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Phillips, Herbert Peter (1875–1931)

by Betty Crouchley and Merrilyn Lincoln

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

Herbert Peter Phillips (1875-1931), engineer and soldier, was born on 10 May 1875 in Brisbane, son of Welsh-born Peter Phillips, tailor, and his Irish wife Margaret, née Orr. Educated at Brisbane Boys' Central and Rocklea State schools, he attended trade classes at the Brisbane Technical College and served an apprenticeship with Evans, Anderson, Phelan & Co., engineers, ironfounders and shipbuilders, at Kangaroo Point. He moved to Fiji in 1899 to work for the Colonial Sugar Refining Co. He was foreman engineer at its refinery, New Farm, Brisbane, from November 1900 and chief engineer from February 1911; he resigned on 31 March 1915.

A member of the Queensland Institute of Engineers from 1904, Phillips served on its council in 1906-12 and, as president in 1910, was successful in lobbying for engineering representation on the Senate of the University of Queensland and on the Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board. He gave his presidential address on improvements necessary for the port of Brisbane and was an early enthusiast for a transcontinental railway.

After the outbreak of World War I Phillips, who had been commissioned lieutenant in the (Royal) Australian Engineers in 1907 and promoted captain in 1913, was an assistant censor, Queensland, from January to May 1915. On 28 February 1916 he was appointed to the Australian Imperial Force as captain commanding 'C' Company, 3rd Pioneer Battalion, Australian Engineers, and embarked for England in June. Having crossed to France on 24 November, his battalion served in the Armentières sector, moving to Ploegsteert, Belgium, in June 1917 for the battle of Messines. During this time and afterwards the 3rd Pioneers supported the 3rd Divisional and Australian Corps troops. On 1 October they moved south of Ypres and, after his commanding officer was killed at Zonnebeke, Phillips held acting command through the Passchendaele offensive until December. Promoted major on 18 October, he won the Military Cross for maintaining roads and mule tracks 'under constant shelling and attacks by aeroplanes' and for 'keeping roads open to traffic' when the battlefield was a morass of mud.

In March-April and June-July 1918 Phillips commanded the Pioneers at Buire on the Somme, France. For service during the great offensive on and after 8 August he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. He 'carried out reconnaissances immediately behind the infantry advance, reporting on damaged bridges etc', and within twenty-four hours had collected the necessary information for repair work. He was then engaged in reconstruction work for several days 'under heavy shell-fire, completing his task under most trying circumstances'. One of the projects which he supervised was the reconstruction of a steel-girder bridge across the Somme River between Cérisy and Chipilly, a task which he completed in five days; its speedy reconstruction has been described as 'one of the finest engineering feats of the A.I.F. in France' and was praised by Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash as 'a magnificent piece of work'. From late September until coming out of the line on 6 October Phillips served in operations which broke the Hindenburg line, and from February 1919 until his A.I.F. appointment ended on 4 September was commanding officer of the 3rd Pioneers. In addition to his D.S.O. and M.C. he was awarded the French Croix de Guerre in 1919 and was twice mentioned in dispatches.

Phillips returned to Brisbane via North America where he visited engineering works. Deciding against establishing his own business, he worked for the Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board from 1919 until it was taken over by the Brisbane City Council in 1928. He was then employed by the Commonwealth as an engineer in its lighthouse service. Although experienced and versatile, he was hampered by lack of formal qualifications and particularly regretted not having a marine engineering certificate.

Bearded, tall and very thin, Phillips was quiet, reserved and family-oriented. He was a hobby-farmer and had a great love of music and a fine baritone voice. His wife Pauline Edith Annetta, née Male, whom he had married in St Mary's Anglican Church, Kangaroo Point, Brisbane, on 2 October 1901, was an accomplished musician.

Survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter, Phillips died of cancer at his home at New Farm on 25 July 1931 and was buried in Bulimba cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1917-18 (Syd, 1933, 1937, 1942)
  • London Gazette, 1 June, 14 Dec 1917, 7, 11 Jan, 11 July 1919
  • Reveille (Sydney), Aug 1931
  • Brisbane Courier, 1 Jan 1919, 27 July 1931
  • H. P. Phillips file, written records, A.W.M. 183 (Australian War Memorial)
  • war diary, 3rd Pioneer Battalion, A.I.F., Nov 1916–Feb 1919 (Australian War Memorial)
  • staff records, Colonial Sugar Refinery Co., Sydney
  • Queensland Institution of Engineers, minute books, 1903-1920, and Member's register (University of Queensland Library)
  • private information.

Citation details

Betty Crouchley and Merrilyn Lincoln, 'Phillips, Herbert Peter (1875–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/phillips-herbert-peter-8035/text14009, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 17 June 2019.

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

View the front pages for Volume 11

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