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Marion Boyd Wanliss (1896–1984)

by Bill Gammage

This article was published:

Marion Boyd Wanliss is a minor entry in this article

Harold Boyd Wanliss (1891-1917), soldier and orchardist, was born on 11 December 1891 at Ballarat, Victoria, elder child of John Newton Wellesley Wanliss (1861-1950), solicitor, and his wife Margaret, née Boyd. Newton, brother of David Sydney Wanliss, was educated at Ballarat College and Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., LL.B., 1884; M.A., 1887). He became a solicitor at Ballarat and was active in the Federation campaign. Harold was also educated at Ballarat College (dux 1908) and travelled with his father in Europe before attending Hawkesbury Agricultural College, New South Wales, for one year (dux 1912). In 1913 he took up 295 acres (119 ha) near Lorne, Victoria, to plant an orchard, and nearby found the falls on the Erskine River which were later named after him.

Serious, popular, dark haired and well built, a non-drinker and non-smoker, Harold Wanliss lived plainly, rose early and worked hard. He had 'special powers of application' and fine instincts for the future of Australia and the civilizing mission of Empire. In August 1914 he broke his leg in a riding accident which prevented him from joining the Australian Imperial Force, but typically he spent his convalescence studying the history and theory of war. After enlisting on 28 April 1915, he was selected for officer training at Broadmeadows. Promoted second lieutenant in July 1915, he embarked with the second reinforcements of the 29th Battalion on 29 December.

In March 1916 Wanliss was posted to the 14th Battalion. He was chosen to lead its first raid in France against the German trenches in the Bois Grenier sector on the night of 2-3 July. Although the raid was personally planned by Brigadier General (Sir) John Monash, it was a disaster. The raiders found the German wire uncut, and were caught by German machine-gun and artillery fire. Almost all the eighty-nine raiders—picked men, 'the flower of the A.I.F.'—were hit, and they failed to take a prisoner. Wanliss showed exceptional courage and leadership. He led his party through the uncut wire and, although wounded three times, cleared a section of the German front trench; he then covered the withdrawal of his men and, under heavy fire, continued to direct them until he collapsed from loss of blood. He won the Distinguished Service Order, the first A.I.F. subaltern so decorated in World War I.

Recovering from his wounds, Wanliss rejoined his battalion on 27 September. He became battalion adjutant in January 1917 and a captain on 6 March, and in these months helped to make an already famous battalion one of the most efficient in the A.I.F. His work was marked by attention to detail and untiring concern for his men, notably during the 1st battle of Bullecourt in April. He began a range of recreational activities for troops out of the line, including a series of lectures and debates on post-war Australia and the Empire. In mid-1917 Wanliss requested transfer to a fighting company and was made commanding officer of 'A' Company on 13 August. On 26 September he led it into the battle of Polygon Wood. Just as he reached his battalion's objective a German machine-gunner shot him through the heart, throat and side. He died instantly, and was buried where he fell.

In addition to his D.S.O., Wanliss had been mentioned in dispatches and twice recommended for a decoration, and his comrades mourned his death. 'Many brave men—many good men have I met … but he was the king', his colonel wrote. A brother officer thought him 'the best man and the best soldier and the truest gentleman in our Brigade', while one of his men called him 'the finest Officer ever I met'. Australia's loss was at least as grievous. Charles Bean reported the opinion of Monash and others that Wanliss was 'possibly destined, if he lived, to lead Australia'. Wanliss had spent his A.I.F. leaves studying new industries which might benefit post-war Australia, and searching for various kinds of work for disabled ex-servicemen. His death demonstrates that Australia's World War I losses cannot be measured simply by numbers.

Harold's sister Marion Boyd Wanliss (1896-1984), born on 28 December 1896, attended the University of Melbourne (M.B., B.S., 1920; M.D., 1929); after research into cancer as a postgraduate in Vienna, she practised as a physician at Camberwell, Melbourne, and later in Collins Street. She became an honorary physician at the Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital. A member (1928) of the Royal College of Physicians, London, and a fellow (1954) of the Royal Australian College of Physicians, she was also a prominent conservationist. She died on 28 June 1984; in accordance with her will, her body was delivered to the university's medical school.

After World War I Newton Wanliss wrote the story of his son's battalion, The History of the Fourteenth Battalion, A.I.F. (1929). One of the best 1st A.I.F. unit histories, it reveals a competent researcher, a good writer, and a proud and grieving father. On 12 November 1943 he concluded his will: 'I desire to place on record the pride that I have always felt in the achievements and characters of my two children … and … my gratitude for the companionship and devotion they have both invariably extended towards me'. His son had been dead for 26 years.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Wanliss, The History of the Fourteenth Battalion, A.I.F. (Melb, 1929)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1916-17 (Syd, 1929, 1933)
  • Historical Committee of the Women's Centenary Council (comp), Records of the Pioneer Women of Victoria, 1835-1860 (Melb, 1937)
  • W. G. Mein, History of Ballarat College, 1864-1964 (Ballarat, nd, 1964?)
  • Reveille (Sydney), May 1932
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 29 Sept 1984
  • Red Cross files (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Citation details

Bill Gammage, 'Wanliss, Marion Boyd (1896–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 20 June 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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