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Post Info TOPIC: More Mephisto Musings.


Legend

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More Mephisto Musings.
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IIRC, Charlie C observed some time ago that the recovery of Mephisto could be characterised as "instigated by Australian local command, executed by the British (1st GC Co.) with help from Australian infantry," and that such a description was unlikely to go down well in certain quarters. It seems, though, that he has some powerful allies, not least Jeff Hopkins-Weise and Greg Czechura, authors of books both big and small on the subject.

They say, "The operation to recover Mephisto was unquestionably a joint operation involving the British Tank Corps’ 1st Gun Carrier Company (part of the 5th Tank Brigade), the Australian 26th Infantry Battalion, and various supporting units." Memory, Commemoration and World War I: Mephisto, Queensland's unique 'war prize' . May 2019, p72

In addition, it seems that the more one reads about the episode, the less the Australians appear to have contributed.

Much can be gleaned from my treasured copy of Hopkins-Weise & Czechura's big Mephisto book (2018). https://www.shop.qm.qld.gov.au/default/books/military/mephisto-technology-war-and-remembrance-paperback-edition.html  but also a lot of cross-referencing and double checking.

26 Bn War Diary for July 14th, 1918 states: "During the attack the 26th captured the derelict German tank No. 506 Mephisto."

On the night of July 15-16, Lt Harold Ford Pearson (26 Bn, AIF) took three officers of the Gun Carrier Company to inspect the site. In his report of November13th (reproduced in the book) he states that an attack by the 26th on 17/18 July "pushed the enemy far enough away to enable the Tank Corps to remove the tank."

He goes on to say that "26th Battalion was relieved (by 23 Bn) on 18/19 July, but nightly after that date, until the tank was removed, working parties were sent up from the Battalion, filling in shell holes, etc. to facilitate the removal of the tank."

The authors point out that by this date the ground around Monument Farm was much more heavily cratered than it had been on April 24th when Mephisto became stuck.

Page 248: "The daring operation was to be conducted under cover of darkness, and the 26th Battalion were to be supported by crews and vehicles of the British 1st Gun Carrier Company. After liaising with Tank Corps and artillery officers, the recovery attempt was set for the night of 22/23 July along a route selected by officers from the Gun Carrier Company and prepared by working parties from the 26th. The Reconnaissance Officer for the Gun Carrier Company, Lt A.J. Mutton was heavily involved in the planning and preparations for the tank's recovery . . . . Mephisto was successfully dragged from its shell hole by the British tanks."

[I hadn't heard of Lt Mutton, but it's gen. He's on the roll, and the authors include a letter he wrote to his parents while recovering in hospital from the effects of gas sustained during the operation.]

Page 250, from the 1st Gun Carrier Company War History: "The ground was reconnoitred in advance by the Reconnaissance Officer (Mutton) and the route selected by him was carefully filled in during the two nights preceding the attempt." - by working parties from 26 Bn.

Now some oddities start to appear. The sergeant in charge of the Australians, Frank Roy Hanson says, "We proceeded along with three (sic) British tanks to where the enemy tank was stationed . . . my party coupled the enemy tank to the British tanks and removed the former to appx 3 miles in rear of this front line." Why does he say 'three'? Is it just a typo? I have sometimes wondered how they managed to attach more than one "tank" to Mephisto.

But maybe they didn't. On page 261, from the Queensland Museum archive: "In 1968 James A. Robinson (ex commander of 26 Bn) recalled that two British tanks had been involved with the retrieval of the disabled vehicle. 'One tank took Mephisto in tow while the remaining tank brought in the damaged caterpillar track.'"

What are we to make of that? First of all, we must address the question of whether the recovery vehicles were Gun Carriers or tanks, about which there is some argument. Unfortunately, even the Gun Carrier Company diary itself refers to both "tanks" and "Gun Carrier tanks," which is unhelpful. But they seem to have distinguished them by describing fighting tanks as "battle tanks." I can't see that the Gun Carrier Company would use anything but Gun Carriers, although there isn't enough concrete evidence to prove it beyond doubt. What is the caterpillar track to which Robinson refers? I've never seen any evidence of or reference to Mephisto losing a track. Everything looks fine in all the photographs. Certainly, if Mephisto had cast a track, then a Gun Carrier would be much more suitable for carrying it away than a Mark IV or V. But there doesn't seem to be any evidence. The Mephisto book shows a photo of a slightly damaged track shoe, but it's still attached to the others.

Robinson was speaking 50 years after the event and was 80, which might mean his recollection was inaccurate. It's got me beat.

The Gun Carrier Company's war diary indicates that its involvement was:

19/7/18 Reconn. of German Tank in Monument Wood
22/7/18 Reconn. of German Tank
23/7/18 German Tank pulled out and left in Bois l'Abbaye (sic)*
24/7/18 Taken to Amiens (precise location not stated)
26/7/18 German Tank towed to Vaux

* Probably a misprint. The western part of this wood is more often written as "Bois l'Abbé." That was Mephisto's first stop. The eastern part is the Bois d'Aquennes.

Gun Carriers moved their base several times during 1918: Anvin, Le Treport, Pierremont, Humeroeuille, and by May, Querrieu Wood. (GC diary.)

Next: Was Mephisto ever in No Man's Land? Probably not, or only briefly. It was abandoned while still behind the German advance, and remained there after the Front stabilised, the orchard still being in German hands. Mephisto wasn't between the traditional two lines of trenches. Two days after the Armistice, the aforementioned Lt. Pearson drew a map of the area, showing the Allied movements on July 13th, during which Mephisto was "captured."

Meph_Pearson_map.jpg

The front line is shown here in red(ish). It appears that the Allies took over three sections of trench between 5pm and 10pm.  A patrol moved south until reaching the junction of two trenches (A to B), then turned left and bombed their way eastwards, along Syria Trench (B to C) to the main road that runs roughly north/south. Then 26 Bn moved forward to a line running north-east from there (C to D) and finally the line C to E.

That placed Mephisto, according to Lt. Pearson, "about 50 or 60 yards inside our line of posts." It would seem that Mephisto changed hands without any appreciable stay in No Man's Land - if there was such a thing. There are some extremely detailed accounts and maps of these actions in the Official History. This is one of the accompanying maps:

Meph_26th_Officialhistory.jpg


So in studying the acquisition (I shall not use a stronger term) of Mephisto, beginners' level is "Some cheeky Larrikins pulled the tank out of a shell hole in No Man's Land and sneaked it to Australia." Some accounts aren't far from that. The harder you look at it, the further from that it becomes. I remember a conversation, some time ago and before I had read up about the Gun Carrier involvement, in which I said it seemed odd that Australian infantrymen should have the skills required to operate a tank or Gun Carrier. Of course, they didn't. Some accounts say that the tank crews "supported" the Australians; others make no mention of them at all. I think it's fair to say that the men of 26 Bn provided valuable but largely unskilled labour. Tank Corps officers provided the expertise. Everything was done through the proper channels, up to Brigade level, the cooperation of artillery, the Tank Corps, and the RAF secured, and so on. And without the Gun Carriers none of it would have been possible.

I must, of course, stress that this assessment is in no way meant to detract from the contribution, courage, and sacrifice of Australia's soldiers in the War. It's merely to get the story straight.

I'll close with the words of C.E.W. Bean, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. Referring to the recovery of Mephisto, a footnote on page 366:

It had been disabled on April 24 ( J C C Vol. V , pp. 552, 632n). It was now salved on the night of July 22 by British tanks in conjunction with a working party of Queenslanders.


P.S. Amongst the documentation there are frequent references to "the railhead at Poulainville." There was no Poulainville station, but there was a station roughly equidistant between Poulainville and Bertangles, and a siding/passing point where loading and unloading could take place. This seems to bear out the conclusion we came to in an older thread that there was no broad gauge railway between there and Vaux-en-Amiénois, so Mephisto must have made that short trip by road. The railway is disused but still there.



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Legend

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May I point out that the 1st Gun Carrier Company took heavy losses of Gun Carriers in a German bombardment of Monument Wood

in June (I think). The losses were made up with Supply tanks since both Gun Carrier units were committed to supply duties.

I doubt whether many troops could have told the difference between a rhomboid tank and a supply tank especially at night during a

gas attack as occurred when Mephisto was recovered. 

I think gang towing would be possible in a top tower tank - I have a vague recollection someone found an image of a pair of rhomboid

tanks gang towing.

Charlie



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Colonel

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Well done, guys!  Thanks for taking time to document all this . . .

 

Bosun Al



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Commander in Chief

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These are the two Mk.Vs that may have dragged 506 to the Vaux/Poulainville training ground. The French folks in both pictures - not only the guy marked x - are identical (well, some of them are; obviously 506 was more attractive than the Mk.Vs). Unfortunately, no numbers or names are visible on the Mk.Vs.



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MZ


Legend

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This is getting very interesting.

Charlie: Yes, the 1st Gun Carrier War Diary notes the loss of machines on 6 - 7 August. "Fire caused amongst tanks (sic) at 0:29 by shell. 3 saved, 14 burnt out." If this helps: there's also a reference to "Supply Tank 808 received direct hit, 27/9/1918."

MZ: That's very nice. There are certainly at least 4 people in both pictures, so it's the same location and probably about the same time. Don't know where the rest of the kids have got to. Also; there's a cable between the Mark Vs that seems to be attached to a "top tower" and to the front of the left-hand tank.

In the photo of Mephisto + children, there's a steel cable through the front mg ports, presumably for towing it. But when? The British lion can be seen on the side, so it's after arrival at Vaux-en-Amiénois.

 


3.jpg
This photo also shows a hawser through the front mg ports. We can't see whether the lion is also on Mephisto at this point, but the Gun Carrier and 26 Bn badges have been painted on. I don't think we know the exact date on which these were done, but whoever did it must have been out of danger from enemy bullets or shells in order to have the time to complete the painting. Was it done at Bois l'Abbé, before Mephisto was moved to Amiens? The photos said to be of Vaux show artwork on both sides.

 

8.jpg

This shot, believed to be from Poulainville-Bertangles, shows a chain passing through the rear mg ports, as if Mephisto has been towed backwards, perhaps from Vaux to the railhead. (Btw, Vaux and Poulainville are separate locations, about 7.5 km apart)

So maybe someone can work out the chronology, or maybe there's more evidence out there somewhere.

Which brings us back to MZ's photos. We've been to Vaux a couple of times. I'd like to go again and spend more time tracking down the exact locations. And I did look at the photo of the children and wonder whether, if they are kids from the area, their descendants still live around there. How fantastic it would be to track them down. Who knows, they might have photos of their own?

But there's a problem. I don't know where the presence of the French officers places the photo, but there's something more telling. Almost everyone is wearing warm clothing - overcoats, hats, scarves. And I know WWI photos can be misleading, but it looks to me as if there is snow on the ground.

Mephisto was at Vaux from, IIRC, July to October before being moved to Merlimont. It's highly unlikely that there would have been snow during those three months. I don't think the photos are from Vaux or Poulainville at all. They must be from later in the year or from 1919, somewhere on the route to Dunkirk.

How the Mark Vs fit into it, I don't know. It's a pity there aren't more photos of Mephisto's movements after the stay at Vaux. You would have thought it would have aroused more interest.

I'm open to discussion.



-- Edited by James H on Saturday 5th of February 2022 01:34:20 AM

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Legend

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Thanks - the major loss of Gun Carriers is out of scope for the Mephisto recovery.

Another hypothesis is that given a choice taking rhomboid tracked vehicles onto a battlefield would make more sense. The Gun Carriers were

noted for getting their tracks jammed with mud between the tracks and the superstructure.

Charlie

 



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Commander in Chief

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The pictures attributely taken at Vaux/Poulainville show 506's turret still in place (front plate halfway down, but the other three sides still up). In the picture I posted, the turret is gone except for the left side plate. It must therefore haven been taken later - and thus cannot show the arrival of the tank. It may, however, show the arrival at Merlimont, which would explain the cold weather clothing.



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MZ


Legend

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I must stress that the training ground was at Vaux, and the railhead was between Poulainville and Bertangles, 7km from Vaux.

A major difference between the two sets of photos is that in the ones believed to be of Poulainville-Bertangles, Mephisto has been roped off, in a not very intimidating way, presumably to discourage people from tampering with it.

It also seems that the photo of (probably) Merlimont, is the only one we know of between Poulainville/Bertangles and Australia. What a pity. And who is the man marked with an 'x' in the two photos? Did he make the crosses, or perhaps a relative of his? If only . . .



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Commander in Chief

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This picture was sold (unfortunately not to me) some years ago as showing 506 at Berck Plage, which is around the corner from Merlimont. It seems the right side turret plate was also still there.



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Legend

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Et voilà:

Merlimonplage.jpg

If you scroll down here, you'll find photos of a presentation Mark IV at Merlimont and information about the training school, but no Mephisto or Mk Vs, as far as I can tell.

MZ: That's a brilliant photo. I wonder if it would be worth contacting the local paper or TV and getting them to ask if anyone recognises any of the people or if they have old family photographs?



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Commander in Chief

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I don't know who bought the picture, but I imagine it must have been a guy collecting local items. Therefore, getting in contact with the Berck history assocation - or whatever it's called - might bear fruits. The picture was clearly labelled as showing a big German tank captured by the Australians at the Somme at "Berck Plage", no mention of Merlimont. So, Berck might be the trigger word.



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MZ


Legend

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Brilliant. I'll see if I can find somebody.

The following is from Le Touquet-Paris-Plage pendant la guerre 1914-1918 by Jean Descamps (Société académique du Touquet-Paris-Plage)

"The British set up in force, in and around Merlimont. First they created a tank training school, the tanks being sheltered in a small wood to the right of the road from Merlimont village to Merlimont beach.

One assumes that's where the red circle is. Berck is 6km away. I assume the grey line running north-south is the current railway line.

Merli.jpg

"These tanks found an excellent training ground in the dunes that stretch towards Le Touquet-Paris-Plage"

When the British moved out, they left behind several trophy tanks, including one at the junction of the road to Berck and the road that takes you to Merlimont-Plage.

It might be me, but it does seem that some sources are a bit inconsistent in their use of the names Berck and Merlimont.

But anyway, I'll see if I can dig anything up.

Now we have a sighting of Mephisto in this area. Is the next step Dunkirk?

 



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