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Brigadier Walter Cass leads cortege at funeral Sir John Monash 1931.


Three great Victorians of the Great War

by Garrie Hutchinson

This article appeared in Remembrance: the official magazine of the Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne in April 2012 and accompanied the exhibition of Colonel Walter Cass’s photographs and memorabilia at the Shrine April – September 2012.

The slideshow is of Cass’s Gallipoli photographs.

Brigadier Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliott, Sir John Monash and Brigadier Walter Cass all served at Gallipoli. Elliott and Cass were profoundly affected by the tragedy of Fromelles.  Elliott and Cass also saw served and saw action in the Boer War in different Victorian contingents. They were Victorians whose careers had different trajectories, but whose paths crossed on the battlefield, or in the course of their duties, and ended in the same sad year – 1931.

Sir John Monash died on Thursday 8 October 1931.  Next day he lay in state in Queen’s Hall, Parliament House, which had been stripped of its pictures, projecting a ‘bleak austerity  …  accentuating the feelings of the people for the leader of its citizen army,’ noted the Argus.

When the doors opened at 5 pm on Friday, Brigadier Walter Cass was among the first to pay his respects, on behalf of the Melbourne Military District of which he was commandant. Thousands of people filed past the coffin of Australia’s greatest commander before the funeral cortege left on Sunday at 12.30. It was accompanied by battalions of returned soldiers, a band and drummers, the gun-carriage bearing Sir John, then pall-bearers and Brigadier Cass, mounted on his charger, before other general officers and brigadiers on foot, and the chief mourners in cars.

Some 250,000 people witnessed the procession, from Parliament House to Collins Street, Swanston Street and down St Kilda Road past the Shrine to the Brighton Cemetery.

It was to be Cass’s last public act, before his untimely death on 6 November, from complications following an appendix operation.

Monash, born in Melbourne in 1865, had been a militia officer commanding the North Melbourne Battery of the Garrison Artillery before the First World War. The Garrison Artillery was a mixture of regular soldiers and a paid cadre of part-time officers, including Monash. The batteries were charged with defending Melbourne and Port Phillip from powerful forts at Queenscliff, Williamstown and in the South Channel. With the assistance of the Victorian Navy Melbourne was reputed to be the best-defended port in the world.

Walter Edmund Hutchinson Cass was born in 1876 in Albury. Educated at Albury Superior Public School, he later moved to Melbourne with his family and on 7 October 1890 joined the Victorian Department of Public Instruction as a trainee or pupil teacher – aged 14.

He joined the Permanent Military Force in 1906, appears to have also served in the Garrison Artillery at some point before he joined the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles for the Boer War in 1901.  The Education Gazette  (18 Feb 1916) claims he was ‘chief signalling instructor in the Garrison Artillery, and he was one of the best authorities on gunnery in Victoria.’ Cass joined up when he was teaching at Derrinallum, on the Hamilton Highway about 100 km west of Geelong. It is likely he served with the Queenscliff Battery.

Captain Monash was, by 1901, 36 years old and in command of the North Melbourne Battery and his artillery and planning skills were not required in the guerrilla war in South Africa.  But Cass, 25, was a signaller, a good horseman, a crack shot and enlisted in the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles (5VMR) as a corporal, later promoted to Signalling Sergeant.

5VMR sailed for South Africa in February 1901. Cass was fortunate he was not present at Wilmansrust on 12 June when his unit suffered 60 casualties including 18 killed. Wilmansrust was a very controversial action with accusations of Victorian cowardice and British ineptitude erupting in the Melbourne press, and in the first sitting of the Commonwealth Parliament. 5VMR suffered the heaviest casualties of any Australian unit in the Boer War with 49 dead.

However, he was present on 23 November when Lieutenant Leslie Maygar of 5 VMR won the Victoria Cross for rescuing a comrade under heavy enemy fire. Cass described it to the Argus as a ‘very hot corner’.

Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliott saw extensive service in the Boer War first with the fourth Victorian contingent, the Victorian Imperial Bushmen, May 1900 – June 1901. Corporal Elliott was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for an audacious act in capturing a Boer patrol’s horses on the night 28 February 1901, allowing the capture of the enemy patrol next morning.  Later commissioned he returned to South Africa with other veterans and joined irregular unit the Border Scouts from December 1901 – until 1902.

After the Boer Monash and Elliott had substantial careers as a civil engineer and solicitor respectively, and Cass resumed teaching.  They also resumed their military careers in the militia.  The first Australian Defence Act was established an Australian Militia in March 1904, and both Cass and Elliott joined one of the new infantry regiments – Cass the 6th and Elliott the 5th – and Monash in the Garrison Artillery.

While Monash and Elliott continued as militia officers, Cass joined the permanent staff of the Australian Military Forces in June 1906. He was a lieutenant on the administrative and instructional staff in South Australia in 1906-08 and in Western Australia in 1908-10. Promoted captain in July 1910, in October 1911 he went to India on twelve months exchange duty, and attended the 1911 Delhi Durbar held to mark the coronation of George V, and his proclamation as Emperor of India. (Monash was sent by the Australian Government to attend the 1931 Durbar.)

After the Durbar, Cass was attached to the Derajat Brigade, and attended artillery field days in February 1912 at Bannu on the North-West Frontier. In March Cass went with the Brigade to South Wajiristan in expectation of active service in the ongoing insurgency, but saw none.

At the outbreak of the First World War, Cass was appointed Brigade Major to the Victorian 2nd Brigade, commanded by Colonel James McCay.  Colonel Elliott commanded the 7th Battalion in the Brigade.  Colonel Monash had the 4th Brigade, composed of Battalions from different states.

Elliott was first 2nd Brigade senior officer ashore at Gallipoli on 25 April, and set about organising the disorganised landing before being wounded in the ankle and being evacuated. Cass was ashore later in the morning, and was prominent in establishing the defensive position on Bolton’s Hill.

On 8 May Cass was seriously wounded in the tragic attack on Krithia, at Cape Helles while working with Elliott’s 7th Battalion. Colonel Gartside, who had taken over from Elliott was killed at Krithia. Cass was seriously wounded as he found himself leading part of the 7th Battalion into attack when the Australians were ordered into battle on half an hour’s notice.

The 2nd Brigade suffered 182 killed in action, 539 wounded and 335 missing on 8 May. Many of the wounded later died and almost all the missing were killed.

Cass’s life was almost certainly saved by Private CW McDonnell of Mooroopna, which Cass acknowledged in a letter to the Argus on 16 February 1916. Private McDonnell at great risk to himself dug a protective barrier of earth, and carried messages back and brought back stretcher-bearers.

Cass rejoined his brigade at Anzac on 28 July, was promoted lieutenant-colonel on 7 August and commanded the 2nd Battalion in the dreadful battle at Lone Pine. Cass was one of the last to leave Gallipoli at the evacuation on 20 December 1915.

Elliott, too, had returned to Gallipoli, and Lone Pine.

He wrote : ‘When anyone speaks to you of the glory of  war, picture yourself a narrow line of trenches two and sometimes three deep with bodies (and think too of your best friends, for that is what these boys become by long association with you) mangled and torn beyond description by the bombs, and bloated and  blackened by decay and crawling with maggots. Live among this for days … This is war and such is glory …’

Monash and the 4th Brigade were thought by some to have had a mediocre Gallipoli, but Monash had little influence in what he was ordered to do. Charles Bean reported the saying that Monash ‘would command a division better than a brigade and a corps better than a division’.  He was promoted Brigadier in July 1915 and Major General in charge of the 3rd Division a year later.

In the reorganisation of the AIF after Gallipoli, Elliott was promoted Brigadier and given the 15th Brigade, and Cass made Lieutenant Colonel and appointed to command the 54th Battalion in the 14th Brigade.

The 5th Division had the misfortune to take part in the first major battle fought by the Australians on the Western Front, at Fromelles on 19-20 July 1916. This misconceived battle saw 5533 Australian casualties in 24 hours: it was the worst disaster in Australian military history.

Cass led the 54th across no-man’s land and with the other 14th Brigade battalions captured a series of enemy trenches, and established a headquarters there. Cass and his men were eventually isolated as the Germans retook the positions on either side.

Cass was among the last to make his way back across no-man’s-land.

Lieutenant W Smith (Reveille, July 1936) witnessed what happened after he returned.

‘After the battle Col Cass was obviously overwrought and distressed. He and Pope (OC 14 Bde) were having a heated argument about the attack and Col Cass unburdened his mind.

‘I tell you that it was wholesale murder; they have murdered my boys’,

‘Oh pull yourself together man, this is war.’

‘This is not war. They have murdered my boys.’

Elliott too was badly affected by Fromelles, but carried on through the war – and had a brilliant success at Villers-Bretonneux on Anzac Day 1918. Monash was promoted Lieutenant General on 1 June 1918, and given command of the Australian Corps, which was the spearhead of the march to victory in 1918.

Cass returned to Australia, and he was director of military training in Melbourne 1917 – 21, organisation and personnel services 1925-26, and Base Commandant Melbourne 1926-29 and 1931. He also served in Brisbane, Hobart and Adelaide and was appointed Brigadier-General in 1929.

Monash was of course, the great motivating force behind the building of the Shrine of Remembrance.  Cass and Monash, with children and grandchildren were present when the first sod was turned in 1927. He said that the Shrine should be no man’s tomb.

Elliott was elected to the Senate in 1919, and again in 1925. He was a tireless unveiler of memorials, back in the Militia, and deeply aggrieved at his ‘supercession’ – the promotion of others where he should have been. He was clearly the most affected by what he and his men had experienced in the war.

Brigadier Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliott committed suicide on 23 March 1931, a wounded by the war and by a sense. Another wounded soldier Hugo Throssell VC (husband of Katharine Susannah Prichard) who was to commit suicide two years later left a note: ‘My old war head is going phut.’

Neither Cass nor Monash was in Melbourne for his funeral. Monash was on his way home from the Delhi Durbar.

Cass was Base Commandant in Hobart and did not return to Melbourne until August 1931 as Base Commandant of the 3rd Military District (Victoria).

Brigadier Walter Cass died after an operation for appendicitis on 6 November 1931.

1931 was a bad year for three of the great men of the First World War.