Service Number: 4056
Unit: 15th Battalion
Date of Death: 24 September, 1917
Memorial: Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial
At times, when researching the stories of Australians who died in World War I, one is struck by how little information there remains regarding a particular soldier. One such soldier was Joseph Lawer. We know few details about Joe’s upbringing, his family life, the exact details of his death and the location of his grave. There appears to be no remaining photograph of Joe and so we are left to remember him by his name recorded with honour on local and national war memorials. We do know that Joe was 19 years old when he died at Ypres, Belgium, while preparing with his battalion for the Battle of Polygon Wood.
There are many more questions than answers when examining the life of Joe Lawer. At the time he enlisted, Joe stated that he was born in Stanthorpe and was 18 years and six months old. However, according to his birth certificate, Joseph Lauer was born on 24 July 1898 at Nine Mile, Wilson’s Downfall. As with other family members, his surname had been officially recorded as both Lauer and Lawer. Joe was too young at 17 years and six months when he enlisted in Warwick on 19 January 1916, and so became another boy soldier who fought in World War I.
Joe’s mother was Florence Mabel Lauer who was 19 years of age when he was born. No details of his father are recorded on Joe’ s birth certificate. Florence was born on 22 July 1879 in Warwick to Jacob Lauer, a 31-year-old storekeeper born in Nassau, Germany and Susannah Lauer, nee Goodyear, who was 23 years of age and born in Barton Stacey, Hampshire, England. Jacob and Susannah were married on 16 March 1876 in Warwick, Queensland.
We know nothing of Joe’s relationship with his mother but are left to assume they were estranged. Florence married James McKenzie on 14 November 1906 at St Andrews Church in Lutwyche, Brisbane. According to State Electoral Rolls, in the years preceding World War I, James and Florence McKenzie lived in Livingstone, Queensland.
By the time Joe enlisted on 19 January 1916, both his grandparents had died. Jacob on 6 January 1882 at Wylie Creek, aged 34 years; and Susannah, on 18 June 1903 in Tenterfield. This led Joe to list his great uncle, George Goodyear, as both his guardian and next of kin when he enlisted. George was Susannah’s brother and was living at Wilson’s Downfall at the time.
Joe stated he had been working as a labourer before joining the 8th Reinforcements of the 31st Battalion. He began training on the banks of the Brisbane River at the Compound Company, Lytton Camp, Lytton. Joe left Australia on active service aboard HMAT Boonah on 21 October 1916 and disembarked in Plymouth, England, on 10 January 1917. From Plymouth, he moved to the 8th Training Battalion at Hurdcott, on the Salisbury Plain. While in training, Joe suffered from mumps and recovered at the Parkhouse Hospital between 6 – 25 March.
Private Joe Lawer proceeded overseas to join the fighting on the Western Front on 26 April and was then stationed at the 5th Australian Division Base Depot, Etaples, France, until 26 May. Joe was transferred from the 31st Battalion to the 15th Battalion and was taken on strength in the field on 28 May.
In the summer of 1917, the 15th Battalion prepared for a series of battles that began with Messines and ended with Passchendaele. During this time, Allied tunnellers had packed galleries they had dug under the Messines ridge with more than one million pounds of ammonal explosive. As described by Lieutenant Thomas Chataway of the 15th Battalion:
By June, 1917, everything was ready – guns, railways, tanks, and every conceivable engine of destruction invented for the mass killing of men. On the night of June 6 there was a thick summer fog over all Flanders and the sky was livid with the flashes of bursting shells. Just before dawn on the following day, June 7, there was a low rumble that grew in terrifying intensity until it swept all other sounds before it. From out of the bowels of the earth there gushed up into the sky a mighty volume of scarlet flame, until the whole countryside was illuminated by a fierce red glow. The earth trembled and surged violently to and fro. The heights of Messines had been rent by an explosion that had altered the very geography of the countryside. Stumbling in among the shell-holes, British and Australian infantry scrambled over the wreckage towards the German lines. The Battle of Messines had begun. (Chataway 1948, 177-178).
This was the introduction to fighting on the Western Front that Joe faced as the 15th Battalion was first held in reserve at Messines and then moved forward to relieve New Zealand regiments on 8 June. The battalion then held a number of key strongholds until relieved on 17 June.
By then Joe had fallen ill and was admitted to hospital on 15 June suffering pyrexia, or trench fever. He rejoined the 15th Battalion at the old camping ground at Neuve Eglise, Belgium, on 28 June.
According to its War Diary, on 23 September, the 15th Battalion was at an area known as Belgian Chateau from where it marched to the Ypres Ramparts and bivuoaced there. The battalion was preparing for the Battle of Polygon Wood that it would go on to fight early on 26 September.
On 24 September, the War Diary noted the battalion was “completing preparations and men resting so as to be fresh” (AWM 1917).
Private Joseph Lawer was listed as having been Killed in Action, Belgium, 24 September 1917. There are no details as to how Joe was killed while the 15th Battalion was at Ypres. Joe’s service record shows he was buried, as there appears to be a grave reference provided by the Casualty Assistance Officer, 1st Anzac Corps. However, Joe’s grave was lost over time and so he is remembered with honour on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial.
The Stanthorpe Border Post reported Joe’s death on 19 October 1917:
On Friday word came through that Private Joseph Lawer, of the Wilson’s Downfall district had been killed in action, and the sad news was conveyed to his relatives. He was a very young man and at the time of his death could not have been more than about twenty years of age.
Joe left no known will but George Goodyear signed a receipt for his personal effects on 16 May 1918. These included a testament, religious booklet, writing pad, and a photo.
Joe’s service record includes a communication, on 30 November 1920, between the Army District Accounts Office, Brisbane, and Army Base Records, Melbourne. The communication states that Mrs F McKenzie of Tinterbar [sic], N.S.W., had contacted the office in connection with the war gratuity for Private L. Lower, 15th Battalion. Army Base Records replied the soldier referred to was apparently the late No. 4056 Private Joseph Lawer and that his next of kin was recorded as George Goodyear.
It appears Florence was aware of the death of her son and was seeking a war pension for her loss. Joe’s service record contains no information regarding the success, or otherwise, of Florence’s request. Florence McKenzie died on 25 August 1963 and was buried in Ballina, New South Wales.
In May 1923, there is a letter from Army Base Records to George Goodyear asking if Joseph’s parents were still alive. The letter outlines that the Army was trying to determine to whom it should send his war medals.
This follows a similar letter sent by the Army in April 1921, but to which no reply was received from George. There is no evidence that Private Joseph Lawer’s medals and memorial plaque were sent to George Goodyear. George Goodyear died on Christmas Day 1932, aged 73 years, and was buried in the Stanthorpe Cemetery.
Lieutenant T.P. Chataway. (1948). History of the 15th Battalion, Australian Imperial Forces, War 1914-1918. 1st Edition. Brisbane. William Brooks and Co.
Australian War Memorial. (1917). Australian Imperial Force Unit War Diaries, 1914-1918 War – 15th Infantry Battalion. [Online]. [31 December 2022]. Available from: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1356093
Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres, Belgium.
Australian War Memorial Collection E04608. Ypres, 19 September 1917. A large group of unidentified Australian troops resting along the town’s moat and ramparts. The entrances to the dugouts, built into the ramparts, can be seen behind the soldiers.
Ypres Ramparts, April 2023.
Polygon Wood, Ypres, Belgium.