A soldier’s soldier and a difficult man
‘Pompey Elliott at War: In His Own Words’
By Ross McMullin
Scribe, 524pp, $59.99 (HB)
by ROSS FITZGERALD
Ross McMullin’s new book reveals the inner life of one of our most illustrious warriors, mainly through his own writings. Pompey Elliot was a soldier’s soldier and McMullin believes more Australians should know about him.
McMullin published an award-winning biography of Elliott in 2002. Now he has gathered the wartime letters and diaries of this fighting general to let him tell his own story.
Victoria-born Harold Edward Elliott (1878-1931) studied law at the University of Melbourne, residing at Ormond College. He rose to become one of our most significant military leaders. McMullin shapes his selection of Elliott’s correspondence, statements and speeches into a riveting narrative that accentuates our awareness of his military importance, especially during the dramatic final year of World War I.
It’s still unclear how Elliott acquired his nickname. Some say it was derived from the ancient Roman general Pompey. Others that it was from the first player to reach 200 games in the Victorian Football League, the explosive Carlton star Fred “Pompey” Elliott.
As this fine collection of Elliott’s often emotional correspondence makes clear, the soldier shared the footballer’s boisterous and forthright nature. It was this that often set Elliott apart from others in the highest ranks of the AIF.
McMullin’s book reveals that the often tempestuous commander, known for his candid turns of phrase and his fertile flair for simile, adhered strictly to the “no-secrets pact” he made with his wife Kate in 1914. Married six years earlier, they were a contrasting couple: she neat and cheerful, he with a volatile temperament and easily given to controversy.
As well as his correspondence with Kate and his sister-in-law Belle, Elliott’s letters to his young children, Violet and Neil, as McMullin puts it, “turned even the Western Front” — where he led the 15th Brigade at Fromelles, Polygon Wood and Villers-Bretonneux — “into a bedtime story”.
Before that, Elliott commanded the 7th Battalion at Gallipoli, where he was wounded at the landing. Under “his vigorous frontline leadership”, four of his men were awarded the Victoria Cross for courage at Lone Pine.
As this collection of letters and diaries reveals, the newly promoted Elliott was appalled by the calibre of his battalion commanders. He wrote to a superior: “Do you desire an efficient brigade or will any old thing do?” Moreover, ‘Pompey Elliott at War’ certainly nails the self-important British general William Birdwood as being, as Elliott put it, “full of pretended affability that he imagines deceives us”.
After this mask disappeared during an argument, Elliott writes how Birdwood “commenced to chatter and jibber like a demented monkey” and then flounced out with a retinue of commanders “like a cock hen and his harem”.
Unlike McMullin’s biography, which highlighted Elliott’s life and times, the focus of this book is on his multifaceted experiences of World War I. These key wartime activities are described in his diaries and letters from August 14, 1914 to January 21, 1919, plus some later reminiscences. They also feature in Elliott’s orders, messages, battle reports and recommendations for military awards.
Moreover, this collection includes what Elliott said, especially in wireless broadcasts. Although more than 500 personal narratives of Australian experiences of the Great War have been published, few are better than the accumulated first-person accounts of Elliott.
There was also a political side to the controversial commander. Largely due to his passionate public involvement with returned servicemen’s issues, in 1919 as a Nationalist Party Senate candidate he topped the Victorian poll. This was when the Nationalist Party was in power under former Labor leader Billy Hughes.
In the 1925 federal election, Elliott was also easily returned. But the war years took a toll. In March 1931, while still a senator, Elliott committed suicide at the age of 52. His ceaseless activity, abiding sense of injustice for himself and other ex-soldiers, coupled with the strain of war service and medical conditions including diabetes and high blood pressure, had severely eroded his physical and mental health.
Elliott was buried with full military honours in Melbourne’s Burwood Cemetery. Not surprisingly, given the nature of this fine collection of Elliott’s wartime experiences, it is only in the epilogue that McMullin deals with Elliott’s tragic death.
Among the many photographs in this book, my favourite is one of Elliott in Alexandria astride his horse Darkie.
As McMullin explains, Elliott’s men appreciated that he took a personal interest in each of them, even though he sometimes had a thousand under his command. Memorably, Elliott wrote of Polygon Wood in September 1917: “My boys saved the whole British army!”
In this he was quite correct. Less than a year later, he confided to his diary: “I love even the worst of them.”
As this intriguing book reveals, Pompey Elliott was a good and difficult man and an even better general.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
The Weekend Australian, April 21-22, 2018, review, Books, p 20.