Brothers in Arms, World War 1 – Alfred Henry Ayre


Alfred Henry Ayre- 31st Battalion, Signaller and Stretcher Bearer

 Many parents sent several sons to World War I. At the beginning of the 20th Century families were large; eight to ten children were not uncommon. Often brothers enlisted together, sometimes two or more died, a heartbreaking consequence for parents and siblings left behind in Australia.

William Henry Ayre and his wife Annie had such a large family. They settled in Sandgate in 1885. This coastal community on Moreton Bay was connected to Brisbane by rail in 1882. Just 16 km from the city centre, town became a popular weekend retreat and holiday destination. William, a carpenter, cashed in on the resulting housing boom. John, the first of four sons, was born at Sandgate in 1885. Percy Richard followed in 1888, then George Vincent in 1890 and Alfred Henry in 1893.    As the housing boom eased, the family moved to Brisbane settling at Bulimba near the Brisbane River. William and Annie were blessed with nine children and all but one survived into adulthood. Three of their first four children answered the call to arms and enlisted in the Australian Army in World War I. Only the second son, Percy Richard, who became a builder, took no part in the war.

Alfred Henry was the youngest of the Ayre brothers to enlist in World War 1. He was a drover earning his living driving cattle to market in Queensland. He lived in Toowoomba, a thriving town in the highlands to the west of Brisbane. In February 1915 he married 20 year old Agnes Dyer. Like his older brother, Alfred, he enlisted in the Australian Army on the 19th November 1915. He was assigned to the 41st Battalion and sailed to Europe with brother, William, in May 1916. The battalion spent several months in England undergoing training. Whilst there, Alfred was transferred to the 31stBattalion. In October, he travelled to France as part of the reinforcements for the 31st Battalion The battalion had suffered severe causalities in the battle of Fromelles in July, 1916. After Fromelles, it was rested and was not involved in major fighting for the remainder of the year. Nevertheless, Private Alfred Ayre was wounded during a raid on 13th October, just four days after joining his battalion in France. He was shot in the right hand losing his second finger. Sent back to England, he remained in hospital, recuperating, until February 1917.

Alfred was admitted to hospital again on 1st July 1917. A visit to a brothel resulted in a dose of Gonorrhoea. Because his recovery was slow and he was sick of and off until 17th October, he missed the vicious battle of Polygon Woods in September -October 1917. In the New Year Alfred attended the Australia Corps Signal School.

In the First World War the ability to communicate from one part of the battlefield to another was vital for success. It was necessary for each battalion to have at least one signaller. He would usually be in the front line of battle. He was often accompanied by an assistant who would look through a telescope to spy on the enemy ahead. The signaller, using Morse code, would forward the information gleaned to battalion headquarters. Signals were sent using sunshine reflected from a mirror during the daytime and lamps at night. Signallers were often casualties of the war. They were targeted because of their importance to the battle and because their forward and isolated positions placed them in danger. The fact that Private Albert Ayre was chosen to train as a signaller indicates his intelligence and bravery. His actions during the battle of Amiens in August proved both beyond doubt.

In mid 1918 the allies decided to attempt an all out assault on the Hindenburg line. The Germans were to be pushed back from the River Somme. The attack began at 4.20 am on the 8th August 1918. Led by tanks, the advance was not preceded by the usual artillery bombardment and took the Germans by surprise. There was mist on the ground and from its cover a line of tanks and infantrymen from the Australian 2nd and 3rd Divisions advanced towards the enemy. Artillery bombarded the German guns to stop them peppering the advancing troops with shells. The 31st Battalion was one of those to lead the charge. The Australians quickly reached their objective. In three hours the enemy had been overrun. By the end of the day the Hindenburg line, the great German defence, was punctured by a hole twenty kilometres long and eleven kilometres deep. Nevertheless the advance came at a great cost. The battlefield was littered with dead and wounded.

Private Alfred Ayre did not go into battle. He had been assigned stretcher duty. His task was to tend the wounded and bring them back to safety. He was mentioned in dispatches. He had done an excellent job as a stretched bearer and had shown an utter disregard for his personal safety. He had brought many wounded men back from the battlefield.

The next day he volunteered to be a stretcher bearer with the second Australian Division and continued his work. The dispatch reports that Alfred ‘set a wonderful example of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty to his comrades.’ For his bravery and service, Private Alfred Henry Ayre was awarded a Military Medal.

The fighting continued throughout the month. By 14th August the Australian forces had lost 20% of their men. Still they continued to push the Germans back. By 29th August they were close to the town on Peronne and a strongly defended hill, Mont St Quentin. General Monash was determined to capture Mont St Quentin even though the Australian forces had been fighting continuously for most of 1918. They were seriously under strength and very tired. Nevertheless on 29th August they advanced.

As a stretcher bearer Alfred Ayre left his mark on the battle, not by the number he killed but by the number of his fellow soldiers that he saved.

Another dispatch gave a detailed account of Alfred’s actions.

‘During the operations at Vauvillers east of Villers-Bretonneux on 29th August, 1918 this man was acting as stretcher -bearer with the 31st battalion. During the advance, the 29th battalion on the right, came a heavy artillery and machine gun barrage, and suffered very heavy causalities. The position was open without cover of any kind, and the wounded were in danger of being hit by fire. The bearers on the spot had more work than they could cope with and Private Ayre, realising the danger of the already wounded men, and in spite of heavy machine gun and artillery fire, went to their assistance. He organised carrying parties time after time and with great courage assisted them until the field had been cleared of the wounded. After returning from his tenth trip, it became known that Lieutenant Farmer was lying seriously wounded some distance in front. Two men had already been wounded in trying to bring him in but in spite of this Private Ayre went through the barrage and succeeded in getting the wounded officer to the aid post. This soldier undoubtable saved the lives of many of our men and his untiring devotion to duty is worthy of recognition.’

Private Alfred Ayres was awarded a Bar to his Military medal.

A final dispatch described Private Ayre’s actions the next day, 30th August.

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty near Villers Carbonnel on 29th August 1918, private Ayre went forward into the open under intense machine gun and artillery fire to assist a wounded comrade. Several others had previously made the attempt but failed. He reached the wounded man, dressed his wounds and brought him back to a place of safety. Enemy fire was very heavy the whole time and the artillery were firing over open sights. The following day he again went out to assist wounded comrades and made two trips across the Somme bring back wounded in the face of concentrated artillery and machine-gun fire. He exhibited great courage and coolness throughout the whole of the operation and showed an utter disregard for his personal safety.’

Mont St Quentin was taken. The Australians suffered almost 3000 causalities. Eight Victoria Crosses were awarded and Private Ayre won a second Bar to his Military Medal. (A Bar is equivalent to a second Military Medal. )

Alfred returned to Australia in May 1919. He was 26 years old. He rejoined his wife Agnes and settled in the Greenslopes area of Brisbane. Together they raised two sons and a daughter. He earned his living as a tram conductor. A simple life, you may think, but not without its excitement. He narrowly avoided serious injury in an automobile accident in 1929. The car, in which he was a passenger, ran out of control whilst rounding a corner and ran into a shop. Alfred received concussion, a large wound to the head and bruising. In April 1933 he removed a drunk from a tram. He was assaulted on the tram and a police constable who came to his assistance was also assaulted.

In 1937 Alfred witnessed the death of an intoxicated blind man. He came across the man sitting in a door-way and had helped him to on his way. The man assured Alfred that he that he knew Brisbane well and could find his way home. However he was hit by a car when he attempted to cross the road.

Alfred again found himself in the news in 1945. A policeman was being battered across the head with a piece of timber as he attempted to arrest three men and a woman. He was rescued by Alfred and the tram driver. This was the third time that Alfred had come to the assistance of the police. For his service he was awarded an engraved table lamp.

Alfred lived into hi 89th year and died in Brisbane in 1982.