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Steele, Alexander (1888–1917)

by Chris Clark

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Alexander Steele (1888-1917), soldier, was born on 20 August 1888 at Mount Gambier, South Australia, son of Dugald Steele, painter, and his wife Elizabeth Burton, née Laywood. Educated at Mount Gambier Grammar School, he worked for a local bootmaker (a member of the volunteer corps) under whose influence Steele began his military career in the ranks of the South Australian Infantry Regiment.

From qualifying school, he was appointed to the Administrative and Instructional Staff of the Permanent Military Forces in August 1910 and posted to Gawler where in January 1911 he was appointed staff sergeant major; next year he qualified at the Permanent Military Force's School of Musketry. Posted in September 1913 to the Royal Military College, Duntroon, as the non-commissioned instructor in infantry and musketry, he passed a course on machine-guns at the School of Musketry and applied for a commission, but withdrew from the examination.

Travelling to Queensland, reputedly to meet a friend who was about to join up, Steele enlisted on 25 August 1914 in the 9th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force. He sailed with the unit's machine-gun section next month and served as machine-gun sergeant during the Gallipoli landing on 25 April 1915. His work in the first ten days ashore earned special mention in Army Corps routine orders. For manning and maintaining his gun in action for several days after the rest of his section had been killed or wounded, he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal; on 28 April he was also commissioned second lieutenant. Wounded on 19 May when an expanding bullet struck his forearm, he was evacuated to hospital in Egypt. He was mentioned in dispatches on 3 August and promoted lieutenant on the 4th; he returned to his battalion a few days later, but was re-admitted to hospital at the end of the month and did not rejoin his unit until December.

Having been made machine-gun officer for the 3rd Brigade, in February 1916 Steele was promoted captain. He raised the brigade machine-gun company and was its commanding officer when the brigade went to France in March. During the period of trench-raids to which the A.I.F. was first exposed on this front, Steele showed himself to be skilled in machine-gun tactics. In the battle of the Somme in the months to October, his services were 'conspicuous and consistent' for displaying 'marked resourcefulness and leadership'. He was promoted major in August, awarded the Distinguished Service Order in December and again mentioned in dispatches in January 1917.

After attending a senior officers' course in early 1917 at Aldershot, England, he resumed command of his machine-gun company on 4 April. On the 27th he was given temporary command of the 10th Battalion and led this unit in the 2nd battle of Bullecourt on 6 May. Transferred to the 11th Battalion on 5 July as second-in-command, he was temporarily commanding this unit at Broodseinde Ridge, Belgium, when, on 7 October, the battalion headquarters were heavily shelled and he was killed; nothing reportedly remained of Steele save his tunic. He had been, as the historian Charles Bean noted at the time, 'a splendid officer … [who] was the makings of the 11th Battalion'.

Steele's rise from non-commissioned rank on the outbreak of war to his first command of a battalion three years later, at the age of 28, was clear evidence of the calibre of the personnel serving in the ranks of Australia's small pre-war permanent forces. The fact that, by his ability, he was so able to rise, was one of the strengths of the A.I.F. He was unmarried.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac (Syd, 1921)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1917 (Syd, 1933)
  • C. B. L. Lock, The Fighting 10th (Adel, 1936)
  • W. C. Belford, Legs-Eleven (Perth, 1940)
  • J. E. Lee, Duntroon (Canb, 1952)
  • C. M. Wrench, Campaigning with the Fighting 9th (Brisb, 1985)
  • London Gazette, 3 June, 5 Aug 1915, 29 Dec 1916, 2 Jan 1917.

Citation details

Chris Clark, 'Steele, Alexander (1888–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/steele-alexander-8637/text15093, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 24 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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