Courtesy of Learmonth family
Driver Alexander Robert Learmonth
Pakenham State School Roll of Honour
Born: 12 June 1895 - near Donald, Victoria
Enlisted: 15 August 1914 aged 19
Unit: 4th Battery, Australian Field Artillery (SERN: 919)
Served: Egypt, Gallipoli & Western Front
Died: 4 January 1975 - Footscray, Victoria
Alexander was a son of James Learmonth and Mary Ross. The family originally lived at Curyo in the Mallee, but around 1907 moved to Carlton, where Alex attended school at Faraday St. The family then moved to a 91 acres property three miles from the Pakenham State School purchased from Mrs Wehl for £8 per acre (1). Later, Alex’s father installed an extensive system of drainage at “Closeburn”, the property owned by Councillor William Close (2). Alexander and his siblings Jane, Samuel, and Ethel attended Pakenham State School (3). By 1911, the family had moved to Sunshine, west of Melbourne.. Alex’s father later sold his Pakenham property to F. C. Goullet, the brother of Percy Goullet who later won the Military Medal in WWI (4). Alex became an apprenticeship with H.V. McKay’s Sunshine Harvester factory as an agricultural implement fitter (5) Interestingly, Alex’s father witnessed Joseph Hammond make one of Australia’s first aeroplane flights at Sunshine (6).
Alex enlisted for the AIF at St Kilda on 15 August 1914, just days after war was declared. He was just 19. Alex was assigned as a gunner in the 4th Battery, Australian Field Artillery (AFA), probably because of his experience with the militia artillery (7). He left Australia on 20 October 1914 on the HMAT Shropshire, expecting to go to England, then the Western Front to fight the Germans. The voyage itself was an eventful one: the HMAS Sydney, which was escorting the convoy of troop ships, engaged battle with the German Raider Emden near Cocos Island. Then the convoy itself diverted to Egypt where Britain expected an imminent attack from the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), which had entered the War on Germany’s side. In Egypt, Alex was initially stationed at Mena Army camp, at the base of the Pyramids (8). He was then assigned to the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF), which was assembling for the attack on Turkey at the Dardanelles. Alex subsequently served with the Anzacs at Gallipoli (9), but by August 1915, was back in Egypt (10). In December 1915, Alex ran into Alex Henry at the Oasis Camp at Heliopolis. How Alex described this encounter in a letter to his parents back in Sunshine perhaps provides a rare glimpse into some of the pre-war social stratification within the small Pakenham community, and the levelling effect service together in the War had: “...who do you think came and looked me up the other day but the youngest Mr Henry from Pakenham - he came over in the 11th Reinforcements for our Brigade and is in the B.A. [Brigade Ammunition] Column and he seems to have all his high mindst [sic] out of him now he is a Gunner so we are on the same footing” (11).
In March 1916, Alex was sent to France, where he served on the Western Front with the 4th Battery, 2nd Field Artillery Brigade for the duration of the War (12). At some point, he was appointed as a driver. Drivers led teams of horses which hauled the artillery pieces and supplied ammunition to them. Alex’s surviving war diary (written from February to November 1918) provides glimpses of his experiences at the Western Front:
22 Sat [22 June 1918] Called out at 2am to pull a gun to forward position for a stunt. Arrived back at 5am ...
23rd Sun [23 June 1918] Called up at 2am to shift gun to rear position ...
16 Jul [16 July 1918] Horse killed on lines by stray bullet ...
Sat 10 Aug  ... plenty of bombs dropped around us but no damage was done ...
Wed 14.8.18 ... 3 wounded and water cart horse killed and other badly wounded ...
Tue 20 [August 1918] Left Fouilly 4pm went straight into action while getting there we were observed by a Fritzy plane and directed his batteries on to us & gave us a lively time for a few minutes. 3 men wounded - 1 missing 1 horse killed & 2 horses wounded got back to Morcourt midnight our new wagon line on Somme River again ...
Fri 29th [August 1918] Guns shifted forward up past Bellong Fritz shelling roads. I got the gun into action 4:30pm. When we were coming home a wagon was blown up by mine. Got to Wagon Line & had to hook into another team and got back with another team to an old position for ammunition. Meantime, guns had to be taken out of action and only 4 horses left ... got back at 2am so did the ammo party (13).
In 1917 Alex’s name featured in a recruitment campaign in the western suburbs of Melbourne. The campaign focused on the fact that the original Anzacs had served over 1,000 days overseas. It appealed to both the Australian spirit of “mateship” and a “fair go”, asking the “pals” of these men to volunteer themselves so that their friends could be given leave to see their loved ones back in Australia (14). Under the scheme, those who volunteered could nominate the particular soldier they intended to replace. It is not known if anyone came forward to relieve Alex. However, when the War ended in November 1918, he was already on his way back to Australia for “special 1914 leave” (15). Alex’s ship returned to Australia via the Panama Canal and the Pacific Ocean, rather than the usual route through the Suez Canal and Indian Ocean (16).
Alex was discharged from the Army in February 1919. he went back to H.V. McKay’s in Sunshine to finish his apprenticeship, which the War had interrupted. This was completed this in February 1921. The following month, having obtained his “ticket” and a permanent job, Alex married his sweetheart married Alice Buckingham. They had four sons (17). Alex continued to work at the Sunshine harvester factory (which became Massey Ferguson) until he retired in 1961, fifty years after he first began his apprenticeship there! (18) In 1967, he claimed a special Gallipoli medallion issued by the Australian Government to the surviving Anzacs to mark the 50th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign (19). Alex and Alice are remembered by their grand-daughter Anne Kilby as “very welcoming and good living people; devout Christians and members of the Sunshine Presbyterian Church ... Our grandparents were greatly loved and very dear to all of us” (20). Alex died at Footscray on 4 January 1975, aged nearly 80.
The assistance of members of the Learmonth family is gratefully acknowledged, especially Alex’s grand-daughter Ann Kilby, nephew Donald Learmonth, niece Marjorie Mahoney and great-nephew Andrew Mahoney.
(1) & (3) PROV VPS 795/P/0 Unit 770. Item 1359
(2) SBMJ 16/09/1908, p.2
(4) SBMJ 20/11/1913, p. 2
(5) (11) (17) (18) & (20) Information provided by Anne Kilby
(6) Hamilton Spectator 18/3/1911, p. 7
(7) (9) (12) (15) & (19) NAA B2455 LEARMONTH ALEXANDER ROBERT
(8) & (10) Information from Alexander Learmonth’s pay book
(13) & (16) War diary of Alexander Learmonth (transcribed by Lynton Learmonth).
(14) Weekly News 21/7/1917, p. 1