Major General Sir John Gellibrand

5 December 1872 - 3 June 1945

ART03346 Quinn, James, Major General Sir John Gellibrand (1918), oil on canvas, 76 x 63.4 cm, AWM copyright

John Gellibrand was born at Leintwarden, near Ouse, Tasmania on 5 December 1872, the sixth child and third son of a grazier, landowner and local politician. He father died in 1874 and in 1876 his mother took her seven children to live in England. Young Jack Gellibrand was initially educated at Crespigny Preparatory School at Aldeburgh, Suffolk, England. In 1883 the family moved to Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany where he continued his education before completing it at King's School, Canterbury in 1888-89. After a visit to Tasmania, Jack returned to Frankfurt in 1891 to study for the entrance exam to the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. He duly passed the exam and was admitted in 1892.

Gellibrand graduated at the top of his class in 1893 and was awarded the General Proficiency Sword for gaining the highest aggregate marks in the final exams. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Prince of Wales' Volunteers (South Lancashire Regiment) on 21 October 1893 and posted to its 1st Battalion, then on garrison duty in Ireland. He was promoted to 1st lieutenant on 24 April 1895.

When war broke out in South Africa, Gellibrand became adjutant of the 2nd Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment. He arrived in South Africa on 25 January 1900. Soon after, he was given command of a company. As such he participated in the campaign to relieve Ladysmith, which concluded on 3 March 1900. On 8 March 1900, Gellibrand came down with typhoid and was comatose for a month, after which he was evacuated to England.

On 26 May 1900, Gellibrand was promoted to captain in the newly raised 3rd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment, joining his new command at Aldershot on 29 November 1900. On 28 July 1902, the battalion moved to St Helena where its primary task was guarding of the 6000 Boer prisoners there. These were released when the war ended in 1902, and most of the battalion moved to South Africa, where Gellibrand joined it on 5 January 1904, becoming adjutant of 24 January.

In August 1905, Gellibrand passed the staff college entrance exam and entered the Staff College at Camberley, England in January 1906. On graduation in 1908, he was posted to Ceylon as Deputy Assistant Adjutants and Quartermaster General (DAA & QMG). On 27 April 1912, Gellibrand's four year posting to Ceylon ended and he resigned his commission, returning to Tasmania, where he bought an orchard and settled into life as a farmer.

When war broke out on 4 August 1914, Gellibrand immediately offered his services to the commandant of the 6th Military District (Tasmania). On 20 August 1914, he was appointed to the AIF as a captain and given the post of Deputy Assistant Quartermaster General (DAQMG) on the staff of the 1st Division. Staff college graduates like Gellibrand were relatively scarce in Australia. The Australian Army had only six (Majors C. H. Foott, E. F. Harrison, E. H. Reynolds and C. B. B. White and Captains T. A. Blamey and J. D. Lavarack), plus four British graduates who were on secondment (Majors A. H. Bridges, D. J. Glasfurd and C. W. Gwynn and Captain F. D. Irvine). On 23 September 1914 Gellibrand was promoted to major, the usual rank for his post.

The 1st Division staff was shuffled in Egypt when Colonel V. C. M. Sellheim left to command the new Intermediate Base Depot on 12 January 1915. Gellibrand stepped up to become DAA & QMG while Major C. H. Foott took his place as DAQMG. Gellibrand landed at Anzac with the 1st Division Headquarters at around 7:30 am on 25 April 1915. As DAA & QMG, he was responsible for supply. Gellibrand helped organise the beach parties, rounded up stragglers and organised the movement of supplies and ammunition forward. His superior, Lieutenant Colonel W. G. Patterson had a nervous breakdown and was evacuated on 28 April 1915 and Gellibrand performed his job as well until Lieutenant Colonel J. K. Forsyth arrived to replace Patterson on 7 May 1915.

Major General W. T. Bridges was not impressed with Gellibrand's staff work. He felt that Gellibrand had mishandled the move of the 2nd Infantry Brigade to Cape Helles. Bridges also expected Gellibrand to organise a proper officers' mess at Gallipoli and was annoyed at the poor quality of what Gellibrand had scrounged from ships' canteen supplies. Gellibrand might have even been dismissed by Bridges but fate intervened. On 1 May Gellibrand had been wounded in the ankle by a shrapnel ball. Then on 11 May, while laughing at two men whose water bottles had been holed, he received a severe wound in his right shoulder and was evacuated to the hospital ship Gascon. While it was still anchored off Anzac Cove, Bridges was also wounded and brought on board the same ship (and indeed to the same bed, Gellibrand being moved out to make way), where Bridges died on 18 May 1915.

Gellibrand returned to Anzac on 31 May 1915, to find that Forsyth had been given command of the 2nd Infantry Brigade and Foott had become AA & QMG and was now his superior. Gellibrand took this in bad grace although Foott was in fact the senior major. Dissatisfied, Gellibrand put in for a transfer to the 2nd Division, then forming in Egypt. He became DAA & QMG of the 2nd Division in Egypt on 25 August 1915. Because the 2nd Division's AA & QMG, Lieutenant Colonel T. A. Blamey was forced to remain in Egypt for medical reasons, Gellibrand became acting AA & QMG on 29 August, embarking for Anzac once again on the Southland that day. On 2 September, the ship was torpedoed. Gellibrand eventually reached Anzac on 6 September. The August offensives being over, Gellibrand settled into routine administration. He was struck down by typhoid again on 11 October and evacuated a second time, returning on 23 October 1915. For his services at Anzac, Gellibrand was mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).

On 4 December 1915, Gellibrand finally received a promotion to lieutenant colonel and was given command of the 12th Battalion, the 1st Division's Tasmanian battalion, then resting on Lemnos. It did not return to Anzac, which was evacuated on 20 December 1915. Instead, the battalion returned to Egypt on 6 January 1916.

Gellibrand expected to get another senior staff post in the reorganisation of the AIF but on 1 March 1916 he was again promoted, this time to full colonel and temporary brigadier general, and given a brigade, the 6th, on the specific request of the division commander, Major General J. G. Legge. Apparently Gellibrand had greatly impressed Legge during his time as AA & QMG.

The 6th Brigade sailed for the Western Front just a few days later, on 18 March 1916, and entered the line there on 10 April. On 31 May, Gellibrand was wounded by a German shell that landed close to his headquarters, and evacuated to England, returning on 28 June. The brigade fought at Pozieres, where it performed well in the attack on 4 August 1916. Gellibrand was criticised for having his headquarters in Sausage Valley, some 3 km behind the front.

Gellibrand went to England on leave on 25 November 1916. While there he had to have four teeth extracted and did not return until December. He was evacuated again on 13 December 1916 with influenza, returning on 30 January 1917. In the meantime he was promoted to brevet major in the British Army's Reserve of Officer's List.

Gellibrand was acting commander of the 2nd Division until 4 March 1917, directing it in probing attacks against Malt Trench when it was suspected that the Germans were withdrawing. When it became clear that the Germans were indeed withdrawing, 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 had its own artillery, engineers, transport and medical elements, and a flying squadron to fly air cover for it. The I Anzac Corps Companion, Lieutenant General Sir W. R. Birdwood selected Gellibrand and Brigadier General H. E. Elliott for these difficult, quasi independent commands. Gellibrand's advance began well but ended with a disastrous, ill planned and ill executed "unauthorised" attack on Noreuil. This caused Birdwood to lose confidence in Gellibrand, although Gough accepted it as part of the risk that had been accepted.

The 6th Brigade next attack was on the Hindenburg Line near Bullecourt. In this attack, Gellibrand's had his headquarters well forward and his planning was meticulous and detailed. Nonetheless, the attack was very nearly a disaster and only decisive and forceful leadership from Gellibrand retrieved the situation. For this battle he was awarded a bar to his Distinguished Service Order (DSO).

From 25 May to 5 June 1917 Gellibrand again was acting commander of the 2nd Division. For some reason he asked to be relieved of his command. Birdwood granted the request, and Gellibrand was sent to the AIF Depots in the United Kingdom as Brigadier General, General Staff (BGGS) to Major General J. W. McCay. McCay was known as a hard task master, but he had nothing but praise for the work of Gellibrand, who helped him overhaul the organisation and the training syllabus. Likewise, Gellibrand held McCay in high regard. For his services, Gellibrand was awarded the CB.

Gellibrand returned to the Western Front on November 1917, taking over command of the 12th Infantry Brigade from Brigadier General J. C. Robertson on 13 November 1917. He soon placed his own distinctive stamp on his new command. In April 1918, the brigade was committed to battle in the path of the advancing German Army at Dernancourt. The brigade held and defeated the German advance.

On 30 May 1918, as a consequence of the Australian government's directive that all senior commands be held by Australians, Major General J. Monash was appointed to command the Australian Corps and General Sir W. R. Birdwood selected Gellibrand to take Monash's place in command of the 3rd Division. This did not indicate that Birdwood had changed his mind about Gellibrand, but rather that he ultimately accepted the advice of Major General C. B. B. White rather than his own counsel or that of Brigadier General T. H. Dodds, who was emphatically against Gellibrand's promotion. Gellibrand was promoted to major general on 1 June 1918.

Gellibrand found the 3rd Division a difficult assignment. The division staff had been together for two years, and were accustomed to Monash. A number of other brigadier generals were understandably disappointed at missing out on a division command, including one of Gellibrand's new subordinates, Brigadier General W. R. McNicoll. Moreover, neither Birdwood nor Monash was convinced that Gellibrand was up to the task.

At Amiens, Monash and Gellibrand had serious disagreements over tactics and troop dispositions. Gellibrand disliked part of the plan that called for the leapfrogging of divisions, generally regarded as Monash's master stroke. Monash overruled him. On 27 September 1918, the two had a more heated clash over the merits of Gellibrand's intention to attack on a narrow front, something not normally considered advisable. Gellibrand angrily claimed that his battalions were only 200 strong. Monash countered that some were 600 strong. The strength returns show the average strength of Gellibrand's battalions as 648 on 26 October 1918. The attack went in as Monash directed, and was successful, mainly because the Germans began to withdraw.

Lieutenant General Sir J. Monash described Gellibrand thus:

"Gellibrand was a man of interesting personality, more a philosopher an student than a man of action. His great personal bravery and his high sense of duty compensated in great measure for some tendency to uncertainty in executive action... His command of the 3rd Division during the last five months of active fighting was characterised by complete success in battle. His temperament and methods sometimes involved him in embarrassments on the administrative side of his work; but he succeeded in retaining to the last the whole-hearted confidence of his troops."

For his services, Gellibrand was created a Knight Commander of the Bath (KCB) in the 1919 New Years List.

After the war, Gellibrand returned to Tasmania. In August 1919 he accepted the Tasmanian government's offer of the post of Public Service Commissioner. Gellibrand investigated the conditions of the service, and resigned in 1920 after the Tasmanian government chose to ignore his recommendations. He then took up a position as Commissioner for Police in Victoria, but failed to get the Victorian government to agree with his recommendations for reform and resigned in 1922.

While in Melbourne, Gellibrand was appointed commander of the 3rd Division in 1921. He had to resign when he returned to Tasmania in 1922.

Gellibrand entered Federal politics in November 1925, being elected the member for Denison. Acting as his own campaign manager, he was defeated in the 1928 election, and again in 1929. After that he returned to farming, first in Tasmania and then from 1936 near Yea in Victoria.

As the Federal government's interest in military matters began to grow again in the late 1930s, Gellibrand was consulted by Prime Ministers Lyons and Menzies about defence matters. He campaigned for an increase in the size of the Army and after the outbreak of war Gellibrand lobbied the Menzies government to appoint Major General T. A. Blamey as commander in chief. In June 1940, Gellibrand was appointed commandant of the Victorian Volunteer Defence Corps, the Australian version of the Home Guard, but ill health forced him to resign in July.

Gellibrand died on 3 June 1945 and was buried in Yea Cemetery.

Sources: Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1899-1939, Vol 7, pp. 636-637; Sadler, Peter S. The Paladin; Monash, John, The Australian Victories in France in 1918, pp. 268-269

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Last update 8 June 2010