Major William Alexander Craies: a brave Queenslander – KIA, Villers-Bretonneux, Anzac Day 1918

Guest blogger: Dale Chatwin.

Major W.A.Craies, one of the staff at Chermside country camp, on Page 24 of the Queenslander Pictorial, supplement to The Queenslander, 25 November, 1916.

Major W.A.Craies, one of the staff at Chermside country camp, on Page 24 of the Queenslander Pictorial, supplement to The Queenslander, 25 November, 1916.

In December I had the pleasure to visit Ipswich City Library to view copies of some documents which had been exhibited as part of their 2014 WW1 exhibit. They related to the death of the most senior ranking Queenslander, Major William Alexander Craies, 52nd Battalion AIF, killed in the attack to recapture Villers-Bretonneux on Anzac Day Eve 1918.

Few Queenslanders, in fact very few Australians, would be even be aware that there were any Queenslanders at Villers-Bretonneux.  They are hardly mentioned in any histories – stories of the Victorians dominate. Even though the 13th Brigade which included the 52nd Battalion was commanded by Brigadier-General William Glasgow from Gympie in Queensland.

Why is this? It’s because military histories are too often about Units not Men. The 52nd Battalion had been formed after Gallipoli from the 12th Battalion AIF. Initially the Unit comprised half Tasmanians and equal parts South Australians and Western Australians. But once the Battalion moved to France ALL of its reinforcements were sourced from Queensland – over 1330 men.

Members of the 52nd Battalion at the burial of [Queenslander] Major William Alexander Craies. He led B Company in the counter-attack on the night of 24 April and was mortally wounded by a sniper the following day. Taken by Charles Bean on 26 April 1918. AWM, 4179400

Reinforcements to the 52nd Battalion of the 13th Infantry Brigade, being allotted to their companies. Taken 12 April 1918. Many of these men were Queenslanders. AWM, 4179457

Consequently, the shape of the battalion shifted so that by April 1918 the Unit was overwhelmingly comprised of Queenslanders. When the unit disbanded on 16 May 1918 and the men were re-distributed to other units it was almost as if the 52nd never existed. It remained without a Memorial anywhere in Australia until 2018 and until early 2017 the Australian War Memorial Unit History didn’t mention Villers-Bretonneux nor that any Queenslanders had ever served in the 52nd Battalion.

Yet over 450 Queenslanders from the 52nd led off the attack at 10.10pm on Anzac Eve 1918. For close to 150 of them (men from the 9th and 10th reinforcements from 1917) this was their first battle. The casualties amongst these men were particularly high (over 70 wounded or killed). The 52nd as a whole suffered 245 casualties including 168 Queenslanders.

Reinforcements to the 52nd Battalion of the 13th Infantry Brigade, being allotted to their companies. Taken 12 April 1918. Many of these men were Queenslanders. AWM, 4179457

Members of the 52nd Battalion at the burial of [Queenslander] Major William Alexander Craies. He led B Company in the counter-attack on the night of 24 April and was mortally wounded by a sniper the following day. Taken by Charles Bean on 26 April 1918. AWM, 4179400

Craies was Company Commander of B Company 52nd Battalion. Less than three weeks earlier at Dernancourt he had taken command of the 52nd’s front line when the existing Company Commander was captured. That day the 52nd, in conjunction with two other Australian battalions, helped repulse the single largest attack ever faced by the Australians in France. Among the documents I viewed was a Certificate from the King on behalf of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig signed by Winston Churchill “for gallant and distinguished services in the Field”.

The wooden cross memorial of the 52nd Battalion erected to those members who died on 24 - 25 April 1918 during the loss and recapture of Villers-Bretonneux. The memorial features a list of the members killed and reads 'RIP - In memory of Officers, NCO's & Men 52nd Battalion AIF - Killed in action hereabouts 24 - 25/4/18'. Note the rising sun image on the cross (above the RIP). Taken 27 May 1918. Thirty-eight of the men on this cross were Queenslanders. AWM, 4108134

The wooden cross memorial of the 52nd Battalion erected to those members who died on 24 – 25 April 1918 during the loss and recapture of Villers-Bretonneux. The memorial features a list of the members killed and reads ‘RIP – In memory of Officers, NCO’s & Men 52nd Battalion AIF – Killed in action hereabouts 24 – 25/4/18’. Note the rising sun image on the cross (above the RIP). Taken 27 May 1918. Thirty-eight of the men on this cross were Queenslanders. AWM, 4108134

Less than three weeks later Craies found himself on Anzac Day 1918 southeast of Villers-Bretonneux – the only surviving senior commander in the front line. During the next 16 hours he organised the defence of the ground taken by the 51st and 52nd Battalions until he was fatally wounded by a sniper’s bullet just before dusk that Anzac Day but the enemy had been stopped and turned around.

Lieutenant Colonel J. L. Whitham CMG DSO, Commanding Officer (left), leading the 52nd Battalion along the Villers-Bretonneux to Amiens Road. He is accompanied by Lieutenant George Edward G. Gill. This image was taken after the funeral of Major Craies by Charles Bean as the 52nd formed into column from dispersed artillery formation to pay tribute to Craies by filing past his newly dug grave. AWM, 4179457

Lieutenant Colonel J. L. Whitham CMG DSO, Commanding Officer (left), leading the 52nd Battalion along the Villers-Bretonneux to Amiens Road. He is accompanied by Lieutenant George Edward G. Gill. This image was taken after the funeral of Major Craies by Charles Bean as the 52nd formed into column from dispersed artillery formation to pay tribute to Craies by filing past his newly dug grave. AWM, 4179457

The other documents I viewed at Ipswich related to Craies’ death and funeral. They included a letter written from W R Birdwood, Commander of the Australian Forces in France, to his family enclosing a hand-written letter from the Commander of the 52nd Battalion providing details of Craies’ actions on the day, his death and funeral. Two other letters, one from the Chaplain of the Unit and another from a Lieutenant in Craies’ Company provided further details of his death and the funeral. The letters confirm that the photographs of the funeral party and 52nd Battalion filing past Craies’ grave on 26 April 1918 were taken by the Australian Official War Historian Charles Bean, that the firing party were Queenslanders and that the Pipe Major of the 52nd (a Queenslander) played at Craies’ funeral. A fitting send-off for a brave Queenslander.

Wooden cross memorial of the 52nd Battalion .Image supplied by D. Chatwin

Wooden cross memorial of the 52nd Battalion after it was moved to Adelaide Cemetery to be with the graves of the men of the 52nd. The Australian Unknown Soldier was taken from this cemetery. Image supplied by D. Chatwin

Dale Chatwin is Administrator of the 52nd Battalion AIF Facebook site. The community has over 470 members and in 2018 was successful in securing the unveiling of a Memorial Plaque to the men of the 52nd Battalion in the WW1 Crypt under Anzac Square in Brisbane. His grandfather served in the 52nd.