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Gillison, Andrew (1868–1915)

by Michael McKernan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Andrew Gillison (1868-1915), Presbyterian minister and military chaplain, was born on 7 June 1868 at Baldernock, Stirling, Scotland, son of Rev. John Gillison, minister of the Free Church of Scotland, and his wife Jane, née Broatch. He was educated in Edinburgh, at Watson's College and the University of Edinburgh (M.A., 1889; B.D.). Having studied theology at New College, Edinburgh, in 1890-94 he accepted a call to the ministry in the United States of America and gained further experience in Edinburgh and England before he was called to the Free Church at Maryhill, Glasgow, in 1897. He had married Isobel Napier in 1895. He accepted a call in 1903 to St Paul's Presbyterian Church, Brisbane, and in 1909 became minister at St George's Church, East St Kilda, one of the most important Presbyterian charges in Victoria.

Gillison had served as a private in the Queen's Edinburgh Rifle Volunteer Corps in 1885-87, and had maintained close contact with soldiers in Glasgow where his church adjoined the military barracks. He became a part-time chaplain to the Australian Military Forces on 9 November 1906, and from 1909 was chaplain to the Victorian Scottish Regiment. He was appointed chaplain-captain (4th class) in the Australian Imperial Force on 23 October 1914 and applied for the 14th Battalion out of respect for its commander, Lieutenant-Colonel R. E. Courtney.

As one of the few A.I.F. chaplains with any previous military experience Gillison introduced some British customs to his battalion. On 13 December 1914 the governor-general Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson presented the unit with its colours, which Gillison consecrated, and next Sunday the battalion paraded at his church to witness the consignment of the colours 'until our return'. Gillison spoke to the men 'about the responsibility of having colours, and what these meant'. His parishioners farewelled him warmly and generously, presenting him with two cameras, field-glasses, an automatic pistol, a wristlet watch, an attaché case and a purse of twenty guineas. They also donated £250 and sports equipment for the use of the battalion.

They sailed on 22 December and Gillison devoted himself to routine troopship tasks. He censored the mail, visited the hospital and detention cells each day, and conducted two services on Sundays. Arriving in camp at Heliopolis, Egypt, on 3 February 1915, he took part in many of the training exercises and attended lectures. While he mixed with the elite of British society in Cairo and, coincidentally, met acquaintances from his Edinburgh days, the troops found entertainment elsewhere. 'I fear the character of the city has to some extent reflected on the character or rather the reputation of the troops', he wrote. In camp he was mess secretary and treasurer of the battalion's fund.

Gillison had a good view of the Anzac landing from his destroyer; he wrote that the Australians showed 'a dash characteristic of the finest British traditions'. He landed on 26 April at about 11 p.m. but the message ordering him ashore was a mistake and he returned to his ship where he cared for the wounded and buried eight men at sea. He landed on the third morning, the second chaplain ashore he believed, and took up duty at a dressing station. He consoled the wounded and buried the dead, praying over men of all denominations and sharing the work with all chaplains, even saying of the Catholic service that it 'may not be all that we would desire, but it is simple and we can all join in it'.

Gillison found the burial of the dead, on the day of the truce arranged for that purpose, a gruesome task. 'I never beheld such a sickening sight in my life and hope it may not be my lot again'. His diary ends on that sad note. He died on 22 August 1915 of wounds received during the advance on Hill 60. The official historian, Charles Bean, records that while Gillison was waiting to read the burial service for men who had fallen in this action he heard someone groaning in the scrub nearby. He had been warned against moving onto the ridge in daylight but he went forward far enough to see that a wounded man was being troubled by ants, and called on two men to help drag the wounded soldier out. When a Turkish sniper opened fire Gillison was severely wounded and died that day. He was mentioned in dispatches and tributes to his work showed what a popular and respected chaplain he had been.

His wife, three sons and a daughter survived him. One son, Douglas Napier, wrote the World War II official history of the Royal Australian Air Force in 1939-42.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac (Syd, 1924)
  • R. S. Browne, A Journalist's Memories (Brisb, 1927)
  • N. Wanliss, The History of the Fourteenth Battalion, A.I.F. (Melb, 1929)
  • M. McKernan, Australian Churches at War (Syd, 1980)
  • London Gazette, 28 Jan 1916
  • Presbyterian Church of Australia, Year Book, 1902-10 (Melbourne)
  • Messenger of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria, 10 Sept 1915
  • Argus (Melbourne), 28 Aug 1915
  • A. Gillison diary, Dec 1914–Aug 1915, file 12/11/5409, war records section (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Michael McKernan, 'Gillison, Andrew (1868–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gillison-andrew-6389/text10919, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 16 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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