Corporal John Edmondson VC and the Siege of Tobruk
10 April 2021 marks the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the siege of Tobruk.
To commemorate this anniversary, the Memorial has published a selection of private records relating to the late Corporal John Hurst “Jack” Edmondson VC, who was killed in action in Tobruk on 14 April 1941.
The collections include items such as the diaries of Jack’s mother, condolence letters, commemorative leaflets, and photographs of Jack and the Edmondson family farm near Liverpool, New South Wales.
Perhaps the most beautiful item is a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings lovingly put together by Mrs Edmondson after her son’s death.
The scrapbook contains over 200 articles including one published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 18 April 1941 that details Corporal Edmondson’s heroic actions during the “Easter Battle”, which earned him the military’s highest honour, the Victoria Cross.
In her diary, Maude describes finding the article about a young corporal who saved the life of his commanding officer during a counter attack by the enemy on 14 April. She writes,
When I read it, I passed it to Joseph William and told him I was just sure the corporal was Jack. He would neither agree or otherwise, but I have read it several times and saved the cutting as I know the corporal is Jack. It said no casualties, but nevertheless I know that all is not well with Jack.
Afterwards, Maude notes in her diary, “nothing seems to go right”. She continues to write letters to Jack and prepares a fruit cake to send to him for his birthday on 8 October.
Two weeks after Jack’s death, his parents received a telegram from the Minister of the Army informing them that their son had been killed in action on Easter Monday.
In an interview published on 19 July 1941 in Women’s Weekly, Maude recalls,
The day before Jack left he asked me to take great care of his pet. The old cat seemed to cling to me after he had gone. On Easter Monday he wouldn’t stop crying, and worried me so much that eventually I couldn’t stand it, and put him outside on the verandah. We never saw him again. We searched the paddocks all next day.
Shortly after Jack’s death, the army informed the Edmondsons that their son was to be the first Australian to receive the Victoria Cross for actions that took place during the Second World War.
Lieutenant Colonel John Crawford described what happened to Jack: “Notwithstanding his severe wounds, your son saved Lieutenant Mackell’s life by shooting or bayonetting at least three of the enemy, who were attacking Lieutenant Mackell.”
Jack’s parents received condolence letters from friends, former school teachers, civil and ecclesiastical dignitaries, societies and clubs, as well as strangers who read about Jack’s heroism in the papers.
Perhaps the letters that Maude cherished the most were those from the men who served with her son, including Ronald Sidney Grant and Athol Lindsay Dalziel who were with Jack when he died.
In his response to Maude’s letter asking about the moments before her son’s death, Athol explained that it was impossible to carry Jack on a stretcher to get medical help due to machine-gun fire:
As dawn came up and it began to get lighter I knew and Jack knew that he was dying. It was then that he asked me to keep the writing case and I said that I would keep it for him till he got out of hospital. His face broke into that wonderful grin of his and said, “No, Athol, thanks all the same for trying. I know hospitals are no good to me now. Give my love to the folks, old boy, and good luck.”
Mrs Edmondson found some comfort in the letters she exchanged with Athol. She sent him packages containing cakes, cigarettes, knitted socks and other small comforts in return for his kindness.
Other items contained within Mrs Edmondson’s personal papers are extracts of letters, including one that Captain Balfe wrote to his wife:
All of us can speak well of the dead, but I have said of Corporal Edmondson while he was still alive, that he is a really decent, clean chap. The first AIF VC. If ever there was a medal earned he earnt his.
Jack Edmondson’s legacy inspired courage in Australians serving in the Middle East, some of whom, including Sergeant Leo Baggott, made the pilgrimage to Jack’s grave in Tobruk.
Sergeant Baggott asked his wife, Lilian, to forward a photograph of Jack’s grave to Mrs Edmondson, which was received with gratitude.
After the war, the Edmondson’s sold their farm – they were unable to manage the property without their son – and moved to a small house in the township of Liverpool.
After her husband passed away in 1958, Maude found consolation in her correspondence with veterans of the 2/17th Battalion. Some visited her in her home, while others accompanied her on visits to the local John Hurst Edmondson VC Memorial Club.
Maude Elizabeth Edmondson passed away in 1961. Although it has been many years since the end of the Second World War, her son’s actions on the battlefield continue to inspire generations of Australians who visit the Hall of Valour at the Australian War Memorial.
Further information on collections referenced in this article and recently digitised collections relating to the late Corporal John Hurst “Jack” Edmondson and the Siege of Tobruk is available here:
PR84/163 Grant, Ronald Sidney (Private)
PR85/278 Edmondson, John Hurst “Jack” (Corporal, 1914–1941)
PR88/040 Grant, Ron (Private)
PR89/056 Edmondson, Maude Elizabeth
PR90/101 Edmondson, John Hurst “Jack” (Corporal, 1914–1941)
PR00231 Geikie, Bayne (Lieutenant; later Captain b.1912)
PR00548 Liddiard, James Norman (Private, 1911–1983)
PR06102 Edmondson, John Hurst “Jack” (Corporal: VC: NX15705: 1914–1941)
MSS1871 Hero in the mould of other days: Corporal John Hurst Edmondson VC
MSS1870 History of Courage: Corporal John Hurst Edmondson VC
ART27532 Corporal John Edmondson
F07001 Tobruk, 30 July–22 October
S02107 Three “Turn of the Century” ABC Radio Programs featuring Dr Peter Stanley discussing aspects of Australia's military involvement in war and peacekeeping throughout the 1900s
RELAWM31950.007 Housewife: Corporal J.H. Edmondson, VC, 2/17th Battalion
RELAWM31948.001 Victoria Cross: Corporal J.H. Edmondson, 2/17 Battalion, AIF
RCDIG1070202 Second World War Official Histories Volume III – Tobruk and El Alamein (1st edition, 1966)
940.54231 W744t 1945 Tobruk, 1941: Capture, Siege, Relief / by Chester Wilmot.