Pompey Elliott at War, in his own words by Ross McMullin

Reviewed by Paul Henderson

  • Scribe Publications, 2017
  • ISBN (13):9781925322415
  • RRP $59.99 (hb)

Ross McMullin wrote an award-winning biography entitled Pompey Elliott in 2002. Fifteen years later, he has now written Pompey Elliott At War, in his own words.  This is a very comprehensive set of excerpts of Elliott’s frank diary which he kept during World War I and a huge collection of letters which he wrote to his wife and others in the same period.  This book has already won awards. Certainly this gives a very detailed insight of one of Australian’s best military leaders.

The author has successfully attempted to help the reader with detailed maps, a list of abbreviations used, the ranks of the military hierarchy and a conversion scale from imperial to metric. Of considerable help is the way McMullin has provided a short explanation at the start of nearly every letter and diary entry explaining the circumstances or the background or the situation in which the piece of Elliott’s writing took place.  This is very useful.

Pompey Elliott’s writing tells us great deal about Pompey himself, his family, his attitudes towards and opinions of many of those with whom he fought, his feelings about WWI in general and particular battles and events at Gallipoli and on the Western Front.

One of the themes running through the book, is Elliott’s criticism of some of the British military leaders. His correspondence and his war diary are full of this from Gallipoli through to Armistice Day. He accused some British officers of being poorly trained, incompetent, poorly chosen, promoted to positions beyond their level of ability and delaying going back to the front while on leave. He called some of them “sockless” who put the lives of men at risk because of their poor military tactics.

Elliott despised General William Birdwood, who is criticised on numerous occasions. He fitted, according to Elliott, most of the above criticisms. By the end of the war it is almost a hatred of Birdwood, who probably had his own serious misgivings about Pompey. Elliott believed Birdwood did not acknowledge Elliott’s military genius.

Elliott also is critical of some of the English soldiers for their slow advances, running away from the scene of battle and not pulling their weight in battle. At one stage, he was criticised by the British General Hobbs for the report he wrote about the British tactics and leaders.

Pompey’s letters give the reader a clear indication of his love for his wife and family, as well as a high regard for his friends. Pompey sent gifts home, when he was not at the front. He constantly heaped praise on his wife (Kate) with words like “brave darling”, “remain positive”. The number of letters he wrote to his wife is very high. For instance, in the month of May 1916 alone he wrote several letters to his wife.  He encouraged his children in their school pursuits and loved getting letters from home. He was disappointed that they did not come to visit him from Australia, when he was on leave in London.

Not surprisingly, in many letters and diary entries, Pompey described the horrors of war both at Gallipoli and the Western Front. The fact that he wrote about some of these horrors in letters to his family is interesting. Pompey wrote with passion about mud up to one’s waist, the fear of being buried alive, going “over the top” while walking over the dead and dying, the unburied dead, the lack of food and water, the noise of war, the bayonet attacks on the Germans, where “you go for the throat” and the list goes on. No wonder he talked about his nightmares and his inability to get much sleep. He emphasised the feeling of hopelessness, especially in the early campaigns, at Gallipoli and the Western Front. Pompey writes with feeling when he says “… even the poor dead cannot rest quietly in their graves.”

Elliott had strong views about the two conscription plebiscites that were held in Australia. He supported Prime Minister Hughes and he supported conscription. His writings show that he was angry on the issue.  He described those who had not volunteered as “blighters, cowards and shirkers”.  He described people who voted NO as “stark raving mad.” His bigotry also came through. “I suppose it was the Catholics who voted NO.” He also wrote: “… It is a scandal that [Archbishop Daniel] Mannix is permitted to be at large in Australia.”

On international matters he was grateful that the USA had joined the war, but he was worried that if Russia left the war it would mean Germany could put more pressure on the Australian troops.  Repeatedly, he stated that if the Allies lose the war “… Germany will take over Australia”.

Elliott comes across as a fine leader. His bravery and his ability as a good tactician are praised by people like John Monash, Douglas Haig and Charles Bean. This was supported by his promotion to Brigadier during the war.  He was very proud of his forces, particularly in 1918 following victories in places such as Peronne, Hamel, Villiers-Bretonneux and Mont St Quentin. Before battles he always planned ahead. He certainly did not suffer fools gladly.

The book gives a tremendous insight into Elliott as a person. Firstly, concerning his health, he often narrowly missed death and on quite a few occasions left the front because of illness. He may have had mental illness as well, because late in the war he wrote that he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Another indication was in a letter he wrote to his wife in August 1918 that “… I would hardly care in the least bit if I were to be killed.

Another observation is that he often felt aggrieved and had a high opinion of himself. Frequently, Pompey wrote about being overlooked when promotions were made.  He wrote in April 1917 that “if another major-general is ever wanted” he would be chosen. In the late 1920s, he was still complaining about not being promoted. He also felt overlooked when bravery awards were made, such as VCs. He often referred to this in writing about his ability as a great leader.

Elliott admits that he was tough on his troops, which was noticed even in Egypt before the Gallipoli campaign.  Much later he was to write. “Certainly no one would call me popular with the men.” However, in his writings he comes across as being devoted to his men, especially their welfare, and he regularly praised their bravery. He lamented the deaths of  “his boys”, the conditions in which they fought and their bravery. He was frank, on one occasion telling his men to “go back to your posts and die there”.

When he went on leave, he always wanted to get back to the troops. He was delighted when his soldiers received VCs; he encouraged many of them to go to officer training courses. He stood up for those below him. He wrote condolence letters to the families in Australia of soldiers in his battalion who died. After the war, whenever he was asked to give a speech he always praised the soldiers.

At the start of McMullin’s book, six pages, perhaps unnecessarily, are devoted to reviewers saying what they think of it.  They all write in glowing terms with Dr McKernan stating that he did not want the book to end. It is a fine book, which gives the reader a very detailed account of one person’s involvement in the First World War.

Paul Henderson is an author and educator