3748 Private Gilbert James SNELL – killed in action on 24 April 1918
Gilbert James Snell was born in Mitcham, South Australia on 14 June 1886, the youngest of two children of Harry Snell and Clara Snell (nee Page). Educated at St. Peter’s College, Adelaide he later took up farming in the Victor Harbor area. He enlisted in the AIF on 26 August 1915, age 27.
Private Snell was posted to the 12th Reinforcements, 12th Battalion. After his initial training he embarked from Adelaide on the RMS Malwa for Egypt on 2 December 1915. Following the “doubling” of the AIF divisions, Pte Snell was posted to the newly formed 52nd Battalion of the 4th Division in March 1916.
The 52nd Battalion embarked from Alexandria, Egypt on 5 June 1916 on the HMT Ivernia and disembarked at Marseilles, France one week later. The unit entrained to Caestre and marched to Fletre, where the 4th Division had taken over the “nursery” sector near Armentieres. By July 1916, the Battalion was in the Petillon sector, and following an artillery barrage by Australian artillery on 2 July, the Battalion launched its first attack against the Germans. This was Pte Snell’s first encounter with the enemy.
Artillery shelling and skirmishing by each side became the routine, and on 5 July 1916 Pte Snell was wounded in the left arm, evacuated, and later transferred to an English hospital. Following six months of treatment, he rejoined his unit at Flers on 25 January 1917. At this time the bleak northern winter had slowed offensive operations by each side, although artillery barrages and patrols into no man’s land, seeking intelligence and prisoners continued. The winter thaw soon turned the trenches and roads into quagmires of mud and slush.
On 2 April 1917 the 13th Brigade’s four battalions, the 49th, 50th 51st and 52nd, took part in the battle for the heavily fortified village of Noreuil. They encountered intense enemy machine gun fire and the Battalion suffered six dead and 19 wounded.
By early June 1917, the Battalion was near Ypres, Belgium, where they fought in the Battle for Messines between 7 and 14 June. The initial assault by the British 2nd Army was preceded by the detonation of 19 mines under the German front line, which caused an estimated 10,000 German casualties. The Battalion advanced behind a creeping artillery barrage and captured its objectives in the first hours of the battle, but its casualties were high – 62 killed in action or died from their wounds, 236 wounded and 8 soldiers missing. For the next few months the Battalion was rotated in and out of the line, and on 26 September, they participated in the Third Battle of Ypres, with the 4th and 5th Divisions’ attack thrust in the Polygon Wood sector. Advancing behind a carefully coordinated artillery barrage, Pte Snell and his fellow soldiers secured most of their objectives without difficulty. The Germans launched several counter-attacks but were repulsed by heavy defensive artillery barrages.
In late March 1918, the Germans launched a major spring offensive and at Dernancourt the Battalion assisted in the repulse of the largest German attack against the Australian troops during the war. On 24 April, the 52nd was part of the force that counter-attacked to recover the town of Villers-Bretonneux. At approximately 2215 hours, Pte Snell’s company was hit by intense enemy machine gun fire and Pte Snell and several other soldiers were killed.
The Battalion suffered 48 soldiers killed, 183 wounded and 13 missing during the three days 24-26 April. Pte Snell was buried in the field, but his grave was later lost due to enemy action. He is commemorated on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux, France and the Victor Harbor War Memorial.
Service file of 3548 Gilbert James SNELL, downloaded from the National Archives of Australia website (www.naa.gov.au).
Australian War Memorial database ( www.awm.gov.au ).
Compiled by the Victor Harbor RSL History Research Team, June 2009.