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.
Ross McMullin, 2003
Harold Edward ‘Pompey’ Elliott was born on 19 June 1878 in West Charlton, Victoria. As a student at the University of Melbourne he joined the university’s officer corps, then enlisted with the 4th Victorian (Imperial) Contingent to serve in the Boer War. He was a skilled and dedicated soldier and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, in addition to being Mentioned in Despatches.
After service in the Boer War, Elliott completed his law studies. He was a successful athlete as well as a scholar, earning scholarships and prizes in a range of fields. Elliott was called to the Bar in 1907, established a firm of solicitors and married Kate Campbell in 1909. His passion for military service saw him join the 5th Australian Infantry Regiment, and in 1913 he was given command of the 58th Infantry (Essendon Rifles).
On 17 August 1914, soon after the outbreak of war, Elliott was appointed lieutenant colonel and selected to command the 7th Battalion, AIF. By this time he had two small children with whom ‘he was besotted’, Violet, born in 1911 and Neil, born in 1912. To be apart from his wife Kate and his children was difficult for him.
Elliott and his 7th Battalion, along with the troops of the 6th Battalion, embarked on HMAT Hororata from Melbourne on 19 October 1914, to meet the rest of the First Convoy in Albany. Before its refit as a troopship, HMAT Hororata was a liner owned by the New Zealand Shipping Company Ltd, London. Information about the departure of troopships was carefully censored and access was banned to the pier, however there was a large group on the beach to farewell HMAT Hororata. The ship anchored off Williamstown and Elliott sent a parting note to his wife Kate: ‘Goodbye now my darling. Give a big kiss to each of my darling bairns’.
It was a six day journey to the Albany rendezvous and Elliott was relieved that the officers of his battalion seemed to be getting along together. He described his first impression of the assembling convoy as ‘a very fine sight’.
HMAT Hororata set sail with the First Convoy on 1 November, destined for Egypt, via Colombo and Aden. Departing Albany, Elliott’s thoughts were with his wife and children: ‘The first day out of Albany I was very lonely for you and my dear bairns, so I got out your photo and fixed it in my cabin … Every day I think of you and our dear little pets’.
Shipboard life was monotonous and in an effort to provide interest, Elliott was asked to give a lecture on his Boer War experiences. He gave offence to at least one British-born member of the 7th battalion, by referring to a particular British unit he encountered in South Africa as the ‘scarlet runners’.
When it was announced that troops would disembark in Egypt for training, rather than continue to England as expected, Elliott wrote to Kate: ‘It will seem strange to be amongst scenes where Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra and Nelson and all the old people fought and died’.
The Hororata docked at Alexandria, Egypt, on 4 December 1914. Elliott and the 7th Battalion proceeded by train to Mena Camp, near Cairo.
Training was strenuous, often continuing overnight in the chilly desert air. However, the interest provided by the ancient culture that surrounded them was welcome relief. To climb the pyramids was a must and even Elliott performed that feat.
Camp poet Lance Corporal Daniel Toohey, of the 7th Battalion, expressed the feelings of many as they grew impatient to see action and wondered what was in store for them:
We’ve settled down in Egypt,
The land of flies and sand
And tho’ the life is rotten
The times we have are grand.
Australia’s troops have had the task
Of enforcing England’s claim
But we’ve a little more to ask
We want more of the game.
Elliott placed great importance on drill and field tactics. He considered strict discipline was all important, even threatening sanitary pan duty for men who did not wear felt hats on parade. However, a practical joker stole Elliott’s own hat and at the next parade there was much mirth when Elliott appeared in a ‘peculiar ill-fitting substitute’.
Many stories spread about Elliott and his big black horse Darkie that went to the Western Front with him. Rumour had it that Darkie possessed extraordinary powers, including an ability to detect and stop dead in front of an unshaven or improperly attired soldier. Elliott was in fact a good horseman, able to direct his well-trained horse with a subtle nudge to the neck.
Elliott and his 7th Battalion received the order they had been waiting for in early April 1915. They left Egypt for the island of Lemnos, before landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915.
On Gallipoli, Elliott gained a reputation for extraordinary courage and strong, effective leadership. Historian and biographer Ross McMullin wrote that ‘he placed himself in perilous situations so often that his survival was one of the minor miracles of the war’. After landing on 25 April, Elliott could find only three of his four companies. Climbing M’Cay’s Hill to assess the situation, he was hit by a bullet in the ankle and evacuated. However, he returned a week later, and commanded his battalion until December. At Lone Pine he was required to relieve part of the 1st Brigade, and his men repulsed Ottoman attacks in intense close-quarter action. Of the seven Victoria Crosses awarded for Lone Pine, four went to Elliott’s battalion, but his own efforts went unrecognised.
Elliott would never send his troops anywhere he was not prepared to go himself. On 8 July 1915, while based at Steele’s Post in the heights above Anzac Cove, he heard that the Ottomans had captured an Australian-held tunnel. He ordered a party to drive them out but then realised that he had not in fact seen the position for himself. He decided to go in person to the tunnel. Removing his boots first, he strode along the dark, narrow space, only to have a bullet pass under his left arm and hit one of the soldiers behind him.
In March 1916, Elliott was promoted to command the 15th Brigade. He sailed for France and the Western Front in June 1916. The Brigade’s first action, despite Elliott’s effort to prevent it from taking place, was at Fromelles. The Germans held the high ground and the advantages. Heavy machine-gun and artillery fire, and German counter-attacks, took a heavy toll. In one night there were 5,533 Australian casualties, including around 1,800 from Elliott’s brigade. It was a disaster never forgotten by Elliott, who wept as he greeted the survivors. Lieutenant J.D. Schroder recalled:
A word for a wounded man here, a pat of approbation 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.
Elliott’s outstanding leadership and tactical ability were influential in turning almost certain defeat into victory in the battles of both Polygon Wood, late September 1917, and Villers-Bretonneux, 24-25 April 1918. Elliott mourned the incredible loss of life and casualties sustained by his 15th Brigade, but his leadership was crucial to the eventual success of each operation. The recapture of Villers-Bretonneux at night and without artillery support, was described by General Monash and others as ‘the finest thing done in the war, by Australians or any other troops’.
At this time, no Australian commander was better known than Elliott, both for his fighting ability and his character. He was beloved by his men. Frederick Wright, of the 7th Battalion, wrote home: ‘I would follow him anywhere, even to certain death’. AIF correspondent Fred Cutlack described the battle of Villers-Bretonneux for the Australian public, and began his article by describing Elliott:
There is one man on the western front who … loves to be in the thick of it. He is of big, burly build, with immense head and jaw; his large forehead is exaggerated by baldness at the temples, and a tuft of iron grey hair stands up in the middle of his head above the forehead – stands up permanently on end with sheer energy … The stoutest chairs creak under his weight … He has led his unit . . . into every great fight he could find. He thrives on the war. He dreams Homeric battles, it is said, every night of his life . . . He fought the night attack on Villers-Bretonneux with several yards of flannelette shirting wrapped around his neck, for the gas shelling had given him a sore throat. Wherewith he looked more like the great Lord Hawke than ever. His men have the greatest affection for him. . .
Elliott was by now famous both in the AIF and in Australia for his exploits. Morale among his troops was high. However, despite his expectations, Elliott was not promoted. In May 1918 came a heavy blow; he was passed over for a divisional command to one of three vacancies in favour of those he saw as less able and less qualified. Elliott’s resentment lingered well beyond the battlefields of France.
In late August 1918, Elliott became frustrated because for two days his men had made little progress in getting across the Somme swamps. Intact bridges over the river were under German fire. Typically, Elliott decided to investigate personally and found a largely destroyed bridge that could still be crossed by balancing single file along a single steel girder. He led the way and, despite falling in the Somme on the way, reached the other side. The sight of their commander directing and dictating, dressed only in a shirt while his other clothes dried, was one never forgotten by his men.
The battalion continued operations until late September 1918. After the Armistice of 11 November 1918, members of the AIF began to return to Australia for discharge and demobilisation. The battalion was much reduced when, on 3 January 1919 in France, Elliott held a reunion dinner to thank his officers for the last time. During the course of the evening, the whole brigade paraded voluntarily, marching around the château grounds and cheering him. This tribute was for Elliott a moving demonstration of the support of his men. However, it did not help with his state of mind. Elliott was experiencing bouts of severe depression, explaining to Kate that he felt ‘very homesick and miserable and depressed’.
Elliott returned to Melbourne on 28 June 1919, with his appointment to the AIF terminated the following day. Upon his arrival home, he returned to his law firm. He provided support, free legal advice and advocacy for returned servicemen. In 1919 he successfully stood for the senate as a Nationalist; he was re-elected in 1925.
Elliott claimed that his bitterness at what he called his ‘supersession’, the ‘injustice’ of being overlooked for promotion, ‘actually coloured all his post-war life’. In 1921, when the post-war militia force was established, he had again been passed over for a divisional vacancy. His bitterness continued. He also deeply felt the deaths of his men and the battlefield dangers to which he had sent them. He felt a deep guilt at having survived while so many fine soldiers had not.
As a Victorian Senator, Elliott used his position to attack both his own direct superiors and the British High Command. He also spoke in his forthright manner on behalf of returned servicemen, many of whom came to him with their problems. These problems worsened for many with the onset of the Great Depression.
Many returned soldiers were, like Elliott, suffering from what we now call post-traumatic stress syndrome. For Elliott it was all too much to bear. On 23 March 1931, plagued by nightmares and flashbacks, Elliott took his own life. He was 53 years old. He was given a state funeral with full military honours at Melbourne’s Burwood Cemetery on 25 March 1931.
On learning that ‘Pompey’ Elliott had died, Charles Bean wrote:
So Pompey Elliott is gone! … The old soldier has laid down his arms. The stalwart figure has gone … we can picture Pompey going round the turns of that long road that we all must travel some day, with his head held high, his senses alert, his strong chin set. It is not the first time that he has gone out alone into No-mans-land. We know this about Pompey; he goes out as a soldier, utterly unafraid. … History will do him an injustice if it does not hand him down to posterity as – with very few peers – one of the outstanding and most lovable characters of the AIF.
Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, Melbourne University Press, 1981
Australian War Memorial, First World War Embarkation Rolls – Harold Edward Elliott
Bean, CEW 1936, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. Vols 1 - VI
McMullin, R 2002, Pompey Elliott, Scribe, Melbourne
McMullin R 2003, ‘Vigour, Rigour and Charisma: the Remarkable Pompey Elliott, Soldier and Senator’, Papers on Parliament No. 41, December 2003
National Archives of Australia: Australian Imperial Force, Base Records Office; B2455, Harold Edward Elliott’s First Australian Imperial Force personnel dossier, 1914-20; ELLIOTT Harold Edward, 1914-20