This Wednesday is Anzac Day here is Australia. This year, it will mark the 103rd anniversary of the Australian and New Zealand troops landing at Gallipoli. Over the past 100 years, the day has become Australia's day to stop and commemorate those who have fought for our country in all military operations - to remember those who gave their lives and celebrate those who returned. Most families will have someone who served in either World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf Wars and current peace-keeping operation, and so Anzac day is one to reflect on those people.
For me, I have a number of connections to Australia's military service during the 20th century - my grandfather served as a transport driver in the R.A.A.F. during World War Two, serving in the Northern Territory and the Pacific. I've also had a number of ancestral relatives serve in Vietnam, World War Two, World War One and the Boer War. But today, I want to talk about one ancestor - my great great uncle - who fought in World War One - Private W.T. Johns.
William Thomas Johns was born 6 May 1885 on Wangamong Station, near Oaklands New South Wales, to parents Richard Johns and Fanny Mills, the second born of seven children. Along with his younger siblings, he attended Felton Woods School, one of the many small, one-teacher schools scattered throughout the district, which eventually closed as town schools grew. During his early adulthood, he worked as a farmer in the district.
At the age of 31, on 30 March 1917, William enlisted in World War One at Wagga Wagga, leaving Sydney aboard the HMAT Marathon (A74) on 10 May 1917, just four days after his 32nd birthday. William was part of the 10th Reinforcement of the 45th Australian Infantry Battalion, a posting he was to serve for the duration of the war.
William disembarked at Devonport two months later, on 20 July 1917 and headed to the military camps of Codford, as part of the 12th Training Battalion. The camps at Codford had become large training and transfer camps for troops heading to France, particularly the Australian and New Zealand troops.
During his time in Codford, William wrote to his sister May, my great grandmother, a postcard featuring seventeen of the men William was training with:
This is a group learning ??. It was taken at dinner time in front of the bomb lecture hall. I do not if you can pick me out. I am on the left hand corner half behind poor old dad he went to sleep. I look pretty sorry on it too. I ought to have got out in front lying down opposite the darkie. I don’t think I have got any thinner since I came over. I weigh just 10 stone 11lbs, weighed yesterday.
Good night, hope to see you all soon.
After spending around three months in Codford, William proceeded overseas to France, via Southampton, on 23 October 1917, reaching the battlefield, and the 45th Battalion, on 2 November 1917.
The 45th Australian Infantry Battalion was well established by the time William joined its ranks. The Battalion was raised in Egypt on 2 March 1916 as part of the “doubling” of the AIF. As part of the 12th Brigade of the 4th Australian Division, the Battalion arrived in France on 8 June 1916, heading for the Western Front. The Battalion fought its first major battle at Pozieres in August, and then spent the period until March 1917 alternating between duty in the trenches, training and rest behind the lines.
During the first battle of Bullecourt in 1917, the Battalion was in reserve, but was to be heavily engaged during the battle of Messines in June, suffering a number of casualties. With the AIF having moved its focus to the Ypres sector in Belgium, the Battalion took part in another major battle near Passchendaele on 12 October – the horrendous conditions and hastily planned operation resulted in failure and loss.
By the time William was in the ranks, the Battalion was being rotated in and out of the front line throughout the winter of 1917/1918, along with many other Australian Infantry Battalions. However, his time on the front wasn’t to be long.
On 7 February 1918, three months into his time out in the field, William was wounded in action as a result of a mustard gas attack. He was moved to the 2nd Australian Casualty Clearing Station in France where he was treated, but sadly died of his wounds on 22 February 1918, just eight months short of the War ending. News of his death was reported in Australian newspapers a month later. Fanny received a letter dated 16 May 1918, which detailed how William had died, and where he was buried.
William’s final resting place was chosen as Trois Arbres Cemetery in Steenwerck, France – Plot 2, Row D, Grave 34. The site had been chosen for the 2nd Australian Casualty Clearing Station in July 1916, with Plot 1 and the early rows of Plot II made and used by the hospital until April 1918, at which point the Germans captured the village of Steenwerck on 10 April. It was only after Armistice that over 700 graves were brought into it from the battlefields of Steenwerck, Nieppe, Bailleul and Neuve-Eglise. Today, there are 1,704 Commonwealth servicemen of the First World War buried or commemorated in the cemetery. 435 of the burials are sadly unidentified, but there are special memorials to ten casualties known, or believed, to be buried among them. Fortunately, William’s resting place is marked clearly for all to see.
On 21 July 1918, an ‘In Memoriam’ service was held in the town of Oaklands to commemorate the lives of five local men who would not be returning home:
William T. Johns came from a home that gave two of its sons. Early they head the call for true-hearted men and responded. He gave his life in France where he sleeps awaiting the resurrection of the just in God’s glorious morn.
William’s youngest brother Barkel had also enlisted, and was one of the lucky men to return home. Unfortunately, Barkel had also been the victim of a mustard gas attack, and ill health would plague him until his death in 1937 at the age of 45.
As William’s father, Richard, had died in 1902, his mother Fanny was his next of kin. In mid to late 1918, she received his inventory of effects, which included:
Disc, Key, Metal Mirror, 2 Numerals, 2 Badges, Religious Medallion, Electric Torch, Cigarette Holder, Cards, Letters, Fountain Pen, Comb, Razor Strop, Razor, Knife, Metal Key Chain, YMCA Writing Block, Money Belt.
On 10 November 1922, Fanny received William’s memorial plaque. In early 1920, it had been announced that all next of kin would receive a memorial plaque and scroll “as a solace for bereavement and as a memento.” Each plaque had the name of the solider commemorated individually embossed, some engraved, as part of the design. The full name was given without any indication of rank or honours ‘to show the quality of sacrifice of all those who had lost their lives.’ The scroll designed to accompany the plaques was of thick paper, headed by the royal coat-of-arms, bearing the following message:
"He whom this scroll commemorates was numbered among those who, at the call of King and Country, left all that was dear to them, endured hardness, faced danger, and finally passed out of the sight of men by the path of duty and self-sacrifice, giving up their own lives that others might live in freedom. Let those that come after see that his name is not forgotten".
The plaques actually arrived in Australia late, and so, many scrolls were sent out separately, Fanny receiving William’s on 9 August 1921. The scroll was accompanied by a message from the King, George V:
“I join with my grateful people in sending you this memorial of a brave life given for others in the Great War.”
Unfortunately, the whereabouts of William's plaque, scroll and letter are unknown.
Finally, on 15 May 1923, Fanny received William’s British War Medal and Victory Medal. The British War medal 1914-20 was instituted by King George V in 1919 to mark the end of World War I and record the service given. The Victory medal was authorised in 1919 to commemorate the victory of the Allied Forces. While each of the Allied nations used the standard ribbon and used different designs on the medal to reflect national identity and custom, Australians were awarded the medal issued by Great Britain.
Unfortunately, the whereabouts of William's medals is unknown.
During his training at Codford, William had ended his letter to May with ‘hope to see you all soon’. Unfortunately, once he stepped foot on HMAT Marathon, he was to never see Australia, or his family, again. William was one of the 60,000 men and women who gave their lives for country and King during World War One.
And although he is gone, his service and sacrifice will not be forgotten.
Peace Perfect Peace.
Private William Thomas Johns
3652 - 45th Australian Infantry Battalion
6 May 1885 - 22 February 1918
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