|Object type||Last Post film|
Australian War Memorial
|Place made||Australia: Australian Capital Territory, Canberra, Campbell|
|Date made||24 January 2021|
First World War, 1914-1918
Item copyright: © Australian War Memorial
This item is licensed under CC BY-NC
|Copying Provisions||Copy provided for personal non-commercial use|
The Last Post Ceremony commemorating the service of (525) Corporal William Ernest Verdon, 21st Battalion, AIF, First World War.
The Last Post Ceremony is presented in the Commemorative area of the Australian War Memorial each day. The ceremony commemorates more than 102,000 Australians who have given their lives in war and other operations and whose names are recorded on the Roll of Honour. At each ceremony the story behind one of the names on the Roll of Honour is told. Hosted by Joanne Smedley, the story for this day was on (525) Corporal William Ernest Verdon, 21st Battalion, AIF, First World War.
525 Corporal William Ernest Verdon, 21st Battalion, AIF
KIA: 22 December 1916
Today we remember and pay tribute to Corporal William Ernest Verdon.
William Verdon, known as “Willie” or “Bill”, was born in 1892 to Stephen and Bridget Verdon of Victoria. His mother owned a green grocer’s in Mirboo North for 30 years, and was considered “the mother of the town”. She was William’s sole parent from the age of about eight, as his father was an alcoholic who left the family.
Verdon was educated at the local state school in Mirboo North, and went into the railways after finishing his education. Nearly all of his siblings left the district as they grew up, but remained close, with Willie going to Donald in the north-west of Victoria to work.
William Verdon enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force with one of his closest friends, Ben Esposito, in January 1915. The two remained together for the rest of his military career. After training in Australia, they left for active service overseas with the 21st Battalion in May 1915. After further training in Egypt, they were sent to Gallipoli in late August.
While en route to Gallipoli, the troopship that Verdon and Esposito were on, the Southland, was torpedoed near the island of Lemnos. Verdon later wrote, “I was standing looking over the railing into the sea, watching the small islands as we passed them when … I heard a crash, and felt the jar of the ship as it came to a dead stop … It was not very long before help hove into sight in the shape of a steamer coming for all it was worth to save us. I can tell you it was a very pleasant sight as we had been in the water a couple of hours.”
Verdon arrived at Anzac Cove on 7 September, after the major offensives of the campaign had ended.
After leaving Gallipoli, the 21st Battalion returned to Egypt where the AIF underwent a period of expansion and reorganisation. From there the battalion was sent to France in March 1916.
It became the first Australian battalion to commence active operations on the Western Front a month later when it made a few small scale raids on the German lines near Armentieres.
A few weeks later the battalion was sent to the Somme region to support Australian operations around the French village of Pozieres. As the men provided working and carrying parties to the front line, they regularly came under heavy shell-fire. Verdon was sent forward with a working party and, after a night dealing with a large group of Germans in a dugout, he saw another party moving around in the early hours. He later recalled, “I … waved them to come over to us. I thought they might surrender. Sure enough some of them put up their hands. I was very pleased with myself, thinking I was going to bag about a dozen Germans. You can imagine my disappointment when they started to wave me to go over to them. They thought I wanted to surrender!”
After a few weeks fighting, Verdon and his mate had proven able soldiers. Verdon wrote home to say, “Ben Esposito (my mate) had received a military medal … I was also mentioned in despatches, but I don’t know what for.” In fact it was for “consistent gallantry in action both in the line at Fleurbaix … and also during operations on the Somme.” By October, he had been promoted to corporal.
By December the fighting on the Western Front had slowed as a bitterly cold winter closed in. Australian divisions rotated in and out of the front line to provide basic defence, but were not called on to conduct major operations. However, the front was still a very dangerous place to be.
On 22 December 1916, Verdon went to see some of his friends in the machine-gun section. Rather than wind his way through the communication trenches, he chose to go over the top. The gunners called to him to get into the trench, but he was shot by German soldiers just a few metres away. Ben Esposito, who saw it happen, later recalled, “he died without a murmur”.
Ben Esposito was distraught at the loss of his best mate. He asked a friend to convey his sympathy to Will’s mother, saying “he could not bear to write … as he was too much upset.” Much later, Ben wrote to a friend, “It is hard to write about Bill. I can’t realise it myself. My old pal gone. My proudest thought is that Bill called me friend.”
Corporal Verdon’s body lay out in the open for a week, it being too dangerous to retrieve it. Despite the danger, Ben Esposito and another good mate, Bruce Taylor, volunteered several times to go out and get his body so they could bury him. In the end their officers reluctantly agreed. The pair went back to the front line, carrying a heavy wooden cross over seven miles of broken ground. Finding Verdon’s body just 20 metres from a German trench, they buried him with their hands to avoid attracting fire. Just as they finished, a shell landed nearby, blowing Ben several feet in the air and knocking Bruce’s hat off. Both made it back safely, satisfied they had done the right thing by their mate.
After the war, Verdon’s grave was moved, and today he lies in Bancourt British Cemetery under the simple inscription “R.I.P”. William Verdon was 24 years old.
His name is listed on the Roll of Honour on my right, among almost 62,000 Australians who died while serving in the First World War.
This is but one of the many stories of service and sacrifice told here at the Australian War Memorial. We now remember Corporal William Ernest Verdon, who gave his life for us, for our freedoms, and in the hope of a better world.
Historian, Military History Section
Video of The Last Post Ceremony commemorating the service of (525) Corporal William Ernest Verdon, 21st Battalion, AIF, First World War. (video)