Bob Lawless – ANZAC Day Tribute

by Martin Croker

 

“Do not worry over me; I am all right and trying to do my best.”

 

100 years ago on 22nd April, 1917 Lance Corporal Robert Leslie Lawless, No.103, 21st/8th Battalion, was killed in action near Lagnicourt, in northern France.

 

Our Great Uncle Bob had, as detailed in the Koroit Sentinel … enlisted at Ballarat ten days after the outbreak of hostilities, and sailed on the 19th October, 1914. He went right through the Gallipoli campaign, being at the landing and evacuation, and took part in most of the engagements while there. Sometime after he contracted fever, for which he was treated at the Alexandria hospital, being afterwards invalided home, and arriving in Victoria in March (1916). He sailed for England in October (1916). …. he considered it his duty to be in the trenches… referred to the boys coming out of the trenches on furlough, some of whom had been wounded two or three times, and … was glad he had gone back again to lend a hand…. Deceased was 27 years of age and was universally respected for his manly qualities.”

 

…….

 

When we were children every holiday was spent at our Grandma’s place at Koroit, in the Western Districts of Victoria. Throughout the 1960s and 70s happy family Christmases and long, hot summer days were spent in and around the old wooden cottage, a stone’s throw from the rim of the Tower Hill Lake and set among the potato fields still being farmed by the family. The cottage was sparsely decorated with a few framed photos and certificates, but one photo had pride of place in the lounge room; a large, framed photo of a young man in military uniform standing proudly and smiling. “That’s Grandma’s brother, Uncle Bob”, we were told. “He died in the First World War. He was at Gallipoli.”

 

…….

 

Robert Leslie Lawless was born in Glenthompson, Victoria on the 17th March 1890. He was the fifth of twelve children and the oldest son of Robert Lawless and his wife Alice Houghton. Robert snr worked on the railways so the family moved around Victoria a lot while Bob was growing up.

 

Sometime before 1913 the majority of the family moved to Koroit where Robert Snr took up the position of Station Master. The two oldest daughters had both married and were settled in the Ballarat area. Their third daughter, Eva our Grandmother had moved with them and married a local potato farmer, Martin Cashill. Forth daughter Fanny married Martin’s cousin Martin Carroll and the younger kids Pearly, Albert, Cyril, Stephen and Harold completed the mob. Two children had passed away by this time, not uncommon for the times.

 

Pte Robert Lawless’s name can be seen on the War Memorial in the Koroit Botanical Gardens. Apart from this there is little evidence that Bob lived in Koroit for any length of time. Family lore has it that he remained in Boort when the family moved to Koroit and a memorial in the Quambatook Times stated that he was well known and esteemed in that region where he worked for Quambatook Stores Pty. Quambatook is about 50 kilometres from Boort on the line to Chillingollah.

 

Another memorial in The Ballarat Courier says that at the time of his enlistment he was a grocer by trade and in the employ of Mr Rice of Bungaree. His enlistment record confirms his trade as being a grocer, having done 3 years as an apprentice in Buninyong. Both locations are in the Ballarat area.

 

Bob Lawless enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces on the 18th of August 1914 at Ballarat into the 8th Battalion and became a member of A Company, with service number 103. The 8th Battalion was recruited from rural Victoria by Lieutenant Colonel William Bolton and together with the 5th, 6th and 7th battalions formed the 2nd Brigade. The 8th was also known as the Ballarat City Battalion. It is worth noting that a severe drought had gripped the Western Region of Victoria from late 1913 throughout 1914 and times on the land and in regional towns were tough. On his enlistment form Bob was described as being 5 feet, 7 ½ inches tall, weighing 10 stone and 11 pound, with a fair complexion, light blue eyes and brown hair. The photograph of Bob in uniform shows a handsome, fit and healthy young man in the prime of life.

 

 

The 8th battalion underwent basic training at Broadmeadows and just over two months after enlisting Bob embarked with the battalion aboard the HMAS Benalla on 19th October. After a brief stop in Albany, Western Australia, the battalion proceeded to Egypt, arriving on 2nd December.

 

While in Egypt they were camped in Mena, in the shadows of the Pyramids and the Sphinx. We are not aware of any surviving letters from Bob during his stay in Egypt but letters to home from his contemporaries give us an idea of the living conditions and the things he may have experienced.

 

Another member of A Company, 8th Battalion, Private Phil Sherrin wrote home from Mena Camp on 9th January 1915.

“We spent Christmas in Egypt camped at the foot of the great Pyramids. On Christmas Day church parade was held in the morning, and for the remainder of the day everyone was off. Those who were fortunate enough to get leave spent the afternoon and evening in Cairo, where they had their Christmas dinner and strolled about amongst the throngs of people – French, Greeks, Italians, Englishmen and Egyptians in the Ezbekiah Gardens or on the streets. The scene in Cairo on Christmas Day was a notable contrast to Christmas Day in any Australian city with all the restaurants and cafes open.

On New Year’s Day each company in the 8th Battalion had a special dinner in the new mess-rooms. Colonel Bolton gave each company £3 towards it, and the company officers and men subscribed the balance. Very few will forget the first day of 1915, spent on the Sahara …. experiencing the Egyptian sandstorms. For two days the wind blew a gale, accompanied by clouds of sand and gravel; hair, eyes and clothes became full of it. On the second night the wind dropped and a heavy shower of rain improved matters considerably.”

 

In February they were briefly involved in the defence of the Suez Canal, however the Turkish offensive ended before the battalion saw active service.

 

They continued training, including route marches through the desert and practice skirmishes, and became increasingly restless. Private Edgar Wallace, of C Company, 8th Battalion wrote home.

“It is quite easy to understand the story of the seven plagues of Egypt. We have suffered two—locusts and flies. There are no blowflies in Egypt, but for each “blowie” there are 10,000 ordinary houseflies to keep his job warm. They are worse than the blowfly, and justify very bad language. When the locusts get on the move it is as good as a cloud over the sun. They almost hide you from the sun’s rays. So they’re fairly thick…

 

…This morning being Good Friday we had an Easter service, and the remainder of the day was spent as a holiday. We are still hoping that our time will be very short before our departure for battle. We will then feel we have really come to fight, and not to view the country.”

 

They did not have long to wait. By early morning on Easter Monday, 5th April, the 8th Battalion was at Alexandria boarding the Clan McGillivray. They anchored off shore for several days while more ships were loaded and equipment and provisions were brought on board. They then sailed to Lemnos Island where they practiced descending into long boats, landings and skirmishing. On the 24th of April they set sail for Gallipoli.

 

The 8th Battalion took part in the ANZAC landing on the 25th April as part of the second wave. The first ANZAC troops came ashore around 04:30 at Beach Z, called Ari Burnu at the time, but later known as ANZAC Cove. The 2nd Brigade landed between 05:30 and 07:00. Col. Bolton, in an interview with the Ballarat Star in August 1915, described the landing.

“… the 8th Battalion was head of the main body, being ordered by General Bridges to protect the right flank, which was the enemy’s strongest position. They advanced in the face of heavy fire to a ridge that was later called “Bolton’s Hill”. On arriving at that point they were told to go no further. They were under fire all the time and men were dropping out of line one after the other. In the midst of heavy shrapnel and rifle fire only half the battalion, which was then left, immediately set to work to entrench. It was a hot time. Not until evening did they receive a message to say that the two companies which had gone on in front should have stayed at the ridge. They had been a mile and a half in front. It was in this fighting they suffered their greatest losses, said the Colonel. Out of 500 men only 120 returned to the brigade that night.

 

The 8th Battalion held the ridge the first two nights, under strenuous conditions, and with a total strength reduced to 530. On the Monday night a message was received from General Birdwood, to say that the Intelligence Branch had informed him that ah attack was expected on the right flank, and the safety of the whole division depended on the 8th Battalion holding the ground they had won, otherwise they might be cut off at the base with their supplies. The colonel and his staff moved along the lines, explaining the situation and what general wished them to do. The response was always the same … the men said “Let them all come; we are not afraid of the Turks; the more they come the better we like it.” The following morning there were two attacks between 3 o’clock and 4.30 o’clock, and in each case they were repulsed with heavy loss to the enemy. It was a most difficult position to hold, said the colonel, and he had not the slightest doubt that every man in the line that night was a hero. On the following morning General Birdwood moved along the whole position and congratulated the men on the magnificent stand they had made. The 8th Battalion held those trenches until the 5th May, and suffered few casualties. The trenches were then well covered, and most of the casualties which occurred subsequently were due to chance shots from rifle and shrapnel fire”.

 

On 5th May the 2nd Brigade was transferred to Cape Helles to help in the attack on the village of Krithia; the 2nd battle of Krithia. The first assault on Krithia, by British and French forces had failed and the exhausted soldiers had had to endure several Turkish counter-attacks. At ANZAC it was deemed the front was secure enough to allow two brigades to be moved to Helles for the next assault on Krithia. These were the Australian 2nd Brigade and the New Zealand Infantry Brigade.

 

Krithia has at times not had the same attention as other Gallipoli campaigns but perhaps epitomises the courage and determination that defined the ANZAC legend. Bob was later to write about the “terrible advance” they made and the death of Col. Gartside.

 

The battle began on 6th May with British and French attacks and continued on 7th with little success. On the morning of 8th, the New Zealand Brigade went in but they also gained little ground. Until then the 2nd Brigade had been kept in reserve and were preparing their evening meal when a general advance was ordered for 17:30 along the entire front. The 2nd Brigade was given 35 minutes warning that it was about to join the attack. The Australians had to travel up to 800 yards just to reach the start line at “Tommy’s Trench“. The brigade managed to advance a further 500 yards beyond the start line, suffering 50% casualties in the process due to Turkish artillery and small arms fire.

 

Col Bolton described the attack: “It was preceded by one of the heaviest bombardments of the campaign, there being 200 guns on shore and a large number of ships’ batteries at sea. The bombardment ceased at 5.15 p.m., and punctually at 5.30 the general advance was commenced. Up to this time scarcely a gun or a rifle had been fired by the enemy the whole of the day, but the moment the Allies moved forward a perfect hail of fire was delivered from their position which was in the form of a horseshoe. The Australians were pushed on so rapidly that they were several hundreds of yards in advance of the general lines. This exposed them to enfiladed fire on both flanks in addition to severe frontal fire. The brigade lost heavily, but made good the ground gained.

 

During one hour more than 1000 Australians were killed or wounded in this attack. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Gartside was temporarily in charge of the 7th Battalion. Gartside was reportedly struck in the stomach by machine-gun bullets as he rose to lead another charge –‘Come on, boys, I know it’s deadly but we must go on’.

 

In the interview Col. Bolton continued: “They entrenched themselves and held on until relieved by the Lancashire Fusiliers of 6000 strong under General Frith. This was the morning of the 12th May. A senior British officer declared they had never seen anything to equal the feat of the Australians in entrenching under heavy rifle and gun fire. As soon as one man dropped his pick or shovel another one rushed forward to carry on the work. From the 25th April to 12th May the casualties of one brigade were between 3000 and 4000. When they began to reorganise the brigade on 13th May all that was left of the various battalions were; – 5th Battalion, 12 officers, 337 other ranks; 6th Battalion, 10 officers, and 296 other ranks; 7th Battalion, 8 officers, 309 other ranks; 8th Battalion, 19 officers, 669 (which included 380 reinforcements on 8th May) other ranks. Many of the officers mentioned were not the original officers, but those who had been promoted since 25th April. The total casualties between 25th April and 12th May were 49 officers and 1660 other ranks. Colonel Bolton said he could not speak too highly of the dash and fearlessness of the Australians. “They had no idea of the meaning of fear”, he remarked,”

The 2nd Brigade returned to ANZAC to defend the beach head but Bob was sent to hospital. On the 14th May he was admitted, not wounded, to the No. 16 Stationary Hospital, SS Alannia and on 27th transferred from the Alannia to hospital at Mudros with tonsillitis. After a month of convalescence he was discharged to duty on 20th June and re-joined the 8th Battalion at Gallipoli the next day.

 

Bob wrote to his father from the firing line, Gaba Tepe, on July 21st, 1915.

 

I received your letters and one lot of papers, and was very pleased to get them. We have lately had a change in food, and have been getting rice and dried foods; we get fresh meat and bread. We are all tired of it here and hope we will soon get another move on. I do not want to put the winter in here; climbing these hills is bad enough now, but it will be terrible in wet weather. Only three of our tent lot who came from Broadmeadows are left. We are having potatoes and onions for dinner, and prunes, figs and rice for tea. We do all our own cooking, and the cooks make a stew and tea sometimes, but I always like to cook our own. Sometimes we get flour and make pancakes. When we were away on the island for a couple of days we got plenty of eggs at 1s per dozen, also mulberries, pears, apples, water melons. When there we used to get up at 5.30 and go for a swim at the beach, and had a great time. The Greek people are all right, but they cannot talk much English. We went to one house for flour, and saw them grinding the corn. The people seem very clean, and it was quite a treat to see some nice clean children after Egypt. We gave them some pennies, and I was nursing one little girl, and she did not want us to go away. I have only had one fresh water wash since we landed, and we have to wash our clothes in the sea. When we first landed we did not have a wash for five days. We are only five minutes’ walk to the beach from our trenches, and it is not very safe in the day time, as they shell it then. Our trenches are high up on the hills, and the sea is behind us, so there is no going back. They have often tried in different places to break our line, but they have found it is useless. The last time they attacked us at 3.30 a.m. and their dead was piled up in front of our trenches. It was a great sight. I will never forget the first day. I have had some narrow escapes, but do not take any notice now. We often get sand bags and dirt on top of us from a shell bursting on the parapet. I got knocked over with two cans of water going through the trenches the other day; it shakes one up for an hour or so and then you are all right. Everything is going on all right, and I hope to be out of it soon. We get a drop of rum and lime sometimes.”

 

He wrote again to his parents from Anzac, on August 2nd, 1915.

 

Things are going on quietly here lately, but we expect it to be lively soon. We want to get amongst them again, to get rid of a few more. There have been a few German aeroplanes over us lately, but they are frightened of our planes, they just fly over, drop a couple of bombs, and clear off, and they have not done any damage with their bombs yet. We are quite used to lying down and the shell whizzing over our heads or perhaps sending a shower of dirt over us. I was able to go to church yesterday morning, as two services are held on the hill opposite to us. It is nice in the evening to listen to the singing, and perhaps a big shell will go into the ground nearby and burst, sending up a great cloud of dirt and smoke. We have some dirty dusty holes at times to sleep in, and are like rabbits in a great big warren. A few shells start to come over, and off we crawl into our holes, just as if a pack of dogs were chasing us. Of course some have the bad luck perhaps to get a shell right in on top and it buries them, or perhaps you will think they have been blown to pieces and they will come out brushing the dirt off and growling that their dinner has been knocked over. I can sleep at any time of the day, and when I am not working I like to get well into my burrow and sleep. A lot of Ballarat boys have gone down. Have you got a photo of Col. Gartside? He was second in command of our battalion when he was killed, and in the advance we made he was right amongst us when they got a machine gun on him. It was a terrible advance we made. The nights have started to get a little cooler now, but the days are warm. Do not worry over me; I am all right and trying to do my best.”

 

The quiet that Bob wrote of was not to last for long. On 6th August 1915 the battle of Lone Pine began. The battle was part of a diversionary attack to draw the Turk’s attention away from the main assaults against Sari Bair, Chunuk Bair and Hill 971. The Australians managed to capture the main Turkish trench line in the first few hours of the fighting; however, the fighting continued for the next three days. Finally by 10th August Turkish offensive action ceased, leaving the Australians in control of the position. During the battle the 8th Battalion was mainly responsible for laying down suppressing fire on the supporting Turkish forces. Despite the Australian victory, the August Offensive failed and a stalemate developed and only sporadic, localised fighting continued. (They actually came off for about 5-6 weeks R&R on Lemnos.) The decision to evacuate Gallipoli was taken in mid-November 1915, two days after Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, Commander in Chief of the British Army, visited Anzac to see the position there for himself. Once the decision was made an elaborate plan was devised to evacuate the peninsular. The evacuation took place in 3 stages. The first two stages were planned to reduce the garrison from 41,000 to 26,000. The final evacuation took place over 2 nights, the 18th-19th December and 19th-20th December 1915. By the 18th only 20,277 were left at Anzac; Bob Lawless was one of them.

 

On the 18th December Bob was transferred from Gallipoli to a hospital ship with Pyrexia (fever). He was transferred from the Devanha to the Ionian and then the Dunluce Castle at Mudros the next day. On the 23rd he disembarked at Alexandria and was admitted to 21st General Hospital with enteric fever. The term enteric fever is a collective term that refers to severe typhoid and paratyphoid. It is estimated that up to 70% of the allies’ casualties during the Gallipoli campaign were due to sickness; the chief causes being dysentery, diarrhea, and enteric fever.

 

On the 26th January 1916 Bob Lawless was transferred to No.1 Australian General Hospital in Cairo. A “Medical Report on an Invalid” dated 1st February 1916 recorded that Pte. Robert L Lawless was suffering disability following enteric. The place of origin of the disability was Anzac and he had been “in bed for four weeks with enteric fever” and “up and about for two weeks”. The cause of the disability was infection aggravated by strain and exposure. His condition was convalescing and the recommendation was that he not be discharged as permanently unfit but be moved to Australia. The attached “Opinion of the Medical Board” recorded that the disability was the result of active service and had been caused by “infection and insanitary conditions”. The disability had not been aggravated by intemperance or misconduct. The disability was not permanent but the minimum probable duration was 3 months. The form reiterated the recommendation that he be transferred to Australia but not be permanently discharged.

 

He was transferred to No.2 Auxiliary Hospital at Heliopolis on 5th February. The “Opinion of the Medial Board” was approved on the 7th and he embarked for Australia onboard HMT Nestor two days later at Suez. The Nestor arrived in Melbourne on 13th March 1916.

 

Records show that on 20th April Bob was convalescent in a rest home in Mont Park, Victoria. On the 19th June he was returned to light duties from No.5 Australian General Hospital.

 

While he was convalescing in Australia Bob got married. On 1st July 1916 he married Ivy Gladstone Anderson at Scots Church, Melbourne. Ivy was also born in 1890, the daughter of John Cunningham Anderson and Louisa Anne Cox. She was born at Korong Vale where her father was a farmer. The marriage certificate states that she was a music teacher. Although the Lawless family, in later years, seemed to know little about Ivy it is quite likely that Bob knew her before he enlisted. Korong Vale was on the junction of the Kulwin and Robinvale railway lines and was a major railway town for many years with much of the population made up of railway staff and their families. It was three stops away from Boort.

 

On the marriage certificate Bob’s residence was stated as the McLeod Rest Camp. He was subsequently returned to full duties from the McLeod Rest Camp on 25th of July and joined the 21st Reinforcements at the Ballarat Camp. While in camp Bob was Acting Sergeant Major.

 

After being returned to active service Bob spent only another two months in Australia and barely three months after his marriage he embarked for England. He departed Melbourne on 2ndOctober 1916 on-board the Nestor again. On board the transport Bob was Acting Quartermaster Sergeant but he reverted to the rank of Corporal when they reached England. He disembarked at Plymouth on 16th November and went to No.3 Company Depot Bovington. He “marched out” from Bovington to Fovent on 21st for further training. After a two month stay in England he departed for “overseas” on 4th February 1917, from Folkestone on-board the SS Victoria, disembarking at Etaples the same day. He joined his unit on 6th February and re-joined the battalion on 10th February.

 

The 8th battalion was participating in the operations that followed-up the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line. Lagnicourt had been the scene of fierce fighting in March and April 1917 and in mid-April the Germans had launched a counter-stroke in the Lagnicourt area which was repelled by four Australian battalions.

 

On the 22nd April 1917 Lance Corporal Robert Leslie Lawless was killed in action near Lagnicourt, in northern France.  The news reached Bob’s family in Koroit almost a month later on 15th May 1915.

On Tuesday the sad tidings were conveyed by the Rev. W. Reed to Mr. and Mrs. Lawless, Koroit, that their eldest son, Robert, had been killed in action in France on April 22, and a large measure of sympathy is being extended to the bereaved family in their great loss.”

 

The Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau files, 1914-18 War, provide some detail of Bob’s death. The Red Cross obtained a number of eye witness reports from members of Bob’s unit in November and December 1917 and early 1918.

 

I knew casualty well. I was beside him when he was killed on the 22nd April, 1917 at Lagnicourt, by a bomb accidentally thrown by one of our own men.” P. J. Byrne, No.6479, 8th Btn.

 

On 22/17 at Bullecourt L/Cpl. Lawless was killed in a charge by a shell. He was mortally wounded and died where he fell. I saw him lying on the ground as we went over the top.” E. G. Kany, 139, 8th A.I.F.

 

I knew casualty. He was a man about 5 ft. 7 in. dark complexion, about 26 years of age, a married man, known as “Bob”. Casualty was taking a post at Lagnicourt. I was in the party. A bomb exploded near casualty killing him instantly. I was 20 yds. away. His chief wounds were about the body”. J. Corley, No.2843.

 

A little over 32 months after enlisting Bob lay dead in the mud of no-man’s land. Having survived Gallipoli, Krithia and Typhoid Fever he was tragically killed by a wayward grenade thrown from his own side. Although some reported that his body had been recovered and buried in Lagnicourt the majority reported he was either buried in the field or his body was not recovered. The area of no-man’s land was reportedly heavily bombarded in the hours afterwards and the Germans subsequently recaptured the ground. It is likely those who reported that his body was removed and buried in Lagnicourt were trying to spare the family further grief.

 

Perhaps the most likely report was from Sgt. F. Dance, No.1104, 8th Btn.

I knew casualty. He was a medium height, well built, dark complexion, about 25 years of age. Casualty was attacking a store post at Lagnicourt when one of our own shells exploded near and killed him instantly. I was 15 yds. from casualty. He was lying there for 12 hours. The Germans counter-attacked about 12 hours later and we had to retire. Casualty was left lying there. I was an eye-witness. Casualty was well known and liked by all his comrades.”

 

Family lore suggests that a number of Bob’s personal items were recovered from his body and returned to Paddy Cashill, our Grandad’s brother, who was also serving in the campaign.

 

Just over twenty years later the World was at war again. The loss of her brother had deeply affected our Grandma , who strongly objected to her three eligible sons being involved in the conflict. While two did eventually serve they thankfully were in non-conflict zones, thus alleviating our Grandma’s anxiety somewhat.

 

In 1954 Bob’s wife Ivy wrote to the Office of Base Records asking for details of his burial place as she intended to visit France in the near future. In response they wrote;

Regarding the burial place of the above named it is advised he has no known grave. His name appears on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial which was erected in the vicinity of Villers-Bretonneux to commemorate the names of soldiers of the Australian Imperial Forces who fell in France and Belgium during the war 1914-18 and whose graves are not known.”

 

Sadly this was also the case for around 15,000 Australian families, whose sons, brothers and husbands were never recovered from the battlefields of Europe.

Bob’s death was devastating to the Lawless family. A year after his death the following memorial was placed in the Koroit Sentinel and the Melbourne Argus.

 

 

LAWLESS.—In loving memory of our dear son and brother, Corporal R. L. Lawless, who was killed in France on the 22nd April, 1917.

 

In early morn when all was still,

 

God gave his great command,

 

In silent peace he passed away

 

Into a better land.

 

No loved ones stood around him,

 

Nor could we bid farewell,

 

No word of comfort could we give,

 

To him we loved so well.

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Well said Martin. Five of my grand uncles went across from Corowa; four returned. My grand uncle Frank Conrick was killed in France on May 23 1917, almost a century ago,and is buried at Bapaume military cemetery.

    We’ll pop up to Trentham tomorrow morning to catch up with friends for the march,then return to the big smoke for a few bets and bevies at the RSL.

    It’s important we always remember every WW1′ Digger’ was a volunteer .Australia was the only nation which did not have conscription,though twice the Federal government sought to introduce it, but twice Australia voted NO.

    Lest we forget,

    Glen!

  2. Tim norton says

    Great work, Martin

  3. Keiran Croker says

    Thanks Martin. My knowledge and appreciation of our family and of our Uncle Bob’s contribution in WW1 has been greatly enhanced by your research and insights. I am proud to have contributed to this article.

  4. Keiran Croker says

    Remembering our great uncle Bob Lawless today, who died in the Great War.

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