2017 Premier’s Anzac Spirit School Prize Essay – Arthur Fillis Grist

Source: Jasmin Grist, Investigator College

On 26 February 1915 at Keswick, South Australia, two days’ shy of his eighteenth birthday and with his family’s support, Arthur Fillis Grist enlisted in the First Australian Imperial Force.

The term ‘ANZAC’ was originally devised as an acronym for ‘Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’ when, over a hundred years ago, on 25 April 1915, they first landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

Since then, it has become a widely-used phrase harbouring multiple connotations. The expression ‘Anzac Spirit’ or ‘Anzac Legend’ is perhaps one of the most well-known notions derived from the original meaning of the word. The Anzac Legend is said to have comprehended the idea of Australia’s and New Zealand’s ‘national character’, born through the way in which our troops established reputations of strength and bravery whilst fighting in the war.

Although the topic attracts much controversy, the consensus on what is deemed the concept of the Anzac Spirit relates to the collective qualities that the Anzac Soldiers displayed when faced with adversity during the war. These characteristics are perceived to include; “endurance, courage, ingenuity, good humour and mateship”

Arthur Fillis Grist was born in Gawler, South Australia on 28 February 1897. He was one of seven children born to his mother Eleanor Tait and his English father Thomas Alfred Grist, an engineer. After having lived and worked in Goolwa, Renmark and Gawler, his parents moved their family for the last time in 1902, where they settled in Unley. As a boy, Arthur attended Unley Primary School, then at its commencement in 1910, moved to Unley High School. Like many boys of his age, he enjoyed playing football for the school.

At sixteen, Arthur made the decision to leave school and take up a carpentry apprenticeship in Adelaide to Charles Rich.1 Arthur’s father was a pioneer in refrigeration engineering, requiring working away from home often, and his older brother had left home.

Subsequently, Arthur was also tasked with the responsibilities of being the ‘man of the house’, a responsibility he took on with much pride.

When enlisting in 1915, Arthur did so with a sense of duty to Great Britain, his father’s homeland and with loyalty to his birth country, Australia. As a young man, there was also the sense of excitement for adventure and travel.

Arthur was assigned to the 27th Infantry Battalion, Platoon No. 3, D company, raised in March 1915 predominately from South Australian men. They were quite often referred to as ‘Unley’s Own’ as many of the men allotted to the battalion hailed from the Unley district.

On 16 April 1915, with little time at hand, the 27th marched to the newly established Mitcham Army Camp. Here, they undertook intensive training to prepare themselves as best as possible for the gruelling battles to come. On completion of training at Mitcham, the 27th were allocated to the 7th Brigade, 2nd Division AIF and given an embarkation date of 31 May 1915 aboard the S.S. Geelong. The day of embarkation was filled with excitement and trepidation. Thousands of people lined the wharf at Outer Harbor to farewell the soldiers who, already showing great courage, waved goodbye, not knowing when or even if they were to return.

Upon landing in Gallipoli on 12 September 1915, following additional training in Egypt, the 27th Infantry Battalion reinforced the weary New Zealand and Australian Division. Week after week they endured unrelenting enemy action. The troops were also subjected to poor hygiene and sanitation in the trenches, suffering from dysentery, Typhoid and Tuberculosis. Arthur himself was admitted to hospital 12 December with Myalgia, commonly referred to as ‘Trench Fever’, a bacterium spread in poor conditions by lice. He was hospitalised for nearly three months during which time he and the Allied Soldiers were withdrawn from Gallipoli back to Egypt.

In mid-March 1916, the 27th Battalion as part of the 2nd Division disembarked from Egypt and proceeded to Marseilles, France. From here, the 27th entered the front-line trenches for the first time, taking control of Armentieres, a relatively small, quiet sector of the front near the Belgian border. This sector was colloquially known as ‘The Nursery’ as it was here that troops new to the Front were educated in the aspects of ‘Trench Warfare’.

On 9 May Arthur reported sick to the 6th Field Ambulance being diagnosed with Pharyngitis, often caused by exposure to gas. Quick to recover, he re-joined the 27th four days later at Armentieres.

Due to his previously acquired carpentry skills, Arthur was sent to the 6th Field Company Engineers at Romarin on 22 June. This company spent time excavating, widening, deepening and draining trenches, raising duckboards, constructing dugouts and observation posts, repairing parapets and more. Arthur served with them until July 10th when the 2nd Division were ordered to transfer out of the Romarin trenches and march towards the Somme, thus re-joining the 27th Battalion.

Shortly after arrival at the Somme battlefield, Arthur was transferred to the 7th Machine Gun Company. The following day, he joined other newly recruited men to be instructed on the workings and operations of the Vickers Medium Machine Gun. Operation of this highly successful battlefield machine gun required a tripod mount and crew of three men as they were not easily transported. On the night of July 29th, the 7th Machine Gun Company backed up the infantry battalions involved in an attack on the German line around the area of Poziéres. The following day, Commander of the 7th Machine Gun Company, Captain Radford wrote in his diary,

“Full use was made of the men recently attached, carrying belt boxes, water etc. and It was found that without them it would have been impossible to set sufficient ammunition to the line to make us carry on.” 

Although this attack was mostly effective, resulting in the capture of additional German positions beyond the village of Poziéres, the 2nd Division suffered profoundly from German artillery bombardment, reporting high casualty lists.

After a small respite for rest and reinforcements at several ‘quiet’ sectors along the front, the 7th Machine Gun Company were transferred back to the Somme. In early November, the 7th Brigade were involved in preparations for an attack against German positions at Flers. The following day, August 4, the attack was launched but proved unsuccessful. During this time, Arthur was severely sick, yet showing endurance and strength of character, remained on duty. Three days later, once the attack had subsided, he was admitted to hospital where he remained for the majority of the month. He was then ‘taken on strength’ from Base Depot and re-joined the 7th Machine Gun Company. Whilst Arthur was in hospital, his unit undertook a second attack at Flers which, like the first, proved unsuccessful and resulted in a forced withdrawal from the Somme battlefield. At this point in time, the Somme battlefield had been transformed into a sea of mud and slush because of the deluge of late autumn rains.

From September 1917, the 7th Machine Gun Company took part in several major battles around Ypres, providing back-up fire for the infantry battalions of the 7th Brigade. During the Battle of Menin Road, fought on September 20th, the 7th Brigade were designated to the fighting as part of the 2nd Division’s first wave against the German forces. Victory for the Allied Forces at Menin Road was shortly followed by the success in the objectives of the Battle of Broodseinde Ridge, the brigade’s last major offensive of 1917.

In late February 1918, the 5th, 6th, 7th and 22nd Machine Gun Companies merged to form the 2nd Machine Gun Battalion.

Subsequently, on 1 March 1918, Arthur was promoted from Private to Lance Corporal. The following day, he was granted leave to the U.K, returning on March 20th.

From late March through to May 1918, the 2nd Machine Gun Battalion took part in the German Spring Offensive. Commencing early August, the battalion fought in the Allied Hundred Days Offensive in conflicts including; the Battle of Amiens, the Second Battle of  the Somme and the Battle of St. Quentin Canal. On October 3rd, after days of heavy fire from the enemy, many of the battalions’ machine guns had been ‘blown out’. Arthur was hit by shrapnel from one of these guns and was reported ‘wounded in action’. However, showcasing determination and resilience, he remained at his post and on duty.

Finally, the destruction and devastation of the ‘Great War’ was brought to an end on 11 November 1918.

On 10 January 1919, the 2nd Machine Gun Battalion ‘marched out’ for return to Australia, boarding the ‘Warwickshire’ and returning home 24 May 1919.

Throughout the war, Arthur witnessed many horrors. He endured the deaths of good mates, including his close cousin, Lindsay Ray Dodd, 4776. Despite this, he believed that fighting for his country was the right thing to do. So much so, that he applied for enlistment in the Royal Australian Air Force in WWII, but was rejected due to scarring of the lungs, probably as a result of Tuberculosis and toxic gas exposure.

Although he was not decorated for his bravery or courage, Arthur Fillis Grist was a keen ‘Aussie’ soldier, reflecting the Anzac Spirit through his immense levels of endurance and determination and showing pride and loyalty to his homeland. When Arthur was discharged from duty on 25 July 1919, he was forever physically and mentally changed from the young man he was on enlistment, over four years previous.

Arthur Fillis Grist was my great- grandfather. Although I never met him, I find his story inspiring and hope that I may display such qualities during my life.