Brothers in Arms, World War 1

Many parents sent several sons to World War I. At the beginning of the twentieth 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 Bertha Childs had such a large family. In 1885, they lived in Sandgate. This coastal community on Moreton Bay was connected to Brisbane by rail in 1882. Just 16 km from the city centre, the town became a popular weekend retreat and holiday destination. William, a carpenter, cashed in on the resulting housing boom. William 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.   After 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 moment 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. No doubt George found this a tough introduction to Army discipline.

By 1916 it was obvious that the cavalry would not play a major role in the war in Europe. Many cavalrymen transferred to the infantry battalions. 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. Horse drawn carts carried shells from the rail heads to the rear supply depots. At times soldiers carted the shells to the batteries. Horses also moved the guns about the battlefield. The noise from the big guns was deafening. The bombardment rose to a crescendo just before an attack. Silencing these big guns was the aim of the enemy and artillery batteries were often pounded by the enemy’s guns and aerial bombing. An artillery battery would be a very noisy and scary place to be during World War I.

No deterred by his punishment in Egypt, 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.

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, 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. Although the advancing 4th and 12th brigade troops were subjected to heavy enemy fire, they 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 prevent 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.

After the first battle of Bullecourt, the 4th Division was withdrawn from the front. In May they were 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 go 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 bombardment 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. There were over 7000 Australians casualties in the battle.

There was little rest for George, as the 11th Field artillery, was committed to the First Battle of Passchendaele on 12th October.

All five of Australian divisions played some part in the three months of fighting around Passchendaele. The battles of Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodseind had all taken place so that allies could break through the German line at Passchendaele. It was hoped that they would then be able to sweep through to the coast and destroy the German submarine base that was causing so much damage to allied shipping.

Passchendaele, 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 had reverted to a swamp. Conditions were made worse when 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 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. He 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 that six weeks conflict, Australia sustained more than 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 use the death penalty. Desertion, in all other armies, was punishable with a death sentence. It was argued that without the death penalty, 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 Ayre certainly did not deter him from going AWL. He was absent 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. 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 living with his parents and working as a labourer. He never married.

The oldest brother, William John Ayre was a clerk who lived at Sandgate when he enlisted in November 1915. He joined 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 25th November 1916. As part of the 3rd Division, it was posted to Armentieres near the Belgian 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 and 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 magazine in his billet. He had to forfeit 10 days’ pay.

Alfred Henry was the youngest of the Ayre brothers to enlist. He was a drover before the war, earning his living by 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 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 battalion which had suffered over 576 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 against the Germans, on 12th October. He had only been with his battalion in France for four days.

The battalion was at Houplines about 3km east of Armentieres on the Belgium border. The party attacked the Germans in a trench known as the ‘Chicken Run’. It was a successful raid with three prisoners, a machine gun and other equipment captured. Alfred was shot in the right hand losing his second finger. Sent back to England, he remained in hospital, recuperating, until February 1917.

May 1917, William was 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 front-line 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 for 28 days and had to forfeited 22 days’ pay.

In 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 battalion 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 been part of the attack. It was their task to hold the ground that had been captured. They endured persistent rain, and flooded trenches. They were constantly shelled and suffered heavy losses.

Private Ayre was admitted to hospital again on 1st July 1917 with a dose of gonorrhoea. His recovery was slow and he was sick of and off until 17th October. Thus, he missed the 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. Usually in the front-line of battle, he was 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

Trench warfare was a mixture of horrific battles and hours spent in a trench guarding the front. Across no-man’s -land the Germans were in another trench also guarding the front. Th alleviate boredom men wrote letters, played cards and the Australians played two-up. Private Alfred Ayre ran two-up games with others in the 31st Battalion. He made a profit and sent some of it to his wife home in Australia.

On 21st April 1918, the 31st Battalion was at stationed adjacent to the Somme River near the town of Cobie. ‘Just before 11am a large German triplane was observed chasing a British Sopwith Camel both flying at about 200 feet and following the course of the Somme. Enemy plane was firing all the way, thus preventing LG and Mgs from ground coming to bear. Eventually two A.A.L.Gs of 53rd Battery 14th Brigade opened fire and the plane staggered and crashed. The airman has been identified as Captain Baron Manheim von Richthofen, the crack German airman. ‘(31st Battalion, April 1918, Australian Imperial Force Unit War Diary AWM 4 Sub-Class 23/48, Australian War Memorial Museum)

Alfred Ayre was present when the Red Barron was shot down. Souvenirs were taken from the plane. Some were made into postcards. After the war, Alfred took one of the postcards back to Australia as a memento.

In mid-1918, the allies decided to attempt to push the Germans back from the River Somme near Amiens.  The attack began at 4.20 am on the 8th August 1918. Because tanks led the soldiers into battle, the advance was not preceded by the usual artillery bombardment and the Germans were taken 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. Australian artillery shells damaged 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 German line, was punctured by a whole twenty kilometres long and eleven kilometres deep. Nevertheless, the advance came at a great cost. The battlefield was littered with dead and wounded men.

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

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 bar to his Military Medal. (Recommended for award of a Military Medal, Recommendation file for honours and awards AIF 1914-1918, 5th Division Australian Division 5.8.1918 to 12.8.1918 AWM 28 1/304 Part 1. Australian War Memorial)

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 of 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. Despite being seriously under strength and very tired, they advanced on 29th August.

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. A 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.’ (Recommended for award of a Distinguished Conduct Medal, AWM 28 1/305 Part 1 Recommendation file for honours and awards AIF 1914-1918, 5th Division Australian Division 27.8.1918 to 5.9.1918 AWM 28 1/304 Part 1. Australian War Memorial)

 Private Alfred Ayre was awarded a Bar to his Military medal. A final dispatch described Private Ayer’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.’ (Citation for award of a second bar to his Military Medal, AWM 28 1/205 Recommendation file for Honours and Awards AIF 1914-1918 war, 5th Australian Division 27/8/1918 to 5/9/1918 Part 1. AWM4 Honours & Awards, Australian War Memorial)

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.)

Thus, for his bravery rescuing comrades during World War I, Private Alfred Ayre was awarded a Military Medal and two bars.

William’s health deteriorated 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, his time with a sprained ankle. He returned to his battalion at the end of the month but was readmitted to hospital on 9th February with 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. Normally soldiers recovered after a few weeks. Some had recurring symptoms. William remained in hospital in England until September 1918. He re-joined his battalion at the end of the month, 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 lived in 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 where Winnie had lived while William was in the Army. She died in 1921.

In 1925 William tried farming at Woombye Qld. His brother George 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.

Alfred returned to Australia in May 1919. He was 26 years old. He re-joined his wife Agnes and settled in the Greenslopes area of Brisbane. They had two children, a son 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. When a policeman was attempting to arrest three men and a woman, he was battered across the head with a piece of timber. Alfred Ayre and a tram driver rescued him. 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 is remembered fondly by his family. He was a generous, man who enjoyed a bet at the horse races. On the trams, he sold raffle tickets for football clubs and charities. Those who bought tickets were given a free tram ride. He lived into his 89th year and died in Brisbane in 1982.