< >


'Pompey' Elliott   

The Remarkable Pompey Elliott, Soldier, footballer and Senator

Pompey Elliott was a remarkable character, a household name. Shortly after his return

from the First World War he was elected to the Senate and remained there until his death.

He contested two federal elections, in 1919 and 1925. Each time he was the first senator

elected in Victoria. He was so famous during the 1920s that any Victorian schoolboy

surnamed Elliott was liable to be nicknamed Pompey.

His remarkable reputation, which enabled him to top the Senate poll in 1919, was of

course built during the tumultuous preceding years when he commanded the 7th Battalion

at Gallipoli and the 15th Brigade at the Western Front. Pompey was a charismatic,

controversial and outstandingly successful military leader. He was Australia™s most

famous fighting general, revered by his men and better known outside his own formation

than any other Australian commander.

My aim today 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


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. At one stage when he was on 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 courage, character, and


Taking the last one first, his capacity. Pompey was a brilliant tactician as well as a fierce

fighter. For any private soldier, it's important to have faith in your superior's competence.

If you are putting your life on the line, you obviously want to feel that you are being

competently led while you are 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 and he immediately went forward himself to investigate the situation and had a

celebrated duel with a Turk in the 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.

The second of those three Cs that had so much to do with the exceptional esteem, even

reverence, that so many of his men regarded him with, 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, he 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.

The best known Pompey anecdote, which became the most famous AIF story of all, was

the story of Pompey's hat. Pompey preferred the felt hat to be worn in the 7th Battalion,

being unimpressed with alternatives like caps or the British-style pith-helmet. During one

parade in Egypt he said so; and, even though felt hats were in short supply and hard to

get, he went so far as to threaten that any 7th Battalion man without a felt hat at next

parade would find himself cleaning sanitary pans. After that parade Pompey went off to

lunch at the officers' mess, and put his hat underneath his chair as usual, but when at the

end of the meal he reached underneath to retrieve it he was perturbed to discover it was

no longer there. A series of searches undertaken at his instigation failed to locate the

missing hat. Various versions of what happened have circulated in the years since. In my

view the most likely explanation is that someone reached in under the edge of the

officers' mess marquee, grabbed the hat, and then either buried it in the desert sand or

handed it to a mate in another battalion. All Pompey could find in the way of a

replacement at short notice was one that was too small and had an odd pinkish colour. At

the next parade there was considerable suppressed merriment in the ranks when he

struggled to retain his dignity wearing this peculiar ill-fitting substitute.

In due course Pompey came to appreciate the funny side of the hat story, but the incident

that amused him most during the AIF's period in Egypt occurred when his battalion was

marching 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

had served under Pompey and were still convinced that his horse had extraordinary


Even before the Gallipoli landing, then, Pompey was establishing himself as one of the

characters of the AIF. 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 to 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 3am 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, fulfilling life after it, so that's a big statement‚in my

estimation no greater soldier or gentleman ever lived.

After the Gallipoli evacuation, Pompey was promoted to command the 15th Brigade. He

took that formation to the Western Front in mid-1916, and remained its commander for

the rest of the war. Many of the best Pompey stories occurred while he was a brigadier,

like the time he was wounded when 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 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 Fifth 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.

After Pompey's promotion to the command of the 15th Brigade, he had just arrived at the

Western Front when he experienced the catastrophe, the calamity, of Fromelles. In this

disaster 5 533 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 1 800 of these Fromelles casualties were sustained in Pompey Elliott's


Pompey, as I've said, had only been at the Western Front five minutes when this hare-

brained 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 two other big Western Front battles, Polygon Wood and Villers-Bretonneux, the

outcome was very different, and no-one was more instrumental in turning looming defeat

into stunning victory, in both battles, than General Pompey Elliott. In these battles he was

also distressed by the casualties in his brigade, but at least unlike the fatuous folly of

Fromelles Polygon Wood and Villers-Bretonneux were important battles that he and his

brigade ensured were victories when they looked for a while like anything but. And his

outstanding leadership and tactical flair were crucial in each battle. Pompey was an

outstanding tactician. Villers-Bretonneux was described by General Monash and others as

the most brilliant feat that had been accomplished by soldiers from Australia or anywhere


Part of what makes Pompey 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


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.

In tackling Pompey's biography 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. 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 in the Senate.

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. Sometimes you come across

unbalanced military biographies, where, if it concerned a World War I identity, you

would typically find his ancestors, birth, upbringing, education, employment, marriage,

parenting, militia involvement half his life or moreŠcovered in a brisk first chapter that

takes the reader up to 1914 and then the war breaks out, the military sources open up, and

you have chapter two covering six weeks training at Broadmeadows. That was the kind of

unbalanced biography I wanted to avoid. In the book there is plenty of interesting material

on him before 1914 as well as after 1918, when Pompey went into 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.

Another priority was that I wanted 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. Feedback about this aspect has been very


And another facet I wanted to ensure there was appropriate coverage of was Pompey as a

parent. His 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 them that he was not around for the next five years

that were such crucial formative years for them. 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 waggons like traction engines

and put guns in them and ran them ‚bumpety bumpup 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 waggons 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 waggons 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 –"

So much for the Western Front as bedtime story.

There's another remarkable letter that Pompey wrote to young Neil after the battle of

Polygon Wood in 1917. Pompey was wrung out after this battle. Two of his relatives had

been killed, he had received devastating news from home about his solicitors' practice,

and 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


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."

A word on the Australian Official History. The quality of Charles Bean™s epic Official

History of Australia in the War of 1914Œ18 has tended to inhibit reappraisal of the battles

he chronicled in his innovative, painstakingly researched and unprecedentedly detailed

volumes. Such was the excellence of his History that later writers have, in the main,

concluded that re-examining Bean's interpretation of what occurred was not only difficult

and time-consuming but also ultimately unnecessary. But I felt that kind of approach

would have been inappropriate for a book on Pompey Elliott. Pompey was involved in so

many controversies and had such forthright views about what happened and what should

feature in the historical record that I felt that a biographer of Elliott would not be doing

the task properly if he accepted Bean's findings with minimal scrutiny as given and

proceeded from there. So what I did, and this was a big task, was to immerse myself in as

many as possible of the vast array of sources that Bean used, together with, of course,

other sources emerging more recently that were not available to him. Interesting

reinterpretations have resulted.

I remain a firm admirer of Bean's idealism, his priorities and objectives as a historian, and

the sustained quality of his work. However, I've ended up disagreeing with Bean on a

number of issues. In fact, I don't know of any First World War biography or book of

military history that has done more to overturn the accepted versions of events as handed

down by Bean.

Pompey characteristically justified his actions in all these controversies with verve and

conviction. Naturally I've quoted him freely in the book. What Pompey wrote in his

wartime diaries and letters, and in his extensive postwar correspondence, and in various

articles, and in his submissions to Bean for the Official History, and what he said in

postwar lectures and in Parliament all this in aggregate represents a more significant

contribution to the history of the AIF than the writings of any of his contemporaries

except Bean. Pompey is not only notable as a soldier and commander, but as a recorder

and interpreter of the history of Australia in the Great War.

Pompey Elliott's political career had its genesis in the determination of Nationalist Party

strategists, who were concerned about the volatility and disruptive tendencies of returned

soldiers, to endorse a high-profile AIF commander on their Senate ticket in each state for

the 1919 election. Pompey was an obvious recruit to approach. He had appropriately

conservative political attitudes. His extraordinary popularity among returned soldiers and

their families was underlined by the rapturous receptions he was given at welcome home


Pompey was flattered to be asked, but wary. He was confident he could make a

worthwhile contribution in Parliament, but the way the party system required politicians

to commit themselves in advance to numerous detailed policies was abhorrent to him. As

he declared to one of his officers, ‚if any one wants me to stand for Parliament, they must

have sufficient confidence in me as an honest man to trust me to run straight without

binding me or attempting to bind me body and soul.

The Nationalist strategists were not deterred. He did create awkward moments for them

during his political career with his frankness and maverick tendencies, which were

intermittently evident on issues of concern to him such as defence policy and government

policy relating to Canberra. But these difficulties were outweighed, as far as Nationalist

powerbrokers were concerned, by the electoral advantages accruing from his remarkable

popularity. He was in Parliament for over a decade and his party was in government for

almost all that time, and he displayed legal skills and drafting flair in creatively amending

bills before the Senate, but it's unlikely that he was ever seen as ministerial material

because of his forthrightness and independent instincts.

At one stage Elliott was single-handedly responsible for a change in government policy.

One memorable day he was hurrying across King's Hall when he happened to slip on the

highly-polished jarrah floor. His burly frame executed a dramatic tumble, reputedly

rocking the Parliament House foundations, and accomplished such a spectacular slide on

his back that he ended up entering the Senate chamber in arrestingly horizontal style, feet

first. This amusing incident led to a less zealous polishing regime, and a less costly one,

which resulted in a distinctive newspaper headline trumpeting that ‚Pompey Elliott's Slip

May Save Australia Money.

Elliott lost no time in living up to his pre-election assertions about his political

independence. In July 1920, in only his second Senate speech, he called on the

government to ‚revise drastically some of its proposals to overhaul public service

administration. Elliott's independent approach became even more evident when he

vigorously denounced the government's proposed expenditure on Canberra. Amid testy

exchanges with Nationalist colleagues, Pompey denied that he had given any

commitment, implicit or explicit, during the election campaign in favour of expenditure

on Canberra, and declared that ‚I feel so strongly upon this matter that I have no desire to

sit behind the Ministry if they are going to incur this expenditure. I would rather form a

party of my own. Elliott did not carry out this threat, but did rapidly establish a

reputation for outspokenness in Parliament.

He dramatically reinforced it the following year. In 1918 he had been intensely aggrieved

when overlooked for promotion to one of three vacancies for divisional command straight

after his Villers-Bretonneux triumph. The acute sense of grievance never left him, and

was aggravated in 1921 when the postwar militia force was established and he was again

passed over for a divisional vacancy.

Pompey responded by venting his spleen in a series of extraordinary Senate speeches. He

repeatedly had other senators, who included several fellow generals, on the edge of their

seats as he lifted the lid on numerous controversial anecdotes about his wartime

experiences, and made remarkable allegations about AIF individuals and incidents. After

yet another astounding Pompey outburst, a Labor senator observed that ‚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.™

A number of these exposés concerned events during March and April 1918, when the

British and their allies were facing their biggest crisis of the whole war. In March 1918

the Germans launched an immense offensive that drove the British back no less than 40

miles. There was widespread genuine concern that after years of fierce fighting, awful

hardships and frightful casualties, Britain and its allies might well lose the war.

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 elderly or women (because the French men were away in the

army), often with a crying child clinging to mother's skirts. And the situation is

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 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™, the 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.

In the book I say that 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 perhaps more than Australians have ever done since.

Pompey was well aware at the time that what was happening in March and April 1918

was the climax of the whole conflict, and he was tremendously fired up as his brigade was

rushed here and there to fortify vulnerable sectors in the British defence. When he found

that some undisciplined soldiers were concentrating less on resisting the oncoming

Germans than on hopping into the grog left in the suddenly deserted estaminets and

chateaux, he took characteristically assertive action. After a British officer was caught in

the act, Pompey arranged for a notice to be issued declaring that the next officer caught

looting would be summarily and publicly hanged, and his body would be left swinging as

a deterrent. He knew this order might well be illegal, but desperate situations require

desperate remedies.

There certainly was 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.

During this phase of desperate defence his men had to march all night to the village of

Hedauville. He was assured they would find it vacated for them to occupy. When Pompey

arrived with his men, tired and wet after marching all night, he called at the Hedauville

chateau at 9.30am. As he told the Senate in 1921:

I found the chateau literally packed with [British] officers, all of whom were

still in bed. – [The] staff officer who appeared to be in command – was

still in a very undressed state, stated that he had no orders whatever about

leaving, and until he did so he could not move – By this officer not being

ready to move out, [my] men were forced to halt in the fields, sodden with

rain falling at the time, and await his convenience. Not wishing to appear the

least unreasonable, I told him – I would try to get a building for

headquarters, and leave [my] men outside until midday, whilst he was getting


Pompey then went on to tell the Senate that during the intervening hours he sent his

intelligence officer out to try and make contact with the British division this detachment

belonged to. This officer reported back to General Elliott that when he inquired about the

detachment ensconced at Hedauville he was given unprintable replies about its

performance. Pompey responded decisively. As he told the Senate,

I then sent for the [British] staff captain, and asked him had he received any

orders yet. He replied that he had not. I asked why he had not telephoned or

gone to [a nearby village] to find out. He replied that he had no telephone. I

told him that I had a telephone he could use, and then, being irritated by his

listless manner and want of interest, and by the fact that my men were being

drenched to wait his convenience, I told him that I had formed a most

unfavourable opinion from what I had heard of his division, and that his own

want of energy and initiative were strong confirmation of what I had heard,

and that unless he got orders and moved his men out of the village

immediately, I would assume command and march them out of the village, if

necessary, under arrest.

This assertiveness had the desired effect. Before long, this British detachment had moved

out of Hedauville. As Pompey and his men were settling in, however, the situation

changed dramatically once more. They were directed to move immediately to another

vulnerable sector in the British defence about 20 miles away, and had to march all night


Pompey recalled this memorable night in a Senate speech in 1923:

I – have seen them triumph in battles, and have greeted them beaten, but

never disgraced, returning from a stricken field they were proud moments;

but I have never been prouder than when – we marched, at night, 26 miles.

– When I arrived at General – Monash's headquarters – his staff officer

said ‚They will never get here. But at the appointed hour the whole brigade

marched in intact, in close and beautiful order –

Now back to what Pompey was revealing in 1921:

Honourable senators will hardly believe the sequel, but this is what happened.

Three weeks later General Hobbs [who was Pompey's immediate superior]

called to see me. He said ‚I want to speak to you privately, and took me out

into the garden. He then said to me, ‚General, I have instructions to tell you

that – you will receive no further promotion [because] of your conduct to

[British] officers. When he said that, I turned away rather dumbfounded, and

he [patted] me on the back and said ‚I have got to tell you that, but by God

you were right. It turned out that this staff officer [at Hedauville] was the son

of a Duke, [and complained about] my conduct, and you see the result.

To appreciate what a bombshell this kind of speech was, you need to bear in mind the

strict censorship that applied during the war period. These were extraordinary revelations,

and there were a lot more of them with Pompey on the warpath fighting the war all over

again in the Senate.

He was indeed a remarkable soldier and a remarkable senator.

From an interview with Ross mcMullin:

Question : Do you think that Pompey's death came about because of his personality

and his frustrations? Could you speak about the causes that led to him suiciding?

Ross McMullin : Pompey Elliott suicided in 1931. He was still a senator at the time.

How did that come to happen? I think it could be said that by 1931 he had demonstrated

that he had an obsessive personality and that he was prone to great troughs of

depression and, of course, during the war he had plenty to be depressed about. A

psychiatrist professor told me that this sort of thing can run in families profound

depression leading to suicide. Pompey's elder sister suicided in Ballarat in 1894,

Pompey's niece was to later suicide in the 1960s. As to why it happened in 1931 rather

than at some other time, I think there are four possible factors.

The first is what he called his ‚supersession grievance, being superseded both in 1918

and 1921 by those other generals. He felt that profoundly, and was still troubled by it

greatly in the 1920s. A chapter title in my book comes from a letter that he wrote, in

which he said that ‚the injustice has actually coloured all my post-war life.He really felt

that acutely.

Second, it was the time of the Great Depression, the great economic depression. For

someone of his political views, it was as if the entire system was on the brink of imminent

collapse. He died in March, and he was the third prominent Melbourne solicitor to suicide

in 1931. The great upset, distress and turmoil of that time led to him feeling deluded even

about his own personal finances. He was quite financially secure, but he didn't feel it.

Third of the four triggers was post-traumatic stress syndrome, as of course we call it

today, though we didn't then. Pompey obviously had encountered terrible sights and

horrors through being a front line commander and from being so prominently in the front

line, even as a general. But this was not the only kind of thing that cropped up in his

nightmares and flashbacks during the 1920s. There had also been times when he had to

order subordinates to do particular tasks. Even though, when he had these flashbacks and

went over it afterwards, he remained convinced that someone had to do them at the time

and it was appropriate tactically, and that he had to, as a general, order someone to do

them, he still terribly regretted the outcome of those instances where, of course, some of

the men didn't come back.

The fourth trigger was that he™d had a severe bang on the head in a horse riding accident a

few months before he died. As his relatives were piecing together the sequence of events

afterwards, and trying to make sense of it all, they thought that that incident was perhaps

more serious than they had thought at the time. Those four factors together influenced his


Back home after the war, he was overlooked in Australia's postwar defence plans, became a Nationalist senator and campaigned over defence, for returned servicemen and in his own interest. The onset of the Depression added to his own depression. So did the nightmares reliving war horrors.


Career Summary

Date of birth 1878-06-19  West Charlton, VIC 
Date and unit at enlistment (ORs)  1898  Enlisted as a private in a squadron of the 4th Victorian Contingent, the Imperial Bushmen. 
Date of honour or award  1900  Awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his participation in an attack on a Boer force which resulted in the capture of 33 men and 54 horses. 
Date commissioned  1900  Obtained a commission as a lieutenant in the 2nd Berkshire, but chose to remain with the Australians. 
Other  1900-05  Arrived in South Africa and promoted to corporal. 
Date returned to Australia  1901-07   
Other  1901-08  Sailed again for South Africa and joined the Border Scouts. 
Date and unit at appointment (Officers)  1904-03  Enlisted in the 5th Australian Infantry Regiment and commissioned as a lieutenant. 
Date promoted  1911  Appointed major and second in command of the Regiment. 
Date promoted  1913-07-01  Appointed lieutenant colonel and commanding officer of the 58th Battalion, Essendon Rifles. 
Other  1914-08  Selected to command the 7th Battalion when the AIF was formed. 
Date promoted  1915-03-01  Appointed to brigadier general and given the task of organising the 15th Brigade. 
Date wounded  1915-05-25  Wounded in the ankle at Gallipoli and evacuated. 
Other  1915-06-02  Returned to the 7th Battalion. 
Other  1915-08  Evacuated to England with pleurisy. 
Other  1915-11-22  Returned to the 7th Battalion. 
Other  1915-12-18  Evacuated from Gallipoli with a sprained ankle. 
Other units  1916-01-24  Appointed to command the 1st Brigade. 
Date promoted  1916-03  Appointed Brigadier General and commanding officer of 15th Brigade. 
Date of honour or award  1917-01-01  Gazetted Companion of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George. 
Date of honour or award  1917-02-15  Gazetted Russian Order of St Anne - 3rd Class. 
Date of honour or award  1917-03  Awarded the Distinguished Service Order. 
Date of honour or award  1918-06-03  Gazetted a Companion of the Order of the Bath. 
Date of honour or award  1919-01-07  Gazetted French Croix de Guerre. 
Date returned to Australia  1919-05-05   
Other  1919-09  Reappointed to command the 15th Militia Brigade. 
Other  1921  Requested to be placed on the unattached list. 
Other  1926  Reappointed again to command the 15th Brigade. 
Date promoted  1927-08  Promoted to major general and appointed to command the 3rd Division. 
Date of death 1931-03-23  Victoria 


The Footballer

The slaughter of Australian soldiers that began 88 years ago this weekend claimed the lives of many famous footballers. Few were better known than George Elliott.

A dashing defender, Elliott captained the University side that competed in the VFL in the years leading up to World War I. He represented Victoria at the 1911 interstate football carnival.

His contribution, both as a player and medic, at that carnival was commended.

It was no different when he became a captain of a different kind in the Australian medical corps after graduating as a doctor in 1915. As the 56th Battalion’s medical officer, ‘Doc’ Elliott’s commitment and courage were again highly acclaimed, earning him the Military Cross.

His life was tragically cut short on September 25, 1917, when he was accompanying the 56th Battalion forward at the battle of Polygon Wood (in Belgium). He was struck by a shell and fatally wounded.

Nearby was George’s brother, the legendary commander, Brigadier-General Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliott. Charismatic and controversial, tempestuous and volatile, Pompey was the Australians’ most famous fighting general.

He was exceptionally brave, a brilliant tactician, and revered by his men. No one was more instrumental in transforming looming disaster into stunning triumph at Polygon Wood than Pompey Elliott, who owed his nickname to the VFL.

Early in 1915, during training in Egypt before the Gallipoli landing, some of the men under Harold Elliott’s command, which included a Carlton contingent, bestowed Fred Elliott’s nickname on their famous commander. It endured.

On that fateful September day in 1917, Pompey was at his headquarters directing the complex assault that would make Polygon Wood a brilliant Australian victory, when he was told that George had been hit.

With his brother dying only 400 metres away, Pompey had to summon all his considerable willpower to stay where he was, as he wrote afterwards: “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,” he said.

“I hope never to have such an experience again. The effort to concentrate my thoughts on the task of defeating the enemy as the messages came through revealing each move and the changing phases of the battle to me seemed as time went on to turn me into stone, and half the time I was like a man sleepwalking.”