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Mitchell, George Deane (1894–1961)

by Bill Gammage

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

George Deane Mitchell (1894-1961), by unknown photographer, 1944

George Deane Mitchell (1894-1961), by unknown photographer, 1944

Australian War Memorial, 084487

George Deane Mitchell (1894-1961), soldier, author, politician and lifelong larrikin, was born on 30 August 1894 at Caltowie, South Australia, one of five children of George Deane Mitchell, railway porter, and his wife Annie, née Smith. Young George was a clerk in Adelaide when he enlisted in the 10th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, on 5 September 1914. He served at Gallipoli from 25 April 1915 until he was evacuated with enteric fever on 6 August. Rejoining his battalion on 9 September 1916 in Belgium, he was transferred to the 48th Battalion on 31 October and promoted lance corporal on 17 March 1917.

On 11 April, after six hours of bitter trench fighting in the first battle of Bullecourt, France, Mitch covered his comrades' retreat, then shouldered his Lewis gun and strolled through heavy enemy fire to his lines. He won the Distinguished Conduct Medal and was promoted second lieutenant. His walk entered A.I.F. legend, and Charles Bean's official history used it to characterize Mitchell's brigade in the battle. On 28 March 1918 Mitchell's platoon held an exposed hillside at Dernancourt. On his right the enemy broke through. He ran to the break, waving a pistol, and captured about thirty soldiers. He was awarded the Military Cross. In May 1919 he returned to Australia an A.I.F. rarity, having survived four years of front-line service unwounded.

Mitchell wrote the A.I.F.'s most evocative diary, with a knack of seeing significance in events. 'We had come from the New World for the conquest of the Old', he observed at the Anzac landing. 'They all bore the hall mark of the Cog', he remarked of Londoners in 1916. 'I feel that I have lost touch with any life but this one of war', he wrote in 1917, it 'is hard to recall Australia, and apart from my people nothing stands out vividly. I feel an outsider. We are lost in the magnitude of our task'.

In peace he could not settle. In South Australia until 1922, he grew potatoes and was an army area officer at Mount Gambier; in Victoria until 1926 and Queensland until about 1936, he worked as an estate agent, garage-owner and motorcar salesman; and in New South Wales until 1940, he was a journalist and author. Although Mitchell was a Militia officer in 1920-26, he never liked officers, but he was proud of his war service and from 1934 wrote about it for Reveille, then for Smith's Weekly and in a book, Backs to the Wall (Sydney, 1937). Convinced of the importance of defence to his country's future, he wrote The Awakening (1937), a novel describing the invasion of an unprepared Australia, and Soldier in Battle (1940), a handbook for front-line infantry. In 1939 he edited and toured with We of the A.I.F., an official film on 1914-18, for which he provided a vivid commentary. He became a State councillor of the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia. He ran as an Independent for the Legislative Assembly seat of Oxley, losing in 1938 and winning in 1941. Because of war service, he was present for only three sitting days, and lost the seat in 1944.

Having been appointed captain, Reserve of Officers, on 8 July 1940, Mitchell trained militiamen. He was promoted major on 1 September. At St Michael's Anglican Church, Vaucluse, on 30 July 1941 he married Thelma Agnes Bell, a 20-year-old New Zealand-born stenographer. In north-west Australia in 1942-43 he led an independent guerrilla force which lived off the land for weeks while searching for Japanese and training local resistance. Transferring to the A.I.F., he commanded the 43rd Landing Craft Company. With equipment vastly better than at Anzac Cove, he landed troops under fire at Dove Bay, near Wewak, New Guinea, on 11 May 1945. He returned to civilian life in February 1946 and worked for the T.B. Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen's Association. In his retirement he listed his recreations as swimming, hiking, experimenting and writing. He died of cancer on 11 January 1961 at Darlinghurst, Sydney, and was cremated with Methodist forms. His wife and son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1918 (Syd, 1937)
  • B. Gammage, The Broken Years (Canb, 1974)
  • Reveille (Sydney), Mar 1936, Feb 1961
  • People (Sydney), 18 June 1952
  • G. D. Mitchell diary, 1914-18 (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Bill Gammage, 'Mitchell, George Deane (1894–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mitchell-george-deane-11137/text19835, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 24 September 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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