Category: military history

No Australian Need Apply: British Officers, Co…

This is the text of the paper I gave at the British Commission for Military History conference over the weekend. It’s about 3000 words so it’s not a short read but hopefully some of you will find it interesting.

First World War lies close to the heart of Australia’s popular imagination. The
Australian and New Zealand Army Corps and the ill-fated Gallipoli Campaign are
well known to the vast majority of Australians. For many they hold an important
place in the making of national identity. Yet despite its seeming importance,
or perhaps because of it, a great many myths have made their way into the collective
memory. The one I want to talk about today encompasses questions of nation,
empire and the civil-military divide. That myth is command in the Australia
Imperial Force (AIF).

The popular interpretation of command in the AIF
is that Australian formations were dominated by bungling British officers. We’ve
taken Alan Clark’s “Donkey’s” view of First World War command and added an
additional twist of colonial resentment. This view stresses Australian
independence and ignores the pro-British and pro-Imperial sentiment that were a
vital part of Australian nationalism in the early 20th century. The
aim of this paper is to examine the extent to which this popular view is
accurate. It will look at the political, military and social forces that
interacted on command appointments to discover to what extent it was a British
dominated force. To do this requires both the examination of the changes in
command that the AIF underwent over its four years of active service and to
understand the complex network of national, imperial, military and political relationships
that ruled over the process of promotion during the War.

The fully independent Australia we know today is vastly different to the
Australia of 1914. The Commonwealth of Australia was firmly part of the British
Empire and followed British foreign policy. The decision of the extent of that
support was however, retained by the government of Australia. Australian
opposition leader Andrew Fisher famously cried “Australians will stand beside
our own to help and defend her to our last man and our last shilling”.[1]

Great War was the first real trial of the Australian Army. Australia had few experienced
regular soldiers. It could not train staff and senior officers, so suitable
candidates were sent to the colleges at Camberly and Quetta. The British army
instituted an exchange program where British regular officers went to the
Dominions to take up command positions.[2]


Britain cabled the Australian government on July 30th to announce
that war with Germany was imminent the Commonwealth offered 20,000 men of any
composition. However there was a problem stemming from Australian defence
legislation. Article 49 of the Defence Act 1903 stated:


of the Defence Force who are members of the Military Forces shall not be
required, unless they voluntarily agree to do so, to serve beyond the limits of
the Commonwealth and those of any Territory under the authority of the

forced the Commonwealth to raise an entirely new, volunteer army for war
service, alongside its existing force based on compulsory military training. Inspector-General
William Bridges was appointed to command the 1st Australian Division
and administer the AIF with Australian regular Cyril Brudenell White as his
chief of staff. Bridges, was a decidedly imperial soldier. Born in Scotland he
was brought up in Britain and then Canada, where he attended Royal Military
College at Kingston. He left the college after two years and followed his
family to Australia at age 18. There he spent a number of years working for
local government before finally joining the New South Wales Artillery in 1885.

give you this quick sketch of Bridges to demonstrate the kind of person who was
considered Australian in 1914. Another indicator of Bridges’ feeling towards
Australia’s place in the Empire was his decision to name his command the
Australian Imperial Force – emphasising the Imperial nature of Australia’s
contribution – unlike the Canadians, New Zealanders and South Africans who all
created expeditionary forces.[4]

Australian government offered the AIF, then only one infantry division and one
light horse brigade, to Britain with few constraints on where it was deployed
or how it was employed. Though to prevent the dispersal of Australian troops
among British formations as had occurred in South Africa, the government
demanded that brigades be kept together to serve as a recognisably Australian
formation and that administration would be kept in Australian hands.

Australian Defence Minister, George Foster Pearce, called regularly for
Australians to be promoted to command and staff positions whenever available.
Australia had great difficulty in providing officers at brigade and division
level. Two of the first brigadiers chosen for the division were both
Australians and militia officers, Henry McLaurin and James McCay, but the third
was a regular British officer and friend of Bridges, Ewen Singlcair-Maclagan.
And the regular/militia rivalry is something about which much more could be
In 1914 only six Australian officers had PSC to their name, but there were also
four British officers seconded to Australia and became part of the AIF.  They also took John Gellibrand, a staff
trained captain who had left the British army in 1912 to return to his native Tasmania.[5] Even the first officer cadet class
of the Duntroon Military College was graduated early so they too could help
fill the ranks of the AIF.

Egypt and Gallipoli demonstrated, the AIF was an untrained and inexperienced
organisation in 1914-15. Bridges’ death in May 1915, just three weeks after the
Gallipoli landings, threw the AIF into confusion. Lieutenant-General William
Birdwood, immediately placed Brigadier Harold Walker, an Indian Army officer,
in command of the 1st Division and took administrative command of
the AIF. A friend of Birdwood, himself an Indian Army officer, Walker was by
all accounts a very good commander and respected by his Australian troops.[6] The politics of empire spared
no time for mourning however and the Australian government despatched
Australian regular James Legge to command the division. Birdwood, knowing of
the government’s wishes regarding command positions agreed to the appointment,
and Legge took command at the end of June.[7] This proved an unpopular move
with the Australian brigadiers. If Bridges was Imperialist in outlook, then
Legge was his nationalist opposite. Pearce even described some of his views as
“much too revolutionary for those Officers who clung to their old ideas”.[8] Hamilton wrote that although
Legge was ‘a man of brilliant mentality’ and ‘probably the cleverest soldier in
Australia’ he was regarded as a ‘political and self-seeker … with a knack of
quarrelling and writing.’[9] Foes of Legge were ultimately
satisfied a month later when he broke, ironically, his leg and was evacuated
back to Egypt where he oversaw the formation of the 2nd Division.
Birdwood who had clashed with Legge, promoted Walker to command the division.
The Australian government protested, but bowed to Birdwood’s professional
knowledge whilst continuing to call “for the appointment of Australian officers
wherever possible to command Australian units.”[10]

the agreement of Pearce, Birdwood officially assumed administrative control of
the AIF in September 1915.[11]
The consequences of Bridges death showed that when pressed Birdwood and the
British were open to compromise with the Australian government, although only
when the outcome suited them. And on the other it handed over administrative
control of the AIF to a British officer, albeit one whom the government
approved of.[12]

next difficulty arose in the wake of the Gallipoli campaign and the reorganisation
of the AIF in Egypt. This meant forming five new brigades and twenty new
battalions. The complex methods used are worthy of a more detailed explanation
than I have time for here, so instead I’ll just say that these new units were
formed, creating the 4th and 5th Australian divisions.

new brigadiers chosen in 1916 were almost wholly Australian, promoted from men
who had proved their worth at Gallipoli. This included Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliot
who had lead the 7th Battalion through the landing and Lone Pine and
future divisional commanders Gellibrand and William Glasgow. Only two of the
brigades went to British officers, Duncan Glasfurd and Nevill Smythe.[13]

divisional command appointments however turned out to be more political than
the brigades and the Australian government and Birdwood again entered into an
exceedingly polite argument over them with Birdwood telling Pearce.

me, the question of these higher commands is one which gives me a very great
deal of thought and consideration, and I may say a great deal of worry, for
they are so extremely difficult to carry out to the satisfaction of everyone.[14]

had decided that McCay would be good candidate for a division, but McCay was
invalided back to Australia and to take command of the newly forming 3rd
Division. Birdwood wanted two British officers, Brigadier Herbert Cox and
Major-General Herbert Lawrence to command the 4th and 5th
Divisions. However, Pearce had received complaints from senior Australian
officers about Birdwood appointing British officers.

wrote: “Australians… feel in regards to advancements that the idea is ‘no
Australian need apply’”.[15]

agreed with his Adjutant-General Thomas Dodds but held from pushing too hard,

           “At the present time I realize how
dangerous it is to unduly interfere with the liberty of action of the G.O.C.,
General Birdwood, who is on the spot and who knows the capacity of the officers
under him, and upon whom will fall the responsibility of any failures due to
incompetency of commands…

compromise was reached when Birdwood accepted Pearce’s suggestion that when
recovered McCay take the 5th Division and Cox the 4th
with command of the 3rd remaining empty until another Australian
proved themselves worthy. Lyden-Bell noted the difficulty in dealing with
Australian appointments writing. “However, it is very difficult to move anyone
in the Australian forces because most of the appointments are made from
Australia and are governed by political considerations.”[17]
Bean wrote of Birdwood’s choices for promotion that “he went further than
White, in that, if he were fairly confident of an Australian’s adequacy, he
would prefer him to a British officer of greater ability.”[18]
The compromise between Birdwood and Pearce demonstrates the delicate nature of
the dominion relationship and how attuned Birdwood was to the politics of his
situation. It also shows that though military efficiency and skill could be
sacrificed on the altar of politics, not everyone approved.

bulk of the fighting done by the AIF was on the Western Front between 1916 and
1918 and command of every Australian division would change hands in these three

McCay and the British Cox were replaced in 1916. McCay and Cox were replaced by
Australians, but Legge by another British officer, Sir Nevill Smythe VC.
William Holmes replaced Cox, despite reservations from Birdwood who regretted
that Holmes lacked Cox’s “administrative experience or qualifications.” [19]
Monash was appointed to the 3rd Division in England after proving
himself in France while McCay was replaced by another Australian, Talbot Hobbs.

saw more changes in command as Holmes was killed while visiting the front with
the NSW premier. He was initially succeeded by Australian brigadier Charles
Rosenthal, but Birdwood felt “it is impossible to recommend anyone for the
vacancy but Sinclair-Maclagan,” the British officer then commanding the 3rd
Birdwood worried that the Australians could not stand up to the rigours of a
division. He was concerned that Gellibrand “has, to some extent, broken down
with all the strain… at best he is a delicate man.”[21]

late 1917 Haig finally acquiesced to the creation of an unified Australian
formation: a single Australian Corps under Birdwood. Haig also “agreed that no
British officers could in future be appointed to Australian staffs” and that
currently serving British officers would slowly be removed from Australian
commands and taken back into the British army.[22]

process would reach its climax in the spring of 1918. The first half of 1918
saw British officers Walker and Smyth leaving their divisions and brigadiers
Lesslie and Hobkirk leaving their brigades. Only Sinclair-MacLagan remained,
having seemingly been adopted as an Australian after his pre-war service there.
All four men were replaced by Australians and often by their picked successors.
Lesslie later writing that:

“When I parted with you [the brigade] it was
with very great regret, but I had the consolation that I was handling over my
much treasured charge to the officer whom I most wished to succeed me,
Brigadier-General [Iven] Mackay.[23]

The promotion of Birdwood to the command of the reorganised Fifth Army signified
the final change in the makeup of Australian command. With Birdwood gone the
position of GOC Australian Corps was open and a somewhat bitter campaign over
the appointment ensued. But unlike earlier arguments, this was intranational.
Birdwood preferred Monash for the role and cabled Pearce to designate him
But the Jewish/German Monash had enemies, and these enemies had friends in high
places. A campaign was started by three civilians: Bean, then official
correspondent, newsman Keith Murdoch and war artist Wil Dyson to deny Monash
the command. Bean long had in mind a particular, idealised view of the
Australian officer and Monash, the “middle aged, Jewish-Australian citizen-soldier”
did not fit this image.[25]

preferred General White, Birdwood’s chief of staff, who was the talent behind
Birdwood. Bean formed a close friendship with White at Gallipoli idolising him
as “universally considered [the] greatest Australian soldier”.[26]

They took this campaign to Birdwood and the
Prime minister, stating that there was a lack of confidence in the AIF in
Monash as commander and that the men preferred White.

visit to France in early July decided the matter. The Prime Minister wanted to
postpone the question of command of the corps but Monash pushed the matter, stating
that he would not voluntarily give up his command and that he “would regard any
such removal as a degradation and humiliation.”[27] Hughes met
with three of the Australian divisional commanders and several other senior AIF
officers while in France, all of whom were strongly in favour of Monash. White,
spoke to Hughes and told him that Monash was the most qualified man for the
position and that he wouldn’t take the corps command unless it was voluntarily
vacated by Monash and even then, only if he were ordered to assume command.[28] This
effectively ended the matter of the corps command.

only administration remained in British hands. Murdoch, a close friend of
Hughes lobbied the PM to have Birdwood replaced. He felt that Birdwood, now in
charge of a British army, would be unable to adequately serve the interests of
the AIF, especially where those interests came into conflict with British
interests. Hughes cabled his cabinet on August 1st reminding them that
“Birdwood is now commanding an English Army. He looks to the War Office for his
orders… Where interests of Australia and Britain clash… for which will he
stand?”[29] These doubts over the ability of a
British general to stand up to the British government for the interests of
Australia is at odds with the attitude taken by the Australian government up to
that point. Where was the concern over Birdwood’s loyalties when he took
control of the AIF after Bridges’ death and where were the worries when he took
command of the Australian Corps?

turn towards an Australian nationalism was by 1918 more widespread in both the
military and political spheres, especially as the Canadians were, from mid-1917
under Canadian command in the field and in London. By the end of the war the
AIF was as Australian a formation as it was possible to be, given the
restraints on its service. It was barely able to outfit a single division in
1914 with sufficient equipment and artillery, let alone trained and experienced
officers and whatever sense of identity it had was thoroughly British. Both
within the government and the military there was a definite feeling of
‘Britishness’ that was inculcated by close imperial and cultural, and often
familial, ties. The interests of the AIF were inseparable from the interests of
the British Army and the British Empire. It was the conduct of the war itself
and the way in which the Australian soldier, both officer and man, interacted
that changed this relationship.

face to face with their English comrades, a distinction was made for Scottish
soldiers and Irish soldiers, Australians often found them wanting. Comments
were made about the short stature of British soldiers at Gallipoli and
perceived failures by British formations such as at Fromelles and in early 1918
further embittered Australian opinion.

sentiment grew, helped along by feelings of insufficient recognition and
frequent overuse in order to spare British units. By 1918 the increasing strain
of combat with the decreasing numbers of reinforcements coming from Australia
furthered the feelings of resentment and proved fertile ground for mythology.
Supported by the post-war writings of Bean, Murdoch and even Monash, the
publicly accepted view of Australia’s war has become that of a truly
nationalising event in which the British are seen as Australia’s enemies as
much as their German or Ottoman foes.

reality however remains distant. The AIF was an organisation bound by ties of
empire, race, culture and tradition, but also the more practical ones of
stature, youth and inexperience. It began the war as a willing participant,
just a single part of the British Empire, but one beginning to feel the confidence
of a youthful nation, in search of its own mythology.

myth of commanding and administering to the AIF diverged after the war from a
no less inspiring reality. A reality which required tapping into the Imperial
network to place trained, experienced and skilled officers in command of
enthusiastic but inexperienced and untrained civilian soldiers. Australia
simply did not have the men to staff and command the AIF. It took years of
tutelage in the harshest and most trying education of a brutal and costly war,
but the AIF did manage to gain an impressive level of military efficiency and
skill. British accounts show that the political complexities surrounding the
AIF were widely known and it was openly acknowledged, by Haig among many others
that Australians had to be treated with a certain level of consideration due to
their peculiar place in the BEF.[30] This willingness to listen
to Australian appeals, and the continual pressure of the Australian government,
prevented the AIF from ever becoming overrun with British officers and instead
demonstrated a process of gradual Australianisation that was accomplished
before the end of the war.

from the monocled English colonel demanding a suicidal attack in Peter Weir’s Gallipoli – a colonel who was actually an
Australian – the role of British officers in the AIF was much more complex,
much less evident and far less sensational than we have ever been led to

Andrew Fisher ‘Last man, last shilling’ speech, 31 July 1914, National Archives
of Australia (NAA). Accessed 12/10/18

For more see Doug Delaney The Imperial
Army Project

Federal Register of Legislation, Defence
Act 1903,
as Made
accessed 15/10/18.

[4] Bean
C.E.W, The Official History of Australia
in the War of 1914-1918, Volume I:
story of Anzac
(St. Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland Press in
association with the Australian War Memorial, 1981). p.36

[5] Mallett,
Ros. The Interplay between
Technology, Tactics and Organisation in the First AIF
of Arts thesis). University of New South Wales
1998. Accessed 17/10/18.

Sweeting, A.J. Harold B. Walker, Australian Dictionary of Biography, ANU. Accessed 31/10/18

See Birdwood Papers at the AWM, 3DRL/3376.        

Pearce to Birdwood, 11/9/1915. Field Marshall Lord Birdwood Papers, 3DRL/3376 7/2. Australian
War Memorial. Accessed 5/11/18.

[9] Clark,
Chris. ‘Legge, James Gordon (1863–1947)’,
Dictionary of Biography
, National Centre of Biography, Australian National
University, accessed online 17 October 2018.

[10] Bean,
C. Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 – Volume III, p.44

Connor, John. Anzac and Empire: George Foster Pearce and the Foundations of Australian
, Cambridge
University Press, Melbourne, 2011. p.65; Birdwood to Pearce, 29/1/16.
Birdwood Papers, 3DRL/3376
7/1 Part 1
, AWM. Accessed 5/11/18

Birdwood to Pearce, 29/1/16. Birdwood Papers, 3DRL/3376 7/1 Part 1,
AWM. Accessed 5/11/18.

[13] Bean,
C. Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 – Volume III, p.46

Birdwood to Pearce, 24/3/16. Birdwood Papers, 3DRL/3376
7/1 Part 1
– AWM. Accessed 5/11/18.

Quoted in Delaney, D, The Imperial Army
Project: Britain and the Land Forces of the Dominions and India 1902-1945,
University Press, Oxford, 2017. p.138

[16] Bean,
C. Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 – Volume III, p.46

Lynden-Bell to Maurice, 2/2/1916. Arthur Lynden-Bell Papers, Imperial War
Museum, Doc.76826b

[18] Bean,
C. Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 – Volume III, p.46


Birdwood to Pearce 2/6/17. Birdwood Papers 3DRL/3376 7/1 Part 2,
AWM. Accessed 6/11/18


[22]Carlyon, Les. The
Great War
. Picador, Sydney, 2007. pp.533

Lesslie, William. Randwick to Hargicourt,

Pearce to Birdwood 20/6/18. Birdwood Papers 3DRL/3376 7/2. Accessed

[25]Bean, C. Official History of Australia in the War of
1914–1918 – Volume VI, pp.185

[26]Serle, G. John Monash: A biography. pp.322

[27]Serle, G. John Monash: A biography. pp.326

[28]Smithers, A.J. Sir John Monash. pp.211

Hughes to Australian Cabinet, 1st August, 1918. AA A6006 1918/8/7

Lynden-Bell to Maurice, 2/2/1916. Arthur Lynden-Bell Papers, Imperial War
Museum, Doc.76826b


First stick bombs and smoke bombs were thrown down, and then the sappers tossed their tins of explosives down to finish things up thoroughly. There was a series of huge detonations and then a pillar of flame 50 feet high shooting up from the dugout mouth. I was watching from an eminence a long way back and saw the whole display of fireworks beautifully. The dugout burned for some hours.

Afterwards we learned from the prisoner that there can’t have been less than 60 men and two machine guns in that dugout – so I suppose they burnt for several hours too! It was a very good show and carried out with much dash.

Journal of Brigade Major Arthur Floyer-Acland on watching troops clearing German dugouts in 1917.

September 23, 1918 – The Cavalry Are Unleashed

September 23, 1918 – The Cavalry Are Unleashed

Pictured – Indian horsemen in No Man’s Land.

The Great War was not a cavalryman’s war. Historians have been too harsh on the branch – cavalrymen played a large role on fronts beyond France, and even there they were more useful than is portrayed in daft films like Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, but most horsemen still spent most of the war sitting behind the lines with not much to do.

That changed in 1918 when the Central Powers rapidly disintegrated on all fronts. Allied generals had expected the war would last through 1919, only to find themselves suddenly confronted with the wide open spaces they had dreamed of since Mons and the Marne. The cavalry finally had its chance to “ride into the Gee in Gap” and chase down a fleeing enemy like it had been trained to do.

Nowhere was the continued usefulness of the cavalry more evident than in Palsetine. There, General Allenby’s 14,000-strong Desert Mounted Corps was in the midst of annihilated three Turkish armies, with the help of the RAF. On September 23, lancers from Mysore captured the town of Haifa on the coast, losing only three dead in a charge that took 700 prisoners and is still commemorated each year by the Indian Army as “Haifa Day.” In Macedonia, French cavalrymen rounded up Bulgarian stragglers and kept the survivros running back to Sofia.

On the Western Front, the cavalry had ironically become a driving force of the attack, as its men were well-rested and incredibly eager for action after years grooming their horses. Haig never unleashed the full Cavalry Corps in the west in the grand style of charge its commanders wanted; in all reality there numbers had been so reduced from units being converted to infantry that they could not take full advantage of the situation. The Germans were in retreat, but retained enough of a defense in depth to hold any prolonged British attack. Although the cavalry in the West never reached its full potential by September 1918 it was being used constantly as a part of the combined-arms warfare which would soon crack the Hindenburg Line and show that the stalemate of trench warfare had been resolved.

John Lavery – Army Post Office 3, Boulogne, 19…

John Lavery – Army Post Office 3, Boulogne, 1919.

French soldiers at a battlefield cemetary, Sep…

French soldiers at a battlefield cemetary, September 1914.

German officers examining a captured heavy F…

German officers examining a captured heavy French howitzer, June 1918.

French troops in rifle pits on the front lin…

French troops in rifle pits on the front line near Le Plessier, 2 April 1918.

Crop’s coming in good this year.

Troops of the Polish Blue Army being reviewe…

Troops of the Polish Blue Army being reviewed by a French Army commander at the training centre at Sillé-le-Guillaume, 1917.

The Polish troops were outfitted with French horizon blue uniforms with traditional Polish czapkas.

German wounded in a temporary hospital in a …

German wounded in a temporary hospital in a French church, June 1918. With a group of captured French soldiers acting as orderlies.

The result of a direct hit to a French battery…

The result of a direct hit to a French battery.