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Walter John Duncan (1894–1939)

by John Atchison

This article was published:

Walter John Clare Duncan (1894-1939), bank officer and soldier, was born on 27 January 1894 at Inverell, New South Wales, eldest son of Walter Sydney Duncan, bank clerk and station-manager, and his wife Margaret McIntyre, née McGregor. Educated at Inverell Grammar School, he joined the Bank of New South Wales at Barraba in 1910 and was transferred to Narrabri in 1911, Coonabarabran in 1915 and Sydney in 1916. He served for four years in the militia with the 5th Australian Light Horse (New England) Regiment before World War I. His paternal grandfather and two uncles had reached general rank in the British and Indian armies.

On 6 August 1914 Duncan had tried to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force but was rejected because of insufficient chest measurement. Undeterred, he developed his physique and by March 1915 was a sergeant in the light horse. That month he gained a militia commission in the 13th Infantry Battalion and in December rejoined the 5th Light Horse. He was accepted for the A.I.F. on 7 March 1916 as a lieutenant in the newly formed 33rd Battalion and on reaching France in November went into the line at Armentières. His first major action was the battle of Messines where he won the Military Cross. His conspicuous gallantry in assault and his daring leadership inspired his men until he was severely wounded on 10 June. On rejoining his unit he was promoted captain in November and for the next two months was attached, for a liaison course, to the Australian Flying Corps.

When a company commander in 1918 at Villers-Bretonneux, Duncan received the Distinguished Service Order. His 150 men, with seven Lewis-guns, gained an excellent defensive position on 4 April and inflicted heavy casualties. Next day he led an advance and throughout the action provided valuable information to headquarters. The citation praised his 'sound judgement and initiative' and his 'gallant, fearless and cheerful bearing'. He was gassed on 17 April and was out of the line until 8 August. He was awarded a Bar to his D.S.O. for gallantry in operations near Bouchavesnes on 31 August in the struggle for Mont St Quentin: with magnificent dash and daring he led the 33rd's left assaulting company in a series of formidable engagements at Marrières Wood and on the Bapaume-Péronne road. He was twice mentioned in dispatches in 1918-19. His brother, Private William Duncan, was killed in action at Pozières.

Duncan's A.I.F. appointment ended in England on 17 December 1918 after he had received a probationary lieutenancy in the 1st Battalion, Queen Victoria's Own Guides, Indian Army. He reached India in January. When the army was reorganized in 1922 the Guides Infantry was incorporated into the Frontier Force Regiment as its 5th Battalion. Except for short periods Duncan served with the guides and other battalions of the F.F.R. until his death, seeing active service on the Frontier in 1919, 1930 and 1935; he was promoted major in 1934. He had married Jean Gordon on 10 January 1931 at Kohat. Duncan died of an aortic aneurysm on 19 October 1939 at Peshawar and was buried at Mardan with full military honours.

Select Bibliography

  • Bank of New South Wales Roll of Honour (Syd, 1921)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1918 (Syd, 1937, 1942)
  • W. E. H. Condon, The Frontier Force Regiment (Aldershot, 1962)
  • London Gazette, 25 Aug 1917, 26 July, 3 Dec 1918, 1 Jan, 11 July 1919
  • Reveille (Sydney), July 1935
  • Inverell Times, 20 Oct 1939, 26 Apr 1977
  • Sydney Morning Herald 23 Oct 1939
  • private information.

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Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Atchison, 'Duncan, Walter John (1894–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 8 December 2023.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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