William Alfred SPURLING

SPURLING, William Alfred

Service Number: 4275
Enlisted: 13 August 1915
Last Rank: Corporal
Last Unit: 50th Infantry Battalion
Born: Warracknabeal, Victoria, 27 February 1893
Home Town: Albert Park, South Australia
Schooling: Grants Hill School, via Port Wakefield
Occupation: Farmer/ labourer
Died: Died of Wounds - septicaemia, United Kingdom, 16 August 1917, aged 24 years
Cemetery: Melcombe Regis Cemetery, Dorset, England
Melcombe Regis Cemetery Grave number 3143, plot C., Melcombe Regis Cemetery, Weymouth, Dorset, England, United Kingdom
Memorials: Adelaide National War Memorial, Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour, Copeville Sprurling Memorial Hall, Karoonda District Roll of Honor, Karoonda Roll of Honor, Mannum War Memorial, Murray Bridge Hospital Memorial Gates, Murray Bridge Roll of Honour WW1
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World War 1 Service

13 Aug 1915: Enlisted AIF WW1
11 Jan 1916: Embarked AIF WW1, Private, 4275, 10th Infantry Battalion, HMAT Borda, Adelaide
11 Jan 1916: Involvement AIF WW1, Private, 4275, 10th Infantry Battalion, Enlistment/Embarkation WW1
1 Mar 1916: Involvement AIF WW1, Private, 4275, 50th Infantry Battalion, Third Ypres
12 Aug 1916: Involvement AIF WW1, Private, 4275, 50th Infantry Battalion, Battle for Pozières
2 Apr 1917: Involvement AIF WW1, Corporal, 4275, 50th Infantry Battalion, German Withdrawal to Hindenburg Line and Outpost Villages
31 Jul 1917: Involvement AIF WW1, Third Ypres
31 Jul 1917: Involvement AIF WW1, Third Ypres
31 Jul 1917: Involvement AIF WW1, Third Ypres
Date unknown: Wounded 4275, 50th Infantry Battalion
Date unknown: Involvement 10th Infantry Battalion, Battle for Pozières

The Spurling Memorial Hall

The Spurling Memorial Hall was erected in 1920 at Copeville in memory of William Alfred Spurling and a plaque attached to a large rock at the front of the hall.

Unfortunately the hall has not been maintained and is now in a very poor state of repair. It is to be hoped that some organisation could take on as a project to stabilise what remains of the hall so that the memorial plaque can retain some meaning to future generations.

June 2015

'Number One' in a Lewis gun crew.

Raised on his family's farms near Port Wakefield and Copeville, S.A., Will was the eldest in a family of eight children. He enlisted at Adelaide and left Australia in January 1916 on HMAT Borda along with other 10th Bn reinforcements. In Egypt his first camps were Cairo and Heliopolis and then at Tel-el-Kabir where he was assigned to the newly formed 50th Bn.

His battalion embarked in June 1916 for France. On the Western Front he served at Armentieres (first time into action), the First Battle of the Somme, Pozieres (second time into action), Mouquet Farm (third time into action), Ypres, Flers (fourth time into action), and Noreuil (fifth time into action).

During the course of these battles he was promoted from private to lance corporal to corporal, being in charge of a Lewis gun crew. In October 1916 while at Ypres he volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps and, having been accepted, was impatiently awaiting a transfer.

At Noreuil he received multiple gunshot and shrapnel wounds to the scalp, right side of neck and shoulder, and back. Evacuated to England for hospital treatment, he died of Septicaemia.

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Born at Warracknabeal in 1893, William Alfred Spurling worked on his family farms in the Beaufort and Port Wakefield districts, to which his family had moved in 1895. On enlistment in 1915, Spurling was taken into the 10th Australian Infantry Battalion, and after five months of training at Morphettville, he embarked on HMAT Borda for Egypt. The Borda did not even have to leave Australian waters for the excitement to begin. Spurling was one of a party commanded to bring thirty soldiers back on board. The men had “run amok” during leave in Fremantle and were either refusing to return, or “too drunk to know what they were doing”.1

The Borda arrived at Port Suez on 7 February 1916, and Spurling remained in Cairo until 1 March, when the 10th moved out to Tel-El-Kebir. It was also on 1 March that the 10th was reorganised with Spurling becoming part of the 50th Battalion. The 50th continued in Egypt until the beginning of June. The three months there had been spent in a little sightseeing, a lot of hard work, and even more dust and gnats. For Spurling, used to hard work as a farmer, it was the lack of water and food that made conditions particularly trying.

From Alexandria, Spurling and the 50th travelled to France on HMT Arcadian, the voyage before she was sunk with the loss of 279 lives, arriving at Marseilles on 11 June 1916. After seeing action, including plenty of German shelling at Armentieres, Spurling and his company returned to Caestry, where he describes some of the lows of billeting.

[T]welve miles hard march, and it was my luck to be billeted in a pigsty. Pigs were turned out to make room for twenty of us. This is a fact. I woke up in the night with something on my face, and found it was one of the pigs slobbering my face through a hole in the wall. She wanted to get in again, I suppose. I stuffed the wall with wet straw (some of my bed) but she would eat it as fast as I could stuff it in so I had to shift outside and I would have liked to have let her in on the others.2

June and August were spent moving closer to the front line until, on the morning of 11 August 1916, the 50th was told that they were to “hop the parapets” that night. Spurling approached this surprise order to engage philosophically; “well, we all knew it had to be done, so the sooner the better, and get it finished, as we were getting shelled where we were anyway.”3 After making it to the front line trench at Pozieres, Spurling and his company spent two and a half hours under heavy shelling, “crouched between the dead and dying.”4 Spurling remembered making it to the German trench and digging in half an hour before the German guns responded to the new situation. After that, he woke up in the dressing station and accepting with alacrity a pass to “get away” from the Medical Officer.

On returning to his unit on 18 August 1916, Spurling learned that the 50th had lost 400 in the attack. As a machine gunner, Spurling stayed behind the infantry charge at Mouquet Farm on 2 September 1916, providing flanking fire. 3rd August proved more eventful for Spurling, including moving their Lewis gun across no-man’s-land in broad daylight successfully, only to be shelled just as the gun was being manoeuvred into position. Of the four men standing with the gun, only two survived, with Spurling describing it as “a marvellous escape.”5

After spending September and October at Ypres, Spurling was promoted to Lance Corporal in November. It was also in November that Spurling discovered he had been reported as missing since August. He wrote in his diary, “I don't know yet if the news has gone home and I am anxious to know. This will show how easy mistakes can be made. I immediately notified the authorities in London and asked them to cable home.”6

The middle of November saw Spurling and his company back in the trenches of the Somme. After losing twenty of fifty men on the 18 November, they were grateful to be relieved by the 49th battalion the following night. A very cold Christmas passed quickly before Spurling and his company were back into the firing line at the end of February, and again at the end of March – this time at Noreuil. On 2 April 1917 at 5.15 am, they charged German lines. Spurling ended up in a German trench with his machine gun, a position he held for an hour before being shot in the head and the shoulder. Spurling records in his diary walking three miles to a dressing station. In a letter he wrote home from hospital on 22 April 1917, it became clear that the problem was not German bullets but Entente shrapnel; "while I was lying in the trench, bleeding to death as I thought, one of our own high explosive shells lobbed and exploded right alongside of me and drove two of its deadly pellets into my back, which stopped close to my lungs."7

Spurling spent the remainder of his war in various hospitals. The end of July 1917 saw the end of his diary with favourable comments on the hospital in Weymouth to which he had been transferred. On 12 August, Spurling wrote to his mother, Charlotte,

Oh, for a glimpse of all the dear faces I left behind, I can't realise seeing them again. What a picture when we all meet again. It will be worse than when I came away. I am a lucky fellow getting off as easy as I did. I often think of it. My first thought when I was hit was of home.8

Four days later on 16 August 1917, William Alfred Spurling died. It had not been the gunshot wounds to the scalp or shoulder, nor the shrapnel in his back, lodged so close to the lungs that doctors would not remove it. In the irony and the absence of penicillin that claimed so many lives during the Great War, it was septicaemia secondary to a scratch on the face that forced Spurling to finally succumb.

Along with his other personal effects, the diaries in which Spurling’s wartime experiences had been documented, were returned to his mother at Glencope.

Click here (rslvwm.s3.amazonaws.com) for the full transcript of the diary and the collection of Spurling’s letters, edited by Max Slee.

[1] William Alfred Spurling, “Broken Ribbons: The Diary and Letters of Corporal William Alfred Spurling, no. 4052,” transcribed Max Slee, 1999, p. 6.
[2] Spurling, p. 21.
[3] Spurling, p. 25.
[4] Spurling, pp. 25-26.
[5] Spurling, p. 27.
[6] Spurling, p.30.
[7] Spurling, p. 40.
[8] Spurling, p. 42.