One hundred years ago today James Fitzroy Foot lay dying. Driving rain turned the ground beneath him into thick mud which oozed into his uniform and quickly embraced him.
He lay with others from his battalion near the border between France and Belgium. Officially they were in France but so close to the border, when their mates found them they buried them together in the vicinity of Messines in Belgium. Reverend Cutten reported their burial on the 12th of August. James was barely nineteen, from Springsure in central Queensland. Annie Wheeler grew up in Springsure and knew James’s family well.
James was part of the 42nd battalion which was attached to General Plumer’s Second Army. Since the battle of Messines their efforts were focused on destroying German resistance along the Warneton Line in preparation for the major offensive to capture the strategic Passchendaele ridge. The 42nd battalion would be part of a supportive feint attack to the south, designed to weaken the German defence by drawing it away from the main battle.
The feint and the main battle of Passchendaele began at the same time, 3.50am on the morning on the 31st of July. The battalion made good progress but despite the unprecedented shelling by the British in the weeks leading up to the battle the counter attack was fierce and they were heavily bombarded.
Then the rain fell, in great torrents, and the battle of Passchendaele, already ill-planned turned disasterous. The fields of Ypres became a human slaughter-house.
James was killed on the 31st of July but news of his death took time to filter through. His family were devastated. He was the baby. They needed more information about his death and wrote to Annie Wheeler. “I am writing to you because you will most likely meet some of the 42nd who were with James at the time and if you could gain any information about his death. Only a few particulars would be so comforting. He was our baby brother – only 19 and 2 months when he died.”
The family also wrote to the AIF and were told all that remained were discs, a wallet and some photos. They were told where he was buried. In 1928, the Graves’ Commission found the remains of the C.O. of the 42nd battalion, Lieutenant Norman Freeman and five other soldiers near Messines. Paper work confirmed one of the soldiers was James Foot. Another was Private J. Fallon also from the 42nd battalion. James was exhumed and reburied in Sanctuary Wood Cemetry at Zillesbeke. His mates were buried beside him.
Map courtesy of the “Unofficial History of the Australian and New Zealand Armed Services” – http://www.diggerhistory.info/pages-battles/ww1/france/warneton.htm.
Annie Wheeler’s papers have been digitised by the State Library of Queensland and are available online – www.slq.gov.au
James Foot’s war record has been digitised by the NAA and is available online www.naa.gov.au
Information about the 42nd battalion is available online at the AWM – www.awm.gov.au