The “magnificent conduct on the field of battle” by Sergeant Robert Alford had “helped to earn for our Australian soldiers a fame which will endure for as long as memory lasts”.
That was the only consolation offered to Tom and Sarah Alford in a letter accompanying the Military Medal sent to their Logan Village home 10 months after their son died of wounds near Mont St Quentin during the last months of the war.
Dated July 8, 1919, the letter spoke of the “gallantry of a brave Australian soldier who nobly laid down his life in the service of our King and Country”.
Robert Alford was awarded the Military Medal for “conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty” during an attack at Vauvillers near Amiens in 1918.
The “specific deed for which the distinction was bestowed” took place on the afternoon of August 9, when Sergeant Alford had been the acting Company Sergeant Major.
Recommending him for the Military Medal a week later, Lieutenant Colonel George Murphy of the 7th Infantry Brigade stated:
“The only platoon officer with the company was wounded and Sergeant Alford, noticing that touch with the Battalion on the flank was being lost, dashed over and took command of the flank. He rallied the men and led them on to an enemy post that was giving considerable trouble, himself being the first man into the post. He then re-organised the platoon and led them on, gaining and maintaining touch with our flank. He showed great courage and set an outstanding example throughout the whole operation.”
Robert Alford may never have known he had been recommended for the award. Less than a month later, he was dead.
On September 2, at Haut Allaines, during a “hop over” as the Australians advanced on the Somme, Robert Alford and South African-born Lieutenant Charles Izdebski were hit by a shell and died in the field of their wounds.
A witness, Corporal Albert Streeter, said:
“I saw the shell burst on Sgt Alford and Lieut Izdebski, C Company, quite near to me. They were sitting on the bank of a sunken road about 6.30am. We were held up at the time by machine guns. Lieut Izdebski was killed outright – hit all over body. Sgt Alford was hit all over – he was unconscious when I left and he died where he was. They were buried together near where they fell.”
Lance Corporal Alexander Bell buried Sgt Alford with Lieut Izdebski:
“I knew him (Sgt Alford) very well. He came from Queensland. He was of medium height, but very stout build, about 26. He was a good all-round athlete.”
A farmer and former student of The Southport School, Robert Alford was 22 years and four months old when he enlisted in Brisbane in September, 1915.
He was among the 11th reinforcements of the 25th Battalion and left Queensland on the HMAT Star of Victoria on March 30, 1916.
Proceeding to France on July 25, Robert Alford had a baptism of fire at the Battle of Pozieres which took place from July 25 to August 7. He was made a temporary Corporal after Corporal Lindsay was killed in action on July 29.
The 25th Battalion had a brief respite in a quieter part of the front in Belgium before moving south in October where it took part in two attacks east of Flers, becoming bogged down in the Somme mud.
Robert became ill in mid-November as the conditions in France worsened and by the end of the month was back in England being treated in hospital for bronchitis.
He remained in England for many months, finally rejoining his battalion in July, 1917.
On September 20, the 25th Battalion was part of the first wave in the Battle of Menin Road in Belgium, followed by the battle at Broodseinde Ridge in October, when Robert was made Sergeant after Sergeant Charles Raison was wounded in action.
Robert’s next major action of the war was in August 1918 near Amiens, for which he was posthumously awarded the Military Medal, gazetted in London in January, 1919.
In his last days, Robert was part of the Mont St Quentin-Peronne campaign, described by Australian General John Monash as “the finest example in the war of spirited and successful infantry action”, while British General Sir Henry Rawlinson remarked that the feat of the Australian troops under the command of Monash was the “greatest of the war”.
The day he was killed, Robert’s 25th Battalion as well as the 26th, 27th and 28th Battalions pushed beyond Mont St Quentin and, by the evening of September 3, the Australians held Peronne.
In February, 1920, Robert’s parents received a letter to say that while he had initially been buried in a shell hole south of Allaines and one and a half miles (2.4 kilometres) north of Peronne, his remains had been exhumed and re-interred in the Peronne Communal Cemetery Extension.
“The work of exhumation is being carried out with every care and reverence in the presence of a Chaplain,” they were told.
On September 3, 1920, almost two years to the day after her son had been killed, Robert’s mother wrote to Army base records about the headstone for Robert’s grave.
“If not too late I would like you to put on… youngest son Thomas Alford Brisbane. I did not think of it before but hear that others have asked to have the father’s name put on so would like it on our boy’s.”
Robert’s extended family paid a high price during the Great War, losing a son each year from 1915. His three cousins, Thomas A Ogg, Gordon B Alford and Charles B Warner were killed in 1915, 1916 and 1917 respectively, followed by Robert in 1918.
Studio group portrait of soldiers of the 25th Battalion including 4356 Cpl (later Sgt) Robert Alford MM. Identified left to right, back row: 4367 Corporal (Cpl) Frank Burcher; 4549 Sgt George Alexander Tuffley. Front row: 4479 Cpl Lionel Arthur Kirk; 1704 Private John Rowland Alwyn (Jack) Lahey; and 4356 Cpl (later Sgt) Robert Dudley (Dud) Alford MM. Sgt Tuffley was killed in action on 29 August 1916 in Picardie, France. Sgt Alford, a farrier from Logan Village, Qld, was killed in action on 2 September 1918 in Peronne, France, aged 25 years.
Tuffley has inscribed the verso: ‘The uniform is of the same material as our old school cadet uniforms. I don’t like the helmet. They are too clumsy. Nearly all our chaps wore shorts in Egypt. Lahey was on the Peninsula. Notice that the uniforms are not very good fits. Alex 26/6/16. These are my mates.’