This week I have put Great Grandfather to rest behind the cupboard doors. Before you jump up and down in protest, I must add that it is only a temporary interlude in the war and times of his life. I know he will understand, because my focus has been on my Anzac Day address which I am to present at the Giru Anzac Day Ceremony on Tuesday week.
Given an open book regarding what I choose to say, my mind has been working overtime in the hope that some flash of inspiration will present me with an idea that is new and engaging. Last year I spoke about two brothers who enlisted in the Great War and whose letters detailing their experiences ended up in the hands of the Australian War Memorial. There is so much information out in the cyber arena to be found that it can be overwhelming. Being almost 100 years since the Battle of Beersheba, I had settled upon Ion Idriess’ account in his book “The Desert Column”. However, I have since discovered that there are doubts about whether his portrayal was actually his first hand account, witnessed through field glasses from afar. The geographical logistics of his account seem unlikely.
Many of the battles I have read about, are are either portrayed in horrific or heroic terms. Censorship is an important issue with the attendance of school children on Anzac Day, and well heroics seem to miss the point of Anzac Day. Thus I went in search of a more meaningful story. At one point, I thought about taking the easy road and simply recite a poem. Then I stumbled upon the story of an Anzac whose military career was quite exceptional, but not for the more obvious reasons.
The more I read about my Anzac’s story, the more parallels I found between his and my Great Grandfather’s story, that is, without all the military decorations and accolades. They were both Queenslanders and fought together in the Boer War. They both held an interest in military matters between wars. My Anzac was a lawyer and began his career in Townsville where he met his future wife. Whilst enjoying success with his legal career, he also joined the 15th Light Horse Regiment, a volunteer regiment in Townsville. He moved back to Brisbane to practice law in 1912 where he kept an interest in the military by joining the Old Moreton Regiment.
Upon the outbreak of war in 1914, my Anzac enlisted with the Fifth Lighthorse Regiment, along with my Great Grandfather. The commonalities do not stop there. They both fought at Gallipoli and then in the middle east, only my Anzac, by that stage was a Lieutenant Colonel, my Great Grandfather’s commanding officer.
By all accounts, my Anzac, was well liked and admired. His war time pursuits were varied and many, which were followed by glowing accolades by his superiors, his counterparts, by journalists and most of all by the men who served him. Historian, Charles Bean, described him as:
“an outstanding example of number of Australian city men who had won distinction in the light horse. He was shy in manner and very sparing of speech; but his quiet figure concealed the spirit of a great master of horse. He became marked as a leader capable of handling command far more important than a brigade.”(1)
H.S. Gullett noted in his history of the 9th Light Horse Regiment:
“At the end of this period (1917) the Regiment passed, with the rest of the 3rd Brigade, under the command of Brigadier General Wilson who soon proved himself one of the ablest cavalry leaders disclosed by the war.” (2)
To top off the glowing accounts, he was awarded numerous military decorations for his incredible efforts. However, it was not his impressive military records or medals that impressed me about this particular man.
No, I was impressed by the type of man he was. By all accounts he was of a quiet and mild nature. He was quite modest about his own achievements and yet he wrote and spoke often about the achievements of his own men. His men in turn thought he was great. They willing followed his orders, because they knew that he would never ask them to do anything that he was not willing to do himself. He cared about the health and welfare of his men and even set up a special canteen in order to raise money to buy much needed equipment in order to make their lives safer.
One of his greatest concerns was the shortage of water for both horses and men in the middle eastern deserts. He provided an ingenious solution. He introduced the Queensland spear-point pump which he had seen used in the Ayr District during his time in North Queensland. According to C.E..W. Bean,
“it could be carried without trouble on the saddle, this pump entirely changed the practice of watering horses. In a few minutes it could be unpacked and driven into the sand in a likely spot for water: by the time other men had laid out the light canvas troughing a plentiful supply of water was being pumped out of the sand.” (3)
Apparently, the British refused to pay for these devices, so they were paid out of funds raised by the special canteen.
Whilst studying the life and times of my Anzac, I wondered how well my Great Grandfather knew him. When I read his diary of 1917, I discovered that my Anzac regularly visited him in hospital at the end of that year. Were they friends? Perhaps they were. On the other hand, my Great Grandfather’s commanding officer might have been simply demonstrating the caring man that he was.
Brigadier General Lachlan Chisholm Wilson proved to be an effective soldier and officer, earning him well-deserved praise and awards. However, I think he would be happiest to be known as:
An ordinary man who did an extraordinary job in abnormal circumstances.
L’est We Forget.