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Lest we forget

Cover Story

Cite as: April 2014 88 (04) LIJ, p.18

To mark the centenary of the start of World War I, the Victorian Supreme Court, in recognition of the lawyers who joined the Allied effort, is launching an online project to tell their stories. 

By Carolyn Ford

Eyewitness accounts had Francis “Frank” Murphy (pictured right) “conscious and calm” in the field dressing station where he had been carried for treatment. It’s likely he knew his fate.

On 22 August 1916, the 28-year-old Melbourne solicitor had his legs blown off when an enemy shell landed in the trench he was in at Pozieres in the Somme Valley in France. The young lance corporal’s legs were amputated but he died overnight – one of 60,000 Australian men killed in World War l, with another 156,000 wounded, gassed or taken prisoner.

Murphy was remembered fondly by many for his outstanding “fortitude and pluck”. In a letter to his family, his commanding officer wrote that he “considered him quite the oasis in this military life, his thought and conversation were always so elevated”.

Born in 1883 to a prominent Catholic family in Sale in south-east Victoria, Murphy was the youngest of seven brothers, doctors and lawyers all. He graduated from the University of Melbourne in 1901 and was articled to his brother Luke, who had a practice in Bendigo. He went on to become a solicitor in Melbourne and with his gift for eloquent speech, was regarded as one of the city’s most promising lawyers.

Murphy enlisted in July 1915, embarking in March 1916 on board the Malwa as an acting sergeant with the 24th Battalion. He was on the Western Front by 15 August, promoted on 19 August, killed on 22 August.

He is one of 22 serving Victorian lawyers who died in WWI, begun a century ago this year, and who are remembered on the memorial board that hangs at the front entrance to the Supreme Court at 210 William Street.

Erected by the LIV, the honour roll lists the names of 159 Victorian solicitors and barristers – from a legal profession of 800 – who enlisted for active service in WWI filling every rank and role, from ambulance orderlies to generals.

At its unveiling at the LIV, according to a report in The Argus of 18 July 1917, Chief Justice Sir John Madden said the legal profession had much to be proud of.

“Though the members of the general public might see in the sacrifice which members of the legal profession had made in going on active service nothing more than the sacrifice that any other soldier had made, they who were lawyers would appreciate it to the full. The opportunities that had been put aside, perhaps never to come again, even to the fortunate ones who would return strong and whole, were so great as to represent the difference between the success or failure of a lifetime.”

In silence, Chief Justice Madden removed the Union Jack that covered the honour roll with its then 125 names.

Baillieu, Menzies and Cussen family members are on the board. So, too, are nine LIV presidents, including solicitor and senator Harold “Pompey” Elliott (1927), who was one of Australia’s most revered generals.

These names, and others which did not appear on the memorial board, are about to get a much larger audience than just those who pass by as they go in and out of the historic court complex, which in 1914 housed the High Court and also the Prize Court where it was decided what would happen to the cargoes of seized German ships.

To mark the 100-year anniversary of the start of WWI, and in recognition of the lawyers who joined the Allied effort, and in 22 instances gave their lives for it, the Supreme Court is establishing a website which will tell their stories.

A year in the making, the online project Stories from the Memorial Board is to be launched this month.

It is the brainchild of Supreme Court archives and records manager Joanne Boyd, who has compiled the stories with a grant from the Victoria Law Foundation and the assistance of two Supreme Court project officers, Nicole Lithgow and Wendy Atkins, who are on the archives and records team.

“I thought, what are the stories behind these men? What happened to them? I knew some of the names and that some of them had gone on to be judges. The centenary was coming up and I knew there would be great interest,” Ms Boyd said.

“I thought it was important for the Court and the legal profession as a whole to tell these really great stories. The personal stories illustrate the larger picture. You get a better feel for the war and how it affected everybody’s lives.

“It’s like doing family histories and you get very sidetracked reading all the details. Sometimes we had a photo or an obituary, sometimes we didn’t. We had our eureka moments when we found something interesting. I focused on the stories of lawyers who were killed. They are all sad. Sadness is the overwhelming feeling, particularly when you are writing about the younger men.”

Detective-like, the three researchers got much of the information for the biographical sketches from the National Archives of Australia (NAA), the Australian War Memorial, the National Library of Australia (particularly its digitised newspapers on TROVE), the LIV, the Victorian Bar, the Melbourne Cricket Club, Scotch College, Melbourne University and local historical societies.

Primary historical material included enlistment papers, hand-written casualty sheets, which detailed wounds, and lists of kit contents which itemised what the dead soldiers had carried and what was sent home. One had binoculars in his kit, another had golf balls.

Ms Boyd is hoping that once the website is active, descendants of the lawyers and others will come forward with more detail which will be added to the soldiers’ stories.

“We had to get our heads around a lot. We started with the board. We took photos of it, went back to our desks and started doing the research. Most of the NAA records are digitised so we have done a lot of the research online. And we have had help from members of the Victorian Bar with their contacts.

“But we are 99 per cent certain that families would have stories and papers about uncles and great uncles and they should make sure the stories are told. If they have a story we want to hear it. Or if there are lawyers not on the board we want to know.”

The stories of the fallen men, all tragically young, are moving in their simple telling – none more so than that of Mervyn Bournes Higgins, who has a memorial to him – a stone cross – in a quiet corner of Dromana Cemetery on the Mornington Peninsula where the family had their second home Heronswood.

Higgins was killed leading his men, aged 29, with a bullet to his head and is buried – Plot A 190 – in the Kantara War Memorial Cemetery near Cairo in Egypt, a long way from home.

He was the only son of – and at one stage associate to – High Court judge and president of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, Henry Bournes Higgins, who, with his wife Mary Alice, was utterly grief-stricken by their boy’s death.

“My grief has condemned me to hard labour for the rest of my life,” Justice Higgins famously wrote.

Letters between father and son survived and provided source material for Ms Boyd and her team.

Born on 8 November 1887, Higgins attended Melbourne Grammar and then Melbourne University before completing his law degree at Balliol College, Oxford. He was in the Oxford rowing team that defeated Cambridge in 1910.

Returning to Australia in 1913, Higgins was called to the Bar and had rooms in Selborne Chambers. He enlisted at the end of 1914 and was commissioned as an officer in the Australian Light Horse in early 1915. He served in Gallipoli and was one of the few officers that survived battles at the Nek.

After the withdrawal from Gallipoli at the end of 1915, Higgins was back again in Egypt. He helped reorganise the Light Horse and as the Australian Army didn’t have a legal branch at the time, he (and other serving lawyers) acted on boards of inquiry. He was killed at El Magdhaba, Egypt, on 23 December 1916.

Another judge to lose his son was Justice Henry Hodges. The telegram from the War Office went to the Supreme Court. Victoria’s then Chief Justice Sir William Irvine opened it and took it upon himself to deliver the grave news to the dead soldier’s father who was hearing a case that day. The case was immediately adjourned, The Argus reported on 27 June 1918.

Lieutenant and Military Cross recipient Norman Hodges (left) was 31 and not long married when he died in France from pneumonia on 23 April, about six months shy of Armistice Day on 11 November.

Captain Robert Crocker was another Melbourne lawyer who died fighting for his country. The 27-year-old enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces in the first week the recruiting offices opened, embarking on 20 October 1914 as part of the 2nd field artillery Brigade. His unit went to Alexandria in Egypt in January 1915 for training. He landed at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 and was shot in the shoulder while serving as an observation officer. He did not survive the ensuing operation. A memorial to the “ideal officer” and “gallant young gentleman” was erected at Scotch College where he went to school.

Solicitor Gordon Fink was killed by sniper fire when he volunteered to take ammunition to an outpost at Gallipoli. He didn’t return and his body was found weeks later, identified by his pay book.

The death of solicitor Lieutenant Clarence Bowen, one of 100 men from Richmond in one company, was reported in the Richmond Guardian on 11 May 1918. “Clarrie Bowen takes the count” was the suburban newspaper’s headline announcing his death. He was wounded in the first week at Gallipoli and killed at Villers Bretonneux on 27 April 1918.

“Clarrie enlists, he is a brave man. He becomes a lieutenant and then he is gone. You think, oh god,” Ms Boyd said. “It’s always worse if it’s a 1918 death because the war was so close to finishing.

“The Red Cross did reports on how they died. It’s often MIA and you know they were blown up. So many were killed by artillery fire. It was all incredibly mechanised.”

Fortunately, there are a great many more stories of Victorian lawyers who went to war and came back – albeit many with injuries including mental trauma and the devastating effects of being gassed. Indeed, many died from lingering gas-related illnesses once home.

“I was particularly inspired by the story of Ronald Hall. He came back from the war wanting to be a barrister. But because he had been gassed, he didn’t have the lung capacity to stand up in court for long periods, so he became a solicitor,” Ms Boyd said.

“It was not easy for them if they had been gassed. It was a living death, it affected their eyes and lungs. A lot of lawyers who fought in WW1 were dead by WW2. There were hostels full of men who died in their 20s and 30s.

“You have to wonder how these lawyers managed when they came back. They had artillery shells exploding in their ears then had to come home and settle down to doing wills and estates.”

Another inspiring story was that of James Borrowman who was an articled clerk with Hedderwick, Fookes and Alston when he enlisted in August 1914. He served with the 5th Battalion in Gallipoli and was shot in the shoulder on Anzac Day in 1915. His friend Captain Sydney Campbell recalled the incident:

“On Sunday Jim had his cap knocked off by a piece of shrapnel and he still has it, with a big hole in back and top. What a narrow shave! Later he was wounded by a bullet in the shoulder, kept on fighting, but finally his shoulder became so stiff and painful that he had to desist and return to the dressing station. He has got on well, the bullet has been removed and he will soon be as well as ever”.

But Borrowman was wounded again – shot in the arm in fighting at Gallipoli and had to have the limb amputated. He returned to practice at the Bar, where he read with H Shelton, then continued his military service in WW2. He died in 1966 aged 76 and is buried in St Kilda Cemetery.

Some Melbourne lawyers listed on the memorial board played key roles in the wartime effort. Ascot Vale-born John Latham, the head of naval intelligence from 1917, who was later knighted and appointed Chief Justice of the High Court, helped draft the Treaty of Versailles and was with Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes when he signed the peace accord at the very end of WW1. He took with him two other lawyers – Sir Frederic Eggleston and Sydney barrister Sir Robert Garran – who were on hand in the absence of an Australian diplomatic corps to represent Australia’s interests.

Wanliss Gully at Anzac Cove in Turkey is named in honour of barrister David Wanliss. Brother-in-law of Chief Justice Sir William Irvine, Wanliss became commanding officer of the 5th infantry brigade. He led his battalion at the landing of Gallipoli and throughout heavy fighting at Krithia but was struck down with typhoid and returned to Australia. He became Chief Justice of the mandated territory in New Guinea.

Less well known are the stories of lawyers such as Robert Ramsay who volunteered himself and his car to the war effort. On 16 September 1914 he wrote (on Melbourne Club letterhead) to the War Office acknowledging acceptance of the offer and said they could both report for duty in the morning. And that of Harry Whiting who served with the Yorkshire Regiment from 1915 to 1917. Eventually declared unfit for active service, he returned to Melbourne, and in 1919 married Ruth Lumsdaine, a niece of poet Banjo Patterson who walked her down the aisle. Harry became a partner in his father’s law firm which became Whiting & Byrne, known today as Corrs, Chambers Westgarth.

Lindsay Turner, who signed up at Melbourne Town Hall in 1916 – the afternoon of the day he was admitted to practice – returned to Australia in 1919 with severe injuries to his face and jaw. He wrote a diary, now displayed by the Australian War Memorial, of his war experience. It gives a vivid description of the voyage to Europe via Egypt on the troop ship Port Sydney. Details of his training and stay in England, including afternoon tea in London where he met up with Melbourne solicitor (and LIV president in 1935 and 1949) Colonel Francis Derham, catching up on local gossip, are also recorded. Turner was less impressed with France. He wrote of the blood in his mouth after being injured, and of the mud and cold and lack of sleep at the battle at Mont St Quentin in 1918 but concluded, “the guns shot wonderfully well”.

While stationed overseas, many of the lawyers could take comfort in recognising other members of the legal profession. General Pompey Elliott’s aide, Major Eric Connelly, killed in 1918 by a bomb which fell on his tent, was a barrister the military leader knew from university and the profession. Brother and lawyer Clive Connelly was also killed in the war. Elliott, who regularly visited his men at the front, took the deaths of the men in his command, including fellow lawyers, very hard. He committed suicide in 1931.

“It must have been rather remarkable to know another lawyer-soldier from the profession in amongst the huge numbers of men over there. General Elliott was tremendously upset about Major Connelly’s death,” Ms Boyd said.

“The legal profession was so much smaller in those days. Now, we have about a thousand lawyers admitted every year. In those days, it was a dozen. It was a much smaller group. They went to school together and university (Melbourne University was the only law school in Victoria at that time). They were admitted on the same day and had chambers together. They briefed each other and they married each other’s sisters. When you start to unpick it they are all related to each other somehow.”

Another part of the project is addressing the names that are missing from the memorial board. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Sir Edmund Herring, Justices Sir Arthur Dean KC and Sir Wilfred Fullagar KC and solicitors William Slater (of Slater and Gordon and LIV president in 1928 and 1940), Ronald Hall, Thorold Fink and John Sterling are not included on this particular honour roll. Killed in action at Fromelles on 19 July 1916, Sterling was awarded the MilitaryCross for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty on that day after continuing to lead his men under heavy machine-gun fire despite being wounded in the neck.

“William Slater was kept off because he did not complete his articles or was not admitted to practice until 1922. There were about a dozen who were studying law and doing articles, which explains their omission. The name of solicitor Gordon Fink, who was killed in the war, is on the board but not his solicitor brother Thorold,” Ms Boyd said.

The memorial board will, it is hoped, get an extension so a complete list of Victorian lawyers who served in WWI can be realised as part of the centenary events. Also, an exhibition of the biography project will be part of Law Week and it will travel to regional courts.

“This is a tremendous beauty and it’s in good nick, but we would like another panel to include the names that are missing,” Ms Boyd said of the humble blackwood board, which, with its gold script and copper embellishments, represents the heroic effort of Victorian lawyers in the Great War.

LIV presidents in WWI

The following presidents of the LIV between 1927 and 1950 served during World War I.

  • 1927-28 Harold Edward Elliott (General Pompey Elliott)
  • 1928-29 &1940-41 William Slater
  • 1929-30 Leonard Roberts Stillman
  • 1931-32 Edward James Hamilton
  • 1932-33 George Frederich Pitcher
  • 1935-36 & 1949-50 Francis Plumley Derham
  • 1936-37 Wallace John Ball
  • 1944-45 Ronald Fox Hall
  • 1947-48 Duncan Cornelius Mackinnon


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