Two Butler Men at War
Alexander Edward Butler and Edward Malcolm Butler
In my original account of the Edward William Alfred Butler’s family I had little to say about his children for the simple reason that I knew little. During 2008 my nephew Wayne Davey did some research among the papers from the Australian War Museum and found details of the War Service of two Butler boys, the oldest, Alexander Edward, son of EW Butler and Jessie Hilda Burke, and EW Butler’s second son Edward Malcolm, the first child of his marriage with Lilian Blanche McLean.
In 1886 Edward William Butler married Jessie Hilda Burke in Melbourne. There was one son, Alexander Edward, named after his grandfather Alexander Edward Butler, and he died a bachelor 29th January 1964. He was a Gallipoli veteran. At this time I know nothing else about him.
[From the Australian War Museum]
Alexander Edward Butler Service No: 160. 13th Battalion AIF (New South Wales) [4th Infantry Brigade]
The 13th Battalion AIF was raised from late September 1914, six weeks after the outbreak of the First World War. The battalion was recruited in New South Wales, and with the 14th, 15th and 16th Battalions formed the 4th Brigade, commanded by Colonel John Monash. The Brigade embarked for overseas in late December. After a brief stop in Albany, Western Australia, it proceeded to Egypt, arriving in early February 1915. Australia already had an AIF division there, the 1st. When the 4th Brigade arrived in Egypt it became part of the New Zealand and Australian Division.
The 4th Brigade landed at ANZAC Cove late in the afternoon of 25 April 1915. On the 2nd May 1915 Alexander Edward Butler was wounded and was evacuated to Egypt with lacerated fingers but returned to Gallipoli several weeks later.
From May to August, the battalion was heavily involved in establishing and defending the ANZAC front line. In August, the 4th Brigade attacked Hill 971. The hill was taken at great cost, although Turkish reinforcements forced the Australians to withdraw. The 13th also suffered casualties during the attack on Hill 60 on 27 August. The battalion served at ANZAC until the evacuation in December 1915.
After the withdrawal from Gallipoli, the battalion returned to Egypt and on 15th Feb 1916 Alexander was promoted to lance corporal. While in Egypt the AIF was expanded and was reorganised. The 13th Battalion was split and provided experienced soldiers for the 45th Battalion. The 4th Brigade was combined with the 12th and 13th Brigades to form the 4th Australian Division.
Battle Honours: Landing at Anzac, Anzac, Defence of Anzac, Suvla, Sari Bair, Gallipoli 1915.
The 45th Battalion AIF (New South Wales) [12th Infantry Brigade] was formed Egypt 4 March 1916 from 2 companies of the 13th Battalion AIF. The 45th Battalion was raised in Egypt on 2 March 1916 as part of the “doubling” of the AIF. Approximately half of its new recruits were Gallipoli veterans from the 13th Battalion, and the other half, fresh reinforcements from Australia. On 3rd March Alexander was transferred to the 45th battalion. Reflecting the composition of the 13th, the new battalion was composed mostly of men from New South Wales. On 25th March 1916 Alexander was promoted to full corporal.
As part of the 12th Brigade of the 4th Australian Division, the 45th Battalion arrived in France on 8 June 1916, destined for the Western Front. On 22nd July 1916 Alexander was hospitalized in France and transferred to England 9th August 1916 with bronchitis. The 45th Battalion fought in its first major battle at Pozières in August, defending ground previously captured by the 2nd Australian Division. Alexander contracted mumps 21st December 1916. After Pozières the battalion spent the period until March 1917 alternating between duty in the trenches and training and rest behind the lines, first around Ypres in Belgium, and then in the Somme Valley in France.
The 45th Battalion was in reserve for the 4th Division’s first major action of 1917 – the first battle of Bullecourt – and was not committed to the attack. It was, however, heavily engaged during the battle of Messines in June, and suffered commensurate casualties. Alexander was discharged from the AIF on 13th July 1917.
Although by now Alexander was back in Australia it is interesting to note what the 45th battalion went on to do
Like most AIF battalions, the 45th rotated in and out of the front line throughout the winter of 1917-18. In the spring of 1918 it played a crucial role in turning the last great German offensive of the war when it defeated attacks aimed at breaking through the British front around Dernancourt. The Allies launched their own offensive on 8 August with the battle of Amiens. On the first day of this battle the 45th Battalion captured 400 German prisoners, 30 artillery pieces and 18 machine guns. 8 August became known as the “black day of the German Army” and initiated a retreat back to the formidable defensive barrier known as the Hindenburg Line. The 45th Battalion fought its last major action of the war on 18 September 1918 around Le Verguier to seize the “outpost line” that guarded the approaches to the main defences. The battalion was out of the line when the war ended on 11 November, and was disbanded on 2 May 1919.
Battle Honours: Egypt 1916, Somme 1916-18, Pozieres, Bullecourt, Messines 1917, Ypres 1917, Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Passchendaele, Arras 1918, Ancre 1918, Amiens, Albert 1918, St Quentin Canal, Hindenburg Line, Epehy, France and Flanders 1916-18.
In 1893 Alexander Edward Butler senior moved to Sydney with his sons Edward, Hubert and Percy. In 1897 Edward William set up as a house agent at 99 William Street and in that same year remarried, 29th December 1897; he was 33 and his new wife, Lilian Blanche McLean was 23.
Their first child, Edward Malcolm, was born 18th October 1898 while the family was living at 99 William Street. He was, in the general opinion (as expressed by his sister Julia), “the finest of the Butler boys”, an upstanding, fine build of a man, from his photographs. There are a number of photos of Ted and the other Butler boys at their father’s funeral in 1928. Ted is the most impressive looking one of them all.
Ted went to the First World War at the age of eighteen, much to his father’s regret, and was “never the same again”. In my original account of the family, I wrote: “I don’t know what that meant, but talk of Ted was always tinged with regret and the note that his potential was never achieved. According to the back of a postcard, ‘3771, Pte. Edward M. Butler, C Company, 9th Rem., 19th Batt., A.I.E.F., 5th Inf. Brigade’, sailed off to ‘Egypt or elsewher’ 20 January 1916 on the Runic; ‘left wharf 8 a.m. left harbour 4 p.m.’ There are no photos of him in uniform, no memoirs of his service.” Thanks to Wayne’s research, we can now read of his military service. At the time of his father’s funeral (8 August 1928), when his address was given as Y.M.C.A., Melbourne. He died a bachelor, 31 October 1938.
[From the Australian War Museum]
Edward Malcolm Butler Service No:377
Hazel eyes, fair hair, 5’8 tall.
First posted as the 9th reinforcements to the 19th Battalion but shortly after arriving in Egypt he was transferred to the 55th Battalion on the 3rd April 1916.
The 55th Battalion AIF (New South Wales) [14th Infantry Brigade] was formed Egypt 14 February 1916 from the 3rd Battalion AIF.
The 55th Battalion was raised in Egypt on 12 February 1916 as part of the “doubling” of the AIF. Half of its recruits were Gallipoli veterans from the 3rd Battalion, and the other half, fresh reinforcements from Australia. Reflecting the composition of the 3rd, the 55th was predominantly composed of men from New South Wales. The battalion became part of the 14th Brigade of the 5th Australian Division.
Arriving in France on 30 June 1916, the battalion entered the frontline trenches for the first time on 12 July and fought its first major battle at Fromelles a week later. The battle was a disaster, resulting in heavy casualties across the division. Although in reserve, the 55th was quickly committed to the attack and eventually played a critical role, forming the rearguard for the 14th Brigade’s withdrawal. Despite its grievous losses the 5th Division continued to man the front in the Fromelles sector for a further two months.
After a freezing winter manning trenches in the Somme Valley, in early 1917 the 55th Battalion participated in the advance that followed the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line. It was spared the assault but did, however, defend gains made during the second battle of Bullecourt. On 2nd April 1917 Edward was wounded in action in France, a gunshot wound (GSW) to the left hand. It is not recorded the extent of the injury but it must have been fairly serious as the following day, 5th April he was transferred to England to a military hospital. [His father, at 99 William Streete Sydney, received a letter from The Australian Imperial Force dated 26 April 1917 which informed him: “that information has been received to the effect that Private EM Butler was admitted to the Royal Surrey County Hospital Engalnd 5.4.17 suffering from a gunshot wound. His postal address will be … Any further reports received will be promptly transmitted.”]
On 7th July he was charged with absent without leave (AWL) from a tattoo (military) and fined 1 day’s pay. On 21st July 1917 he was transferred to Australia and was eventually discharged from the AIF on 7th Feb 1918 as medically unfit from Holsworthy Army Base NSW. Edward later received the British War Medal, number 32702 and the Victory Medal number 32295. He applied for and was granted a war pension of 1 pound 10 shillings a fortnight from 8th Feb 1918.
[What follows is an account of the battalion’s service for the remainder of the war.] Later in the year, the AIF’s focus of operations switched to the Ypres sector in Belgium. The 55th’s major battle here was at Polygon Wood on 26 September.
With the collapse of Russia in October 1917, a major German offensive on the Western Front was expected in early 1918. This came in late March and the 5th Division moved to defend the sector around Corbie. The 14th Brigade took up positions to the north of Villers-Bretonneux and held these even when the village fell, threatening their flanks.
Once the German offensive had been defeated, the Allies launched their own offensive in August 1918. The 14th Brigade did not play a major role in these operations until late in the month, but its actions were critical to the capture of Péronne, which fell on 2 September. The 54th fought its last major battle of the war, St Quentin Canal, between 29 September and 2 October 1918. For his valour during this action Private John Ryan was awarded the Victoria Cross.
The battalion was resting out of the line when the Armistice was declared on 11 November. The progressive return of troops to Australia for discharge resulted in the 55th merging with the 53rd Battalion on 10 March 1919. The combined 53/55th Battalion, in turn, disbanded on 11 April
Battle Honours: Egypt 1916, Somme 1916-18, Bullecourt, Ypres 1917, Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Passchendaele, Ancre 1918, Villers-Bretonneux, Amiens, Albert 1918, Mont St Quentin, Hindenburg Line, St Quentin Canal, France and Flanders 1916-18.
I never knew my uncles, even though Alex was still living until I was 24. One can only regret not knowing either these men or their stories. I am grateful that my nephew has taken the time to find out more about them.