This Gallant Company
In the cloisters of the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, is the Roll of Honour. The Roll lists by surname and initials all those Australians, members of the nation’s armed services, who have died in war since the Sudan War of 1885, over 102,000 names. The dead are shown without rank or any other distinguishing award, general and private soldier alike honoured in equal sacrifice. For example, among the dead of World War I is the name ‘A J Shout’. Charles Bean, Australia’s official historian of World War I and the man most responsible for the founding of the Memorial, was convinced that this was the most appropriate way to display a name on the Roll:
- [Cigarette Card] Gaining the VC [State Library of NSW]
With reference to the inclusion of titles and decorations in the Honour Roll, I feel sure that the question was discussed at the meeting on 19 February 1924, and that this was what I was going on in stating that the War Memorial Committee was against the inclusion of ranks. I feel that the same applies to decorations, which were sometimes given to a degree which aroused comment and bitterness, to staff officers, and which, if generally well earned, were certainly not received by a proportion of those who deserved them. I strongly feel this: that the visitor, not knowing the conditions of the front, will stand before these lists and, seeing the DSO’s [Distinguished Service Order] and MM’s [Military Medal], will say to himself “Ah, those are the brave men” (or, perhaps, ‘the bravest”) – a conclusion which is not true, how far from true probably only those who were actually through heavy fighting can realize.
[Letter, Charles Bean to Major John Treloar, 28 February 1928, Bean Papers, Item 664, 3DRL6673, AWM]
The ‘A J Shout’ on the Roll is Captain Alfred John Shout VC MC MID, 1st Battalion AIF, Australia’s most decorated soldier of the Gallipoli campaign. His VC was posthumously awarded as Shout died of wounds suffered during the incident at the Battle of Lone Pine for which he earned the medal. Men like Shout were often the most ready to concede that the bravery and sacrifice of thousands of other soldiers went unrecorded and remained unknown except to their comrades in arms.
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- The VC Music Annual [NLA Npf784.0994]
One VC recipient who grew tired of the adulation he received upon his return home wounded from Gallipoli was Corporal William Dunstan. He disliked the civic receptions he was forced to attend given in his honour and finally spoke his mind when he heard that a memorial fund was to be opened to collect money for him. In a letter to the press he declined this money claiming he was lucky to be able to return home to such accolades while the actions of others went unobserved. Dunstan felt honour was also due to:
… hundreds of other Australian soldiers, who may not, like myself, have had the opportunity of coming into the limelight …but been killed.
[Dunstan, quoted in Stephen Snelling, VCs of the First World War: Gallipoli, 1995, p.175]
Victoria Crosses, nevertheless, despite the modesty of some who received them, were hard earned. They stand out as official recognition of an act, or in some cases a series of acts, of outstanding courage. The circumstances surrounding the award of the eleven VCs tell the story of the sort of warfare experienced by the ordinary soldiers of both sides as they fought each other at Gallipoli.
Ironically, the first Anzac area VC did not go to an Anzac. Few of the thousands who commemorate Anzac Day at Gallipoli or in Australia and New Zealand would ever have heard of Lance-Corporal Walter Parker, Portsmouth Battalion, Royal Naval Division. He is not part of Australia’s ‘Anzac Legend’ but his courage under fire between 30 April and 2 May at Anzac when, as a stretcher bearer, he looked after dozens of his wounded comrades despite his own wounds, earned him the Victoria Cross.
The first VC to an Anzac went to Lance Corporal Albert Jacka, 14th Battalion AIF. Once Jacka was as well known in Australia and undoubtedly as famous as the man whose name is now almost a national symbol for the whole Gallipoli story – Corporal John Simpson Kirkpatrick, the ‘Man with the Donkey’. Statues of Simpson, along with the donkey, stand today outside the Australian War Memorial and the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne testifying to the power of that story of pure Australian ‘mateship’ at Anzac, the rescue of wounded men under fire. Jacka’s VC, and the subsequent bravery awards he gained in France on the Western Front, were all for significant military action which resulted in driving the enemy from part of the Australian line. So famous did Jacka become in the AIF as a fighting soldier that one historian of the 14th Battalion called his account of the battalion’s war experiences, Jacka’s Mob. On the Australian home-front during the war the name and face of Albert Jacka were instantly recognisable but that recognition has long faded. Peter Cochrane writes of Jacka’s fate:
In 1930, the date 19 May 1915 was more widely recognised as the day Albert Jacka won the VC than the day of Simpson’s death. By 1960 Jacka and many other heroes were all but forgotten, yet elementary schooling had ensured that Simpson’s epic deeds were as widely known as they had been during the Great War …
[Peter Cochrane, Simpson and the Donkey: The Making of a Legend, Melbourne, 1992, p.231]
- Soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery at Lone Pine, Gallipoli, 6-9 August 1915: from left to right: Corporals Alexander Burton and William Dunstan, Lieutenant Frederick Tubb, all 7th Battalion. Second row: Lieutenant William Symons, 7th Battalion; Private John Hamilton, 3rd Battalion; Lance-Corporal Leonard Keysor, 1st Battalion. Third row: Captain Alfred Shout, 1st Battalion. All images from AWM
Much may have been forgotten about those who won fame at Gallipoli but two locations there are still well known. One is Anzac Cove, the beach where most of the Anzacs landed on 25 April 1915. The other is Lone Pine where between 6 and 9 August 1915 there took place one of the most hard-fought actions in Australian military history – the Battle of Lone Pine. Australian casualties at Lone Pine amounted to over 2,000 men while the Turks estimated their losses at 6,930. When it was all over the dead lay thickly all around the position and the war diary of the 2nd Battalion AIF recorded that during the cleaning up process bodies were found in such a state of decomposition that men could only do the work by wearing gas masks. Charles Bean in his official history described Lone Pine as a battle of bombs and hand to hand fighting, ‘the heaviest of its kind in which Australian troops ever took part’. Something of the desperate nature of the struggle can be understood by the fact that seven Victoria Crosses were awarded to Australians for their courage at Lone Pine, five of them for actions on one day alone, 9 August 1915, an unprecedented event in Australian military history. Today, six of those Victoria Crosses are on display in a Lone Pine exhibition in the Australian War Memorial’s Hall of Valour.
At Anzac the Australians were greatly praised and rewarded for their actions at Lone Pine and other places. Those other Anzacs, the New Zealanders, felt unnoticed. Captain Aubrey Herbert, an Englishman and Intelligence Officer with the New Zealand and Australian Division, wrote of this New Zealand sense of invisibility at Gallipoli as he spoke with the survivors of a NZ infantry battalion after the great battles of the ‘August Offensive’:
I admired nothing in the war more than the spirit of these sixty-three New Zealanders, who were soon to go to their last fight. When the day’s work was over, and the sunset swept the sea, we used to lean upon the parapet and look up to where Chunuk Bair flamed, and talk. The great distance from their own country created an atmosphere of loneliness. This loneliness was emphasised by the fact that the New Zealanders rarely received the same recognition as the Australians in the Press, and many of their gallant deeds went unrecorded or were attributed to their greater neighbours. But they had a silent pride that put these things into proper perspective.
[Aubrey Herbert, Mons, Anzac and Kut, internet edition, pp.81-82]
One New Zealander whose gallant deed was recognised was Corporal Cyril Bassett, NZ Engineers Divisional Signals. As the Australians covered themselves in glory at Lone Pine, the New Zealanders fought their way up from the sea towards the heights of Chunuk Bair. This was the main attack in the so-called ‘August Offensive’ from Anzac designed to capture Koja Temen Tepe and Chunuk Bair, the high points of the Sari Bair range. From there a breakthrough of the Turkish lines towards the straits of the Dardanelles was envisaged and a possible swift and successful end for the Allies of the Gallipoli campaign. It was not to be for the Turks bravely held Chunuk Bair and eventually beat back the New Zealand, British and Indian forces sent against them. For his bravery during the Chukuk Bair action, Corporal Bassett was awarded the VC, the only one to a New Zealander during the Gallipoli campaign. Some later felt bitter about this lack of appreciation of many similar acts of bravery shown by the New Zealanders at Chunuk Bair and other actions at Anzac. Bassett, indeed, was quite surprised by his award and said later in life:
When I got the medal I was disappointed to find I was the only New Zealander to get one at Gallipoli, because hundreds of Victoria Crosses should have been awarded there.
[Bassett, quoted in Stephen Snelling, VCs of the First World War: Gallipoli, 1995, p.187]
All his life Bassett remained quiet about his VC, not even mentioning it to his children, stating that all his ‘mates ever got were wooden crosses’.
The last of the Anzac area VCs was also perhaps the most tragic. Second-Lieutenant Hugo Throssell, 10th Light Horse, Western Australia, was awarded his VC for an action at a place few Australians have now heard of or, despite the thousands who attend services at Gallipoli on Anzac Day, even visit. Hill 60, Kiajik Aghala (the Sheepfold of the Little Rock) to the Turks, lay well north of the old Anzac position on the front line in the region captured from the Turks during the ‘August Offensive’. For the Australians and New Zealanders much terrible fighting, marked by close range bombing and hand to hand action similar to what had occurred at Lone Pine, took place at Hill 60 between 21 and 29 August 1915. On the night of 28-29 August, a party of Light horsemen commanded by Throssell held off a determined Turkish counter-attack on a captured trench during which hundreds of bombs where thrown by both sides. A curt footnote in Charles Bean’s official history conveys a sense of the terrible intensity of the action that night:
Shortly afterwards Ferrier was attempting to throw back a Turkish bomb when it burst in his hand, blowing away the arm to the elbow. He walked to the medical aid-post but died on the hospital ship. Macnee was twice wounded. Renton lost his leg. McMahon was killed.
[Charles Bean, The Story ofAnzac, Vol 2, Sydney, 1924, p.761]
For his leadership and bravery at Hill 60 Hugo Throssell received the VC. After the war, he returned to Western Australia where he farmed and went into real estate. The Depression brought him to the brink of financial ruin and believing that his wife and family would be better looked after if they had a war service pension, he committed suicide. Throssell had written of himself – ‘I have never recovered from my 1914-1918 experiences’.
This gallant company
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- Program for reception by Lord Mayor of London, 27 June 1956, for Victoria Cross recipients. [Papers of John Hamilton VC, AWM PR87/031]
In June 1956 Victoria Cross holders from around the world gathered in London to mark the centenary of the institution of the award by Queen Victoria. At a great parade in Hyde Park Queen Elizabeth II addressed the VCs and in her speech were these lines:
Today in honouring them [the VCs] for what they did, we pay tribute to an ideal of courage which all in our fighting services have done their best to attain. For beyond this gallant company of brave men there is a multitude who have served their country well in war. Some of them may have performed unrecorded deeds of supreme merit for which they have no reward.
[Queen Elizabeth II, quoted in Lionel Wigmore in collaboration with Bruce Harding, They Dared Mightily, Canberra, 1963]
Standing with ‘that gallant company’ in Hyde Park that day were John Hamilton and William Dunstan, the last survivors of the seven Australian Lone Pine VCs. One wonders if Dunstan recalled the letter he had written all those years ago to the local press declining his memorial fund and drawing attention, just as the Queen was now doing, to all those whose courage and sacrifice had earned them nothing more than ‘wooden crosses’.