Honouring our Heroes: Pompey Elliott - Man of Letters


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In the final year of Anzac Centenary (2014-2018) we will be sharing stories of men and women from all wars, peacekeeping operations and conflicts. We begin the 'Honouring our Heroes' series with the story of Brigadier General Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliott.

In hundreds of candid letters to his wife Kate from 1914 to 1919, Brigadier General Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliott adhered to their pact of ‘no secrets.’

As 1917 ended, lamenting the bitter cold and snow of the Western Front and the delay in letters from home, he told his wife that the past year had held more sadness and disappointment than any other of his life.

In one of five letters to Kate during January 1918, Elliott predicted a terrible fight coming.

“The enemy are sending all the best men from the Russian front, and any prisoners we get are full of tales of the preparations the Bosche are making to settle us for good this time.”

Elliott also wrote frequently to his young children Violet and Neil, and sister-in-law Belle, in the time he led the 7th Battalion on Gallipoli and the 15th Brigade at Fromelles, Polygon Wood and in the decisive counter-attack at Villers-Bretonneux.

Devastated by his younger brother George dying at Polygon Wood, he told Kate, “I saw him dead, so white and rigid and still … we have buried him so far from home amongst strangers.”

Historian Ross McMullin, in his new book Pompey Elliott at War In His Own Words, says Elliott could turn the Western Front into a bedtime story.

Of tank warfare, Elliott told his ‘little laddie’ Neil: “We got a lot of big wagons like traction engines and put guns in them and ran them ‘bumpety bump’ up against the old Kaiser’s wall and knocked a great big hole in it.”

McMullin chose 1105 excerpts from Elliott’s letters, diary, speeches and battle reports that reveal the wartime thoughts of the revered, charismatic, controversial and successful soldier.

While Elliott treated censorship regulations seriously about troop locations and future operations, McMullin says “compliance was less likely” when it came to criticism of previous military operations, references to recent casualties or comments prejudicial to harmony with allies.

On sending men into battle, Elliott wrote: “It is always a terrible decision, this launching of magnificent men towards death … each one priceless.”

A severe disciplinarian, he threatened to publicly hang the next officer caught looting, and subsequently wrote that “none seemed inclined to make of themselves a test case.”

Despite repeated success in the field, Elliott protested bitterly when he missed promotion to divisional command in May 1918.

He was told he “suffered from lack of control of judgement … that I break out like a volcano if things don’t go just as I want them.”

Returning home, Elliott served two terms as a Victorian Senator from 1919.

McMullin records that he was “profoundly unsettled by the hardships of returned soldiers” during the Great Depression.

Elliott’s grievance over promotion became an obsession and he admitted “it has actually coloured all my post war life.”

Plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder, he suicided in Melbourne on 23 March 1931, aged 52.

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.”

In the final year of Anzac Centenary (2014–2018) we are sharing stories of men and women from all wars, peacekeeping operations and conflicts through the Honouring our Heroes series.