John Williams was 29 when he signed up to fight “Johnny Turk”, just another boy from the Victorian bush ready to go and do his duty for King and country.
John was living on a farm in Kerang in Victoria when on October 16th, he joined the Australian Imperial Forces, the fabled AIF on the badges pinned to the slouch hats that distinguished the Diggers from their fellow Allies.
“I’m not sure why I am joining,” he wrote at the time.
“It’s a long way to go to Turkey to serve one’s country but all my mates are going and so I better go and look after them I suppose. Mum’s upset and crying but I reassure her I can look after myself and I’m a bloody good shot. Shooting rabbits all day is a much harder than Turks I tell her and it will be over in a few months and I will be back on the farm in no time.”
A local church was being used as the recruitment post.
”I arrive at the church and sign up there and then. I ended up in the 5TH Battalion and was given the service number 1829.
“The next few months we are sent to training. Its hard work but I enjoy it and the hand to hand combat we are trained in is something I enjoy as I’m bigger than most of the lads being 6ft 2. We are taught how to use the bayonet, something we all hope we don’t have to use. The officers tell us the Turks will probably flee once we open up on them from the sea and spirits are high.”
John Williams along with the rest of the 5th Battalion, set sail for the Turkish coast in March 1915.
“Some ships have already left before us and they plan to get there at the end of April,” John wrote in his diary. “Hopefully they leave us some action as training for three months has left us ready for the fight.”
John’s ship sailed into the Dardanelles on the Turkish coast on April 26th, 1915.
“All we can see is ship after ship firing round after round into the cliffs in front of us. Fire and smoke pervades all through the sky with British ships burning and exploding all around us. What the hell is going on here? We were told the Turks didn’t have a navy but the British ships are going down by the dozens. We get through to about a mile from the coast and are told to enter the landing boats and head for shore. We are under heavy fire from machine guns on the coast and we can see our boys ahead of us dug in on the beach heads.
“We leap from the boats 100 metres from the wave line. My good friend Jack is hit as he jumps from the boat. Dead before he hits the water. I make it to dunes without even firing a round. Many of the boys didn’t make it.
“As we hit the dunes we are told to get off the beach and attack through the hills and cliffs so steep you could barely crawl up them. With Turks firing down on us we move forward inch by inch. I let a few rounds off at anything that moves ahead of me. The 303 that I have is deadly accurate and I don’t miss what I see.
“As we move to higher ground we re-group and charge the enemy with bayonets fixed. We lose many men but we take the higher ground. We hold the higher ground for a few days but have to retreat back to the trenches when the Turks launch a massive counter attack.
“For the next few weeks we attack but the Turks are relentless in the defence of their homeland. We admire them greatly as soldiers, they are fearless and gallant. Don’t pop your head out or walk out of the trench line as snipers are all over the hills above us. I have been promoted to corporal which is good as I get more pay and am still are able to fight alongside my mates.”
On August 6th, 1915 the Australians and their allies were told they were about to launch a major offensive at Lone Pine. John’s diary again sets the scene: “The width of the front line of the attack is about 150 yards and the distance between the two trench lines is about 80 yards. To provide some measure of protection for us men, three mines were set by engineers to make craters in which we could seek shelter.
“The preparation stage of the attack began at 2:00 pm. on August 6th when the three mines they had dug in front of the Turk lines were detonated. The 2nd, 3rd and 4th Battalions went over first with the 1st battalion waiting in reserve. The 5th battalion where I was commissioned was also held in reserve.
“The initial charge at 5.30pm went well and casualties were relatively light as the Turks defenders in the front line of trenches were still sheltering from the preliminary bombardment and had not had time to return to their trenches.
“When the Australians reached the trenches they found them roofed with pine logs with no easy entrance. As the defenders recovered from the artillery barrage, they began firing at the Australians through specially cut holes at point blank range. As the second and third waves of the attack came up,some of the Australians fired, threw grenades and bayoneted from above, while some found their way inside through gaps or by lifting the logs.
“Others ran on past to the open communications and support trenches behind and from where they were able to gain access to the trenches. In the ensuing fighting, almost all of Turks were killed, while a handful were taken prisoner.
“Inside the Turkish trenches, the darkness and cramped conditions led to considerable confusion amongst the Australian’s. Due to concerns about shooting my mates, I was unable to fire my rifle, and the fighting devolved into a melee as the soldiers attacked each other with bayonets and grenades.
“Hastily erecting sandbag barriers along the parapet we settled down to wait for the first counter attack. Shortly after dark, around 7:00pm on August 7th the first Turkish counter-attack came. Attacking us first with hand grenades, the fighting took place in the complicated maze of the trench system. The close quarters meant that some of the grenades would travel back and forth up to three times before exploding. We blocked the Turkish communications trenches as best we could, often with the bodies of the dead, to thwart raids.
”Other bodies were moved to unused communication trenches and where possible the wounded were evacuated, however, the fighting was so intense, the conditions so cramped and the men so exhausted that in many cases they were left to lie at the bottom of the trench.”
For the next three days the Turks continued to launch incessant and ultimately unsuccessful counterattacks in an effort to recapture the ground they had lost. The Australians also brought up reinforcements. The fighting continued throughout the night of August 7th and 8th as the Turks launched a determined counterattack. The attack was unsuccessful in retaking the main front-line trenches. The next day as the Turkish began to prepare for a large-scale counterattack the fighting stopped briefly to allow both the Australians and the Turks to evacuate their wounded and removed their dead from the front-line.
After the brief lull, the Australians expected the Turks to launch yet another massive counter-attack. It never came, the Ottomans calling it off, leaving both sides to consolidate their positions.
During the battle of Lone Pine Australian losses amounted to 2277 men killed or wounded out of the total 4600 men committed to the fighting. These figures represent some of the highest casualties of the campaign.
John Williams was recommended for the Victoria Cross in the battle of Lone Pine but was awarded the DCM.
His citation read: “John Williams DCM – For conspicuous Gallantry during August and September 1915 in Lone Pine Trenches (Dardanelles) when he displayed great courage and energy in the Bomb fighting.”
After Lone Pine, the battle for Gallipoli stagnated until the Allied generals decided it was a lost cause: “We snuck out from the beaches in the middle of the night in early January 1916, leaving so many mates behind.
“We were then sent to England where we regrouped and got ready to fight the Huns in France. I arrived in France on March 19th, 1916 at Marseilles and was immediately in action. I was shot in the chest very early in this battle but luckily survived. I spent the next two months in a field hospital recovering from my wounds. After my wounds healed I was sent to the Somme in France for the battle at Pozieres.
“On July 23rd, 1916 the battle for the French town of Pozieres began. Mass slaughter was all around me but I continued to survive through good luck. During one night of the battle, exhausted and lost, I found my way into a bomb crater where I startled a sleeping Hun. The soldier pointed his rifle at me and pulled the trigger but luckily the bullet jammed and I was able to use my bayonet on him.”
The cost had been enormous for both sides, but particularly the Australians. Official War Historian Charles Bean wrote of Pozières ridge that it is “is more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth”.
Despite the carnage around him, John Williams never stepped back from the fight: “The battle went for days and days with non-stop hand to hand combat and grenade throwing. On the July 25th 1916 I was badly wounded in the right arm while throwing grenades at enemy trenches 30 yards away. However, I continued to throw bombs until it became stiff. I then continued to throw bombs with my left arm holding the enemy at bay until I collapsed unconscious.”
John was awarded another DCM for actions. The citation read: “John Williams DCM and Bar – Awarded bar to DCM for conspicuous gallantry in action when he led repeated bomb attacks and although badly wounded in the right arm continued to use it until it stiffened. He then threw bombs with his left hand until he collapsed.”
There was finally some respite for John when he was sent to England for six months to recover from his wounds. While there, he met Gwendoline Stephens and they fell in love. On October 10th, 1916 they were married and plans were made for the future, despite the uncertainty of the times: I planned to take her to Australia when the war ended.”
“In February 1917 I re-joined my unit in France. For the most part of 1917 we didn’t see much battle time. At the end of 1917 I was sent to England for three months to learn the art of bomb making.
“I then returned to France and on August 12th, 1918 I was sent into action at Sutton Veny where I was wounded in the left wrist by shrapnel. They patched me up and I was sent back into action on August 23rd where I was wounded again by shrapnel in the left leg. The Germans regularly used mustard gas but luckily we had our gas marks.
“I was awarded the Military Medal at this battle. This was the last time I saw France as again I was sent over to England to recover from wounds.”
Finally the war that was meant to end all wars was over – at 11am on the 11th of the 11th, 1918.
It was a moment of jubilation for John, as he wrote: “I was free to go home and start a new life with my wife.”
On arrival back home the Australian Government gave John land at Quambatook in northern Victoria where he start that new life as a farmer. He built a mud brick house on the lake and started a family. John and Gwendoline had seven children – daughters Molly, Phyllis, Muriel, Vera and Joan and two sons, Jock and Arthur.
John worked that piece of land for 20 years before taking a job at the Ford Motor Company.
His son Jock became a Commando in the Second World War but was killed in July 1945 – just a month before peace was signed. He had seen action for three years.
John himself died in 1958, 40 years after the signing of the Armistice. His death was caused by complications from mustard gas poisoning he had received in France.
Phyllis went on to have a family of her own. One of her sons is a hero of a different kind to the people who play at the Newtown and Chilwell Cricket Club, a bloke who has like his grandfather never once shirked it, but thankfully, even though we call him Battler, he has been throwing cricket balls instead of hand grenades, and using bits of willow instead of the steel of a bayonet.
Like so many of our generation Russell John Mitchell is privileged that he has never had to do what the young John Williams, his brother and their mates had to do.
A century on, we can only look on in wonderment at their courage, be grateful to them and make sure their stories are never forgotten.
Lest we forget, or as Battler puts it: “He’s a real legend to me!”