'He was a true fighting commander'

08 February 2019 by Claire Hunter

Leslie Maygar VC

Jill Miles grew up hearing stories about her great uncle and would take his Victoria Cross to school in Melbourne.

“We always heard about Uncle Leslie, because mum knew him” Jill said.  “She was only a little girl when he died, but she was very fond of him.

“She said he was a very imposing, tall sort of man, and he was an excellent horse rider, and a real family man, but he never married.”

Her great uncle Leslie Maygar was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions during the Boer War when he rode out under heavy fire and rescued a soldier whose horse was shot out from underneath him. Magyar went on to serve on Gallipoli during the First World War, and was mortally wounded at Beersheba.

Maygar pictured after he returned from South Africa.

Maygar pictured in Melbourne after he returned from South Africa.

“I used to walk down High Street, Glen Iris, with the Victoria Cross, and whenever we had the Anzac Day service at school, I would wear it,” she said. “Imagine doing that these days.”

Jill was with her mother when the family donated Maygar’s Victoria Cross to the Memorial in the 1980s and attended the opening of the original display.

She has now donated the rank insignia that her great uncle was wearing when he was mortally wounded at Beersheba more than 100 years ago.

They were originally kept in a cigarette box at her grandmother’s home in Euroa, and then at her mother’s in Melbourne. She would look at the crown and pips as a little girl and think of her great uncle.

“You can see it is all damaged,” she said.  “They believe he was wearing it when he was injured and died the next day.

“We’ve always had lots of memorabilia and all that sort of thing.

“He was always sending back things: there are Christmas cards; [and] a piece of timber from Gallipoli; and that would all come in the mail from Uncle Leslie.

“There’s even a letter … that was written a few days before he was injured … and [it] arrived home after he died.”

Jill Miles, centre, with Chairman Kerry Stokes and Director Dr Brendan Nelson.

Jill Miles, centre, with the Chairman of the Memorial Council, Mr Kerry Stokes, and the Director, Dr Brendan Nelson.

Maygar's rank insignia

Her great uncle’s story is told in For valour: Australians awarded the Victoria Cross by Memorial curator Craig Blanch and senior historian Dr Aaron Pegram.

Featuring new archival research and images from the Memorial’s collection, the book tells the stories of the 100 Australians who have been awarded the Victoria Cross for exceptional acts of bravery and self-sacrifice in battle.

Maygar’s own story is a remarkable one.

Edgar Leslie Cecil Willis Walker Maygar was born on 27 May 1868 at Dean Station near Kilmore in Victoria. The youngest of seven children, he was known as “Leslie” and was educated at Kilmore and Alexandra state schools. He went into partnership with his father and brothers to manage the family property, Strathearn Estate, near Euroa.

“He was a real family man,” Jill said.  “He and his brother were out tree felling on the property, and a tree fell on his brother and Leslie put him on the horse, and took him back to the homestead. He tried to save his brother, but he had already died.”

Portrait of Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Maygar VC

Portrait of Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Maygar VC DSO VD, Commanding Officer of the 8th Light Horse Regiment. Maygar was mortally wounded during the battle of Beersheba.

A keen horseman, Maygar joined the Victorian Mounted Rifles in 1891.

When war broke out in South Africa in 1899, Maygar was keen to enlist for active service, but was initially rejected because of a “hollow tooth”.

He was eventually accepted into the 5th Contingent and arrived in South Africa in February 1901. During an engagement at Geelhoutboom on 23 November, he noticed a group of men who were at risk of being outflanked, and galloped out under heavy fire to order them to retire.

When one of the men’s horses was shot from beneath him, Maygar lifted the stranded soldier onto his own mount. Maygar’s horse then bolted into boggy ground forcing both men to dismount. 

Realising that the frightened horse could carry only one of them, Maygar again put the man on its back and told him to gallop for cover.  Maygar then made his way back on foot under heavy fire.

Maygar, left, in South Africa.

Lieutenant (later Lieutenant Colonel) Leslie C Maygar VC, left, and an unidentified lieutenant seated in a rickshaw being transported by a behorned rickshaw runner in South Africa.

For his actions, he was awarded the Victoria Cross, which was presented to him by Lord Kitchener at Pretoria on 8 June 1902.

But Maygar’s soldiering days weren’t over. Returning to Australia, Maygar carried his commission into the 8th Light Horse Regiment and became a captain in the 16th (Indi) Light Horse Regiment in July 1912.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, lowering his age by four years to do so. He formed part of the advance party that established the light horse camp at Broadmeadows, and was made captain and posted as the commanding officer of B Squadron, 4th Light Horse Regiment.

“He went to see his brother on the last day before he went to the war to say goodbye,” Jill said.

“His brother, who was my mother’s father, was living at Mt Egerton … at Alexandra, and they went walking behind the mountain. Mum was allowed to go with them, but her little sister wasn’t, and her little sister was crying, and Uncle Leslie said, ‘Don’t worry, you can come walking with me when I get back.’ But he didn’t come back.”

A group portrait of officers of the 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade, at Hod Masaid. From left to right standing: Major Nicholas, General J R Royston DSO CMG, Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col) Todd DSO, Lt Col Maygar VC, Lt Col Scott DSO; Sitting: Captain Wilfrid Kent Hughes MC.

A group portrait of officers in Egypt. From left to right standing: Major Nicholas, General J R Royston DSO CMG, Lieutenant Colonel Todd DSO, Lt Col Maygar VC, Lt Col Scott DSO; Sitting: Captain Wilfrid Kent Hughes MC.

Sailing for Egypt in October 1914, Maygar took part in the fighting on Gallipoli the following year and was given command of the 8th Light Horse Regiment.

In command of the last party to withdraw from the trenches at Anzac Cove, he deemed the evacuation “a marvellous piece of military strategy”.

“You can feel proud of your Australian soldiers,” he wrote in a letter home. “The landing of our troops last April at Anzac was a magnificent achievement in every sense – but our withdrawal was a marvellous piece of military strategy, probably never equalled. We withdrew on the last two nights over 42,000 men from under the very nose of as brave and alert an enemy as ever troops had faced.”

Maygar continued to command the 8th Light Horse Regiment in its campaign against the Ottoman Turks in Sinai and Palestine, where he and his large grey charger became a familiar sight.

During the second battle of Gaza, on 19 April 1917, the 8th was suffering heavy casualties in an exposed sector. Maygar continued to ride about the battlefield all day on his grey charger, inspiring his men by his actions.

Maygar's Victoria Cross

Official historian Sir Henry Gullett later wrote: “It was a day when true leaders recognised that their men needed inspiration, and Maygar gave it in the finest manner … He had in every crisis stirred the spirit of his regiment by his example in the firing line. He was a true fighting commander.”

Maygar was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in June 1917 for his leadership during attacks at Magdhaba and Rafa, and was twice Mentioned in Despatches.

It would come to an end just a few months later. During the fighting at Beersheba on 31 October, the light horse regiments were troubled all day by German aircraft and suffered many casualties. That evening, Maygar received orders to retire his men to divisional headquarters. He had just returned to his column to do so when a German aircraft strafed them with machine-guns and bombs.

Maygar was hit, his arm was shattered, and his horse bolted, carrying him into the darkness. The horse was later recovered, but Maygar wasn’t with him. He was found during the night and taken to hospital where his arm was amputated. He was said to have rallied and was in good spirits, but suffered a haemorrhage, losing so much blood that he died in hospital the following morning. The 42-year-old was buried in the Beersheba War Cemetery.

His family was devastated by news of his death. A telegram was sent asking the local reverend to inform Maygar’s mother of his death. But she had died the previous year.

A portrait of Maygar during taken in Cairo during the First World War.

A portrait of Maygar during taken in Cairo during the First World War.

The grave and replacement wooden cross for Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col) Leslie Cecil Maygar, VC DSO MID VD

“There was a lot of tragedy in their lives,” Jill said. “When she was ill, some of the letters say she’s waiting for her son to return, but she didn’t see him again.”

Maygar’s friend, Lieutenant Colonel Archibald McGibbon McLaurin, later wrote to Maygar’s brother:  “He was one of the bravest and most capable officers we had.”

In November 1936 Lady Huntingfield, wife of the Governor of Victoria, dedicated an Avenue of Honour at Euroa consisting of 133 trees, each bearing a plaque in memory of a local man who had died in the First World War. Included in the avenue were three oaks, dedicated a year earlier by the governor in memory of the three local Victoria Cross recipients: Leslie Maygar, Frederick Tubb, and Alexander Burton. Today, there are three statues there in their honour.

The nearby Maygar Hill was named in his honour, as was Maygar Barracks in Broadmeadows, where he had trained men at the start of the First World War.

“Elsie” has he was affectionately known, had been a “true fighting commander”.

For valour retails at $79.99 and is available at the Australian War Memorial shop, online and at good bookstores nationally.