This blog post, written by Stockport volunteer Linda Davies, tells the story of a Stockport lad who became an Australian Soldier in WW1.
Henry Mayer emigrated from Stockport to Mortdale, NSW, Australia in 1912 with his brother Joseph. He was 19 years old. On 22 June 1915 he joined the NSW contingent of the Australian 5th Division, which had been formed in February 1916 as part of the expansion of the Australian Imperial Force Infantry brigades. In addition to the existing 8th Brigade, the new 14th and 15th Brigades (spawned from the battalions of the 1st and 2nd Brigades respectively) were added to form the 5th Division. Henry was part of the 55th Battalion of the 14th Brigade.
Like many other soldiers, Henry was presented with a New Testament Bible. The bookplate inside the front cover states that it was presented to members of the NSW contingent of the Australian Imperial Force by Friends of the NSW Auxiliary of the British and Foreign Bible Society. He inscribed the inside cover as follows:
Pte Henry Mayer
9th Rem 3rd Batt
On 19 June 1916 Henry’s battalion embarked for France. The 5th Division was to replace three other divisions which had been acclimatising on a quieter sector near Armentieres but had now been dispatched to the Somme as reinforcements. The result of this move was that the 5th Division, the most inexperienced of the Australian divisions in France, would be the first to see major action in the Battle of Fromelles, after only having been in France for a fortnight. They were to join the British 61st Division, also having recently arrived in France. Both divisions were devoid of any combat experience.
The battle of Fromelles on 19 July 1916 was a bloody initiation for Australian soldiers to warfare on the Western Front. The Australian and British soldiers were ordered to attack strongly fortified German front line positions near the Aubers Ridge. The attack was intended as a feint to hold German reserves from moving south to the Somme, where a large Allied offensive had begun on 1 July. The feint was a disastrous failure. Australian and British soldiers assaulted over open ground in broad daylight and under direct observation and heavy fire from the German lines.
In one night of fighting over 5,500 Australians became casualties. Almost 2,000 of them were killed in action or died of wounds and some 400 were captured. It is believed to be the greatest loss by a single division in 24 hours during the entire First World War. Some consider Fromelles the most tragic event in Australia’s history. There were also over 1500 British casualties.
Henry Mayer, in a Lewis Gun section, was shot and killed during that night. He was 23 years old. His officer made the comment “He was quiet, but a fighter, one of my best lads”.
The body of Henry Mayer was not found, and after the war a VC Corner Australian Cemetery and Australian Memorial Park was created. Behind these mass graves a wall carried the names of 1299 men who died with no known grave. Henry Mayer’s name is on this wall.
However, in 2007, following persistent research by retired Melbourne teacher, Lambis Englezos, archaeological investigations began to uncover the remains of up to 400 Australian and British soldiers who were buried in a mass grave in a copse known as Pheasant Wood by German troops in 1916.
DNA testing on one of the bodies found proved it to be that of Henry Mayer, and in February 2010 he was buried with several others with full military honours at the new Fromelles Military Cemetery – 94 years after he was killed in action. The official dedication of the Military Cemetery on 19 July 2010 was attended by Prince Charles, the Duke of Kent who is the President of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Australian Governor-General, Quentin Bryce. Also present were some of Henry’s relatives from Australia. After the ceremony two of each solder’s relatives were invited to meet the Royals. They then returned to the graveside to await the Minister who would Dedicate each grave. The family brought Henry’s Bible with them and read from this at the graveside.
Australian War Memorial (http://www.awm.gov.au/encyclopedia/fromelles/)
History Learning Site (http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/battle_of_fromelles.htm)
Image 1: Diagram of 5th Australian Division positions during the Attack on Fromelles (on the Aubers Ridge), 19 July 1916 – Wikimedia Commons
Image 2: A Mayer family photograph showing Henry Mayer’s grave, used with permission from Beverly Mayer
Further credits: Harry and Bev Mayer; Graham Mollett.