3279 Driver Alexander THWAITES – killed in action on 12 December 1917
Alexander THWAITES was born in Hindmarsh (SA) on 13 January 1891, the fifth child of six children of Thomas THWAITES and Ruth THWAITES (nee Ellis). His secondary education included time as a boarder at St Peters College, Adelaide. A bank teller with the Bank of Australasia in Wagga Wagga, he was 24 years, nine months old when he enlisted in the AIF on 22 August 1915. Shortly after his enlistment, Alexander married Martha Phillips in Sydney.
Alex, as he was known, was posted to the 7th Reinforcements of the 20th Infantry Battalion, and sailed aboard the HMAT A29 Suevic from Sydney on 20 December 1915. The ship docked in Alexandria, Egypt and the men proceeded to the sprawling Australian base at Zeitoun. In March 1916, after the ‘doubling of the divisions’ Alex was posted to the 51st Battery, 13th Field Artillery Brigade, which formed part of the 5th Divisional Artillery. He was mustered as a driver, a job that would entail driving the limbers and caissons that towed the artillery guns and ammunition supplies. A dangerous job as each side constantly targeted these columns to prevent them supporting the frontline troops. On 16 June 1916, Alex and his comrades boarded the SS Tunisian and sailed from Alexandria, disembarking at Marseilles 12 days later and then entrained to the front near Armentieres.
The Brigade’s first actions on the front were in support of infantry attacks and the Brigade’s guns were engaged in ‘wire-cutting’, of the enemy’s defences thus allowing the infantry to advance at a faster pace. On 19 July 1916, the Brigade was at Fromelles where the 51st Battery took heavy fire resulting in four killed and two wounded. During the Battle of Pozieres, the Brigade was engaged in supporting the infantry attacks, however the German defensive line resisted much of the bombardments and machine gun fire decimated the advancing troops. The Brigade rotated in and out of the front line, the winter of 1916-1917 was one of the worst on record and large numbers of soldiers were evacuated with trench-foot and frostbite, severely impeding the operational efficiency of many units. On 3 January 1917, Alex was evacuated to hospital and then shipped to England suffering from debility. He was then granted one month’s leave and then spent over five months at the Reserve Brigade Australian Artillery at Larkhill. The nature of his duties is not recorded but we might assume he was involved in training reinforcements for the Front. Alex rejoined his unit on 12 September 1917.
In July 1917, the Division had moved to the Front in Belgium, near Steenvorde. On the 21st, the 113th Battery was hit by enemy shells which caused 4,000 rounds of artillery shells to be destroyed in a massive explosion. On 31 July 1917, the Third Battle of Ypres, which was to be the major British offensive in Flanders, began. It was planned to break through the strongly fortified and in-depth German defences enclosing the Ypres salient, a protruding bulge in the British front line; its goal was to sweep through to the German submarine bases on the Belgian coast. The battle comprised of a series of limited and costly offensives, often undertaken in the most difficult of waterlogged conditions – a consequence of frequent periods of rain and the destruction of the Flanders’ lowlands drainage systems by intense artillery bombardment. The main battles associated with Third Battle of Ypres were:- Pilckem (31 July to 2 August), Langemarck (16-18 August), Menin Road (20-25 September), Polygon Wood (26 September to 3 October), Broodseinde (4 October), Poelcapelle (9 October), Passchendaele First Battle, (12 October), Passchendaele Second Battle (26 October to 10 November).
Australian Divisions participated in the battles of Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde, Poelcapelle and the First Battle of Passchendaele. In eight weeks of fighting Australian forces incurred 38,000 casualties. The combined total of British and Dominion casualties has been estimated at 310,000 (estimated German losses were slightly lower) and no breakthrough was achieved. The costly offensives, ending with the capture of Passchendaele village, merely widened the Ypres salient by a few kilometres.
The war diary of the 13th Brigade reveals that on 12 December 1917, seven enemy Gotha aerial bombers accompanied by Albatross fighters, attacked the 51st Battery and dropped four bombs which killed six men and wounded 20, killed three horses and wounded 23. The next day, another attack resulted in two more men being killed. The diary records that all eight men were buried in Westhof Cemetery. Alexander THWAITES was one of those casualties.
Martha THWAITES, Alex’s widow was later granted a widow’s pension of 2 pounds 3 shillings per fortnight. She was living at 140 Phillip Street, Sydney at the time. Alexander’s Will was administered by Heath & Mitchelmore Solicitors, of Wagga Wagga. Nothing further is known of Martha.
Service of 3279 Driver Alexander THWAITES downloaded from the National Archives of Australia (www.naa.gov.au).
Australian War Memorial database (www.awm.gov.au ).
Compiled by the Victor harbor RSL History Research Team, January 2017.