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Percy (Perce) Lay (1892–1955)

by J. G. Williams

This article was published:

Percy Lay (1892-1955), by W. B. McInnes

Percy Lay (1892-1955), by W. B. McInnes

Australian War Memorial, ART03184

Percy (Perce) Lay (1892-1955), soldier and farmer, was born on 8 February 1892 at Ballan, Victoria, son of Edward Lay, farmer, and his wife Annie, née Slack, both Victorian born. Before enlistment in the Australian Imperial Force on 19 August 1914 he worked as a sheep and cattle dealer for W. J. Andrews of Ballarat. He was posted to the 8th Battalion and embarked for Egypt on 19 October. The 8th landed at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 and from then until the evacuation Lay continually volunteered for dangerous patrols. He was promoted lance corporal in June, corporal in February 1916 and sergeant next August. On the Western Front particularly, in 1916-17, he showed the remarkable coolness, courage and determination which made him a legend in his own battalion and in the A.I.F.

Lay won his first decoration during fighting near Pozières on 18 August 1916. When the 7th and 8th Battalions attacked, he and three others managed to get into the enemy trenches but were assaulted with bombs. When Lay's bombs were exhausted and he realized that the second attacking wave would not reach the trench he left it, carrying one of his men who was wounded; despite heavy fire he successfully brought him in. When his company was relieved in the front trench he remained behind and assisted the relieving company commander. His own company commander recommended him for the Victoria Cross but on 20 January 1917 he was awarded a Croix de Guerre avec Palme.

For his courageous actions during the 2nd battle of Bullecourt on 8-9 May 1917 Lay was awarded the Military Medal. When his unit was exposed to constant artillery barrage and repeated counter-attacks Lay, wounded during the first few hours, declined to go to the rear until the battalion was relieved. During the attack he was of 'invaluable assistance' and at one stage left a newly captured post to bring in six prisoners, 'belting the hide off them with his tin hat'.

At Polygon Wood near Ypres on 20 September 1917 Lay won the Distinguished Conduct Medal. When his platoon commander was wounded he took charge and led the platoon through a barrage to the assembly position, into the attack, and on to the final objective. The success of the attack was very much due to his inspiration. Nine days later, in the field, he was commissioned second lieutenant. At Broodseinde, east of Ypres, on 4 October he was awarded the Military Cross. After all the other company officers had become casualties he took command during a critical period of the attack. During the final fight for the ridge his unit was opposed by a field-gun firing at point-blank range. Ordering his company to take cover he and two other men worked to the right flank of the gun position. They then attacked with bomb and bayonet, killing the entire crew and capturing the gun. General Sir William Birdwood sent him a personal letter of congratulations.

Before the 3rd battle of Ypres concluded Lay was to again show his courage. During the Canadian attack at Passchendaele he reconnoitred the German forward positions on the Keiberg. Charles Bean described Lay's reconnaissance as 'magnificent scouting'. He was detached in 1918 for special duty with Dunsterforce in Persia and in February was promoted lieutenant, A.I.F. On 9 March 1919 he embarked for Australia and was demobilized in June, soon afterwards establishing a small farm at Alphington, Melbourne.

During World War II Lay served in garrison, works and training units in Victoria, reaching the rank of major. He then remained at Alphington until illness forced him to enter Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital. He died there, unmarried, on 28 August 1955 of a cerebral tumour and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at £19,459.

An archetypal digger, 'Perce' Lay was greatly admired by his mates. Many felt that he was the bravest man in the A.I.F. and he was often compared to Albert Jacka and others. His medals and a portrait by W. B. McInnes are held by the Australian War Memorial.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1917-18 (Syd, 1933, 1937)
  • W. D. Joynt, Breaking the Road for the Rest (Melb, 1979)
  • J. L. Turner (ed), The War Diaries of Captain Percy Lay, 1914-19 (priv print, Ballarat, 1981)
  • London Gazette, 1 May, 17 July, 16, 23 Nov 1917
  • Reveille (Sydney), July 1933
  • Age (Melbourne), 29 Aug 1955
  • Argus (Melbourne) 29 Aug 1955
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 29 Aug 1955
  • Bulletin (Sydney), 7 Sept 1955
  • P. Lay file (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

J. G. Williams, 'Lay, Percy (Perce) (1892–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 16 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Percy Lay (1892-1955), by W. B. McInnes

Percy Lay (1892-1955), by W. B. McInnes

Australian War Memorial, ART03184