The Mystery of Celtic Wood: Where 37 WWI Australian Soldiers Vanished
Heroes of the Great War never die. Our memory of their bravery and daring will remain alive forever, as a testament of the unconditional sacrifice that our predecessors gave for us, the generations that followed. The First World War (WWI) was a grave period in our collective history, a stained page in the book of mankind’s journey. It was a war in which millions upon millions of people lost their lives tragically, and for no lasting peace in return. During those defining four years, many tragic and courageous episodes occurred. But not all of them fit into the classic forms of warfare. There were some instances where the fate of the fighting men remained, as they say, “known only unto God.” Eighty-five Australian soldiers of the famed 10th Battalion marched into eerie Celtic Wood in Flanders on 9th October 1917, but only some would return alive. The rest, 37 men, disappeared without a trace, and their fate remains one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of the First World War. What happened to those poor Australian soldiers of the European 10th Battalion?
Australia’s WWI 10th Battalion fought in the Flanders Celtic Wood area of Belgium, where the mystery occurred in 1917, but they were also active in Egypt. ( Public domain )
The Grim Origins of the Celtic Wood Mystery Disappearance
Mud, blood, and death. The three words that best describe the horror of the Western Front in the First World War . In Belgium’s West Flanders some of the worst fighting of the war took place. Constant shelling left the landscape completely destroyed. And once-fertile fields and meadows transformed by heavy war into a hellish lunar horizon, full of craters and devoid of any life.
With the arrival of the rainy autumn months, as the skies turned gray and the rains poured on, the fields of Flanders became a soulless place where death reigned . And for the soldiers of the 10th Battalion of the 1st Australian Division, this whirlwind of war and its torn landscapes was entirely different from the warm climate that they left back home.
The mud in the month of October on the Western front was unbearable. Rains turned the landscapes into untraversable swampy bogs , and thick morning fog made for an eerie and impassable terrain. At night, pitch black darkness consumed the terrain, making movement and warfare almost impossible. One German report from this period perfectly describes the difficult terrain encountered at Poelcappelle and Celtic Wood.
“The ground was unbelievably boggy, we just hardly got forward. The man to my front threatened to disappear in the darkness, so I moved quicker, only to get stuck up to my knees in the morass... But then the man behind me got stuck as well in the filthy mess.... At long last the two of us were extracted from the bog.”
The raid on the so-called Celtic Wood of Flanders was a part of a much larger operation, known today as the Battle of Poelcappelle. This battle was itself an engagement in the larger Battle of Passchendaele, which was one of the most ferocious and life-consuming battles of the whole war.
At Poelcappelle, in preparation of the main attack, British HQ wanted to perform a so-called “feint,” a minor but fierce attack on German positions that would act as a ruse. It was supposed to convince the German command that the main thrust of the attack was arriving at a different point than planned. It was a classic military operation.
And thus, before the actual battle at Poelcappelle was even to begin, the men of the Australian 10th Battalion were selected to perform a daring and fierce raid on the German positions at the Celtic Wood.
A World War I trench in a field in Flanders flanked by poppies not far from Celtic Wood. Memories of loss and suffering. ( Erik_AJV / Adobe Stock)
A Horror in the Fields of Flanders
It is likely that these men were chosen for this dangerous task for a reason: their fearsome reputation. The Aussies from the 10th Battalion were commonly called the “Terrible 10th,” a nickname they earned over the course of the war. The battalion proved itself in the vicious fighting during the Turkish Gallipoli campaign, where the soldiers received several Victoria’s Crosses and achieved veteran soldier status.
Seasoned and battle-hardened, these Australian soldiers were perfectly fit for the task of attacking the positions at Celtic Wood. The role they played was major. British Field Marshal, Sir Douglas Haig, believed that the German 4th Army that faced them was on the verge of collapse. For this reason, the man came up with a daring plan: capture the ridge of Passchendaele, force the Germans to withdraw, and make a deeper advance. But before a large attack was to commence, the “Terrible 10th” was to perform a ruse.
The odds were, sadly, not in their favor. The war-hardened men of the 10th knew that many of them were bound to remain forever in those muddy Flanders Fields. Their task was clear: walk out in the pre-dawn gloom and march straight across no-man’s land towards the German trenches at Celtic Wood. What they were crossing was largely open space. Any semblance of an actual “wood” was long ago erased by constant artillery bombardment, and what remained was only a meager collection of stumps.
And those that actually reached the German trenches on the other side would have had to fight like hell for up to 30 minutes, blow up the German dugouts and bunkers, and retreat when given a signal. It was a monumental task, especially when one was facing numerous German machine guns, and well-entrenched soldiers.
Leading the attack at Celtic Wood was the young Lieutenant Frank Scott, a 22-year-old railway porter from Gawler, Australia. He and his men, 85 of them in total, marched out at 5:20 am, October 9th, 1917, and bravely faced their fate. Far in the distance, some 180 meters (196 yards) ahead, lay a “large, broken copse containing many pillboxes.” The broken copse or broken forest was their ultimate goal. They had to strike quickly and strike hard, confusing the Germans and creating a diversion, and cause as many casualties as possible in the meantime. But it was not to be so.
The raid was a costly and inconclusive operation. In the aftermath of the short and bloody raid, only 14 tattered and wounded men managed to return to their original position with the Allied soldiers. The rest were never heard from again.
Manhandling an 18-pounder field gun through mud during the Battle of Langemarck, 16 October 1917, fought a short distance southwest of Poelcappelle. ( Public domain )
Swallowed by the Mists or Victims of Massacre?
Charles Bean, the preeminent Australian historian , wrote in the footnotes of his 1917 book, the “Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 , that the “missing were never heard of again. Their names were not in any list of prisoners received during the war. The Graves Commission found no trace of their bodies after it.”
What happened to the other 70 brave Australian soldiers? How could they possibly vanish without trace and leave one of the greatest war mysteries to posterity? Numerous theories trying to explain it have surfaced in recent years.
Even the official war records state it as a mystery. The Australian Defense Department, writing of the unit history and the action at Celtic Wood, states that:
“On this day LT Scott of 10 Bn led 85 men on a raid into enemy lines near Broodseinde. The main party was seen to enter Celtic Wood and were never seen again. Extensive investigations since that time have failed to fully account for the fate of LT Scott's party. A total of 37 soldiers are still not accounted for. This is the greatest mystery for the AIF in WW 1.”
Some said early on that the men were captured and massacred by the Germans. The possible explanation behind this largely unaccepted theory is the fact that there exists no record of the attack at Celtic Wood in German sources. According to them, it never even happened! This led historians to assume that the German command during the war was eager to hide proof of the Celtic Wood massacre. And, the scholars say, a possible motive for such a vicious punishment lay in German losses.
Two days prior to the raid, the German trenches were heavily bombarded and kept under fire. This caused a lot of casualties and anger, giving the Germans a possible desire for vengeance. But the theory of a massacre was long ago dismissed. No mass graves were ever discovered in the area, nor any clues that could point to such a gruesome outcome.
The remnants of World War I trenches on the Western Front in Belgium, where countless soldiers on either side perished in Flanders Fields. ( GordonGrand / Adobe Stock)
A Slew of Theories, But no Conclusions
Others tried to take a more rational approach in explaining the mystery. They blamed the fog of war , a term that denotes the general miscommunication between the units at the front line and those in the rear. Clerical errors, mistaken reports, and other general mistakes that are common in the heat of war were all taken as possible reasons for the disappearance of the Australian soldiers.
Some even state that the actual fog was to blame. The fields around the Celtic Wood were known not only for their swampy and devastated terrain, but also for the dense fog that often fell on the fields. Several sources claimed that the men of the 10th battalion simply walked into it and got lost. Still, this sounds so far from reality that it didn’t provide a lasting solution.
Others, however, went to a different theory. A theory that oddly sounds both realistic and unimaginable at the same time. It proposes a fate that would strike anyone with utter horror. It is a theory that proposes that the soldiers that got decimated approaching the trenches at Celtic Wood and fell where they stood were simply obliterated by the maelstrom of war.
This explanation states that the combination of the oozing, sticky, and deep mud and the constant bombardment that reshaped the soil simply obliterated the bodies of those poor men. Vaporized them, blew them to bits and buried them in layers of watery mud. In fact, such a theory is not far from possible.
It was well known that the many fields of Flanders were utterly horrific in the Great War. With the mix of incessant shelling, the constantly pouring rains, and muddy terrain, these fields turned into great swamps of horror. Dead bodies that could not be recovered, remains of horses, boggy watery mud, and great pools of water all got mixed together over the course of many weeks. What resulted was a slimy, oozing mud that was almost from beyond the borders of imagination.
So, could it be that these men fell bravely in the field of battle, and their remains vaporized by the constant shelling that followed? Could their bones even as we write these words lie somewhere below the ploughed Flanders Fields? Either way, the fate of these Australian youths is a tragic one, no matter how their lives ended.
Dead and exhausted Australian and German soldiers after the action of October 9, 1917, near Celtic Wood. ( Roads to the Great War )
A Tragic End in Flanders Fields
One prominent researcher of this mystery, Chris Henschke, proposed that the poor soldiers were killed and obliterated by an allied artillery barrage, which was aimed to prevent the Germans from pursuing the men involved in the raid. Victims of the uncertainties of war, the poor men left no recognizable mortal remains, and thus were missing. However, no conclusive evidence was provided for this theory. Furthermore, Henschke stated that “...the raid wasn't a great mystery, but it was simply a raid with a very high proportion of casualties... It is a story of a typical small unit action that went wrong.”
In the end, 37 men of the 85 that went out into Celtic Wood remain unaccounted for. Vanished without a trace and known only unto God. Besides extensive research, retracing of steps, and numerous theories, no one has yet managed to explain their disappearance with certainty. Perhaps some poor Belgian farmer will come across their remains by pure chance. Even today, remains of fallen soldiers tend to be dug up across Belgium. If the bones of the men of 10th Battalion do come up, they would not only provide a big missing piece of the puzzle but will also give their souls some much deserved rest.
Top image: The Celtic Wood mystery left 37 Australian soldiers unaccounted for and unburied in the huge Western Front cemeteries of Europe like this one in Passendale, Belgium. Source: kristof bellens-EyeEm / Adobe Stock
By Aleksa Vučković
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