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Sir Charles Rosenthal (1875–1954)

by A. J. Hill

This article was published:

Charles Rosenthal (1875-1954), by John Longstaff, 1919

Charles Rosenthal (1875-1954), by John Longstaff, 1919

Australian War Memorial, ART02988

Sir Charles Rosenthal (1875-1954), architect, soldier and musician, was born on 12 February 1875 at Berrima, New South Wales, only son of Danish-born Carl Johann Christian Rosenthal, schoolmaster, and his Swedish wife Emilie, née Clov. He was probably educated by his father until, when almost 15, he was articled to A. J. Derrick, architect, of Geelong, Victoria. In 1892 Rosenthal joined the Geelong Battery of the Victorian Militia Garrison Artillery as a gunner but had to move to Melbourne in 1893 to complete his articles with J. Edmund Burke as Derrick had ceased to practise. Having passed the examinations, Rosenthal was elected associate of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects in 1895.

He became a draughtsman in the architectural division of the Department of Railways and Public Works in Perth. Even after moving to Coolgardie, he was involved in plans for the Perth law courts, the Free Public Library and the Royal Mint. He was already revealing the energy and wide interests that characterized his life, especially in music. As organist and choirmaster of Coolgardie Wesley Church he won the esteem of the congregation and his fine bass voice made him a popular concert artist. He married Harriet Ellen (Nellie) Burston of Melbourne, at the Congregational Church, Brighton, Victoria, on 11 September 1897; they had three sons.

Having decided to return to Melbourne after his health was threatened by typhoid—he was also bankrupt—Rosenthal sent his wife by ship and set off on his bicycle in November 1898. Travelling through Norseman, Eucla, Port Augusta, Adelaide, Mt Gambier and Ballarat he rejoined his wife at Brighton in January 1899. He then joined G. C. Inskip and W. R. Butler, architects and surveyors, who sent him to manage their Sydney office in 1900. Here Rosenthal blossomed, becoming involved in the affairs of his profession, in the musical life of Sydney and in the army. However, he continued his studies and was elected associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1904 and fellow of the R.V.I.A. in 1906. His main work was the design of dwellings but his interest in church music led to commissions for the design of churches. In 1906 he was made architect for the Anglican diocese of Grafton and Armidale. He designed St Andrew's, Lismore, St Laurence's, Barraba, and Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, Sydney.

While enhancing his reputation as an architect, Rosenthal was also recognized as being 'in the front rank of oratorio singers in Sydney', performing with the Philharmonic Society and the Sydney Liedertafel. In 1903 he had been commissioned second lieutenant in the Militia Garrison Artillery. He transferred to the Australian Field Artillery in 1908, and was promoted major and given command of a howitzer battery. In 1914 he became commanding officer of the 5th Field Artillery Brigade. By the outbreak of war in August he was as well established as a soldier as he was as a musician and an architect. He had set up his own architectural firm in partnership with A. H. Wright in Sydney and was organist and choirmaster of Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill. Moreover, aviation had cast its spell upon him; he was one of the founders of the Aerial League of Australia in 1909 and was a pupil at W. E. Hart's Australian Flying School at Penrith.

Rosenthal joined the Australian Imperial Force in August 1914 and sailed with the first convoy as lieutenant-colonel commanding the 3rd Field Artillery Brigade. He 'seemed tremendously massive and powerful … there was nobody who could hold him at single-man tug-o'-war'. Not surprisingly, ' “Rosie” controlled that raw lot of troops well'. At the Gallipoli landing his energy and optimism brought him into brief conflict with his commander, Major General (Sir) William Bridges. The artillery staff had found no positions for their sorely needed batteries and Bridges told Rosenthal that he did not want guns ashore as the position was not sufficiently secure. Nevertheless Rosenthal later was able to reconnoitre the southern sector and choose unorthodox gun positions among the foremost infantry. He then persuaded Bridges to let him land his guns. To the end of his life, Rosenthal remained critical of Bridges's attitude, especially in a public address in 1936 which aroused brief controversy.

Rosenthal's actions on 25 April 1915 are said to have 'established his reputation' in the A.I.F. He was twice wounded on Gallipoli. Lying amid a crowd of suffering men on a hospital ship, he entertained them by singing Handel's 'Arm, Arm Ye Brave'. His second wound led to his evacuation to England in August but he used his convalescence to study current artillery tactics in France. Returning to Egypt in time for the expansion of the A.I.F., he was given command of the artillery of the new 4th Division and was promoted brigadier general in February 1916.

Rosenthal's guns went into action in France in June. He was engaged in the heavy fighting on the Somme, at Pozières and Mouquet Farm and at Ypres in Belgium. In December he was again wounded. For a time in 1917 he was commanding the artillery of four divisions and was already recognized as a potential divisional commander although lacking infantry experience. Rosenthal was appointed commander of the 9th Infantry Brigade in July and 'his robustness and audacity' soon put new life into it. 'He loved not only to be in the front line but to be seen there … The troops leapt at the breezy courage that was keen to test any danger before they entered it'. 'Rosie' became to the 9th what 'Pompey' Elliott was to the 15th Brigade.

In the battles of 3rd Ypres, Passchendaele and the German offensive of March 1918 he enhanced his reputation. He was badly gassed at Passchendaele and when inspecting his own wiring parties near Villers-Bretonneux bumped into a German wiring party from which he took three prisoners. Trudging up to 20 miles (32 km) a day, 'he knew more about his sector than anyone else'. Rosenthal's penchant for the front line led him into actions which were sometimes rash and improper for a senior commander. While inspecting new outposts by night with a commanding officer in May 1918, he deliberately clashed with a German party of six in order to obtain a prisoner for identification of the unit opposite.

On 22 May Rosenthal was appointed to command the 2nd Division and promoted major general. He took part in the brief but brilliant attack at Hamel. Soon afterwards, on a daylight reconnaissance at a well-known danger spot, he was, for the fourth time, wounded, seriously, by a sniper but returned from hospital just in time for the great battles beginning on 8 August.

In the fighting for Péronne, 31 August–2 September, Rosenthal's division captured Mont St Quentin with tired and depleted battalions in an audacious operation rated by (General) Sir Brudenell White as the 'first … of the four greatest achievements of the Australian Corps in the 1918 offensives'. On 5 October Rosenthal took Montbrehain within the Hindenburg defences, the last action of the Australian Corps in the war. He was appointed C.B. (1915), C.M.G. (1917), and K.C.B. (1919), was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (1918) and was mentioned in dispatches seven times. He was also awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre (1917), the French Croix de Guerre (1918) and the Légion d'honneur (1919).

Rosenthal went to England in March 1919 to command all the depots of the A.I.F. during the repatriation of the troops, an arduous and delicate task for which his reputation, energy and humanity well equipped him. He returned to Australia in January 1920 after travelling in Europe. Faced with rebuilding his architectural practice, he made a brief attempt to study law at the University of Melbourne but this convinced him that he should continue as an architect while pursuing his other interests. Thus he was commander of the 2nd Division, Australian Military Forces, in 1921-26 and again in 1932-37. He served as an alderman of Sydney Municipal Council in 1921-24 and was chairman of its works committee. He was also a Nationalist member for Bathurst in the Legislative Assembly in 1922-25 and a member of the Legislative Council in 1936-37.

In spite of these activities, Rosenthal became a leader of his profession; according to its journal he was 'energy personified; he has the physique of a gladiator and the heart of a lion'. Twice president of the Institute of Architects of New South Wales in 1926-30, he rarely missed a council-meeting and was also president of the federal council of the Australian Institutes of Architects in 1925-28. In an address to the New South Wales institute in 1924 he proposed the redevelopment of Woolloomooloo as a zone for Federal, State and municipal offices sited around parks and gardens, together with removal of the wharves and development of the shores. He also proposed a system of major roads for Sydney and the redevelopment of The Rocks area. Rosenthal was president of the Australian Museum, Sydney, in 1926-30 and was actively interested in native flora, reafforestation and the development of wireless communications. He was a fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and a life fellow of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, the creation of which had long been one of his chief goals. But in 1930, during the Depression, he was declared bankrupt.

In 1937 Rosenthal accepted the post of administrator of Norfolk Island which he governed throughout World War II. There he was able to promote energetically but on a lesser scale many of his career interests with freedom from his recent financial difficulties. He supported tree-planting and conservation of the old convict buildings, fostered education and the work of the Red Cross Society and, after the outbreak of war, raised a volunteer infantry unit. He relinquished his office at the end of 1945 but lived privately on the island until 1948 when he returned to Sydney.

Rosenthal's wife had died and his health was failing. On 22 July 1953 he married Sarah Agnes Rosborough, née McKinstry (d.1987), at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney. In his last years he was frequently in hospital with chronic nephritis but he remained cheerful and mentally vigorous. He died on 11 May 1954 at Green Point, survived by his wife and his sons, of whom Captain A. S. Rosenthal, D.S.O. and Bar, O.B.E., was a regular officer in the Royal Australian Navy. Rosenthal was cremated with full military honours after a service at St Andrew's Anglican Cathedral, Sydney. His portrait by John Longstaff is in the Australian War Memorial.

Rosenthal may have been a part-model for the authoritarian ex-soldiers' leader Benjamin Cooley in D. H. Lawrence's novel, Kangaroo (London, 1923). Rosenthal had been founding secretary in 1921 and later president of The King and Empire Alliance, with which Lawrence had been in contact, probably through W. J. R. Scott.

In his energy, his optimism, his courage and the breadth of his interests, Rosenthal was among the most remarkable leaders of his time. No man was better equipped to be a regimental commander. 'The Diggers took to him because he was a man and a fighter' but it was the thinker who, even before he left Australia, was urging the authorities to send with the 1st Division the 5-inch (13 cm) howitzers he had once commanded. He kept at it on Gallipoli until Bridges cabled for them. As an architect, he was as assiduous in working for his profession as he had been at training his artillery. He enjoyed public life, was a good speaker, much in demand at soldiers' reunions and as leader of Anzac Day marches in Sydney. 'No “head” of the A.I.F. was better liked … He has always been “Rosie”, with respect'.

Select Bibliography

  • I. Hamilton, Gallipoli Diary (Lond, 1920)
  • J. Monash, The Australian Victories in France in 1918 (Lond, 1920)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac, vols 1, 2 (Syd, 1921, 1924)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1916-18 (Syd, 1929, 1933, 1937, 1942)
  • Architecture (Sydney), Aug 1924, Apr 1927
  • United Service Quarterly, Oct 1954
  • Quadrant, June 1982, Sept 1987
  • Victorian Historical Magazine, 40, no 3, 1968
  • Reveille (Sydney), Mar 1930, Sept 1936
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Jan 1920, 21 Jan, 16, 31 Mar 1922, 14 Feb 1923, 24 June, 15 Aug, 5 Nov 1925, 2 Oct 1926, 16 July 1930, 17 Apr, 4 June 1936, 3 July 1937, 13 May 1954
  • Bulletin, 14 July 1937
  • Rosenthal diaries (State Library of New South Wales)
  • biography files (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

A. J. Hill, 'Rosenthal, Sir Charles (1875–1954)', 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

Charles Rosenthal (1875-1954), by John Longstaff, 1919

Charles Rosenthal (1875-1954), by John Longstaff, 1919

Australian War Memorial, ART02988

Life Summary [details]


12 February, 1875
Berrima, New South Wales, Australia


11 May, 1954 (aged 79)
Green Point, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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