Brothers in Arms, World War 1 – George Vincent Ayre

George Vincent Ayre- Gunner, 43rd Battery, 11th Artillery Brigade

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.

George Vincent was the first to heed the call. He enlisted in the cavalry in August 1915. He was a 24 year old labourer, single and living with his parents in South Brisbane. Was it patriotism or a sense of adventure that encouraged him to enlist? Whatever the case he was in trouble from the time he arrived in Egypt at the end of 1915. On 5th May 1916 he was sentenced to seven days Field Punishment No2 and fined one day’s pay for breaking camp. Field Punishment No2 involved hard labour similar to that found in a prison and could also mean that the soldier would be shackled with leg irons. No doubt George found this a tough introduction to Army discipline.

By 1916 it was obvious that the cavalry would not play an important role in the war in Europe. Many cavalrymen transferred to the infantry. George Ayre became a gunner with the 43 battery of the 11th Field Artillery Brigade. This unit was formed in Egypt in February 1916. It was attached to the 4th division of the AIF. Artillery played a major part in the war on the Western Front. It caused the greatest loss of life and was most feared because its effects were random and there was no way of avoiding its consequences.   The 43rd battery used 18 pound field guns to bombard enemy positions. Horses carried shells from the rail heads behind the front lines to the rear supply trenches. Soldiers carted the shells from the supply trenches to the batteries. Horses also moved the guns about the battlefield. The noise from the big guns was deafening. The bombardment was constant rising to a crescendo just before an attack. Silencing these big guns was the aim of the enemy and artillery batteries were pounded by the enemy’s guns and by aerial bombardment. An artillery battery would be a very noisy and scary place to be during World War I. Was it fear that caused Private George Ayre to be constantly in trouble?

No deterred by his punishment in Egypt, Private George Ayre was ‘Absent without Leave’, (AWL), from 7am to 10.30 am on 21st May 1917. At the time the 11th Field Artillery Brigade was preparing for an attack against the Germans at Messines near Ypres, Belgium, in June 1917.  For these three and a half hours of freedom, George was sentences to three days Field Punishment No 2 and ordered to forfeit three days pay. Was the punishment excessive?

On 11th April 1917, the 4th Division of the AIF had been involved in the first battle of Bullecourt. This battle, designed to penetrate the Hindenburg Line at the Somme, was an absolute disaster. Of the 3000 soldiers who advanced on the German trenches, 2339 became casualties. The artillery was partially blamed for the fiasco. A heavy artillery barrage was the usual precursor to any major assault against enemy trenches. Because tanks were to lead the charge at Bullecourt, the artillery was not used. The tanks were unsuccessful. The advancing 4th and 12th brigade troops were peppered with machine gun fire but still managed to reach the German trenches. On several occasions they requested artillery support. It was not forthcoming because there was a fear that shells would land on Australian soldiers. The battle of Bullecourt began at 4.30 in the morning. It was 12.30 in the afternoon before the artillery was finally used. Meanwhile, the German machine guns continued to rake the forward troops and their escape to the rear. By the time the Australian artillery finally provided support,   only few soldiers were able to escape the counter attacking German troops. How did George Ayre feel as he stood by his silent 43rd battery? How did he and his fellow gunners feel at news of the Australian slaughter?

After the first battle of Bullecourt, the 4th Division was withdrawn. In May in was sent to the boggy quagmire of Flanders. The Division was stationed south of Ypres. On 31st May 1917, the artillery opened fire in what was the preliminary bombardment for the battle of Messines. George chose 21st May, a time when he was committed to playing his part in the battle, to become AWL. Given the circumstances, three days hard labour for his three and a half hours of freedom may not have been excessive.

On 26th September 1917, George was part of an enormous artillery barrage against the Germans at Polygon Woods, 6.5 km east of Ypres. The largely British artillery barrage was matched by the German guns. Not a tree was left standing. No man’s land was reduced to a swirling dust bowl. The dust provided shelter for the advancing troops who succeeded in taking the German trenches. Over 7000 Australians were lost in the battle.

There was little rest for George, as all the Australian Divisions, including the 11th Field artillery, were committed to the First Battle of Passchendaele on 12th October. This village near Ypres was in the midst of rich farmland on a reclaimed swamp. Artillery bombardments had already destroyed the area’s drainage systems so that most of the land was a bog. Conditions were made worse because it began to rain. The mud on the battlefield was so thick that men sank to their waists. Some drowned. It was impossible to move artillery. The shells from the guns in position were ineffective because they landed in the mud. Many did not explode.  Yet, on October 12th, the New Zealand division and the Australian 3rd and 4th divisions were ordered to advance towards the German lines. Unable to quickly cross the boggy no man’s land the men were slaughtered.   The 4th division lost about 1000 men, the 3rd division over 3000 and the New Zealanders over 2700 men. The next day the allied command decided to postpone the offensive until the rain stopped. George chose that day to go AWL again. This time he was absent for over three days. He was sentenced to two weeks hard labour and had to forfeit two weeks pay.

Those sentenced to Field Punishments were often confined behind the lines but if the soldier was on active duty, he would serve his sentence at the front with his unit. Thus, George probably spent two weeks lugging shells through the mud to his artillery brigade. A fate his AWL sought to avoid. The fighting around Ypres continued throughout November. During the six weeks of fighting Australia sustained more that 36,000 casualties.

The Australian Army had the highest rate of AWL convictions of any army participating in World War I. In June 1917, 171 soldiers absconded from five Australian divisions. In contrast, 506 soldiers went AWL from the remaining 57 BEF (British Expeditionary Force) divisions. Why was this so? Of the countries that fought in World War I, only Australia did not to use the death penalty. Desertion in all other armies was punishable with a death sentence. It was argued that without the death penelalty, there was no real deterrent against desertion because no punishment was equal to the possible death waiting at the front. The punishments awarded to Private George Ayres certainly did not deter him from going AWL. He abstained from duty between 7am and 3pm on Boxing Day. His commanding officer was not inclined to be lenient. He sentenced George of seven days hard labour and ordered him to forfeit eight days pay for his few hours of freedom.

In March 1918 the 4th Division was rushed to the Somme region to strengthen the British line against the expected German push into France. George chose this moment to again leave his post. He went AWL on 4th March and was absent for three days. This time he was on active duty. There was a formal Court Martial. He was sentenced to twenty -eight days Field Punishment No 1 and forfeited 60 days pay. Field Punishment No 1 involved hard labour and being shackled for two hours a day to a cross or wheel. The George was lucky; the sentence was commuted to Field Punishment No 2. He served the hard labour but was not put in the stocks.

After the war ended in November, George Ayre was punished one more time. He went AWL for three hours on 1st December 1918. For this crime he was sentenced to twenty one day Field Punishment No 1. On this occasion there was no respite and George served the sentence.

Between the time Private George Ayre arrived in France in June 1916 and left in 1919, he spent approximately three months doing hard labour and forfeited three months pay. When he returned to Australia in May 1919, he went home to live with his parents. He spent the remainder of his life working as a labourer. He never married.