2017 Premier’s Anzac Spirit School Prize Essay – Sergeant William Walter Atkinson Fox

Source: Jessica Timms, Yorketown Area School

On 25 April 1915, the spirit of a nation was born with the landing of the first ANZAC troops. This was the beginning of the Anzac legend. These troops came to symbolise the qualities that Australians value and strive for. They have come to define the Australian character and have been at its core for the past 100 years, getting the nation through times of hardship and distress. It is this spirit that my Great, Great Grandfather William Fox upheld in World War I.

William was born on the 22 February 1889, in Goroke, Victoria, where his parents Alfred John Fox and Annie Georgina Fox had previously purchased land. After residing in Goroke, the family moved to Casterton, Victoria, a small rural town located 43 kilometres east of the South Australian border. His father,  Alfred was a “much-esteemed citizen, who took a lively interest in any movement for the good of the town, being secretary of the progress association, public hospital and fathers association” (Fox, 1926) his parents, set him up for a life of accomplishments and taught him the true meaning of hard work and success.

William, along with his brother and three sisters, attended the Casterton State School, later known as the Casterton Primary School. Here they were taught under the rule of Head Teacher Mr J. H. Brown. After his schooling, William moved to Mount Gambier to pursue a career in carpentry, and it was here that he met his wife, Muriel Mary Fox.

On 26 August 1915, William answered the call for able men, selflessly volunteering in Adelaide, South Australia, at the age of 27. William sacrificed the new life he was making for himself in Mount Gambier with his wife in order to serve his country. In doing so, he began to display the courage of the Anzacs, as he had no previous experience in the A.I.F.

He was posted to the 3rd Field Company Engineers as a Sapper, a field much encompassing of his carpentry expertise.

William embarked from Sydney on the 21 March 2016 aboard the ‘ARMADALE’

“It was with a little tight feeling around the heart that we left Australian Shores, with the feeling that perhaps some of us may never see it again. However, our spirits kept up and we cheered and sang out until we were out too far” (Fox 2009 p. 8)

He disembarked at Alexandria, Egypt and joined miscellaneous reinforcements at Tel-El-Kebir on 24 April 1916. On the 10 May 1916 he embarked  from Alexandria overseas aboard the ship “Caledonian” as reinforcements for 1st Division. In June 1916 he arrived in Marseilles, France and was transported by train, a 55-hour trip,  to  Etaples.  Here  he  underwent  rigorous  training  to prepare him for the inevitable, the frontline. However, nothing could have prepared him for the horrors that were to come.

His first major encounter at the frontline was the Battle of Pozieres. The attack began at 10 am on the 20 July 1916. Australian troops took over this battle from the depleted British armed forces. William’s company assisted in the capturing of the village of Pozieres, they helped turn the German parapet and make strong posts behind their advancing comrades. They brought life back to the bleak battle field and created a strong offence using their willpower, determination and fearlessness. The division gained every objective and clung to its gains despite almost continuous artillery fire, complete darkness, heavy shelling and repeated German counter-attacks.

For men thrown into the fighting at Pozières the experience was simply hell” (Burness, n.d.)

The Germans concentrated the majority of their artillery on the Anzacs, resulting in many casualties from the start.  Attacks went in, some ground was taken, and then the enemy would counter-attack. But no matter what, the troops persisted, sometimes having to walk over the dead bodies of their fallen comrades, they endured and moved forward, representing the Anzac Spirit magnificently. Through this persistence and their ability to quite literally ‘soldier on’ they captured the village.

It would do the people at home good if the could’ve seen these boys of Australia going into it; every face had a smile even though they knew it was a tough job” (Fox 2009 p.40)

The Battle of Pozieres is considered to be one of the four hardest battles ever fought by Australian troops. In a period of seven weeks, three Australian divisions had lost 23,000 troops, comparable to that of Gallipoli.

“…and what a slaughter it was, places like Sausage Gully gained their names because of the amount of men chopped about in this gully” (Fox 2009 p.36).

The capture of Pozieres was a significant achievement, but an achievement that came with great loss. General Walker addressed William’s company after the battle “well lads I must congratulate you on the good work you have done in the recent fighting, you have done well, you have had a good many casualties but of course that is what you are here for, I may have to ask you to do a bit more but there is one consolation, I don’t think you can get it any hotter than you have had it. But take my advice, rest yourselves, put plenty of ‘dubbin’ on your boots, and may god bless you; goodbye” (Fox 2009 p.40-41)

But the war wasn’t all about the effect you had upon the opposition, it was also about the impact you had on your fellow comrades, that is why good humour and mateship are essential in the Anzac Spirit. On 15 August, William ignored protocol, displaying the healthy disrespect of authority that Anzacs occasionally exhibited, to bandage a fellow comrade who had been hit by shrapnel in seven different places. This act of mateship, bravery and selflessness left him open to gunfire and bombing and he was lucky to have left with his life. William always seemed to make fun out of an otherwise harsh situation, if it was so cold that there was snow and ice he would start a snowball fight “a great day was spent by all the boys fighting some great battles with snowballs, and with the slipping and snowballing and laughing, one almost forgot there was a war on for a while” (Fox 2009 p. 59). He often recounted on the good humour of himself and his mates “it was very wet and dark when we arrived but we were all in good humour” (Fox 2009 p.97) and when one of his closest friends was killed in action he wrote a touching poem in his memory.

I felt the death of my mate very much and have not been able to rest. He was a fine lad” (Fox 2009 p. 122)

To my dear comrade and pal Dave who was killed in action on May 30th 1918

Free from this land of trouble
Free from this land of toil
Fought and died a soldier’s death
And rests under foreign soil

A pal we all was proud of
Noble and brave and true
But is memory lives forever
As all good soldiers do

Always a thought for others
Always a cheerie smile
And to look on the bright side
It was always his style

We miss him yes we miss him
More than words can tell
This Nobel hearted pal of ours
Who for his country fell

But one thing helps to cheer us
When we think of all the slain
That if they died for victory
They did not die in vain

Ease for all our heartaches
Only in prayer we find
But all our silent prayers are for
the loved ones left behind

may good be with them always
the loved ones that are home
and may he rest our comrade’s soul
up in his heavenly throne

William stayed on the front line for a further two years, assisting in any way he could.  He displayed many Anzac qualities, any soldier would have required courage, endurance, persistence, humour and mateship to withstand the horrific conditions William was exposed to. While on the front, he experienced unimaginable surroundings, constant shelling and machine gun fire. Here, boots and food were in short supply, and cold nights and long days were a regular appearance “we have had no rations for two days and don’t expect we will get any till tonight, we are living on tea, everywhere outside is mud and slush and it’s impossible to keep our feet dry.”

Many men suffered from trench foot and shell shock “and the mud…. Don’t talk about it. It’s a foot deep everywhere and if a man should happen to put his foot in a shell hole, he would go down past his knees” (Fox 2009 p.52). From nearly being buried to seeing your mate die, the trenches were a place of extremes.

From here the company moved onwards to help out at the Zillebeck dugouts. “We all knew were going to take part in a great stunt within a few hours, and that some of us would no doubt go under, but we joked and laughed and if anyone was down hearted he never showed it” (Fox 2009 p.80). At 5:00am on the 28 September 1917, the order came to move forward. The 11th Battalion took up the first line, the 12th the second and the 9th and 10th the third and the 3rd Field Company Engineers followed closely behind making strong points.  It was one of the  biggest concentrations of artillery ever known, the hills were lit up with flashes, the ground rocked with vibrations, machine guns and snipers were constantly firing. It was described as being ‘hell on earth‘. The German barrage was extremely strong “when I looked ahead and saw what we had to go through I said to myself ‘goodbye to half of us here, it was an awful sight. Dead lay about everywhere” (Fox 2009 p. 80) However, Will’s company got through the barrage with only one casualty. In one day, 1300 prisoners were taken and they had advanced around 1 ½ miles.

While enduring horrendous conditions William could still appreciate his surroundings, often commenting on the ‘lovely’, ‘picturesque’ and ‘beautiful’ landscape they were travelling through. “…a pretty and interesting place, I enjoyed the time spent here and had some good laughs at the French people’s expense” (Fox 2009 p. 46). He would enquire about how things were made, his intuitive nature surviving the horrors of war. Will would often comment on how lucky he was to be given this experience and talk about the generosity of the French people, “most interesting and educating trips I have had yet” (Fox 2009 p.16).

Will’s only respite was a short leave in England where he visited relatives and took in the sights. When he returned, his company was straight back into building bridges; they broke the record for building the fastest bridge ever recorded, taking only 7 minutes and 55 seconds. They also helped in creating strong points, digging dugouts and constructing railways.

On 10 November 1918, fire ceased and soldiers rejoiced, for now the time for going home was near – “we sing, laugh, everyone wears a smile, it is a great time and we are all thankful that the terrible slaughter is finished, we all feel thankful to god that we have been spared to see the end” (Fox 2009 p.152).

However, even after the war was over William stayed in France as an instructor in an AIF carpentry school, this shows his dedication and  commitment to this country, and demonstrated him going above and beyond the call for duty.

Finally, now ranked Sergeant, he returned to Australia aboard the Nestor disembarking on 29 June 1919. He was welcomed home warmly by his loving family who had missed him dearly.

William Fox survived the challenges of war in great spirit, he went on to raise five healthy boys. Will was very intuitive and entrepreneurial so it was no surprise when he successfully established his own family run business. He once again answered the call during the Second World War but due to ill health was constrained.

Sadly, William succumbed to cancer on 24 August 1952 he was buried in the Mount Gambier Cemetery next to his father. His son Melville served during the Second World War and his grandson, John (my grandfather) served duty in Vietnam, continuing the family legacy.

I feel honoured to call William my Great, Great Grandfather and believe he is truly incredible.  The spirit he displayed on the battlefield was unique and true. I hope his story is never lost, I  know I  will always remember it.