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Toft, John Percy Gilbert (1894–1985)

by Darryl McIntyre

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

John Percy Gilbert Toft (1894-1985), public servant and soldier, was born on 11 November 1894 at Bundaberg, Queensland, son of John Toft, an English-born storekeeper, and his native-born wife Lenorah Kate, née Ball. Educated at Maryborough Grammar School, he developed a lifelong interest in reading, music and sport. Toft worked as a probationary teacher and then as a clerk in the Queensland Lands Department; he also served with the senior cadets and for two years with the 4th Infantry Battalion, Australian Military Forces, before enlisting as a private in the 15th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, on 25 October 1914.

Embarking from Melbourne on the troopship Ceramic in December, Toft's battalion sailed for Egypt. He landed at Gallipoli on the evening of 25 April 1915. The 15th Battalion was at Quinn's Post where sniping was heavy. Serving as a runner, Toft was wounded on 26 May; he was evacuated and did not rejoin his unit until 2 August. While at Gallipoli he was promoted corporal and later sergeant. He left Anzac in September.

The 15th Battalion reached France in June 1916 and went into reserve at Bois Grenier. Between 5 and 10 August it saw action near Pozières during the advance on Mouquet Farm. Toft commanded a platoon of 'C' Company and was awarded a Military Medal for his work, especially during the attack against Circular Trench. During this action the battalion's officers suffered heavy casualties and Toft was commissioned second lieutenant on 19 August. He was appointed battalion, and subsequently 4th Brigade, intelligence officer.

Toft did not see action again until June 1917 when, having returned to the 15th, he fought in the battle of Messines, Belgium. After a period in reserve at Neuve Eglise, the battalion went into the front line on the night of 10 June, its primary objective being to establish whether Gapaard Farm and Les Quatre Rois Cabaret were occupied by the enemy. Toft commanded two parties on the nights of 11-12 and 12-13 June to investigate these positions. He killed the German snipers who had been harassing the Australians, then occupied their positions and directed the mopping-up and consolidation of six small posts stretching from Gapaard Farm to Les Quatre Rois Cabaret. For outstanding bravery and leadership, which did much to maintain the morale of his men, he was awarded the Military Cross.

In late August he was transferred to the 4th and then to the 12th Training Battalion. Promoted captain on 15 October, he returned to the 15th Battalion in February 1918. In command of 'C' Company, between 26 March and 5 April Toft took part in the capture of Hébuterne, France, and succeeding operations. He again displayed bravery and determination on 28 March near Fonquevillers where, under intense bombardment, his company beat off an enemy raid and prevented the establishment of machine-gun posts. His exemplary performance earned him a Bar to his M.C.

After the battle of Hamel, in which Toft acted as liaison officer between the 15th and 43rd Battalions, he was appointed assistant instructor at the 4th Army Infantry School from August 1918 to January 1919. On 18 March 1919 he married with Church of Scotland forms Grace McFarlane Stewart at Crieff, near Perth, Scotland. His wife had served as a nurse in France. They returned to Australia in April 1919 and Toft was discharged in August. During the 1920s he served with the 47th Battalion (militia), reaching the rank of major.

He resumed his public service career in Queensland, principally as an inspector in the Agricultural Bank organizing loans to farmers. Toft also worked as a clerk with the Australian Army prior to his retirement in 1959. Although not actively involved with the returned servicemen's movement in the inter-war period, he wrote about the 'Anzac spirit' in a series of articles, 'Playing a man's game', which were published in The Queensland Digger in 1935-41.

A man of integrity, with a cheerful, energetic and generous nature, Toft died on 9 February 1985. Survived by a daughter and two sons, he was buried with Uniting Church forms in Redcliffe cemetery, Brisbane.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac (Syd, 1921, 1924)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France 1916-18 (Syd, 1929, 1933, 1937, 1942)
  • T. P. Chataway, History of the 15th Battalion A.I.F. (Brisb, 1948)
  • Queensland Digger, 1935-41
  • war diary, 4th Infantry Brigade, AIF and records (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Citation details

Darryl McIntyre, 'Toft, John Percy Gilbert (1894–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/toft-john-percy-gilbert-8825/text15481, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 22 December 2014.

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

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