Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, August 17, 2020

Who Was Pompey Elliot?

Brigadier General Pompey Elliott

Everyone expected the whole thing to fail, 

but something desperate had to be done.

Pompey Elliott After the Capture of Villers-Bretonneux

He was one of Australia's outstanding combat commanders in the Great War. Born in Victoria in June 1878, Harold Edward Elliott was nicknamed "Pompey" by his men. He was not pleased about it, but it stuck. Elliott was a huge and powerful man, a footballer and champion athlete.

He served with distinction in the Boer War before returning to Melbourne to study law and then work in his own legal practice. In 1909 Elliott married Catherine Frazer Campbell and they had two children, Violet and Neil. At the outbreak of war, Elliott was appointed to command the 7th Battalion at Gallipoli and he was later promoted to command the 15th Brigade on the Western Front.

He was known to be a fierce disciplinarian, whose strong character and energy established him as a character of the AIF. Stylish dress was not a priority for Elliott, who quite often looked scruffy and was once arrested for impersonating an officer. But he was a brilliant tactician and fierce fighter, immensely brave and held in extremely high regard by his men.

Larger Than life

He has been described as a larger-than-life character, full of exuberance and vitality and "irresistibly quotable." He regularly wrote remarkable letters to his children, still toddlers when he was at war. Here is an excerpt to his son, written in 1916 from the Western Front:

It is very, very cold here and the Jack Frost here is not a nice Jack Frost who just pinches your fingers so you can run to a fire to warm them but a great big bitey Jack Frost and he pinches the toes and fingers of some of Dida’s poor soldiers so terribly that he pinches them right off. Isn’t that terrible?

It has been said that Elliott could do things with his troops that no other officer could do. However, forced to attack at Fromelles against his recommendation, his troops suffered a third of all the Australian casualties in the attack. He resolved to work even harder to protect the lives of his men. After Polygon Wood (1917), he wrote to this wife about his men:

It is all due to the boys and the officers like Norman Marshall... It is wonderful the loyalty and bravery that is shown, their absolute confidence in me is touching—I can order them to take on the most hopeless looking jobs and they throw their hearts and souls, not to speak of their lives and bodies, into the job without thought.

You must pray more than ever that I shall be worthy of this trust, Katie, and have wisdom and courage given me worthy of my job.

In 1918 he was one of two brigade commanders credited with halting Germany's Operation Michael at Villers-Bretonneux and helped lead the pursuit to the Hindenburg line during the summer. By war's end Elliott had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the French Croix de Guerre and been mentioned in dispatches seven times.

A Life Cut Short

However, he had been overlooked for promotion to divisional command, a position he had long hoped for, and this became an enduring grievance. On returning to Australia at the end of war, Elliott focused on re-building his law practice but soon re-joined the militia as a commander. In 1919 he stood for the Senate as a Nationalist, topping the Victorian poll and was re-elected in 1925. He never held a post in government but spoke on many topics, particularly on defense matters.

Elliott was sharply critical of British high command, blaming it for the heavy Australian casualties during the war. He became deeply involved in the affairs of returned soldiers. In 1927 he was promoted to major general and threw himself into training with great enthusiasm, despite his disappointments still gnawing at him.

Elliott's continued sense of injustice together with the effects of his war service and his concern about the welfare of returned soldiers during the Great Depression combined to undermine his health and in 1931 he committed suicide, aged just 52.

Source: Website of the Australian Broadcast Company.


  1. As I read this fascinating biography I was really rooting for Pompey as a genuine hero. But his tragic ending--why, why, why?

    1. Many men found the transition to civilian life difficult, but in addition: he was a "larger than life character, full of exuberance and vitality". As a retired psychiatric nurse, I suspect that suffered from a bi-polar disorder, or manic-depression as they called it in those days. There was no counselling to speak of in those days and no medication, and even today men find it difficult to ask for help. Of course I can't make a definite diagnosis at this distance in time and from this much information, but the picture is there. In the end, there is no "why": depression is an illness like any other, and with a higher fatality rate than some forms of cancer.

  2. Completely agree... such a tragic loss to his family and nation.