No.469 Alexander Lewis
Alexander Lewis was born in Bristol, England 22 December 1896. He was one of nine children from the union of Elizabeth Lewis, his mother, and John Lewis. According to the 1911 census, three of the offspring had died.
Alexander’s eldest brothers, James 25 and Edwin 22, had already left their Bristol home, leaving behind Ernest, aged 18, Alexander 14, and sisters Frances 12 and Edith 11.
It is understood that the two eldest boys elected to stay in England when the family moved to Werribee, Victoria at some point after the 1911 English census and before September 1914 when Alexander volunteered to serve his new country.
Alexander had been living in Werribee and working as a printer. When he enlisted at Werribee Post Office on 12 September 1914 he was 17 years and 9 months. He was armed with a letter from his mother to say that she gave him permission to enlist.
While the official enlistment age was 21, boys aged between 14 and 17 could volunteer as buglers, trumpeters and musicians if they had their parents or guardians’ permission.*
Later on in the war, as the focus moved away from the Dardanelles to the Western Front, many of these became stretcher bearers.
Alexander was made a bugler with D Company, 14th Infantry Battalion, AIF. Most of the 14th Battalion’s recruits came from suburban Melbourne.
They became part of Colonel John Monash’ 4th Brigade. Monash (1865-1931), who later became General Sir John Monash, is still regarded as one of the best allied military leaders in World War I and probably Australia’s finest commander.
Training was brief during those early days of the war and by 22 December 1914, Alexander and his mates were aboard the HMAT Ulysses bound for Egypt. The battalion trained in Egypt until 13 April 1914 when they boarded HMT Seang Choon. The war diary says the ship left port at 7.45am, its ‘destiny unknown’, arriving in the Greek port of Lemnos on 15 April.
Ten days later, still aboard the HMT Seang Choon, they sailed for Kaba Tepe on the Gallipoli peninsula, arriving at 5.00pm.
Many of the histories say that the 14th Battalion landed on Gallipoli on the afternoon of 25 April. The battalion’s war diary tells a different tale…of the men spending the entire night helping to load wounded soldiers aboard their ship…of attempting to help and comfort them.
At around midnight, three officers and 90 men from the battalion disembarked. The rest of the battalion followed on 26 April.
The 14th was in the thick of the fighting from the very start. They had made their way to Courtney’s Post – a key position in the allied line. On 1 May, the diary notes that battalion strength stood at 22 officers and 732 NCOs and other ranks. On that same day, they faced an assault by around 500 Turkish soldiers which was repulsed…the enemy retiring in ‘great disorder’.
It was on Gallipoli that the AIF earned its first Victoria Cross, won by Lance-Corporal Albert Jacka. Forever after, the 14th Battalion became known as ‘Jacka’s Mob’ as his exploits and bravery continued not only on Gallipoli, but also on the Western Front.
The 14th faced heavy fighting throughout the Gallipoli campaign between May and August, suffering heavy casualties. They were evacuated from the Dardanelles in December. The survivors of the campaign formed the nucleus of units being prepared for the Western Front as part of the 4th Division. They fought in France at Pozieres and Bullecourt in 1916 and spent much of 1917 in the trenches in Belgium. They were back in France in 1918, helping to repel the German spring offensive before participating in the fighting at Amiens in August 1918 that quickly drove the German army back behind the Hindenburg Line.
The 14th Infantry Battalion, AIF lost 915 soldiers killed and 2,229 wounded during World War I.
One of those wounded was 469 Bugler Alexander Lewis on 3 May 1915, While the war diary reports that Courtney’s Post was quiet for much of the day, the battalion still lost 12 ‘other ranks’ killed and one officer and 30 ‘other ranks’ wounded on that day.
Bugler Lewis was shot in the shoulder and was evacuated for further treatment, first on Lemnos and then in England. He was also diagnosed with nervous shock, later described as shell shock, which also affected the use of his legs.
According to a story that appeared in The Werribee Shire Banner, 27 May 1915, p.3. Bugler Lewis was just 18 years of age when he was wounded. He became the first ‘Werribee lad’ to become a casualty…the newspaper hoping earnestly that he would be the last.
Even though the war was barely nine months old, it had hit the Lewis family hard. The two elder brothers, James and Edwin, had been reported missing in France. Both had been wounded in previous actions before being posted as missing.
Lance Corporal Edwin Millard Lewis of the Gloucestershire Regiment was killed in France on December 21, 1914. His body was never recovered. Private James Lucas Lewis, who also served in the Gloucestershire Regiment, was probably killed in France in November 1914 although this wasn’t confirmed until May 15, 1915 – just 12 days after Alexander Lewis was wounded on Gallipoli. It would also appear that James’ body wasn’t recovered.
And then on November 2, 1916, 2689 Private Ernest William Lewis, 29th Infantry Battalion, AIF - who is also remembered on both our commemoration boards - was killed in action in France.
Just 1916 and more than two years of fighting to go. One family…three sons killed and one wounded…World War I was already exacting a terrible price.
Bugler Alexander Lewis received treatment at the Australian Number 1 Auxiliary Hospital at Harefield House in London, before receiving further treatment in Manchester in England’s north-west.
The impact of his wound was so great that he returned to Australia aboard the HMAT Runic in November 1915 and was discharged from military service in April 1916. He was awarded the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.
What happened to Alexander Lewis and his family after the war is a mystery. One family tree claims that Alexander was killed in action in World War II, but there is no record. It is thought that his father, John, died in September 1916, heaping even more misery on a grieving family.
* Perhaps with the promise of travel and adventure, the fear that the war would all be over by Christmas (a familiar refrain in 1914) and the opportunity to escape an increasingly tough employment market caused boys of all ages to attempt enlistment in the AIF. The youngest soldier to appear on the Australian Roll of Honour is Private James Charles Martin of the 21st Infantry battalion, AIF who was just 14 years and nine months old when he died as a result of his service on Gallipoli. He had landed on Gallipoli on 7 September 1915. After contracting typhoid fever and losing almost half his body weight, he was transferred to a hospital ship where he died on October 25, 1915. He was buried at sea. His letters to his parents can be found on the Australian War Memorial site.
Medals and Entitlements:
- 1914/15 Star Medal
- British War Medal
- Victory Medal
NAA: B2455, LEWIS, ALEXANDER
14th Battalion war diary: Australian War Memorial
Private James Charles Martin: Australian War Memorial
Newspaper quote: The Werribee Shire Banner, Page 3, Thursday, May 27, 1915