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Remembering “Lofty”

Alf ‘Lofty’ Williamson.
Alf ‘Lofty’ Williamson.

Ponder the following for Alf Williamson and it’s hard not to invoke an image of Anthony Koutoufides. “He stood six feet in his socks, and was as handsome as a Greek god. He was the men’s ideal of what a man should be, and to know him was to love him.”

The above quote, attributed not to a football hack but to one of Alf’s many Army colleagues, says much for the esteem in which “Lofty” Williamson - fallen soldier, former Carlton (and later Melbourne) player and great great uncle to Gary Ablett junior - was truly held.

Born to Reuben and Annie Williamson in the quaintly-named Gippsland hamlet of Cowwarr on October 6, 1893, Alfred Walter Williamson grew into a tall, well-proportioned youngster who earned his nickname during schooldays because he always stood out in a crowd.

Renowned for his football ability, larrikin streak and wry sense of humour, Alf’s links to Carlton can be sourced to 1911 when his dominant form for the Melbourne Teachers Training College’s 1st XVIII first caught the eye of a talent scout.

On Saturday, May 18, 1912, Alf took to the field for the first time in Navy Blue for what would prove a typically hard-fought contest with the inner city rival Collingwood. The match was thought to have ended in a draw, but Collingwood was adjudged one-point winners after the goal umpires met midwicket to confirm their scorecards.

Alf found his feet in 1913 as a half-forward of some renown, but a three-week suspension for elbowing an Essendon opponent in the 10th round match would cost him the next three games. Wearing the No.22 later made famous by “Soapy” Vallence, Alf would return for the 14th round and feature in the remaining eight contests of the season, during which time he graduated as a teacher and joined the staff of Melbourne High School.

Alf’s 11th and final appearance for Carlton came in May of 1914, against the long-gone University team on the mighty MCG. The Blues steamrolled the students by 12 goals, as events on the other side of the globe were about to plunge Europe into bloody war.

The following month, and for reasons which remain unclear, Alf resolved to pursue his career with Melbourne – but not long after copped another three matches for unduly rough play in a contest with St Kilda.

On his return against Richmond, Alf was again reported “for elbowing and general roughness” – and this time suspended for a total of 15 games – in a Tribunal judgment which would have tragic consequences for him. With no prospect of playing senior football in the short-term, Alf opted to respond to the call for volunteers to fight for King and country.

An informal portrait of Alf Williamson, circa 1915.

Alf was assigned to the 8th draft of reinforcements for the 14th Battalion, which at the time was heavily engaged in the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign. It was said that under immense hardship and constant danger at Gallipoli, Alf’’s qualities shone through. It was also said that as the Australian casualties mounted, he was always amongst the first in line for promotion. Which was why, in rising from Corporal to Sergeant to Sergeant-Major within months, he was eventually commissioned in the field.

That happened in February 1916. Alf was 22 then – a year older than Carlton’s four-game player Dylan Buckley.

In the wake of the successful withdrawal from ANZAC Cove, Alf’s 14th Battalion was deployed to Palestine for respite, before being sent to the trenches of Western France and Belgium.

On April 11, 1917, Captain Alf Williamson led his company in a charge across no man’s land at Bullecourt. The attack was initially successful, and the first line of German trenches was captured, but he was last seen urging his men toward the second line of trenches when an artillery barrage rained down right on top of them.

A witness statement gathered by the Red Cross into the investigation of Alf ’s mortal wounding reveals much of the calibre of the man so revered by those with whom he fought.

“Two days before the attack on Bullecourt I heard him (Williamson) say that he would not be taken unless both his arms were broken. CSM Garcia (now 2-Lt. I don't know where he is) told me that in the attack he saw Capt. Williamson in a shell hole between the 1st and 2nd objectives. He said he was bleeding from a wound in the upper thigh but absolutely refused to be helped back. He had his revolver in his hand and said he would not be taken easily. He was the finest man (who) ever stood in shoe leather. The men were ready to follow him anywhere.”

Alf’s body was never identified. Accordingly, his name appears with the hundreds of others venerated on the Australian War Memorial at Villers-Brettoneux.

This Anzac Day weekend, when League footballers of all clubs again pause for a minute’s silence to remember this nation’s Great Fallen, Gary Ablett junior will cast his mind towards “Lofty”.

“I only recently became aware of the family connection with Alf Williamson and I’m interested to learn more about him,” Ablett said from the Gold Coast this week.

“It’s sad to learn that Alf’s life and the lives of so many others were cut short by conflict. He was only 23 then and I’m 29 now, so it does put things in perspective. It’s why it’s important to pause to remember those who gave their lives for country so that we may live for it.”