Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 39

George Franki & Clyde Slatyer, Mad Harry: Australia’s most decorated soldier, Kangaroo Press, Sydney, 2003, xi + 276 pp., illustrations, maps, bibliography, index, soft cover, rrp A$29.95.

Reviewed by: NICK FLETCHER, Australian War Memorial

This book is the first published biography of one of Australia’s most courageous and successful fighting men. By the end of the First World War, during which he played a prominent role in nearly all of the 4th Australian Infantry Brigade’s actions at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, Harry Murray had received the Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Service Order (and Bar), the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the French Croix de Guerre. He was also made a Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George, and took the astonishing leap from Private in an infantry battalion in 1914 to Lieutenant Colonel in command of a machine-gun battalion in 1918. Like many old soldiers, Murray was reticent about his achievements, and after the war chose to live not in the city, but in a fairly remote part of north Queensland, where he shunned any form of recognition for his exploits. This has meant that, in contrast to his more widely known peers such as Albert Jacka and Joe Maxwell, he is a largely forgotten figure today, and the authors are to be congratulated for their efforts to restore to him some of the prominence to which he is entitled.

The work is based upon a comparatively small number of useful sources (official and regimental histories, unit diaries, etc), supplemented by an even smaller number of writings by Murray himself and some of his contemporaries. While this technique generally works well, the unfortunate failure of the 4th Machine Gun Battalion to produce a history of its exploits is reflected in the somewhat sketchy coverage of Murray’s actions during 1918. His role in the AIF’s major battles earlier in the war is addressed in varying detail, with Poziéres, Bullecourt and Stormy Trench (Flers - Gueudecourt, where Murray earned his VC in February 1917) being covered and analysed in some depth, as would be expected. The 4th Brigade’s ill-fated attack on Hill 971 at Gallipoli, and its 1917 actions at Messines and Passchendaele are, however, rather skimmed over. This is a book in which the famous names of the AIF figure large, with colour supplied by legendary figures such as Charles Bean, Ted Rule and George Mitchell.

Much attention is paid to Murray’s many virtues as a soldier and as a man, but very little to such failings as he may have had. The authors, conscious of potential criticism that the biographies of perfect men make dull reading, point out that “…to his World War I comrades he was a great hero; to his wife he was ‘the most wonderful husband’; to his children he was a loved and respected father; to his neighbours in the Queensland bush and the young soldiers of World War II he was ‘The Colonel’, a much admired figure.” All of which is undoubtedly true, but to suggest that Murray’s life was entirely devoid of problems or errors of judgment is to dehumanise him. His evidently unhappy childhood in Tasmania and his early working life in Western Australia, his relationships with women during the war (when as a highly decorated hero he was undoubtedly the object of much attention), and his unsuccessful first marriage, are all aspects worthy of greater attention than they receive here.

The photographs, largely borrowed from the family, are excellent, although the image purporting to have been taken of Murray as a member of the Launceston Artillery in around 1905 appears to actually show him in the uniform of a private in the 16th Battalion AIF, and may have been taken in Egypt in 1915. The maps are unfortunately poor, both from the point of view of clarifying the actions which they illustrate, and of their positioning in the book. The inclusion, as an appendix, of all of Murray’s 1930s writings for the NSW RSL journal Reveille, however, will be a welcome bonus to the many who do not have access to this most valuable of publications. Overall, Mad Harry is an enjoyable and readable book, and a bold attempt, given the scarcity of records, to reconstruct the life of a very gallant Australian.