Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Holmes, William (1862–1917)

by B. H. Travers

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

William Holmes, by Norman Carter, 1920

William Holmes, by Norman Carter, 1920

Australian War Memorial, ART00195

William Holmes (1862-1917), soldier and civil servant, was born on 12 September 1862 in Sydney, son of Captain William Holmes, chief clerk at Headquarters, New South Wales Military Forces, who had come to Australia in 1845 as a private in the 11th Foot, and his Tasmanian-born wife Jane, daughter of Patrick Hackett, also from the 11th Foot. Young William lived in Victoria Barracks until his marriage and was educated at Paddington Public School and later at night school. Though he had always wanted to become a soldier his father considered that the New South Wales Public Service offered greater opportunities. After working at the Sydney Mint he joined the accounts branch of the Department of Public Works as a clerk on 24 June 1878. On 24 August 1887, at St Mathias Anglican Church, Paddington, he married Susan Ellen Green whose family also lived in Victoria Barracks. They had a son and a daughter.

On 20 April 1888 Holmes was appointed chief clerk and paymaster of the newly formed Metropolitan Board of Water Supply and Sewerage, Sydney. In 1895 he was promoted secretary and chief clerk, being the second person to hold the secretaryship which he retained until his death. During his term as chief executive of the board the Cataract, Cordeaux and Avon dams were built to provide water for the city. According to family tradition Holmes maintained that the board had built these dams in the wrong places and that the correct area would have been Warrangamba, where the large dam was later built. His administrative ability when so young and his leadership of the board during a period of great expansion were a remarkable achievement.

With his military background it was natural that Holmes should become a citizen soldier. He joined the 1st Infantry Regiment, New South Wales Military Forces, as a bugler at the age of 10 and served in almost every rank in the regiment until he commanded it in 1903. He was commissioned second lieutenant in 1886 and promoted lieutenant in 1890, captain in 1894 and major in 1900. For eighteen months, between his non-commissioned and commissioned service, he served in a company of submarine miners whose task was to mine Sydney Harbour in the event of enemy sea attack. In October 1899 Holmes volunteered for active service in the South African War with the New South Wales Infantry Contingent; although a captain at the time, he accepted a lieutenancy in order to serve. On arrival in South Africa the unit was issued with horses and joined the Australian (Mounted Infantry) Regiment. Holmes was promoted captain commanding 'E' Squadron, 1st New South Wales Mounted Rifles, the new title of his original contingent. He saw action at Colesberg, Pretoria and Diamond Hill, and Australian newspapers praised his daring and courage; he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, mentioned in dispatches and promoted brevet lieutenant-colonel. Wounded at Diamond Hill in June 1900, he was invalided home in August and led the returned soldiers in the Federation procession in Sydney in January 1901. He had returned from South Africa with 'a record of good service, and a reputation for personal bravery, ability and capacity for command'.

Holmes resumed work as secretary of the M.B.W.S. & S. but continued his voluntary military service, first as lieutenant-colonel commanding the 1st Australian Infantry Regiment in 1902-11 and as colonel commanding the 6th Infantry Brigade from August 1912. After the beginning of compulsory military training in 1910 he became well known for his conduct of rifle-shooting competitions and for his introduction of the first fire and movement competitions (under the title of The Governor's Cup) in the Australian Army. When war was declared in 1914 he was chosen to command the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force. Commenting later on his appointment, S. S. Mackenzie, author of The Australians at Rabaul (Sydney, 1927), wrote that he had 'a keen, practical brain, a quick grasp of essentials, a knowledge of men, and a capacity for organisation and administration'. The A.N. & M.E.F., consisting of 500 Royal Australian Naval reservists and a battalion of infantry and ancillary troops, was specially raised in the first week of the war. A volunteer force, it was recruited, equipped, trained and embarked within ten days to leave on H.M.A.S. Berrima on 19 August for a destination which was not revealed to Holmes until the convoy was off the Queensland coast. He then received a wireless message ordering him to 'seize all German Wireless Telegraph Stations in the Pacific and to occupy German Territory as soon as possible, hoist the British flag, and make suitable arrangements for temporary administration, but to make no formal proclamation of annexation', as Holmes wrote in his dispatch of 26 December.

After capturing Rabaul, German New Guinea, on 12 September 1914 Holmes accepted the governor's surrender of all German possessions in the Pacific except Kiaochao in China and Samoa (which a New Zealand force had already taken). In Australia some provisions of the terms of surrender were criticized, but the instructions given to Holmes specified that he was only to occupy the territory, not to annex it. This was not fully understood at the time and his claim that he had acted in strict accordance with international law was later conceded. That he had other views, however, is borne out by his blunt statement that his objective was to maintain military occupation until the end of the war and that 'the islands would be retained as valuable British possessions for colonizing territories'.

In January 1915 Holmes handed over the administration of German New Guinea to Colonel (Sir) Samuel Pethebridge and returned to Sydney, having asked for an appointment for active service with the Australian Imperial Force. His A.N. & M.E.F. appointment ended on 6 February 1915 and on 16 March he was given command of the 5th Brigade, with the rank of brigadier general. The brigade left Australia in May and landed at Gallipoli in August. Holmes commanded the Russell's Top-Monash Valley area during the holding action from September. At the evacuation in December he was temporarily in command of the 2nd Division, and the troops under his command were among the last off Anzac.

After the evacuation he resumed command of the 5th Brigade, took it to France in April 1916 and commanded it in all its fighting, notably in the battles of Pozières and Flers, until January 1917 when he was promoted major general and commander of the 4th Division. He was the third citizen-soldier after Sir J. W. McCay and Sir John Monash, to be given a divisional command. He remained the general officer commanding the division, through the battles of 1st Bullecourt and Messines, until he was mortally wounded by a chance shell on 2 July while escorting the premier of New South Wales, W. A. Holman, to survey the Messines battlefield. He died on the way to a field hospital and was buried in Les Trois Arbres British cemetery near Armentières. He had been appointed C.M.G., awarded the Russian Order of St Anne and been mentioned in dispatches four times. He was survived by his son, Captain Basil Holmes, later a colonel in the Indian Army, and by his daughter. His wife had predeceased him in 1912.

Writing to Australian newspapers from France in 1917 Charles Bean commented: 'There is naturally a tendency to wonder how far citizen soldiers, who have been more or less complete amateurs until the war plunged them into soldiering as by far the most important business in their lives, could be suitable for high commands … None will grudge it to General Holmes that he was, of all others, the Australian who first showed that it could be done with complete success'. He was 'an experienced administrator who possessed fine moral qualities, transparent sincerity, energy and great courage, and was one of Australia's most eminent citizen soldiers'. In appearance Holmes was, according to a Melbourne Punch article of February 1915, 'a dapper man, well-groomed, well-tailored, well-manicured … His speech is accurately faultless. His manner is masterful but courteous. In everything he is meticulously correct. His moustache is symbolical of him. It is one of these faultless moustaches exactly suited to his face, beautifully curled, glossy, accurate … Neatness and precision are the keynotes of his character'. His portrait, by Norman Carter is in the Australian War Memorial.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Defence Department, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, P. L. Murray ed (Melb, 1911)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac (Syd, 1921, 1924), and The A.I.F. in France, 1916-1917 (Syd, 1929, 1933)
  • P. Ryan (ed), Encyclopaedia of Papua and New Guinea, vol 1 (Melb, 1972)
  • London Gazette, 16 Apr 1901, 2 June, 11 July 1916, 2 Jan, 13 Feb, 1 June, 15 Dec 1917
  • Punch (Melbourne), 4 Feb 1915
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Nov 1915, 3 June, 14 July, 23 Nov 1916, 16 Feb, 26 May, 5, 10 July, 3 Aug, 2 Nov 1917, 4 Apr 1918
  • Town and Country Journal, 11 July 1917
  • Rabaul Record, 1 Aug 1917
  • Holmes collection (Australian War Memorial)
  • family papers (privately held).

Additional Resources

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Citation details

B. H. Travers, 'Holmes, William (1862–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/holmes-william-6717/text11599, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 28 August 2016.

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

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