John Edward Henry (Harry) BUTLER

Badge Number: S5604, Sub Branch: Glenelg

BUTLER, John Edward Henry

Service Numbers: 2097, 2097A
Enlisted: 19 August 1914, Enlisted Adelaide, SA
Last Rank: Lieutenant
Last Unit: 11th Field Artillery Brigade
Born: Brompton Park, South Australia, 30 May 1894
Home Town: Brompton, South Australia
Schooling: Not yet discovered
Occupation: Pre-war: porter. Post-war: police officer
Died: Kent Town, South Australia, January 1964, cause of death not yet discovered
Cemetery: Centennial Park Cemetery, South Australia
Derrick Garden of Remembrance (Path 26, Grave 799)
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World War 1 Service

19 Aug 1914: Enlisted AIF WW1, SN 2097, Enlisted Adelaide, SA
20 Oct 1914: Involvement Driver, SN 2097, 3rd Field Artillery Brigade
20 Oct 1914: Embarked Driver, SN 2097, 3rd Field Artillery Brigade , HMAT Medic, Adelaide
5 Apr 1915: Involvement AIF WW1, Bombardier, SN 2097, 3rd Field Artillery Brigade , 'ANZAC' / Gallipoli
6 Jun 1916: Involvement AIF WW1, Battery Sergeant Major, 4th Field Artillery Brigade
25 Jan 1917: Involvement AIF WW1, Battery Sergeant Major, SN 2097A, 10th Field Artillery Brigade
8 Feb 1918: Involvement AIF WW1, Battery Sergeant Major, SN 2097A
25 Nov 1918: Promoted Lieutenant, 11th Field Artillery Brigade , Promoted to Lieutenant
3 Feb 1920: Discharged AIF WW1, Lieutenant, SN 2097A, Termination of appointment, 4 MD

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Biography contributed by Janet Scarfe

John Edward Henry Butler


John Edward Henry (Harry) Butler was born in Brompton Park, in Adelaide’s inner west, on 30 May 1894, one of eight children born to John Butler (c1848-1908) and his wife Sophia (nee Lambert) (c1860-1939). (His birth registration name was Edward John Henry.)

War Service

Butler enlisted on 19 August 1914, a fortnight after war broke out. He put up his age, saying he was 22 and 8 months; in reality he was just over 20. He gave his occupation as a porter, his religion as Church of England, and his mother as next of kin.

Butler had previously served in the pre-war militia with the 34th Battery of the Australian Field Artillery which trained at Kanmantoo. On enlistment he was allocated to the 3rd Field Artillery Brigade Ammunition Column (3rd BAC) as a driver. The brigade was encamped on the Morphettville race course from August to October where the personnel selected and trained horses for transporting ammunition, practised gun drills, heard lectures on military discipline, and went on bivouacs and marches in the local area (Unit War Diary, AWM 34 13/85/1. Unless specified otherwise, information on the unit’s role comes from the unit war diary).

The men and horses of Butler’s unit (and others) embarked on SS Medic and left Adelaide on 20 October 1914. The varying weather and confinement on the ship on the route from Fremantle via Colombo, Alexandria and Port Suez to Cairo was challenging for the horses in particular, but after seven weeks at sea the unit set up their lines at Mena Camp on 12 December.

The unit trained at Mena Camp for more than three months (Unit War Diary, AWM 34 13/85/2-5). Horses were shod, ammunition transportation on land and water was practised, guns were fired and tactical exercises held. Butler was promoted from driver to bombardier (corporal).

On 5 April 1915, Butler and his unit left Cairo for the island of Lemnos on HMT Cardiganshire. For the next three weeks in difficult weather conditions the personnel practised landing guns and ammunition between land and sea using horses and vehicles.

The unit was part of the ill-fated landing at Anzac Cove early on the morning of 25 April 1915. HMT Cardiganshire was attacked by heavy Turkish shellfire and forced to withdraw, but men from the 3rd BAC rowed the Brigade headquarters ashore under fire. The drama of the ensuing days, weeks and months has been told many times but Butler himself described events of the landing and subsequent week in a letter to his mother Sophia written on 13 May and published along with other letters from the front in a newspaper (Advertiser, 26.6.1915, p16). His graphic details of the men taking enemy trenches but at terrible cost and in unimaginable conditions must have shocked Sophia and the readership as they poured over the words. He remained on board ship for over a week as it bombarded the Turkish forces on the shore trying to provide cover and protection for the infantry and also for the men landing guns, ammunition and supplies. For much of that time, HMT Cardiganshire was under bombardment or forced to move out of range. Time and again ‘hell ... was let loose’, with deafening noise. Within hours of the first bombardment, the ANZAC casualties were being brought onto the ship with shocking wounds and ‘some horrible tales of Turkish atrocities.’ Butler reported the heavy cost to the British troops in particular and the Turks as well. ‘Our ship had four narrow escapes’, he wrote.

Butler probably went ashore in early May when all the ammunition was landed. The unit commanding officer commended the ammunition party for ‘working splendidly under hot fire’ on 2 May. The party prepared gun pits ‘working all night under fire’ and prepared the ammunition bays. The terrain was not well suited to artillery however; some days there was considerable activity, many days little throughout May, June and early July.

In late June/early July, Bombardier Butler (who was possibly on leave from the Gallipoli area) committed two misdemeanours in quick succession: being absent without leave for 24 hours and a minor breach of discipline at the commanding officer’s parade. He lost his rank of bombardier and reverted to driver, and forfeited two days pay. (John Edward Henry Butler, Service Record, National Archives of Australia.)

His service record showed his transfer to his unit at the Dardanelles on 3 August 1915. It was the eve of the Battle of Lone Pine, fought from 6 to 10 August. The Australians maintained a huge shelling bombardment on 6 August, the unit diary recording that ‘ammunition supply went on all night [with] every available man out’ (AWM 34 13/85/9). There were heavy casualties on both sides, and although the Australians won the position the effect was minimal. The following weeks were spent clearing empty shell cases and sorting ammunition reserves but the physical and mental toll was heavy. In October three weeks in the rest camp at West Mudros on Lemnos ‘seems to have improved the men to a certain extent’ (AWM 34 13/85/11).

In December, Butler regained his rank as corporal and transferred to the 8th Battery, still within the 3rd Field Artillery Brigade. The same month Australian troops were evacuated from the Dardanelles and returned to Egypt. Butler and three mates souvenired the last shell before the evacuation.

Corporal Butler was taken on strength of the newly formed 4th Divisional Artillery, 111th Battery, camped at Tel-el-Kebir 110 kms from Cairo in February or March 1916. He was soon promoted to Battery (regimental) Sergeant Major. The unit had men, horses, wagons and limbres for transporting artillery and ammunition across often heavy sand. In April and May the unit practised shooting and shelling in anticipation of moving to France. The unit embarked on HMT Elele in Alexandria on 4 June 1916 and after an uncomfortable crossing in which the horses were ‘very much off colour’ reached Marseilles on 13 June and boarded trains for Le Havre.

Butler was with the Division’s 24th (Howitzer) Field Artillery Brigade until February 1917. Artillery had been of limited usefulness on the Dardanelles peninsula but on the Western Front, it was the dominant form of warfare and certainly the major cause of battle casualties on both sides.  

For the second half of 1916, the unit was regularly on the move (AWM 34 13/45/5-11). In July 1916, the unit war diary reported its successful operations in the Fleurbaux (Fromelles) area. Daily orders were filled with precise instructions about targets, ammunition supplies, breaching and destruction of parapets, wire cutting, bombardment and harassing enemy’s support lines. In August the unit was on the march to Dickebush in Belgium, where conditions were difficult. There were gas alerts and it was hard to fire artillery in gas helmets, rations were poor in quality and quantity, and ammunition was in short supply. In November the unit marched south to replace another brigade. It was the beginning of the notorious Somme winter: snow and sleet, then rain fog and mud made the march challenging for men and horses. December was a terrible month: heavy German shelling day and/or night, mist, snow and mud. The one advantage was that ‘owing to the sodden ground [the enemy] has had an enormous amount of “duds”.’ Later in the month the unit marched 80 kms north again from Longueval to Fromelles. ‘Men and horses much fatigued’, wrote the commanding officer, traffic on the route ‘severely impaired march discipline.’

The first weeks of 1917 the unit marched on towards the front line. Mist and bitter cold, and bombardment by and on the enemy, made the conditions very difficult. A reorganisation saw Butler transferred into the 10th Australian Field Artillery Brigade, 39th Battery in mid January 1917 (AWM 34 13/37/7). The month was relatively quiet, although the ‘daring of the Hun airmen’ flying low and long was noticeable. In March, Butler was hospitalised for almost a fortnight with scabies.

In April 1917, Butler’s brigade received orders to move forward towards Bullecourt. The weather was still snowy. The military gains were less than anticipated and came at considerable cost: ‘During the month hostile artillery activity has been above anything experienced by this Brigade, the percentage of casualties being above normal’ (AWM 34 13/37/9). Action in early May was more rewarding when all the batteries supported 1 Anzac Corps in its successful attack on the Hindenberg line. In July-August 1917 Butler and the brigade were in action 90 kilometres north at Ploegsteert Wood near Ypres and then at Ypres itself. Neither the situation nor the conditions seemed to be improving: there was artillery shelling of varying degrees of intensity persisted on both sides and German gas shelling, amid periods of heavy rain which soaked clothes, blankets and dugouts. The commanding officer wrote:

It is wonderful how the men stick it and yet carry on hard work especially as so many of their mates have been killed, wounded and gassed. It is the usual example of the Australian grit and spirit. (AWM 34 13/37/13).

Butler went to England on a fortnight’s leave in England in October 1917. If he had not heard already, he may have heard then of the death of his younger brother, Gunner Stanley Norman Butler (SN 59), killed in action on 5 September near Ypres where he himself was located.

Butler returned to his unit on 27 October. Again the unit was on the march almost continuously in November and December, this time from Morbecque to Chepy, 300 kilometres south east, then by train to Merriss 300 kilometres north west.  It was not surprising that by January 1918 discipline was becoming slack, with the commanding officer reprimanding the brigade for its ‘very noticeable slackness and untidiness in dress’ and saluting, contrary to the traditions and reputations of the artillery.  

In February 1918, Butler was selected to attend the Royal Artillery Cadet School at St Johns Wood near London for training for a potential commission.  He spent seven months in training there and was rewarded with a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant.

Butler arrived back in France in late September 1918. His service record showed him returning to his old brigade, 10th Field Artillery on 5 October and then being transferred to the 11th Field Brigade (42nd Battery). By the time he was taken on strength at his new unit, the Armistice had been signed and the war was over; influenza was the new enemy.

With the cessation of hostilities, occupying the troops became a major issue as it would be more than a year before all the surviving Australian soldiers were repatriated home. The immediate solutions were sports competitions and concerts and the 11th Field Brigade unit diary showed these were held regularly. It was winter however and there were still health issues: influenza, trench foot and sanitation problems (AWM 34 13/37/28-29).

Many troops were given leave, with forewarnings about undesirable Londoners only too ready to take advantage of the troops (AWM 34 13/37/29). Butler, who was promoted to Lieutenant in December 1918 spent a month in Paris in early 1919 and possibly took leave in England in March. His service record is inconsistent: he may have returned to France or spent time in demobilisation depots as well as taking more leave in July.

Butler returned to Australia on SS Macedonia which left England on 1 November 1919. He was awarded the standard service medals: the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.

After the War

Butler returned home to South Australia, probably to his mother’s home in Brompton in the first instance. He retained a commission as 2nd Lieutenant in the army reserve in South Australia (Commonwealth Gazette, 9 February 1922, p178.)

Twenty-five years old on his return, John Edward Henry Butler had served overseas continuously for five years in arguably the most vulnerable units (artillery) in battles with some of the highest casualties of the conflict on the Dardanelles Peninsula and the Western Front. He had escaped physically unscathed with only two brief bouts of hospitalisation, and had enjoyed extensive leave in France and England before returning to Australia. Resuming a ‘normal’ civilian life, however, was unlikely to be easy.

In 1922 Butler joined the SA Police Force and was attached to the Mounted Branch. He spent the remainder of his working life in the police force attached to the mounted and motor branches (fitting for a former artillery soldier familiar with both horses and vehicles) and in country police stations including Keith. Indications are that his personal life was difficult. His first wife, Eliza Thompson, whom he married in 1930, died aged 38 in 1935 (Adelaide News, 24.5.1935, p3). The following year, probably still grieving, he married Women Police Officer Jean Campbell but the marriage was brief. A clue may lie in the fact that he retired from the police force on an invalid pension in 1939 (SA Police Gazette, 26 April 1939), although he subsequently returned. In 1948, then a police officer in Keith, he took out advertisements repudiating responsibility for ‘any DEBTS incurred by my wife, Mrs Hilda Florence Butler, while she resides at Port Lincoln’ (e.g, Port Lincoln Times, 19 August 1948, p3).

Butler’s service record showed he made an application for assistance from the Repatriation Department in August 1938.

John Edward Henry Butler, widower, died on 9 January 1964, in Kent Town, South Australia (SA Death Registrations). His remains were interred at Centennial Park Cemetery, Springbank (9 Derrick Gardens, Path 26, Grave 799).  

(Acknowledgements: Thanks to Sue Scarfe for her genealogical research.)