Major General Harold Edward Elliott

19 June 1878 - 23 March 1931

ART03182 McInnes, W, Brigadier General Harold Elliott (1921), oil on canvas, 76.4 x 64.4 cm AWM copyright

Harold Edward Elliott was born in West Charlton, Victoria on 19 June 1878, the son of Thomas Elliott, a farmer. He was educated at Ballarat College and in 1897 he enrolled in a Bachelor of Law course at Ormond College at the University of Melbourne. While there he enlisted in the Melbourne University Regiment.

When the Boer War broke out a year later he interrupted his studies to enlist as a private in Captain E. Tivey's squadron of the 4th Victorian Contingent (the Imperial Bushmen). He arrived in South Africa in May 1900 was soon was promoted to corporal. Elliott participated in a daring attack on a numerically superior Boer force which resulted in the capture of 33 men and 54 horses. For this exploit, he was congratulated by Lord Kitchener and later awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), the most prestigious award available to a soldier of his rank after the Victoria Cross. Elliott obtained a commission as a lieutenant in the 2nd Berkshire, a British unit, but he chose to remain with the Australians. He returned to Australia in July 1901. 

Elliott, now a lieutenant, sailed for South Africa again in August. On arrival, all the men on his transport were given the choice of joining irregular British units or immediately returning to Australia. Elliott joined the Border Scouts While successfully defending a post, Elliott and another man found some Boers asleep and untied their horses and led them away. For this he  was mentioned in dispatches and congratulated by Lord Kitchener. 

Elliott did not remain with the British Army after the war, instead returning to the University of Melbourne to complete his Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree in 1903. A physically large and strong man, he played football with the Victorian Football League's University team and represented Victoria at state level. He also won the University shot putting and hammer throwing championships. After graduating in 1906, he began his own legal practice as a solicitor.

In March 1904, he enlisted in the 5th Australia Infantry Regiment and was soon commissioned as a lieutenant on the recommendation of Captain E. Tivey. By 1911, Elliott was a major and second in command of the regiment. When the 58th Battalion (Essendon Rifles) was formed on 1 July 1913, Elliott, promoted to lieutenant colonel, became its first commanding officer.

When the AIF was formed in August 1914, Elliott was selected to command the 7th Battalion, which he trained at Broadmeadows, Victoria, and later in Egypt. Like his brigade commander, Colonel J. W. McCay, Elliott believed in hard training and stern discipline. He also put his own distinctive stamp on the unit. One story concerns his insistence on the wearing of the Australian slouch hat. After issuing an order that anyone appearing on parade without his slouch hat would be severely punished, he discovered minutes before leaving for the parade ground that his own hat was missing. Elliott, who normally took a size 8, was forced to appear on parade in a borrowed hat a size too small. A month later, Mrs Elliott received the hat, carefully wrapped and addressed, in the post in Australia.

On the day of the landing at Gallipoli, Elliott was the first senior officer of the 2nd Brigade ashore. Ordered by McCay to take the 7th Battalion up to the 400 Plateau and plug the gap between the 9th and 10th Battalions, Elliott went forward to McCay's Hill in order to ascertain the situation for himself and was wounded in the ankle, and subsequently evacuated.

Elliott returned to the 7th Battalion on 2 June 1915. On 8 July he was in his headquarters behind Steele's Post when he received word that the Turks were in an Australian tunnel near the German Officers' Trench. Characteristically, he went forward in person to ascertain the situation, entering the tunnel with two men. Some twenty feet from the end there was a flash in his face and the man behind him was shot. Elliott drew his pistol and personally barricaded the tunnel with sand bags, refusing help for fear that anyone else coming forward might be hit.

On 8 August 1915, the 7th Battalion moved into the positions at Lone Pine captured the previous day, and Elliott took over responsibility for the defence of the entire position. Elliott led his men from the front trenches, steadying them in a very uncertain situation. His men fought off a series of Turkish counterattacks, winning four Victoria Crosses in the process. Elliott himself was not decorated for the battle despite brilliant leadership. Apparently his name, originally at the top of the recommendations for decorations, had been struck off the list.

Elliott was evacuated to England towards the end of August with pleurisy, and he did not rejoin his unit, which was then resting on Mudros, until 22 November. On 18 December, one day before the evacuation of Anzac, he sprained his ankle and was evacuated ahead of his troops.

On 24 January 1916, he was appointed to command the 1st Brigade. Commanding a New South Wales formation was one thing, but on 1 March 1915 he was given the still more congenial task of organising the 15th Brigade, the AIF's newest Victorian formation, and was promoted to Brigadier General. He immediately reorganised the 15th Brigade to correspond exactly with the brigade of the same number in the AMF. In doing so he built an esprit de corps that was to survive long after the war.

Elliott's style of command required trusted and capable subordinates, and within a fortnight of his appointment, he attempted to replace three of his four battalion commanders with younger men of whom he had more knowledge. This brought him into conflict with Brigadier General C. B. B. White, who told him that the officers' reputations were sacred. Elliott replied that the lives of his men were more sacred. White forced him to accept the officers, but eventually, Elliott managed to have his way.

The 15th Brigade was the last to have to make the three day 39 mile march across the desert to the Suez Canal. The 15th Brigade arrived in better order than the other brigades because Elliott -- now known as "Pompey" to his men -- had it march only in the morning and evening, and threatened to shoot anyone who tried to drink from the Sweet Water Canal, a source of illness for the other brigades.

In June 1916, the 15th Brigade moved from Egypt to the Western Front. The brigade's first attack, at Fromelles, on the night of 19 July 1916 -- an attack that Elliott opposed -- was a bloody holocaust. The brigade lost 1452 men in 24 hours and the 59th and 60th Battalions were nearly wiped out. After the battle, Elliott shook hands with the survivors, tears streaming down his face.

The brigade moved to the Somme sector in October 1916. Twice ordered to make attacks that he didn't believe would succeed, Pompey refused and the attack was cancelled. He was able to speak with great authority about conditions in the front line because he visited it every day, usually first thing in the morning. Elliott's tactics were always based on a deep understanding of the possibilities, coupled with first hand knowledge based on personal reconnaissance.

When it became clear that the Germans were retreating in March 1917, General Sir H. de la P. Gough, commander of the British Fifth Army employed something much discussed and practiced before the war but not yet used: brigade groups, all-arms formations of brigade size. Each was built around a brigade and had its own artillery, engineers, transport and medical elements, and a flying squadron to fly top cover for it. The I Anzac Corps commander, Lieutenant General Sir W. R. Birdwood selected Elliott and Brigadier General J. Gellibrand for these quasi-independent commands.

In an independent command, Elliott demonstrated a flair for brilliant and innovative tactics, using single and double envelopments to drive the Germans out of their positions. His success brought further conflict with White, because Elliott worked to the ground rather that halting at straight lines on the map, and because double envelopment was a tactic that White had denounced before the war. When Elliott's men came under fire from villages outside his assigned zone, he occupied them, receiving a reprimand from Birdwood for his trouble. For this campaign, Elliott received congratulations from Gough, Birdwood and Hobbs, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).

At Polygon Wood on 25 September 1917, Elliott found the battle plan disrupted by a German counterattack on the troops on his right. As usual, he was up with his forward troops at dawn. He immediately ascertained the situation and took strong, decisive action, which resulted in the capture not just of his troops' objectives, but those of the units hit by the attack as well. The official historian called Polygon Wood Elliott's greatest fight, and noted: "his staunchness and vehemence, and power of instilling those qualities into his troops, had turned his brigade into a magnificently effective instrument; and the driving force of this stout hearted leader in this inferno at Hooge throughout the two critical days was in a large measure responsible for this victory".

At dusk on the 26th, the commander of the 60th Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Norman Marshall, informed Elliott that a pillbox called Cameron House was holding up the advance whereupon Elliott and Marshall led some junior officers in the capture of the pillbox. Characteristically, Elliott played down his own part in the capture of the position, giving credit to Marshall and recommending him for a richly deserved Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for the action.

When the German Offensive opened in March 1918, the 15th Brigade was ordered to guard the Somme bridges. Ordered to crack down on looters in Corbie, Elliott refused to single out a British private soldier and instead arrested a staff captain caught looting wine. The captain protested to higher authorities and Birdwood was compelled to order Elliott to release him.

Elliott's tactical brilliance came to the fore again when the Germans captured Villers Bretonneux, threatening to cut the British sector in two at Amiens. Elliott immediately swung into action and organised a counter attack, based around his old favourite tactic, double envelopment. When it was eventually delivered in conjunction with the 13th Brigade, this bold stroke completely restored the situation. It rivals Polygon Wood for Elliott's greatest battle.

In May 1918, Elliott received a shattering blow, being passed over for command of a division by less able officers, Brigadier Generals J. Gellibrand and T. W. Glasgow. Nonetheless, he continued to lead his brigade with the same fire. He developed tactics for co-operation between infantry and tanks that were put into devastating effect at Hamel and Amiens on 8 August.

When, in September 1918, seven battalions mutinied rather than be disbanded, Elliott made a personal appeal to the men of the 60th Battalion. They obeyed and disbanded. Elliott was the only brigadier who was loved and respected enough by his men for them to obey the order. On 21 January 1919, Elliott made a final farewell speech to the men of the 15th Brigade. He assured his men that no decoration the King had given him meant as much to him as the goodwill of men who had accomplished everything that was asked of them, and told them to believe in themselves, in Australia, and in the Almighty.

Elliott returned to Australia in June 1919 to rebuild his firm, which had collapsed during the war. He became city solicitor for Melbourne and director of National Trustees, Executors & Co in 1919. He stood for election to the Senate as a Nationalist in 1919, an election he won handily. He used his position to air wartime grievances against Birdwood, White and the British High Command. Elliott was involved in veterans' affairs and was responsible for drafting the constitution of the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia. He was re-elected to the Senate in 1925.

In 1920, the University of Melbourne awarded him Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Master of Laws (LLM) degrees.

His military career resumed in September 1919 when he was reappointed to command the 15th Brigade but in 1921, disliking service under White, then Chief of the General Staff, Elliott requested to be placed on the unattached list. In 1926, with White gone and Chauvel now Chief of the General Staff, Elliott was again appointed to command the 15th Brigade. Finally, he was appointed to command the 3rd Division and promoted to major general in August 1927.

On 23 March 1931, Elliott died from a wound to the arm. An inquest returned a verdict of suicide. Parliament rose in Canberra, and he was accorded a state funeral. His pallbearers were Rear Admiral Kerr, Major Generals Tivey, Johnston and Grimwade, Brigadier Generals Brand, Blamey and Stewart, and Air Commodore Williams. He was buried at Burwood Cemetery. A year later his men erected a monument over his grave. A service is held there every year on Anzac Day.

Elliott was a maverick general of outstanding ability. As a tactician, he was without peer in the AIF. His methods, of leading from the front, of selecting extraordinarily able subordinates and trusting them, of always making his decisions based on personal reconnaissance, and of setting a personal example in all things, deserve emulation. His forthrightness, his generosity, and above all his refusal to waste lives, made him beloved of his men. In the end, Pompey claimed a special place in the heart of his nation.

Sources: Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1899-1939, Vol 8, pp.428-431; Bean, C. E. W., The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. Volume I: The Story of Anzac pp. 133-134, 326, 361-364, 371-373; Volume II: The Story of Anzac pp. 333-335; Volume III: The AIF In France 1916, pp. 46, 52, 443; Volume IV: The AIF In France 1917, pp. 155-202, 797-824, 832; Volume V: The AIF In France During the German Offensive 1918, pp. 522-525; McMillan, Pompey Elliott

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Last update 8 June 2010