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Paterson, Alexander Thomas (1886–1950)

by David Thomson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Alexander Thomas Paterson (1886-1950), soldier and businessman, was born on 26 September 1886 at Footscray, Melbourne, son of William Golding Paterson, contractor, born in Tasmania, and his wife Jane, née Twyford, from Ireland. He was educated to matriculation standard and held book-keeping and typewriting certificates. He became a partner in the firm Hallett, Paterson & Co., insurance brokers and manufacturers' agents, established in 1914. In 1903 he enlisted in the Victorian Scottish Regiment and in 1910 was commissioned second lieutenant; he was promoted lieutenant in 1912 and captain in 1915. On 1 May 1916 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force as a captain and embarked with the 39th Battalion that month for training in England; the unit reached France in November.

Three months later Paterson was appointed to command 'B' Company. In June 1917, during the battle of Messines in Belgium, the battalion was gassed in Ploegsteert Wood and suffered heavy casualties. As senior surviving officer Paterson took command of the battalion's 120 remaining men and on 7 June led them in an assault which got into difficulties. He inspired his men to continue and for this action was awarded the Military Cross. The citation reads in part: 'He personally silenced an enemy machine gun and was responsible for the capture of two others, and his courage and splendid example had an excellent effect on his men. He was wounded while supervising the consolidation of the line'. Evacuated to hospital, he returned to his unit on 10 August. During the 1st battle of Passchendaele on 12 October he was once again the senior officer unwounded. The situation was so desperate that he decided to withdraw his men. This independent action could have led to a court-martial but his superiors agreed that he had made the right decision. On 9 October he had been promoted major.

The 39th Battalion took part in the successful defence of Amiens. On 29 March 1918 the commanding officer was wounded and Paterson assumed command, being promoted temporary lieutenant-colonel. He led the unit until 13 June when he attended a senior officers' course in England. Reports from British Army instructors give a vivid picture of him: 'Is quick at grasping a situation, a good eye for country, and handles men well. Has a good appearance and temperament. Is capable of commanding a Battalion'. A second report adds: 'Thoroughly reliable and conscientious. Has balance and drive. Would assimilate new ideas more readily if he was not so self opinionated. Has application, imagination and pronounced initiative'.

Paterson rejoined his unit during the battle of St Quentin Canal and on 29 September he again took command of the battalion. On 3 November he was confirmed in rank. In 1919 he was mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Distinguished Service Order, the citation for which states: 'His leadership and ceaseless labour in the preservation and care of his men contributed very largely to the successful carrying out of the many operations of the unit while under his command'.

The battalion history, The Thirty-ninth, later described his style of command: 'His interest in his men never flagged from first to last. In action, in the front line, or in billets he inspired his men by his personal example. He was their friend and champion of their causes. “Pat” … was one of the youngest battalion commanders in the A.I.F. His keen sense of justice was always blended with a kindly sympathy which produced almost automatically a standard of discipline based more on personal loyalty than on the injunctions of military textbooks'.

Paterson returned to Melbourne in October 1919 and his A.I.F. appointment ended in January 1920. On 4 February, at Berwick, he married Elizabeth Harrison and they lived at Malvern. In 1920-21 he successively commanded the 2/5 Infantry Regiment (Carlton Rifles) and the 5th Battalion, Victorian Scottish Regiment. After demobilization he had rejoined Hallett, Paterson & Co. and remained with them until about 1926. Later he joined the firm of Office Appliances & Supplies as a paper merchant, working there until his death. Survived by his wife and one daughter, he died suddenly of coronary occlusion on 4 October 1950 and was cremated.

When he enlisted in the A.I.F. Paterson was a tall, thin man, six feet (183 cm) and eleven stone (70 kg). A photograph shows a strong face, large nose and eyes and a long, firm mouth. He was a staunch Presbyterian, a member of Legacy and a Freemason.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1917 (Syd, 1933)
  • P. V. Allan, The Thirty-Ninth (Melb, 1934)
  • London Gazette, 24 Jan 1917, 3 June 1919
  • Berwick Country Times, 9 Jan 1920
  • Argus (Melbourne), 10 Oct 1950
  • Bentleigh Standard, 12 Oct 1950.

Citation details

David Thomson, 'Paterson, Alexander Thomas (1886–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/paterson-alexander-thomas-7971/text13881, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 18 July 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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