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Sir Walter Ramsay McNicoll (1877–1947)

by Ronald McNicoll

This article was published:

Walter Ramsay McNicoll (1877-1947), by unknown photographer, 1914-19

Walter Ramsay McNicoll (1877-1947), by unknown photographer, 1914-19

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an10975069-9

Sir Walter Ramsay McNicoll (1877-1947), schoolmaster, soldier and administrator, was born on 27 May 1877 at Emerald Hill, Melbourne, son of William Walter Alexander McNicoll, photographer, and his wife Ellen, née Ramsay. He was educated at state schools. In 1893 he joined the Victorian Education Department as a monitor, becoming a pupil-teacher in 1895. He studied at the Teachers' Training College under the direction of Frank Tate in 1900-01 and obtained the Trained Teacher's Certificate. In 1905 he joined the staff of the newly opened Melbourne Continuation (High) School where he taught drawing and commanded the cadets. On 10 June at St John's Church, Heathcote, he married another teacher, Hildur, Victorian-born daughter of Oscar Wedel Jarlsberg, a Norwegian migrant. Appointed founding headmaster of the future Geelong High School in 1911, he gained his diploma of education in 1912. He divided his spare time between the military forces, in which he was a major, and yachting on Port Phillip Bay.

On the raising of the Australian Imperial Force in August 1914 McNicoll was appointed second-in-command of the 7th Battalion. He sailed with his unit in October, trained with it in Egypt, and in April 1915 was given command of the 6th Battalion. He led the 6th in the landing at Anzac Cove on 25 April, and for his work then and during the following night he received one of the first awards of the Distinguished Service Order in the A.I.F. His battalion, with others, was moved to Cape Helles to attempt the capture of the Achi Baba heights: there, on 8 May, it took part in the costly and unsuccessful second battle of Krithia. In the attack McNicoll was severely wounded in the abdomen, and he might not have survived had not the war correspondent Charles Bean made a note of where he lay, and brought stretcher-bearers after nightfall. In hospital at Alexandria efforts failed to extract the bullet, and it was not until McNicoll reached London that an operation was successful. He was invalided to Australia late in 1915.

By February 1916 he was fit enough to be appointed to command the newly raised 10th Infantry Brigade, a component of the 3rd Division commanded by Major General (Sir) John Monash. The brigade reached England in July. During the winter of 1916-17 it was in a quiet sector of the line in Flanders. In June 1917 it took part in the battle of Messines. In October it was engaged in the third battle of Ypres where it achieved great success at Broodseinde but failed (as did others) in the fight for Passchendaele. The brigade was in reserve in March 1918 when the Germans broke through the front farther south: it was rushed to the Amiens sector and took a major part in stabilizing the line.

Monash's appointment to command the Australian Corps in May left the command of the 3rd Division vacant. He favoured McNicoll. However, the appointment went to Brigadier General (Sir) John Gellibrand.

The 10th Brigade was heavily engaged in the battle of Amiens, and for the last six days of August it was almost continuously in action. Its final battle took place at the end of September, on the Hindenburg line. For his work on the Western Front McNicoll was appointed C.M.G. and then C.B., and he was four times mentioned in dispatches. As a brigade commander he had been intensely loyal to Monash, whose plans, sometimes faulty, he never questioned in public. He had shown himself to be over sanguine on occasions, but courageous, determined, and an able leader of men.

After the Armistice McNicoll was appointed inspector-general (from April 1919 director) of education, controlling the civil education and training of the soldiers waiting for ships to take them home. He returned to Australia late in 1919. Although his university studies had been interrupted by the war he was granted in 1920, while headmaster of Coburg High School, a B.A. 'in view of his distinguished military services'. But without further qualifications his prospects in the Victorian Education Department were limited, and he resigned to become principal of the new Presbyterian Ladies' College at Goulburn, New South Wales.

In that small provincial city he was prominent as a returned soldier, a Freemason, and musical director of the very active choral society, and during the founding years of the school he was content. Thereafter growth slowed and the job became tedious. From 1929 the school was hard hit by the Depression.

During 1931 McNicoll began to take an active interest in politics. After the Scullin government was defeated in November, McNicoll was chosen as the Country Party candidate for the Federal seat of Werriwa, and the United Australia Party decided to support him. At the election in December McNicoll won on preferences against the sitting Lang Labor member, Bert Lazzarini. In parliament McNicoll concerned himself largely with defence, war pensions, and the interests of servicemen. During the winter recess of 1933 he visited Papua and the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. He had already sought an appointment to an administratorship, having found parliamentary temporizing distasteful, and conscious that his seat was not safe. Appointed administrator of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea in August, he assumed office on 13 September 1934 in succession to Brigadier General Thomas Griffiths. He was described at the time as 'a slightly built man, rather above middle height' with the 'pale face of the ascetic', a 'keen and sharp' expression and 'a charming though reserved manner'.

McNicoll established a pattern of regular visits to all the outlying districts, paying particular attention to the economically important Morobe goldfield. As administrator he held a balance between the many conflicting interests of planters, missionaries, miners and prospectors. Funds were always short, and desirable initiatives such as native education were restricted. McNicoll was given a fairly free hand by most of the nine ministers under whom he served: these ranged from the sagacious Sir George Pearce to the vain and capricious Billy Hughes.

When the volcanoes at Rabaul erupted on 29 May 1937 the administrator was on the mainland. He flew back—the first aircraft to land at Rabaul—and took over from Judge Sir Frederick Phillips who had organized the evacuation. He decided upon the early reoccupation of the town. His appointment to K.B.E. headed the special honours list for the Rabaul emergency.

As the threat of war grew in 1939 McNicoll became increasingly concerned about the Territory's vulnerability, now viewing its mandate status as a liability rather than a strength. When war broke out in September he interned many of the German missionaries, and more in May 1940. It was not until January 1941 that he was relieved of responsibility for defence.

Rabaul's larger volcano erupted again in June 1941, making the town almost uninhabitable. McNicoll decided to transfer the seat of government to Lae and, in order to speed construction, moved there himself with several departments, leaving Harold Page at Rabaul as deputy administrator. The entry of Japan into the war increased McNicoll's concern over the vulnerability of the territory and of Rabaul in particular, and he pressed for reinforcements, but without success. On 20 January 1942 Lae was destroyed in an air raid. Two days later Rabaul fell to the Japanese, and McNicoll, suffering from malaria, was flown from Lae to Wau. He made his way south, still a sick man, hoping to see his minister; but it was evident that the Mandated Territory was substantially lost.

He retired from office at the end of 1942, having served as administrator for more than eight years. He died in Sydney on 24 December 1947 and was cremated. He was survived by his wife and four sons of whom Ronald became a major general, Alan a vice admiral and David a prominent journalist.

His record is that of a conscientious, energetic and somewhat conventional man, disinclined to compromise, not tactful, but considerate; a firm believer in the virtues of discipline and loyalty; and, in New Guinea, more liberal than was usual at the time.

A portrait by John Longstaff is in the Australian War Memorial.

Select Bibliography

  • R. McNicoll, Walter Ramsay McNicoll 1877-1947 (Melb, 1973), and for bibliography
  • G. Serle, John Monash (Melb, 1982)
  • K. Fewster (ed), Gallipoli Correspondent (Syd, 1983)
  • McNicoll papers (National Library of Australia and University of Papua New Guinea Library)
  • information from Education History Services, Victorian Education Dept, Melbourne .

Citation details

Ronald McNicoll, 'McNicoll, Sir Walter Ramsay (1877–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 26 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

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