “Kent,” as a private in the New Zealand Mounted Rifles. He became a minister of the Churches of Christ and in 1913 took up the ministry at the Hindmarsh Church of Christ, Adelaide. Like Walden he had done service with the Commonwealth Military Force as a chaplain. He was appointed Chaplain 4 th Class on 1 March 1916 and attached to the 43rd Battalion of the 11th Brigade.

He left Australia on 9 June, although his departure was not without incident. During a march of the Brigade through Adelaide his horse, spooked by a thoughtless and excited bystander, slipped and crushed his leg. Fortunately, no bones were broken. He arrived in the United Kingdom in the Afric on 23 August and served the 3rd Division and the 43rd Battalion in particular on the Salisbury Plains. In a letter to The Australian Christian he described his journey and his role He organised “sports and concerts and attended to the spiritual needs of the troops.” He also notes the death and burial of a soldier en route. Cuttriss was a keen observer.

In writing about his period in England before going to France he commented on the boredom the men experienced and the raids on London and the coast by Zeppelins, which he described in graphic detail, noting that 100 people were injured and 40 killed.39 When his unit crossed to France on 23 November he was transferred to the 3rd Pioneer Battalion. The Pioneers were soldiers employed to perform engineering and construction tasks. Their prime role was to assist other arms of the service by constructing trenches, establishing camps, and most commonly rebuilding bridges, roads and railways destroyed by German artillery. In 1916 the A.I.F. raised five Pioneer Battalions, one for each Division, which they organised like a normal infantry battalion but made up of personnel with a variety of trades and skills. The Pioneers were raised as Headquarters divisional troops. Their skills and responsibilities meant that they were constantly in a Forward position and under fire, and their chaplains were with them. Like Walden, Cuttriss commented on the value of mail to the soldiers.

He wrote: I have watched the faces of the men as the mail was being sorted: the intense expression of expectancy, quivering lips, and moistened eyes, the unnerved hand. I have listened to outbursts of satisfaction as letters from loved ones were received; I have heard the almost inaudible sob of disappointment as the information was passed along, ‘None for you.’ He also offered some observations on the German peace proposal, identifying the problems with it and the likely response from the allies. In another letter he remarked that he censored letters at the request of the commanding officer and trained the stretcher-bearers whom he regards highly and observes that “the majority of them are Christians.”

He was also starting a canteen. Cuttriss received high praise from his commanding officer who wrote: I have to report that his work is satisfactory in every way. He is doing, in my opinion, good work among the men, not only from a religious standpoint, but also from a man standpoint, and appears to be working in the hearts of the men in a manner which can only bring the best possible results, from a disciplinary point of view. He is particularly interested in all that appertains to the men’s welfare.

During 1917 this unit was almost constantly at the Front. They fought at Messines and at Polygon Wood, Broodseinde and the First Battle of Passchendaele, these last two being part of the Third Battle of the Somme. On 27 October 1917 he had his first leave since arriving in France, which he spent in England. Cuttriss reported to Miles in November 1917, while the unit was in the reserve area, that his current activities, beyond the spiritual, included supervising the Battalion Band, controlling concerts, managing the canteens, acting as Divisional Burials Officer, and writing the history of the 3rd Division.

He had twice narrowly escaped death, on one occasion being blown a dozen feet by a mortar shell. His work as Divisional Burials Officer was very heavy: he wrote many letters and toured the forward cemeteries used by the Division and where necessary made arrangements for the repair of all damage effected by shell fire. He handed the management of the canteens over to the Battalion officers. Moreover, he became chaplain to two Canadian companies. His unit was “at rest” in early March 1918 when he was appointed Chaplain 3rd Class (Major).

He assisted in the instruction of stretcher-bearers and held services, but he was back in the line for all of April. During that time he identified sites for and established cemeteries, and he conducted many burials under heavy shellfire. This work he carried out in part for other Divisions operating in the same area. Consequently, correspondence was very heavy. He also took the opportunity to visit the advanced Casualty Clearing Stations. There was no relief; except for three days the month of May was spent in the Forward Area. Cuttriss opened several new cemeteries and controlled all burials. Miles comments that: “it seems strange that while several of this officer’s assistants have received decorations, mainly on his recommendations, no recognition of his work as D.B.O. has yet been made.”

Cuttriss’ letter to Miles about his activities is worth quoting in full because of its significance: I found the cemetery given as near VILLERS - BRETONNEUX—62d.0.28.c.6.7 is not suitable as a burials plot. It is situated in a depression and the graves are sunk into the side thereof. I have decided, therefore, to establish a cemetery about 200 yards EAST of the hollow. There are about two graves at that place. Scattered over the area referred to above, there are a large number of isolated graves, many of which are not marked in any way; others are marked by sticks to which are attached identity discs. Many bodies are barely covered; this obtains specially along the foot of the railway embankment. I have no knowledge of the conditions under which these burials were carried out, but it would appear that no systematic effort was made to centralise burials. A more unsatisfactory state of affairs would be difficult to imagine. In some of the cellars in VILLERS—BRETONNEUX enemy dead are practically nude, and in an advanced stage of decomposition. These will be disposed of as early as possible. May I point out that the constant change in the personnel of the Burials Section makes my work very difficult. I do not wonder that men prefer to be in the trenches, rather than be engaged in this work of Burials, which, under existing conditions, is the least to be desired of all Military Service. It is essential for health, morale and sentimental reasons that more regard be given to carrying out of all burials under active service conditions.

An OPD Churches of Christ chaplain acting as Burials Officer for the 3rd Division A.I.F chose the site for the now iconic cemetery. In the midst of this we find Cuttriss reporting that with the coming of the cricket season some time was devoted to the game when the Battalion was in the reserve position. Somehow he managed to provide some of the equipment. He also referred to the helpfulness of the a/C.O., Adjutant and Officers of the Battalion. Not all chaplains could report so favourably. They showed their loyalty to him by attending church parades. But Cuttriss was clearly feeling the strain. A letter in March 1918 to a friend from his home church is quite negative. He had neglected writing to his friends, the weather was bad and there was incessant shelling, the sad nature of his work was getting at him and he had not been in a frame of mind to write a coherent account, every building around him was rubble. He gloried in the victories of his unit, but lamented at the price paid for them. He said, “with my brave part we gave them the best burial that was possible under the circumstances.” Indicative of his state of mind are the last words of the letter: “I just keep pegging along, though at times my heart almost fails me.” Here was a man with battle fatigue.

Finally, he asked to be relieved of his work as Divisional Burials Officer. This was granted pending the arrival of his replacement who was delayed. In June, the Senior OPD Chaplain informed the administrative headquarters that he had received Cuttriss’ resignation and recommended acceptance. Five days later Brigadier-General T. Griffiths wrote saying that Cuttriss should be retained until the arrival of his replacement from Australia. In July he received a letter from John Monash, the General Officer Commanding Australian Army Corps as follows: Corps Headquarters 20th July, 1918 My Dear Chaplain, I regret very much to learn that in all probability you will be returning to Australia shortly, as the military chaplain who is to relieve you in your present duties will shortly arrive at the Front. I take this opportunity of extending to you my very best thanks for the splendid service which you have rendered in so many different capacities, in all of which you have been quite indefatigable, and of the greatest service to me and the 3rd Australian Division. As an army chaplain, your work among the troops it too well, and too favourably, known to need recognition by me. You have also for a long time carried out the difficult and dangerous duties of Burials Officer for the Division, a task which you have always performed with the fullest sense of its gravity and importance.

In addition the 3rd Division owes to you much for useful work in the historic and literary field, and the works which you have published, both in prose and in verse, have reflected renown upon the Division as upon yourself. I sincerely trust that your present resolve to do what is possible in Australia to stimulate recruiting will be given opportunities for fulfilment, and I trust that it will be possible for you later on to resume work at the Front. I can, with the utmost confidence, repeat what I said of you in the few lines of introduction which I wrote to your book – “Over the Top” – that you have, at all times and under all circumstances, displayed the very best qualities which have made the Australian soldier famous throughout the world. With very kind regards, Yours most Sincerely, (signed) John Monash. Cuttriss handed over the work as D.B.O. to his successor, Arthur Forbes, but remained with him for a few days conducting all the burials in connection with the current offensive. He was finally released on 16 September and sent to the United Kingdom for duty with the No. 2 Command Depot. He was to act as a transport chaplain to Australia on the Sardinia. He arrived back in Adelaide on 28 December 1918 and he was demobilised on 12 February 1919, owing to cessation of hostilities. On his return he resumed his ministry at Hindmarsh, Adelaide.

By Dennis Nutt (www.ea.org.au)

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