Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 38

Peter S. Sadler, The paladin: a life of Major-General Sir John Gellibrand, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2000, x + 310 pp., illustrations, maps, bibliography, index, hard cover, rrp A$39.95

Reviewed by: CHRIS CLARK, Australian War Memorial

John Gellibrand was a Tasmanian-born Briton who initially sought to make his career in the British army. His plan started out well, seeing him win first place in the entrance examination for Sandhurst and graduating top of his class in 1893. After initially stewing about whether he would get to South Africa in time to see any action, he did reach there and fought well – even if it was without winning special distinction. As a captain he took more than the usual interest in his profession, cultivating habits of thought and expression which made him stand out in an officer corps which was not notably intellectual. He was selected for Staff College, and on graduation in 1907 went to Ceylon, where he served several years in a frustrating staff appointment before quitting the army in April 1912 to grow fruit at Risdon, outside Hobart.

Two and a half years later came the First World War. Surprisingly, the British army was not in a hurry to get him back. Nor was Australia especially eager to have him, even though it faced enormous problems finding officers for the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), the expeditionary contingent which it had offered to raise for overseas service. In the whole of the Australian peacetime forces there were only eight staff college graduates, and two of these were officers on secondment from the British army. Even when his services were taken up, with an appointment to the headquarters staff of the newly-raised 1st Australian Division, Gellibrand found his experience and advice frequently devalued or ignored. He was very much a friendless figure in the club-like atmosphere of Australia’s small military establishment.

Despite being something of an outsider, and clashing frequently with his irascible divisional chief, Major General William Bridges, Gellibrand advanced steadily within the officer ranks of the AIF. He seems to have found life more congenial on the staff of the 2nd Division, to which he was transferred in the middle of the Gallipoli campaign, although the author of this biography does not examine why he evidently flourished when his new divisional commander, Major General Gordon Legge, was, by most other accounts, a driving workaholic. Perhaps there was mutual intellectual respect. His opportunity for command of a battalion came in the month that Gallipoli was evacuated, and by March 1916 – following the doubling of the AIF – Gellibrand was a temporary brigadier general leading his own infantry brigade, the 6th. There have been suggestions that, as a staff-trained ex-regular whose skills were at a premium in a volunteer army like Australia’s, his progress ought to have been even more rapid. On the other hand, Gellibrand’s rise was almost exactly paralleled by other contemporaries with like qualifications: Duncan John Glasfurd being a case in point.

Not unnaturally, Gellibrand aspired to command of a division of his own. The opportunity nearly came in January 1917, but a bout of influenza and problems with his teeth robbed him of appointment on that occasion. Instead he found himself under a new GOC at 2nd Division, Major General Neville Smyth, a VC-adorned British officer with whom he was again out of sympathy. While he could not understand Smyth, he found he totally despised the division’s chief of staff , Lieutenant-Colonel A. H. Bridges (actually a cousin of his first AIF chief), whom he privately referred to as a “swine”. There are hints that Gellibrand understood that his name was under consideration for divisional command on other occasions, but the appointment did not finally come until May 1918, six months before the Armistice, when he took over the 3rd Division upon John Monash’s assumption of command of the Australian Corps.

Even if the prize of a division came late in the war for him, Gellibrand undoubtedly was a figure who merits a scholarly study such as this one. In the 30 months he had on the Western Front, he fought his way through 14 engagements at brigade and divisional level. His performance attracted many admirers, among them Australia’s official historian Charles Bean, who intended to write Gellibrand’s biography himself until forced to abandon the idea because of other commitments and his own bad health.

It has fallen to Peter Sadler, a British-born ex-regular soldier and officer in the Australian army, to carry the project to fruition. Sadly, Sadler died last year after a lengthy battle with cancer, but it can be said that his efforts have done full justice to the subject. The author came to the serious study of history only after retiring in 1983, enrolling at the Australian National University in 1987, where he completed an honours degree five years later. As a writer, he has brought to this project a deep knowledge of military organisation, life and practices, along with professional understanding of tactical considerations, and matched this with incisive analysis of documentary and other historical sources. The result is an outstanding work, which this reader found lucid and illuminating.

The story which Sadler produces out of the life of Gellibrand is thorough and balanced, and brings the reader to an understanding of the makeup of this complex character. We see Gellibrand as a young man, slow to shed some indolent habits acquired in his “bohemian” teenage years, and as a less-than-diligent subaltern who frequently overslept, missed parades and appointments, and displayed slackness in performing administrative tasks. When taken with an annoying and baffling sense of humour, and a view of himself as an outsider in the military system which caused him to loathe life in the officers mess, we can appreciate more fully the reasons for his lack of progress in the British army. The same cachet hung about him in the AIF, based on his supposedly rustic uniform and fixed ideas. In truth, Sadler suggests, Gellibrand was simply living close to his men, but it gave scope for jealous enemies – including that famous paragon of military virtue, Brudenell White – to ridicule a figure they genuinely feared as a potential rival.

One feature of Gellibrand’s ideas upon which the author particularly comments, more than once, is the chivalrous ideal on which the young Gellibrand consciously modelled himself, embodied in the mythical example of the paladins. These were the twelve legendary peers or famous warriors of Charlemagne’s court in medieval times, and their exploits are celebrated in the French romantic epics known as chansons de geste, which focus on Charlemagne as the champion of Christianity and chivalry. In English, the term has come to carry the same meaning as “Knight of the Round Table”, referring to a knight-errant or hero. According to Sadler, the personal philosophy based on paladin ideals which Gellibrand developed was to serve him throughout his life. It’s a charming explanation for the way that Gellibrand viewed and judged the world and the conduct of those around him. But it does not mean that everything he attempted was nobly inspired or had heroic outcomes.

His performance as public service commissioner in post-war Tasmania was, frankly, dismal, as was his period as chief commissioner of police in Victoria. Although the machinations of politicians played a part in both instances, there was little point to Gellibrand trying to maintain a principled position on the moral high ground. Being a successful figure in public office means making things work, achieving as much as is possible in the circumstances, not simply throwing up one’s hands in disgust and resigning when one’s advice is ignored. Judged on this standard, Gellibrand showed none of the skill, resourcefulness or determination he had previously mustered on a different field of conflict, and he can be fairly criticized as a failure. Even less astute was his time in politics; little wonder the electors of Denison threw him out after a single term.

More credible, especially in light of his paladin philosophy, was Gellibrand’s work for the Legacy movement. His role in founding the Remembrance Club in Hobart in 1922 was the inspiration for the network of clubs which subsequently arose to care for widows and children of deceased servicemen. It was Bean who later wrote that “there was a time when some of thought that the best monument to John Gellibrand might be the story of Second Bullecourt. Now I feel there will be an even better – the record of Legacy.” Both on the field of battle and off, Gellibrand was a figure who deserves to be better recognized and understood by Australians. This important book achieves that goal admirably.