2037 Private Ralph Leslie BROADBENT – killed in action on 31 July 1917
Ralph Leslie Broadbent was born on 1 July 1895 near Crystal Brook and was the fourth of five children of Henry Field Broadbent and Mary Hill Broadbent (nee Hughes). The family later moved to Encounter Bay and Ralph completed his schooling at the Victor Harbor public school and later took up farming.
Ralph enlisted in the AIF on 16 June 1916, at the age of 21. After initial training at Mitcham, he was posted to the 3rd Reinforcements, 43rd Infantry Battalion, and sailed from Adelaide on HMAT A68 Anchises on 28 August 1916. Arriving at Plymouth, England on 11 October 1916, he was sent to the 11th Training Battalion for intensive preparation for service in France. Delayed by four weeks in hospital during November, he reached the Australian Base Depot, Etaples, France on 21 December 1916.
He joined the 43rd Battalion on 18 January 1917 as it was rotated out of the frontline near Amentieres. The 43rd was part of the well trained, yet still inexperienced, 3rd AIF Division commanded by General J. Monash, which had only reached France in November 1916.
Ralph quickly found himself at the front when his Battalion relieved the 41st Battalion from 24-28 January 1917 at Square Farm, near Amentieres, where Australian and German trenches were just 200 metres apart. The pattern of rotation with the 41st continued through February. At 10 pm on 19 February, a 68 strong Battalion raiding party entered German trenches searching for information. In the 30-minute action, the raiders suffered two killed and 23 wounded by enemy artillery fire as they crossed No Man’s Land.
Ralph’s Battalion had only a minor role in the Battle of Messines, which began on the 7 June 1917 with the detonation of 19 very large mines. The explosion was so loud the noise was heard in England. Held in reserve during the main attack, the 43rd Battalion relieved the 44th Battalion on 11 June. Shell-fire caused many casualties in both units during the relief. Resistance diminished as the Germans withdrew 1.2 kms on 12 June to their Warneton line allowing the Australians to advance. This supposedly minor role, described by its historians as “a diversion”, still cost the Battalion 122 casualties.
On 31 July 1917, the combined British 5th and French 1st Armies launched the Battle of Passchendaele to the east of Ypres, Belgium. British forces included 100,000 infantry along the 16 km front. In the north the British advanced 2 kms, capturing Pilckem Ridge, but were unable to break through German defences.
Australia’s 3rd Division in the south was tasked to capture defensive posts opposite their positions at Messines to divert German forces from the main British attack, however war correspondent Charles Bean described their role as more of a feint. The 43rd Battalion commenced their attack at 3.50 am to use the early dawn light and coordinate with the main thrust. With rain beginning to fall, they advanced on a 1,000-yard front towards the high ground northwest of Warneton. Having successfully captured enemy posts the men commenced digging a new front line. When relieved at midnight, the Battalion had lost 35 killed and 181 wounded, with four missing in less than 24 hours. Total Australian casualties for the feint were 550.
Ralph was killed during that day, but his body was not recovered after the fighting. His name is among 54,325 British Empire men shown on the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres. The Memorial commemorates those who served in the Ypres campaigns and have no known grave. Of these, 6,178 are Australians.
His family received Ralph’s British War Medal and Victory Medal together with a memorial plaque (referred to as “The Dead Man’s Penny”) and a memorial scroll. In December 1917, his mother was granted a war pension of 20 shillings a fortnight for the loss of her son.
Compiled by the Victor Harbor RSL History Research Team, June 2009.