Sergeant Thomas Richard Knight

Adrienne Johns

17th Infantry Battalion, Australian Imperial Forces

On 19th August 1916, 23 year old shop assistant Thomas Richard Knight lifted his right hand and took the oath.

On his service record Thomas is described as 5 feet and 7¼ inches tall, with a chest measurement of 34 inches. His complexion was dark with brown hair and eyes, and his religion was given as Methodist.

Thomas had actually enlisted a few days’ earlier on the 5th of August at Victoria Barracks after a rudimentary, but thorough medical examination.

On enlistment Thomas was allotted to the 6th Reinforcements to the New South Wales based 17th Battalion, raised a few months earlier in Liverpool on the outskirts of Sydney. After initial recruit and basic infantry training in and around the military encampment at Liverpool, on 2nd November 1915 he embarked on His Majesty’s Australian Transport (HMAT) ship the A14 Euripides. On board were 2500 troops bound for England.

It is not clear whether Thomas joined the battalion at Gallipoli or remained in Egypt awaiting their return. By the time he had reached the Middle East a decision had already been made to withdraw all Australian and New Zealand forces from that blood soaked battleground, and preparations had already begun by the time he disembarked from the Euripides. Over the nights of 18 and 19 December 1915 the battalion, at the time at Quinn’s Post, successfully withdrew all troops without one single casualty and within days they were all safely disembarked at Mudros.

Thomas’ service record states that he was ‘taken on strength’ of 17 Battalion on 8 February 1916 and in March that year sailed with the battalion for France on the HMT Arcadian, arriving Marseilles on 23 March 1916. Immediately on disembarking the men boarded trains and sped north to Thiennes in the Armentieres section of the line, arriving at 0930hrs on 26 March.

The first major battle Thomas took part in was Pozieres, commencing on 25 July and continuing throughout the notorious August Offensives on the Somme. The day after the offensive began, however, he suffered his first wound which laid him up in the 1st Canadian General Hospital at Etaples for a month. On release from hospital he returned to his unit just in time for it to be withdrawn from the trenches to act as Divisional reserve in a quiet sector of Belgium around Reninghelst, south west of Ypres where they relieved other Australian and British troops on the front line.

For most of the remainder of September and October the battalion moved by train or by foot from sector to sector as action in the north of the allied line intensified.

HMAT Euripides departing Melbourne 11 September 1916

HMAT Euripides departing Melbourne 11 September 1916

In November Thomas was promoted Lance Corporal and on 30 January 1917 was promoted Corporal to fill a vacancy left by an NCO who had fallen sick. Two days later the battalion was back in the line relieving the 6th Gordon Highlanders in an area near Bapaume Road. Almost immediately they were attacked by Germans using gas and machine guns to try and drive the Australians out, but they held firm.

By now the weather was so bad that the soldiers had to be relieved every 2-3 days. Every morning they woke to a deep frost, and the biting winds meant that any exposed skin was soon blue with cold. It was under such conditions that, on one of the many trips out of and, a few days later, back into the trenches, Thomas was recommended for gallantry.

At dawn on 27 February as his platoon was being led back into the trenches, Germans suddenly opened fire criss-crossing the ground with intense machine gun fire. Thomas’s officer, Lieutenant Dickens, was hit and badly wounded. Without thought to his own safety, Thomas rushed forward and dragged the officer to safety. In doing so he received a bad gunshot wound to the thigh and was immediately evacuated. With little that they could do in France the medical authorities ordered him evacuated to England where he could receive more intensive treatment. On 5 March 1917 he was carried on board the Hospital Ship St Andrew at Bologne and transported to England and a hospital near Birmingham where he remained for over four months. Unfortunately, his recommendation was not approved at higher headquarters. It is possible that for some reason the recommendation never made it through to the next level in the chain of command.

On 1 August 1917 Thomas, now once more wearing the rank of Lance Corporal to which he reverted on evacuation, returned to France and his battalion. Within two weeks he not only regained his lost Corporal’s stripe but was promoted even further to the rank of Sergeant.

Having been taken out of the line to rest and refit, the battalion undertook a number of training exercises to introduce new reinforcements to the realities of life in the trenches and further hone the skills of officers and men for the journey ahead. Unfortunately, for the remainder of that month, and a few days into the next, the weather continued to be miserable, with rain interfering with most days’ activities. But by 12 September the men were ready to resume the fight.

Returning to Belgium the battalion found itself almost immediately on the offensive, this time in the area of Menin Road. On 20 September they put in an attack against German positions opposite their trench line, and once more Thomas showed his courage and leadership. The citation for his Military Medal reads:

During the operations near WESTHOEK on 20th September 1917 this N.C.O. proved himself a leader of men by his cheery and encouraging example, his absolute disregard for personal safety, and his determination. On the Officer in charge of his platoon becoming a casualty he assumed command and led it through to the third and final objective where he immediately saw to the consolidation of his position and made preparations for the counter-attack. Despite hostile bombardment he held on until the Battalion was relieved. On several previous occasions this N.C.O. has shown great courage but during this operation he excelled his previous high standard, not only by his devotion to duty and courage, but also by his determination and ability to handle men and win their confidence at a time when the situation absolutely demanded this.

His award for gallantry was published in the London Gazette on 12 December 1917.

This citation does not reflect the difficulty experienced by the officers and men of the battalion in achieving their objectives. The German position was not one long trench but a series of defended positions, each covered by concrete pillboxes from which heavy machine guns covered the ground between the Australians and their own men. Both enemy counter-attack and bombing from German aeroplanes were expected, as was a determined defence by the German troops.

The orders given to the men included the statement that ‘The words RETIRE and WITHDRAW are ABSOLUTELY FORBIDDEN.’ They were to take and hold every piece of ground they covered.

Three minutes before the attack commenced, the Germans, by coincidence or through genuine intelligence, began shelling the Australian positions. Even before the men left their trenches their officers were becoming casualties, and after enduring the bombardment for almost two hours the order to advance was given.

The first to advance was 18 Battalion, followed an hour and twenty minutes later by 17 Battalion whose orders included ‘leap frogging’ over 18 Battalion should it get bogged down in the fight. At first the going was relatively quiet with few casualties from direct enemy fire. But at 10.30 the German shelling increased, falling mainly on the men moving forward. This was not helped by the allied artillery, behind which the troops were advancing. This was reported as ‘erratic’ and at times falling on their own men.

The objectives were three lines of German trenches, each given to one of the three Australian battalions to capture. The first two were quickly taken by the Australians, but the third and furthest line, 17 Battalion’s objective, was still in enemy hands. After a brief fight the trench line was soon taken, now the task of holding onto the gains began.

For two days the men fought off attacks by the enemy determined to regain their lost ground. Aircraft continually strafed the men on the ground and German artillery pounded them, but still they held on. A history of 17 Battalion written by one of its former commanding officers tells us that Thomas was one among many who gave ‘an inspiring display of leadership which was in keeping with the traditions of the wearers of the coveted three stripes.’ He took command of the platoon when his officer was hit before the third objective had been achieved, and led the men throughout the consolidation and holding of that position until relieved two days later.

This became known as the Third Battle of Ypres, or simply Menin Road. Because the men were not issued their actual medal while still on active service in the field, on 21 October General Birdwood, the commander of the 1st ANZAC Corps, personally handed a ribbon to the MM for Thomas to wear in recognition of his courage and leadership during the battle.

In May 1918 Thomas was again wounded, this time while out of the line in a village called Lahoussoye north east of Amiens. The battalion had been ordered there for a rest, however German artillery had targeted the village so the troops were ordered out of the comfortable billets and into the trenches some six hundred metres away. Even this safety measure wasn’t enough and Thomas received slight wounds during a bombardment. He was back with his unit, bandaged and bruised, two days later.

Life in the trenches continued as before for Thomas and his men. Until, that is, the allied offensive against the Germans at Mont St Quentin in late August. Here, once again, Thomas was to show great leadership when all of the officers in his company became casualties and, without hesitation, he took command and led the men on to their final objective.

His citation reads:

During the attack on MONT ST. QUENTIN, near PERONNE, on 31st August 1918, and when all four Company Officers had become casualties, this N.C.O. immediately took charge of the remnants of the Company and, with great skill and tenacity, held on to his position, where 5 counter attacks were repelled. It was entirely due to his fine example and courage that his Company was reorganised and steadied up after a heavy enemy barrage had been put down on their sector.

During this battle 17 Battalion was put straight at the village of Mont St Quentin, and with pluck and determination took this objective against extremely heavy defensive fire. General Rawlinson’s Chief of Staff, Major General Montgomery, said that it was ‘one of the most notable examples of pluck and enterprise during the war.’ High praise indeed.

For his actions Thomas was awarded the Bar to the Military Medal, recorded in the London Gazette on 11 February 1919.

The war was to end for Thomas on 4 October 1918 during what would be the last major action of 17 Battalion. A week earlier he had returned from 14 days leave in London and arrived just in time to be warned out for the coming attack on the German lines at Beaurevoir above the village of Wiancourt.

The attack, well planned and valiantly pressed, was a disaster for the battalion. As they crossed the low ground before the village the men found it filled with mustard gas. Only a few were able to make it all the way to their starting line without suffering some effects from the gas, but later as they pushed home their attack against well sighted and determined enemy, the poison began to take its toll.

The battalion took its objective, but at a muster the day after the attack only five officers and sixty other ranks responded when their names were called. The remainder had either been killed (18 other ranks), wounded (5 officers and 85 other ranks) or gassed (113 all ranks). On 6 October, the day after the remaining members of the battalion had been given notice that they were to be withdrawn from the line (for what turned out to be the last time), Thomas was placed on a hospital ship and taken once more to England. After spending nearly two months in an Auxiliary Hospital at Portsmouth he was transferred to No 2 Command Depot in Weymouth on 11 December 1918 and returned to Australia on 18 January 1919. He was discharged from the AIF on 23 May 1919. Tom was temporarily blinded and had bad lung problems and poor eyesight for the rest of his life.

Fond memories of Tom, a gentle, kind, teller of tall tales, who went into bat to get us children out of trouble, which was often in our unhappy home.

I remember him in 1940; I was three and he forty seven. He always seemed old, tired, struggling for breath, and problems with his eyesight still plaguing him from the dreaded gas attacks throughout the war.

He didn’t complain, he didn’t tell
Anyone, that his life was hell.
It got to a point when twilight came
That the world disappeared, he was no longer game.
Wouldn’t step out and try, he gave up the ghost.
Couldn’t see from pillar to post.

Tom left his sister Myrtle’s home for the last time in the late 1950’s, walked three or four streets away, and then cut his throat. He didn’t want her to find him as they lived alone.

Tom was definitely a fatality from the 1914-1918 war, just delayed in time and place.

He was a war hero, but he was our own hero. Valé brave friend.