Recently I have been researching a soldier from Hornsby by the name of Lyle Comyn Reeves. Lyle served with the Australian Naval & Military Expeditionary Force (ANMEF) that travelled to New Guinea in late 1914, before re-enlisting with the 20th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force (AIF). Lyle served with the 20th Battalion through till the end of war and returned home in 1919.
Lyle is of particular interest as I believe that he was the first Australian serving soldier to write a book of his experiences on campaign during the war. Titled Australians in Action, it was published towards the end of March or in early April 1915, prior to the landings at Gallipoli.
The book features a number of photographs, and they are credited to a Mosman man, Signaller H. Ellis.
Henry Ellis served with the Headquarters Staff of the ANMEF and was a Mosman resident when he enlisted in that force and later the AIF.
He is not named on the Mosman War Memorial, probably because his wife returned to Britain after his death. He might however be the ‘H. Ellis’ named on the Mosman-Neutral Bay Rifle Club Roll of Honour.
Henry, you could say, is among the group of forgotten WWI men associated with Mosman. I thought it may be of interest to summarise what the available records tell us of his life.
Henry Ellis was an Irishman, born in the village of Caledon in County Tyrone in September 1886. He was a Roman Catholic and the son of a police officer. Henry would also serve for five years as a police officer with the Royal Irish Constabulary before immigrating to Australia in 1913.
When the war began he was working as a shop assistant and gave his address as 2 Boyle Street, Mosman. He enlisted as regimental number 14 on 11 August 1914 with the ANMEF and spent time in Rabaul as part of the garrison.
Henry, writing as ‘Harry’, managed to send a letter1 to Mr Leslie Beer of Harrington’s photographic company in Sydney in early November 1914 recounting of an experience there.
“A very exciting half-hour, mixed with humor and seriousness, was spent by the troops here last night.
“When D. Company of the Expeditionary Force serving here was passing the German Club on the morning of October 31 a number of the German residents on parole, who are staying at the club, gave vent to their feelings by shouting, ‘ve vill make you English tremble soon,’ and throwing other taunts at our boys.
“No notice was taken of the insult just then, but the old English spirit and Australian initiative were aroused. The result was a meeting held by the companies quartered at the New Guinea store, and the decision was to march on the club and hoist the Union Jack. Not having, a Union Jack, and being unable to procure one, a handy Tommy made in short a French flag.
“Down on the club they swooped, led by a cornet player piping the ‘Marseillaise.’ The club was entered, and every German was marched on to the verandah and made to take his hat off while the cornet played and the troops sang the National Anthem.
“Three men clambered on to the roof. Just then a guard arrived, but too late to prevent the insult being repaid. The French flsg was run up amid deafening cheers. Our musician then supplied us with ‘Rule Britannia,’ ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,’ and finished up with ‘This Bit of the World Belongs to Us.’ The march to barracks was done to the tune of ‘Cock o’ the North’ ; and the Tommies having done their work, played the Australian National Anthem, and dispersed.
“There was a great spirit prevailing. The troops paid off the account in a very jocular mood, and no force was used with any of the Germans. It was a mild way of showing we are masters of the situation.”
Henry Ellis returned to Sydney and was discharged time expired on 4 March 1915.
Later that month, on 27 March, the Mosman-Neutral Bay Rifle Club held its inaugural meeting at Mosman Town Hall. The club was formed to provide training to men in the rudiments of rifle shooting and drill with a view to preparing them for enlistment with the AIF. On 16 April the first Committee Meeting was held, the club’s first shoot taking place on 6 and 7 June at Long Bay Rifle Range.
So Henry was in Mosman when the Rifle Club was formed.
On 18 April 1915 Henry enlisted as a Private with the 17th Battalion AIF, was placed amongst D Company and given regimental no. 1365. Mosman-Neutral Bay Rifle Club’s history mentions that the rifle club held musketry courses with the 17th Battalion around this time.
Henry was promoted to Lance-Corporal on 29 April 1915, but this was far from the most important event of his life at the time. On 7 May 1915 he married an Irish woman, 29 year old Catherine Scully, at the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church on Military Road. Catherine’s occupation was listed on their marriage certificate as domestic duties.
Sadly they would spend little time together as a married couple. A mere five days later, on 12 May 1915, Henry embarked for Egypt aboard HMAT A32 Themistocles with the newly formed battalion. He was by now a Corporal and arrived in Egypt on 12 June 1915.
The 17th Battalion had a short stay in Egypt before embarking to join the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force fighting at Gallipoli on 16 August 1915. They landed at Anzac Cove on the 20th at 5 a.m. On 27 August, A Company of the 17th Battalion were involved in the fighting for Hill 60.
The day before, 26 August, Henry was sent to the 5th Field Ambulance Hospital suffering from dysentery and did not rejoin the unit until 3 September. On the 4th the 17th Battalion were sent to replace 1st Light Horse Brigade men manning the trenches at Quinn’s Post, a critical position along the Australian line. There they would remain for three months until the end of the campaign.
Henry would have experienced much at Quinn’s Post and not surprisingly on 5 December he was promoted to Sergeant.
These were the dying weeks though of an untenable campaign and on 18 December the 17th Battalion started evacuations from the Peninsula. On 20 December the final remaining men were transported off to the island of Lemnos, arriving back in Egypt early in the New Year.
This photo from the AWM collection of a group of 17th Battalion officers taken after the evacuation in December 1915 is one of a number credited to H. Ellis which I assume to be Henry.
The photo was probably taken on Lemnos.
Henry, like many other soldiers at the time, took the photo with a small folding or vest camera which was easily hidden and stored in an army haversack.
The first and last pages of Australians In Action were used by several local firms to advertise their wares; Mark Foy’s and Kitchener Limited (a specialist in naval and military uniforms) amongst them. The photographic company, Harringtons Limited of George Street, advertised the “Ensignette” on one page as the smallest folding camera in the world that slips into vest pocket.
At the top left corner of the advertisement was the endorsement “the photographs used to illustrate this book were taken with an Ensignette camera.” Perhaps this was the camera Henry took with him when he left Australia for Egypt and Gallipoli.
After returning to Egypt it must have been apparent to those commanding him that Henry had some skill both in soldiering and handling men. Five years spent as a policemen may well have been good grounding. On the 12 March 1916 Second Lieutenant Henry Ellis joined the officer ranks.
The bulk of the 17th Battalion embarked for France on 17 March 1916, disembarking at Marseilles six days later. They arrived at Thiennes on 26 March and went into billets. Henry was now in his third theatre of war, the Western Front.
Towards the end of June 1916, Henry was admitted to a field hospital before being transported back to England at the start of July. He spent around eight weeks at the 3rd London General Hospital suffering from problems with his feet. The Medical Board recorded that he had flat feet and that the strain of military service was adding to the problem.
Recovery involved rest and a correctly fitted pair of boots. Henry rejoined the Battalion on 11 September 1916, just as the worst winter of the war was starting to be felt across northern France. Henry was hospitalised once more in mid-November and transported back to the 3rd London General Hospital.
His Medical Board records state that he reported feeling weak in his feet and shoulders. His heart was normal and they believed that active service conditions were contributing to the problems. He was rested and released from hospital on 30 December 1916. It is worth remembering that prior to arriving in France Henry had spent six months in the tropics and three months at Gallipoli, neither conducive to a man’s health.
Very early in 1917 Henry was sent to the 5th Training Battalion at Rollestone where he spent several months upping the level of training that reinforcements had received in Australia before sending them on to the Western Front. On 8 March he was made Lieutenant and returned to France three days later. He rejoined the 17th Battalion who were encamped at Martinpuich on 19 March.
On the 31st of March 1917, whilst they were at Fricourt Camp, General Birdwood visited the Battalion to “present medals and ribbons to the officers and men of the Battalion.” A Distinguished Service Order, a Military Cross and three Military Medals were awarded to two officers, a non-commissioned officer and two private soldiers that day. The 17th Battalion marched out of Fricourt Camp on 12 April and soon found themselves in a precarious position.
The battalion headed towards the line in front of Norieul and had relieved the 16th Battalion AIF by the afternoon of the 14th. The dates are important here as this was only days after the First Battle of Bullecourt had ended badly for the 4th Division AIF and the British 62nd Division. The 4th Division had been replaced by the 1st Division AIF and now the 2nd Division AIF (including the 17th Battalion) lined up next to it near the village of Lagnicourt.
The German General Otto Von Moser, who commanded the Wurttemberg Division that had inflicted so many casualties at Bullecourt, noted that the Australian lines were sparsely defended and planned a counter attack for 15 April. His plan was simple, “to capture or destroy as many men and guns as possible in seizing the seven villages behind the 1st Division’s line, holding them for a day and withdrawing that night”.2 Moser was given an additional division, the 3rd Guard division, to add further weight to his attack.
All hell broke loose just after 4 a.m. on the morning of the 15th of April when after a barrage the Germans rushed the sentries and then the picquet lines before moving onto the support lines. The 12th and 17th Battalions (where the 1st and 2nd Divisions of the AIF met) were located one mile north of Lagnicourt. The fighting was hot here as the German 2nd Guards Reserve Division had attacked between the outposts of both Battalions and were rushing forwards in large numbers.
From the reserve line men were rushed forward to hold the oncoming Germans. Henry was among them. Referring to Charles Bean’s Official History3 -
But for the next hour the only news that reached General Smith was from the 17th Battalion in front of Noreuil, which kept him informed of the gradual driving back of its right company. About 5.45, however, information began to arrive from several quarters. Lieutenant-Colonel Ralston of the 20th telephoned that gunners of the batteries near Lagnicourt reported the loss of their guns. Captain Sheppard of the 17th reported the Germans getting round his right flank. Two platoons of a reserve company of the 17th were sent under Lieutenant Ellis to support him, but were met by machine-gun fire which caused sharp loss.
Sharp loss. Henry was shot in the right thigh by one or more bullets causing a compound fracture of his thigh.
Although several Australian artillery guns fell to the Germans, who held them for two hours, a spirited rally by the Anzacs pushed them back later in the morning. Four thousand Australians had fought off sixteen thousand Germans, a sound victory.
Not that Henry would have been aware of this. He was moved to the 3rd Casualty Clearing Station where he died the following day. Henry was buried in Grevillers British Cemetery, just west of Bapaume.
Henry was killed less than a month before his second wedding anniversary, a marriage during which they had spent a total of five days together as a couple. How Katherine coped is not known. It appears that she received a copy of his commission and the book Where Australians Rest, but whether she received his medals is unclear.
There is a collection of documents belonging to Henry Ellis held by the Australian War Memorial. They are described as being related to his time with the ANMEF and I suspect that they were donated by Katherine. Reverting to her maiden name, Mrs Katherine Scully returned to Britain.
When the Roll of Honour was created at the Australian War Memorial circulars were sent to the next of kin of those who died in the war to gather further information about them. Katherine was living in London when she provided details of Henry. Question three of the circular asked “which town or district in Australia was he chiefly connected with (under which his name ought to come on the memorial)” to which Katherine answered ‘Mosman.’
Although Henry Ellis is not named on the Mosman War Memorial, his connection to the area should not be forgotten.
1 1914 ‘Repaying an Insult.’, The Braidwood Dispatch and Mining Journal (NSW : 1888 – 1954), 25 November, p. 2, viewed 4 January, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article130414443
2 The Anzacs; Gallipoli to the Western Front by Peter Pedersen, Penguin Books, 2007, P.207.
3 Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume IV – The Australian Imperial force in France (11th Edition, 1941), by C.E.W Bean, P.385.
National Archives of Australia, B2455 Series, Service record of Lieutenant Henry Ellis
Various War Diaries of the 17th Battalion A.I.F
Marriage certificate of Henry Ellis and Catherine Scully (NSW BDM 1915/005110)
Mosman-Neutral Bay Rifle Club Inc. Club Chronology 1915-1920.
Quinn’s Post – Anzac, Gallipoli, by Peter Stanley, Allen & Unwin, 2005
Australians In Action by Signaller L.C Reeves, The Australian News Company, 1915
Heroes Before Gallipoli – Bita Paka and that One Day in September by Kevin Meade, John Wiley & Sons, 2005