Low Number – High Endeavour, The story of one Anzac’s contribution to World War I

‘Are you sure you’ve got the right number?  It seems a remarkably low one to me.’
‘He always claimed to be Number 3 of the Australian Army’, was my reply.
I was talking to someone at Veterans Affairs in Canberra about my father’s entitlement to the award of the Anzac Commemorative Medallion which was instituted in 1967 but which he never received.
I could hear the sound of a keyboard clicking as the search on the computer continued. Finally a reply. ‘You’re dead right, you know. Here we are, from the Australian Imperial Forces nominal roll:  Burton, Stephen Matthews – Regimental Number 3. Farmer. Enlisted 4 September1914 – just a month after war was declared.’

A long process of establishing my bona fides as his son and heir followed and then one day the coveted medallion arrived. Mission accomplished. But there is more to the story than that and I could not help but wonder, just what my father contributed to the conflict that was supposed to be ‘the war to end all wars’?

Looking down the list of those men from Western Australia with low regimental numbers, it is clear that many were farmers or men from the land. Some even described their ‘trade or calling’, as the records quaintly put it, as ‘bushman’ or ‘horse driver’. On the whole, they appear to have been a pretty tough and capable lot.

In the beginning, five companies, together with headquarters, machine gun and signal sections were formed and began training at Blackboy Hill in Western Australia, and combining with three companies recruited mainly from South Australia, eventually became the original 16th battalion Australian Imperial Forces. They were sent to Melbourne and mustered with two other regiments at Broadmeadows to form the Fourth Australian Brigade under the command of Brigadier (as he then was) John Monash. So began a legend in the making.

Together with the other brigades they formed the First Australian Division and were given a rapturous reception when they paraded through the streets of Melbourne before embarking on the transport Ceramic bound for Egypt. The great adventure had begun.

Throughout the ensuing Gallipoli campaign, the Fourth Brigade and 16th battalion were in the thick of the fighting, particularly at a notorious spot called Pope’s Hill.  The Brigade also led the advance to Sari Bair in August 1915 and had the distinction of being the only Australian brigade to gain extensive ground during the campaign. They also suffered the greatest casualties.  Private Burton’s medical record tells the grim story in precise terms, reporting, for example that on 2 May 1915 he had gun-shot wounds in the thigh and chest and was evacuated and transferred to Alexandria hospital in Egypt.

Later in the campaign, Private Burton recorded that he:, ‘took part in the battle of Suvla Bay. 5 August 1915. Wounded and evacuated again. Sent to No I General Hospital, Heliopolis, Egypt. Recovered. 22 October 1915: Returned to unit.’  (The battalion was now ‘resting’ on the Greek Island of Lemnos).

In November, the 16th battalion returned to Gallipoli in time to help cover the evacuation – which took place on the nights of 19-20 December – and which was executed with extraordinary skill and secrecy without the loss of a single man.

On leaving the abandoned trenches the commander of the Fourth Brigade left this message at his headquarters for his Turkish adversary: ‘The Brigadier presents his compliments to our worthy Turkish opponents and offers those who first honour his quarters with their presence such poor hospitality as is in his power to give, regretting that he is unable to personally welcome him!’

From Gallipoli, the 16th first returned to Lemnos and thence to Ismailia in Egypt to become part of the defences of the Suez Canal, where they were deployed on the eastern (enemy) side of the canal and maintained continuous patrolling to prevent Turkish infiltration particularly at night.

Casualties had been enormous on Gallipoli but reinforcements had been steadily arriving from Australia to help cover these losses. The decision was taken to create two new Australian infantry divisions and concentrate on the real enemy, Germany. The 16th battalion became part of that expansion and was split to create the 48th battalion which was and sent to Great Britain for training. Number 3, now Sergeant Burton and an experienced veteran, was among  a number of non-commissioned officers  transferred  to become part of the new 48th battalion. (The reinforced 16th battalion was also redeployed to Britain and later to France and took part in many of the same battles as the 48th).

The 48th battalion was now part of the Australian Fourth Division and the Fourth Brigade, under the command of Brigadier General Charles Brand a veteran of both the Boer War and Gallipoli. The battalion itself was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Leane an experienced and strong-minded soldier known as ‘the Bull’ who had served and been wounded on Gallipoli. (The regiment was somewhat top-heavy with the colonel’s relatives, his brother, Ben, being adjutant while a nephew commanded a platoon. There was also another relative from Kalgoorlie among its members. This led to it being quickly known as the ‘Joan of Arc Battalion’- Made of All Leanes!)

The battalion moved into the front line opposite Pozieres around dusk on 3 August to be greeted by a massive German bombardment lasting two days, described by Colonel Leane as his ‘worst time in the war.’ Ordered to put two companies into the front line and his reserves in front of the village – the Germans held the high ground beyond – he disobeyed the order as too exposed. Even so, when he visited his front line the next morning most of his men were either dead or wounded and the trench had been reduced to a line of shell craters. He saw men weeping like children and cowering at every explosion. This was their first taste of sustained high explosive shelling that caused uncontrollable shaking and nervous collapse known as shell-shock. Number 3, Sergeant Burton, was not among the casualties of that first terrible engagement amid the ruins of the village of Pozieres which although eventually captured, came at a terrible cost. In two nights they had lost twenty officers and 578 men, nearly two thirds of their strength. (During the forty-five days of the entire Pozieres operation the Australians altogether launched nineteen attacks and suffered 24,139 casualties including 5533 killed in action and a further 1198 died from wounds).

Their next major engagement was to be an attempt to storm the so-called Hindenburg Line – a series of vast new German defensive positions which ran for seventy miles and included concrete dugouts protected by barbed wire entanglements and dozens of machine gun nests.

The village of Bullecourt had been heavily fortified and protruded towards the British lines acting as a salient which had to be eliminated before any attack on the main German fortifications could be mounted. There were two battles of Bullecourt. In the first the Australians succeeded in occupying the village but were driven out by sustained enemy attacks and the lack of supporting artillery fire. The second assault recaptured the village and for the first time breached the Hindenburg Line considered to be the most formidable defences ever devised in military history.

After this encounter, Staff-Sergeant Burton as he now was, received the immediate award of the Military Medal for conspicuous services carried out at Messines on the evening of 11 June 1917 during which he demonstrated: ‘conspicuous dash and initiative in securing information when out with a Fighting Patrol near Gapaard Farm… went out 250 yards in advance of the patrol (in no-mans land) and secured information and the definite location of four enemy strong- points.’  The award was recommended by his commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel R.L.Leane DSO. MC.and confirmed by both Brigade and Divisional commanders. Following his award, not surprisingly, on 15 September Burton was promoted to the rank of Warrant Officer Class 2 – Company Sergeant Major.

Although he continued to serve, by the end of 1917 he was no longer as fit as he once was. Seven wounds – three of them serious- had taken their toll and he had also been slightly gassed.  In view of his experience and qualities of leadership in January 1918 it was therefore decided to send him to England to form part of a permanent cadre of senior NCO’s in the 12th Australian Training Battalion stationed at Codford. Burton remained with that training battalion, respected and admired, giving of his knowledge and experience to help train those recruits about the trials and pitfalls of trench warfare until the end of hostilities the following year.

My father, Number 3, Warrant-Officer Stephen Matthews Burton died at the age of seventy-two on 8 April 1968.

What can one say about all this? Like so many of his generation Burton’s is but one account of one man’s service of a time and place that is represents a very different world. Like so many others at the time he believed in the justice of the cause – to answer Britain’s call. Lest we forget.

[Editor note: Numbers were issued by regiment so there were a number of “Number 3’s” in the 1st AIF, but the number certainly denoted an early enlistee]

Contact Brian Burton about this article.

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