Major General John Paton

18 November 1867 - 21 November 1943

AWM Negative Number: H15065 Caption: Rabaul, New Britain. 1914. Group photograph of officers of the Rabaul Garrison which are, from the left,
back row, Lieutenants H.W. Johnson, J.M. Maughan, I.B. Sherbon, V.H.B. Sampson, J.E. Westgarth, P.K.B. Quinn, A.F. Anderson, J.A. McDowell, R. Partridge, R.M. Sadler, H.L. Bruce, W.C.M. Penly;
front row, Lieutenant L.B. Ravenscroft, Major A.W. Ralston, Lieutenant Colonel J. Paton, Captains S.P. Goodsell and C.E. Manning. (Donor A. Bazley)

John Paton was born on 18 November 1867 in Newcastle, New South Wales, the son of a master mariner. He was educated at Newcastle High School and became chief accountant and then managing director of R. Hall & Son, import merchants. He later became chairman of Newcastle and Hunter River Steamships Co. and director of the City of Newcastle Gas & Coke Co.

Paton joined the New South Wales Military Forces in December 1887 as a second lieutenant in the 4th Infantry. He was promoted to captain in 1894, major in 1907 and lieutenant colonel in 1909. On 1 July 1914, he was promoted to colonel and assumed command of the 4th Infantry Brigade. On the outbreak of war he was appointed to command the Newcastle Defended Port.

Desiring to see action as soon as possible, Paton took a drop in rank to lieutenant colonel in order to become second in command, under Colonel W. Holmes, of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF), the force sent to seize German New Guinea. On 9 October 1914, Paton led an infantry detachment in Lieutenant Commander J. M. Jackson's attempt to capture the German motor launch Komet. Aided by natives who gave him exact information about Komet's location, Jackson made his way across the reefs to the Komet's position. Paton boarded the Komet brandishing a revolver and took the ship by surprise, finding the captain shaving in his cabin. The entire crew of 57 then surrendered to Paton and the ship was taken to Rabaul and then Sydney as a prize, where it became HMAS Una.

In December 1914, reports of looting reached the Administrator of New Guinea, Colonel S. A. Pethreridge, who ordered a search of the baggage of all military officers and men leaving for Australia. This led to a court of inquiry and courts martial for a number of officers, including Paton, who was found with silver souvenirs of the Komet in his possession and had used warehouses in Newcastle to store goods for other officers. Ultimately, Paton and the other were all acquitted, leading to allegations of a white wash. The root of the problem seems to have been a failure of the Department of Defence to lay down appropriate guidelines, especially in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion, when a great deal of valuable booty was brought back to Australia.

In the meantime Paton joined the AIF on 16 March 1915 as a lieutenant colonel commanding the 25th Battalion, part of the 7th Infantry Brigade, which embarked for Egypt on 2 June 1915 where it trained until it embarked for Gallipoli on 28 August 1915.There the brigade commander, Colonel J. Burston was found to be too old for the rigours of service at Anzac, and the division commander, Major General J. G. Legge ordered Paton to take over the 7th Brigade on 15 October 1915.

During the evacuation of Anzac, Paton was in command of the Rear Party. As such, he was in command of the entire position in the last hours of 20 December 1915. He ordered the signal that the embarkation was complete sent at 0330. Paton supervised the embarkation of the Rear Party, which was completed when the last lighter left at 0400 and waited on the beach with his staff officer, Captain E. A. Wisdom, for a further ten minutes in case a straggler arrived. None did, and Paton embarked in a steamboat at 0410, the last boat to leave Anzac.

On 1 January 1916, Paton was promoted to colonel and temporary brigadier general. For his service at Gallipoli he was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB). He left for France on the first transport, which arrived at Marseilles on 19 March 1916. Paton led his brigade in the attacks on the Pozieres Heights on 29 July and 4 August 1916. On 5 November 1916, while directing an attack on a trench known as "The Maze", Paton was wounded by a German sniper and evacuated to England.

After he had recovered, Paton was given command of the newly formed 17th Infantry Brigade on 25 April 1917. This formation was part of the 6th Division, which was then forming on the Salisbury Plain in England. On 19 July 1917, he left the 17th Brigade to return to France to take charge of the 6th Infantry Brigade, whose commander, Brigadier General J. Gellibrand had requested relief. This was a difficult assignment, because the battalion commanders had trouble accustoming themselves to the change. Paton was forced to exercise a tight control of the brigade in the fighting at Broodeseinde, collocating his battalion headquarters with his own. In October 1917, his battalion commanders warned him that the brigade was unfit for action. Paton made his way with great difficulty through the mud to inspect the forward positions himself and agreeing with his subordinates, backed them.

In June 1918, Paton, now the second most senior infantry brigade commander (after Brigadier General E. Tivey), was disappointed at being passed over for command of the 2nd Division by Brigadier General C. Rosenthal but went on to command his brigade at Hamel in July 1918 and Amiens in August 1918. He was even more dismayed in August when Brigadier General E. A. Wisdom was given command of "Liaison Force", a division sized composite Australian and American formation built around the 13th Infantry Brigade and the US 131st Infantry. Paton complained to Lieutenant General J. Monash, who informed him that the Liaison Force was only a temporary formation, and that he had not been passed over, but conceded frankly that Paton's chances of getting a division were now slim, as his health had been poor since his wound and he was not driving his battalion commanders effectively. Paton elected to retire on 24 August 1918 and return to Australia. For his services he was appointed a Companion of St Michael and St George (CMG).

Paton returned to business as manager of R, Hall & Son and was vice president of the Newcastle Chamber of Commerce from 1919 to 1920, president from 1920 to 1923 and vice president again from 1929 to 1931.

After the war, Paton commanded the 5th and 1st Brigades, and then the 2nd Division, retiring in 1926 with the rank of major general.

He died on 21 November 1943 and was cremated.

Sources: Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1899-1939, Vol 11, pp. 160-161; The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. C. E. W. Bean, Volume II: The Story of Anzac, pp. 422, 810, 878, 896; Volume III: The AIF in France 1916, pp. 71; Volume IV: The AIF in France 1917, pp. 897, 902; Jose, A. W., Volume IX: The Royal Australian Navy pp. 120-121; MacKenzie, Seaforth, Volume X: The Australians at Rabaul, pp. 193-196

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Last update 8 June 2010