Andrew Alexander marking a country boy’s sacrifice a century later

SACRIFICE: Andrew Alexander Lawler was 27 when he enlisted. He expected to return to his Niangala farm, south of Walcha, after the war. Instead, his name is now memorialised on the Menin Gate.
SACRIFICE: Andrew Alexander Lawler was 27 when he enlisted. He expected to return to his Niangala farm, south of Walcha, after the war. Instead, his name is now memorialised on the Menin Gate.

IN August 1916, Niangala farmer Andrew Alexander Lawlor had decided it was time for him to serve his country in the war effort – but first he had to shear his sheep.

At the time, many believed the war was close to over and he thought he’d be back in time for the next shearing season. But just over a year later, Private Lawlor died on the Western Front at the Battle of Passchendaele.

At 100 years to the day of his passing, two of his ancestors paid tribute to his sacrifice – one was standing at the Menin Gate memorial in Belgium as the Last Post was played, while the other listened over the phone from his lounge room in Tamworth.

For two years, Tamworth woman Sharon Wall has been planning her trip to Europe to coincide with the centenary of her great-great uncle’s passing.

Ms Wall said it was “a privilege” to travel to the Menin Gate in the town of Ypres, which has all the names of the 55,000 soldiers who were buried in nameless graves, and find Uncle Andy’s name among the 6000 missing Australians who died in Belgium.

Ms Wall watched on as the local fire brigade closed the road and played the Last Post – as they’ve done every night without fail since 1927 – and her father Michael listened over the phone.

“It was 5am over here and in Belgium it was 8pm, and it was very emotional listening to that live, so far away,” Mr Wall said.

“The strange thing is, there is some debate over when he died – some letters say October 12, others say October 13.

“When Sharon was over there it was the 12th of October, but because of the time difference it was Friday morning here, the 13th of October, when she rang me. Whether it was one day or the other, we got it right.”

Ms Wall also visited Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest cemetery for Commonwealth soldiers.

“If you stand at the bottom Tyne Cot and look out to the left, you can see the paddocks where his body would be,” she said.

“I believe that he knew I was there. As soon as I found his name at the Menin Gate, it just really hit me. I’ve been planning this trip for a couple of years and I was really privileged to be able to do it.”

Private Lawlor was a “true country boy” and one of 22 men from the small village of Niangala who enlisted in WWI.

His war records say he was well known in the district and as a boy of seven he got lost with his five-year-old brother for a week from their home at Reedy Creek.

They were found by the Weabonga post man in the scrubby hills north west of Niangala.

“It’s pretty rough bush out there, particularly back then, so he must have been a tough little bugger,” Ms Wall said.

Private Lawlor is believed to have died when the bridge at Paschendaele was blown up.

In his research into his great-uncle, Mr Wall has found letters between Private Lawlor’s mother (Mr Wall’s great-great grandmother) and the army.

“She asked for his personal effects back,” he said.

“The army said because of the way shipping is at the moment with the war going on, things are slow in coming back.

“A couple of years down the track his things did come back, the only thing that was sent back in the parcel was a French dictionary. That was the only memento she go of his life over there.”

Mr Wall has also found another strange twist of faith. After he enlisted, Private Lawlor was shipped over to England aboard the HMAT Beltana.

“My father bred and owned a few race horses,” he said

“Back in the probably early 80s, he leased this horse off someone, who won him a few races - and its name was Beltana Park.”