Having already lost most of the second finger of his left hand before he enlisted in the AIF, Gunner John Lawton managed to survive the war unscathed.
A son of James and Ruth Lawton, of Canungra, John, 30, stated his occupation as foreman machinist on his enlistment papers and was most likely working at Lahey’s Sawmill, then managed by his father.
After enlisting in September 1915 and training as an artillery gunner, John finally embarked for overseas service in May, 1916, leaving Sydney on the HMAT Argyllshire with the 9th Field Artillery Brigade.
John landed at Devonport on July 10, but it was almost another six months before he finally embarked for the Western Front.
Leaving for France from Southampton on December 31, John began 1917 with the 3rd Divisional Artillery before being taken on strength with the 45th Battery of the 12th Field Artillery Brigade a month later.
Artillery played a defining role in the Great War, the first conflict in modern times to be fought on an industrial scale, with the field guns responsible for most of the casualties on the Western Front and the damage to the landscape.
Artillery fire inflicted not only physical but also psychological injuries on the soldiers, both enemy and allied, and its devastating effect was marked by the advent of a new term, ‘shell shock’.
Initially, each artillery brigade comprised three batteries of four field guns, firing 18-pound shells, with a range of about 6500 yards (almost six kilometres). In March 1916, a fourth battery of four 18 pounder guns was added to each artillery brigade and a Howitzer brigade – each with 12 Howitzers – was raised for each division.
By the time John Lawton arrived on the Western Front, in early 1917, the batteries themselves had been expanded to include six field guns.
While artillery batteries could inflict massive numbers of casualties, they were also a prime target for an enemy determined to neutralise gun positions.
The 12th Field Artillery Brigade war diaries contain numerous accounts of how the 45th Battery, in which Gunner John Lawton served, came under intense enemy fire, with horses which hauled the guns and ammunition also counted among the casualties.
For a month from August 24, 1917, John was detached to the 4th Army Artillery School, rejoining his battery on September 26.
The artillery guns’ consumption of ammunition was prodigious. After coming under fire in Belgium on the night of November 10-11, the men of the 45th Battery were quick to retaliate, firing that night alone 285 rounds of 18-pound shrapnel and high explosive shells as well as 25 rounds of smoke on the area around Gheluvelt.
In March 1918, the 4th Division was rushed to the Somme to help repel the massive German Spring Offensive and in the months to come the artillery played a key role in the defeat of the German Army.
While the artillerymen often supported their infantry comrades in massive creeping barrages, they also helped by neutralising smaller enemy threats.
The 12th Field Artillery Brigade’s war diary for 1918 tells how, on July 1, near Hazebrouck, John Lawton’s battery had dealt with a sniper who had been “giving trouble to the infantry”. The sniper was “”eventually located in a tree” and “the “45th Battery put a salvo of shrapnel over the tree with the desired effect”.
On July 31 the diary records how the 45th Battery again came under fire from an enemy 5.9 gun which had been “busy in close vicinity” but that there had been “no material damage done”.
However, that was not the case in the desperate fighting in the last weeks of the war. The brigade war diary for October 1918, records that, on October 16, its batteries moved into position near Escaufourt in France and the next day provided support to an attack by the 30th American Division in the Battle of the Selle.
Early that day, on October 17, the 45th Battery suffered five casualties to men and three to horses. The Germans continued to keep the battery’s position under “constant searching fire” throughout the afternoon and it was later “subjected to a heavy concentrated shelling”, suffering another five casualties. Among the wounded was Michael Sheedy, also from Canungra.
John went on leave to England on October 31 but spent his first week in hospital with boils. He was then granted leave from November 8 to 22 and was in England when the war ended on November 11.
He returned to France on November 22, rejoining his battery a week later.
Hospitalised briefly with scabies, John returned to England on April 19, 1919 to prepare to return to Australia.
After leaving England from Devonport on the Beltana on June 2, John arrived in Brisbane on July 19. He was discharged from the Army on September 4.
In 1920, John married Dorothy Mary Stainer in Waverley, New South Wales. Throughout the 1920s, the couple lived in Canungra, where John continued to work as a foreman machinist.
Following the closure of Lahey’s sawmill at Canungra in the early 1930s, they relocated to Corinda in Brisbane where there was another Lahey sawmill. There, John worked as a mill hand up until his death in an accident during World War Two.
A small obituary, headed Former Cricketer Dead, in the Courier-Mail of July 21, 1943, tells how John “served as a gunner in the last war” and was “in his younger days classed as one of the best all-round cricketers in the Logan and Albert district”.
John’s much younger brother, Tom Lawton, who went on to become a Rhodes scholar and famous footballer, also served as an artilleryman in the last days of the war. The brothers’ names are listed on the Canungra memorial beside that of their cousin, John Harry Lawton.