Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

John Paton (1867–1943)

by E. M. Andrews

This article was published:

View Previous Version

John Paton (1867-1943), merchant and soldier, was born on 18 November 1867 at Newcastle, New South Wales, son of John Paton, master mariner, and his wife Elizabeth, née Will(?), both born at Dundee, Scotland. He was educated in Newcastle and went into business, becoming chief accountant and then managing director of R. Hall & Son Pty Ltd, import merchants, as well as chairman of the Newcastle & Hunter River Steamship Co. and director of the City of Newcastle Gas & Coke Co. Ltd. On 19 April 1897, at Armidale, he married Margaret Mary Donnelly with Catholic rites. He had joined the New South Wales Military Forces (Volunteers) as a second lieutenant in the 4th Infantry Regiment in December 1887, was promoted captain in 1894, major in 1907 and lieutenant-colonel in 1909, and by July 1914 was colonel of the 4th Infantry Brigade. When war came he was given command of Newcastle Defended Port.

Paton wanted to see action, however, and was content to drop rank to lieutenant-colonel to become second-in-command, under Colonel William Holmes, of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force sent to seize German New Guinea in September 1914. While there he commanded the infantry on an expedition under Lieutenant-Commander J. M. Jackson to capture the German motor yacht Komet. He was credited with boarding it, first, revolver in hand. In December, however, the Australian government sent Colonel (Sir) Samuel Pethebridge, who had been permanent head of the Department of Defence, as administrator to New Guinea and tension developed between his team and the military force. When reports of looting occurred, Pethebridge ordered a search of the baggage of all officers and men departing for Australia. This led to a court of inquiry in Australia and courts-martial for various officers, including Paton, who had in his possession silver 'souvenirs' from the Komet and was in effect charged with looting. He may also have used his warehouse facilities at Newcastle to store goods for other members. The army's honour was at stake and Paton and the other officers were acquitted—which led to an outcry in the press and Federal parliament, where Frank Anstey described the trials as a 'farce'.

Paton, meanwhile, had enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 16 March 1915 as lieutenant-colonel commanding the 25th Battalion and reached Gallipoli in September. After temporarily commanding the 7th Brigade from 15 October, on 1 January 1916 he was promoted colonel and temporary brigadier general before sailing for France. In November he was wounded by a sniper while standing on the parapet of a trench before the assault on Flers and was evacuated to England. Once recovered, Paton commanded the 17th Brigade there from May to July 1917 when he returned to take over the 6th Brigade in Belgium and France, leading it in the attacks on Broodseinde, Passchendaele and Ville-sur-Ancre. He was twice temporarily in command of the 2nd Division.

On 24 August 1918 he returned to Australia. His health after his wound had been poor and he seems to have been tiring and not driving his battalion commanders effectively. The creation of the Australian Corps under Sir John Monash led to the appointment of (Sir) Charles Rosenthal as divisional commander and Paton showed some pique at juniors being promoted over him. He stayed on for the early July battle of Hamel but was induced to retire soon after. For his war service he was appointed C.B. (1916) and C.M.G. (1918) and was mentioned in dispatches three times and awarded the Order of St Stanislaus (Russia).

Back in Australia, Paton took up again his management of R. Hall & Son, and became president of the Newcastle Chamber of Commerce (1920-23) and vice-president (1919-20, 1929-31). He was also local president of the Boy Scouts' Association for some years, first president of Newcastle Rotary Club and closely connected with the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia. He also continued his part-time connexion with the army, being temporarily in command of the 5th and 1st Infantry Brigades, Australian Military Forces, and then the 2nd Division, finally retiring in 1926 with the honorary rank of major general. Survived by one son, Paton died on 21 November 1943 at Newcastle and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. His estate was sworn for probate at £27,371.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac (Syd, 1921, 1924)
  • S. S. Mackenzie, The Australians at Rabaul (Syd, 1927)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1917-18 (Syd, 1933, 1937, 1942)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1914-17, p 2530, 3480
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 13 May 1915, 22 Nov 1943
  • Proceedings of the Court Martial of Colonel J. Paton (A471, item 222, National Archives of Australia)
  • Monash to Birdwood, 7 June 1918, in John Monash papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

E. M. Andrews, 'Paton, John (1867–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 26 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


18 November, 1867
Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia


21 November, 1943 (aged 76)
Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.