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William Thornton Watson (1887–1961)

by A. J. Sweeting

This article was published:

William Thornton Watson (1887-1961), army officer, was born on 10 November 1887 at Nelson, New Zealand, son of Tasmanian-born Robert Watson, blacksmith, and his Victorian wife Annie, née Harford. Educated at Nelson, William came to Australia and by 1912 had been selected as a front-row forward in the New South Wales Rugby Union football team.

Giving his occupation as salesman, Watson enlisted in the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force on 8 August 1914 and took part in operations in New Britain and New Ireland. Discharged in January 1915, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 19 March and, as a gunner, was posted as a reinforcement for the 1st Divisional Artillery. He embarked from Sydney on 26 June, landed at Gallipoli on 14 August and two days later joined the 1st Field Artillery Brigade.

After service on Gallipoli and in Egypt, in March 1916 he proceeded with his unit to France where his temporary promotion to sergeant was confirmed on 22 April. During operations on the Somme from 26 October 1916 to 15 January 1917 Watson showed 'conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty' by going to the aid of wounded men under heavy fire. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and posted to England for officer training. Commissioned on 7 September, he joined the 2nd Field Artillery Brigade that month and was wounded in action in Belgium on 17 November.

Promoted lieutenant on 7 December, he returned to duty in April 1918 and was at Foucaucourt on 27 August, acting as forward observation officer with the infantry. When the advance was impeded by enemy machine-gun fire, Watson worked his way forward and directed three batteries barraging the German machine-gun posts. For his conduct he was awarded the Military Cross. At Nauroy on the night of 2-3 October Watson's battery was bombarded with gas shells; although gassed himself, he stayed with the unit and attempted to save the life of a wounded officer. His 'energy and devotion to duty' won him a Bar to his M.C.

In 1919 Watson captained the A.I.F. Rugby XV in the King's Cup competition. After his A.I.F. appointment was terminated and his name transferred to the reserve of officers, in 1920 he captained New South Wales against New Zealand. Back in New Guinea, in 1920-25 and 1932-39 he engaged in copra production and gold-mining. Having married American-born Cora May Callear on 14 September 1929 at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney, in 1935 he established their home at Columbiana, Ohio, United States of America.

With the outbreak of World War II Watson returned to Australia and served in the 2nd Australian Garrison Battalion from March 1940. In June he was promoted temporary captain and posted to the Papuan Infantry Battalion, a unit comprising Papuan soldiers and Australian officers and non-commissioned officers. Soon after Japan entered the war, Watson became commanding officer of the P.I.B. The battalion, an element of Maroubra Force, was dispersed between Awala and the north coast when the Japanese landed at Buna and Gona on 22 July 1942. Outnumbered, the P.I.B. fell back before the advancing Japanese; its remnants linked up with leading troops of the 39th Battalion, fought rearguard actions at Gorari and Oivi, and rejoined Lieutenant-Colonel W. T. Owen, the Maroubra Force commander at Deniki.

Having abandoned the position prematurely, Owen reoccupied Kokoda on 28 July, his force reduced to about eighty men. The Japanese attacked that evening. With Owen mortally wounded, Watson—'a bluff outspoken man, quick in thought and speech'—took command. The defenders withdrew to Deniki where Watson remained in command until 4 August when he was relieved by the arrival of a more senior commander. For his bravery and example during the withdrawal, Watson was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and promoted major on 1 September 1942. The P.I.B. subsequently carried out useful work, patrolling the flanks of the Australian-American forces as they pushed northward. Watson relinquished his command on 30 March 1944 and on 7 July was transferred to the reserve of officers.

After the war Watson returned to the United States and was Australian vice-consul in New York (1945-52). Survived by his wife, daughter and son, he died on 9 September 1961 in the Veterans Administration Hospital, Brooklyn, New York.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1918 (Syd, 1942)
  • D. McCarthy, South-West Pacific Area—First Year (Canb, 1959)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Jan 1921, 18 Dec 1942, 21 Sept 1961
  • Australian War Memorial holdings, including G. Long, Official history 1939-45 war, manuscript records.

Citation details

A. J. Sweeting, 'Watson, William Thornton (1887–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 22 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


10 November, 1887
Nelson, New Zealand


9 September, 1961 (aged 73)
Brooklyn, New York, New York, United States of America

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