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Irving, Godfrey George Howy (1867–1937)

by Chris Clark

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

Godfrey George Howy Irving (1867-1937), soldier, was born on 25 August 1867 at the University of Melbourne, son of Professor Martin Howy Irving and his first wife Caroline Mary, née Bruyeres. He was educated at Hawthorn Grammar School and was still attending school when he joined the 2nd Battalion, Victorian Rifles, as a private in June 1885. Next year he began work with McCulloch, Sellar & Co., a firm of Melbourne merchants. He gained a militia commission as lieutenant in the 2nd Battalion in 1887 and in 1891 was appointed captain in the permanent forces as battalion adjutant. For the next nine years he was adjutant of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th Battalions at various times. On 29 April 1896 he married Ada Minnie Margueritha, daughter of Frederick Thomas Derham, at the Catholic Apostolic Church, Melbourne.

In March 1900 Irving became adjutant of the Victorian Rangers and was promoted major in July; in March 1902 he was appointed to headquarters staff in Victoria. In May he left for South Africa in command of the 6th Battalion, Australian Commonwealth Horse, with temporary rank of lieutenant-colonel. Four days after arriving in Natal the unit received orders to return to Australia owing to the end of the war. Irving returned aboard the Drayton Grange; the poor conditions on the ship became the subject of a royal commission. He resumed duty on the Victorian staff, and in November 1903 was appointed to Army Headquarters staff. He left for England in June 1905 to undergo training and returned via India in January 1906. Next March he was posted to the Administrative and Instructional Staff in New South Wales where he remained until he was appointed commandant in Western Australia in September 1909. He was made substantive lieutenant-colonel in December 1909, temporary colonel in January 1911, and substantive colonel in May 1914.

Irving became commandant in South Australia a month before the outbreak of World War I. On 24 May 1915 he was appointed temporary chief of the General Staff; he relinquished this post in November to become 'General Officer Commanding Australian Troops in Egypt', with temporary rank of brigadier general. On arriving in Egypt he found that most reinforcements and other unallotted troops were being absorbed into the new divisions of the Australian Imperial Force. He was therefore given command of the 15th Infantry Brigade on 21 February 1916 but a week later was transferred to command the 14th Brigade. For a time he commanded the 5th Australian Division pending the arrival of Major General J. W. McCay from Australia.

On 20 March the division was ordered from Tel-el-Kebir to take over part of the Suez defences, with the bulk of the men to march across about forty miles (64 km) of desert. Irving's brigade began the march on 27 March and next day the unit virtually disintegrated as troops suffered the effects of thirst and exhaustion. Although physical unfitness of the troops, worn-out boots and recent inoculations contributed to the disaster, much blame was attached to Irving himself. There was a demonstration of feeling against him when the brigade was reviewed at Ferry Post by the Prince of Wales on 29 March, and McCay, considering Irving's arrangements for the march to have been seriously defective, relieved him of command on 1 May. He returned to Australia where his A.I.F. appointment ended in June 1916.

Irving resumed the post of commandant in South Australia on 28 June; speculation concerning his recall forced an official statement by the minister for defence which disclaimed that he had been sent back as a result of the events of 28 March. Next February he became commandant in Queensland and remained there until May 1921 when he was appointed deputy quarter-master general at Army Headquarters. He was placed on the unattached list in 1922 and was made an honorary major general on the retired list in November 1925.

Irving died of coronary vascular disease on 11 December 1937 at his home in Kew, Melbourne, and was buried in Boroondara cemetery. He was survived by a son and two daughters; his wife had died in 1934. Sybil Howy Irving (1897-1973) was the founder and controller of the Australian Women's Army Service in 1941-47. Ronald Godfrey Howy Irving (1898-1965) graduated from the Royal Military College, Duntroon, in 1919 and retired from the Australian Military Force in 1953 with the rank of brigadier. Freda Howy Irving (b.1903) became a well-known Melbourne journalist.

Irving was a physically striking figure, being nearly 6 ft 5½ ins (197 cm) tall. He was active in his youth in the Victorian Rifle Association, took a keen interest in ex-servicemen's affairs and was an enthusiastic bowls player. Contemporary accounts indicate that he was a popular officer, respected for his military capacity as well as his personal qualities, but his ability as a commander, clouded by his performance on active service, must remain in doubt.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol I (Adel, 1912)
  • A. D. Ellis, The Story of the Fifth Australian Division (Lond, 1920?)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1916 (Syd)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria) 1900, 1(3), p 67
  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1901-2, 2, p 119
  • British Australasian, 12 Oct 1916
  • Listening Post, Dec 1937
  • Western Mail (Perth), 3 July 1914
  • Argus (Melbourne), 25 May 1915, 26 June, 11 Aug 1916, 14 Feb 1934, 13, 14 Dec 1937
  • Age (Melbourne), 13 Dec 1937
  • Pearce papers, file 419/80/2, bundle 1, 106 (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Chris Clark, 'Irving, Godfrey George Howy (1867–1937)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/irving-godfrey-george-howy-6802/text11767, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 6 December 2016.

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

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