Thomas Leslie Axford was born in 1894 at Carrieton in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia. His father, Walter Axford, was a Tasmanian-born auctioneer, and his mother, Margaret McQuillan, was born in South Australia. Known as 'Jack', he was one of 10 children, of whom only 9 survived childhood. At age 2, Jack moved with his family to Coolgardie in Western Australia.
Jack attended Coolgardie state school and was mentioned in local newspapers at age 16 for his swimming, cricket and boxing prowess. His family moved from Coolgardie to Leonora and then Kalgoorlie. After school, Jack had a labouring job at Boulder City Brewery.
World War I
At 21, Jack joined the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) to serve overseas in the war. Jack (service number 3399) and his 22-year-old brother Harry Arnold Axford (service number 1581) enlisted together at Kalgoorlie on 1 November 1915.
Jack had already trained for 3 years with the Kalgoorlie Boulder 84th Infantry (Goldfields Regiment) in the Citizen Military Forces. Jack nominated his father at Kalgoorlie as his next of kin.
Jack was assigned to the 11th Reinforcements for the 16th Infantry Battalion at Blackboy Hill Training Camp, Greenmount, near Perth. He was being trained as a reinforcement for the Gallipoli Campaign. On 1 November 1915, Jack embarked for Egypt instead of Gallipoli because the campaign there was ending. The 16th Battalion was evacuated from Gallipoli in December 1915.
Jack and the other reinforcements remained in Egypt until they were assigned to the 16th Australian Infantry Battalion in March 1916. The men of the 16th trained at the Australian Army camp at Tel El Kebir, near Alexandria. Then in June 1916, the unit sailed for France and caught a train to the Somme region. The men served in some of the worst battles on the Western Front.
Both Jack and Harry were wounded in action in August 1916 during the bloody Battle of Mouquet Farm. On advice from his supervisor to avoid mentioning the nature of their wounds, an Army Base Records officer wrote to their mother on 17 September saying both sons were 'not reported as seriously wounded'.
Jack was treated in France for shell shock on 11 August and returned to his unit 2 days later. Harry was evacuated to England on 15 August with a gunshot wound in his back. He was admitted to Lord Derby War Hospital at Winwick, returning to their unit in France 4 months later.
In 1917, they were both wounded in action again, this time at Messines (Mesen) in Belgium.
Harry was shot in the right leg on 10 August and evacuated to Royal Victoria Hospital (Netley) in England. The following week, Jack was shot in the left knee. He was evacuated via 2nd Casualty Clearing Station and 3rd General Hospital to Netley. It's likely the brothers spent some time catching up at Netley.
Harry rejoined the 16th Battalion in France on 19 July, but Jack didn't return until 26 January 1918. After Jack was discharged from Netley in October 1917, he was granted furlough (a rest from frontline service). Then he transferred to command depots at Weymouth and Hurdcott in England. By 1 January, he was deemed fit enough to resume active service. He was likely sent to the Overseas Training Brigade to prepare for life back in the trenches.
Harry was discharged from the AIF in March 1918 with a serious head injury and deafness in the right ear, sustained at Messines the previous August. He returned to Australia, leaving Jack behind with the 16th Battalion. By then, Jack had been promoted to Corporal Gunner.
On 25 May 1918, Jack was awarded the Military Medal (MM). The recommendation for the medal has not survived. However, scholars believe it was awarded for his actions during an Allied push against the German Spring Offensive between late March and 20 April 1918. The 16th Battalion was positioned near the French town of Hébuterne, between the Somme and Arras. Jack was presented with the MM by the commander of the AIF, General Sir William Riddell Birdwood.
Then, for his actions during the Battle of Hamel on 4 July 1918, he was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), the highest possible honour for a serviceman in the war.
Victoria Cross citation
For most conspicuous bravery and initiative during operations. When the barrage lifted and the Infantry advance commenced, his platoon was able to reach the first enemy defences through gaps which had been cut in the wire. The adjoining platoon being delayed in un-cut wire, enemy machine guns got into action, and inflicted many casualties, including the Company Commander. Lance-Corporal Axford, with great initiative and magnificent courage, at once dashed to the flank, threw his bombs amongst the machinegun crews, jumped into the trench, and charged with his bayonet. Unaided he killed ten of the enemy and took six prisoners: he threw the machine guns over the parapet, and called out to the delayed platoon to come on. He then rejoined his own platoon, and fought with it during the remainder of the operations. Prior to the incidents above mentioned he had assisted in the laying out of the tapes for the jumping off position, which was within 100 yards of the enemy. When the tapes were laid he remained out as a special patrol to ensure that the enemy did not discover any unusual movement on our side. His initiative and gallantry undoubtedly saved many casualties, and most materially assisted towards the complete success of his company in the task assigned to it.
[London Gazette, 17 August 1918 on page 9660 at position 1; Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, 12 December 1918 on page 2348 at position 19]
Jack's father died a few days after hearing the news that his son would receive the Victoria Cross. Jack was rumoured to have stuck the VC medal into his pocket soon after it had been pinned to his chest at the investiture.
Jack was given permission to go home in September 1918, just as the war in Europe ended. After disembarking at Albany, Jack arrived in Perth by train on 24 December 1918 and was officially welcomed at Kalgoorlie on Christmas Day. He was discharged from the AIF on 6 February 1919.
Between the wars
Jack returned to his pre-war job at Boulder City Brewery. He also applied for vocational training with the Repatriation Department in 1919. In the 1920s, he left the goldfields and worked as a labourer in and around Perth and the Wheatbelt region.
Jack married Lily Foster in 1926, and they had 5 children. The family lived in a war service home in Mount Hawthorn from the 1920s until the 1980s.
Jack joined annual ceremonies and marches on Anzac Day, including marching with his young son in 1933.
World War II and later life
On 25 June 1941, Jack enlisted to serve again in the Australian Military Forces (AMF). He was 47, and had been working as a records clerk at the Mines Department in Perth. At the time, his younger brothers Robert Desmond 'Bob' Axford and Walter Leonard 'Wally' Axford were serving in the Second AIF overseas.
Jack served with the Western Australian Echelon and District Records Office in Perth. He discharged on 14 April 1947, aged 51, and returned to his old position at the Mines Department.
After the war, Jack was often presented at public events as a VC recipient, meeting with local and foreign dignitaries, such as the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. However, he refused to be presented to the Queen at Perth Esplanade in 1954 to protest that spouses of VC recipients were not invited. He also remained an active member of the 16th Battalion Association.
Jack's brother Harry died at Perth's Repatriation General Hospital, Hollywood, in August 1947. He'd been an active Returned Soldiers' League member for many years.
Jack's wife Lily died in early 1983. Later that year, Jack attended a reunion of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association in the United Kingdom. He died on 11 October on the flight home. He was cremated at the Karrakatta Crematorium in Perth.
Jack's war medals, including the VC and MM, are on display at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
Two parks and 3 streets in Perth are named after Jack, including Axford Park in the suburb of Mount Hawthorn, where he lived for many years.
1918 'AXFORD, V.C.', The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 - 1955), 27 September, p. 3. (THIRD EDITION), viewed 19 May 2023, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article81775723
1918 'OBITUARY', Kalgoorlie Miner (WA : 1895 - 1954), 27 August, p. 3. , viewed 19 May 2023, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article92739315
1933 'Anzacs' Sons Must Be Saved From Another War!', Mirror (Perth, WA : 1921 - 1956), 29 April, p. 12. , accessed 08 May 2023, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article75503652
1941 '"JACK" AXFORD, V.C. OF 1918, IS BACK AGAIN IN KHAKI', Sunday Times (Perth, WA : 1902 - 1954), 29 June, p. 2. , viewed 30 May 2023, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article59159557
1947 '1918 V.C. Winner Joins Anzac Day Parade', South Western Times (Bunbury, WA : 1932 - 1954), 1 May, p. 18. , viewed 30 May 2023, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article252983925
1950 'No. 2 of Series:', Sunday Times (Perth, WA : 1902 - 1954), 13 August, p. 8. (Sporting Section), viewed 30 May 2023, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article59520918
1954 'JACK AXFORD VC WASN'T PRESENT', Sunday Times (Perth, WA : 1902 - 1954), 28 March, p. 6. , viewed 30 May 2023, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article59686931
1956 'IT WAS HI, DIG— II AFTER 38 YEARS', The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), 22 June, p. 2. , viewed 30 May 2023, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article71810437
2015, 'War hero remembered', North Coast Times, Lauren Peden, 21 April, accessed 8 May 2023, https://www.perthnow.com.au/community-news/north-coast-times/war-hero-remembered-c-910590
Australian War Memorial (undated). 'Victoria Cross: Lance Corporal T L Axford, 16 Battalion, AIF', accessed 8 May 2023, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C93940
City of Vincent (2022), 'Axford Park', City of Vincent Library and Local History Centre, April-June 2022, Vol 12 No 2 p 13, accessed 8 May 2023, Leederville, https://library.vincent.wa.gov.au/Profiles/library/Assets/ClientData/1067_-_Local_History_Newsletter_Apr_-_Jun_SCREEN.pdf
Edgar, P.L. (2007), 'Axford, Thomas Leslie (Jack) (1894–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, accessed 8 May 2023, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/axford-thomas-leslie-jack-12159/text21787.
National Archives of Australia: Axford Thomas Leslie VC : SERN 3399 : POB Carrieton SA : POE Kalgoorlie WA : NOK F Axford Walter Richard; B2455; AXFORD T L; circa 1914 - circa 1920
National Archives of Australia: AXFORD THOMAS LESLIE : Service Number - W18283 : Date of birth - 18 Jun 1894 : Place of birth - CARRINGTON SA : Place of enlistment - PERTH WA : Next of Kin - AXFORD LILLY; B884; W18283; 1939 - 1948.
Price Lloyd, James & Arter, Jeremy (1918), 'Thomas Leslie Axford ["Tales of the V.C."].', 10 October, OMNIA, accessed 8 May 2023, https://www.europeana.eu/en/item/2020601/https___1914_1918_europeana_eu_contributions_5392
The Cove (2020). 'The Highest Honour #1 | Charles Anderson | Thomas Axford', The Cove, Australian Army, 17 December, accessed 8 May 2023, https://cove.army.gov.au/article/highest-honour-1-charles-anderson-thomas-axford
VC and GC Association (undated), 'THOMAS LESLIE AXFORD VC', accessed 8 May 2023, https://vcgca.org/our-people/profile/732/Thomas-Leslie-AXFORD
WikiTree contributors, 'Thomas Leslie Axford VC MM (1894-1983)', WikiTree: The Free Family Tree, accessed 8 May 2023, https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Axford-245.