Thursday, August 20, 2009

A small story about a big war.

Sometimes a small entry in a record, a few words, can make you stop and pause to reflect. Today I discovered that my first cousin (thrice removed), Private Alexander Davis, was killed in action in France in 1918. He was 28 years old. Private Davis’s army records quickly proved to be a treasure trove of information… but, more importantly, they gave me a small insight into what he was like as an individual.

Alexander Davis was born in Melbourne in 1890 to parents Lewis and Louisa Davis. Loiusa was actually the eldest surviving daughter of her husband’s older sister, Sarah (daughter of Isaac and Minna Davis and sister of John Davis, who discovered the gold (see earlier post)). Yes, Lewis married his niece. Lewis and Louisa had 6 children – three boys, three girls: Alexander was the third born.

Alexander became an apprentice bootmaker and worked for six years in his grandfather’s business, Morris Aarons & Sons. On July 12 1915 he enlisted in the Australian Army. According to his application he was 25 years 4 months old, 5 foot 3 inches tall and weighed 9st 10lbs. He had a “fresh” complexion, grayish brown eyes and dark brown hair. Alexander also notes that he was fined 5/- (is that 5 shillings?) for “loitering”! (I will endeavor to find the police records of this incident… one can only guess where or why he was doing such a thing.)

He was pronounced medically fit for service and on December 17 1915 Private Alexander Davis (#3823) was assigned to the 9th Rein, 22nd Battalion. A note on his file indicates he was congratulated for “gallant conduct” during his training. Private Davis departed Melbourne aboard the H.M.A.S. Warlida on February 8 1916. He disembarked in Marseilles March 27 and was sent to the front.

Alexander was undoubtedly a brave and gallant soldier. Over the course of his army career he served in Belgium and France – including at the Somme. The most poignant item in his file is a copy of a letter written by Alexander to his parents in January 1917. His father, Lewis, sent a copy of this letter to the army after his death. In it Alexander candidly describes to his parents his experience, after he had been “mentioned in dispatches”: “Now then I will tell you how it was that I had been mentioned in despatches (sic). It is true that I was, but you must not think me such a hero, for it was earned thousands of times in the big battle of the Somme. Well it is like this our Battn. was in one of the hottest parts of the line, it was when a big shell lobbed and wounded and killed all in the part of the trench where we were bar one. I was stunned a bit, but I helped to bind the poor devils up and helped to carry them out, then when we were returning to the Battn we picked up more wounded and put them into safety. We kept going for 3 solid days like that, and I can tell you the shells burst all around us. Once three of us were taking a stretcher into the line when a sniper got the man in front of us and missed me by a foot. Well we had to lay down on our stomachs and bind the lad up the sniper pinging at us all the time. I saw the dirty dog dodging in and out of the bushes. We never had rifles or he would have kiss the ground. Well we got this chap out after running with him on the stretcher for half a mile. He got a rough ride. We made our way back to the Battn. after three days and I can tell you we were done when we got back… Well I’m back again with the Battn. and the Lieut. asked me to get out and lead a relieving Battn. into the front line. So another chap and I went out. We got a very rough time coming back. It was hell. When I led our Battn. out after being relieved next morning I seen the result of the night before. I don’t want to see the same again. Well that which I did I done every day.” Private Alexander Davis 26/01/1917.

Alexander was wounded in action several times, sustaining shrapnel wounds, shell shock and exhaustion. Each injury and trip to hospital are recorded on his Service and Casualty form Part II… As is his offence of overstaying his leave in England on September 2nd 1918 by one day. His punishment for this infringement was a deduction of 4 days pay. One hopes he had a good time on that extra day’s leave in England as on October 12 1918 Private Alexander Davis was killed in action. He was shot in the head by a German sniper, his “death being instantaneous”.

In a letter to the family Lieutenant K.S. Anderson of the 22nd Battalion describes the circumstances: “On the morning of the 4th of October 1918 the Battalion attacked and advanced to Ponchaux – about 3 miles in front of Estrees. Private Davis and another were sent out as runners to the firing line with messages to company commanders. Private Davis was killed by a sniper and the other runner was badly wounded… Owing to the sniping Pte. Davis knew that it was practically impossible to get through to the firing line but volunteered to make the attempt. He was considered by all to be one of the best runners in the battalion and feared nothing.”

It was a week before his fellow soldiers were able to send a burial party to erect markers over their comrades’ graves. Alexander was initially interred near “Bridge over Canal between Geneve and Beaurevoir”. Some time around 1920 his remains were exhumed and he was transferred to the Prospect Hill British Cemetery (Plot 4 Row D Grave 12), East of Gouy and north of St Quentin in France.

All this information was gleaned from Private Davis’s army records, held by the National Archives of Australia and accessed online at

Alexander is just one of the hundreds of thousands of young men who died on the battlefields of the “Great War”… the “war to end all wars”. Of course WWI was just another stop on the train line of destruction wending it’s way through European history.

Alexander’s great grandparents, Isaac and Amelia Davis had brought the family out of Prussia to England to escape poverty and persecution. His grandparent’s, Morris and Sarah had brought their family to Australia from Leeds to start a new life in the colonies. What would Alexander’s life have been like if had not returned to the home of his forebears? We will never know.

Sadly, Alexander’s story is not unique or special… and that, ultimately, is its tragedy.
Vale Private Alexander Davis - Eli ben Leib MGRHS.

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