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Lot 23: 24 letters written by Pte Cyril Dunphy
April 30, 2015
Adelaide, AustraliaLive Auction
DUNPHY, Cyril John: A collection of 24 letters written by 3284 Private Cyril John Dunphy, initially of the 26th Battalion (7th Reinforcements), then the 12th Battalion. The letters were written in England and France between 19 August 1916 and 19 November 1918. All but three are to his mother in their home town of Burnie, Tasmania; two are to his aunt, one to a young brother. The correspondence runs to 34 quarto pages and 26 octavo pages; apart from the first letter (seven quarto pages, typed), they are written in pencil. There are also fourteen original envelopes, many of which carry Field Post Office date-stamps. Related ephemera, often referred to in the letters, include fifteen picture postcards and five embroidered silk postcards (often with messages), a 'From One of the Expeditionary Force' gilt- and colour-printed Christmas card, a Hospital Redirection Card, and some official correspondence regarding money. There are also a few postcards and photographs (including one of Cyril) from 1919. The archive also includes a small number of items written by Cyril's younger brother Leo (2525 Private Leo James Raymond Dunphy, a trooper in the 13th Light Horse Regiment): these comprise three relatively routine letters (three quarto pages and two octavo pages), three postcards and a Christmas card. A detailed list of contents accompanies the archive.
Cyril Dunphy (1893-1940) was born in Victoria, but the family was living in Tasmania when he enlisted. He embarked from Hobart on 13 December 1915 on A31 HMAT Ajana. He joined the 12th Battalion when it deployed to the Somme in March 1916. As the Australian War Memorial website puts it succinctly, 'From then until 1918 the battalion took part in bitter trench warfare. The battalion's first major action in France was at Pozieres in the Somme valley in July 1916. After Pozieres, the battalion fought at Ypres in Flanders and then returned to the Somme for winter. In 1917 the battalion took part in the brief advance that followed the German Army's retreat to the Hindenburg Line.... The battalion subsequently returned to Belgium to participate in the offensive that became known as the Third Battle of Ypres. In March and April 1918 the battalion helped to stop the German spring offensive, and later participated in the great allied offensive of 1918, fighting near Amiens on 8 August 1918. This advance by British and empire troops was the greatest success in a single day on the Western Front, one that German General Erich Ludendorff described as "the black day of the German Army in this war". The battalion continued operations until late September 1918' when it was withdrawn from the line to rest! Needless to say, the battalion sustained heavy casualties, with more than 1130 killed and 2420 wounded.
One of those wounded - seriously wounded, and on two occasions - was Cyril Dunphy. His first letter, dated 'France, 19/8/16' (seven quarto pages, typed), was sent from a convalescent camp on the shores of France. He spends the first three pages describing the march from Sailly (departing 2 July) to just behind the firing line; this is not without interest. However, after being there three days 'we were to relieve the Tommies. On the Saturday morning we were told what part we were going to play in the great advance and I can tell you things did not look too bright for us as we had to take that village called Poizieres [sic] ... Well we had 150 cartridges in our equipment and two bandiliers [sic] of them around our waist. They gave us two bombs to carry in our pockets and we also had to carry a shovel or pick on our backs. We had to take three days meals with us ... Well we left the old German trench at 10 o'clock on Saturday 22nd July where we went to take our part in the offensive. Nothing happened till about two miles behind the firing line and the Germans must have got the news we were going along the road and they opened up their big guns on to us and a terrible lot of our men were killed. They were lying all over the road killed and wounded and it was a terrible sight to see. They were not satisfied with that because very soon after they sent gas at us and I can tell you it is a terrible thing, we could not get our helmets on very quickly as we had so much on our backs and could not get our helmets down under our coats so you see we lost some more with the gas, but it did not affect me very much although I had my neck badly burned with the chemicals off the helmet. This gas, Mother, is a terrible thing and our chaps are playing the same now so the Germans will know what a terrible death it is. Your throat swells up and they can do nothing for the poor men at all just watch them go slowly off. If a man does happen to get over it his life is settled as it brings on consumption'. The 12th Battalion 'had to take the last [trench] which was the worst of all.... our guns fired on the German trenches and we had to crawl up to where the shells were bursting and as soon as they stopped firing we had to hop into their trench and bayonet every one of them. I will say this much that we did not lose very many this charge, but the time that we lost so heavily was two days after. We took a good number of prisoners but most of the boys had no time for them so they killed them. After we took their trenches we had to make them secure against them counter attacking and their snipers played up as one of them shot thirteen of our men in about ten minutes'. On the Monday, the Germans counter-attacked and were repelled; on 'twelve o'clock on Tuesday morning forty of us had orders to go out in front of the trench on patrol'. The Germans sent up star shells; 'they got all around us as they saw us ... they opened up on us and so did their machine guns and I can tell you we had to lay as near to the ground as possible to keep out of harm's way. We got back to the trenches only losing a couple of men. We were not there very long before the Germans opened up a terrible bombardment on us and I can tell you that we were chopped about to some order. They kept it up for five solid hours and the ones that were not killed with the shells were buried from the shells as they had the range of our trenches to the very inch as they were in them themselves before we were. It is a sight that we are not likely to forget to our dying day as the dead were lying all over the battle field and the wounded it was something cruel. Just after they opened up on us I was hit on the jaw ... I would not go [to the hospital] and a little later I got one on the hip and a shell buried me and I was just dug out in time. It did not take me long then to make up my mind to go to the hospital'.
The second letter is in the same vein: twelve octavo pages (of fourteen), written on 5 May the following year from hospital in London, where he was recuperating from being wounded in action on Easter Sunday (8 April) 1917 in the battle for Boursies. That day 'We took the trench without losing many lives and then had to dig in. All the time we were digging they were sniping at us to some order. We were were [sic] knocking them all day long as some of them would come out with their hands up to be taken prisoners but we had special orders to fire on them.... On Sunday evening they opened up a very heavy shell fire on to us and they crept up behind the bursting shells to counter attack us. When they got near our trench they started to throw bombs and we lost very heavy and this is when I was wounded. They drove what few of the boys were left out of the trench and took most of the wounded prisoners. Our Captain had to send out for another Battalion to come in and help us as our company was wiped out completely only about 12 being left. When they arrived they got the Germans out of the position and advanced still further and rescued our wounded that they had taken prisoners'. Two members of the 12th Battalion, 'Our Captain' James Newland and Sergeant John Whittle, were awarded the Victoria Cross for their actions that day at Boursies and at Lagnicourt a few days later.
The bulk of the letters, sent from France, are self-censored; although they are still descriptive and discursive, they are more reflective and compassionate. Dunphy writes at length about the destruction wrought on the landscape, the villages and cities, the hapless plight of the refugees ('we give the people some of our rations and always give them a drink of tea'), and on one occasion he records that 'myself and a mate dressed three or four Germans wounds for them and gave the poor devils our only drop of water and had to go without ourselves'). In one memorable passage he describes soldiers harvesting abandoned crops: 'a pretty sight now seeing just on a thousand men and a couple hundred wagons bringing in the crops. Thousands upon thousands of pounds have been saved by the soldiers doing this work'. These later letters from France may pale by comparison, but how many lengthy letters like the two early ones quoted above could one (let alone one's mother) bear to read? These documents constitute a very strong unpublished appendix to the official history of the battalion, 'The Story of the Twelfth' by Lieutenant Leslie Newton (first published in 1925).