By Cam Lucadou-Wells
It was a sharp-eyed customer at a Berwick bank that first led Faye Axford into the embrace of the Victoria Cross ‘family’.
Ms Axford, of Endeavour Hills, was simply told by the customer Bill Rogers as he held up a Berwick News front page in March: “You need to ring this guy”.
The article was on Berwick author Michael Madden, who is well into his epic search for relatives of Australia’s 100 Victoria Cross awardees.
Since Ms Axford gave Mr Madden a call, she has been interviewed for the book to talk about her two heroic ancestors Thomas ‘Jack’ Axford VC and Albert Jacka VC.
If not for that call, she was unlikely to have had a chance meeting with one of the last people to see her great-uncle ‘Jack’ Axford alive.
It was at a fund-raiser for Mr Madden’s VC book project at the Shrine of Remembrance in March when VC recipient Keith Payne revealed his link to ‘Jack’ to a captivated audience.
Mr Payne told how he sat down to “have a yarn” with ‘Jack’ during a gathering of Victoria Cross and St George Cross medallists feted by the English Royal Family in London in 1983.
The pair bonded closely over a “great long conversation” in the Union Jack Club as Mr Axford’s two sons took in the sights of London.
“I heard more about the First World War from Jack than ever,” Mr Payne told his audience.
“We sat and talked as two soldiers like I’ve never spoken before.”
Both of them had post-traumatic stress from their war experience, Mr Payne said.
Indeed, Mr Axford had been treated for shell-shock and for shrapnel wounds in the two years of service before his heroic VC-awarded act in July 2018.
In the Australian War Memorial tribute, Mr Axford, on his own, attacked an enemy machine-gun position with just bombs and bayonet during the World War I Battle of Hamel in northern France.
He killed 10 German troops and captured six, before the platoon joined his advance. In some quarters, the successful attack by Australian and US troops at Le Hamel was regarded as the turning point of the war.
“I must have been mad,” Mr Axford reportedly later said of his courageous act.
On the flight back from the 1983 London visit – “on this side of Dubai” – Mr Axford died.
Aboard the plane was Mr Payne, who informed cabin staff and organised for a message to be sent to Queen Elizabeth II.
At Singapore airport, military and police cars assembled around the plane as Mr Axford’s body was disembarked.
One of Mr Payne’s sons then escorted the body to Perth.
“There’s the story of the Victoria Cross family – of what we do for each other,” Mr Payne told the event.
On finishing his story, Mr Payne presented Albert Jacka VC’s replica medals to Faye Axford – who is a great-niece by marriage to Mr Jacka.
They had been mounted and encased by the Victoria Cross book author Michael Madden.
In front of an audience including five families of Victoria-Cross recipients, it was as if Ms Axford had been ordained as part of the greater ‘family’.
“Words can’t express what I’m feeling at the moment,” Ms Axford said.
“This is just a surreal feeling to meet you.”
Next year, she plans to tour Le Hamel, the scene of Lance-Corporal Axford’s awarded heroism and exactly 100 years after the event.
“He won the Victoria Cross for saving the 15th Battalion,” she said.
“I’m just so proud to be an Axford,” she said.
In his labour of love, Mr Madden is compiling stories and photos to portray the real people behind the medals for his book The Victoria Cross: Australia Remembers. All but 96 are deceased.
Mr Madden feels no Victoria Cross recipient “disappears into the ether” because they all look out for one another.
Yet Australia was also at a bit of a knife-edge, he said.
“The Victoria Cross has moved from having living recipients to memory.
“Now we are moving to the stage where we don’t have the people to remember them – and it is moving to legend.”
All proceeds from his book The Victoria Cross: Australia Remembers go to the charity Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Veterans’ Association.
Anyone who can help with information for Michael Madden’s book, can call him on 0418 900 204 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.