Helmet, smile saved Passchendaele soldier

Donald Phillipps recalls his father Jack's narrow escape during the Battle of Passchendaele....
Donald Phillipps recalls his father Jack's narrow escape during the Battle of Passchendaele. PHOTO: LINDA ROBERTSON
A steel  hat and a smile saved Jack Phillipps from being another victim of the Battle of Passchendaele.

One hundred years ago, on October 12, 1917, the New Zealand Division attacked the Bellevue Spur, near Passchendaele.

The attack began at 5.29am. By 8am the New Zealanders had been torn to shreds.

An estimated 843 men died that morning, the bloodiest day in New Zealand military history.

Signaller John Hugh Phillipps - "Jack'' - was there.

His son, Donald Phillipps, still marvels at how lucky his father was to survive.

"The whole advance had stopped by the time he got there, so they sheltered in shell holes,'' he said.

"The sergeant of the platoon said: `Our platoon officer is injured and I think he is still moving. Would someone be prepared to go out and see if they can help?'.

"He volunteered, and that was very nearly the end of it.''

Sig Phillipps ventured out, but was soon struck in the head by either shrapnel or a bullet.

Fortunately, he was wearing a helmet, but no-one was brave or foolish enough to attempt a second rescue mission, and he was left where he lay in No Man's Land.

The next day, under a temporary truce, stretcher bearers ventured out into the mud looking for survivors.

When Sig Phillipps was rolled over, a trace of a smile alerted the stretcher party that here was someone they could rescue.

"There is a family story that he brought back his battered tin hat with him, but we never saw it,'' Mr Phillipps said.

Jack Phillipps was under age - as the family doctor who passed him fit for duty well knew - when he enlisted as a bugler.

At just 17, he saw action in the Middle East, before heading to the Western Front and being retrained as a signaller.

Sig Phillipps' Passchendaele wound was a compound skull fracture, and he also breathed in poisonous gas.

Heavily sedated, he did not regain consciousness for several days.

He was evacuated to England and a month later out on board Maheno, bound for New Zealand.

He was still a sick man and was operated on again while on board ship.

"He was described on his official papers as having epilepsy, but that didn't last. Perhaps the wound settled down,'' Mr Phillipps said.

Sig Jack Phillipps rose to become a lieutenant-colonel in the Home Guard during World War 2, serving as director of military transport.

"He desperately wanted to go overseas again,'' Mr Phillipps said.

" I can still remember him being really angry because he had been classified `C' and not being allowed to go.

"He was just a loyal, honourable man, like tens of thousands of others.

"There was nothing special about being a soldier; it was what you did.''

Jack Phillipps - later Sir Jack - was also well-known in sporting circles.

He managed the New Zealand cricket team's 1949 and 1958 tours of England. He died in 1977.

"He did not talk about the First World War. It was too hurtful,'' Mr Phillipps, a retired Methodist minister and former University of Otago chaplain, said.

"Dad was typical of his age. They weren't heroes. They simply did their duty.

"I think we do a disservice on Anzac Day and elsewhere to praise them as heroes, when that's not how my father - and I would think the vast majority of his own people - saw themselves.''

 - Mike Houlahan

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