Courtesy of Deborah Carmichael
Gunner Justin Bede Fox +
Pakenham & District War Memorial
Born: 25 April 1885 - Christchurch, New Zealand
Enlisted: 8 November 1915 aged 29
Unit: 2nd Field Artillery Brigade, 12th Reinforcement (SERN: 5967)
Served: Egypt & Western Front
Killed in action: 15 November 1917 - Anzac Ridge near Ypres, Belgium
Justin was the son of Charles and Clara Fox. He was just five months old when the family moved from New Zealand. The Fox family eventually settled around Brighton and later Seaford (1). Justin was educated at Christian Brothers’ College, East Melbourne (1a). He appears to have worked as a clerk for a period (2), before moving to Pakenham where he bought land near the Toomuc Valley Orchard (TVO) in 1914 (3). Justin was a 29 years old farmer (orchardist) when he enlisted in November 1915. He had previously served with the senior cadets and the Militia Field Artillery No 5 Battery at Windsor. Because of this, Justin was initially assigned as a gunner to the 2nd Field Artillery Brigade (FAB) 12th Reinforcement. In November 1915, Justin embarked from Melbourne for Egypt, where he was taken on strength as a driver with the 2nd Brigade Ammunition Column (BAC). In March 1916, he was transferred to the Western Front in France and served 1st Divisional Ammunition Column (DAC). Justin was quickly promoted to acting bombardier and then acting corporal (4). In May 1917, he requested to “drop his stripes” to become a gunner again and was transferred to the 1st Division Medium Trench Mortar Brigade (5). Trench mortars were deployed from the front-line trenches to bomb enemy trenches, including targeting enemy machine gun and sniper posts. They were also used to cut the barbed wire before an attack (6). In November 1917, Justin was serving near Ypres, Belgium during the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele). During the battle, the 4th Battery, 2nd Field Artillery Brigade (FAB) suffered heavy casualties at Anzac Ridge near Ypres. Replacement volunteers were called for from the trench mortar units. With selfless disregard for his own safety, and in the ultimate expression mateship between soldiers, Justin stepped forward in the place of a comrade: “When the call for volunteers came to the Field Artillery ... a young married Victorian stepped out, but Corporal Fox drew him back, reminded him of his wife and child looking for his return to Australia and with a breezy ‘this is my job’ took the place of his comrade” (7). Another Pakenham Digger, Ern Gabbett also served with the 4th Battery.
Conditions on the Front at Ypres were awful. Autumn rains had turned the battle-scarred landscape into a sea of mud. Horses could no longer be used to move heavy artillery pieces, which instead had to be hauled by the men themselves. Tragically, just five days after volunteering for the 2nd FAB, Justin was killed in action. According to a soldier serving with him, Justin had done “good work on the guns”, but was killed instantly on 15 November 1917 by concussion from an exploding shell near the “Anzac Redoubt” on Anzac (some reports said Westhoek) Ridge near Ypres (8). After he was killed, Justin’s body was brought back in through the wagon lines behind the front lines and buried at Dickebusch cemetery: “Following his body were a few of his pals from the trench mortars, our trumpeter sounded the ‘Last Post’ after the usual burial service was read ... there were quite a few of us to mourn his loss. A real good fellow” (9). When Justin’s death was reported in the Pakenham Gazette, it was Justin’s selfless act of taking the place of a mate which stood out as an example to all: “The death of such high minded Australians is a national inspiration and a moral stimulus much needed in an age where the spirit of self sacrifice seems discredited and a negligible quality assessed by modern standards“ (10). As the Gospels say: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
Interestingly, despite the loss of his son, Charles Fox was strongly supportive of conscription, giving a “most telling speech” at Seaford in December 1917, which impressed the large crowd by showing in a “masterful manner” that it was the “duty of all who had the welfare of Australia at heart, to give the government power to send help to our worn out boys at the front”. According to the Mornington Standard, Charles was “at his best when speaking as a staunch Catholic”: he deplored the sectarian strife that had become associated with the issue and said it was a civic duty for Catholics to help the “mother country”. Charles also quoted the late Archbishop Thomas Carr of Melbourne about the supposed spiritual benefits of fighting in this “just and righteous cause” (10a).
At the time of his death, Justin owned approximately 50 acres of land near the Toomuc Valley Orchard (TVO). The first portion had a “comfortable dwelling” and around 800 three year old fruit trees planted on it. The second portion had 200 apple trees of the Jonathan and Yates varieties planted. The property was valued at £550 (11). When put up for sale in January 1918, it was expected that there would be especial interest in the blocks given the “high esteem and well mannered regard of its owner” (12). The esteem and respect that Justin inspired in those who knew him was demonstrated again a few years later when a former comrade wrote to the Army seeking Justin’s mother’s address: “I had such a high opinion of him as a man that I named my son in memory of him, and I thought that his mother would appreciate this fact and would accept a photograph of my youngster, knowing that he bears the same name as her late son ...” (13).
The assistance of Deborah Carmichael, Dr Julie Gross McAdam and Dennis Kerins of the NZ War Graves Trust is gratefully acknowledged.
(1) Diggerson (2014) pp. 68-69
(1a) & (2) AWM Roll of Honour Circular 5967 Gunner Fox Justin Bede
(3) Bunyip Free Press 13/8/1914 p. 3
(4) (5) & (13) NAA B2455 FOX J B
(6) “Weapons of War - Trench Mortars” (http://www.firstworldwar.com/weaponry/mortars.htm)
(7) (8) & (9) AWM ARCWMEBF - 5967 Gunner Justin Bede Fox
(10) & (12) PG 25/1/1918. p 2
(10a) Mornington Standard 15/12/1917 p. 2
(11) PROV VPS 7591 P2 Unit 584 Item 158/410