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Peck, John Henry (1886–1928)

by A. J. Hill

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

John Henry Peck (1886-1928), by unknown photographer, 1917

John Henry Peck (1886-1928), by unknown photographer, 1917

Australian War Memorial, E01582 [detail]

John Henry Peck (1886-1928), regular soldier, was born on 22 July 1886 in Sydney, son of native-born parents Thomas Henry Peck, police constable, and his wife Frances, née McGroder. He was educated at Grenfell Public School and privately for the Catholic priesthood but young Peck had other ideas; he left home and became a miner. Returning to Sydney he enlisted as a gunner in the Garrison Artillery in 1907. 'He was a soldier by instinct' so promotion came quickly; by 1912 he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Administrative and Instructional Staff. In 1913 he was posted as an instructor to Perth where, on 22 July, he married Ellen Anderson, a music teacher, at St Brigid's Catholic Church, West Perth.

When war broke out Peck enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. He was adjutant of the 11th Battalion at the Gallipoli landing on 25 April 1915. He led a rush from the beach with the cry, 'Come on, boys—By God, I'm frightened', but that afternoon he was wounded and evacuated. Soon back with his unit, he revealed a natural aptitude for war both as a regimental officer and on the staff. He served as staff captain and later as brigade major of the 3rd Brigade. When the A.I.F. was reorganized in 1916 Peck became brigade major of the 12th Brigade. After barely three months he was given command of the brigade's training battalion which he took to England. On 31 August he was made brigade major of the 4th Brigade on the Somme, but in December became commanding officer of the 14th Battalion as lieutenant-colonel.

Peck revelled in his command and in time his men 'just about worshipped him'. His strong, massive figure, his humorous and practical approach to everything, were matched by thorough knowledge and great courage, both moral and physical. He could have the battalion on parade rocking with laughter, then on his command moving 'as one man'. In four months he raised the 14th to concert pitch; 'this merry, efficient manager of men was a “winner” anywhere'.

At Bullecourt, on 11 April 1917, the 14th, like its sister battalions, was 'shattered in the performance of an impracticable task'. Peck, profoundly shaken, began rebuilding his unit but was posted to 3rd Division Headquarters under Major General (Sir) John Monash. At Messines on 8 June, when the location of one of the assaulting battalions was obscure, Peck went forward to it through a tumultuous bombardment to obtain accurate information. After a month on the staff of 1st Anzac Corps he was posted to 5th Division Headquarters as general staff officer, grade 1, to Major General (Sir) Talbot Hobbs in September 1917, a remarkable achievement for one who had enlisted as a gunner ten years earlier. He was at Polygon Wood and Passchendaele, the counter-attack at Villers-Bretonneux, and the battles up to the capture of Peronne on 2 September 1918, when he was evacuated to hospital. Peck had fought against illness for most of the war. 'His courage in bearing this', according to Major General Sir Brudenell White, 'was no less than his courage before the enemy'. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (1917), appointed C.M.G. (1918) and mentioned in dispatches five times.

After serving with the Repatriation and Demobilization Department in London, Peck returned to Australia in May 1919. He was briefly on the staff of the 5th Military District in Perth before going to the Staff College at Camberley, England, in 1920. Having graduated, he studied military administration, concentrating on transport and supply. His enthusiasm was such that he also qualified as a cook.

Posted to the quartermaster general's branch at Army Headquarters, Melbourne, in 1922, Peck improved ration scales, conducted a school of messing and cooking for instructors, and sought to develop the interest of commanders in messing. In 1925 he was seconded to the Commonwealth Treasury as chairman of the Expropriation Board, settling claims of former residents of German New Guinea.

Peck went to Brisbane in 1927 as senior general staff officer of the 11th (Mixed) Brigade. In spite of illness he immediately made an impact on the brigade but was soon forced to give up work. He died of chronic nephritis in Brisbane on 2 September 1928 and was buried in Toowong cemetery. His wife and daughter survived him.

Major General Sir John Gellibrand considered that Peck 'was out of the top drawer as a soldier' and Charles Bean regarded him as one of the best officers in the A.I.F. Those who served under him held the same opinions, epitomized by Albert Jacka, V.C. of the 14th: 'He'll do me'.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac (Syd, 1933, 1937)
  • N. Wanliss, The History of the Fourteenth Battalion, A.I.F. (Melb, 1929)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1917-18 (Syd, 1933, 1937, 1942)
  • E. J. Rule, Jacka's Mob (Syd, 1933)
  • Reveille (Sydney), Apr 1939
  • J. H. Peck biographical notes (Australian War Memorial).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

A. J. Hill, 'Peck, John Henry (1886–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/peck-john-henry-8007/text13953, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 22 October 2019.

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

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2019

John Henry Peck (1886-1928), by unknown photographer, 1917

John Henry Peck (1886-1928), by unknown photographer, 1917

Australian War Memorial, E01582 [detail]