Writing about Pompey Elliott

A lecture delivered in 2002 by 1986 Harold White Fellow, Ross McMullin

Pompey Elliott, who commanded the 7th Battalion at Gallipoli and the 15th Brigade at the Western Front, was an exceptional character, a household name. Because he was so famous during the 1920s, any Victorian schoolboy surnamed Elliott was liable to be nicknamed Pompey. My aim is to give you a glimpse of what was so special about him.

Imagine a big, hefty, fleshy bloke, 36 years of age in mid-1914, married with two kids. A solicitor, conscientious about his legal firm, but passionately interested in soldiering. Someone who was a fierce disciplinarian, who openly declared that he subjected his men to more rigorous and demanding training than any other battalion endured. Someone who frequently roared at officers and men under his command because they weren’t doing what he thought they ought to be doing. Someone who was frank, forthright, controversial, often in trouble with his superiors because he called a spade a bloody shovel.

And someone who, despite the best efforts of his wife and his staff, tended to look untidy, sloppy, dishevelled—the sort of commander who would be criticising the standard of some unfortunate private’s buttons on parade while blissfully unaware that he had forgotten to hook up his own braces that were hanging down incongruously. Stylish dress was never a Pompey priority. On one leave in London, some military policemen concluded that there was no way such a scruffily dressed man could really be a brigadier, and he was arrested for impersonating an officer.

All this does not seem to be a promising basis for immense popularity. How, then, did he acquire such a revered reputation as a leader? There are three key factors, it seems to me, the three Cs—courage, character and capacity.

Taking the last one first, his capacity. Pompey was a brilliant tactician as well as a fierce fighter. For any private soldier, it’s pretty important to have faith in your superior’s competence. If you’re putting your life on the line, you obviously want to feel that you’re being competently led while you’re doing it. Pompey’s men had that faith, which stemmed from the way he treated his responsibilities with passionate seriousness—they knew that he knew his stuff.

As for courage, Pompey was remarkably brave. He was Australia ’s most famous fighting general. He placed himself in perilous situations so often that his survival was one of the minor miracles of the war. His reputation for extraordinary courage was established early at Gallipoli, notably when he was notified that Turks had captured an Australian-held tunnel. He immediately went forward himself to investigate the situation and had a celebrated duel with a Turk in that murky tunnel. From that time on, it was an article of faith among his men that Pompey would never send anyone anywhere he was not prepared to go himself.

And the third of those three Cs that had so much to do with the exceptional esteem, even reverence, with which so many of his men regarded him, was character. I mean character in both senses. His men knew that he would say what he thought about proposed operations; that if he thought his superiors had given his men an ill-conceived task that was an exercise in futility, he had the character to say so and would object vehemently. And in the other sense of the word, Pompey was a great character, a real character. Stories about him grew and grew, amusing his men and disconcerting his superiors.

Numerous commanders tried to be exacting disciplinarians during the Great War, and ended up being despised as callous, vindictive martinets. But there was nothing austere or aloof about Pompey. He was a larger-than-life character, full of exuberance and vitality, with idiosyncrasies that appealed to his men and boosted their anecdotal repertoire. In physique and demeanour he was the epitome of a fighting leader. His face often gave the impression that he was ready to wage war at a moment’s notice, and he had that notorious habit of roaring indiscriminately at privates or company commanders if he felt they were performing inadequately.

Pompey’s favourite World War 1 anecdote concerned an incident that occurred when his battalion was on the march near Cairo. The battalion happened to pass a group of hawkers and their tethered donkeys just as one of those animals, a male, was showing interest in a nearby female of the species. This male donkey’s interest was conspicuous, very conspicuous indeed. The passing soldiers reacted to this spectacle with ribald laughter, which annoyed the owner of the amorously inclined donkey. He darted over to it and gave one of its ears a savage twist, whereupon the donkey’s desire deflated quickly. Shortly afterwards, the battalion’s leading company, headed by its captain marching along in fine style with the senior sergeant just behind him, encountered a horse-drawn carriage containing two attractive women. One of them bowed and smiled to the captain, who gave an enthusiastic salute in return. Instantly a voice from the ranks was heard: ‘Twist his ear, sergeant’.

Part of Pompey Elliott’s distinctiveness was the mystique he created around his big black horse, Darkie. During inspections Darkie consistently seemed to demonstrate an astounding ability to detect even infinitesimal irregularities. He would draw the colonel’s attention to unshavenness, unsteadiness or improper attire by stopping, throwing back his ears, and stretching out his neck. In fact it was Pompey, an accomplished horseman, who was directing his well-trained horse by subtly nudging Darkie’s neck. He would then pretend that Darkie had spotted the irregularity. During my research I spoke to men who served under Pompey and were still convinced, all those decades later, that his horse had extraordinary powers.

Even before the Gallipoli landing, then, Pompey was establishing himself as one of the characters of the whole Australian Imperial Force. It was the combination of his wholeheartedness, his absolute dedication to duty, coupled with his tempestuous personality, that generated these anecdotes. And there was another ingredient too: his loyalty, his profound regard and commitment to the officers and men he led, the kind of devotion manifested in the way he spent his time on leave visiting hospitals to see those of his men who had been wounded, and how he never stopped trying to think of ways his men could be better looked after in or out of the trenches. Most of them came to realise that he had a genuine and profound regard for them despite his gruff, volatile exterior.

For example, J.D. Schroder was directed to report with his section to Pompey in Egypt. In Schroder’s own words this is what happened:

[After journeying across the desert we] arrived at 3 am in the morning, and naturally did not turn out for physical jerks that day. I was awakened from a very deep sleep by a roar which resembled that of a bull at large thirsting for gore. Standing in the doorway of the bell tent was a huge figure, riding breeches on, no leggings, boots unlaced, a flannel shirt with one brace over the shoulder and one dangling down the side. Not wishing to be outdone in the roaring line, I did a little myself, with the result that within five minutes I was sojourning in the guard-tent and my section was at physical jerks … I was released later in the day … and I realised that the tales of Pompey’s exploits and discipline … had not been overrated.

Despite such an inauspicious start to Lieutenant Schroder’s relationship with his new commander, Schroder was later to write this assessment of Pompey: ‘in my estimation no greater soldier or gentleman ever lived’. Schroder went right through the Western Front, survived the war, and lived a long and fulfilling life after it, so that’s a very big statement—‘in my estimation no greater soldier or gentleman ever lived’.

After the Gallipoli evacuation, Pompey was promoted to command the 15th Brigade, and remained its commander for the rest of the war. Many of the best Pompey stories occurred while he was a brigadier.

In March 1916, Australian formations, including Pompey’s brigade, were directed to take over the task of safeguarding the Suez Canal. There were no available trains, so the top-level British commanders, in a characteristically blinkered and culpable decision, directed that the Australians had to get there on foot. That is, by marching 35 miles across the desert.

It was not Pompey’s brigade that had to go first. The 14th Australian Brigade set off first. They endured a terrible ordeal. Baked by intense heat, their water bottles soon empty and their feet blistering painfully in new boots, they sank into the heavy, burning sand up to their knees. A cloud of dust and flies added to their misery. The brigade disintegrated into a rabble. Men fell out all over the place. Many, delirious with thirst and exhaustion, were barely alive. Medical and other units were rushed to the rescue, and encountered scenes of dreadful suffering. There were reputedly a number of deaths. The brigade commander was sacked. He was less culpable than the senior British commanders, but he was sent home to Australia.

The 15th Brigade followed two days later. Pompey’s distinctive leadership was very evident. To minimise the ordeal, he chose a different route after personally inspecting the various options and consulting officers familiar with them. He also adopted a different march timetable, arranging for short halts at regular intervals, together with a long break in the middle of the day when the heat was at its worst. A carefully selected rearguard attended to stragglers. During the march itself the driving force of his tempestuous leadership was more evident than ever, enriching the ever-growing fund of Pompey anecdotes.

Probably his biggest challenge was to ensure that men overwhelmed with raging thirst did not drink the tempting but disease-ridden liquid in the nearby sweetwater canal. Pompey roamed far and wide on his famous black horse, ranting and roaring. As he wrote, ‘when one man gave me cheek and refused to fall in … I drew my pistol and pointed it at his head and swore I would blow his brains out on the spot if he didn’t obey orders. The pistol wasn’t loaded, but I frowned at him and he concluded he’d better march’.

Another man forgot the ban on smoking and unthinkingly lit a cigarette. Pompey pounced on this infringement immediately. ‘Who lit that?’ he bellowed. Having identified the offender, he added ominously ‘I should shoot you’. ‘If you shoot him, I’ll shoot you’, came a voice from the ranks, just as menacing. The owner of that voice was arrested. Pompey demanded an explanation from this private, who replied that he would respond like that to anyone intimidating his brother (who was the smoker). Pompey arranged for this private to be sent forthwith to a school for NCOs, reasoning that anyone who could stand up to him in full flight was a man of mettle with leadership potential.

Some men fell out along the way, but Pompey’s brigade reached its destination as a cohesive formation. It was, in the circumstances, an impressive achievement, especially after the disastrous precedent of the 14th Brigade. But the drama was not yet over. Elliott and his thirsty men had been told that water would be ready for them when they arrived. But when they arrived there was no water. Pompey asked where it was. It’s coming, he was assured. When it had still failed to materialise hours later, Pompey issued a vigorous protest. It was outrageous to deprive men of water in the desert, he thundered, and their understandable fury could escalate into mutiny. He threatened to march them back across the Suez Canal to get them a drink. After further late-night inquiries he was assured that the precious liquid would be available at 5.30 the following morning.

Pompey was up at five o’clock. He found that ‘men were actually licking the taps to moisten their lips, and many of them had been sleepless all night from the torments of thirst’. Half an hour later, still no water. Pompey galloped away in search of the local chief engineer in charge of the pumps. This man deflected Elliott’s wrath by explaining that the Egyptians did not provide him with enough water for the soldiers in camp, and he was under strict orders anyway not to start the pumps before eight o’clock because the noise interrupted the sleep of the British Corps commander and his staff. This was the same British Corps commander who had approved the decision to march the Australians across the desert.

Pompey remounted his horse and raced off to Corps headquarters. When he got there, he wrote, he eventually ‘unearthed a young pink-faced British staff officer clad in blue silk pyjamas, who came out yawning and looking very cross at being thus unceremoniously disturbed from his slumbers’. Pompey’s message was blunt. He told the staff officer that if the water was not turned on in five minutes he would be marching his men to the Corps commander’s headquarters to tell him precisely how they felt about the situation. If there was any problem about obtaining the cooperation of the Egyptian civil authorities, he would be delighted to provide a firing squad to deal with them. The staff officer in the blue silk pyjamas was immediately galvanised. He issued the necessary directives, phoned the chief engineer to instruct him to start the pumps, and the water was flowing within Pompey’s stipulated deadline. Afterwards Pompey’s superiors told him that any repetition of such conduct was bound to get him into serious trouble. Pompey was unfazed. He said he would always do what was necessary to look after his men.

Then there was the time in 1918 when Pompey was wounded while well forward, talking to the commander of a tank. He was positioned well forward, but the position of his wound was well behind—in his left buttock. It was uncomfortably sore but not a serious wound, and he was contemptuous of suggestions that he should be evacuated to the rear for treatment. He did allow his own rear to be attended to as long as it did not interfere with his direction of the fight. The upshot was an unforgettable spectacle—the brigadier perched on a prominent mound, surveying the battlefield intently and dictating messages uninhibitedly, with his trousers round his ankles and underlings fussing over his behind. Onlookers were appreciatively amused by this further confirmation of his wholehearted commitment; there were also ribald remarks about the massive magnitude of his posterior. According to one of his colonels, seeing ‘Pompey with his tailboard down having his wound dressed’ was one of the sights of the war.

Later in 1918, irrepressible as ever, he became frustrated that his men were not pursuing the Germans across the Somme vigorously enough, and he went forward to invigorate his battalion commanders. But they were satisfied that all that could be done was being done. With a contemptuous snort, Pompey said ‘Damn it, I’ll take them over myself’, and proceeded to hazard his way—under fire—across a damaged bridge that was no certainty to support his hefty frame. Sure enough, he eventually fell in with a spectacular splash. Signallers amused themselves spreading the diverting message far and wide that ‘Pompey’s fallen in the Somme ’ with such gusto that the entire 5th Division communications were blocked. Once again there was a memorable sequel—the arresting sight of Pompey clad only in a shirt while his other clothes were drying, strutting about uninhibitedly, directing developments and dictating messages. Quite a character.

Part of what makes Pompey such a superb subject for a biographer is that he was such a vibrant character, and he expressed himself so vividly. He is irresistibly quotable. Take Lone Pine at Gallipoli for example. Pompey and his 7th Battalion were in the thick of it at Lone Pine, where the Turks attacked repeatedly. Amid savage fighting, there were heavy casualties. No fewer than four of Pompey’s men won the VC at Lone Pine, one after Pompey sent him to a vulnerable spot, where numerous others had been hit, with these heartfelt words: ‘Goodbye Symons, I don’t expect to see you again, but we must not lose that post’. Symons and his men retained control of that post, Symons was awarded the VC, and Pompey did see him again because Symons survived Lone Pine, unlike many others in Pompey’s battalion. Afterwards Pompey described what it was like to be at Lone Pine in a private letter to a friend:

The weather was hot and the flies pestilential. When anyone speaks to you of the glory of war, picture to yourself a narrow line of trenches two and sometimes three deep with bodies (and think too of your best friends, for that is what these boys become by long association with you) mangled and torn beyond description by the bombs, and bloated and blackened by decay and crawling with maggots. Live amongst this for days …This is war and such is glory—whatever the novelists may say.

Irresistibly quotable.

After his promotion to the command of the 15th Brigade and his transfer with his brigade to France, Pompey had just arrived at the Western Front when he experienced the catastrophic calamity of Fromelles. In this disaster, 5533 Australians became casualties in one night. That is, in one night the Australian casualty toll was equivalent to the combined Australian casualties in the whole of the Boer War, the Korean War and Vietnam War put together. Astounding, isn’t it? And about 1800 of these Fromelles casualties were sustained in Pompey Elliott’s brigade.

Pompey, as I have said, had only been at the Western Front five minutes when this hairbrained operation was foisted on him by his superiors. To his immense credit, he realised, despite his inexperience of Western Front conditions, that it was doomed to fail, and he tried to prevent it from proceeding. He even went so far as to get hold of a visiting staff officer from the Commander-in-Chief’s headquarters, taking this officer forward and showing him why it was certain to fail. Having successfully persuaded this officer, Pompey urged him to go back to his chief, Sir Douglas Haig, and tell him. But whatever that staff officer did made no difference. The attack was not cancelled. Disaster loomed with a terrible inevitability.

This is what Lieutenant Schroder wrote about Pompey at Fromelles:

Pompey got tired of sitting in advanced brigade headquarters, and took me up the line with him. What had been ordinary sandbagged trenches were now heaps of debris, and it was impossible to walk far without falling over dead men. Although the Hun had a barrage down and there must have been dozens of [enemy] machine guns operating [as well], Pompey never thought of ducking, but went from battalion to company headquarters and so on right along the line. A word for a wounded man here, a pat of approbation to a bleary-eyed digger there, he missed nobody. He never spoke a word all the way back to advanced brigade [headquarters] but went straight inside, put his head in his hands, and sobbed his heart out.

In tackling this book I have always had multiple aims in mind. My main objective has been to tell the previously untold story of Pompey Elliott’s life as comprehensively, accurately and vividly as I could. But, at the same time, I also wanted to use Pompey’s story as a vehicle for telling the bigger collective story of how the Great War devastated Australia. It’s life and times. And the story of Pompey, by virtue of his exceptional vibrancy, quotability and highs and lows, is a marvellous vehicle for telling the national story. There is a great deal of fresh material in the book about the impact on Australia of its participation in the Great War, including—and very much including—the aftermath period in the 1920s when Pompey was elected to parliament and fought the war all over again in the Senate in characteristically cantankerous and forthright fashion, and was right up there with Monash and Jacka VC as the three most famous AIF household names during the 1920s.

In the Senate he unleashed a series of astonishing revelations about wartime developments. After yet another astounding Pompey outburst in 1921, a senator (who was a political opponent of Pompey’s) said this: ‘whoever is engaged in writing up the history of the war should be supplied with a special desk in this chamber and should be given a special invitation to be in regular attendance in the Senate, because matters of the greatest interest to them may crop up here at any time’.

Pompey Elliott’s death by suicide in March 1931 exemplified the enduring impact of the war on Australia, and of course there’s plenty about that in the book.

It also sets the historical record straight about numerous engagements he was involved in, notably the Gallipoli landing, Lone Pine, Fromelles, Polygon Wood, Villers-Bretonneux and much more, as well as episodes such as the AIF mutinies, the pursuit to the Hindenburg Line, and the British retreat of March–April 1918.

Another priority of mine was to write a book about Pompey that appealed to, or would be of interest to, the general reader, not just to military history buffs. I wanted to make the accounts of battles and other specialised stuff accessible to non-specialists, to make it flow smoothly for the general reader.

And as far as Pompey himself is concerned, this is a whole-of-life study. I wanted to provide a well-rounded, comprehensive picture of him. For example, I wanted to ensure that there was appropriate coverage of Pompey as a parent.

Pompey’s two children, Violet and Neil, were born in 1911 and 1912, so they were still toddlers when he went away to war. The remarkable letters Pompey wrote to his children underlined how unfortunate it was for Violet and Neil that he was not around for their next five formative years. He had a marvellous talent for communicating with children, as shown by this letter I’m about to read, which he sent from the Western Front at the end of 1916 to Neil, who was then four years of age. In it he describes Western Front developments including the unveiling of the latest military novelty, the tank, and refers to himself as ‘Dida’, which his young children called him. Surely no commander in any combatant nation in this war regularly described military developments like this:

Since I wrote to you before we got a lot of big wagons like traction engines and put guns in them and ran them ‘bumpety-bump’ up against the old Kaiser’s wall and knocked a great big hole in it and caught thousands and thousands of the Kaiser’s naughty soldier men and we killed a lot of them and more we put in jail so they couldn’t be naughty any more, but then it started to rain and rain and snow and hail and the ground got all boggy and the wagons got stuck in the mud and the old Kaiser has such heaps and heaps of soldiers that he sent up a lot more and thinned them out where the wall wasn’t broken and started to build another big wall to stop us going any further … it is very, very cold here and the Jack Frost here is not a nice Jack Frost who just pinches your fingers so you can run to a fire to warm them but a great big bitey Jack Frost and he pinches the toes and fingers of some of Dida’s poor soldiers so terribly that he pinches them right off. Isn’t that terrible…And the naughty old Kaiser burnt down every little house all round here and Dida’s soldiers have to sleep out in the mud or dig holes in the ground like rabbits to sleep in. And all the trees are blown to pieces by the big guns and there is no wood to make fires and Dida’s soldiers have to make fires of coal and the wagons are all stuck in the mud so Dida’s soldiers have to carry it through all the mud and everything they eat and wear has to be carried too. And Dida’s soldiers get so dreadfully tired they can hardly work or walk at all. Isn’t that old Kaiser a naughty old man to cause all this trouble. Now goodbye dear little laddie. Give dear old mum a kiss and tell her Dida’s coming home soon and that you will grow up soon and you won’t let any old Kaiser come near her.

At Polygon Wood in September 1917 the Germans disrupted plans for a joint Australian–British operation by launching a pre-emptive strike of their own. Elliott’s 15th Brigade resisted successfully, but the British alongside were driven back appreciably. Pompey therefore recommended that the proposed attack should be postponed. The pre-emptive German attack had achieved a deep penetration on his right, inflicted sizeable casualties in three of his battalions, destroyed much of the accumulated ammunition, and played havoc with other AIF preparations. So it was understandable that he would strongly recommend postponement. But he was overruled. He proceeds with ‘the utmost anxiety’ to implement revised arrangements for the operation, as ordered. The British, he is assured, will be retrieving their lost ground overnight and then advancing alongside his brigade. He remains sceptical that this will happen, and he is completely vindicated because it doesn’t happen. What does happen is that his men go forward as arranged, despite considerable difficulties that are substantially increased because the British are not there on the right as planned. After a while things become very confused, and Pompey goes well forward himself in a celebrated and characteristic personal inspection which proves decisive because he personally clarifies the situation, revives the attacking impetus, and his men proceed to attain not just their own objectives in their own sector but the objectives of the British alongside as well. This brilliant victory in circumstances of the gravest adversity is an absolutely magnificent performance by both Pompey and his men. Pompey proceeds to compile a battle report that is typically frank and forthright, and it is suppressed by his British corps commander.

Pompey’s contribution during the battle is all the more remarkable considering the devastating personal news Pompey had to cope with during the battle. A shell had struck his younger brother. Captain George Elliott was fatally wounded and only 400 metres away, but Pompey had to stay at his headquarters to direct the complex battle. He had to muster all his willpower, he wrote later. ‘They brought the news to me when I was tied to my office directing the fight and I could not go to him though they said he was dying. I hope never to have such an experience again.’

Pompey was wrung out after Polygon Wood. He told his wife Kate he didn’t feel like writing, even to her. But he was sufficiently perturbed by something Kate had mentioned in a recent letter to scrawl this hasty note to young Neil, who was now five:

My dear little laddie, Mum has been telling me that you were so sorry for being naughty that you wished you were a little girl like [Violet]. But if you ever changed to a little girl Dida and Mum would not have any little boy at all. And Mum and Dida would be dreadfully sad if they had no dear wee mischiefy thing like our laddie. Dear little chap, Mum and Dida love you so much that they don’t mind very much when you are naughty. Of course Mum has to [scold] you because if she didn’t you wouldn’t know what was naughty and wrong to do … Dida was sad when he heard that the little lad wanted to be changed to a girl. He loves his little laddie so much that he was sorry the poor little chap was not happy. So don’t you worry a bit old chap. You just try your best to be good and if you forget sometimes and Mum has to spank you, just be a soldier and try not to cry very much and you will know that Mum and Dida love you just the same even when they spank you. Spanking isn’t so bad if you feel quite sure that dear old Mum loves you just the same. Dear little laddie, I wish I was with you now to take you up on my knee and comfort you and tell you Mum and Dida will always love you. You must be very good and loving now to dear Lyn and dear little Jacquelyn because dear Uncle Geordie their Dida was killed by the beastly old Kaiser’s soldiers … You must love and help dear old Mum and Belle and Nana very much too and cheer them such a lot. If you love them a lot that will cheer them.

I mentioned earlier that I wanted to use Pompey as a vehicle for telling the bigger collective story about the impact of the war on Australia. To illustrate this, I’m going to read a letter Pompey received from a stranger.

With the 7th Battalion’s VC-winners at Lone Pine was Corporal Fred Wright, a 26-year-old labourer from Clifton Hill. In the desperate fighting at Lone Pine, where Pompey’s men were vastly outnumbered and the crucial weapons in the fight were bombs, Fred Wright was allocated the task of dealing with the Turkish bombs. He had to either smother them with an overcoat, or throw the bombs back before they exploded, and the best way to do that was to catch them first. It was as if he was at cricket practice and working on his slip fielding with live bombs. Eventually one blew up in his face and he was killed. He might have got a VC himself, but he didn’t. He was mentioned in dispatches.

It was the announcement of this distinction that resulted in Pompey receiving a remarkable letter from a stranger, Rose Taylor of Albert Park, who was Fred Wright’s sister.

This letter evokes a different Australia with such artlessness and poignancy that it could have been written by Bert Facey, author of the Australian classic A Fortunate Life. The letter also underlines what the war was like for so many women back home. Rose Taylor wrote this letter in March 1916, seven months after Lone Pine.

Dear Sir

I beg that you will pardon the liberty that I am taking in writing to you, but I had a very dear brother under your command in the 7th Battalion, 1062 Corporal Fred Wright … I do not suppose for one moment that you remember him, but as I see by the newspaper a Cpl Wright 7th Battn mentioned in Sir Ian Hamilton’s Despatch … I thought I would write and ask you if it was my bonny boy that had been honoured. He was killed on Lone Pine, 9th August.

If you could let me know any particulars of his death I shall be so thankful. You will perhaps think it strange that I should ask you these things, but Fred so often mentioned you when he wrote from Egypt, and in one letter said “My Colonel is the whitest man I know. I would follow him anywhere, even to certain death. He is my ideal soldier, the best loved man in the battalion. God bless him”.

So now you will understand why it is I write to you. Two of my brothers joined the AIF. One with the 7th, the other with the 15th Battalion. Both have paid the price of a widowed mother’s sacrifice. One killed, the other missing since May. It is hard to bear, but it would be harder still to have had them stay at home when King and duty called them.

I do not say we do not suffer, because we do. My mother is, as I said before, a widow, 61 years of age, and it is a severe blow to her. But oh, I am as proud of my mother as of my boys. She is as brave and true as they were.

For instance, she received the news of Fred’s death, when the clergyman brought it, like this. She only faltered one moment—“My son! My son!”—then, drawing her hand over her eyes which were blinded with tears, said “Your mother will be as brave as you were, my son”—just as though she was speaking to him—and quoted that beautiful passage of scripture that seems such a true one and fits our fallen men so well: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he gaveth his life for his friends”. I felt so small and mean at the side of her, and realised that she was a mother worthy of the soldier sons she had lost.

I do not know why I have told you all this, unless it is to let you know that while our boys are playing the game the women they leave behind will all do the same. We honour and respect every one of them, and are so proud of all our bonny Australian boys and of the officers in command over them. They have all had a very rough hard time of it. I trust that before long the struggle will be over, we shall win the day, and each one of us will be kinder to the other because of the anxiety of mind and suffering we have had to share.

Again asking you to forgive the liberty I have taken and wishing you and your men a safe and speedy return,

Yours very sincerely

R. Taylor

Pompey replied to Rose’s letter with a detailed account of what Fred did and how he died. Rose wrote back gratefully. She said she had ‘spoken to so many of your old Boys’, and the way they talk about their commander would make him ‘a very proud man indeed’. There was more. ‘My mother wishes me to add that an old woman’s prayers follow you wherever you may go’.

The multiple objectives I’ve always had for this book ensured that it would end up being a big book. The whole-of-life priority, not just Pompey the soldier, plenty before 1914 and after 1918, life and times, re-examining Bean’s Official History series, Serle plus Pedersen in the one book, Pompey as recorder and interpreter of AIF history—to do it all properly the way I wanted to do it, a big book was inevitable. Because of this, getting it published proved to be a challenging saga.

I approached a lot of publishers, and the almost universal response was that they liked the idea, they liked the biographical subject, they liked my track record, and they liked the sample chapters I’d sent them, but they said they would only publish it if it was cut by 50 000 words or more. There was, however, one publisher who said he was prepared to publish it at the length I wanted, and that was something I was delighted to hear, so I gave it to him. But unfortunately he turned out to be someone who was big on assurances of what he would do, and not so flash at doing what he said he would do, so I lost a year while the book was with him, and I eventually withdrew it from him in frustration.

So there I was about 20 months ago, years after I’d finished writing the last chapter, sitting on what I’ve always believed was a marvellous story—something I’ve never doubted for a moment, despite all these vicissitudes with publishers and the fact that I’ve been engaged on this project for quite a while—and I was starting to wonder whether it would ever be published the way I wanted. And at that stage someone suggested that I should show it to Henry Rosenbloom of Scribe Publications, and fortunately I did, and it was published last April, and sold out within two months.

The response to the book has been very pleasing. Readers and reviewers have said some very gratifying things. And a considerable number of readers, who have heard me talk about the publishers’ pressure to cut it, have gone out of their way to say vehemently how glad they were that I didn’t succumb to this pressure. At the launch, Kim Beazley said he liked it so much he didn’t want it to end, and he had only one criticism—it was 100 pages too short.

I’d like now to focus on the lead-up to the famous battle of Villers-Bretonneux. Picture the context. We’re talking about March and April 1918, when the British and their allies are facing their biggest crisis of the whole war. In March 1918 the Germans have launched an immense offensive that has driven the British back no less than 40 miles. There is widespread genuine concern that after years of fierce fighting, awful hardships and frightful casualties Britain and its allies might well lose the war. Pompey is well aware it is the climax of the whole conflict, and he is tremendously fired up as his brigade is rushed here and there to fortify vulnerable sectors in the British defence. At one stage he is directed to occupy a particular village behind the front, and finds it full of what he describes as British ‘fugitives’; he orders them to vacate the village under threat of arrest.

Now I know it’s easy for us, and particularly for someone like me who has never been shot at—so far as I know, that is—to sound judgmental about exhausted men who had every reason to be frightened, and of course there were a lot of individual British soldiers who did resist tenaciously even if their unit collectively was unable to, and there were some British units who did resist tenaciously as units. But if we focus on the situation encountered by the Australians, like Pompey’s brigade, who were rushed to the rescue, what they found was much of the British retreating in disarray, and the pitiful sight of French civilians whose homes had been in the path of the German advance in terrified retreat as well, struggling along with whatever possessions they could gather or carry in the sudden crisis, typically the elderly, or women (because the French men were away in the army), often with a crying child clinging to mother’s skirts. And you’ve got the situation transformed by the arrival of the Australians, like Pompey and his men, confident, unflustered by the dismay all around them, ready to do the business and stop the Germans. All these dismayed soldiers and civilians going one way, and a smaller number of Australians, undeterred, defiant, outwardly relaxed yet inwardly fiercely determined, going the other way towards the enemy.

Far too many Australians today know nothing at all about this. And they should know; they should know, because here we have some of the great moments of our history. Many of these retreating civilians recognise the Australian uniform, and they become exultant. They start raving about ‘les Australiens merveilleux’ (the marvellous Australians) and many of them actually turn around and go back to their homes because they are so confident the AIF will stop the Germans. Some of the finest national declarations in Australia ’s entire history are to be found here, like the reassuring words of some of these diggers to the distraught French women: ‘Fini retreat madame, beaucoup Australiens ici’. (No more retreat madame, many Australians are here.) That’s got to be one of the all-time great national statements, surely: ‘Fini retreat madame, beaucoup Australiens ici’. It has also been recorded that at this critical time an ecstatic old Frenchman says ‘Pas necessaire maintenant—vous les tiendrez, vous les tiendrez’, and a nearby digger asks someone for a translation; when this digger is told that the Frenchman was saying ‘No need to leave now, you’ll hold them, you’ll hold them’, this digger says ‘Well, we’ll just have to make sure the old bloke isn’t disappointed’.

At this critical time Pompey wrote that ‘The AIF have hitherto accomplished nothing to be compared in importance with the work they have in hand just now’. ‘I was never so proud of being an Australian as I am today … The gallant bearing and joyous spirit of the men at the prospect of a fight thrills you through and through. You simply cannot despair or be downhearted. Whatever the odds against, you can feel their spirits rising the more the danger seems to threaten. It is glorious indeed to be with them’.

What the Australian soldiers did in 1918—both in this period I’m describing, when they were prominent in the defence against the German onslaught, and also later that year, when they spearheaded the offensive that brought eventual victory—what the Australian soldiers did in 1918 prompts the conclusion that Australians were influencing the destiny of the world in 1918 more than Australians had ever done before and probably more than Australians have ever done since.

In all this, Pompey is in his element. When he finds that some undisciplined soldiers are concentrating less on resisting the oncoming Germans than on hopping into the grog left in the suddenly deserted estaminets and chateaux, he takes characteristically assertive action. When a British officer is caught in the act, Pompey arranges for a notice to be issued declaring that the next officer caught looting will be summarily and publicly hanged, and his body will be left swinging as a deterrent. He knows this order might well be illegal, but desperate situations require desperate remedies. And there was certainly no more trouble with looting. As Pompey (who was a solicitor in civilian life) observed afterwards, ‘no-one seemed inclined to make of themselves a test case under the circumstances’.

A letter Pompey wrote at this critical time provides a superb illustration of his frame of mind and how he was able to inspire his men to do exceptional things. At this climax of the greatest war there had ever been, he wrote to one of his English cousins. It’s just a private letter, not intended for public display or publicity, and, as always with Pompey, there’s no pretence, no artifice.

I cannot tell you where we are, [he’s alluding here to the censorship, of course, he knew exactly where they were but couldn’t say so].

I cannot tell you where we are, but think of what the Bosche most aimed for and plant my brigade right across the path. It is a great honour I feel to be placed there … we will hold him yet. You must tell every one to keep their spirits up—this is no time for softness and yielding … the boys are longing for him to come on … the more we see of him as a soldier, the more contemptuous of him do we become—his strategy and his tactics appear alike to have been copied from the locusts that devastate our fields at home on occasion … the whole military ability of the Teutonic race has advanced no plan beyond … the instinct of an infant grasshopper. In spots he must gain by such means a transient success, [remember the British have been driven back no less than 40 miles] but will he win the war?—never, if our hearts are stout and our brains cool and our arms ready to take advantage of opportunity … I must just stick it out like my boys—our backs to the wall but our faces and our breasts undaunted at all—facing the foe … Never fear the ultimate result.

Would have made a marvellous footy coach, wouldn’t he!

A few days later in that month of April 1918, with the Germans pushing towards Amiens and the sense of crisis still acute, Elliott’s brigade is stationed north-west of Villers-Bretonneux, a tactically vital town east of Amiens. At this crucial time, the British 8th Division has been ordered to safeguard Villers-Bretonneux. Elliott concludes its dispositions are flawed. He becomes convinced that the Germans will attack the town, convinced that the British will be unable to hold it, convinced that his nearby brigade will be called on to recapture it, and convinced that the provisional encirclement manoeuvre he prepares will do the trick. He is eventually proved correct in every respect. The Germans attack, the British are driven back, and he is itching to put his plan into action—but he has to wait with escalating frustration for hours while the British fritter away precious time trying to arrange counter-attacks of their own which prove predictably abortive. Pompey is pacing around his headquarters like a caged lion, pressing his superiors for permission to strike (at one stage he issues a controversial order within his brigade that retreating British soldiers are to be rallied and if they hesitate at all they are to be shot—this order was overruled). At last he receives the green light for his counter-attack; the plan adopted is essentially his, with the Australian 13th Brigade called in to help his men carry it out. By now it’s dark, and the difficulty and complexity of the scheme is extreme; numerous observers, including not a few of his own men, think the enterprise is a big gamble that will surely fail. But his men move forward resolutely, aware that it is the third anniversary of the original Anzac Day and they have an opportunity to commemorate it with an appropriately special exploit. Pompey Elliott’s men overwhelm the enemy with a famously irresistible charge. This stunning counterattack at Villers-Bretonneux was the end of the dangerous German thrust towards Amiens.

Will Dyson, the first official Australian war artist, was on the scene at Villers-Bret. Some years ago I wrote a book about Will Dyson, who was, like Pompey, a superb character to write about. They had very different personalities, but one thing they had very much in common was a profound admiration for the men of the AIF. In my biography of Will Dyson, one of my favourite bits is the letter he sent home shortly after the battle of Villers-Bret to his brother Edward Dyson, who was a well-known writer in those days. This is Will Dyson writing to his brother just after Villers-Bretonneux:

The boys are more eager, cheerful, bucked up and full of fight than ever before. Weather is good, food is good and they are at the height of their reputation. What they have done is in so striking a contrast to what the others did not do … God alone knows what terrible things are coming to them, but whatever they are they will meet them as they have met everything in the past. These bad men, these ruffians, who will make the life of Australian magistrates busy when they return with outrages upon all known municipal bye-laws and other restrictions upon the free life—they are of the stuff of heroes and the most important thing on earth at this blessed moment.

In conclusion, one more highlight featuring Pompey in his own words. It concerns an incident after the Armistice, when Pompey is having a dreary and dispiriting time in Belgium waiting to go home. His morale is low. It’s been a long and terrible war, so many fine men have died, he’s been away for five years, his health is not the best, and seeing his brigade dwindle as his men gradually leave for home doesn’t help his frame of mind. He decides to call a parade, ostensibly to present a few unpresented medals, but really to get the brigade together for what would in effect be the last time because of the increasing flow of departures. He gives them a farewell speech, thanking them for their contribution to the high collective standard the brigade had attained, and wishes each of them all the best for the trip home and the future. The parade duly dismissed, Pompey returns to his paperwork.

That afternoon, to his astonishment, the whole brigade marches back to his chateau. After the morning parade, the sentiment had spread that a gesture of tribute to the brigadier was called for, particularly in view of the brigade’s limited future. It is a voluntary demonstration, but practically everyone participates. The first Pompey knows of this unique tribute is when the battalions march into the grounds of the chateau that is his headquarters, preceded by their bands and colours. As each company skirts the chateau its commander demands three cheers for the brigadier, which are lustily given. This cheering brings Pompey outside, where he stands on the front steps of the chateau with a lump in his throat and acknowledges each company as it passes.

The brigade proceeds to execute a ceremonial manoeuvre in tribute to Pompey. At the end of it, the senior colonel present calls for three cheers from everyone. Those cheers are heard a long way away. He then says to Pompey that the men wanted to demonstrate their feelings for him. They had the utmost confidence in him, and knew he would never send anyone anywhere he was not prepared to go himself. It’s what Pompey said in response to this stirring tribute that I shall read now.

It’s difficult to respond appropriately to such an unexpected and moving demonstration, but the main thing I want to emphasise is to have faith in yourselves as Australians and in your land of Australia. At the start of the war I refused to accept English officers in the 7th Battalion. I said no, this is an Australian battalion and will be officered by Australians … At the Senior Officers School at Aldershot not long ago the Commandant went so far as to say that every lesson so far learned in this war had been learned from the Australians. That may be going a little too far, but there is no doubt that many of the modifications have been evolved by the junior officers among us. It has been the fashion in Australia to decry our own, but the men of the AIF will alter this when they return. You men have equalled the English Guards with their strict discipline; you have fought against the pick of the German Army, the Prussian Guard and the Wurtembergers; you have competed on the rifle range with the French Chasseurs Alpins—all with the same result. Think of these things when you go home. Have pride in yourself and in your country and determine, relying on yourself, to make your country the best to live in and die for … When we came to the Somme in March last year it seemed that there was nothing left for us to do but just to die in our tracks in trying to stop the rush. But when we met the Germans in a really determined manner they did not have a chance with us at all … I thank you for your spontaneous token of respect. I am proud to think that for over three years I have served with you, and have at times had to punish you, and yet I hold your respect. It is a great thing, and I thank you for this demonstration of your loyalty and your devotion.