Victoria Cross : Lance Corporal T L Axford, 16 Battalion, AIF

Accession Number REL/13177
Collection type Heraldry
Object type Award
Physical description Bronze
Location Main Bld: Hall of Valour: Main Hall: Defence to Offensive
Maker Hancocks
Place made United Kingdom
Date made c 1918
Conflict First World War, 1914-1918

Victoria Cross. Engraved reverse suspender with recipient's details and reverse cross with date of action.

History / Summary

Victoria Cross awarded to Lance Corporal Thomas Leslie ‘Jack’ Axford. Jack was born on 18 June 1894 in Carrieton, South Australia, the son of Walter Richard and Margaret Ann (nee McQuillan) Axford. When he was still an infant the family moved to Ballarat in Victoria, then to Coolgardie in Western Australia. He was working as a labourer when he enlisted at Kalgoorlie in the First AIF on 19 July 1915. On 30 October 1915, he was posted as a private (service number 3399) to the 11th reinforcements for 16 Battalion (16Bn), part of 4 Brigade (4Bde).

Axford, embarked from Fremantle on HMAT A24 Benalla on 1 November 1915, arriving in Egypt on the 24th. Following training the battalion moved to France on the SS Canada, arriving in Marseilles on 7 June 1916. In early August, the battalion was moved up the line near Albert to take part in the advance on Mouquet Farm. This, its first action in France, began at midnight on 10 August.

Following initial gains a German counter attack was launched early in the afternoon of the 11th, though it faltered under a determined defence by 16Bn. During this period Axford was taken out of the line suffering from shell shock, rejoining his battalion on the 13th. The previous day 16Bn had been relieved on the frontline but not before it had suffered over 400 casualties.

Later that month the battalion was again put in the front line for the assault on Mouquet Farm. By now heavy rain had turned the landscape into a quagmire. A company report in the war diary of 16Bn notes that after initial successes they were forced to retire in the face of German counter attacks. The report notes, with some frustration, that ‘only about 5% of rifles could be fired at this stage, the ballance [sic] being clogged with mud and quite useless, Machine Guns were in a similar state.’ The battalion was finally relieved on August 30 with this second phase of operations costing it 231 casualties. Mouquet Farm finally fell on 26 September.

The battalion took part in the disastrous First Battle of Bullecourt in April 1917, losing over 600 men in the process. On 10 August, Axford was wounded in fighting near Messines, Belgium and evacuated to England. His brother, Sergeant Harold Arnold Axford, also of 16Bn, was wounded in the same action. Thomas did not rejoin his unit again until 26 January 1918. Harold, however, was invalided back to Australia. The following month Thomas was promoted to lance corporal.

On 26 March 1918, the battalion moved to a position near the town of Huberterne to counter a fresh push by the Germans, part of General Ludendorff’s German Spring Offensive. Rumour had spread that the Germans had broken through at Hebuterne, however, following reconnaissance, this turned out to be false. That evening 4Bde moved into the village with little resistance though German units still held heavily defended trenches in the cemetery at the edge of town. By the 28th the German pockets of resistance were overcome and the entire town was captured.

In retaliation, the Germans began a massive shell barrage onto the town. They had captured a huge ammunition supply from the allied Fifth Army and used it on the allied troops with impunity, as most of 4Bde’s artillery had not yet arrived to counter the bombardment. As March was drawing to a close the allied artillery finally arrived and began returning fire. On 20 April 16Bn was pulled from the line. Although the recommendation has not survived, it is considered that it was for actions during this battle that Axford was awarded his Military Medal (MM).

In June, the battalion moved up to the front line close to Vaire Wood, in preparation for the Battle of Hamel designed to straighten the allied line. It was the first battle strategy planned by General John Monash as Corps commander. In the assault, 16Bn was ordered to ‘deal with VAIRE and HAMEL WOODS and on completion of these tasks become RESERVE BATTALION...’

Prior to the attack, Axford went forward to assist with the laying of the jump-off tapes. At 3.10 am on 4 July the attack began. The opening barrage of 628 field and heavy guns together with 111 Vickers machineguns scoured the German positions. 16 Bn then followed the creeping barrage laid by the heavy guns towards Vaire Wood but one of its Companies came under fire from an enemy machine gun post at ‘Kidney Trench’ which had survived the initial salvo. The Company commander, Captain F F Woods, his sergeant major and a Lewis gun team were killed.

Upon seeing this, Axford rushed forward alone, using his bombs (hand grenades) and bayonet to kill or capture the ten German troops manning the gun pit. He then called the delayed troops forward. For his actions during the Battle of Hamel, Axford was awarded the Victoria Cross. The recommendation for the award reads:

[Axford] [i]s recommended for the very highest distinction for his very conspicuous gallantry and initiative during the operations against VAIRE and HAMEL Woods, East of CORBIE, on the morning of the 4th July 1918. When the barrage lifted and the Infantry advance commenced, the platoon of which AXFORD is a member was able to reach the first enemy defences through gaps which had been cut in the wires. The adjoining platoon got delayed in un-cut barbed wire. This delay enabled the enemy machine guns to get into action, and enable them to inflict a number of casualties among the men struggling through the wires including the Company Commander who was killed. AXFORD, with great initiative and magnificent courage at once dashed to the flank, threw his bombs amongst the machine gun crews: followed up his bombs by jumping into the trench, and charging with his bayonet. Unaided he killed ten of the enemy and took 6 prisoners: he threw the machine guns over the parapet, and called out to come on. He then rejoined his own platoon, and fought with it during the remainder of the operations. Prior to the incidents above mentioned he has assisted in the laying out of the taps for the jumping off position, which was within 100 yards of the enemy. When the tapes were laid he remained out as a special patrol to ensure that the enemy did not discover any unusual movements on our side. His initiative and gallantry undoubtedly saved many casualties, and most materially assisted towards the complete success of his Company in the task assigned to it. (Previously awarded Military Medal 25.5.1918)

Axford was promoted to corporal on 14 July. His VC was gazetted on 17 August, just nine days before his father died in Kalgoorlie. Commenting later on the actions that earned him the award, Axford said simply: ‘I must have been mad.’ On 14 September he was transferred to AIF headquarters in London for return to Australia. He was presented with his VC by King George V at Buckingham Palace on the 26th and left England the following month on HMAT Sardinia, arriving in Fremantle on 16 December. Following his discharge from the AIF, Axford returned to labouring. He married Lily Maud Foster in Perth on 27 November 1926.

Later, Axford worked as a clerk for the Hugh McKay Sunshine Harvester Company. He and Maude lived at Mount Hawthorn, Perth were they raised their five children. In June 1941 he enlisted again in the Australian Military Forces (W18283) and was posted to the Western Australian Echelon and Records Office, rising to the rank of sergeant. He was discharged in April 1947. In 1956, he attended the VC Centenary Celebrations in London.

Axford died while returning to Australia following a reunion of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association held in London in 1983. He was buried with Military Honours at Karrakatta Cemetery, Perth. His VC and MM came into the Memorial’s National Collection in 1985.