Gellibrand, Sir John (1872–1945)

by A. W. Bazley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

John Gellibrand (1872-1945), by unknown photographer       , c1930

John Gellibrand (1872-1945), by unknown photographer , c1930

Australian War Memorial, P01489.001

Sir John Gellibrand (1872-1945), soldier and farmer, was born on 5 December 1872 at Lleintwardeine, Ouse, Tasmania, son of Thomas Lloyd Gellibrand, grazier, landowner and parliamentarian, and his wife Isabella, née Brown, and grandson of Joseph Tice Gellibrand.

Soon after her husband's death in 1874 Mrs Gellibrand took her seven children to England. John was educated at Crespigny House, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, at Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, where the family lived for a time, and at the King's School, Canterbury, England, in 1888-89. At 17 he passed the Royal Indian Engineering College entrance examination but bank failures in Australia prevented his taking the course. He decided on a military career and, after entering the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, in September 1892, gained the highest marks in the aggregate at the final examinations a year later. Commissioned as a second lieutenant in the South Lancashire Regiment on 21 October 1893 and posted to its 1st Battalion, he was promoted lieutenant in 1895, having the previous year qualified as an interpreter in German and French. On 27 July 1894, at the parish church, Ilkley, Yorkshire, he had married Elizabeth Helena Breul with Anglican rites.

In the South African War Gellibrand commanded a company in the operations of February 1900 leading to the relief of Ladysmith, and in March served in Natal. Transferred next May as a captain to the 3rd Battalion, Manchester Regiment (then being raised at Aldershot), he was in 1902-03 stationed at St Helena as adjutant of the garrison responsible for Boer prisoners of war. Then, with the two companies which had been left with him on the island, he rejoined the rest of the battalion in South Africa.

In December 1906, soon after its return to England, the 3rd Battalion was disbanded. Gellibrand was selected to attend the staff college at Camberley; he graduated in 1907 and was posted next year to Ceylon as deputy assistant adjutant and quartermaster general. Before his four-year term ended, he was placed on half-pay. Greatly disappointed, he resigned his commission and was gazetted out of the army on retired pay—after World War I, Charles Bean, in the official history of the Australian Imperial Force, was to comment that it was 'a constant wonder … how a man with his qualities and with staff college training could have been allowed—much less almost compelled—to slip out of the British Army'.

He returned to Tasmania in June 1912 with slender means and few prospects, but grimly determined to succeed. He bought an orchard at Risdon and settled there with his wife and young family in February 1913, working assiduously. He also had a tenth share in Cleveland, the property his father had owned. On the outbreak of war in August 1914 he met with difficulty in obtaining a military appointment in Tasmania. Within a fortnight, however, as the War Office had intimated that it did not then require his services, Army Headquarters, Melbourne, offered him employment 'without conditions'. He was appointed on 20 August by General (Sir) William Bridges to the administrative staff of the 1st Australian Division as deputy adjutant and quartermaster general and was promoted major on 23 September.

At the Gallipoli landing on 25 April 1915, Gellibrand organized the work of the beach parties and the sending of ammunition and other supplies to the hard-pressed troops on the spurs and ridges, and was constantly seen in the forward areas, rounding up stragglers, supervising the burial of the dead and the landing of reinforcements. A tremendous worker, with a keen sense of humour and a quick understanding of men, he was, according to Bean, 'one of those officers whose bravery was conspicuous even according to the standards by which gallantry was judged in the early days at Anzac'. Twice in three weeks he was wounded by shrapnel and was evacuated to Egypt on the second occasion. Before the end of May he was back on the peninsula.

In August 1915 Gellibrand was transferred as deputy assistant adjutant and quartermaster general to the headquarters staff of the 2nd Division, and in December was given command of the 12th Battalion and promoted lieutenant-colonel. Three months later, in Egypt, during the reorganization of the greatly expanded A.I.F., he was appointed commander of the 6th Infantry Brigade, which he took to France, having meanwhile been promoted colonel and temporary brigadier general in March 1916. On 21 May he was again wounded, but returned to duty late in June. He took part in the heavy fighting at Pozières and Mouquet Farm in July-August, followed by operations in the Bapaume sector in March-April 1917, and in the battle for the Hindenburg line near Bullecourt in May.

About this time, because of misunderstandings between himself and the staff of the 2nd Division, Gellibrand asked to be relieved of the command of the 6th Brigade and posted 'for such other employment as may be available'. General Sir William Birdwood, after trying unsuccessfully to settle the difficulty, granted his request and sent him temporarily to the A.I.F. depots in the United Kingdom, where he overhauled the entire organization and recommended drastic changes in the training syllabus of the several arms. The task completed, he returned to France in November 1917 to command the 12th Brigade. At the end of May 1918, when Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash became general officer commanding the Australian Corps, Gellibrand was promoted major general and succeeded him in the 3rd Division, which he commanded with outstanding success in the final operations along the Somme from Hamel to the Hindenburg line.

With every new appointment he had enhanced his reputation as a leader, although he was not always popular with some of his superiors. Birdwood recognized the extraordinary influence Gellibrand had over officers and men but disliked his outspokenness and unconventional dress. Monash looked on him as 'more a philosopher and student than a man of action', yet conceded that his personal bravery and high sense of duty compensated for 'some tendency to uncertainty in executive action', that his command of the 3rd Division in 1918 was 'characterised by complete success in battle', and that he held to the last the confidence of his troops. Bean stated that there was 'at least one great battle now to the credit of the A.I.F. [Bullecourt, May 1917] which, if ever a fight was won by a single brain and character, was won by John Gellibrand'. The historian of the 12th Battalion wrote that he not only possessed a thorough knowledge of infantry training, but was 'gifted with a wonderful understanding of human nature, and was able to get the maximum amount of work out of his Battalion without apparent effort'.

For his work at Anzac Gellibrand was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and mentioned in dispatches; in France he received a Bar to the D.S.O. for his service at Bullecourt, was appointed C.B. and later K.C.B., and was several times mentioned in dispatches. He was also awarded the American Distinguished Service Medal, the French Croix de Guerre and the Légion d'honneur.

The war over, he returned to his farm at Risdon but was hardly back there, when in August 1919 the Tasmanian government offered him the post of public service commissioner, which he accepted 'with reservation'. In characteristic fashion Gellibrand made a point of personally looking into the conditions of the service. Twelve months later he resigned when the government rejected his proposals for the reclassification of the public service. Shortly before this the Victorian government invited him to become chief commissioner of police in that State. He took up the appointment in August 1920, but resigned in February 1922 when the reforms he recommended were shelved.

As, according to Bean, Gellibrand had been regarded in the A.I.F. as the 'finest trainer of young officers', the post that would unquestionably have suited his talents on his return from the war, and would also have been in Australia's interest, was that of commandant of the Royal Military College, Duntroon: but he was passed over. He remarked to a friend years afterwards, 'I would have walked to Canberra barefoot for that post'. In 1921, when the Australian Military Forces were being reorganized, Gellibrand, then living in Melbourne, accepted the Military Board's invitation to command the 3rd Division, based in Victoria. Next year, however, he relinquished that appointment on returning to Tasmania after resigning from the Victorian police force.

At the end of 1925 Gellibrand was elected to the House of Representatives as the Nationalist member for Denison, but was defeated at the general elections of 1928, and again in 1929. For the next eight years he worked diligently and quietly at Risdon, and in running Garth, a foreclosed property near Smithton he had bought from the Australian Mutual Provident Society, of which he was a director. In 1936, at the age of 63, he decided to settle in Victoria, mainly to be near his son who was then on the land at Yea. Selling Risdon and Garth, he bought Balaclava, at Murrindindi, near Yea, to which he moved early in 1937—'100 years after my grandfather's intention to do the same', as he noted in his diary.

From the time he left the A.I.F. in 1919 Gellibrand had taken a deep interest in public affairs, and particularly in Australia's defence. But perhaps his finest monument was his untiring work for the Legacy movement, the formation of which he inspired when he founded the Remembrance Club in Hobart in 1922. From its original aims, mainly to guard the interests of ex-soldiers, the Legacy clubs extended their activities to caring for widows and children of deceased ex-servicemen. In his foreword to the History of the Legacy Club of Sydney (Sydney, 1944), Bean says: 'And, coming back to the great and good man from whose original work it all sprang—there was a time when some of us thought that the best monument to John Gellibrand might be the story of Second Bullecourt. Now I feel there will be an even better—the record of Legacy'.

From 1938, when the Australian government began to think seriously of rearmament after years of neglect of defence, Gellibrand was consulted several times by prime minsters Joseph Lyons and (Sir) Robert Menzies, and various cabinet ministers; in the next eighteen months he prepared a series of papers, wrote articles for the press in a nation-wide campaign to double the size of the militia, and spoke at recruiting meetings. For some months after the outbreak of war he contributed articles to the daily press and other journals—including 'Defence in dreamland', under the pseudonym 'A General of the A.I.F.' in four issues of Reveille (January-April 1940), as well as articles for the newly formed Department of Information. Recurrent ill health forced him to give up this work in 1940.

Survived by his wife, a son and two daughters, Gellibrand died of cerebro-vascular disease at Balaclava, Murrindindi, on 3 June 1945 and was buried in Yea cemetery. A portrait by James Quinn is in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Monash, The Australian Victories in France in 1918 (Lond, 1920)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac, vols 1, 2 (Syd, 1921, 1924) and The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1916-18 (Syd, 1929, 1933, 1937, 1942)
  • L. M. Newton, The Story of the Twelfth (Hob, 1925)
  • C. Blatchford, The Story of the Melbourne Legacy Club (Melb, 1932)
  • E. Hilmer Smith, History of the Legacy Club of Sydney, vol 1 (Syd, 1944)
  • M. Lyons, Legacy: the First Fifty Years, vol 1 (Melb, 1978)
  • Reveille (Sydney), Dec 1930
  • Stand-To (Canberra), Apr 1950
  • Argus (Melbourne), 20, 21, 28 Dec 1921
  • Herald (Melbourne), 17 Nov 1922
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4, 6 June 1945
  • J. Gellibrand, diaries and papers (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

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Citation details

A. W. Bazley, 'Gellibrand, Sir John (1872–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gellibrand-sir-john-6295/text10855, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 27 June 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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