Service Numbers: 1839, 5466
Enlisted: 21 February 1916
Last Rank: Private
Last Unit: 14th Infantry Battalion
Born: Korweinguboora, south of Daylesford, Victoria, Australia, October 1888
Home Town: Neerim East, Baw Baw, Victoria
Schooling: Not yet discovered
Occupation: Sleeper cutter
Died: Killed in action - buried by shell in dugout, France, 28 November 1916
Cemetery: Bulls Road Cemetery, Flers
Bulls Road Cemetery (Plot I, Row B, Grave No. 21), Flers, France
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World War 1 Service

20 Mar 1915: Involvement Private, SN 1839, 14th Infantry Battalion
20 Mar 1915: Embarked Private, SN 1839, 14th Infantry Battalion, HMAT Shropshire, Melbourne
21 Feb 1916: Enlisted AIF WW1, Private, SN 1839, 14th Infantry Battalion
28 Nov 1916: Involvement Private, SN 5466, 14th Infantry Battalion

Help us honour William Williams's service by contributing information, stories, and images so that they can be preserved for future generations.

Biography contributed by Evan Evans

From Ballarat & District in the Great War

In attempting to compile a comprehensive Roll of Honour for Ballarat and district in the Great War, I was always conscious that no matter how thorough I was there would inevitably be some that would be missed. I swore that if I did miss anyone it would not be for want of trying. Still, when a missing man comes to light, I still find it personally frustrating. Fortunately, at least in this way and using this medium, I can make sure they are remembered.

Pte William Williams 5466 was one such case. Born at Korweinguboora, south of Daylesford, in 1888, he was the second son of David James Williams and Mary Ann Spratling. His parents were both locally born, with his father growing up at “Rose Hill Farm” at Ross Creek and his mother coming from a very well-known Ballarat family. The couple were married at the Congregational Church in Ballarat South in 1883.

With the waning of gold-mining, and the development of railways opening up the south-east of the State, many local families chose to move to the growing towns throughout Gippsland. Bill, who had been named for his Welsh grandfather, was only a toddler when the family moved to Mirboo North. His father, who had been raised as a farmer before working alongside the extended Spratling family in the timber milling settlements of Korweinguboora and Blakeville, returned to his farming origins after resettling at Mirboo North.

Mirboo North was still a small rural town in the Strzelecki Ranges when the Williams family arrived, but by 1894 it was the principal town in the shire. The local State School was the first in the region when it opened in 1881. It was at Mirboo North State School that young Bill Williams received his standard education.

In the early 1900’s, David Williams moved his young family to the farming district of Neerim East in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range. Initially, Bill worked with his father as a farmhand. However, after his older sister, Margaret, married George Milner, of Mirboo North, Bill returned to his boyhood home to work. The Milner family were well known sleeper cutters in the area, and in the years leading up to the war, Bill was likewise employed. He also played football with the local team and became well-known and popular with the locals.

It was during this time that Bill became mates with another local lad, Robbie Wharton. The pair became such firm friends that decided to enlist together, presenting at the recruiting depot in Neerim South on 21 February 1916. From that point on they were virtually inseparable.

However, it was when Bill completed his attestation papers, stating that he was born at Warragul, that he inadvertently caused his name to all but disappear from connection to Ballarat and district. This error would later be compounded by his sister, Mary, who believed him to have been born at Werribee.

Bill’s medical was carried out the same day at nearby Warragul. The medical officer described him as being 27-years and 7-months of age, standing 5-feet 7-inches and weighing 10-stone 7-pounds. His chest expansion of 38-inches indicated that his heavy physical labour cutting sleepers had given him a strongly muscled upper body. A portrait taken of Bill in uniform, clearly shows his fair complexion and light blue eyes, but his fair hair was all but obscured by the British forage cap he was wearing.

Neither Bill Williams nor Robbie Wharton had any military training, which was not unusual in more remote areas – most probably the closest unit was at that time stationed in Warragul. Like so many of their counterparts, the pair were not destined to gain a large amount of experience before leaving Australia. They went into camp with the 20th Depot Battalion at Castlemaine on the day they enlisted. Then, on 9 April, they were transferred to Broadmeadows and assigned to the 18th allocation of reinforcements to the 5th Infantry Battalion.

On 3 July 1916, Bill and Robbie boarded the troopship Ayrshire at the docks in Port Melbourne to begin their voyage to England. Whilst little is known of their own personal experiences of the trip, another local soldier, Richard Rolls, from Trafalgar, who was returning to the Front after having been wounded at Gallipoli, wrote a detailed account on the two pages allowed per letter. It is a great example of the general experiences of that particular journey.

‘…On the second Sunday out, we spotted a school of whales several miles off. By their spouting I should guess they are “some fish.” We ran into very foul weather outside the heads, which continued for a week. Great waves washed over the deck and carried away a couple of bake-houses and a wash-house. Most of the troops were down with sea-sickness, and very few officers were seen for the first week. Subsequently. however, matters greatly improved, and a succession of perfect days followed.

My luck has been phenomenal — as usual. When the boys were lying about, heedless of anything, I was one of the fortunate few who could walk on deck and enjoy the keen spray. I am better in every way since sailing, and my chest now feels A1, the breathing being much easier; and this, of course, is my chief concern. I am anxiously looking forward to seeing France, and especially to the prospect of meeting Will [his brother] as soon as possible. I’ll write to him from Cape Town.

Contrary to expectations, we did not call at Albany. Our boat is a rather slow one, but I am enjoying the trip immensely, and expect to receive letters from home, and the “News,” on reaching England.
We gave had several good concerts on board, and sports are pending. The food is scarcely up to the high standard of that on the P. and O. boat on which I previously journeyed, but it is excellent nevertheless, and probably above the average, both in quality and quantity. There are no complaints, the general health of the boys is good, and all are improving as a result of the sea voyage. We get some war news on board, which is much appreciated. Lieut. Allan, one of our officers, has started a troop-ship paper, of which yours truly is the sub-editor. . . Remember me kindly to Traf. friends.

[Later date] We are due at Cape Town, our first port of call, in three days’ time, and the mail on board closes to-morrow. We have had delightful weather, and the health and spirits of all are excellent. I have increased 7lb. in weight since sailing . . . I will cable to Will, and arrange to meet him in England or France. Can get leave for that purpose. . . .

Later… Today (Wednesday, Aug 2) we arrived at Cape Town, and will remain here for several days. From 10 40 a.m. to midday we went for a march. Then returned to ship, and after dinner liberated from 2 to 6. Each N.C.O. has charge of 20 men, to see that they return "straight” and on time. If they do that, they will set off again to-morrow.

I am sending a book souvenir of Cape Town, and some card views, which are beautifully got up. Cape Town is a remarkable place, as I think most cities with a mixed white and black population and a sea port must be. I’ll see all I can of the place, and write a description after we sail. Thursday. The few of us on board who were at Gallipoli are having a rather curious experience. We are easily recognised, by the colours on our arms. The Cape people think the world of the "Anzacs, as they call us, and are giving us a particularly good time.

There's an amusing feature about it, as they seem to think the Anzacs and those who were not at Gallipoli are a sort of different race, and they look surprised when told that Australia has 100’s of 1000’s of young men equally as good fighters and fellows as the Gallipoli Anzacs whom they so idolize. Must “ring off” now, as there's a signal for other duties. Kind regards to all friends…’

It must have been good for the new recruits to have experienced men amongst them, and no doubt they would have traded stories and asked a multitude of questions to while away the hours.

After their layover in Cape Town, the Ayrshire continued to make slow progress along the African coast, finally arrived at Plymouth on 2 September.

Bill and Robbie spent just a month with the 2nd Training Battalion in England before embarking for France on 8 October. The marched into the 1st Australian Divisional Base Depot at Étaples the following day.

Following a re-allotment of reinforcements, Bill and Robbie found themselves transferred from the 5th Battalion and marching out instead to join the 14th Infantry Battalion – the famous “Jacka’s Mob”. When they reached their new unit on 22 October, the men had just come out of the line in the Ypres Salient and were resting in billets near Steenvorde. The new pair were both posted to A Company and assigned to I Platoon. But it was only days before they were on the move again – back into France and behind the lines at Bellancourt near the Somme sector.

On 9 November, the troops moved further forward to Ribemont-sur-Ancre, and it was there two days later, that they stood to attention as General Sir William Birdwood presented medals and ribbons to newly decorated men of the 14th.
Over the next few days, Bill would be travelling through the remnants of towns whose names are now etched in the annuls of Great War literature – Dernancourt, Fricourt, Montauban and Bernafay Wood. Winter was now closing in and the ground under foot was frozen hard with frost; then on 18 November, snow began to fall and the surface turned to slush.

The 23 November saw the men move further forward to Carlton Camp near Bazentin – not far from what had once been the village of Pozieres.

At 2:30pm on 26 November, A and C Companies moved into the frontline at Bulls Road, near Goudecourt in the Flers Sector, to relieve two companies of the 48th Battalion. The relief was completed by midnight of 27-28 November. The trenches and communication saps encountered by the new troops, were knee deep in mud and the men were kept busy trying to clear the slush as the fog hung heavily over the area. According to the 14th Battalion Diary, the enemy artillery throughout the day was ‘normal.’

At the end of an exhausting day, the men took the chance to rest. Bill and Robbie were sleeping alongside one another in a dugout around 9pm when a shell blast demolished the shelter and buried them both alive. Frantic efforts were made to dig them out, but by the time they reached them, both Bill and Robbie had suffocated.

Two of their mates in the original reinforcements, Bill Woodcock, a farmer from Upotiponpon near Benalla, and Jack O’Leary, another young farmhand, helped to bury Bill and Robbie side-by-side in the Bulls Road Cemetery, to the right of Flers. Much-loved chaplain of the 14th Battalion, Frank Rolland, performed the burial service.

Bill’s younger sister, Mary Williams, was given the tasks of dealing with inscription for Bill’s grave and completing the circular for the National Roll of Honour. She also made enquiries hoping to find out the exact circumstances as to how he died.

Eventually, Bill’s few meagre possessions were returned to his grieving parents – his identity disc, wallet, a few photos, and a damaged mirror. It was such a pitiful collection of ephemera.
When Robert and Elizabeth Wharton placed a memorial in the Melbourne Argus the following year, they made special mention of their son’s ‘loving mate, Billy Williams, both killed side by side at Flers, France.’ It was a poignant tribute of mateship.

The pair remain buried alongside one another at Bulls Road Cemetery. Inscribed on Bill William’s headstone were the simple words:

The Wharton family also chose a sad tribute…an inscription that inexplicably caught my eye when I visited Bulls Road...


So, without realising it, I had stood at the graveside of these two young mates.

I feel such privilege when I get to know one of our Great War servicemen and women – they have changed and shaped my life in ways very few could understand. So, this was a particularly important journey for me – Bill Williams’ connection to the district could easily have been missed if not for the diligence of his relative, Ken Vivian. For trusting me with telling Bill’s story, I am extremely grateful.


Footnote: The only other 14th Battalion man killed that night was, coincidentally, Joe Pattie, from Ballarat. From statements made it seems possible that Joe was also in the dugout when he died. He was buried in the Bulls Road Cemetery, but the grave identification was later lost. He now has a headstone in the cemetery, which is of a special memorial nature.