Books Australia

In the trenches

20 February 2021

9:00 AM

20 February 2021

9:00 AM

William Holmes, The Soldiers’ General Geoffrey Travers

Big Sky Publishing 2020, pp.447, $34.99

I can hardly recall a more engaging and uplifting biography than this life of Major-General William Holmes, who was killed in action just as the tide began to turn on the Western Front. Had he lived, his claim to command the Australian Army Corps would certainly have rivalled that of Sir John Monash. Instead, dead from a shell burst while escorting the then-NSW Premier William Holman near the front line, even the contemporary news focussed more on the politician’s narrow escape than the actual loss of our then-most-seasoned battlefield commander.

Along with General Sir William Bridges, the original commander of the Ist Division, Australian Imperial Force, killed by a sniper at Gallipoli, Holmes is the most senior Australian soldier ever to die in combat. Yet this citizen soldier who rose from the ranks; who questioned orders from on-high for suicidal charges against machine guns and barbed wire; and who helped to pioneer the creeping artillery barrages (to which Monash subsequently added tanks and aircraft) that broke the bloody stalemate of trench warfare and delivered victory, is now all but forgotten. Of the tens of thousands of motorists using it every day, how many would know who Sydney’s ‘General Holmes Drive’ is named for? But thanks to this meticulously researched life, originally drafted by a grandson, the famous headmaster of Shore School, B.H. ‘Jika’ Travers, and brought to fruition by a great-grandson, Geoffrey Travers, there is now far less excuse for our collective amnesia.

In brief, this son of a soldier, brought up in Victoria Barracks, joined the essentially part-time NSW colonial army, aged ten, as a bugler. He took leave from his job as a senior manager with the Sydney Water Board (where he helped to build some of our first dams) to serve in the Boer War, where he rose to the rank of acting colonel and was both wounded and decorated. In 1914, he led the expedition that swiftly occupied German New Guinea. While briefly administering the new territory, he had a couple of German planters publicly caned in retribution for their caning a British missionary while in a drunken rage. Even so, Canberra thought he’d been too accommodating of the enemy and others were promoted ahead of him to serve in the main AIF then assembling for Egypt. It was only after a more senior commander was invalided out, that he became acting commander of the 2nd Division just prior to the Gallipoli evacuation.

Unlike many other senior officers, Holmes thought that his duty required him to be personally aware of the difficulties his soldiers faced. Instead of relying on reports from subordinates, which were often confused and out-of-date, his practice was to see the action for himself. As Travers puts it, ‘by doing this, he could analyse the position of both forces, assess the situation, advise the soldiers what to do in the event of an attack, and find out first hand what they needed by way of reinforcements, food and ammunition’. Travers cites the official historian Charles Bean’s diary about a visit to the Pozières front line, where Holmes felt that his men were neglecting sniping at the enemy: ‘he got a rifle and had a shot at three (Germans)…He lay well up on the parapet to do so….(After dropping two of the three)…a bullet spat against the earth quite close by and made the General tumble back…into the trench’.

While keen to engage the enemy, his initial experience of the fighting at Pozières, where the gains of almost unbelievable gallantry were frequently squandered through inadequate planning, preparation and back-up, led him to question the cavalier approach to further attacks based on wishful thinking rather than intense study and training. On the Somme, Holmes’ division had been under the overall command of General Sir Hubert Gough, an impetuous cavalryman who never really adjusted to trench warfare. Holmes was then given command of the 4th Division, part of the British Second Army, commanded by one of the best Great War generals, Sir Herbert Plumer. As Travers puts it, ‘men liked to serve in Plumer’s army as much as they resented serving under Gough’.

Plumer’s meticulously pre-organised Battle of Messines, with unprecedented coordination of artillery and infantry, was the first major British assault that went largely to plan. When the second objective was imperilled by a misdirected barrage, it was Holmes himself who went forward and had the artillery re-structured and re-directed in ways that ultimately secured almost all the anticipated gains.

This battle and its aftermath also showed up the different leadership styles of Holmes and Monash. As Travers puts it, ‘Holmes was a leader; Monash was an organiser’. Monash’s tendency was to ‘tell’ his subordinates what was required of them, with detailed orders down to the last gun and platoon. Holmes preferred to ‘show’ them, in the case of the Battle of Messines, constructing a large-scale model of the battlefield so that every unit could see its objectives. They were also very different personalities: Holmes believed that merit should speak for itself; Monash rarely missed a chance to impress his superiors. They fell out right after Messines, when Monash took it upon himself to introduce to the inspecting Duke of Connaught the legendary Harry Murray VC and Bert Jacka VC, even though they were actually serving under Holmes’ command.

As Bean confessed to his diary: [Holmes] is the first successful Australian leader…. He had the power of command…. He saw Monash get a division to which he himself was more entitled…but bore no malice… Holmes did not complain. He stuck to his work. He was able to keep his brigade up to it at Pozières in a way no other man could have done…. He had driving force and attraction and was as straight and unselfish as any man ever was. He had stood all sort of slander after New Guinea and had come out superbly…I had not done Holmes justice… His courage was all that I had grasped.

So why should we remember this forgotten general? Because Holmes and his contemporaries faced challenges almost unimaginable to most Australians today. How can we even hope to be as good as our forebears if we don’t at least remember what they’ve done? The study of real heroism is the best antidote to the decadence of these times.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

As prime minister Tony Abbott commissioned the Sir John Monash Centre, co-located with the Australian war memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, to commemorate the work of the Ist AIF.

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