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Harold Edward (Pompey) Elliott (1878–1931)

by A. J. Hill

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Harold (Pompey) Elliott, c.1918

Harold (Pompey) Elliott, c.1918

Australian War Memorial, A02607

Harold Edward (Pompey) Elliott (1878-1931), soldier, lawyer and politician, was born on 19 June 1878 at West Charlton, Victoria, son of Thomas Elliott, farmer, and his wife Helen, née Janverin. He was educated at Ballarat College and at Ormond College, University of Melbourne, where he joined the officers' corps. In 1900 he interrupted his studies to enlist in the 4th Victorian (Imperial) Contingent, serving in South Africa in 1900-02. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for an audacious night exploit and was commissioned in the 2nd Royal Berkshire Regiment. However, he remained with the Australians as acting adjutant. Later he served with the Border Scouts and was specially congratulated by Lord Kitchener for his successful defence of a post. Elliott was also mentioned in dispatches.

Returning to the university in 1903, he won many scholarships and prizes (LL B, 1906; LL M, and BA, 1920); he was also a champion athlete. In 1907 he was called to the Bar of Victoria and the Commonwealth; he also set up a firm of solicitors, H. E. Elliott & Co. He had returned to the army in 1904 as a second lieutenant in the 5th Infantry Regiment (militia). In 1913 he became lieutenant-colonel commanding the 58th Battalion in the new universal training scheme. As Charles Bean observed, 'his whole heart and interest were in the Army' and this meant not only parades and camps but also the study of textbooks and military history. On 27 December 1909 at Northcote he had married Catherine Frazer Campbell with Presbyterian forms. They had a daughter and a son.

When the Australian Imperial Force was being raised in August 1914, Elliott was appointed to command the 7th Battalion in the 2nd Brigade. His massive frame—he had been a good footballer and university champion weight-putter—his energy, strength of character and explosive temper quickly established him as one of the characters of the force. His men called him 'Pompey', a nickname which did not please him but clung to him to the end. Hard training and stern discipline were the foundations on which he built the 7th at Broadmeadows and in Egypt.

On the day of the Gallipoli landing, 25 April 1915, Elliott was wounded and evacuated, not returning until early June. He soon won a reputation for cool courage in the fighting for German Officers' Trench. At Lone Pine on 8 August he relieved part of the 1st Brigade and in the next twenty-four hours repulsed the Turkish counter-attacks by furious close-quarter fighting and bombing. Of the seven Victoria Crosses awarded for Lone Pine, four went to Elliott's battalion but his own work was not recognized. His divisional commander, Major General (Sir) Harold Walker, had told him that his name had been at the head of his list of recommendations. This was the beginning of an irritation for Elliott, which, before the end of the war, had become an obsession.

He was evacuated sick in August, returning in November but, on the eve of the evacuation of Anzac, a sprained ankle caused him to be sent off ahead of his unit. In February 1916 Elliott was made commander of the 1st Brigade but on 1 March he was given the congenial task of organizing the 15th (Victorian) Brigade in the new 5th Division and promoted brigadier general.

In July Elliott began his service on the Western Front where he fought in most of the great battles of the A.I.F. He trained his brigade as he had trained his battalion and made it 'a magnificently effective instrument'. This he did in spite of the appalling losses in battles such as Fromelles, their first action, when his two assaulting battalions suffered 1452 casualties in less than twenty-four hours. Elliott had protested about the hopelessness of the task; he was in the front line at zero hour and visited his troops before they were withdrawn. Next morning, Arthur Bazley, Bean's assistant, saw him greeting the remnants: 'no one who was present will ever forget the picture of him, the tears streaming down his face, as he shook hands with the returning survivors'.

Although he could himself be foolhardy, Elliott tried to avoid taking risks with his soldiers. He visited his front line daily about dawn. He thrived on battle and was exhilarated by the achievements of his men. 'It is beautiful to see them fight', he wrote in March 1917, 'and then it is fine to see the old Bosches jump out and run … and our guns open on them and smash them. It is just the fun of the world'. After the capture of Péronne in September 1918 he found a punt and took a friend onto the moat while German shells splashed into the water nearby. 'A great game, isn't it!' said 'Pompey', smiling at his anxious companion.

It has been said of Elliott that he could do some things with Australian troops no other commander could do. Elliott knew it and was humble about it. After Polygon Wood he wrote to his wife: 'It is all due to the boys and the officers like Norman Marshall … It is wonderful the loyalty and bravery that is shown, their absolute confidence in me is touching—I can order them to take on the most hopeless looking jobs and they throw their hearts and souls not to speak of their lives and bodies into the job without thought. You must pray more than ever that I shall be worthy of this trust, Katie, and have wisdom and courage given me worthy of my job'.

Part of Elliott's success lay in his careful selection of officers, but it was over the appointment of his battalion commanders that he first clashed with Lieutenant-General Sir William Birdwood and Brigadier General (Sir) Brudenell White in March 1916. Elliott was given officers who were obviously, to him, unsuitable. When told that they must remain and that their reputations were sacred he replied that the lives of his men were more sacred. His frankness was understood within his brigade and provided countless anecdotes but it was little relished at higher headquarters. Worse still, he sometimes wrote reports sharply critical of senior commanders and the failures of troops on his flanks. One, after Polygon Wood, was so outrageous and inaccurate in its strictures on a neighbouring British division that Birdwood ordered all copies to be destroyed.

'Pompey' could be a difficult subordinate especially when the safety of his men was involved. At least twice after Fromelles he protested so vehemently against attacks ordered by 5th Division headquarters that the operations were cancelled. His objections were always based on knowledge of the ground obtained from personal reconnaissance and on a profound grasp of the tactical possibilities.

In the brief period of open warfare which marked the advance to the Hindenburg line in March 1917, Elliott was in his element as commander of one of the Australian advanced guards. With a small force of all arms and a degree of independence impossible in trench warfare, he probed for weak spots and turned the German rearguards out of their positions by encircling movements. It was during this phase that he made a rash misjudgment when he ordered an attack in daylight in retaliation for a German counter-attack. His instruction that 5th Division headquarters was not to be notified was resisted by his brigade major, George Wieck, and Elliott gave way. Major-General (Sir) Joseph Hobbs cancelled the attack and hurried forward to Elliott's headquarters. He could hardly have survived this affair had word of it reached Birdwood who had already reprimanded him for occupying a village outside his boundaries.

No impulsive actions marred his tactics in the battle of Polygon Wood on 25-26 September 1917, when his grasp of the situation and capacity for quick, decisive action was supreme. As usual, Elliott was up with his foremost battalions soon after dawn. Bean attributes the outcome to the way in which Elliott's troops 'snatched complete success from an almost desperate situation … the driving force of this stout-hearted leader in his inferno at Hooge … was in a large measure responsible for this victory'. During this battle his brother Captain G. S. Elliott, a Military Cross winner, was killed, and a letter from home revealed the collapse of his firm leaving him with a debt of £5000.

After Polygon Wood, Elliott was confident that if a divisional command became vacant he would get it. Ambitious and utterly self-reliant, it was a hope he had long cherished. His work in the defensive battles of March 1918 and his part in the famous counter-attack at Villers-Bretonneux in April must have reinforced his optimism. It had been a desperate time in which Elliott's measures were not always approved by his superiors. Under his orders, a British staff officer had been arrested for looting wine at Corbie after which Elliott made it known that looters would be publicly hanged. The looting stopped but the aggrieved officer complained to General Headquarters. In another written instruction, officers rallying British stragglers in his sector were ordered to shoot any who hesitated. This was quickly withdrawn on the orders of Hobbs.

In May 1918 the promotion of Brigadier Generals (Sir) John Gellibrand and (Sir) Thomas Glasgow to major general and to command divisions was a shattering blow to Elliott. In an intemperate letter to White he complained, inter alia, of being superseded which, as an experienced officer, he knew was fallacious, for such promotions were by selection. White gave him the opportunity of withdrawing his letter so that it did not reach Birdwood. For the rest of the war Elliott nursed his grievance while leading his brigade with all his old fire. He was wounded again in August but remained on duty. When, owing to lack of reinforcement, seven battalions were to be disbanded in September, all refused. Only the 60th obeyed after Elliott had addressed them.

Elliott spoke to his brigade for the last time to thank them in January 1919. Afterwards all the battalions paraded voluntarily and marched around his headquarters cheering him. 'So I had to go out and give them one more speech and then they cheered again'. Since 1915 he had been appointed C.B. and C.M.G. and had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order, the Russian Order of St Anne and the French Croix de Guerre. He was mentioned in dispatches seven times and in a special order of the day by the commander of the French 31st Corps.

When he returned to Melbourne in June 1919 Elliott began to rebuild his firm but by September he was back in the militia as commander of the 15th Brigade. In the elections of 1919 he stood for the Senate as a Nationalist and topped the Victorian poll; he was re-elected in 1925. Elliott never attained office but he spoke on a wide range of topics especially on the Federal capital and defence. He made full use of his position to publicize and seek redress of his wartime grievances.

In February 1921 he asked to be placed on the unattached list and for his alleged supersession to be placed before the minister for defence. Besides, he disliked serving under White who was now chief of the General Staff. His position was aggravated by reports that Gellibrand and Glasgow would become divisional commanders in the new organization. This, he claimed, was a further supersession. The Military Board rejected his claims and refused, as it was bound to do, his request for a judicial enquiry. When his grievances were debated in the Senate, his arguments were firmly rebutted by the minister for defence, (Sir) George Pearce.

Elliott engaged in a sporadic campaign in the press in which he aired his grievances, attacked Birdwood and White and was contemptuous of the British high command whom he blamed for the grievous casualties amongst the Australian infantry. This attracted little sympathy and some sharp criticism. Fortunately he had much to occupy him. He had become city solicitor for Melbourne and a director of the National Trustees, Executors & Agency Co. in 1919. He was involved in the affairs of returned soldiers and was chiefly responsible for redrafting the constitution of the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia. For his help during the police strike in 1923 he was specially thanked by the premier of Victoria, (Sir) Harry Lawson.

In 1926, under Sir Harry Chauvel as C.G.S., Elliott again commanded the 15th Brigade and next year the 3rd Division. He was promoted major general in August 1927, but, in a sense, this was too late. Although he threw himself into training with the old enthusiasm, his disappointments still gnawed at him. In 1929 he corresponded with Generals Sir James McCay, Hobbs and Sir John Monash about his 'supersession' and the reasons for it. To Hobbs he admitted: 'The injustice of the position as I conceive it has actually coloured all my post war life'. Neither the generosity nor the wise advice of the replies he received mitigated his frustration. He turned to White in 1930 but White refused to discuss the past and a second unfortunate attempt to obtain his views was curtly rejected.

Elliott's deep and abiding sense of injustice combined with the strain of his war service and his ceaseless activity to undermine his health. Early in 1931 he was in hospital under treatment for blood pressure. When discharged he did not return to the Senate. Soon afterwards he was found with a wound in the arm and was rushed to hospital where he died on 23 March. An inquest returned a verdict of suicide. 'Pompey' Elliott was buried with full military honours in Burwood cemetery. His wife and children survived him. His portrait by William McInnes hangs in the Australian War Memorial.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Defence Department, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, P. L. Murray ed (Melb, 1911)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac, vols 1, 2 (Syd, 1921, 1924), and The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1916-18 (Syd, 1929, 1933, 1937, 1942), and Two Men I Knew (Syd, 1957)
  • G. Blaikie, Remember Smith's Weekly? (Adel, 1975)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1921, p 7727
  • Reveille (Sydney), Mar 1931, Aug 1937
  • Punch (Melbourne), 13 Nov 1919, 6 Aug 1925
  • Age (Melbourne), 28 May 1921, 24 Mar 1931
  • Argus (Melbourne), 24 Mar 1931
  • Herald (Melbourne), 24 Mar 1931
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 Mar 1931
  • H. E. Elliott papers (Australian War Memorial).

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Citation details

A. J. Hill, 'Elliott, Harold Edward (Pompey) (1878–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 26 June 2024.

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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