The Grangetown son of an Irishman, who enlisted in Australia and died in France

L/Cpl Roderick Connors, 49th Australian Infantry Battalion 1888-1916

Early life: Roderick Connors was born in August 1888 in Grangetown, Cardiff to Michael Connors (born in County Kilkenny, Ireland), who is variously listed in censuses as a wagon builder, a carpenter and a shoemaker, and his second wife, Emily J. Connors (née Turner, born in Bristol). The third child of a large Catholic family, Roderick had around 10 brothers and sisters, although the true number is difficult to ascertain from the census data, and for at least a portion of his childhood he lived at 36 Thomas Street, 7 Corporation Road and 156 Penarth Road, Grangetown. He is recorded as attending St Patrick's Catholic School in Grangetown, Cardiff and he went on to have a naval career, although the exact nature of his employment is unknown beyond the vague term ‘seaman’.

At least two of his brothers served in World War One: James (born 1896), who served in the Royal Artillery, and Patrick (born 1894) who enlisted in as a driver in the Army Service Corps in September 1914, before being invalided out in 1915 after he broke his leg in an accident with a mule ambulance at the front in France.

Roderick's enlistment paper

Joining up: Roderick enlisted on February 1st 1915 (then aged 26, six months) at a recruiting office in Townsville, Queensland, Australia. Presumably his job as a seaman led him to be in Australia when the call for recruits was issued, explaining how a young man from Grangetown ended up as an ANZAC. Roderick is described in his enlistment papers as being 5' 7" in height, 9st 2lbs in weight, having a 38” chest, fair skin, brown hair, blue eyes and as being a Roman Catholic and single. He was originally assigned to the 5th reinforcement of the 9th Battalion (Infantry), 3rd Infantry Brigade, 1st Division, Australian Imperial Force (AIF).

Setting sail for Gallipoli: On April 16th 1915, Roderick embarked HMAT A55 Kyarra at Brisbane, Queensland, destined to join up with his unit in the eastern Mediterranean. The Kyarra was a cargo and passenger luxury liner, built in Scotland in 1903 for the Australian United Steam Navigation Company. (She was sunk in May 1918 by U-boat). After his basic training and the lengthy voyage from Australia, Roderick eventually joined up with his unit at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, Turkey on June 22nd. The 3rd Brigade, of which the 9th Battalion AIF was part, had been the covering force for the ANZAC landings on the 25th of April 1915, and was the first unit ashore at around 0430 hrs. The battalion was heavily involved in establishing and defending the front line of the Gallipoli beachhead and it stayed at Anzac Cove until the evacuation in December 1915. Upon his arrival, along with the rest of the reinforcements, Roderick undertook various forms of training, although the battalion diary records that the training was often cancelled due to incoming Ottoman shells. This was a common occurrence as Anzac Cove was always within 1km of the front-line, well within the range of Turkish artillery. Despite the precarious situation, the beach at Anzac Cove became hugely important as an enormous supply dump with jetties for the landing of stores and two field hospitals. However, Roderick’s stay with the 9th Battalion AIF was short lived as, on September 15th 1915 he was hospitalised with ‘neuralgia’, eventually being transferred to Malta and then to a hospital in Edgbaston, Birmingham where he would stay until October 8th 1915. Whilst still in Britain, on January 6th 1916, he was punished in Weymouth for overstaying Christmas leave. Whilst there is no evidence for this, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that he went home to Cardiff for the Christmas period, despite not having leave to do so. For this indiscretion he was confined to barracks for 10 days and fined four days pay, before eventually being shipped back to Egypt, finally rejoining his unit on March 11th 1916.

Off to France: Major General Alexander Godley, then commanding the 1st Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (1 ANZACs), proposed the use of Australian reinforcements, then training in Egypt, to form two new divisions. The Australian government agreed and a new 4th Division began forming in Egypt in February 1916. The division was initially stationed on the Suez Canal and on t April 2nd, Pte Roderick Connors was transferred to the 49th Battalion (Infantry), 13th Infantry Brigade, 4th Division, Australian Imperial Force. On June 5th 1916, Roderick’s new battalion embarked from Egypt for France, setting sail from Alexandria aboard HMS Arcadian, a Barrow-in-Furness built passenger liner, arriving at Marseilles, France, a week later.

Promotion and training near the Somme: The Australian 4th Division originally took over part of a "nursery" sector near Armentieres, north of Lille. Their stay there was brief and soon the 4th Division was accompanying the 1st and 2nd Divisions of the AIF towards the Somme. The war diary of the 49th Battalion records that they were at ‘Rouge de Bout’ engaged in various training activities before moving in stages to Pernois by mid of July. Here they undertook more training, including route marching, gas mask drill and bayonet training until the end of the month. Roderick’s unit then marched via Rubempre to Toutencourt for yet more training, the activities listed this time being night assaults, forest assaults and rifle exercises On August 2nd, Roderick is recorded as having been promoted to lance corporal in the field, whether this advancement was due to a particular action of his or the loss of an existing NCO is not recorded.

The Battle of Pozières: On August 5th 1916 the 4th Division AIF was ordered to relieve the exhausted 2nd Division AIF on the Pozières Heights. The German stronghold of the village of Pozières lay atop a ridge in the approximate centre of the British sector of the Somme battlefield and the strategic importance of Pozières was further compounded by the fact that the highest point of the Somme battlefield lay close by the village. The initial attack on Pozières, undertaken by the 1st Division AIF, had taken place on July 22nd-23rd as part of larger offensive by the British 4th Army. Although, by the end of the second day the village had been secured by the Australians, the main attack by the 4th Army, between Pozières and Guillemont, was a costly failure, leaving the Australian position at Pozières exposed. Pozières became a focus of attention for the Germans, forming a critical element of their defensive system, and the German command ordered that it be retaken at all costs. With British activity now declining elsewhere on its front, the German IV Corps, on whose sector Pozières lay, was free to concentrate most of its artillery against the village and its approaches. Initially the bombardment was methodical and relentless without being intense. Known trenches and strong-points, such as the "Gibraltar" bunker, received shell after shell. The western approach to the village, which led from “Casualty Corner” near the head of “Sausage Valley”, received such a concentration of shellfire that it was thereafter known as "Dead Man's Road". The German bombardment intensified on July 25th in preparation for their next counter-attack to retake the village.

By this stage artillery from all around was able to join in. The bombardment reached a crescendo on July 26th and by 0500 hrs the Australians, believing an attack was imminent, appealed for a counter-barrage. The increase in British artillery action led the Germans to believe that the Australians were preparing another attack and so they in turn increased their fire yet again and it was not until midnight that the shelling subsided. At its peak, the German bombardment of Pozières was the equal of anything yet experienced on the Western Front. The 2nd Division AIF took over the sector on July 27th and General Hubert Gough, commander of the British Reserve Army, pressed for an immediate attack. When this attack was launched on July 29th in less than ideal conditions, the Australians were met by a hail of machine gun fire. To the south the 5th Brigade remained pinned down, unable to even get started. On their left the 7th Brigade encountered uncut wire. On the northern flank of the sector some minor progress was made by the 6th Brigade but everywhere else the attack was a failure, with the 2nd Division AIF losing over 3,500 men. Following criticism from General Haig ("You're not fighting Bashi-Bazouks now") a second attack by the Australians on August 4th delivered success and the frontline was pushed back from the Pozières ridge, allowing the Australians a vantage point over the surrounding countryside. The importance of this operation is demonstrated by a German order given soon after the Australian assault: "at any price Hill 160 (Pozières Ridge) must be recovered."

The landscape of Mouquet Farm after the battle

Under heavy fire: It was into this situation that Roderick was thrown as part of the 4th Division AIF relieving the 2nd Division AIF. The 4th Division AIF began to move towards Pozières on however, whilst they could relieve the 2nd Division AIF, the Australians on the front line were subjected to a major artillery bombardment from the Germans. The exposed location of the salient which they occupied meant their positions could be shelled from all directions, including from Thiepval which lay to the rear. The next morning (August 6th) saw the Germans launching a major counterattack against the Australian lines, but this was met by machine gun fire and the German forces were compelled to dig in. The bombardment continued through the day, by the end of which most of the 2nd Division AIF had been relieved. At 0400 hrs on August 7th, shortly before dawn, the Germans launched their final counter-attack. The Germans were able to overrun the thinly occupied AIF Lines, catching most of the Australians in dugouts, and began to advance towards Pozières itself. At this moment, the climax of the battle, Lt Albert Jacka, who had won the Victoria Cross at Gallipoli, emerged from a dugout where he and seven men of his platoon had been isolated, and charged the Germans from the rear. His example inspired other Australians scattered across the plateau to join the action and a fierce, hand-to-hand fight developed. Jacka, who received the military cross for his actions at Pozières, was badly wounded but soon support arrived from the flanks and the Australians were able to gain the advantage, taking most of the surviving Germans as prisoners. Following the failure of this assault, the Germans made no more attempts to retake Pozières. On August 6th, Roderick’s 49th battalion had left their training base at Toutencourt, destined for the front line at Pozières. They spent the night in Albert before taking position on ‘Tara Hill’ the next day, where they were caught by some of the shelling from the front line, losing three of their number overnight. On August 13th, the 49th battalion AIF left Tara Hill for the front line at Pozières. They remained on the front line for four days, when they were withdrawn back to Albert, and then away from the front for a period of rest and training. Roderick’s unit eventually returned to the front line on September 2nd.

The Road to Mouquet Farm: The British attack now moved to the next phase; a drive north along the ridge towards the German strongpoint of Mouquet Farm, in order to create a gap in the German lines, behind the salient that had developed around the German-held fortress of Thiepval. By capturing Mouquet Farm, the British hoped that it would destabilise the German position and enable subsequent gains. The three Australian divisions, the 1st Division AIF, the 2nd Division AIF and Roderick’s 4th Division AIF, advanced north-west along the Pozières ridge towards Mouquet Farm, with British divisions supporting on the left. During the approach to the farm, however, German artillery spotters were able to call down barrages on the attackers from three sides of the salient that had developed in the lines. This resulted in heavy casualties amongst the attackers before they had even reached the farm. However, over the course of the rest of August and into September, the Australian divisions managed to reach the farm three times, only to be forced back by the German casualties each time. The Australians suffered around 6,300 casualties and was so depleted that they had to be taken off the front for two months. The Canadian Corps were brought up to take over from the Australians, who were finally withdrawn on the morning of September 5th 1916 with the 49th Battalion AIF retiring to Albert and being relieved by the 16th Canadians, 3rd Canadian brigade.

Form signed by Emily Connors acknowledging receipt of the effects of her late son, dated June 2th 1917.

Relief comes too late: The Australian withdrawal did not come soon enough for L/Cpl Roderick Connors. There was heavy fighting over the night of September 4th-5th with the battalion diary recording heavy machine gun, rifle fire and use of bombs during the night under the light of flares.

Roderick is recorded as having been killed in action sometime before his unit could leave the front line, which they managed at 0700 hrs on September 5th 1916.

He was 28. Roderick’s body was never recovered, but his name is recorded on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial (Villers-Bretonneux, Picardie, France), the Grangetown War Memorial (Grangetown, Cardiff) and on Panel 148 of the Australian War Memorial (Campbell, ACT, Australia). Roderick was among the 119 killed and missing from the 49th Battalion AIF operations at Mouquet Farm (420 total casualties), out of a pre-battle strength of 1,042.

Emily Connors, his mother, was sent his effects, along with a memorial plaque and scroll and his posthumous medals: 1914/15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.

Aftermath: The Canadian Corps ultimately captured Mouquet Farm on September 16th but were then pushed out by a German counter-attack. The farm was finally captured for good by the 6th East Yorkshire Pioneers on September 26th during the Battle of Thiepval Ridge.

Dr Owain James Connors (great-great nephew)

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