William Leslie (Les ) PHILLIPS


PHILLIPS, William Leslie

Service Number: 5751
Enlisted: 13 March 1916
Last Rank: Private
Last Unit: 60th Infantry Battalion
Born: Bendigo, Victoria, April 1895
Home Town: Bendigo, Greater Bendigo, Victoria
Schooling: White Hills State School
Occupation: Plasterer
Died: Killed in Action, France, 5 April 1918
Cemetery: No known grave - "Known Unto God"
Originally buried at Crucifix Corner cemetery, Villers-Bretonneux
Memorials: Australian War Memorial, Roll of Honour, Villers-Bretonneux Memorial (Australian National Memorial - France), White Hills Arch of Triumph
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World War 1 Service

13 Mar 1916: Enlisted AIF WW1, Private, SN 5751
13 Mar 1916: Enlisted AIF WW1, Private, SN 5751, Bendigo, Victoria
3 Jul 1916: Embarked AIF WW1, Private, SN 5751, 6th Infantry Battalion, HMAT Ayrshire, Melbourne
3 Jul 1916: Involvement AIF WW1, Private, SN 5751, 6th Infantry Battalion, Enlistment/Embarkation WW1
28 Mar 1918: Involvement
5 Apr 1918: Involvement AIF WW1, Private, SN 5751, 60th Infantry Battalion, Villers-Bretonneux

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Biography contributed by Jack Coyne


On Anzac day 1918, The Bendigo Independent reported,

“The sisters and brothers of Private Les Phillips of White Hills Road, White Hills on Friday received official word that their brother had been killed in action on April 5. The late soldier was a fine type of young man, possessing a keen sense of honor and was very popular. He fell whilst contesting the right of possession with the enemy for Villers Bretonneux in the recent German offensive. He enlisted just about two years ago and sailed with the 18th reinforcements of the 8th Batallion.

He was invalided to England no less than on three times, once for trench feet, once for trench fever, and once with a gunshot wound in the arm. The latter he received whilst engaged in stretcher bearing, when a shell grazed his arm and killed both the wounded man and the forward bearer. He was 23 years of age, and was the fourth son of the late Mr and Mrs Charles Phillips of White Hills. He is the third of a company of young fellows from the White Hills Methodist Sunday school, who were bosom friends, to be killed in action. The other two are the late  Pte Hartley Roach (his cousin) and Pte Donald Burnet. As a tribute to the memory of the fallen heroes the Pulpit desk of the church was draped in royal purple and white last Sunday”.

As the paper reported, Les Phillips was ‘Killed in Action’ on April 5, 1918. The notice of his death was sent to his listed Nearest of Kin, his brother Charles E Phillips who lived in Plumridge street, White Hills. It stated Les was buried at Crucifix Corner at the Cemetery.

Les was killed in the German Spring Offensive on the Western Front when German forces using infantry and tanks captured Villers-Bretonneux (near Amiens) from exhausted British defenders. A description of this first battle for Villers- Bretonneux is below.

Les was twenty years of age when he enlisted in Bendigo on March 13, 1916. The Bendigo Advertiser reported on March 22 that he was one of eleven successful applicants who signed up at the Town Hall with two applicants being rejected.

As the paper reported both his parents, Charles and Anna Phillips were deceased. He listed his occupation as a Plasterer and his address as 105 White Hills Rd, now Napier street. Although he enlisted in March, he did not embark for war in Europe till July 3, 1916 on board HMAT Ayrshire, with the destination Plymouth, England. This was a two month voyage and it is not known whether the ship called in at Alexandria Egypt as did most troop ships making their way to the Europe.

He would train with the thousands of AIF troops at Perham Downs camps on the Salisbury Plains before embarking for France on the H.M Formosa on the September 29. As the Bendigo Independent reported earlier he had a wretched time with illness at the front, first trench feet in late November 1916, then trench fever (shell shock) and gunshot wound to the arm in 1917.   

His battalion the 60th participated in the advance that followed the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line, but it was spared having to assault it. It did, however, defend gains made during the second battle of Bullecourt. Later in the year, the AIF's focus of operations switched to the Ypres sector in Belgium. The 60th's major battle here was at Polygon Wood on 26 September. Les may have missed this battle as he was still recovering back in England. However, by late October 1917 he was back in the field at the front.  

In early 1918, Les was again hospitalised with trench foot rejoining his unit on February 10. The 60th came into action in late March when the 5th Division moved to defend the sector around Corbie in Northern France. A renewed German attack aimed at capturing Amiens commenced on the 3rd of April 1918. The 60th Battalion was amongst the troops in action on the first day.  By the morning of the 4th April 1918 the Germans had reached a point just east of Villers-Bretonneux. By the morning of the 5th April the German attack had been driven back to where it had started and German operations were then suspended for a week. Unfortunately Les was killed on this day.

Fighting continued in the area for two weeks or so, and troop dispositions changed continually as the offensive ebbed and flowed elsewhere along the Front. Later that month, in recapturing the town, the 60th Battalion participated in the now legendary counter-attack at Villers-Bretonneux on 25 April. 

The Battles of Villers-Bretonneaux

In late March 1918 German General Ludendorff launched three major assaults.  The first and largest phase was codenamed “MICHAEL” and was directed against the British Third and Fifth armies in the Somme battlefield area north and south of Peronne on 21 March. Using a total of 71 Divisions in three armies he achieved complete surprise and achieved a rapid German breakthrough in the south where the British army was well spread out. 

The main German target of MICHAEL was the capture of Amiens which was a vital railway junction through which British and French reserves were moved around behind the frontline fighting. If Amiens was captured neither the Allied armies nor their massive reserves of artillery ammunition and guns could be moved easily, quickly and in quantity to threatened areas.

Villers-Bretonneux marked the most westerly point reached by the German army, during the offensive.  The German offensive known as ‘Operation Michael’ commenced on 21st March 1918. In less than a week the German armies had recaptured all of the ground in France that had been taken by the British over the last eighteen months. At this time, the Germans were within one mile of Villers-Bretonneux and threatening the vital railhead at Amiens. 

However, they were driven back by spirited counter-attacks by 36 Battalion and 35 Battalions of the 9 Australian Infantry Brigade commanded by Brigadier Rosenthal which was aided by British infantry and cavalry units in the area.

The battle was fought as a meeting engagement in open country, a totally different scenario to the trench warfare that typified earlier fighting.

By the morning of 5 April the German attack had been driven back to where it had started and German operations were then suspended for a week.  Fighting continued in the area for two weeks or so, and troop dispositions changed continually as the offensive ebbed and flowed elsewhere along the Front