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Arthur Leslie Varley (1893–1944)

by Janet Uhr

This article was published:

Arthur Leslie Varley (1893-1944), by unknown photographer, 1941

Arthur Leslie Varley (1893-1944), by unknown photographer, 1941

Australian War Memorial, 005515

Arthur Leslie Varley (1893-1944), army officer and stock-and-station agent, was born on 13 October 1893 at Rookwood, Sydney, third child of native-born parents William Ashton Varley, telegraph operator, and his wife Elizabeth Ellen, née Stubbin. Educated in the New England region, Arthur began work as a clerk. On 24 August 1915 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Sailing for Egypt in October, he was posted to the 45th Battalion and commissioned in March 1916.

Three months later Varley arrived in France. In August he took part in the fighting at Pozières and was promoted lieutenant. He became adjutant in September. His battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel S. C. E. Herring, was to remember his actions at Messines, Belgium, in June 1917, when he guided the medical officer, a few signallers and Herring himself to an advanced battle station through a desolate landscape swept by fire—'a magnificent feat'. During that battle he also went forward to take control of two companies at Owl Trench and organized a counter-attack. He was awarded the Military Cross for 'his coolness under fire and utter disregard of personal danger' and next month promoted captain. Appointed staff captain, 12th Brigade, in January 1918, he won a Bar to his M.C. for supervising the resupply of a battalion while under heavy fire in operations east of Hamel, France, in August. His A.I.F. appointment terminated in Sydney on 4 October 1919. He was mentioned in dispatches.

At St Peter's Cathedral, Armidale, on 17 December 1919 Varley married with Anglican rites Linda Adelaide Middleton; they had three children before Linda died in 1925. On 22 September 1926 at St Jude's Church of England, Randwick, Sydney, Varley married a 40-year-old divorcee Ethel Stevens, née Parker; they were childless. With Ethel's brother he ran a stock-and-station agency at Inverell. He also owned a grazing property named Kahmoo. A fine sportsman, he had played Rugby Union football for New England and tennis for Armidale. As a cricketer he was a consistent number-three batsman and a fast bowler. Alan Kippax, giving an exhibition in 1924, asked that he be taken off: 'It's impossible for me to give a demonstration when he's bowling like that'.

Active in the Militia from February 1939, Varley was given command of the 35th Battalion in September and promoted temporary lieutenant colonel in December. He had 'keen blue eyes and a sparsely-built frame which accentuated his military bearing'. Seconded to the A.I.F. on 1 July 1940, he was placed in command of the 2nd/18th Battalion, which reached Malaya in February as part of the 22nd Brigade. Varley's battalion did not go into action until the night of 26/27 January 1942, when it mounted an effective ambush at the Nithsdale rubber estate, south of Mersing. He continued to lead from the front when the Japanese landed on Singapore Island on 8 February. Four days later Major General H. G. Bennett relieved H. B. Taylor of command of the 22nd Brigade, replacing him with Varley, whom he promoted temporary brigadier. Singapore fell on 15 February.

In May Varley took command of 'A' Force, a working party of 3000 Australian prisoners of war drawn mainly from the 22nd Brigade. The force was sent to Burma to work on the Burma-Thailand Railway, and was joined there by prisoners from the Netherlands East Indies; from October Varley commanded some 9000 men. Lieutenant Colonel C. G. W. Anderson was to write of Varley's 'strong personality [and] his vigorous and fearless championship of the troops'. Varley recorded in his diary the conditions (the hospital was 'about equal to a fowl shed . . . on a very poor farm'), his efforts to obtain necessities for the men ('Must keep plugging. This is a battle for life'), and the names of the dead (the Japanese 'do not mind if the line is dotted with crosses'). With the railway completed, Varley was sent to Thailand in January 1944 then back to Singapore where a British gunner remembered him as 'a lonely rather majestic figure still with his faded red tabs, and an air of battered dignity'.

On 6 September 1944 Varley embarked for Formosa (Taiwan) in the Japanese transport Rakuyo Maru. Early on 12 September the vessel was torpedoed by an American submarine. Varley was last seen in command of a group of seven lifeboats, reportedly 'heading north-west'. Others in the water thought they heard machine-gun fire from that direction, possibly from Japanese frigates which might have killed Varley and his party. The date of his death, though probably 14 September, was formally given as 13 September 1944. He was survived by his wife and by the daughter and two sons of his first marriage. His elder son Jack had won the M.C. in Malaya; his younger son Robert was killed in action in New Guinea in April 1945. Arthur Varley's name is inscribed on the Labuan Memorial, Sabah, Malaysia, for servicemen with no known graves.

Select Bibliography

  • J. E. Lee, The Chronicle of the 45th Battalion, A.I.F. (Syd, 1924)
  • L. Wigmore, The Japanese Thrust (Canb, 1957)
  • J. Burfitt, Against All Odds (Syd, 1991)
  • D. Wall, Heroes at Sea (Syd, 1991)
  • J. Uhr, Against the Sun (Syd, 1998)
  • Reveille (Sydney), 1 Dec 1944
  • Inverell Times, 20 Jan 1941, 26 Feb 1999
  • war diary, 2/18th Battalion, AWM 52, item 8/3/18 (Australian War Memorial)
  • Report on POW Conditions, AWM 54, item 554/2/4, (Australian War Memorial)
  • A. L. Varley diary, AWM 3DRL, item 2691 (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Janet Uhr, 'Varley, Arthur Leslie (1893–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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