ALFORD, Pte. George Albert – 3116 – 48th Battalion.

A Court of Enquiry dated 23 May, 1918 ruled that ALFORD was an illegal absentee and his File Record should be noted Deserter. This decision led his wife and children deeper into destitution. The Army is considered to have made a serious error of judgement and justice can only be served by clearing the Soldier’s name. The service file should be amended to read – ” 3/04/1918 – Reported Missing in Action, believed to be Killed in Action “.

In an effort to establish an accurate course of events that led to the Court of Enquiry making an incorrect judgement, appropriate details have been extracted from correspondence included in the Soldier’s Service File , available in digital form in the National Archives of Australia .

Pte. George ALFORD completed an initial medical examination in Perth,WA on 7 October, 1916 before completing enlistment for War Service at Blackboy Hill Camp, WA on 10 November, 1916.  On 13 December, 1916 he was allotted to the 8th Reinforcements of the 48th Battalion.  He embarked Fremantle, WA on 23 December, 1916 aboard the transport ship ” Berrima “, bound for Devonport, England. Pte. ALFORD was transferred to camp details at Sutton Mandeville on arrival in England on 6/02/1917. He was then shifted to the 12th Training Battalion camp at Codford. During training, he suffered an attack of shingles which kept him in the Military Hospital at Sutton Veny for almost two weeks.

On 19 June, 1917, Pte. ALFORD embarked from Southampton, England for transfer to the 4th Australian Division Base Depot at Havre, France. he joined the 48th Battalion in the field in France on 9 July, 1917.  The Battalion suffered a baptism of fire, with a gas barrage deluging the camp on their day of arrival, but fortunately, there were no casualties. During the ensuing week, their camp was incessantly shelled throughout the day and night , before copping a further gas bombardment. Squad training, musketry training, bayonet fighting training and Lewis Machine Gun training were the main focus leading into the Third Battle of Ypres. The 48th Battalion moved into the front lines on 6 August, 1917, between Wambeek and Blauwepoortbeek streams. They were knee deep in stagnant water as enemy aeroplanes dropped bombs. There were intensive enemy bombardments right through until the 48th Battalion was relieved from the front line on 14 August, 1917.

After resting at Hillside and Aldershot camps until 28 August, 1917, the men marched out to billets. They eventually found there way to Ypres, Belgium, where they marched out through the Memin Gate to take up positions in the front line at Glencorse Wood and Westhoek. They held the front line until 20 September, 1917, when the Battle of Menin Road commenced. On 28 September, 1917, the 48th Battalion relieved the 16th Battalion on Anzac Ridge, which was a shell-smashed vista of desolation and ruin. This Australian sector was subjected to unrelenting bombardment from enemy Howitzers.  After moving back to relieve the 49th Battalion at Westhoek Ridge, the 48th Battalion marched out to Halifax Camp, before travelling by bus to billets in the Steenwoorde area.

During this time out of the line, Pte. ALFORD , who was a very temperate man, was plied with alcohol and was missing from roll call on 10 October, 1917. His superiors made the call that he was a deserter, which was also raised as a critical component of the later finding in the Court of Enquiry ( However at the Court Martial after his return on 23 October, 1917, the finding was AWL only ). The soldier’s father ( Charles Albert ALFORD ) wrote to the Army on 17 June , 1918, stating :-  ” They were then given some grog on an empty stomach and on account of the lad not being used to same it had the effect of stupefying him. He states that he remembers nothing for a couple of days and his mates then wrote to me to the effect that he was missing. When he recovered his senses he returned to his Battalion . There was no wilful intent to dispute military orders/”.
At the enquiry, ALFORD did not attempt to make any excuse due to drunkenness, simply stating that he was at Wytschaete and Hill 63, during his absence. One of Pte. ALFORD‘s constant companions since enlistment was Cpl. Thomas James MOORE, who was to become a W.A. Member of Parliament, shortly after the War.  He made a statement in support of ALFORD, after the Court of Enquiry decision, in which he stated :- ” In October of 1917, ALFORD certainly was sent to a detention camp for three months for being illegally absent. This happened, I know through drink for ALFORD told me of the incident at the time. He . being of a manly disposition, pleaded guilty to the charge and refused to advance drunkenness as an excuse. I can vouch for the fact that this was the first time he was ever drunk. He was very temperate “.

The 48th Battalion entrained to Peronne, France on 6/12/1917, being placed on notice of 1 hour standby , but no major action eventuated.  On 10 December, 2017, Pte. ALFORD  was suffering badly from Trench Fever,  taken from the Casualty Clearing Station to an Ambulance Train for transfer to the 7th Stationary Hospital at Boulogne, France.  A lengthy period of hospital treatment, followed by time in recuperation at the Boulogne Rest Camp, delayed ALFORD‘S return to the Battalion, until 4 March, 1918.

The 48th Battalion troops were continually involved in all areas of training until the German barrage commenced on 21 March, 1918. The Battalion were selected to play a very important role in blocking the path of the German onslaught, East of Amiens. They took up high ground between Millencourt and Dernancourt, where they were deployed across the Amiens to Albert road, along the Railway embankment from Dernancourt to Albert. On 28th March, 1918, the 48th annihilated an enemy attack on its front. As enemy troops emerged from Henencourt Wood, the Battalion opened withering fire to shatter advancing lines. Nine enemy attacks were beaten off, enemy casualties estimated at 600, whilst 48th Battalion casualties were 62 killed/wounded. After dark on 29 March, 2018, the 48th were relieved by the 46th Battalion, and marched back to the support line at Millencourt, where they remained for a number of days.

The only surviving page of a letter written by Pte. ALFORD, to his wife, shortly after the above battles, reads as follows :- ”  There are pieces flying everywhere. We have just come out of the front line. We are in reserves now to help the 46th in case we are needed. They were in reserves for us, while we were in the front line. We had a pretty good time in the line this time, only we were living in water and mud all the time. We had a great time annoying the Fritz, could see them running about all over the place from where we  were entrenched. I got three of the swines. This part of the line is very hot. You can’ poke your head out of the trenches——-“.

On 3 April, 1918, when the Battalion formed up to march on to the next mission, Pte. ALFORD was missing, declared a deserter , and never seen again. His mother wrote to the Army on 22 September, 1918, stating :- ” Received a cable from Paymaster London stating that my son was absent without leave and that his allotment  to his wife was stopped.  From inside information which I have received from France, I can inform you that my son has never been more than a few miles behind the firing line. He and several others who were completely broken down and could not fight on and refused to go any further were sent back in disgrace to do work behind the lines and all communication stopped with him “.
The Army replied to the Mother’s correspondence, mainly to ascertain the soldier’s name who had supplied her the information. Mrs ALFORD replied to the Army’s letter on 25 November, 1918, stating :- ” I cannot give you my informant’s name as I know too well the treatment the Military Authorities would deal out to him when they got it “.

Pte. ALFORD‘s wife wrote to the Army on 1 June, 1919 in response to him being confirmed as a deserter, with the following advice :- ” Previous to April, he was on very regular correspondence, and in fact his last letter was written immediately prior to his Battalion going into action. I have received no word from him since “.

Intriguingly, the Australian Army received letters from William. T. COX and Mrs. J. H. COX dated 13 January, 1919, and 7 March, 1919, respectively.  These letters confirmed that Pte. ALFORD had left some of his personal belongings at their home in Chard, Somerset, England , whilst staying at their home during leave between 24 February, 1918 and 11 March, 1918. If ALFORD had returned to England, as suggested, why would he not have collected his belongings?

The sole  evidence used to deem ALFORD a deserter, was correspondence dated 24 January, 1922, from Pte. TURNER, Norman Stanley – 3230 who was with the 48th Battalion until 31 January, 1918.  TURNER alleges that he saw ALFORD in London, stating :- ” About the middle of June, 1919 I was spending my last leave in Bristol when I met Pte. G.A. ALFORD. I met him whilst I was in company of a lady. And the member also had a lady with him. , passed him and said Good day George when are you going home, his reply was next quota. He was in civvies when I met him “.  At this time, a number of ALFORD family members were still vigorously pursuing the soldier’s whereabouts. There is no doubt that the Army were tiring of consistent enquiries from family members, although it was not until 8 January, 1925, that they wrote to ALFORD’s sister, Mrs. P. TURNER of Wangaratta, Victoria, advising her of ALFORD‘s sighting in England in 1919.

A Court of Enquiry was held in the field in France on 23 May, 1918, to evaluate evidence provided in an attempt to confirm their existing belief that ALFORD as an illegal absentee. Documents presented included :-

( 1 )- Memo from C.O , 48th Battalion, who had formed the prejudicial belief that ALFORD had practically deserted in the face of the enemy,

( 2 )- Statutory Declaration from close friend, Pte. BATES, Thomas Edwin – 3129B, who believed he had witnessed ALFORD being blown to pieces by a Shell on date of disappearance. This Stat Dec could not be accepted due to possible error in date of event and other inaccuracies,

( 3 )- Letter from Hon. Thomas James MOORE, MLA, WA who had served continuously with ALFORD, since enlistment. ( Key paragraphs from MOORE‘s letter are reproduced below ).

( 4 )- Memo from CAPT. D.A. TWINING, ADJ. 48th Battalion – of no use to Enquiry as he just seemed to be wishing to cover his own back,

( 5 ) – Letter from William. T. COX, Somerset, England re. caring for some of ALFORD‘s personal belongings,

( 6 )- Letter from N.S. TURNER, Capel, WA advising he had seen ALFORD in England in June, 1919.

The Summary Letter of Court of Enquiry Decision dated 28 November, 1922, was from Captain, for officer i/c Base Records , addressed to Secretary, and the key Summary stated :-
” From a summary of the information held , I am of opinion that the statement by the Hon. T. MOORE and the Statutory Declaration by BATES cannot be accepted as of any real value, in view of the soldier having been seen  in England, in June 1919 , and also the fact that he deserted previously under similar circumstances, and it is considered that the action taken in posting him as an ‘illegal absentee” is quite in order “.

HON. T.J. MOORE  M.L.A, PERTH,WA, STATEMENT DATED 6 FEBRUARY, 1922, written to Captain D.A. TWINING  MC,  MM, Willaura, VIC.

” ALFORD left Australia with the same unit as I did and was one of my companions during the whole time which intervened from the time we sailed until we, some six months later, joined the 48th Battalion in France. Alford going into a different Company than myself. He rejoined us some time after being held in detention and was with us until the time mentioned by you as the date on which he was illegally absent- 3/4/1918. The facts are these:-  On 26 March, 1918 we had orders to advance and locate the enemy who were advancing in force on the Amiens Front driving the remnants of the 5th British Army in front of them. We met them and took up a position in the outskirts of the town of Albert on 28/03/1918. For the following three days we repelled successfully repeated attacks until relief on the night of 31/03/1918. We then took up a position in close reserve about a mile and a half behind the line. There we remained for three days , and during the first two days I visited the Company to which ALFORD was attached. I heard many eulogistic references to the valour shown by him during the three hard days we had just been through. Next day, on 3/4/1918, the day on which he is reported as ” Illegally absent ” we were subjected to intermittent shell fire and I am of the opinion that one of those shells accounted for him. In view of the fact that every road and track in our rear was being closely watched and in this way the remnants  of the 5th British Army were being gathered together, it was almost an impossibility for any man to desert if he felt inclined to do so without being picked up.  Also, remembering that things were looking their worst from the French standpoint, and that no deserter would be harbored   by those people on that account, it was highly improbable that any man could remain hidden “.
Hon. T.J. MOORE  M.L.A. Perth, WA, also sent a copy of his TWINING letter to the Officer in Charge, Base Records Office, Defence Department, Melbourne, Victoria, dated 16 January, 1922, adding this additional paragraph :-  “In view of these facts I am of the opinion that a grave injustice  has been done to the ALFORD family by posting George as a deserter, and I trust that the mistake may be rectified “.

When the full weight of MOORE‘s statement is taken into account, the tip-off about ALFORD not coping and working behind the lines, the significant number of casualties within the 48th Battalion in the weeks following 3 April, 1918 and that ALFORD was never sighted again ( N.S. TURNER could have been mistaken ), I believe there is every chance that he was Killed in Action during April, 1918. He is remembered in this manner by the small town of Yarloop, WA, where his name is proudly inscribed on their War Memorial. I deem this to be some form of justice, however, due to the posting on his service records as a deserter, George ALFORD‘s name and that of his family is sullied forever.