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Major General Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliott (1895) – ‘no greater soldier or gentleman ever lived’

Posted July 29, 2019.

Major General Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliott (1895) – ‘no greater soldier or gentleman ever lived’

In Australia, during the years following the Great War, it was said that two household names stood above all others: John Monash and Pompey Elliott.

You have almost certainly heard of Sir John Monash. You may have driven down the Monash Freeway toward Monash University or the Monash Science Centre. You may have visited the Monash Medical Centre or played golf in Northern Sydney at the Monash Country Club. You could even live in the Municipal City of Monash in metropolitan Melbourne, the suburb of Monash in Canberra, or the town of Monash in SA.

Sir John Monash is certainly well remembered, and deservedly so. His contributions to our nation were significant. But, what of Major General Harold Edward ‘Pompey’ Elliott? What eponyms reflect his sacrifices? Sadly, the answer is – not many. In fact, when most people are asked about Pompey Elliott they often reply “Pompey who?”

In 2001, my first year at Ballarat Clarendon College, I was placed in Elliott House. Being a History teacher, I had actually heard of Elliott’s name, but I didn’t really know much about him except that he was involved in World War I and had attended Ballarat College. I was asked to take a few students to the Burwood cemetery in March the following year so that we could represent the school at Elliott’s Annual Memorial Service. The four of us, three students and me, stood silently among a group of around 50 people who also attended. I was quite taken aback at how many people were there. Curiosity prompted me to ask one man elderly man what his connection to Pompey was. ‘My Dad served under him and loved him,’ he said. ‘So we come to this service every year. My son’s here now too!’

I recall being a little shocked. My grandfather had fought in World War II and, on the very rare occasions he talked about the war, there was rarely a complementary word for his superiors. But here was the son of a service man who was gushing about Major General Pompey Elliott.

Harold Edward ‘Pompey’ Elliott has claims, according to one of Australia’s most noted historians, David Day, to being Australia’s greatest general. Ross McMullin, another noted historian and author of Pompey Elliott’s biography, stresses that ‘no other general was more revered by those he led or more famous outside of his own command. An officer on his staff even concluded that ‘no greater solider or gentleman ever lived’.

Pompey Elliott was not only an outstanding tactician, he was renowned for never sending anyone where he himself was not prepared to go – something that could not be said of all generals in the Great War. Recalling Elliott’s tendency to risk death by personal reconnaissance on the front line, war correspondent Charles Bean wrote in a glowing tribute: “It is not the first time he has gone out alone into No Man’s Land.”

Elliott was a big man of unwavering integrity. He was forthright in espousing the truth as he saw it, in both word and letter – a practice that engendered steadfast trust in his men but some unease in his superiors. Elliott was quick to praise, but equally swift to point out follies or inadequacies. And it was these qualities that endeared him to his men. Elliott was passionate, he repeatedly demonstrated strength and persistence in the face of obstacles and unwavering support for his men during the most trying of times.

When I was young boy, like many Australians, I was fascinated to learn that above every black board in a small primary school in France were the words “N’oublions jamais l’Australie” (Let us never forget Australia). When I was older, I discovered that this school was in the small village of Villers-Bretonneux, the site of the famous Great War battle; a battle that ended the stalemate of the Somme and, some argue, was the turning point of the war. What I didn’t know, and what few others seem to recognise still, is Pompey Elliott’s role in this pivotal battle.

Who was central in the conception and implementation of the strategic plan at Villers-Bretonneux? Pompey Elliott. Whose troops were at the forefront of the fighting? Pompey Elliott’s. In whose troops did the French villagers trust so much that they returned to their homes confident they would not be driven out? Pompey Elliott’s. Yet who is the Australian National Memorial and the Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery named after? Sir John Monash.

When the John Monash Centre opened at Villers-Bretonneux in 2018, then Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull noted Monash’s “brilliant leadership”, lauding him as “the architect of the victory”. Ross McMullin was quick to point out the error, writing that this was indeed “…startling praise because Monash had nothing to do with it. He was not involved at all… The AIF commander who was unequivocally involved was Brigadier-General ‘Pompey’ Elliott… No one was more pivotal in the counter-attack. The operation was based on his plan and his 15th Brigade carried out half of it.”

As a member of the Ballarat Clarendon College community, I feel a strong sense of pride that one of our Old Collegians played such a pivotal role on the world stage during the second biggest conflict this planet has endured. Pompey lived and embodied the same values that we aspire to today – he was passionate about embracing challenges and had high aspirations; he acted with integrity and humility, giving of himself to others; and he achieved his heart’s desire through hard work and perseverance. When he first walked through the doors of Ballarat College as a 16 year old in 1895, he saw the ‘Dux of the School’ honour boards. He is recorded as saying, ‘I want my name there’. And two years later, in 1897, it was. From being Dux of Ballarat College, Pompey went on to study law at Melbourne University and was elected as a Senator for Victoria in the Australian Parliament in 1919. In 1925, Ballarat College founded Elliott House in his honour and he later returned to serve on the College Council (1926-1931), giving back to his community. The broader Ballarat community honoured him in 2011 with a statue in Sturt Street. Pompey Elliott is well remembered by his old school and, thanks to the work of people such as Ross McMullin and groups like The Friends of the 15th Brigade, his legacy is beginning to have broader resonance in the Australian community. Recognition of Pompey is long overdue; his achievements remain obscured by the shadows of his more noted colleagues. I, for one, would like to see this change.

Written by David Struth, Co-Head of 9/10 School.