Devon-born Frank Saffin was twice-honoured for his immense bravery as a runner for the Australian Army in the Great War. He once ran vital messages virtually non-stop for18 hours in a battle near Ypres in 1917. Here, I reveal the extraordinary story of Frank – who was connected to my mother’s family.
What are your legs? Springs. Steel springs. What are they going to do? Hurl me down the track. How fast can you run? As fast as a leopard. How fast are you going to run? As fast as a leopard. Then let’s see you do it…
These memorable words from my favourite war film Gallipoli are indelibly imprinted on my mind. They are part of a conversation between sprinter Archy Hamilton (played by Mark Lee) and his Uncle Jack (played by Bill Kerr) as Archy prepares for his next big race.
The words gather importance as Archy joins the Australian Army in Gallipoli as a trench runner – and dies in a hail of bullets in No Man’s land as his friend and sprint rival Frank Dunne (played by Mel Gibson) makes a desperate attempt to save his life.
I thought of that tragic end to the Great War film when I discovered the remarkable real-life story of Devon-born soldier Frank Saffin, who was honoured for two acts of remarkable courage on the front line in France in 1917 and 1918.
Frank – who fought with the 24th Infantry Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force after emigrating from Devon before the war – was one of the heroes in the brutal battle at Brookseinde Ridge, near Ypres on October 4, 1917.
Thousands of Australian troops were involved in an attack on heavily defended German positions on the ridge. A seventh of their number were wounded or killed before the assault began as they were shelled in their trenches.
When they headed across No Man’s Land, they were confronted by a wave of attacking German troops advancing towards them. The Australians fought through the enemy forces and captured key positions. But at a very heavy cost – suffering more than 6,000 casualties in the offensive.
Frank was a runner for his battalion that day – carrying a series of important messages on foot from the trenches to the 24ths HQ in the face of heavy enemy machine gun and rifle fire and amid carnage almost beyond belief.
Remarkably, he ran messages ‘continually backwards and forwards’ for 18 hours. The only survivor of eight runners attached to the 24ths Report Centre, he was awarded the Military Medal for his immense courage.
A citation outlining his bravery in and around the battlefield – published in official Australian Army records – said: ‘His conduct proved that his sense of duty was far stronger than any sense of his self-preservation.’
It’s hard to truly understand what Frank did that day. He would have dodged bullets and shell fire as he dashed between posts and probably escaped injury or death on many occasions – and he kept running for an exhausting 18 hours.
That’s a mind-boggling 1,080 minutes or 64,800 seconds in the most dangerous terrain imaginable. Where snipers and artillery fire were raining down on him, where his fellow soldiers were desperately fighting for their lives.
Another act of great courage a year later – at Montbrehain, near Aisne in France, where soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) fired their final shots of the Great War – earned Frank the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
In a decisive attack in which the Germans were driven back beyond their defences at the Hindenburg Line, Australian forces captured the village after tired British troops, who had fought their way in two days earlier, had been unable to hold it.
Thirty officers and more than 400 men of the AIF were wounded or killed in the fierce fighting at Montbrehain on October 5, 1918. Among those who lost their lives were the three company commanders of Frank’s battalion, the 24th.
Frank was signalling corporal for the 24th when he showed ‘conspicuous gallantry’ in the battle. A citation detailing his actions that day – and published in The Western Times on December 27, 1918 – said:
‘At a critical juncture and at a time when enemy machine gun and shell fire were particularly heavy, he volunteered and carried to Battalion HQ an important message.
‘On his return to the line, acting on his initiative, he established a Lucas (military signalling) Lamp. This he manned himself at great personal risk and transmitted to HQ several important messages which proved of inestimable value.
‘Later in the day, when the rest of his platoon NCOs had become casualties, he assumed command, and with admirable initiative and superb courage, for machine gun fire was particularly heavy, supervised the establishment of strong posts’.
Frank, perhaps the most decorated Great War soldier connected to my family, returned to Australia as a hero on July 7, 1919.
Born in 1893 in Cheriton Bishop, he emigrated to Australia in 1911 or 1912. He married Ruby Carol Bush (1893-1927) in Victoria, Australia in 1912. Frank was 57 when he married 54-year-old Mabel Bolt (1896-1982) in 1950 in Totnes, Devon. He died on March 13, 1958 in Geelong West, Victoria, aged 64.
He is remembered on the Roll of Honour at Ararat in Victoria, where he lived for many years, and is one of 100 men commemorated on Glenthompson War Memorial in Victoria.
Frank – whose brother, Fred, also served in the Australian Army in the Great War – was the son of William Saffin (1853-1941) and Mary Ann Jordan (1858-1904). William was the brother of James Saffin (1862-1938) – the father of George Robins Saffin (1886-1915), a private in the 1st Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, who lost his life in Belgium on March 27, 1915.
George married Amanda White (1879-1934) in 1907 in Drewsteignton. Amanda was the daughter of William George White (1856-1931) and Mary Ann Lee. William was the son of Eliza Tancock (1828- 1896 and Samuel White (1829-1891). Eliza was the sister of Sarah Tancock (1851-1900), who married Daniel Arscott (1857-1922) on October 17, 1877 at Tristram Chapel, Puddington. Daniel was my great-grandfather.
An unidentified Australian officer examines one of two guns captured by Australian forces at Brookseinde Ridge. Public Domain image E04514 from Australian War Memorial. Created October 5, 1917.