Private Alexander Skene had been in the field for just one week before being wounded in action at Villers-Bretonneux on the third anniversary of ANZAC Day.
It is a battle that almost 100 years on is remembered daily in Villers-Bretonneux, which still flies the Australian flag, and kangaroos adorn the entrance of the Town Hall where a plaque tells the story of April, 1918.
It began with capture of Villers-Bretonneux by the German Army on April 24, followed by an immediate order for the Australian troops to retake the town to stop the enemy from reaching Amiens and cutting the rail line vital to the Allies’ movement of men and equipment. Had this had been lost, the war may have been as well.
The Australian attack began late on April 24 and by dawn on April 25 the Germans were surrounded. The following day, the last Germans in Villers-Brettoneux had been killed or captured.
The Germans had lost some 10,000 men, including those taken prisoner. Among the Australian casualties was Private Alexander Skene of the 4th Machine Gun Battalion.
With a gunshot wound to the left thigh, Alexander was evacuated to England on the hospital ship Ville de Liege and on May 1 was admitted to the Frensham Hill Military Hospital.
Scots-born Alexander was one of many immigrant workers from Canungra and surrounding areas who served as Australians during the Great War.
Alexander, the son of William Skene of Aberdeen, was a labourer, 26 years old, who had been living at Wolffdene near Beenleigh, when he enlisted on October 12, 1916.
Allotted to the 11th reinforcements of the 3rd Machine Gun Company, Alexander trained firstly in Brisbane, beginning in November, before heading to Victoria in January 1917, where he spent the next four months at the Machine Gun Depot in Seymour.
Alexander embarked for England from Melbourne on May 11 on the Ascanius, which docked at Liverpool on July 20.
He continued his training at Codford but it was almost 10 months before Alexander finally left for the Western Front.
Leaving Folkestone on April 9, 1918, Alexander arrived in France and on April 12 marched out to the 4th Machine Gun Battalion.
He joined the battalion in the field on April 17 and was wounded in action eight days later during the battle at Villers-Bretonneux, which has become as much a part of the ANZAC legend as Gallipoli.
At Villers-Bretonneux, a special bond was forged between Australia and France that endures today. Not only did Australians help to drive the Germans from the ruined French village, they also helped it to rise from the rubble.
Back in Australia after the war, an appeal was launched in Victoria to raise funds to rebuild the school. It was named the Ecole Victoria (Victoria School) and the words N’oublions jamais L’Australie (let us never forget Australia) still serve as a reminder to the community of the 1200 Australians who died re-taking the town – and of the wounded, like Alexander Skene, whose blood was also spilt there.
On Bastille day, 1919, the Mayor of Villers-Bretonneux presented a plaque, now displayed in the Australian War Memorial, in honour of:
“the valorous Australian Armies, who with the spontaneous enthusiasm and characteristic dash of their race, in a few hours chased an enemy ten times their number”, adding: “Soldiers of Australia, whose brothers lie here in French soil, be assured that your memory will always be kept alive, and that the burial places of your dead will always be respected and cared for.”
Alexander made a full recovery from the wounds he suffered in that battle, but it was October 7, 1918 – two days after Australia’s infantrymen had fought their last action of the war – before he rejoined his battalion in France.
He returned to England on April 30, 1919, where he waited another two months to return to Australia.
Alexander left England on the Orita on June 23 and arrived in Sydney on August 8. He was discharged from the Army in Brisbane on September 9.