Charles Alexander, A Postman’s War

Charles Mark Alexander – 8th Battalion

Letter from Lance Corporal C Alexander to his father, Dec 5th 1916

‘I have had an attack of diphtheria but am now making good progress to recovering my health. When the good weather returns I hope to be able to go out again, that is if I can escape eye-sight inspection. Things have undergone a great change. The old army has gone and it is a new force that is carrying on now. Gallipoli accounted for many of the finest and bravest lads that ever lived. Western Europe has completed the destruction. Only here and there will you meet one who has fought on both sides of Europe. Men have fallen whose loss will never be repaired. I did not think that men of the present day could show such splendid qualities but the war has revealed in our boys a high standard of sacrifice and devotion to duty. I will give you a short summary of my experiences in France. We landed in Marseilles and proceeded northward to Balleul a little town within the sound of the guns. We first went into action a Fieurbiax, where we were subjected to a tremendous bombardment. After about a month in the trenches there we went to Sailly (Sailly-sur-la-Lys) where we had a rest. The people were very nice and quite in love with the Australians. The provincial French are very homely and good natured people. They will even sew your trouser buttons on. After a few days in Sailly we marched across country to a little town in Belgium Neve Eglise and Malines where we suffered rather heavily and where we remained until our presence was required at the other end of the line. It was not long before we were en route for the Somme. We travelled a large portion of the way by rail. We detrained at Doullens and from that place marched by devious routs to Albert. The country was in all the glory of early summer and the weather was beautiful. Approaching Albert, the first sight to greet us was the colossal statue of the Virgin and Child hanging head downward from its pedestal at the Municipals Hall. We rested there a couple of days then, one evening we moved off in the direction of the front. Soon we were crossing ground broken and furrowed by shell fire. The whole horizon on our front was red with fire. It seemed as though a great bush fire was in progress. The roar of the guns was almost deafening. The earth shook beneath the bombardment of the British. Our battalion halted at a point not far from the rear. Crouching in an old trench I gazed at the wonderful scene. We were quite content to remain spectators. Around us and to our front there extended a gigantic avenue of fire. It looked to me like the footlights of a vast theatre. Thousands of star shells rising and falling added to the effect. This continued until about dawn when, for a few minutes the noise of the guns increased to a frightful intensity. Then all suddenly ceased, and the shrill crack of riffles and tick tack of machine gun fire denoted that an advance was in progress. Two Australian Brigades had moved forward and captured Pozieres situated on rising ground of military value. Our brigade was in support and about 4 o’clock we crept up closer to the captured position. The terrible aftermath of victory greeted our eyes. Riffles, equipment and bodies littered the ground. Shells fell amongst us and a number were killed and wounded. Columns of prisoners passed us walking stiffly as dead men brought to life. One man, with a grin on his face, escorted about fifty. A never ending stream of wounded was passing to the rear. All were cheerful and greatly pleased with their success. We occupied some German dugouts, very comfortable and cosy they were, deep down underground with little tables, electric light and mattress beds.   All day on the 23rd we remained in that cover about half a mile from our new firing line. The German fire beat harmlessly down but we enjoyed the security of their underground dugouts. That night we crept forward over the firing line and into no-man’s land. We lay out in the craters and shell holes waiting for the counter attack, bayonets fixed and two bombs each to give the enemy a warm reception. Nothing occurred so just before dawn was breaking we marched back to our places behind the lines. It was in the return journey I received my ticket to dear old England, and very glad I was to leave the place. At the first Dressing Station I met Arch Mille from Coonooer Bridge. He had a slight bayonet wound. I was sent to Le Treport a lovely little place on the French coast. It was the care and attention of Dr Brown a clever oculist from Sydney that saved my sight. From there I was sent to the Old Blighty and spent a month in hospital in Chichester. ‘

This was a year in the life of a soldier on the Western Front in 1916. Lance Corporal Charles Alexander fought for the 8th Battalion which was part of the 2nd Bridge of the AIF in World War I. The 8th Battalion arrived in Marseilles in March 1916 and were posted near the town of Armentieres close to the border between France and Belgium. The area was regarded a quieter part of the front and Australian troops were sent there to become acclimatised to the Western Front. The Australians were billeted in the little town of Fieurbiax. Although damaged by the war, the town was still occupied by French civilians who provided food and drinks for the troops. In April the Germans shelled the town and its surroundings. For those in the 8th battalion, this was the first experience of the war in Western Europe.

In early 1916 The British planned a major attack against the Germans on the Somme. To prevent the Germans moving troops from the Armentieres area to reinforce the Somme, a second attack was planned at Messines. On 18th June the 2nd Brigade including the 8th Battalion was moved north closer to the front in Belgium. The 8th Battalion remained forward of Neuve Eglise until the beginning of July when they transferred to the Somme. During the time they were stationed at Neuve Eglise they undertook patrols through no-man’s land and were subjected to a raid by German troops and a fierce bombardment by Germans guns.

In mid July, Lance Corporal Alexander was transferred to Albert in the Somme Valley. He fought in the Battle of Pozieres. This little village was the scene of a fierce confrontation with the Germans that eventually resulted in more casualties than the entire Gallipoli campaign. Lance Corporal Alexander was one of them. The 1st Division of the Australian Army captured the village on 23rd July. This was the day described by Charles Alexander in his letter to his father. Over the next few days a series of German counter attacks wreaked havoc on the Australia forces. The final attack was on 7th August. The Australian’s held the village but at an enormous cost.

Charles Alexander was evacuated to England. He remained in hospital until the end of August when he was granted a month’s leave. Then he was attached to the Australian headquarters in England. He returned to hospital in November with influenza. By the end of the month the diagnoses changed to Diphtheria. He was discharged from hospital on 18th December and again returned to the Australian Army Headquarters. Apparently his eyes were examined and his sight considered not good enough for a fighting soldier in France.

In April 1917 Charles Alexander was promoted to Corporal and, on 27th September 1917, he attained the rank of Sargent. Sargent Alexander could have remained safely in England for the remained of the war but he wanted to return to his Battalion in France. In April 1918 he got his wish. The authorities must have considered him unfit to lead troops into battle because he was demoted to Lance Corporal. He arrived in France at the end of May 1918. A month later he was back in hospital with another attack of Influenza. He finally reached the front on 1st August 1918, just in time for the Battle of Amiens.

Charles Mark Alexander was the grandson of Mark Alexander, who was born in Somerset England in 1826. He arrived in Geelong, Victoria, in June 1853. No doubt Mark intended to make his fortune searching for gold. Instead, he became a postal clerk and settled in Ashby, Geelong. There he married Mary Felltham in 1854. She was one of the five daughters, born in Gloucestershire, England in 1826. Mary and Mark Alexander made their home in Weller Street Ashby. There they raised six children. Their first child, Mary Henrietta, was born in 1856. She was followed by five boys. Their first son died as an infant. The second, Edwin Jarred was Charles Alexander’s father. Mark began his career as a postman. By 1860 he had been promoted to Postal Clerk, a position he retained until forced to retire due to ill health in May 1871. He and his wife both died shortly afterwards.

Edwin married Hannah Robertson in Geelong in 1890. They moved to St Arnaud and opened a General Store. St Arnaud in the northern Grampians of central Victoria developed during the gold rush period and was originally named New Bendigo. It went on to be a centre of a farming community.

Edwin and Hannah Alexander raised five boys and two girls. Edwin William was born in 1891, Charles Mark in 1893, two daughters followed then three more boys. The boys learnt the grocery trade and worked in their father’s General Store. By September 1914 the eldest son had married and mother, Hannah had died and Charles had enlisted in the Australian Army. He was assigned to the 8th Battalion and after a short period of training embarked for Egypt on 19th October 1914.

Private Charles Alexander landed at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli with the second wave of troops of 25th April 1915. He survived the first few days unscathed and in May took part in an attack against the Turks in a valley east of Kithira Road. At the end of the month he was on the beach at Anzac Cove making bombs.

Spherical bombs with wicks attached were thrown into opposition trenches during the fighting at Gallipoli. The Anzac troops did not have sufficient supplies so, in May, a factory to make bombs was set up at Anzac Cove. Empty tins were filled with explosives and shrapnel such as nails and bits of barbed wire. When a wick was attached they were almost as good as the real thing.   On 31st May Charles was on the beach making bombs when he was hit in the thigh by a stray bullet. He was evacuated to hospital in Mesa, Egypt. By the time Charles was wounded the 8th Battalion had experienced 430 casualties.

Charles rejoined his unit on 17th September. At the time the 8th Battalion was on the Greek island of Lemnos. The Island was used as a training base before the Gallipoli landing, and a place for rest and training during the campaign.   It also housed medical facilities.

Charles and his mates remained on Lemnos until mid November. When they returned to Gallipoli, they were posted to the front. On 27th November the 8th battalion was caught in a blizzard with little to keep them warm. They had waterproof capes, rubber boots, a nip of rum and the excitement of snow. Two weeks later they withdrew from Gallipoli. Three months later they were in France.

Two years passed before Charles returned to the front following his sojourn In England. The German advances of the Spring Offensive in 1918 had been extensive. In the north, they almost reached Amiens, an important transport hub, with road and rail systems that supplied the allied war effort in northern France.   In August Monash decided to attach and push the Germans back to the Hindenburg line. The battle began on 8th August. At 4.20 in the morning Charles and his mates advanced behind a line of tanks in dense fog. The Germans were taken by surprise. They retreated and the first objective was obtained by the Australians and their allies. The afternoon was quiet and the night was spent digging in and building fortifications.  The advance continued the next day.   At 1.45 in the afternoon the Australian 1st division, including the 8th battalion advanced towards the German positions. The 8th Battalion was instructed to attack the Germans at the town of Harbonnikres. They had artillery protection and seven tanks to lead the way. The tanks had been a great asset the previous day in the fog but without its cover the German artillery was able to pick them off one at a time. Nevertheless, the 8th battalion reached its objective, passed Harbonnikres and then, in the late afternoon, reached its second objective.

The battle was bloody. The battalion lost nearly a third of its men. Charles was wounded again; this time in the arm. His war was over. He was sent Hospital in Davenport England. He recovered and after a two and a half month holiday at the army’s expense, Charles arrived back in Australia in August 1919 and was discharged.

Charles returned to St Arnaud, lived with his father and managed his General Store. He must have been dissatisfied because he reenlisted in the Australian Army at the end of October 1919. He was found unfit for overseas duty and posted to Home Service. He served almost twelve months before asking for a discharge which was granted on 9th October 1920. About the same time his father died.

Charles went to New Guinea to work on a plantation. He returned to Melbourne in the mid 1920’s. One day, when visiting Richmond with a mate, Charles met an attractive 23 year old girl standing outside a doctor’s house. The girl was Emma Eileen Dickinson.

Emma, born in Creswick, near Ballarat in 1900, was the second daughter of Charles Dickinson and his wife Annie Margaret Cassidy who were both born in Creswick.   Charles Dickinson was a miner who worked for several years in Bendigo before moving to Broken Hill in western NSW in 1912. Emma went to live with her grandmother, Emma Cassidy in Creswick. She was born deaf and required ongoing specialist medical attention. This was not available in Broken Hill. So that she could continue this treatment, she remained in Creswick when her family moved to Broken Hill. When she grew up she moved to Melbourne and worked for a doctor in Richmond. It was here that she met her future husband in 1924. Emma and Alex married in Melbourne in 1928. Like his grandfather, Charles joined the Post Office. He was a postal worker for the remainder of his life. He and his family lived in Highett Road Hampton in Melbourne. He raised two daughters and two sons. He died in 1958. Emma continued to live in Hampton until she died in July 1976.

Charles was not the only brother to enlist in World War 1. Younger brother, Herbert Nelson, who was born in March 1898, also enlisted. He signed up in September 1918. He was twenty years old. His father gave him permission to enlist. He was discharged on 24th December 1918 because the War ended. He never left Australia. In 1919 he went to Moe to work as a grocer. In 1924 he joined the postal service as the Postmaster’s secretary in Yallourn. He married, had a son and became postmaster at Korong Vale. He died in Bendigo in 1941

The Post Office was in the blood of the Alexander family.