Rank: Private
Number: 2873
Unit: 55th Battalion Australian Imperial Force
Date of Death: 20 July 1916
Age: 23
Cemetery: VC Corner Australian Cemetery Memorial, Fromelles, Nord, France

William Henry Mayer married Elizabeth Alice Jackson in the late autumn of 1892 in a civil ceremony in Stockport. He died in 1893. Elizabeth was pregnant at the time and William would never see his youngest son, Henry. At the time of the 1901 Census, Elizabeth and her five children were living with her father, Oswald Jackson, at 112 Brinksway Road. The children were Emma (18, a stitcher at a cotton bleachers), Joseph (16, Apprentice iron founder), Oswald (13, packer at a hat works), Alice (12), Lucy (10) and Henry (7)

At some point, Joseph and Henry emigrated to Australia. In 1915 they were living at Station Street, Mortdale, New South Wales and Henry was working for the railway company. He enlisted on 22nd June.

His service file is available on-line at the website of the Australian National Archives and it allows the reader to gain an impression of Henry. He was nearly 5' 7" - quite tall for those days. He weighed 144 pounds and had a 33" chest (which he could expand by a further 2 inches). Henry had a fair complexion, blue eyes and fair hair. He recorded his religion as Church of England.

He was originally assigned to the 3rd Battalion and, after initial training, embarked from Sydney on the HMAT "A8 Argyllshire" on 30 September. It is unclear, from the record, whether this batch of re-enforcements joined the 3rd Battalion at Gallipoli or went to Egypt, but Henry was certainly in Egypt on 13 February 1916 when he was taken on the strength of the newly formed 55th Battalion at Tel al Kebir.

On 18 April, Henry found himself in front of the commanding officer. He was charged with "hesitating to obey an order" and was awarded 3 days Field Punishment No. 2. This would have meant he would have had to undertake additional duties, such as latrine cleaning, and, for two hours of the day, he would have to undertake them whilst his legs were shackled. The next month, he was in trouble again. This time the offence was "conduct to prejudice of good order and military discipline" for which he got six days Field Punishment No. 2. Reading between the lines, Henry seems to have had a lot to say for himself and, perhaps, didn't always know when to keep silent.

On 19 June, the battalion embarked for Marseilles, on board the HT Caledonian, arriving there on the 29th. The Battle of the Somme had started on 1 July, but Henry and his mates were perhaps relieved that they were sent further north. They moved to a quieter front, some 15 kilometres south of Armentieres, going into the front line trenches for the first time on 12 July.

On 19 July, the Battalion was in two halves, near Fromelles. Two companies were being held in reserve as possible re-enforcements. The other two companies were providing carrying parties for attacking battalions - bringing up extra ammunition and other supplies.  The whole Battalion was then ordered forward into the captured German trench system to support the 53rd and 54th Battalions. The Germans counter-attacked but were beaten off.

By dusk, "B" Company had come forward and was occupying the front line. Captain Gibbons sent a message back by runner asking for more grenades, Very pistols, flares and plenty of sandbags, as a further counter-attack seemed imminent. About 1am on the 20th, Major Cowey was checking the Battalion positions when he came across a number of soldiers retreating through the trench system. He ordered them back to their front line post and then a grenade exploded and he realised that the German troops were already advancing down the trench. About 2.25am, there was a strong German attack on the right, now held by only about 200 troops of the 53rd, 54th and 55th Battalions. These troops were soon outflanked but continued to fight on although grenades and ammunition were in short supply.

It was probably sometime in these two hours or so that Henry was shot (see below). 

By 4.20, the position was hopeless. The senior officer sent a message saying "position almost desperate....I must withdraw or be surrounded." The pockets of Australian troops then rallied and using all their supply of grenades, forced the Germans back about 80 yards. The 55th Battalion now covered the withdrawal of the whole Brigade. At 6.30, Captain Gibbons received the order "You must prepare for an orderly retirement. We are unprotected on our flanks. Hold first Hun line until further orders". The Australian Official History of the War describes the withdrawal of the other troops, covered by Gibbons' men "From all sides, the troops having been told they must make a dash for it were now bolting singly or in small parties over the open towards the 55th covering party. The final party of the 55th then also withdrew (although Gibbons was fatally shot just before reaching safety".

Henry's family made enquiries of the Australian Red Cross to try and find out what had happened to him. The Red Cross took a number of statements which still exist:-

Lt Aggisez recalled "Pte Mayer was killed when firing a machine gun over my shoulder. It was in the German third line at midnight on 19 July. He was killed instantaneously and could not have suffered any pain. I have not heard that any bodies were buried. He was a quiet boy, but a fighter, one of my best lads. I handed in his pay book and identity disc at battalion HQ"

Sergeant Roberts recalled the same events, but thought it was later in the night "He was in a Lewis Gun section at Fromelles and was holding the trench we had taken from Fritz. At daybreak on 20 July, a sniper shot him in the head, killing him instantly."

Privates Douglas ("C" Company", Duignon and Bishop all gave statements along the same lines. Douglas indicated that it had been necessary to leave Henry's body behind when they withdrew, so it must have been discovered and buried later.

In 1920, there was much correspondence between the military authorities and Joseph Mayer about who was Henry's next of kin -whether it was Joseph or their mother. The issue was about who would receive his medals and outstanding pay. Henry had not made a will, so the law clearly indicated that his mother was his next of kin. She was then living at 48 Wingate Saul Road, Lancaster and the medals were posted to her.

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