AWM Negative Number: E00087 Caption: Houplines; Dec 1916; Visiting the front line trenches held by the 39th Battalion at Houplines, are: left to right: Mr H G Smart, Brigadier General W Ramsay McNicoll, and Captain C. E. W. Bean. The party is looking towards the German lines. On the left and behind Mr Bean can be seen the reinforced trenches and the sandbags. Photographer: Unknown photographer
Walter Ramsay McNicoll was born in Melbourne on 27 May 1877, the son of a photographer. He was educated in state schools. In 1893 he joined the Victorian Education Department as a monitor, and became a pupil teacher in 1895. He studied at the Teachers' Training College, obtaining his Trained Teacher's Certificate (TTC) in 1901. In 1905 he joined the staff of Melbourne High School where he taught drawing and commanded the cadet unit. In 1911 he was appointed founding headmaster of Geelong High School. In 1912 he gained his diploma of education (DipEd).
McNicoll was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 5th Australian Infantry on 29 November 1905. He was promoted to lieutenant on 27 August 1907 and captain on 16 January 1911. On 1 July 1912 he transferred to the 60th Infantry, where he was promoted to major on 9 December 1912. He transferred to the 70th Infantry on 1 December 1913.
On 28 August 1914, McNicoll was appointed to the AIF with the rank of major as second in command of the 7th Infantry Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel H. E. Elliott. On 3 April 1915 he was appointed to command the 6th Infantry Battalion with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He led the 6th Battalion in the landing at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915. By 7am, McNicoll and eight or nine boatloads of his men had moved into the scrub beyond the Razorback. After Elliott was wounded, McNicoll took over command of what could be found of both battalions. McNicoll set up his headquarters on Bolton's Ridge and sent his his second in command, Major H. G. Bennett, forward to get in touch with the line that he hoped his battalion was forming. Eventually Bennett and the others fell back on Bolton's Ridge, from whence McNicoll directed the defence on the 25th and 26th. McNicoll came through the battle unscathed, only to be bayoneted by the raw and inexperienced Royal Marines of the Deal Battalion (who also accidentally shot and killed their own commander).
The 2nd Infantry Brigade, of which the 6th Battalion was part, was moved to the Helles front on 6 May 1915. In the Second Battle of Krithia on 8 May 1915, the brigade was committed to a foolish advance under fire in broad daylight. McNicoll was knocked down by a bullet as he rose from Tommies' Trench, and then more seriously, in the abdomen, about 250 yards further on. He might not have survived, except that the Official Correspondent, Captain C. E. W. Bean, made a note of where he lay and brought the stretcher bearers after nightfall. McNicoll was evacuated to Egypt, and then to England where he underwent surgery. McNicoll was invalided back to Australia on 13 November 1915. For his services at Gallipoli, McNicoll was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).
Recovering, McNicoll was judged fit enough to be appointed to the command of the 10th Infantry Brigade on 10 February 1916. This brigade consisted of three battalions from Victoria and one from Tasmania (the 40th). The brigade reached England in July where it trained on the Salisbury Plain until it moved to France late in the year, moving into a quiet sector of the line. It participated in the Battle of Messines in June 1917 and Broodeseinde in October 1917 with great success. At Passchendaele in October 1917, in spite of all odds, it reached the town but owing to the general failure of the attack was forced to fall back. In 1918, the 10th Brigade was one of the first to be ordered to the Somme Front to stem the German offensive. According to the history of the 40th Battalion, McNicoll called his officers together and told them that:
...the British front was broken and the British and French Armies were in danger of separation; and that the German divisions were pushing forward with great rapidity; and he added the surprising information that a German long range gun was shelling Paris. He finished by saying that we would entrain the following morning, and that we would go straight into action, and that we would have the fight of our lives as the fate of the war now lay in the balance.
The 10th Brigade was able to stop the Germans at Morlancourt, although McNicoll was criticised for ordering a daylight advance under fire in conditions very similar to, but fortunately much less costly than Second Krithia.
When Monash became corps commander, McNicoll hoped hoped to succeed him in command of the 3rd Division, but the GOC AIF, General W. R. Birdwood decided to appoint Brigadier General J. Gellibrand instead. It was a blow to McNicoll, and neither he nor Monash was ever convinced that Gellibrand was worthy of the post. The relationship between Gellibrand and McNicoll was a frosty one, in contrast to his close and loyal relationship with Monash.
The 10th Brigade went on to fight with distinction at Amiens, Chuignes, and Mont St Quentin in August, fighting its last battle at the Hindenburg Line. For his services on the Western Front, McNicoll was made a Companion of St Michael and St George (CMG) and a Companion of the Bath (CB). He was mentioned in dispatches four times.
McNicoll became commander of the Fovant Depots in England on 22 October 1918. On 19 December 1918, he was appointed Inspector General of Education, in which post his main role was to take as much of the strain as possible off Colonel G. M. Long. On 14 April 1919 he succeeded Long as Director General of Education. He remained in this post until 27 September 1919 when he returned to Australia.
After the war, McNicoll resigned from the Victorian Education Department to become principal of the Presbyterian Ladies' College in Goulburn, New South Wales. There he became interested in politics. In 1931, he ran for the Federal seat of Werriwa on the Country Party ticket, winning it on United Australia Party preferences against the sitting Labor member. As an MP, concerned himself mainly with the needs of servicemen and ex-servicemen.
Acutely conscious that his seat was not safe, McNicoll sought and obtained the post of Administrator of New Guinea, succeeding Brigadier General T. Griffiths on 13 September 1934. McNicoll proved to be an able administrator, balancing the conflicting interests of miners, planters and missionaries in a tight fiscal environment. He was fortunate that the nine ministers under whom he served gave him a fairly free hand.
When the volcanoes began to erupt at Rabaul on 29 May 1937, McNicoll flew in from the mainland in the first plane to land at Rabaul. He later headed the list of special honours for the Rabaul Emergency, being created a Knight of the British Empire (KBE).
Responsible for the defence of the territory, McNicoll became increasingly concerned as the threat of war grew near. In 1939 and 1940 he interned many of the German missionaries. In June 1941, Rabaul's larger volcano erupted again, once more making the town uninhabitable, and forcing McNicoll to move to Lae in September. He pressed the government for more troops but to no avail. On 20 January 1942 Japanese planes raided Lae, and on 22 January, Rabaul fell. Suffering from malaria, McNicoll moved the centre of government from Lae to Wau. He retired as administrator at the end of the year.
McNicoll died in Sydney on 24 December 1947 and was cremated. His son Ronald later became a major general and another, Alan, a vice admiral.
Sources: Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1899-1939, Vol 10, pp. 354-355; Bean, C. E. W., The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. Volume I: The Story of Anzac pp. 368, 489-497, 599; Volume II: The Story of Anzac p. 31; Volume V: The AIF In France During the German Offensives 1918, p. 116
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Last update 15 June 2003