Title: The Paladin – A Life of Major-General Sir John Gellibrand
Author: Sadler, Peter
Edition: 1st Edition
Publication Date: 2000
Cover: Hard Cover with Dust Jacket – 310 pages
Comments: The biography of Major-General Sir John Gellibrand.
Sir John Gellibrand (1872-1945) served as a divisional commander in the Australian army during World War One.
Born on 5 December 1872 in Leintwarden in Tasmania the son of a landowner and politician, Gellibrand was brought to England by his mother in 1876 upon the death of his father.
Educated in both England and Frankfurt-am-Main (in Germany), Gellibrand was admitted to Sandhurst in 1882, thus beginning his eventful, if sometimes interrupted, military service.
Graduating at the top of his class at Sandhurst Gellibrand’s outspoken unconventionality nevertheless succeeded in alienating him from both his contemporaries as well as those in senior positions.
Thus despite serving with distinction during the South African War of 1899-1902 he was unexpectedly placed on half-pay in 1912 following a wave of army reductions. He chose to leave the army rather than remain as a half-pay officer.
Having settled albeit temporarily as a farmer he immediately offered his services when war broke out in August 1914. Sixteen days later, on 20 August 1914, he was appointed to the Australian Imperial Force with the rank of Captain and assigned the post of Deputy Assistant Quartermaster General with William Bridge’s 1st Division.
Eventually winding up in Gallipoli via Egypt, Gellibrand drew the ire of Bridges for his apparent inability to organise an officer’s mess of sufficient quality. It is feasible that Gellibrand – whose staff-work Bridges also faulted – may have been broken by Bridges but for the latter’s fatal wound at the hands of a Turkish sniper on 15 May 1915.
Wounded himself by the fragments of an exploding shell Gellibrand returned to Anzac Cove following a spell of recuperation on 31 May 1915, 13 days following Bridge’s death. Transferred to 2nd Division in Egypt the following month he returned to Gallipoli with them in September 1915.
Suffering typhoid for the second time in October 1915 (having first been taken ill during the Boer War) Gellibrand was evacuated for the briefest of recuperation before returning on 23 October. For his ongoing services at Gallipoli Gellibrand was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) medal.
December 1915 brought Gellibrand promotion to Lieutenant Colonel and command of 1st Division’s 12th Battalion, ultimately destined for Egypt. March 1916 saw Gellibrand promoted again, to full Colonel and as temporary Brigadier-General. He was given command of 6th Brigade on the specific request of divisional commander General Legge, whom Gellibrand had greatly impressed while at Gallipoli.
On 10 April Gellibrand’s 6th Brigade entered the lines of the Western Front. Gellibrand was soon afterwards wounded by a German shell which struck close to his HQ on 31 May. Following recuperation in England he returned to the line on 28 June 1916 in time for the Somme Offensive.
His 6th Battalion fought at Pozieres and although praised for their efficiency Gellibrand himself drew criticism for placing his HQ several kilometres behind the front line.
January 1917 brought a fresh promotion, to Brevet Colonel. He was also nominated acting commander of 2nd Division until early March 1917. Shortly afterwards the British Fifth Army commander Sir Hugh Gough gave Gellibrand and Pompey Elliott command of two semi-autonomous brigade groups. Elliott performed well but Gellibrand accepted much criticism for the ensuing disastrous Battle of Bullecourt, although his own conduct earned him a bar to add to his DSO.
Gellibrand’s command failure at Bullecourt severely dented Australian commander General Birdwood’s faith in Gellibrand, who subsequently asked to be relieved of command; Birdwood duly obliged. He was sent to command of AIF depots sited in Britain, where he went on to earn praise for his training methods.
Returning to the Western Front in November 1917 Gellibrand was handed command of 12th Infantry Brigade, which performed well at Dernancourt in April 1918 in halting the German advance.
Surprisingly appointed to a divisional command on 30 May 1918 – over the head of the arguably better suited (if insufferable to authority) Pompey Elliott – Gellibrand was given 3rd Division by Birdwood. Although Birdwood himself doubted the wisdom of giving Gellibrand a division (and was particularly horrified at Gellibrand’s practice of dressing as a private soldier) he nevertheless accepted the advice of Major-General Cyril White.
In line with his new command Gellibrand was accordingly promoted Major-General on 1 June 1918. Despite the misgivings of Birdwood and former divisional commander Sir John Monash, and Gellibrand’s frequent disagreements with the latter, he nevertheless performed well in his new role.
Following the armistice Gellibrand was knighted by King George V on 1 January 1919, afterwards returning to Tasmania where he served in local government positions.
In 1921 while in Melbourne Gellibrand was appointed to command of 3rd Division, retaining the position until his return to Tasmania the following year.
He entered Federal politics in November 1925 and was elected to represent Denison; however he suffered electoral defeat in both 1928 and 1929, after which he returned to his pre-war farming career.
Gellibrand was occasionally consulted during the 1930s by Prime Ministers Lyons and Menzies regarding defence matters; Gellibrand remained committed to a strong national defence and increased army.
The Second World War brought Gellibrand an appointment as commander of the Victorian Volunteer Defence Corps in June 1940, although ill-health caused him to retire the following month.
He died on 3 June 1945 aged 72.