Charles Dixon (Dix) BUTLER


BUTLER, Charles Dixon

Service Number: 3479
Enlisted: 15 September 1915, Liverpool, New South Wales
Last Rank: Private
Last Unit: 54th Infantry Battalion
Born: Balmain, New South Wales, 21 January 1879
Home Town: Neutral Bay, North Sydney, New South Wales
Schooling: Sydney Boys High School
Occupation: Stock & Station Auctioneer
Died: Killed in Action (shellfire), France, 15 May 1917, aged 38 years
Cemetery: No known grave - "Known Unto God"
No known grave - Memorial Panel 15
Memorials: Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour, Villers-Bretonneux Memorial (Australian National Memorial - France)
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World War 1 Service

15 Sep 1915: Enlisted AIF WW1, Private, SN 3479, Liverpool, New South Wales
12 Dec 1915: Involvement AIF WW1, Private, SN 3479, 19th Infantry Battalion, Enlistment/Embarkation WW1
12 Dec 1915: Embarked AIF WW1, Private, SN 3479, 19th Infantry Battalion, HMAT Berrima, Sydney
15 May 1917: Involvement AIF WW1, Private, SN 3479, 54th Infantry Battalion, Bullecourt (Second)


Charlie and his mates arrived at the port of Marseilles on the 29th June and remained on board ship until 30th June. They disembarked ship at 0900 hrs then boarded a train heading from Marseilles, along the river Rhone towards the Western Front. The scenery of the lush green French farms would have stirred a natural delight in all the soldiers. Travelling through this beautiful French countryside by train they would have arrived at Orange at 1650 hrs. Passing through Valance, Lyon, and arriving at Macon 0600hrs on the 1st July 1916. The Somme offensive begins unknown to them.

Over thirty trains, each of great length, were required for the transportation of the Division, and four days' supplies were placed on each train. Five hundred and thirty-four miles to the north-west lay Paris and about 150 miles further to the north, by the route to be followed, lay the important railway junction of Hazebrouck. In an area to the west of this the Division was to be billeted, about twenty miles distant from the Armentieres sector of the front line.

If the uniqueness of their ships passage across the Mediterranean was anything to go by then it was surpassed by the farmlands they now travelled through. For the wide eyed men of the train ride there seemed no more beautiful place in the world then France. After so many months of desert activities the vast tracks of green farmland was more potent. The lush countryside simply went to the men's heads as its wine would have done. Overwhelmed by its beauty they crowded round the windows of the train as it travelled along its route to their destination. For many miles the route lay along the ‘Rhone’ valley which flows through the countryside. This is only transgressed by the golden fields in summer where peasants busily cropped with scythe and sickle.

And so the Division made its first journey through beautiful, tragic France. On the second day, Paris was passed to the east and all eyes were turned in its direction. Little could be seen except the top of the Eiffel Tower, yet the magnetism of the city seemed to fall upon all, and one was reminded somehow of the dramatic invocation. The line wound through charming suburbs in the vicinity of Versailles, but it soon headed north again and Paris was all but left behind.

As Charlie and his mates travelled the miles of countryside the appearance of the country gradually began to change. Though still rich and pleasant to the eye, the vegetation lacked something of the exuberance that it had possessed further south. The temperature was distinctly colder and the skies looked rainy. Amiens was passed and the trains proceeded on their long journey up the coast, through Etaples, Boulogne, and Calais. They travelled through Chalons 0815 hrs, Montereau 2020 hrs, Abbeville 2nd July 1916, and finally Hazebrouck.

Near Hazebrouck the direction changed suddenly from north to a little south of east, and in another thirty miles the new divisional area was reached. All the units of the Division did not detrain at the same place. The 8th Brigade Group went to Morbecque, the 14th Brigade to Thiennes. Charlie and his mates were transported by truck to the small township of Thiennes just outside Hazebrouck and arrived at 0230 am on the 3rd July. The units were led by guides to their billeting areas and here they wandered around with much curiosity, and endeavouring to ascertain, and to adapt themselves to, the nature of their new environment. The whole Brigade arrived and was billeted around a small farmhouse by the 7th July close to the front line. And just 36 kilometres to the east of Thiennes was the small provincial town of Fromelles.

The rest and relaxation or R&R staging areas were always positioned close to the front lines for ease of transportation. Accordingly, an army organisation had to provide areas where troops could enjoy short rests in close reserve, usually just beyond artillery range. As well as other more remote places, perhaps 50 miles away from the fighting, to which they could be withdrawn for a longer period of physical and nervous recuperation.

As the term R&R used during the war suggests, an Army area was thus a moderately wide and a very deep zone of country, through which its troops were constantly circulating as they passed and re-passed to places of rest and of fighting. And much care was taken to ensure that the burdens of war were shared equally by all, although, in an army, as elsewhere, it invariably happened that the greatest part was borne eventually by the best workers. And this was particularly the case in critical periods of intense strain.

The small villages used to accommodate the resting soldiers with whom the area was studded were nightly the scenes of mild revelry. The men would ramble through the old-fashioned streets, inspecting shop windows and exchanging greetings with the villagers and romping with the children. Sometimes they would gather round the piano of a popular estaminet and make the night melodious with songs of their homeland.

In this area everybody learned how to say, “Bon jour " and “Bon soir " and also “oeuf " and "vin " and” pain “. Happily, it was still possible in 1916 to purchase in France moderately good wine at a reasonable price, while eggs were readily procurable during the summer months, and meat and butter not too difficult to obtain. However; the respite would not last long as the artillery shells bursting high in the air for the first time targeted an enemy aeroplane. These sightings would have made the men restless as they would realise at last they would soon take an active part in fighting. Of the 400 odd miles of fighting front about one-fourth was held by the British Armies then operating in France and Belgium. The 100 miles held by the British constituted the extreme north part of the Western Front, and the most northerly 35 miles, from Nieuport to the vicinity of Armentières, lay across Belgian territory.

A few miles of this sector were occupied by the indomitable little Belgian Army, which, throughout the war, maintained strength of about half a dozen divisions. The remaining 300 miles of the Western Front, that is, from the vicinity of Albert to the Swiss border, were held by the French, and the fact should never be overlooked that throughout the war the French Army sustained a much greater share of the responsibility of the Western Front than did the forces on it of all the other allies combined.

Although British forces had been in action in Belgium and France since 1914, Fromelles - where Charlie and his mates would soon find themselves - was the first theatre on the Western Front that involved Australian troops. A day or so later, they would have been issued with their new kit, steel helmet and gas mask.

On the 8th July, Charlie and his mates now embarked on a gruelling march to the front line about 20 miles. Even though they had all undergone training on the sands of the Sinai Desert, their packs were now laden with extra equipment. The cooler weather and better roads of France did not help either. They did not count on the extra 60lb [27 kilogram] of weight to be carried. Men from the 54th Battalion just dropped by the wayside and when the march was completed 50 per cent had dropped out and fallen to the rear.

Late in the afternoon of 10th July, Charlie and his mates reached an area just south of the Belgian border where they stopped. They were billeted on the side of the road between Sailly and Estaires. Here, reality began to dawn on Charlie and the eager soldiers of the 54th. Charlie could now hear the loud staccato of several machine guns. Numerous rifles were also heard towards the front line. Then there was the intermittent shelling of field guns and trench mortars. All looked up when brilliant flares shooting upwards into the sky suddenly made the soldiers feel a sense of foreboding. The 54th was about to be tested and what would each man do when the time came. Would Charlie acquit himself well when the time came for him to take part?

The sector of the line which was to be taken over by the Division was about four miles in length, and it ran in a north-east and south-west direction at an average distance of about three miles south of Armentieres. Farther south still lay Neuve Chapelle, Festubert, Givenchy, while to the north lay Armentieres, Messines, and Ypres, all of which places had been points of extreme sensitiveness in the bitter fighting of 1914 and 1915. But by July 1916, the front here was comparatively tranquil, and the sector allotted to the 5th Division appears to have been a favourite one for the initiation of troops to front line work.

About a mile behind the line laid the little battered villages of Bois Grenier and Fleurbaix, and the sector was commonly known as the Bois Grenier or the Fleurbaix Sector in consequence. It was held by the 4th Australian Division with three brigades in the line, the 4th, 12th, and 13th, each holding frontages of about 2,000 yards from its left to right respectively.

Australian troops commenced moving to the Western Front from training camps in Egypt and England from March 1916 with the 1st and 2nd Divisions of the AIF taking over part of the line in the “nursery” sector south of Armentieres. The 4th Division Unit Diary for 2 July noted that the 4th and 5th Divisions were to relieve the 1st and 2nd Divisions so that they could be moved to a reserve area ready for a move to the south (Somme) or north (Ypres) if required.

The 4th Division relieved the 1st Division in the Fleurbaix / Fromelles area on 3 July while the 5th Division was still arriving in France (from 26 June to 8 July), but on 6 July the 4th Division was also added to the reserve force to move to the south and was relieved the by the 5th Division, which took charge of part of the line on 12 July as part of the First Army under the command of General Monro.

On the night of 11th July the 8th and 15th Brigades were ordered to relieve the 4th and 13th Brigades respectively, on the frontline while the 14th Brigade, Charlie’s Brigade, took over the support lines from the 12th Brigade on the 12th July. With these reliefs completed the infantry and other arms of the 4th Division left the Bois Grenier Sector for the Somme. During the reliefs Charlie and his mates had been kept close to their billets or huts, and the tendency to wander round and see things, so dear to the Australian soldier, has been firmly repressed. Orders, too, had been promulgated that men must not loiter in the open or stand about in groups, especially when enemy aeroplanes or observation balloons are up.

So part of the Western Front now passed for the first time into the keeping of the 5th Australian Division. On the right, General Elliott deployed the 57th (Lieut.-Col. Stewart) and 58th (Lieut. -Col. Jackson) Battalions in the front line ; in the centre, Colonel Pope deployed the 55th (Lieut.-Col. McConaghy) and 56th (Lieut.-Col. H. Scott) Battalions, while General Tivey on the left deployed the 29th (Lieut.-Col. Bennett) and 30th (Lieut.-Col. Clark) Battalions as his front line troops. Each battalion held a frontage of about 1,000 yards and billeted in Fleurbaix were the remaining battalions were held in reserve.

On 14th July, it was decided that an infantry attack should form part of the demonstration, the First Army probably providing two divisions, and the Second Army one. This coincided with the 5th Division receiving its final 5,000 trench helmets. The bombardment was to begin on 14th July with all the artillery then available, and was to last about three days. General Haking’s scheme of attack was therefore approved, its object (according to the First Army order issued on 15th July) being:

“to prevent the enemy from moving troops southwards to take part in the main battle. For this purpose the preliminary operations, so far as is possible, will give the impression of an impending offensive operation on a large scale, and the bombardment which commenced on the morning of the 14th inst. will be continued with increasing intensity up till the moment of the assault.”

On the 15th July the Germans suddenly turned upon that 5th Division sector of the line occupied by A and B Companies of the 58th Battalion with an extremely violent concentration of artillery and trench mortars. It was the men's first experience of anything like a concentrated artillery bombardment, and few of the survivors are ever likely to forget it. Dug-outs and parapets crumbled under the fire and men and sandbags and duckboards were blown apart by the shattering power of high explosives.

On the 16th July the 53rd and 54th Battalions were ordered to take over the frontlines from the 55th and 56th. Charlie’s unit, billeted at Fleurbaix, now turns south from the Armentieres - Fleurbaix road with its enclosing trees and hedges and deploys across the fields by a narrow path. Although it is dark the range of vision has become suddenly widened. They are in a broad dark plain and in front of them, a mile or two away, is a long, intermittent line of rockets, rising from the ground in utter darkness, but glowing into flame as they raise skywards until, for a moment, they poise majestically and then fall gracefully to the ground, illuminating the landscape even at this distance.

Nobody has seen this sight before, nobody has been told of it. But everybody knows exactly what it is, sees the purpose of the lights and knows by the curve which are ours and which are enemy, and wonders perhaps why the German lights are so much brighter, and why they are fired more frequently.

From the line of lights Charlie hears the sound of a rifle firing and a spent bullet passes overhead with a pleasant, gentle sigh. The section halts again. A staff officer appears from the darkness and pauses in whispered consultation with the platoon commander. There is a momentary murmur of voices, a jest, a smothered laugh, and the section files on again past the staff officer, whose cheery, confident personality reaches them through the darkness in some subtle, refreshing way.

Charlie's journey from the comparative safety of the rear zones to the front was laborious and morale sapping. His mates would be gathered together in marching order along with transport section of mules that was responsible for delivering the Lewis machine guns as far as the support lines. Charlie thought how the scene reminded him of the training days around the lines at the Sinai Canal defensive position. Then the order "no smoking" was given by the platoon sergeant, and Charlie sensed the nearness to the frontline they were about to resupply and soon occupy.

At that time it was customary for the Lewis machine gunners to go into the front line before the main body of the battalion and occupy their positions. Charlie and his mates led by their platoon commander assembled the four guns teams and set off towards the front line. The gear Charlie and his mates carried if at that time he was the Lewis gunner was heavy and awkward. The Number One or gunner carried the gun itself which weighted about (32 pounds) 15 kilograms fully loaded. The Number Two carried a leather bag full of spare parts for the gun, including a spare barrel, and the remaining six section mates of the team each carried two canvas panniers each containing four fully loaded magazines holding 47 rounds. These were slung over the shoulder, in addition to their own rifle and webbing equipment.

Then a sound comes upon Charlie’s ears as if the troops in front are marching over a wooden bridge. Suddenly the infantry section just in front disappears, and then his feet, too, strike a wooden flooring of some kind and they are swallowed up in the darkness of the passage way. It’s the sap leading to the front line and they are walking on its duckboard floor. They become aware, too, of a novel smell, a strong yet indefinable aroma.

New recruits on their initial approach to the trenches would often be overcome by the putrid stench that hit them; often it would be too much for some men that they were physically sick even before they reached the Front Line. Rotting flesh from bodies in shallow graves, overflowing cesspits full of faeces and urine, creosote to preserve timber and Chlorine used to cover up the cesspits and to try and stave off infections or disease. Adding to the smell there were also millions of sandbags rotting away through dampness from the rain, stagnant mud, cigarette smoke and even the smell of the men already in the trenches who hadn't managed to have a decent wash in weeks.

Other smells of battle which filled the air stinging the nostrils of new recruits, were Acrid cordite from the everlasting heavy shell fire, the lingering odour of poison gasses that were sometimes used and of course the gunpowder smell from the soldiers firearms. Charlie never really got used to the smell but became accustomed to living with it; and some soldiers even claimed that the smell never left them even years after the war was over.

The trench system seemed interminable. In reality it is perhaps only a thousand yards in length, but it zigzags every few yards and doesn't seem to be heading for anywhere in particular. The frequent turns in it are made to localise the effect of bursting shells. A lesson hard learnt that now include signs in the trench as a wise precaution. Charlie and his mates continue on and on.

Sometimes other trenches seem to branch off from theirs and they imagine they lead to other parts of the line. Presently they cross a bigger and more substantial work cutting their trench at right-angles. They suppose that it is the Support Line. Two men, carrying a silent figure on a stretcher meet them in the trench and they halt and lean over to one side in order to allow them to pass.

On again and they are now getting very near to the lights that rise and fall so continuously. The sounds of desultory rifle and machine gun fire are now loud and penetrating, and a burst of machine gun bullets sputters unpleasantly near them, but they feel safe enough in their trench. All at once they are conscious of greater room and clearer atmosphere. The oppressiveness has gone; they are out of the trench and are in the front line.

A heavy black wall ten feet high lies before them. About them to the right and left are ugly, shapeless masses of sand-bags, dug-outs. Between these, dim figures are moving, overcoats on, steel helmets in position, gas bags in readiness. Their platoon officer turns to the left and leads on some little distance, then halts. The other Lewis gun sections close up. A lieutenant of the 4th Division appears from nowhere and their section leader vanishes with him into his dug-out headquarters. N.C.O.'s and men of the 4th Division gather round them and tell them about the sector. The officers reappear in a moment and commence a detailed examination of the section frontage. Lewis machine gun positions here, reserve ammunition supplies there, the sally port, dug-out accommodation, sanitary conveniences, trench stores, company headquarters, all are pointed out, and his lieutenant gives a receipt for all trench stores handed over.

Similarly, the 4th Division section commanders guide their N.C.O.'s round the sector. They look about them and see that a parados has been constructed a few feet behind the parapet. Both parapet and parados rise upwards from the ground level, for here the country is much too damp for sunken trenches. The space between the two works thus corresponds with a front trench and, at intervals of every ten or fifteen yards, stout traverses have been built backwards from the parapet dividing it into many “bays." All the bays are numbered. On the return of the N.C.O.'s the men are allotted to the various bays and move off to their posts. The 4th Division platoon prepares to move out. Their company commander arrives and assures himself that all is correct.

“This is the long-awaited moment. Everybody is anxious to get on the fire-step and have his first peep over ‘No Man's Land’. A succession of enemy machine-gun bullets raps rhythmically along the top of our parapet “That’s Parapet Joe," explains a 4th Division Corporal, “He can play a tune with his blanky gun." The music of Parapet Joe passes down the line and we look out curiously over No Man's Land. A hundred yards away a long, low, irregular line can be seen dimly across the intervening waste. A tall private standing well above the parapet points his rifle at it and delivers "ten rounds rapid” regardless of consequences. “Thank God," he says, "I have had a crack at something at last." A horn sounds clearly from the enemy trench. “You’re lucky," remarks a 4th Division sergeant. “That’s Fritz's casualty horn. You must have winged somebody." The tall private sniffs contemptuously. “Winged?” he says. “I hope I blew his bleeding' head off."

During that couple of days Charlie and his mates would have spent time between the support and front line and there were certain activities that they would have been conducting. A day in the trenches during WWI, whether it was reserve or frontline, was where men fought together and in most cases men died together. The entire trench system is where battles raged on and on and much blood was spilled between belligerents. If you were lucky enough to survive the bullets and artillery shells, you also had disease and infection on hand that took the lives of many a soldier.

Life in the trenches was never going to be easy and even in the chaos of battle the soldiers still had to follow a daily routine on top of keeping the enemy at bay. The most extreme was dodging the bullets and enemy shell fire of every minute of every day. But the trenches had to be maintained and repaired, if the soldiers were to try and increase their chances of survival, after all if the trenches were left alone they would quickly deteriorate and offer little or no protection from the enemy barrages. Trench routine during the occupation of the front line consisted of morning, evening and night activities.

Charlie and his mates in the trenches would begin their day around one hour before sun up with the morning "Stand to" he would be woken up and sent to the "Fire step", with his bayonet attached to his rifle, on guard duty in case of a dawn raid from the enemy. Dawn raids were common in the trenches from both sides although it was common knowledge that both sides were prepared for them. As daylight broke over the trenches, machine guns, shells and even some hand guns would be fired toward the enemy lines, this was thought by most as a weapons test but others were of the opinion that it was a way for the soldiers to relieve some of the stress that was building up inside them. The first hour of daylight became known as "The morning hate" by the men in the trenches.

After the morning "Stand to" if Charlie and his mates were lucky, they would have been issued with a tot of rum before they cleaned their Lewis gun for the morning inspection by senior officers. With the inspection over it was time for breakfast, unofficially breakfast time in the trenches was a time of cease fire which both sides became to respect for most of the time. The truce was broken on some occasions though, usually when a senior officer new to the trenches heard about it and ordered the men to open fire on enemy lines.

After breakfast the soldiers would face an inspection by their commanding officer, or his delegate, this was followed by the daily chores, each man would be given a specific chore. Daily chores included the refilling of sandbags, the repair of the duckboards on the floor of the trench or the draining of trenches, repairing the trenches and preparing the latrines. During the afternoon, unless there was a heavy battle taking place the men in the trenches took it in turns to man the fire step. The men who were lucky enough not to be on guard duty were allowed some time to themselves to either catch up on some sleep, read or write letters from home or enjoy some games even though movement was restricted in the trenches.

Snipers were set up in lookout posts and would fire at the enemy at the first sight of movement; you had to keep your head down in the trenches no matter what you were doing for fear of being shot. Opposing snipers used to play a game with each other raising a helmet above the trench to see if the enemy could hit it with a bullet.

As darkness approached the men were sent on their second "Stand to" of the day again bayonets fixed in preparation for surprise attacks from enemy lines. When the darkness of night came the trenches came to life, men were sent to the rear, known as fatigue parties, for obvious reasons, to bring up vital supplies such as food, ammunition, water, medical and maintenance equipment. Unless there was a full scale battle going on the length of time a man was allowed to stay on the firing step was two hours before being replaced, this was in case he fell asleep on duty. Falling asleep at your post was a capital offence and could see the offender face death by firing squad.

Patrols into no-man’s land would also be carried out under cover of darkness, to repair breaks in the barbed wire and some were sent out as "Listening posts" hoping to overhear information from the enemy. Sometimes enemy patrols would meet in No Man's Land. They were then faced with the option of hurrying on their separate ways or else engaging in hand to hand fighting. They could not afford to use their handguns whilst patrolling in No Man's Land, for fear of the machine gun fire it would inevitably attract, deadly to all members of the patrol. The cover of darkness also allowed the front line troops to be changed over; those who had completed their tour of duty would be swapped over with fresh troops. Then it was time to start the daily routine all over again with the morning "Stand to".

Then suddenly the earth trembled all around as the storm of shells hit with dust, fire, smoke and the pitiful ruins of the previous works of men. Under cover of this artillery fire a small enemy raiding party approached the trench system and on the lifting of their barrage, entered the firing bays using hand grenades. They appeared to have accounted for all the occupants of one or two bays, some of whom were killed by hand grenades. The casualty number returns, amounting to about 140, included a small number of missing, and it is reasonably certain that several of these were made prisoners of war.

The enemy party then vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. It was a well-staged and successful raid, and, to the previous uncertain amount of the enemy knowledge of the Australian intentions the Germans now knew. While many prisoners can be relied upon to preserve silence or to give false information to enemy interrogators, there is always the chance that some man, weak from wounds or dazed by concussion, will succumb to the additional strain of a third degree examination and reveal what he should withhold. This is the general experience, gained from many wars and from soldiers of all nations.


Tel-El Kebir-Alexandria-Egypt

Tel-el-Kebir training camp was located on the southern side of Sweet Suez Canal 40 km East of Ismailia.

“a very dirty little place with a few dirty shops in it”
Ernest George King, 19 Bn.

After 5 weeks sailing HMAT ‘Berrima’ finally arrived in Alexandria. Charlie and his mates then boarded a train headed to Cairo and then onto Zietoum Railway Station. They were then route marched from Zietoum to the new training camp which was about two miles from Zietoum and one mile from Heliopolis called Tel-el Kebir.

It was 14th February 1916, when they finally reached Tel-el-Kebir training camp. Charlie and his mates arrived at the camp at 1900hrs and were then transferred to the newly established 54th Battalion on the 16th February. The 54th Battalion was officially raised in Egypt on 14th February 1916 as part of the “doubling” of the AIF. Half of its recruits were Gallipoli veterans from the 2nd Battalion, and the other half, fresh reinforcements like Charlie and his mates from Australia. Reflecting the composition of the 2nd Battalion the 54th Battalion was predominantly composed of men from New South Wales.

The 54th Battalion’s order of battle consisted of 14 Officers and 442 Other Ranks. These personnel were divided in to four companies Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta companies. Each of these companies was subdivided into four platoons. Each platoon again divided into four sections. This skeleton formation with five pioneers and twelve signallers formed the nucleus of the 54th Battalion. This was so that any reinforcements would bring the unit back up to full strength. The 54th Battalion formed part of the 14th Brigade of the 5th Australian Division.

The training Charlie and his mates received in Tel-el-Kebir, Egypt, would have been intense. This included good old fashioned Close Order Drill and Elementary Rifle Skills. Close Order Drill is used to instil in soldiers an immediate response to orders. This developing technique made soldiers react with a sense of urgency when given orders and following those orders instinctively. Charlie and his mates would also have conducted desert route marches as acclimatisation training. And of course special attention was given to improving shooting skills and bayonet fighting with the standard British issued rifle the .303 Lee Enfield.

On the 13th March 1916 the 54th Battalion was asked by 14th Brigade Headquarters for volunteers for specialists units. These units consisted of Artillery, Engineers, Pioneers, Signals and Machine Gun Companies. Charlie having completed basic training, volunteered for the Lewis Machine Gun Section (LMGS). By late 1915 platoons and specialists sections had replaced the half company as the basic manoeuvre element. The most important was the Lewis light machine gun section with a gunner, his No 2 and eight dedicated ammunition carriers. The 14th Brigade also received a lot of reinforcements from Australia during this time, so could afford to bolster its specialists units.

In February 1915 the Machine Gun Section had its strength increased from two to four Machine Guns, and the old Maxims were gradually replaced by the Vickers Machine Gun. In October 1915, the Machine Gun Section in every battalion was disbanded, and the personnel transferred with their equipment to the newly formed Lewis Machine Gun Sections. The Vickers was replaced at battalion level by the Lewis light machine gun. Initially there were four in every Battalion, one per company and 10 soldiers in each Lewis Gun Section. The section was commanded by a Lieutenant assisted by a Sergeant who was second in command. Then there was a Number One or gunner who carried the gun itself, the Number Two carried a leather bag full of spare parts and the rest, six members all carried ammunition for the gun.

Battle experience made the British Army realise it needed extra firepower, and by 1918 there were 36 Lewis Guns in every battalion. One advantage of the Lewis over other machine guns of the time, such as the Vickers, was that it could be carried and fired by one man. This allowed more flexibility in its use and allocation and it quickly became the standard infantry light machine gun of both the British and Australian armies. It was also employed as an anti-aircraft machine gun and was mounted on newly developed aircraft at that time. Even the Germans used captured Lewis machine guns as well. Reliable and relatively easy to use, the Lewis machine gun was a common sight on the Western Front lines. By the end of the First World War, over 50,000 Lewis machine guns had been produced outnumbering the Vickers machine gun by a ratio of 3:1.

So for Charlie and some of his mate’s their next stop was to attend a Lewis machine gun training course. In training, Charlie would have familiarised himself with the workings and intricacies of the light machine gun (LMG), a relatively new weapon and one that was far superior to the older Vickers or Maxim guns preceding it. The first few weeks would have been spent learning about the Lewis’ characteristics, description and safety precautions. Also how to handle stoppages, utilise their alternative weapon the hand pistol and work with range finders and clinometers. The Lewis machine gun school also trained in things such as machine gun care and maintenance, selection of firing positions, ranging, direct and indirect fire support and firing on the move. This would have developed Charlie into a dedicated section member and his mates as each LMGS was manned by a crew of ten.

By 1914 the Lewis light machine gun was in the experimental stage. It was a shoulder-held, air-cooled light automatic weapon weighing 26 pounds (12 kgs) and loaded with a circular magazine containing 47 rounds. The rate of fire was up to 700 rounds per minute, in short bursts. At this rate, a magazine would be used up very quickly. The Lewis was carried and fired by one man, but he needed another to carry and load the magazines. Lewis guns were supplied to the army from July 1915, initially to six selected Divisions and then to more as they were produced in increasing numbers. The original official establishment was four per infantry battalion (and per cavalry regiment), but by July 1918, infantry battalions possessed 36 each and even Pioneer battalions had 12. This very significant increase in battalion firepower enabled new and successful infantry tactics to be devised.

Charlie by now would have been closest to the other nine men who formed the section of their Lewis Machine Gun. His closest mates would have been the members of that section especially in the trenches when in the front line. It was to these mates he would have had day-to-day contact with. His section he would help above all others and they would do the same for him. However; despite all the training that Charlie and his mates would have received, very little of it would have prepared him or them for the reality of life on the front lines. Detailed knowledge of war could have only come from active service. But experience is only one side of the coin when discussing a soldier’s chances of survival. Luck is the other.

In April 1916 the unit took up defensive duties on the Suez Canal. These duties introduced Charlie and his mates to trench warfare and defensive tactics. The trenches were constructed with sandbags and wooden planks covered with matting. They learned how to construction parapets for Lewis machine guns, positioning two flanking LMGs per company trench. These were the only defensive positions with overhead protection and concealment. They also arranged the guns for use in crossfire (enfilade) firing. They conducted guard duty, gun pickets, built communication trenches, constructed wiring and performed fatigue parties. So, by the end of April Charlie and his mates were beginning to get used to living in the trenches.

As it was April, during this training the unit commemorated the landing at Gallipoli. The entire unit was given the privilege of wearing a red ribbon beside a blue one which was only to be worn by those who were at Gallipoli. The celebration of the first anniversary of the landing on Gallipoli was observed on the 25th of April with fitting ceremony. A general holiday was given and sports and dinners were organised to celebrate the occasion. A kind donor provided a coloured ribbon for all those who had been on Gallipoli, with an extra ribbon for those who had been present at the landing itself.

They were relieved a month later, of their defensive duties by the 4th Royal Sussex Regiment on the 29th May 1916. Charlie and his mates packed up all of their equipment moved from Katoomba to Rail Head where it bivouacked for the night. The unit took all of its baggage and equipment with it. The unit then route marched (about 8 kms) from Rail Head to Ferry Post on the 30th May and conducted a relief in place in a position held by 8th Brigade. They then spent two weeks preparing for their departure for France.

On the 16th June the unit route marched from Ferry Post to Moascar Camp. An amusing anecdote was related at the time which illustrates the unfailing humour of the Australian even at his last gasp. It was said that the first man of the 14th Brigade to reach Moascar was challenged by a New Zealand sentry, who halted him and inquired “Who goes there?" The man dropped his pack on the ground and wearily stretched himself before replying. "I'm Burke and bleeding Wills” he answered.

Then on the 19th June Charlie’s unit moved from Moascar Camp to Railway Head Station and boarded a train at 1600 hrs for Alexandria on route to Marseilles. The Battalion arrived in Alexandria at about 0220hrs on the 20th June. They then boarded HMAT ‘Caledonia’ and on the 22nd June embarked at 0430 hrs for Marseilles with their order of battle complete for the 54th Battalion which was 31 officers and 951 other ranks.

Sailing to France in June 1916, Charlie and his mates would have enjoyed the summer weather on a reasonably comfortable ship. The Mediterranean would have been calm and a beautiful deep blue. The diet on board ship was a welcome variation from the army rations too. Parade and lecture hours were short, though gas drill was steadily practised. In addition, practicing fire and submarine alarm drills were also given until all ranks were acquainted with their stations and duties should a real alarm be sounded.

Luckily all ships were escorted during the greater part of the voyage by destroyer escorts of the Royal Navy, and the work of these little terriers of the ocean elicited the warmest admiration from the soldiers. They were indefatigable, adjusting course at every query, veering from port to starboard. Moving ahead or swinging off to a flank, they investigated every suspicious situation; and were the incarnation of vigilance and aggressiveness.

On the voyage, Charlie and his mates would have sailed past just south of Crete. They reached the port of Malta on the 25th June anchoring in Marsa Scirocco Bay. They then departed again on the 26th June heading west. Then on through the Mediterranean they sailed past Corsica and Sardinia. Then north just before the Balearic Islands. The voyage through the Mediterranean was one of the most grateful interludes for Charlie and his mates. To men wearied with the heat and toil of Egypt, whose feet were sore from tramping through the sand, whose eyes were strained by the glaring reflections of the desert, the rest and charm of the voyage were indescribable. Most of the vessels experienced ideal weather conditions, with their dreaming islands, all reminiscent of history, or rich in the fascination of the classical tradition, slipped rapidly behind in a week's voyage of welcomed rest.

Many eager eyes were now strained in the direction of land when it was known that Marseilles was close at hand. Charlie and his mates stared in wonder at the delight of having their first glimpse of that prosperous city. In the background were green hills, rich and fertile to which they had so long been strangers to in Egypt. The huge advertisement sign of a well-known British whisky, with which the harbour climate of Marseilles had disfigured, was greeted with general approval by Charlie as indicating at least a return to civilisation. As the ships passed up the harbour with its rocky islands and precipitous cliffs, each point of interest was closely scrutinised, scanned and eagerly discussed. One bloke even pointed out the ‘The Chateau d'lf’, famous in Alexander Dumas's romance, "The Count of Monte Cristo," and later as the prison of the “Marquis de Sade”, which evoked some special interest amongst the younger men.



'At last the day is near when Australia’s boys will once again be given an opportunity to show the World what we are made of …to-morrow we hope to be on the road to Berlin … we are ready, fit,and well, and with God’s help will punish the Bosh for his cruelty to the weaker races … to-day, you should have seen the look of determination on the faces of all. I am sure that the Hun will be sorry for the day when Australia sent her sons to France.’

(Quoted in Bill Gammage, The Broken Years, MUP, 2010, pages 162-3)

Charles Dixon Butler was born on the 21st January 1879 in Balmain, then as now, a peninsula inner suburb of Sydney, New South Wales. Charlie was the only son of Charles Butler Snr and Maria Butler (nee Dixon). Charlie also had a sister Eliza Jane Butler who through marriage to Edwin Hugh Boyd-McCredie, my wife Michelle’s Great Grandfather is our family connection. In his formative years Charlie attended Sydney Boys High School in Castlereagh Street, Sydney, the first building of its kind designed as a High School in any of the Colonies.

Later Charlie’s family moved to Neutral Bay where Charlie grew up on a small property called ‘Coolabah’ on 167 Ben Boyd Road. This property currently has a primary school situated on it. Charlie’s upbringing was no different to that of any other kid growing up in the inner suburbs of Sydney and at that time life was reasonable for this working class family. Charlie even had his own nickname and that was ‘Dix’.

After leaving school Charlie entered the firm of Messrs’ Elliott Bros., Wholesale Chemists, remaining with them for many years. Charlie then travelled to New Zealand and joined the New Zealand Farmers’ Co-operative Society of Christchurch, qualifying as a Stock and Station Auctioneer . After ten years’ service as an auctioneer Charlie returned to Australia. And as the years advanced little did Charlie or his family realise the festering state of affairs developing in what was then known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

At the beginning of 1914, it would be safe to say that Charlie Butler was a respectable clerk making a good living as a Stock and Station Auctioneer. Charlie also took a keen interest in every kind of sport and excelled at football and cricket. Charlie was also one of the first members of the Neutral Bay and Mosman Rifle Club. However; the world changed forever that faithful day in Europe after the assignation of Arch Duke Ferdinand, in Sarajevo on the 28th June 1914. War was declared by Britain and as part of the British Commonwealth; Australia was drawn into a conflict being fought on the other side of the world.

At the outbreak of WW1, the Australian Government offered Britain a force of 20,000 men for service anywhere, and advised that that force would be ready to sail within four to six weeks. Clearly, a mass recruitment drive was required and as a result of the widespread enthusiasm, recruiting standards were, initially, extremely high.

The plan was for half of the contingent to consist of experienced men, either serving in the Army already, trained militiamen or those with prior military service. The other half were to be physically fit volunteers, aged between 19 and 38, fortunately Charlie fell inside this bracket. The pressure to enlist must have been great as men aged 13 - 71 offered their services to the Great War.

At the time of Charlie’s initial enlistment he was attached to the firm John Bridge & Coy., Ltd., Wool Brokers, Sydney, New South Wales. Charlie was a more mature man in his late 30s; he was not the sort of person the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was looking for. It was the younger, unmarried men that were predominately chosen to fill the ranks. But it soon became clear by 1915, after the Gallipoli Campaign that the AIF was in urgent need of men as the attrition rate of modern industrialised warfare exacted a terrible price in lives. Those who had been turned away earlier were now asked to volunteer as matter of urgency.

For over eight terrible months ANZACs fought an ultimately futile campaign against the Turks. The Gallipoli conflict alone killed 8000 Australians and wounded 19000. 2500 New Zealanders were killed and 5000 were wounded in battle. One can only imagine what the pressure must have been like for Charlie to sign up and do his bit for King and Empire.

Charlie enlisted into the AIF on the 15th September 1915 in the suburb of Casula. Casula is about 35 kilometers south-west of Sydney, in the local government area of the City of Liverpool. The City of Liverpool had a large military training area which is still in use today. Charlie signed the enlistment papers and swore his allegiance to the King, becoming another ANZAC soldier to follow the cause.

Charlie was given a service number, 3479 and was originally part of a series of reinforcements raised during 1915-16 to help bolster the AIF Battalions which were then still serving at that time in Gallipoli. From April to September 1915 Charlie would have seen the ranks of young Australians signing up in droves as the stories of the mate ship and heroism of the ANZACs came out of Gallipoli.

3479 Private Charles Dixon Butler now became a fully paid-up member of the AIF and according to the National Archive of Australia Records was part of the 8th Reinforcements for the 19th Battalion currently serving in Gallipoli. Charlie was then given formative training, including drill and weapons handling in order to turn him from a civilian orientated clerk into a bronzed ANZAC digger.

The 19th Battalion was raised at Liverpool in New South Wales in March 1915 as part of the 5th Australian Infantry Brigade. A large number of the 19th Battalion original recruits had already served with the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN & MEF) in the operations to capture German New Guinea in September 1914.

The 19th Battalion left Australia in late June, trained in Egypt from late July until mid-August, and on 21st August landed at ANZAC Cove Gallipoli. There the Battalion participated in the last action of the August Offensive-the attack on Hill 60-before settling into defensive routine in the trenches. From mid-September, until its withdrawal from the peninsula on the night of 19th December, the 19th Battalion was responsible for the defence of Pope’s Hill.

Charlie now began his formative training in Liverpool and over the next 3 months was introduced to the military values of integrity, loyalty and discipline. Charlie would also have begun to develop a ‘spirit de corps’ or mateship amongst the other recruits. This mateship would last them their entire time as soldiers and beyond. This included a sharing of the loss of privileges they all would experience and the support of each other throughout. Over the next 3 months the men would bond, enduring all that the Army could throw at them. This instilled in the men a sense of reliance on each other, to get thorough these ordeals together.

On the 12th December 1915, Charlie and his mates embarked from Sydney on the His Majesty’s Australian Transport (HMAT) ‘Berrima’ bound for Fremantle and eventually Egypt. The troopship embarked at 0615 hrs and put out into mid-stream at about 0900 hrs. ‘Berrima’ cleared the harbour heads at about 1600 hrs that afternoon. Charlie looked back and saw Manly Heads disappear into the distance and probably wondered if he would ever see his beloved Manly again.

‘Berrima’ would have steamed past Bondi, Coogee and all other bays including Wollongong on its way south towards Victoria. It cleared the NSW coast passing Green Cape lighthouse late in the evening. Then the Victorian coast was in sight and eventually Wilson’s Promontory and Port Phillip Bay came into view. Then Berrima crossed the Bass Strait steaming towards the Great Australian Bight. Finally it was in sight of the west coast of Australia and just past Albany it headed north towards Fremantle. When Berrima reached Rottnest Island pilot boats came out to take Berrima into the Fremantle harbour.

Charlie and his mates arrived at Fremantle Port and headed by train to a staging camp called ‘Blackboy Hill Camp ’. Here they camped out waiting for the other ships to arrive to escort their troop ship ‘Berrima’ to Egypt. During the troop buildup for the First World War, Blackboy Hill was a military training camp used to house large numbers of AIF troops before they left for the various battlefront locations in Europe and the Middle East.

To get to Blackboy Hill Camp AIF troops were transported by train to the adjacent Helena Valley Railway station and then marched across to the camp. The location of the camp had been chosen in part for the train-line that ran nearby, allowing easy movement of the troops from around the state. It was also easy to entrain them to and from the city harbour at Fremantle, where they would eventually reboard the HMAT Berrima to depart for the other side of the world.

“ Blackboy Hill I had to drill and generally make a fool of myseIf...when the instructor said left turn one would turn right sure as eggs, then he would condescend to tell you all about your relations, etc...When [he]...had taught us which end of the rifle the bullet come out...we were sent to Osbourne Rifle Range...Our section done some real good shooting so we only done the one course, worse luck - the shooting was the best part of it. However it come to a finish like everything else, and we marched back to camp about 32 miles...then we embarked...and of course we were put in Egypt. Days we hung about thinking we would have a scrap in the Suez, but it never came off. They dumped us off at...Mena was rotten... sand, sand, sand in your tucker, in your ears, eyes, nose, everywhere, and anywhere, it was real crook we done marching, skirmishing and digging for weeks and weeks...I was heartily sick of it...”

Company Sergeant Major G.S. Feist, 52 Bn

At Blackboy Hill Training Camp they lived in tents with very primitive and rudimentary facilities. Basic training for new recruits meant the usual parade-ground drilling and of course the occasional route marches. Fatigue duties were also prevalent during the week in week out routines. And the most despised of all ‘guard duty’. Lectures were held daily, Saturdays were days reserved for “Tent Drill” and Sundays were always a blessed day off. Despite it all, the soldiers maintained their larrikin sense of humour, with all manner of hijinks and good-natured misbehaviour reported in the historical sources. And if they couldn't entertain themselves in camp, the men were not shy about wandering off to greener pastures for an evening.

As in this account too, when Charlie whilst staying at the camp, for some reason went absent without leave (AWOL) for 72 hours on the 28th, 29th and 30th December 1915. Charlie’s A4 charge sheet dated the 8th January 1916, showed he was absent from the camp but gives no reason why he went absent. Given you could have been shot for desertion in those days there must have been a legitimate reason for his absence. Charlie was fined 15 shillings and forfeited 3 days’ pay as a result of his misdemeanours. This too shows the indiscretions of the larrikin spirit of the ANZACs of that time.

Finally, it was time to leave, much to the relief of all and sundry. And as all ANZAC Expeditionary Forces have embarked from this location, Fremantle was the last place in Australia that Charlie and his mates would see. The last of their privileges too enjoyed by Charlie and his mates beforehand were now disappearing. This was deliberate so as to remind the men that they were now on active service.

Heading north-west through the Indian Ocean, past the Cocos Islands, for about ten days, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) soon came into sight and Berrima entered Colombo Harbour. Here the ship took on extra coal and supplies for the rest of the journey. Two days later they were replenished and on their way again, heading westwards across the Arabian Sea towards the Gulf of Aden.

Berrima sailed past the Maldives and a few days later the small island of Socotra. She then entered the Gulf of Aden and north through the Red Sea. She arrived at Port Suez then passed through the Suez Canal and onto Port Said. Once through the Suez Canal, she sailed onto her final destination, Egypt and the ancient city of Alexandria.

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British War Medal, Victory Medal

3479 Private Charles Dixon Butler joined the AIF on the 15th September 1915 at the age of 36. He saw action on the Western Front at the Battle of Fromelles and survived. He endured the harshest conditions of a trench winter in 1916-17 for 50 years. He was wounded in action on the Somme and was also heavily involved in the 2nd Battle of Bullecourt. The Second Battle of Bullecourt began on 3 May, 1917 and rates as a close second to the disaster he served at Fromelles. In the two weeks of hand to hand fighting, it was the most intense experienced by the AIF. The German artillery and trench mortar fire was constant as they attempted to evict the Australians from their small toehold in the Hindenburg Line.

Charlie was a member of the 54th Battalion AIF and participated in the most legendary Australian Military battles including Fromelles on the Western Front. Charlie’s story is more than just a soldier’s story about guns and bullets; it is also a tribute to the steadfast mateship of over 300,000 ANZACs who fought in and in most cases died for each other in the Great War of 1914-1918. The 54th Battalion was the second of four Battalions of the 14th Brigade all drawn largely from NSW. They were to become part of the 5th Australian Division, raised in Egypt for the Western Front. The 54th Battalion recruits were the 'pup' Battalion of the 2nd Battalion AIF from Gallipoli. Its colour patch comprised a vertically aligned rectangle signifying the 5th Australian Division. The green bar on the right signified the 14th Brigade and the purple bar on the left the first of the four battalions within the brigade.

Charlie’s Battalion also suffered horrendous casualties during every engagement it encountered. By the end of the Great War, the ‘war to end all wars,’ Charlie’s Battalion the 54th Battalion AIF had lost 544 killed and 1592 wounded. The Battalion did everything, but retreat. During the fighting, the 54th won a total of 16 battle honours which were bestowed upon the Battalion for its involvement in the ‘Great’ war in 1927.

The 54th Battalion, became the most depleted battalion in the 14th Brigade, and was eventually chosen for amalgamation. It was merged with the 56th Battalion on 11 October 1918 forming the "54th/56th Battalion". In response, the battalion's enlisted soldiers briefly went on strike in an effort to maintain their battalion identity, before ultimately complying with the order. Such was the ‘espirit de corps’ of the men of the 54th Battalion that they requested to be sent to the harshest portion of the front line to be allowed to die with honour, rather than be amalgamated. - Kevin O'Halloran