158. E J Alford

ALFORD Edwin James 6456
8 B  KiA 14/4/18

Edwin Alford was born in Maffra in 1885. He was the third of 8 children. According to the 1915 rate book, his parents – Henry John Alford (snr) and Ann Jane Alford (Ray) – were farmers (130+ acres) at North Devon.

Edwin was relatively old – 28 yo – when he enlisted and he was married with 2 young children. A younger brother – William Frank Alford, born 1888 – enlisted at the same time and he was also married. There is a reference to the 2 brothers taking time to sort out their affairs before they enlisted. It appears that there was an arrangement whereby the oldest brother – Alfred George Alford born 1882 – looked after the land (77 acres at North Devon) held jointly in his and Edwin’s names. At the same time, William’s share in the 133 acres held jointly by himself, his father and another older brother – Henry John (jnr) born 1883 – was picked up by the older brother and father. The basic arrangement appeared to be that the 2 oldest brothers stayed behind to run the farm(s) and the younger brothers, even though they were married, enlisted.

There was also another much younger brother – Charles, born 1896 – who enlisted later in the War, in September 1917. Overall, of the 5 brothers, the 3 younger ones enlisted and the 2 oldest stayed on the farms. At the same time, the family arrangement was possibly even more involved than this because William Frank Alford, on his enlistment papers, gave his wife’s address as South Melbourne.

The family was certainly well known in the local area. All the brothers are recorded on the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor and Edwin’s name is listed on the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial. In addition, the names appear on the honor rolls of the various schools they attended – Wonwron, North Devon, Tarraville – as well as the honor roll for Devon North District and the one for the Methodist Circuit. When Edwin’s wife – Catherine Alford – completed the information for the (National) Roll of Honour she gave Yarram as the location with which he was ‘chiefly connected’.

As indicated, Edwin James (commonly known as Ted) and William Frank (commonly known as Frank) Alford enlisted together on 24/7/16 in 8 Battalion. They had sequential regimental numbers. They both gave their occupation as ‘dairy farmer’. Edwin gave his religion as Methodist but Frank gave his as Salvation Army.

Prior to embarkation (2/10/16) there was a formal farewell for the 2 Alford brothers held in the Shire Hall at Yarram on 1/9/16. It was reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 6/9/16. The 2 brothers who were both … well known throughout the district … were described as … stalwart young men who had proved good footballers, of the stamp required to uphold Australia’s reputation in the battle field. They had also, by their enlistment, … set an example to the rest of the young fellows. B P Johnson, who was one of the speakers, … hoped they would have a glorious career, and assured them of a hearty welcome when all the boys came home. They were each presented with the Shire medallion and card.

Frank did survive the War and returned to Australia in May 1919. The third, and youngest, brother to enlist – Charles (Charlie) Stanley Alford – also survived and returned just one week after Frank. In 1920, the father – H J Alford of Yarram – was presented with a gold medal by the Returned Soldiers’ Committee of Traralgon in recognition of the fact that he had three sons who had enlisted. The special occasion was reported in the local paper on 11/8/20.

Edwin enlisted in Melbourne in July 1916 and 2 months later (1/10/16) his group of reinforcements for 8 Battalion embarked for England. He reached England in late November (21/11/16) and then proceeded to France in February 1917. He was hospitalised in March 1917 for a short time and then again for a month, with ‘trench feet’, in October 1917. He had 3 weeks leave in February 1918. He was killed in action about two months later, on 14/4/18.

Private Alford’s body was not recovered and his name is recorded on the memorial at Villers- Bretonneux. The cable advising of his death was dated 6/5/18.

There is no record in his file of any personal items ever being returned to his family.
His wife – Catherine Stanley Alford – received a pension of £2 per fortnight, and there was another allocation of £1 for his son – Stanley Thomas Alford – and another of 15/- for his daughter, Lucy Ray Alford. The pensions all dated from 9/7/18. There was also some money from funeral insurance he had taken with the Grand Lodge.

Private Alford was killed on the afternoon of April 14, 1918. On the night of 13 April, 8 Battalion had been sent to the front at Hazebrouck to stop the German advance along the frontier with Belgium. The allies were defending – but being pushed back over– ground that had been won at great cost over the previous year. 8 Battalion stayed in the line near the town of Vieux Berquin until the night of 19 April. The battalion diary shows that over the 6 days there were 129 casualties, including 19 deaths. Some idea of the intensity of the fighting can be taken from an appendix in the diary which details twelve recommendations for military awards over the period 13 -16 April, with most in fact for acts of bravery on 14 April.

One of the awards – the Military Medal- was recommended for, and subsequently awarded to, L/Cpl Albert Hill (4225), a 23 year-old farmer from Warrnambool. The citation gives more background on the fighting,

On the 14th April while the Battalion was in the line in front of VIEUX BERQUIN, L/Cpl HILL distinguished himself by gallantry and devotion to duty during an enemy attack.
When one of the advanced posts had been blown out and all the garrison killed or wounded, L/Cpl Hill went out and brought in the wounded men under heavy fire. Returning to the demolished post he dug out the Lewis Gun and endeavoured to get same into action against the enemy who were advancing. Unfortunately the gun was too badly smashed, but his threatening and resolute attitude with same had the effect of checking the enemy until the position was restored. His audacity and courage during the action was invaluable and set a fine example to his comrades.

This particular soldier – Bert Hill – gave one of the witness statements concerning the death of Private Alford on the same day. He wrote,

He [Alford] was killed by a bomb and [he] was also a machine gunner and was never buried and was killed in the trench which was [subsequently] taken by the Huns.

There was another witness statement corroborating the account of Private Alford being killed by shell fire. It was from F T Lewis (6296):

Casualty was in the front line at 16 post on the Harsbrouch (sic) Front Vieux Berguin. A minenwerfer shell exploded on the post killing casualty instantly. I was 10 yards away at the time the shell exploded but I saw his body immediately afterwards. He was most severely wounded all over, but I do not know where he was buried.

However, as was often the case, there were other statements which offered a different account of the death. In this second version, Private Alford was shot in the head. In fact, most witness statements gave this version. For example, Corporal R W Carr wrote:

He was a M. Gnr. In our Pltn., and while working his gun he was hit by a bullet from enemy machine gun, the bullet striking him in the head, and he only lived 5 minutes afterwards. .. Owing to heavy casualties in our Pltn., we were unable to remove him; and he was left in the trench where he died.

There was also a witness statement from his brother (W F Alford 6457) that accepted this version of events. The information it was based on was second-hand.

Re my brother 6456 Pte. E. J. Alford, 8th Battn. I was not with him at the time of his death but his officer gave me all the information. He was killed by German gun fire in an outpost close to the village of Vieux-Berquin. He was killed at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon of Sunday April 14th 1918, about 2 hours after [later] the Germans captured the post, and our boys were unable to bury him. I have written home to my people and told them all the information I got concerning his death.

There was another witness statement, by Private L Richards, which corroborated the detail about Private Alford being killed by machine gun fire. It also described the unsuccessful attempts by the brother (William) to recover the body:

I was on the flank of the advanced party to which Alford belonged. The party came under the fire of 6 machine guns. All the men (32 in number) were killed. It was impossible to recover the bodies. Alford’s brother made several unsuccessful attempts. [The reference to 32 dead is not supported by the battalion war diary.]

Finally, on 23/8/18, the local paper reproduced a letter to Private Alford’s wife by the commanding officer of 8 Battalion at the time her husband was killed. This account stated how popular and what a fine soldier her husband had been; and it described his death thus:

Early in the engagement your husband, who was courageously standing to his gun (he was in a Lewis machine gun team) received a bullet through the head, death being instantaneous.

Possibly, at least some of the inconsistencies in the reporting of the death can be explained in terms of efforts to make it as ‘quick’ and ‘clean’ as it could be for the family left behind.

The death was reported in the local paper on 17/5/18.

The sad news reached Yarram on Monday [13/5/18] that Private Edward Alford had been killed in action on 14th April, and as might be expected came as a severe blow to his wife and parents (Mr. and Mrs. A.[?] J. Alford. “Ted” as he was more familiarly known, was a very fine type of young man, being of splendid physique, and those who remember him in pre-war days on the football field, well know what a splendid athletic lad he was. As he leaves a widow and two children to mourn their sad loss, much sympathy is expressed for them. He was a machine-gunner, and was apparently killed in the recent German offensive. Two brothers, Frank and Charlie, are members of the A.I.F.

The father- H J Alford –  had been a prominent speaker at farewells from Womerah for enlisted men. He had acted in this capacity from the start of the War. In his comments at these events he often expressed contempt for ‘shirkers’ and always pressed the ideals of loyalty and duty. He was also a public backer of conscription. Not surprisingly, when his son was killed he described the death in terms of the views and ideals he had so publicly espoused. At the unveiling of the school honor roll at Wonwron – reported on 7/8/18 – he was one of the key speakers:

Mr. H. J. Alford stated he was pleased to be present. He had three sons at the war, and one had paid the supreme sacrifice, but as a father he would sooner any of them die a hero than [live] a shirker.

In the same speech he supported the push for repatriation and praised the work of the RSSILA and local groups in supporting the men returning. He also wanted the same groups to call to account those who had not volunteered. There needed to be some form of ‘payback’. As he put it, he wanted the groups to … make things better for the heroes – and worse for the shirkers.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

O’Callaghan G (Comp) 2006, Clonmel to Federation: Guide to people in the Port Albert area 1841-1901, Vol 1, The Alberton Project

National Archives file for ALFORD Edwin James
Roll of Honour: Edwin James Alford
First World War Embarkation Roll: Edwin James Alford [under regimental number 6459]
Red Cross Wounded and Missing file: Edwin James Alford

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