Who's Who - Pompey Elliott

Harold Edward Elliott (1878-1931) served as a brilliant if mercurial Australian military commander during World War One.  Ultimately frustrated in his military ambitions he ended his life by committing suicide in 1931.

Born on 19 June 1878 in Victoria the son of a farmer, Elliott was educated at Ballarat College and at the University of Melbourne.

While studying the Second Boer War broke out (1899-1902) and Elliott left to enlist as a private in the 4th Victorian Contingent.  While serving in South Africa Elliott was promoted to Corporal and then Lieutenant in the British send Berkshires (although he remained with Australian forces).  He emerged from the South African campaign with the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Having completed his university studies in 1906 Elliott established his own legal practice working as a solicitor.  From then on Elliott continued to mix management of his legal practice with his military ambition.

March 1904 saw Elliott - a deep student of military history - enlist in the 5th Australia Infantry Regiment as a lieutenant.  By 1911 he had reached the rank of Major and was the regiment's second-in-command.  Two years later, on 1 July 1913, Elliott was placed at the head of the newly-formed 58th Battalion (Essendon Rifles) with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

When war broke out in August 1914 Elliott was given charge of 7th Battalion within the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).  As with the rest of the AIF Elliott and his battalion travelled first to Egypt and then to Gallipoli, where having arrived he was wounded almost immediately (in the ankle) while performing reconnaissance of the area.

Returning to his battalion from recuperation in June 1915 Elliott served with distinction until, in August, he came down with pleurisy and was evacuated to England.  Returning once again to 7th Battalion in late November 1915 he sprained his ankle within a month and was evacuated from the area one day before the remainder of his battalion.

If Elliott's Gallipoli service was confounded by ill health and ill luck 1916 brought him better fortune.  On 24 January that year he was posted to command of 1st Brigade and then in March to 15th Brigade while being promoted to Brigadier-General.

Elliott proved a difficult man to work with; he modified his tone of command for neither his subordinates nor his superiors.  He was in more or less constant dispute with the Australian High Command, particularly with C.B. White.

June 1916 brought 15th Brigade - and Elliott - to the Western Front.  Unfortunately the brigade's first attack, instigated by British General Richard Haking, was a fiasco which led to the loss of virtually two whole battalions.  Elliott regarded Haking (as he did much of the British regular army) with undying contempt from thereon.

In October 1916 Elliott and his brigade were moved to take part in the ongoing Somme Offensive although Elliott demonstrated a willingness to resist orders to launch what he often regarded as pointless attacks.

In March 1917, operating under General Sir Hugh Gough's British Fifth Army, Elliott was appointed to command of an all-arms brigade group.  Embracing his new command with zest the formidable Elliott made use of varying tactics, including single and double envelopment (the latter of which C.B. White was on record as condemning).  Within short order Elliott was himself awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his work within his new command.

However it was at Polygon Wood on 25 September 1917 that Elliott's wartime career reached its peak.  He worked tirelessly through the two days of the Allied attack, and saved the situation through brilliant troop deployments when German counter-attacks threatened the Allied advance.

Having been ordered to guard the Somme bridges with the great German spring push of 1918 he and his men came to prominence shortly afterwards in the recapture of Villers-Bretonneux from the Germans.  With the Germans threatening to slice through the British sector at Amiens (thereby cutting it into two) Elliott's deployment of double envelopment tactics succeeded in restoring the situation.

In May 1918 came a heavy blow; Elliott was passed over for a divisional command in favour of what he regarded as lesser-qualified (and able) commanders, Gellibrand and Glasgow.  This generated a source of resentment that lingered well beyond the war years and may have proved the ultimate catalyst for his eventual suicide.

Returning to Australia in June 1919 he busied himself with the rescue of his law firm, which had collapsed while he was serving in France.  Standing for election as a Nationalist to the Senate he was elected by a large majority.  Elliott promptly used his new position as a basis for attacking both his own direct superiors (chiefly White) and the British High Command.

Back in command of 15th Brigade once again in September 1919 Elliott nonetheless requested to be placed on the unattached list in 1921, recognising his inability to work with White (then Chief of the General Staff).  Re-elected to the Senate in 1925 it was not until the following year that he was re-appointed to command of 15th Brigade following White's retirement.

Despite his subsequent promotion to Major-General and command of 3rd Division, Elliott's grievances continued to fester.  On 23 March 1931 he committed suicide with a razor blade.  Afforded a state funeral he was buried at Burwood Cemetery; hero-worshipped by his men a memorial placed by them was erected above his grave the year after his death.

"Gas Bag" was a slang term for airships.

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