James Rayner (Service No. 4765)
(1881 - 1951)

James Rayner

James Rayner was born in Williamstown in December 1881 to Henry Rayner and Ellen Rayner nee Cotterell. Henry Rayner was one of the early residents of the Altona district moving into the area around 1890 and living in Mount Street. James was the fifth child born to the couple and was 14 years older than his brother Ernest Moss Rayner who served in the Royal Australian Navy before and during WWI.

James was living with the family at Mount Street Altona working with his father on their dairy farm. He had married Annie Nellie Wilkinson nee Spriggs in 1915. Nellie had been married previously to a Joseph Wilkinson in 1904 and they had had a son John William Wilkinson but the couple appears to have separated around the time John was born in 1913. James and Nellie had a son James Andrew Rayner born in 1916 around the time Private Rayner left Australia. So within less than two years of marriage and having two children Private Rayner was in Europe fighting and Nellie was being cared for by James’ parents Henry and Ellen.

James enlisted into the AIF on 12 February 1916 and following the completion of his basic training was appointed as a private to the 23rd Battalion at the age of 34 years and 2 months. His brother Ernest had joined the Navy some four years prior so James’ enlistment was more out of the need to serve rather than as a career as Ernest had chosen. James embarked with the 12th Reinforcements 23rd Battalion in Melbourne on 4 April 1916 aboard HMAT A14 Euripides.

James and the men from the 12th Reinforcements arrived in England via Egypt to undertake further training before he joined the 23rd Battalion in Belgium in October 1916. There was no gentle introduction to the Western Front the battalion at this time was involved in the horrific battles of Pozières and Mouquet Farm after which it was estimated that the battalion lost almost 90 per cent of its original members. Private Rayner suffered an injury to his ankle in November 1916. He was sent for treatment at a field hospital before being diagnosed suffering from trench foot given that this was in the middle of the harsh European winter and as a result was evacuated back to England for further treatment.

By May 1917 Private Rayner had recovered and had rejoined the 23rd Battalion who were now committed to the fighting at the second Battle of Bullecourt after the first attempt to capture the town by the 4th Australian Division failed. Succeeding in capturing all its objectives it was heavily counter-attacked by German forces suffering a large number of casualties including 100 men killed or later dying of their wounds before being relieved by the Australian 3rd Battalion. After this the battalion was withdrawn from the line until early September 1917 when they moved into positions around Ypres Belgium and participated in the Battle of Broodseinde on 4 October.

During this battle the 6th Brigade was positioned to the south of Zonnebeke Lake and the 23rd Battalion lost three officers and 101 other ranks killed or wounded some of which was inflicted when an intense German mortar barrage fell upon their ‘waiting line’ prior to the attack. Nevertheless the attack which followed after overcoming an encounter with a German regiment in no man’s land resulted in success as the Australians captured the ridge.

Later in 1917 the battalion moved with the rest of the AIF to the Ypres sector in Belgium and in October participated in the battle to secure Broodseinde Ridge. In April 1918 the 23rd helped to turn back the German spring offensive and then took part in the battles that would mark the beginning of Germany’s defeat – Hamel, Amiens and Mont St Quentin. The battalion fought its last battle around the town of Beaurevoir between 3 and 4 October. It left the front for the last time on the night of 5 October and was resting when the armistice was declared on 11 November. The 23rd Battalion disbanded in Belgium on 30 April 1919.

James returned to Australia per HMAT Mahia on 14 June 1919 and was discharged on 31 August 1919. He returned to his young family in Altona and moved onto his parents’ property Mount Street and again assisted his parents running their farm. By the early 1930’s James and Nellie had moved to Rose Street Altona but continued to work the family property right up until the late 1940’s.

Around 1950 James and Nellie moved to Melbourne Road, Newport and not long after James passed away on 26 November 1951 aged 69 and is buried in the Williamstown Cemetery.


  1. ancestry.com.au
  2. https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=8070307
  3. Williamstown Chronicle, 20 December 1951, p.5.
  4. Werribee Shire Banner, 27 July 1916, p.1.
  5. https://www.aif.adfa.edu.au/showPerson?pid=250499
  6. Australian War Memorial – awm.gov.au

Research by: Graeme Reilly (ALHS)