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‘Pompey’ Elliott: Man of Letters

Brigadier General Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliott outside a German headquarters during the Somme offensive of August 1918 (AWM E02855)

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Posted on 31 March 2018

Brigadier General Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliott wrote hundreds of candid letters to his wife Kate from 1914 to 1919 – and in all them he 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 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 battle.

“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 his sister-in-law Belle.

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 book Pompey Elliott at War: In His Own Words, says Elliott could have turned the Western Front into a bedtime story, so kind was his turn-of-phrase for children.

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 which reveal the wartime thoughts of the revered, charismatic, controversial and successful soldier.

His energy, strength of character and explosive temper earned him the nickname ‘Pompey’, after Carlton’s Fred ‘Pompey’ Elliott, the AFL’s first 200-game player who was likened to the volcanic Pompeii.

While Elliott, the military man, treated censorship regulations seriously about troop locations and future operations, McMullin says “compliance was less likely” in criticism of previous military operations, references to recent casualties or comments about disharmony with the 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 Senator from Victoria from 1919.

McMullin records 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 committed suicide in Melbourne on March 23 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.”

This story was published as part of the Road to Remembrance series developed in partnership with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and Fairfax Media.

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