The Dog Barked and the "little lion" roared - Jack Webb at Doignies, April 1917

Contributed by Michael Hall, February 2015

'He took them into the vestry to see the two small lanceolate windows fitted with a crazy pattern of gem-like glass gathered by a pious hand from shattered and bombarded churches in Flanders to be a memorial to the dead in Canberra.”  From Plaque with Laurel by M. Barnard Eldershaw (1937) 

 Jack Webb

Jack Webb was a barman at the Royal Hotel in Queanbeyan when he enlisted in the AIF in 1916. He was a nuggetty man of 42 years with a walrus moustache and whose toughness was no doubt an advantage in the rough and tumble of a country pub. The liquor trade was in his blood as his grandmother, Julia Webb, better known as ‘Judy the Great’, had been a nurse, midwife and one-time sly grog operator at Charnwood. His grandparents later farmed in Canberra, on part of the Springbank property (near the O’Connor shops), and it was probably there that Jack was born in 1873.

His mother Ann McInnes grew up in Canberra and married Thomas Webb in 1870. Tom was something of a larrikin and prone to finding trouble. He deserted his young family shortly before Ann died in 1874 when Jack was still a baby. Jack was taken in as a ward by Richard Shumack of Springvale, Weetangerra.

Shumack was a widower with a large family of his own. The household was run by his 17 year old daughter Phoebe* but it is likely that her fourteen year old sister Emily cared for the baby Jack. The Shumacks were sober, hard-working farmers and the children were expected to pull their weight in the fields. They were also expected to go to school but Jack was not much of a student and preferred to play the truant as Shumack found out in 1884 when he was fined for his ward’s non attendance at classes.

As he grew older Jack probably lived with his uncle and aunt, John and Sarah McInnes at Kowen to the east of Canberra. The McInnes’ already had fourteen children of their own but they also were responsible for five nieces and nephews (including at least two of the Webb children). Life was hard and space was at a premium so some of the children had to sleep in the hayshed.

As a young man Jack took to the rugby field with the Red and Blacks of Queanbeyan, gaining a reputation during the 1890s and early 1900s as one of the toughest forwards in the district and “a man to be watched by the opposing side being a sure tackler and a hard man to grass”.  He “feared no one on the football field or in the noble art of self defence”.

Even though he was in his forties when the war began it wasn’t Jack’s age that prevented him from immediately enlisting. In 1914 the AIF recruited only those men who met the most stringent physical standards which included a minimum height of five feet six inches. Jack was five feet two inches tall. However, as the war dragged on and casualties mounted, the minimum height was gradually reduced to five feet four, then five feet three and finally to five feet two inches.

By then the Gallipoli campaign had become a stalemate but it had also fanned the fire of national pride in the hearts of many Australians. Publicity for recruitment was boosted by the Cooee march from Gilgandra to Sydney in October 1915. This march inspired other route marches including the Men from Snowy River march from Delegate to Goulburn which passed through Queanbeyan in January 1916. Jack was one of the men who enlisted on that march.

Bob Beatty, a team mate from his footballing days, described Jack as a “little lion - all fight and every muscle taut”.  Beatty met up with him at camp in Goulburn just before he sailed writing: “When we talked of what was before him I caught the old familiar glint of fire in his game eye, the same old confident chuckle in his voice, and with arms folded and head slightly aslant as usual he told me of his training, how fit he felt, and all he longed for was close quarters.” 

Jack served with the 55th Battalion which was part of the 14th Brigade of the 5th Division of the AIF. More men from the Canberra-Queanbeyan area served in the 55th Battalion than in any other unit. After being decimated at Fromelles in July 1916 the 55th Battalion went through a re-building phase and amongst the reinforcements was Jack who joined the unit at Buire at the rear of the frontline in the Somme region of France on Christmas Eve 1916. It was the depths of a cruel, cold winter in the muddy trenches of the Somme. One of Jack’s mates was Jack Woodger who was married to one of his many cousins. They stuck together under heavy shell fire and when both were concussed during a bombardment, Webb remarked, “Fritz won’t get either of us after that Woodger, with his whiz bangs.”

In February 1917 the Germans began retreating towards their heavily fortified Hindenburg Line.  However, they also established strong points in villages along the way designed to delay the advancing Australians. The 5th Division pushed the Germans back along the road between Bapaume and Cambrai but they had to clear the enemy from these villages. One of the villages was Doignies and the 55th Battalion was given the task of capturing it.

On the night before the attack the 55th Battalion assembled in a sunken road about 1500 metres from Doignies. Jack O’Grady served with Webb in C Company and saw him walking up and down the road during the night. “Coming towards dawn and zero hour”, O’Grady recalled, “Webb came over to me and said, we must have a talk, he was sure it was his last day on earth.”

Just before dawn on 2 April 1917 the 55th Battalion began moving forward.  To maintain the element of surprise, they did not have the usual artillery barrage. While advancing through the snow, rain and a piercing wind towards a beetroot factory on the outskirts of Doignies, the leading company of the 55th Battalion was joined by a small dog resembling a kelpie who trotted alongside the men. When the dog saw the Germans at the beetroot factory it ran up to them growling and barking and alerting the enemy to the presence of the Australians.

The Germans at the factory began firing and throwing bombs delaying the 55th Battalion and forcing its officers to quickly revise the plan of attack. Originally C Company was to skirt the village and attack Doignies from the rear but the barking dog changed that. Instead they had to cross several hundred metres of flat open country to reach the village. There was no cover, so they advanced in extended lines in short rushes through a hail of machine gun fire.

As they closed in on the village Webb shot a German sniping from the belfry in the churchyard singing out to O’Grady “I am taking this one with me”.  But then Jack was hit. O’Grady was with him when “his throat was cut by a piece of shell and another piece through his chest.” According to Woodger, Webb “was killed instantly - a bullet between the eyes.” He could not find much more to say except; “Poor ‘Webbie’. He was a good soldier.”

The 55th Battalion took Doignies after a short, sharp fight. However, the enemy had mined and booby-trapped parts of the village and several explosions were heard. Then the Germans began shelling the village and launched seven counter attacks over the next twelve hours. All the while, from the north-east of Doignies, a machine gun fired persistently causing casualties.

To the official war historian, Charles Bean, the capture of Doignies was achieved “almost without loss” yet about 240 men from the 55th Battalion were killed or wounded. Perhaps the sheer scale of the carnage in the war coloured Bean’s assessment. Like Webb, 20 year old Harry Robertson from Oaks Estate was one of the ‘Snowies’ and was also killed during the fighting at Doignies. Sam Jacobs and Arthur Lodge were amongst the wounded.

Sadly for Jack Webb no family members claimed his personal effects or medals, although he wasn’t forgotten as the Queanbeyan Age published several tributes to him. The proprietors of the Royal Hotel dedicated a mission cross to him in St. Gregory’s Church in Queanbeyan and the people of Weetangerra included him on their honour roll currently on display in the Schoolhouse Museum at St. John’s.

There is a postscript to this story. 

Canon Frederick Ward was rector at St. John the Baptist Church in Canberra from 1913 to 1929, but he also served in the Great War as a chaplain with the 5th Division of the AIF including on the battlefields of the Somme. As the Australians advanced to the Hindenberg Line in 1917, Ward’s “pious hand” collected fragments of stained glass from ruined churches, including the church at Doignies, and he brought them home in 1918. As a parting gift to St. John’s when he left the parish in 1929, Ward had a local glazier create a small stained glass window from the fragments. The window stands in the south porch of the church, a poignant memorial to Webb, Robertson and those other men from the Canberra district who died in 1916 and 1917 during the fighting on the Somme. 

Sources

Bean, C. E. W. (1934). The official history of Australia in the war of 1914-1918 (Volume 4, pages 222-231). Angus & Robertson.

Burness, E. (2008). "Judy the Great", Newsletter, Canberra and District Historical Society, February 2008. 

Cook, T. J. (2014). Snowy to the Somme: A Muddy and Bloody Campaign, 1916-1918. (pages 111, 116). Big Sky Publishing.

Eldershaw, M. B. (1937). Plaque with laurel. (pages 211). GG Harrap.

Ellis, A. D. (1920). The Story of the Fifth Australian Division: Being an Authoritative Account of the Division's Doings in Egypt, France and Belgium. (pages 191-192) Hodder and Stoughton.

Lea-Scarlett, E. J. (1968). Queanbeyan: district and people. (pages 117, 160). Queanbeyan Municipal Council.

Shumack, S. (1967). An Autobiography; Or, Tales and Legends of Canberra Pioneers. (pages 134-135). Canberra: Australian National University Press.

Queanbeyan Age. 29 October 1884; 8 May 1917; 15 May 1917; 11 September 1917.

Canberra Times. 12 June 1929.


* Phoebe Blundell (nee Shumack) was the mother of Howard Blundell (born in 1886 at Weetangerra, died in 1920 at Tumut from the effects of mustard gas poisoning) who is also commemorated on the ACT Memorial.