Service Number: 2412
Unit: 49th Battalion
Date of Death: 5 April 1918
Memorial: Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux, France
The Battle of Dernancourt, fought on the Somme in April 1918, took a heavy toll on the communities of Amosfield and Stanthorpe. Four local men were killed in action over two days. Private Edmund Stewart, of Stanthorpe who served with the 4th Pioneers, was killed in action at Dernancourt on 4 April. The next day three Granite Belt soldiers were killed in action at Dernancourt. They were: Private William Chapman, of Amosfield, who died of wounds received in the fighting; Private Arthur “Jerry” Davis of Stanthorpe, also of the 49th Battalion; and Private Robert Watkinson, of Applethorpe, 47th Battalion.
William Chapman was born at Willson’s Downfall, the youngest of five children of James and Mary Ann Chapman. He grew up at Willson’s Downfall and attended the Amosfield public school and worked as a labourer before enlisting. His mother, Mary Ann, had died in 1902, when James was just four years old, and was buried in the Tenterfield Cemetery.
William stated he was 19 years and one month old when he enlisted in Warwick, Queensland, on 22 March 1916. At Warwick he joined the 5th Reinforcements of the 49th Battalion. William left Brisbane on active service aboard HMAT Seang Choon on 19 September 1916. He disembarked in Plymouth, England, on 9 December 1916. He then undertook further training with the 13th Training Battalion at Codford, on the Salisbury Plain.
It appears William took some time to settle into Army life as he was found to be Absent Without Leave (AWL) between 2 and 12 January 1917 and was sentenced to 11 days detention, two days in custody, and the forfeiture of 24 days’ pay. William was found to be AWL again between 5 and 10 February with his punishment being five days detention and the forfeiture of 10 days’ pay. He was found guilty of the same offence on 12 March and on this occasion was sentenced to 14 days Field Punishment No.2, one day in custody, and the forfeiture of 16 days’ pay.
William left Codford on 9 April to join the fighting on the Western Front and on 13 April was taken on strength by the 49th Battalion at Noreuil, on the Somme in France.
In early June, the 49th Battalion was engaged in the Battle of Messines. Following the exploding of 19 mines positioned under the German lines at 3:10am on 7 June, nine infantry divisions attacked across a front of 15.5 km. The 49th Battalion was active in the fighting which took a heavy toll. The Battalion went into the battle with 31 officers and 892 men and when relieved on 13 June, its strength had been reduced to 21 officers and 582 men (Cranston 1983, 22-27).
On 7 June William was seriously wounded in action at Messines, receiving a gunshot wound to his back and chest. He was first treated at the 11th Casualty Clearing Station before being admitted the next day to the 3rd Canadian General Hospital at Boulogne. William’s wounds were severe and required his transfer on 10 June to the Manor House Hospital, Folkestone, England. Following treatment and his recovery, William was released for furlough on 27 July and asked to report to the No.1 Command Depot at Pernham Downs on 10 August.
His father James was sent a telegram on 23 June informing him that William had been admitted to hospital with a severe gunshot wound to the chest and that he would be advised of anything further received.
William proceeded overseas again on 19 October. On 2 November, he rejoined his battalion that was resting at Reclinghem in Northern France following the fighting in the Battle of Passchendaele.
Following the collapse of the Russian Front, the Germans launched Operation Michael on 21 March 1918. This was an attack made by 32 infantry divisions across a front of some 70 km and successfully retook much ground that had been lost in the early years of the war. The 49th Battalion was called into action on 25 March when they were moved to hold the line at Forceville, north of Albert on the Somme. The next day the 12th Australian Brigade came under attack at Dernancourt, where they counterattacked and recaptured the town. The 49th Battalion was brought in to relieve the 45th Battalion at Dernancourt and for the next 10 days the Australian forces fought hard to hold the frontline along the Albert to Amiens road. On the morning of 5 April, the Australian front line was subject to an intense barrage of high explosive and gas shells. The German infantry attacked and broke through in a number of areas. The 49th Battalion was ordered to counterattack at Dernancourt at 5.15am and by 6:30am the German forces were reported to be in retreat. The casualties at Dernancourt for the Australian battalions were described as being “tragically heavy” with the 49th Battalion suffering the loss of 14 officers and 207 other ranks (Cranston 1983, 37-44).
William was reported first as missing and wounded in action on 5 April 1918 at Dernancourt. There was no further information until a Court of Enquiry was held on 27 September 1918.
The Court of Enquiry was held at Clairy-Sawlchoix, France, by the order of Lieut-Col J.L. Witham, Commander of the 49th Battalion. The president was Captain A.J. Gledhill and the members were Lieutenant A.R. Lyon and Lieutenant A.F. Mosley, all of the 49th Battalion. The Court of Enquiry reviewed statements regarding what happened to William.
2254 Private Rupert Sommerville, of Temora, gave one such a statement:
On Friday 5th April near Albert I was lying alongside of 2412 Pte. Chapman and saw he got wounded through the right leg. He complained of being wounded in the stomach, and stretcher bearers came along and carried him away.
2396A Private John Henry Beyer, of Maryborough, reported:
From what I know about Pte Chapman’s death he was wounded the same day as myself at Albert on the 5th April 1918. We were both laying in the same shell hole, but he passed away before I got removed. He went off very quiet, for we were both talking to one another beforehand. I know him well for we were both in the same Reinforcement leaving Q’Land.
The Court of Enquiry then having considered the evidence found that “No. 2412 Pte. Chapman W. reported wounded & missing on 5/4/18 was wounded on 5/4/18 & died of wounds on the same day”.
Other soldiers later gave the Red Cross, similar but slightly differing accounts:
425 Private Joseph Strong told the Red Cross:
I knew Private William Chapman, from C. Company, 10th Platoon: he came from Wilsons Downfall, N.S.W. & was a labourer. I was told Private Byass, Battalion S/Bearer, said that he had seen him lying dead in a shell hole in “No Man’s Land” at Dernancourt in April 1918.
2924 Private John Jones, of Longreach, stated:
On 5th April we were on our way up to take Villers-Bretonneux and had got within 1/2 hour of the place, when a shell landed among a lot of men, killing Chapman outright. He was buried where he fell. Cpl. Cox. C Coy told me about it, in July when we were discussing the casualties.
Private Jones described William as being 5 ft. 7in., slim, fair hair, wounded at Messines 1916, known as “Chappy”.
On 30 August 1918, Mrs. Eva Goodyear of Willson’s Downfall wrote to the Army asking:
Could you kindly give me a definite answer whether Private W. Chapman No.2412 5th 49 Battalion is killed. If so when. His pay has been stopped & his father says he got no word that he was killed. Only he received from Headquarters in Sydney on 6th 8 1918 that all, payments made to him on behalf of W. Chapman (now missing) would terminate on 8.8.1918 & he says that was all he heard about him. I would like to get any particulars I could about him as I am a relation of his & also for his poor old dad’s sake.
Base Records replied that no information has been received since the report that William was “Wounded and missing 5/4/18”. “The stoppage of his allotment is in accordance with the decision that the pay of missing soldiers shall cease after a certain period elapses. The fact that his allotment ceases does not indicate that the soldier is deceased.”
On 12 September a standard-form letter was sent from Army Base Records to James Chapman stating “I regret to have to inform you that no further official news has yet been received of No. 2412 Private W. Chapman who was reported missing on 5th April 1918.
James replied on 14 October that “I have received no news of my son other than the official news stating that was wounded & missing”.
Then on 18 October 1918, the Stanthorpe Border Post reported:
Word was received in Stanthorpe on Monday that Private W. Chapman, son of Mr J. Chapman, Liston, had died of wounds on 5th April, 1918. Private Chapman was previously reported missing, and it was feared that the worst had befallen him. Much sympathy will be felt for his relatives.
Private William Chapman was 21 years old when he died. He has no known grave and is remembered on the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, France.
Cranston, F. (1983). “Always Faithful” The History of the 49th Battalion. 1st Edition. Brisbane. Boolarong Publications.
Private William Chapman 2412. Courtesy of Virtual War Memorial Australia. https://vwma.org.au/explore/people/226421
Australian War Memorial Collection E02216. The German offensive, 1918, its extreme forward limit at Dernancourt. Part of the battlefield of Dernancourt taken from the Australian front line.
A similar view of the battlefield at Dernancourt, April 2018.
The Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux, France.
The battlefield towards Buire sur Ancre, April 2023.
The railway line at Dernancourt, April 2023.