Major General William Holmes

12 September 1862 - 2 July 1917

ART00195 Carter, Norman, Major General William Holmes (1920), oil on canvas, 71.6 x 61.2 cm (sight), AWM copyright

William Holmes was born on 12 September 1862 in Sydney, the son of Captain William Holmes, the chief clerk at New South Wales Military Forces Headquarters, who had come to Australia in 1845 as a private in the 11th Foot Regiment, and his Tasmanian born wife, Jane, daughter of Patrick Hackett, also of the 11th Foot. William lived in the Victoria Barracks and was educated Paddington Public School.

Holmes worked at the Sydney Mint and then joined the accounts branch of the Department of Works as a clerk on 24 June 1878. On 24 August 1887, he married Susan Ellen Green, whose family also lived in the Victoria barracks. On 20 April 1888 he became chief clerk and paymaster of the Metropolitan Board of Water Supply and Sewerage. In 1895 he became secretary and chief clerk. Under his leadership, the department underwent a great expansion and the Cataract, Cordeaux and Avon dams were built.

Holmes joined the 1st Infantry Regiment of the New South Wales Military Forces as a bugler at the age of 10. He served in every enlisted rank. Holmes served for 18 months in a submarine mining company before returning to the regiment and being commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1886. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1890, captain in 1894 and major in 1900.

In 1899, Holmes volunteered for service in South Africa. Although he was senior to his company commander, Captain J. G. Legge, Holmes dropped down to lieutenant in order to serve with the contingent. The company left for South Africa in November 1899, and on arrival was incorporated in the Australian Regiment. Originally an infantry unit, it became mounted in February. Legge agitated for a separate identity for the New South Wales contingent, with the result that on 7 April 1900, the Australian Regiment was disbanded, and colonial contingents formed into a new mounted division under Lieutenant General Sir Ian Hamilton. Legge's company was incorporated into the 1st New South Wales Mounted Rifles and Holmes was promoted to captain and given command of E Squadron. He saw action at Colesberg, Pretoria and Diamond Hill in June 1900, where he was wounded. Holmes was mentioned in dispatches, promoted to brevet lieutenant colonel, and awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). He was invalidated home in August 1900.

Holmes commanded the 1st Australian Infantry from 1902 to 1911. He was promoted to colonel on 6 January 1912 and was appointed to command the 6th Infantry Brigade.

Shortly after war broke out, a special expeditionary force, the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF), was formed to occupy German possessions in New Guinea and the Pacific Islands. Consisting of a battalion of infantry plus signallers, machine gunners and medical troops, and six companies of naval reservists, the AN&MEF was enlisted, equipped and dispatched in just ten days, sailing from Sydney on the auxiliary cruiser HMAS Berima on 19 August 1914.

The expedition was delayed by the threat of German naval forces in the Pacific but reached New Briatain on 11 September 1914. After a few minor actions, Rabaul was reached. The German governor surrendered to Colonel Holmes on 17 September 1914 and the British flag was raised over the town. Holmes was criticised in Australia for offering extremely lenient terms but he was under orders to occupy, not annex, German New Guinea. However, Holmes was under no illusion about the likelihood of Australia permitting its return to Germany after the war.

Holmes became administrator of New Guinea. He relinquished the post to Colonel S. A. Petheridge in January 1915 and returned to Australia, where his appointment to the AN & MEF was terminated on 6 February 1915.

On 16 March 1915, Holmes was appointed to the AIF as commander of the newly formed 5th Infantry Brigade with the rank of a colonel. Many of the personnel of the brigade were also AN & MEF veterans. The brigade left Sydney in May and arrived in Egypt in June 1915, where it became part of the 2nd Division.

The 5th Brigade began moving to Gallipoli in August and Holmes arrived on the 19th. The brigade was placed at the disposal of Major General A. J. Godley of the New Zealand and Australian Division and elements participated in the fighting for Hill 60. The 5th Brigade took over the trenches facing the Nek from the 3rd Light Horse Brigade on 28 August 1915 and Holmes, now a temporary brigadier general, soon took over responsibility for Russell's Top and the head of Monash Valley as well. Holmes made a habit of regularly visiting every key part of his lines, including the crater at the Nek where bombers duelled with the Turks and the gully beyond the wire in Monash valley where patrols of both sides were active by night. When Major General J. G. Legge became ill in November and was evacuated, Holmes took over acting command of the 2nd Division.

After the evacuation of Anzac Holmes returned to the 5th Brigade, which he took to France in April 1916. He led the brigade in the attacks on the Pozieres Heights in August and at Flers in October 1915. In January 1917, Holmes was given command of the 4th Division, replacing Major General H. V. Cox, a British Indian army officer who had suffered a nervous breakdown.

As at Gallipoli, Holmes made a habit of personally reconnoitring every part of his line. On 31 March 1917, he paid a daylight visit to an outpost near Lagnicourt, as usual wearing his red hat band, accompanied by his aide, Lieutenant K. A. Fergusson. Holmes was sniped at but not hit; Fergusson was not so lucky and had to be left behind, to be evacuated after nightfall. Shortly afterwards the post was shelled, causing heavy casualties to the garrison, including Fergusson, who was again wounded.

Holmes commanded his division at Bullecourt in April, where he opposed the operation that ultimately caused his division very heavy losses, and at Messines in June, where a different order of generalship at the army level led to a better result, although the command arrangements at the 4th Division were still defective.

On 2 July 1917, Holmes took the premier of New South Wales, Hon. W. A. Holman, to survey the Messines battlefield. Holmes normally took the shortest route however dangerous but because of the premier, the party left his car in order to avoid a dangerous corner. As they set out on foot, a German heavy salvo landed nearby and Holmes was hit through the chest and lung. His aide, Captain D. S. Maxwell, took Holmes to the nearest aid post, where he died. He was buried at Trois Arbres Cemetery, Steenwerck, Belgium. Holmes was the most senior Australian officer killed in action on the Western Front.

Sources: Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1899-1939, Vol 9, pp. 390-391; Bean, C. E. W., The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. Volume II: The Story of Anzac pp. 799, 810;Volume IV: The AIF in France 1917 pp.358, 713;

Page created by Ross Mallett
Last update 15 August 2001