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William John Symons (1889–1948)

by Anthony Staunton

This article was published:

William John Symons (1889-1948), soldier and businessman, was born on 12 July 1889 at Eaglehawk, Victoria, son of William Samson Symons (d.1904), miner, and his wife Mary Emma, née Manning. Educated at Eaglehawk State School, in 1906 he moved with his family to Brunswick, Melbourne, and worked as a commercial traveller. He served for eight years in the militia (5th and 60th battalions) before enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 17 August 1914. Posted to the 7th Battalion as colour sergeant, he embarked for Egypt on 18 October, was promoted acting regimental quartermaster sergeant on 9 April 1915 and landed with his battalion at Gallipoli on 25 April. He was commissioned second lieutenant next day and promoted lieutenant on 2 July.

About 5 a.m. on 9 August the Turks made a series of determined attacks on Jacob's Trench at Lone Pine where six Australian officers were killed or severely wounded. Learning that the position had been overrun, Lieutenant-Colonel Harold 'Pompey' Elliott ordered Symons to retake the trench. 'I don't expect to see you again', he said, 'but we must not lose that post'. Symons led the charge that drove off the Turks, but the enemy continued attacking from the front and both flanks. Symons received Elliott's permission to abandon fifteen yards (14 m) of open trench and to establish a new barricade. Although the Turks set fire to the overhead woodwork, Symons extinguished the flames, kept the barricade in place and finally forced the enemy to discontinue their attacks. One of seven Australians to win the Victoria Cross at Lone Pine, Symons was cited for his conspicuous gallantry and received his V.C. from King George V at Buckingham Palace on 4 December.

Returning to Australia in March 1916, 'Curly' Symons was fêted at civic receptions at Bendigo and Brunswick. He re-embarked for the Western Front as a captain commanding a company in the 37th Battalion. Wounded in the 10th Brigade's raid on 27 February 1917, he was subsequently gassed during the battle of Messines, Belgium, on 7 June. He rejoined his unit in January 1918 and fought at Dernancourt, France, in March. On 15 August he married Isabel Annie Hockley at St Mary's Church, Hayling Island, Hampshire, England; they left next day for Australia, arriving a month before the Armistice. His A.I.F. appointment terminated on 7 December.

In 1918 he adopted the surname of Pen Symons. With his family he later settled at Kenton, Hampshire, where he became a director of several engineering and construction companies. He served as a lieutenant-colonel in the home guard in 1941-44. Survived by his wife and three daughters, he died of a brain tumour on 24 June 1948 in London. His V.C. and medals are in the Hall of Valour at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac, vol 1, 2 (Syd, 1921, 1924)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1917-18 (Syd, 1937, 1942)
  • L. Wigmore (ed), They Dared Mightily, second ed revised and condensed by J. Williams and A. Staunton (Canb, 1986)
  • Sabretache, 23, no 4, Oct/Dec 1982, p 28
  • Bendigo Advertiser, 18, 21 Oct 1915, 14, 17, 21 July 1982
  • Times (London), 6 Dec 1915, 26 June 1948
  • Argus (Melbourne), 23 Mar 1916
  • Canberra Times, 4 Oct 1967
  • Lummis, V.C. and G.C. files (Military History Society, London)
  • 7th Battalion, item 2, 1st Australian Division, AWM28 collection 2 (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

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Citation details

Anthony Staunton, 'Symons, William John (1889–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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