PRIVATE WALTER JOHN SAYERS
4TH OCTOBER 1917 AGE 34
BURIED: AEROPLANE CEMETERY, WEST-VLAANDEREN, BELGIUM
This seemed a curious epitaph until I realised that it must refer to the deep divisions created in Australian society over the question of whether or not the Government should introduce conscription.
By early 1916 voluntary enlistment was drying up, yet Australia needed to provide reinforcements at the rate of 5,500 men a month in order to maintain its overseas forces at an operational level. On 28 October 1916 the Government held a referendum on the matter and was defeated: 1,087,557 in favour and 1,160,033 against.
In 1917 Britain asked Australia to raise another division for active service overseas. This meant it would now have to raise 7,000 men a month. On 20 December 1917 the Government held a second referendum and this time it was defeated 1,015,159 in favour and 1,181,747 against. The question went away but the passions raised had been deeply divisive both socially and politically.
Walter John Sayers was a farmer in Wycheproof, a very small farming community in north-western Victoria where he had been captain of the local rifle club. He enlisted on 17 August 1916 aged 33. This would suggest that he had responded to the call for more volunteers, having not done so originally. He embarked from Melbourne on 2 October 1916 with the 21st Reinforcements for the 7th Australian Infantry. He trained as a Lewis gunner and was killed in action on 4 October 1917 in the Australian attack on Broodseinde Ridge.
The 7th Infantry Battalion's digitised war diary provides every detail of the attack, from which I will quote just the following paragraph from the narrative of operations:
"At 0530 enemy put down on the Bn. assembly position a heavy barrage of all calibres causing many casualties. It was impossible to move the Bn. to avoid the barrage. The Bn. endured the terrific barrage with great steadiness and courage and when our barrage opened at 0600 the Bn. rose and quietly moved forward through the enemy barrage to the attack."
At 1200 noon on 5 October the battalion sent a message to Brigade headquarters with particulars of the estimated casualties: Officers - killed 1, wounded 12. Other ranks killed 50, wounded 150, missing 100. Sayers, initially among the missing, was pronounced dead on 22 October. His body was not found and buried until September 1919.
Private Sayer's widowed mother chose his inscription. "When alive they would not take your place" is a rebuke to those who opposed conscription and those wouldn't volunteer. "They cannot have it now my son" suggests her belief in the fact that her son, as a result of his sacrifice, now has an assured place in heaven.