Brothers in Arms, World War 1 – William John Ayre

William John Ayre- 41st Battalion

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.

The oldest brother, William John Ayre was a clerk who lived at Sandgate. He enlisted in November 1915 joining the 41st Battalion. The Battalion was raised at Bell’s Paddock Camp in Brisbane in February 1916 with recruits from Brisbane, northern Queensland and the northern rivers district of New South Wales. It formed part of the 11th Brigade of the 3rd Australian Division of the AIF.

William’s younger brother, Alfred, also joined the 41st Battalion. Both brothers left young wives behind when they sailed for France in May 1916.

 After training in Australia and Britain, the 41st Battalion arrived in France on 25 November 1916. As part of the 3rd Division, it was posted to Armentieres on the Belgium boarder in north-west France. The Battalion entered the front line for the first time on Christmas Eve. Private William Ayre spent a bleak winter alternating between service on the front line, training and labouring to the rear of the fighting trenches. The trenches were slimy ditches full of mud, the surrounding land a featureless muddy quagmire. In places the trenches were nearly invisible and it was not unusual for a soldier to get lost and end up in an enemy trench.   In February 1917 William was charged with conduct to the prejudicing of good orders & military discipline because he had a loaded magazinein his billet. He had to forfeit 10 days pay.

 May 1917 saw William and his mates on the front line and under constant bombardment from the Germans. The Allies had accelerated their shelling of German positions in preparation for the battle of Messines. On the night of the 28th May the Germans retaliated. They hit camps, roads and ammunition dumps. On 1st June the allies’ shelling increased.   The aim was to destroy the German supply lines and to expose their guns. The Allies intended to advance on 7th June. Prior to the attack, the entire frontline was held by the 41st Battalion. The men were spread out along the forward trench taking shelter as best they could during the constant German bombardment. They only ventured out of their shelters when raided by the Germans. The raids were frequent but the trench was held. This tactic ensured that casualties were curtailed as a much as possible before the battle. On the 7th when the Australians advanced towards Messines, the 41st Battalion was sent to the rear and only played a supporting role in the fighting. William John Ayre offered no support. He was AWL from 9am 6/6/1917 to 9am 9/6/1917.Being absent whilst on active duty was a serious crime. He was sentenced to Field Punishment No 2, hard labour, for 28 days and had to forfeited 22 day pay.

 Mid 1917 the British Commanders planned a major attack on the Germans at Passchendaele near Ypres in Belgium. In an attempt to convince the Germans that the assault would take place elsewhere a feint attack was planned near Warneton, 24 km to the south. At the end of June the 41th Battalion was ordered to establish a new front line west of Warneton. This was in full view of the Germans. Those in the 41stBattalion built a new trench system complete with firing steps, cross trenches to a supply trenches, wells and a new headquarters. The construction continued day and night for eighteen days. All the work was accomplished under heavy enemy shell -fire. The battalion lost one hundred and thirty five men constructing the new trench system. On the 11th July the battalion left the front and William and his mates were able to rest. The feint attack took place at the same time as the advance on Passchendaele. On 31st July, the men of the 42nd and 43rd Battalions attacked the Germans and pushed them back from Warneton Ridge. After the battle, the 41st Battalion again moved forward to relieve those who had fought the battle and hold the ground that had been captured. They endured persistent rain, and flooded trenches. They were constantly shelled and suffered heavy losses.

 William’s health suffered after his involvement at Warneton Ridge. On 2nd September he lost a day’s pay for contravening General Orders. Then he got sick. At the end of September he was in hospital with influenza. He was transferred to England on 16th October 1917 and spent two months in hospital. No doubt general debilitation from the time spent in the mud of Flanders contributed to his illness. William never totally recovered. He returned to France at the beginning of January 1918, a week later, he was back in hospital again with a sprained ankle. He was back with his battalion at the end of the month but returned to hospital on 9th February. This time he had bronchitis and Myalgia, a severe muscle pain suffered by many during the war. In March 1918 he was transferred to Canterbury hospital in England with Trench Fever. This debilitating illness was contracted from body lice, which were found in plague proportions in the trenches during the warmer months of the year. Trench Fever had similar symptoms to the flu with sever muscle pains, especially in the legs. Normally soldiers recovered after a few weeks. Some had recurring symptoms. William remained in hospital in England until September 1918. He rejoined his battalion on 29th September, just in time to go into battle.

 The 41st Battalion went to fight along the St Quentin Canal. They were part of a contingent ordered to breach the formidable defences of the Hindenburg Line, near the Somme River in northern France. The fighting was fierce and made more difficult because the Americans, who were part of the attacking force, were inexperienced. Many patrols tried to breach the line. Lieutenant Dodds led his men forward but was shot. He was also from Sandgate in Queensland. Nine officers and sixty men were killed the day William Ayre returned to duty. Nevertheless the advance was a success and by 2nd October the Germans had been driven back 17km. The Hindenburg line was breached. After the battle, the battalion was rested and took no further part in the war. William returned to hospital on 11th October suffering from Bronchitis. He returned to England at the beginning of November. His debility was such that he remained in Middlesex War Hospital until he returned to Australia on 25th March 1919.

 After the War, William and his wife Winnie settled in Mervale Street South Brisbane. He acquired employment as a motor driver, quite a new profession in 1919. Before long he reverted to his pre-war occupation as a clerk and moved to Coolangatta on the Gold Coast. Winnie had lived while William was in the Army. She died in 1921.

 In 1925 William tried farming at Woombye Qld. His brother Vincent worked for him as a farm labourer. The venture was not successful. William returned to Brisbane taking up his old vocation as a clerk. In November 1934 he married his second wife Lizzie May Rous. They raised their family at Holland Park a south Brisbane suburban. As he got older William worked as a cleaner and continued to do so well into his 70’s. He lived with his wife and son, Edward, at Camp Hill, Brisbane. He died in 1966, age 81.