Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Morris, Basil Moorhouse (1888–1975)

by A. J. Sweeting

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Basil Moorhouse Morris (1888-1975), by unknown photographer, 1942

Basil Moorhouse Morris (1888-1975), by unknown photographer, 1942

Australian War Memorial, 025597

Basil Moorhouse Morris (1888-1975), soldier, was born on 19 December 1888 in East Melbourne, ninth of eleven children of William Edward Morris, who came from England and was registrar of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, and his wife Clara Elizabeth, née French, who was born in India. William Morris was his elder brother. Their maternal grandfather was Major John French and their uncle was (Sir) John French. Basil attended Melbourne Church of England Grammar School (where he rose to sergeant in the cadets) and spent one year at the University of Melbourne before joining the Melbourne Cavalry. He was commissioned in the Royal Australian Artillery on 1 December 1910 and served in coastal defence establishments.

In May 1915 Morris was appointed lieutenant, Australian Imperial Force, and posted to 'O' Siege Brigade. Arriving in England, the brigade was renamed the 36th (Australian) Heavy Artillery Group. It had two batteries, the 54th and the 55th; Morris joined the latter. He served on the Western Front from February 1916 and was transferred in November 1917 to the headquarters of the 5th Divisional Artillery as a staff captain. Promoted major, he took command of the 114th Howitzer Battery in September 1918. The 114th fought at Hargicourt and Bellicourt, and in the advance to the Hindenburg line (September-October). For his leadership during this period, Morris was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. He was thrice mentioned in dispatches.

Returning to Australia in 1919, Morris transferred to the Staff Corps and held a variety of artillery, command and staff appointments. At St Luke's Anglican Church, Christchurch, New Zealand, on 27 August 1921 he married Audrey Lewis Cogan, the 20-year-old daughter of an accountant. In 1937 he was appointed to Army Headquarters, Melbourne, as director of supplies, transport, movements and quartering. Promoted colonel in November 1939, he was chosen that month to command the Australian Overseas Base. In December he was seconded to the A.I.F. as temporary brigadier. Arriving in Palestine in January 1940, he established the base at Jerusalem and remained there until June. He was appointed Australian military liaison officer, Bombay, India, in August and established cordial relations with military authorities in India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

In May 1941 Morris became commandant of the 8th Military District, with headquarters at Port Moresby. He was promoted temporary major general in January 1942. Although provided with inadequate supplies and raw, young troops, he continued to oppose the Japanese until August when Lieutenant General (Sir) Sydney Rowell arrived to take over a greatly augmented New Guinea Force. Morris was transferred to command the New Guinea Lines of Communication Area; from December he also directed the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit, a body he had been prominent in establishing. Before the civil administration had been suspended on 14 February 1942, he drafted a plan to continue most of its functions in a military organization. He subsequently posted many of the conscripted officers of the Papuan and New Guinean public services to A.N.G.A.U.

Shortish, solidly built and fitter than most leaders of his generation, Morris was a resolute but tolerant commander. G. A. Vasey, a harsh judge of his fellow generals, described him as 'a good scout—no brains but very honest and stout hearted'. Yet most of the decisions Morris was required to make during the critical eight months of his command in Port Moresby seem to have been both wise and practical. Under his direction, A.N.G.A.U. made a conspicuous contribution to the success of the allied campaigns; for the remainder of the war it maintained law and order among the civil population, managed primary production and provided indigenous labourers required by the armed services—a lifeline without which they could hardly have operated.

Inevitably, there were criticisms of Morris's leadership, but in wartime these are often easier to make than to sustain. Claims that he had acted with 'undue precipitancy' in conscripting men for military service and that he had deliberately brought about the end of civil government were dismissed by (Sir) John Barry in his commission of inquiry (1944-45). General Sir Thomas Blamey shielded Morris from censure for failing to halt the widespread looting of Port Moresby that occurred after the first Japanese air-raids in February 1942. Morris had 'set about his impossible task with courage and determination' and was hamstrung by 'those responsible for providing him with inadequate and incompetent forces'.

Morris retired from the army on 19 October 1946. In the following year he was appointed C.B.E. Living at Upper Beaconsfield, Victoria, he engaged in 'country pursuits'. In 1947 and 1950 he stood unsuccessfully for the Legislative Assembly as the Liberal Party candidate for the seat of Gippsland West. Survived by his wife and five daughters, he died on 5 April 1975 at Upper Beaconsfield and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Paull, Retreat from Kokoda (Melb, 1958)
  • D. McCarthy, South-West Pacific Area—First Year (Canb, 1959)
  • P. Hasluck, The Government and the People, 1942-1945 (Canb, 1970)
  • J. Hetherington, Blamey (Canb, 1973)
  • P. Brune, Those Ragged Bloody Heroes (Syd, 1991)
  • D. M. Horner, General Vasey's War (Melb, 1992)
  • AWM 123, item 619 (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

A. J. Sweeting, 'Morris, Basil Moorhouse (1888–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/morris-basil-moorhouse-11169/text19899, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 13 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018

Basil Moorhouse Morris (1888-1975), by unknown photographer, 1942

Basil Moorhouse Morris (1888-1975), by unknown photographer, 1942

Australian War Memorial, 025597