One hundreds years ago today, quite literally almost to the hour at which I speak, the early morning silence on the battlefield of Passchendaele was interrupted by the sound of machine gunfire, artillery explosions and the sad sound of young men charging to their untimely death. This was the morning of 12 October 1917, a morning that will forever be etched in Australian military history as the day one of our nation’s most heroic and courageous 22-year-olds was killed. Today marks the 100th anniversary of the passing of Captain Clarence Jeffries, VC, who was gunned down as he led his company towards the German lines during the Battle of Passchendaele.
Born in Wallsend in 1894, Captain Jeffries was a young man of high standards and ideals. Upon finishing school, he apprenticed as a mining surveyor at the Abermain Collieries—Abermain being one of the villages of Cessnock—where his father was a general manager. He quickly integrated himself into the Abermain community and, despite his tender age, was widely respected and admired by his peers. He was clearly a natural leader. These leadership skills were quite beneficial when in 1908, at just 14 years of age, Captain Jeffries joined the 14th (Hunter River) Infantry Regiment as a private. Within 12 months, at the age of just 15, he was promoted to sergeant, charged with offering support and leadership to his fellow servicemen.
Following the outbreak of war in 1914, Captain Jeffries, who was now 20 years old, was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Citizens Military Force, where he was mobilised for home defence duties and instructed volunteers for the Australian Imperial Force at Newcastle and Liverpool. By 1916 he was a second lieutenant in the Australian Imperial Force and placed in command of C Company of the 34th Battalion. He was shipped to the Western Front. As the then second lieutenant, Jeffries did not experience his first major conflict until the Battle of Messines in June 1917, when he was injured and sent to London for recovery.
Upon his return to the front, Jeffries was promoted to company commander. Within weeks, his company was engaged at the Battle of Passchendaele, tasked with breaking through the fortified German lines. Under his leadership, the company advanced towards its first objective under heavy artillery fire. Captain Jeffries organised and led a bombing party that was successful in clearing the path to the German lines, and therefore allowing the company to capture 35 prisoners and four machine guns. He continued the charge, under extremely heavy artillery fire, in the hope of overcoming the German lines. He did so with great tenacity and courage, filling other members of his company with similar courage. However, during the battle Captain Jeffries was mortally wounded in the stomach—almost to this hour to this day 100 years ago. As he lay dying, his company continued their efforts to overcome the enemy lines. They had been inspired by their leader. They felt it was only right to continue the objectives set out by their leader, their mate. To recognise his heroic actions on the day of his death, Captain Jeffries was posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross [VC], on 18 December 1917. As published in the LondonGazette, the citation read:
For most conspicuous bravery in attack when his company was held up by enemy machine-gun fire from concrete emplacements. Organising a party, he rushed one emplacement, capturing four machine-guns and thirty-five prisoners. He then led his company forward under extremely heavy enemy artillery barrage and machine-gun fire to the objective.
Later, he again organised a successful attack on a machine-gun emplacement, capturing two machine-guns and thirty more prisoners.
This gallant officer was killed during the attack, but it was entirely due to his bravery and initiative that the centre of the attack was not held up for a lengthy period. His example had a most inspiring influence.
Captain Jeffries is the only Victoria Cross recipient from the Cessnock electorate. In fact, he is only one of 18 men from New South Wales to be awarded a VC during World War I. He holds a special place in our local, national and international military history. In the face of extreme danger, he demonstrated valour and leadership. He was a hero in life and in death. Today, 100 years on, we honour his service to Australia, his dedication to duty and his self‑sacrifice. From a coalminer in the electorate of Cessnock to a Victoria Cross recipient, Clarence Jeffries was an incredible Australian whose legacy will live on forever. Nestled in the village of Abermain there is the Captain Clarence Smith Jeffries Memorial Park. It includes the Abermain War Memorial, public toilets and a playground for children—which is only fitting because, frankly, Captain Jeffries was not much more than a child when he began his military service. Lest we forget.