Thomas Leslie Axford, VC, MM.

Thomas Leslie Axford VC, MM.

Thomas Leslie Axford, was born in Carrieton on 18 June 1894. In November 1897 his father Walter Axford and his family moved to the Coolgardie goldfields in Western Australia where Thomas Leslie grew up and attended school. He was soon known by all as Jack. Boys being boys he got caught stealing apples and had to appear in court in January 1909. He got away with a caution but had to pay 13 shillings costs. If it had happened in his ancestral homeland he would probably have been transported to Australia for seven years. After leaving school Jack became a well-known amateur boxer.

In 1912 Jack enlisted in the Citizen Military Force, Goldfields Regiment. With the outbreak of WWI, Jack's older brother Harry Arnold, who was born on 19 January 1893, in Carrieton, was one of the first to enlist on 10 December 1914, for service in the AIF. He was eventually promoted to Sergeant. Thomas Leslie, who was still single, enlisted at Kalgoorlie on 19 July 1915. Both brothers were wounded several times and Thomas became Lance Corporal and was awarded a Military Medal for gallantry. Later Lance Corporal Thomas Leslie Axford was awarded a VC for bravery and initiative during operations at Hamel Wood in France on 4 July 1918.

His Service Record makes interesting reading. War Service in Egypt and Western Front Taken on strength, 16th Bn, Tel el Kebir, 7 March 1916. Proceeded from Alexandria to join the British Expeditionary Force on 1 June 1916; disembarked Marseilles on 9 June 1916. Wounded in action, France, 11 August 1916 (shell shock); re-joined Bn, 13 August 1916. Found guilty, 7 November 1916, of being absent without leave from night operations from 1700 to 2100 on 6.11.16 resulting in 7 days Field Punishment No 2.

Wounded in action (2nd occasion) on 10 August 1917 (gunshot wound, left knee), and admitted to 4th Australian Field Ambulance and thence to 2nd Australian Casualty Clearing Station. Transferred to 3rd Australian General Hospital, 11 August 1917; to England, 16 August 1917 and admitted to Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley, same day. To 3rd Australian Auxiliary Hospital, Dartford, 25 September 1917. Discharged on furlough, 25 October 1917 to report to No 2 Command Depot, Weymouth, 8 November 1917.

Marched into No 3 Command Depot, Hurdcott, 12 December 1917; to No 4 Command Depot, Hurdcott, 18 December 1917; to Overseas Training Brigade, Longbridge Deverill, 5 January 1918. Proceeded overseas to France, 17 January 1918; re-joined unit in the field, 26 January 1918. Appointed Lance Corporal, 14 February 1918. Awarded Military Medal. Detached to Corps Gas School, 19 May 1918; rejoined unit from detachment, 26 May 1918. Promoted Corporal, 14 July 1918. Awarded Victoria Cross.

Detached to Australian Corps School, 24 August 1918; re-joined unit from detachment, 18 September 1918. Marched out to England for return to Australia, 14 September 1918. Commenced return to Australia on board HT Sardinia, 19 October 1918; reached Fremantle, 16 December 1918; discharged, 6 February 1919. Medals: Victoria Cross, Military Medal, 1914-15 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal. He was six times mentioned in despatches. Also served in World War II, Australian Military Forces, 25 June 1941-14 April 1947 (Western Australian Echelon and Records Office; discharged as Sergeant).

Very few soldiers have been awarded a VC and only eight were awarded to Western Australian soldiers in the First World War. Thomas Leslie Axford earned his Victoria Cross, 'For most conspicuous bravery and initiative during operations. When the barrage lifted and an infantry advance commenced his platoon was able to reach the first enemy defences through gaps which had been cut in the wire. The adjoining platoon being delayed in uncut wire, enemy machine guns got into action, and inflicted many casualties, including the company commander. Lance Corporal Axford, with great initiative and magnificent courage, at once dashed to the flank, threw his bombs amongst the machine gun crews, jumped into the trench, and charged with his bayonet.

Unaided he killed ten of the enemy and took six prisoners; he threw the machine guns over the parapet, and called out to the delayed platoon to come on. He then rejoined his own platoon, and fought with it during the remainder of the operation. Prior to the incidents above mentioned, he had assisted in the laying out of the tape for the jumping off position, which was within 100 yards of the enemy. When the tapes were laid, he remained out as a special patrol to insure that the enemy did not discover any unusual movement on our side. His initiative and gallantry undoubtedly saved many casualties, and most materially assisted towards the complete success of his company in the task assigned to it'.
Source: 'Commonwealth Gazette' No. 191, Date: 12 December 1918.

The West Australian of Friday 21 February 1919 told the story in a slightly different way.
"At 3 a.m. on July 4, 1918, Australian and American soldiers attacked on a front of some four miles between Villers-Bretonneaux and the village of Vaire, which is east of Corbie, in the marshes of the south bank of the Somme. The men of the A.I.F. found themselves faced that day with a most difficult task. In front of them lay the narrow fringe of woodland which is called Vaire Wood. The ground on its western edge is seamed with trenches, and fenced with thick belts of barbed wire.

But the more difficult the task the more gallantly do our soldiers respond, as the story of the bravery of Lance-Corporal Axford attests. He had done good work during the night in helping to lay out the tapes which mark out the line, barely a hundred yards from the German trenches, from which his battalion would advance to the attack. When he had done this, he remained out on patrol to ensure that no inquisitive German should inquire too closely into what was happening in our lines, or that, at any rate such a one should not return with his news.

When the hour came for the attack, and the storm of shells which lashed the enemy's defences had lifted and moved forward, the leading waves of the battalion rose and followed it. Lance-Corporal Axford's platoon raced through the flattened and shredded entanglements, and leapt down into the German trenches. But the platoon on the right did not share their good fortune. The entanglement in front of them was thick, and the shells had not wholly destroyed it. So when the curtain of the barrage went forward, they could not go with it.

The Germans were quick to seize their chance. As the Australians hacked desperately at the uncut wire, two machineguns poured a murderous fire into them from the parapet of the trench beyond. With that cruel barrier between them and their enemies the Australians could do nothing. Then Axford did what a corporal of his battalion who watched him do it, described as 'the bravest thing I ever saw any man do. 'When Axford saw what had happened, he picked up a few bombs, and without waiting for help raced down the trench towards the machine guns, flinging bomb after bomb in front of him as he ran.

The Germans—sixteen of them there were clustered round their two guns—turned with rifle and bomb to meet this new enemy, but Axford never slackened in his stride. His bombs had done their work, and already some of the sixteen lay wounded or dead beside the guns, and more went to join them as Axford charged down upon them with the bayonet. It was a stern battle for mastery, along that narrow trench, but the Germans, for all their numbers, could not kill this mad Australian.

At last, only six of them were left, and these held up their hands that they might avoid the fate that had befallen their comrades. So it was that the men, who lay flat to earth cutting the wire, with the bullets screaming about them, heard suddenly the noise of bombs and a great shouting, and the bullets came among them no more. As they looked wondering, towards the trench two machine guns were flung over the parapet, and rolled slowly down the sloping bank into the wire. After the machine gun, there rose above the trench a helmet of familiar shape, and from beneath the helmet came a voice that they knew well, calling them to advance, for the Germans were dead. So they entered the trench, and Lance-Corporal Leslie Axford went back modestly to his own men to help them in their great fight in Vaire Wood."

Jack's father, Walter died on 26 August 1918, aged 65, leaving a wife and 9 children. The Kalgoorlie Miner of 27 August reported that the Mayor of Kalgoorlie, Mr B Leslie, mentioned in his report to the council last night that it was with mingled feelings of pleasure and sorrow that he had to congratulate the relatives of Lance Corporal Axford upon the fact that His Majesty, the King had been pleased to confer upon the young soldier the Victoria Cross 'for Valour.' with it came a life-long pension of £10 annually.

The news had been received at a time when Mr Axford, snr, was in a declining state of health, but it must become a source of comfort and consolation to the bereaved relatives in their sorrow, to realise that the honour conferred upon his brave and gallant son must have been a great joy indeed to the father during his few remaining days on earth. The mayor and councillors carried, in respectful silence, the resolution of the council to convey to the bereaved relatives the sincerest sympathy for them in their sad affliction. It was further resolved that the mayor and councillors attend the funeral in their official capacity.

That same day the Daily News reported that Corporal Axford received a tremendous ovation at the investiture at Buckingham Palace when the Victoria Cross was given to him and his deed read out describing how he had bayoneted six Huns, single handed in the Hamel Wood in July. The Southern Cross newspaper was proud to announce that Thomas Leslie Axford was the first South Australian Catholic to receive a VC. Just to show that he came from good Catholic stock it added that both his mother and grandmother were well-known South Australians who had been educated at Cabra College in Goodwood.

Meanwhile Jack was ready to leave England and on 19 October boarded the HT Sardinia for a return trip home. The ship, which also carried, Lance Corporal Philip Davey VC, MM, who was born in Goodwood, arrived at Fremantle on 16 December and the next day in Albany. Here he had to stay in quarantine for a few days before continuing by train to Perth. While in Albany he sent a telegram to his mother that he would be home soon.

When he finally arrived at the Kalgoorlie railway station on 24 December the spectators gave vent to rousing cheers when he got off the train into the arms of his mother and other members of his immediate family. Among them were Sergeant Harry, Lucy Rosewarne, Gertruda, Aileen, Nora, Walter and Robert. His brother Don had travelled with him from Coolgardie for some badly needed moral support.

As it turned out Corporal Axford, VC, MM, was not a man of many words, more a typical digger, a man of modesty, just an ordinary bloke. The welcome given him was probably the most trying experience he had gone through. Much more was to follow. He had to endure a large number of welcome parties and socials, some official others not so official. In February 1919 the Kalgoorlie Lodge of the UAOD extended a welcome home to Brother Axford with a large number of members present.

During a speech that night his bravery was recounted and it was only equalled by his modesty. Jack was visibly embarrassed when he was told that it was men like him who had made the Empire. He could only remark with, 'What I have Not said, please consider Said' and could not be induced to add anything to it. He would often not be attending Civic functions as he hated all the fuss.

Later that year two handsomely framed photographs of TL Axford and J Carroll, the two goldfield VC's, were presented by the Mayor to the Municipality of Kalgoorlie. By this time everything had sort of gone back to normal and Jack was to find out that a VC did not open all doors. When he applied to be included for the Vocational Training Scheme he was told that he was a few months over the age limit for that program. One wonders if a VC was treated like this and couldn't get help, what hope there was for the many thousands of returned soldiers who had served their country.

During early 1920 Jack had been unwell for several weeks and was admitted to the Base Hospital in Fremantle. His condition improved very quickly and in March he was well enough to travel by train to Melbourne for the St Patrick's Day procession in which some 10,000 returned soldiers and sailors took part. Although it was feared that there would be trouble and anti-British and Sin Fein disloyalty, it turned out splendidly. Archbishop Mannix in his car leading the procession, surrounded on horseback by a fourteen men guard of honour: fourteen Catholic men, all of them awarded a VC, including Jack. Later Jack had his picture taken with the Archbishop. In July of that year the Prince of Wales visited Kalgoorlie and Jack was there and spoke with him. Later that year when the seat of Kalgoorlie for the House of Representatives was contested Jack's name was put forward as a candidate. Nothing came of this either.

While his brother Harry, discharged on 15 March 1918, was President of the Kalgoorlie branch of the RSL and running his electrician business from 113 Bourke Street where he lived with his parents, Jack worked mostly in labouring jobs, including the Boulder City Brewery, which had opened in 1896, and a Sewing Machine Company. Later he was employed at the Mines Department. Jack married Lily Maud Foster at St Mary's Cathedral on 27 November 1926. They lived for many years at 12 Harrow Street in Mount Hawthorn and eventually had five children. Axford Park at Mount Hawthorn was named after him.

In October 1928 the police raided three tobacconists' shops and charged them with keeping a common betting shop, an offence that was committed every day all over Australia for many years. Jack was one of the unlucky ones to be caught and fined £5 plus 22 shillings cost. It didn't stop him and on four months later he was found guilty again of the same offence and now charged £20. Like father, like son.

For many years Jack marched in the Anzac Day parade and in 1932 was the only VC to do so. In 1933 he took his small son with him and had him wearing one of his medals. In May 1937 'His Majesty the King had been graciously pleased to award the special medal instituted to commemorate the Coronation of their majesties King George and Queen Elizabeth to the following West Australians'. Jack's name was one of the first on the list. In June 1941 Jack was back in khaki again. At the age of 47 Thomas Leslie Axford VC, MM, enlisted again in 1941. Two of his brothers were already fighting overseas and Walter Leonard, aged 33 was wounded in action in June 1941. Jack left his position at the Mines Department and took up official duties in the Records Department at Francis Street.

One of the local papers wrote that Jack came from a fighting family and his record was one to be proud of. It was little wonder that he felt the urge to be up and doing his bit in the present crises had got the better of him. In February 1943 Jack too was promoted to Sergeant. All through the war he was at his post until finally discharged on 14 April 1947. He went straight back to his old job at the Mines Department where he worked for a total of 19 years.

Although a hard and dilligent worker, Jack still hated to be in the limelight. For more than 30 years he had tried to make people forget that he had performed one of the most heroic deeds of WWI and was awarded a VC for it. To him 'there had been nothing else to do but to give it a go', and he wasn't full of rum either. (He was a teetotaller)

By the 1950's Jack had two sons and three daughters and was a grandfather as well. In 1954 Jack showed a different side of himself when he declined an official invitation by the RSL to be presented to the Queen in Perth. His reason being that his wife, who was also invited, was not allowed to sit with him but had to sit in the gallery. Politicians' wives could sit with their husbands. This was just too much for Jack, who said 'I consider it a slur on the wives of VCs'. True to his word, he did not show up. He also declined to take part in any future Anzac Day parades.

Thomas Leslie Axford VC, MM died on 11 October, 1983 while on a flight home after attending an overseas reunion. He was cremated at the Karrakatta Crematorium in Perth and was survived by his five children. His wife died a few months before him.


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