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Wednesday, 11 May 1921

Senator ELLIOTT (Victoria) . - I. think it is my duty to take this opportunity of replying to the attack which has just been made upon me by the Minister for Defence (Senator Pearce). The order to which the Minister has referred has been taken from my brigade records. I was, the' officer responsible, for placing it there, and that fact alone proves that I was in no sense ashamed of it.. I remind honorable . senators that at that very time we had received . a direct order from General Haig that every man must, if necessary, die in his tracks. Further, I had made representations to the British authorities that the manner in which the British troops . who were holding VillersBretonneux were disposed would lead to sudden disaster, and it was obvious to me that they, could not hold on to VillersBretonneux if attacked. Their . position at' that time was the key of the whole, situation in France, and on them, and. us in.. a sense the fate of the. allied, armies in . France, in, a. . large,. measure depended. On one hand my own brigade lay. in.;the valley of the Somme, and. on the other lay the French left in the valley of the Luce, near Hangs ard.-If the German forces had succeeded in holding. VillersBretpnneux . they would have driven a wedge between the French, and British, and the only course that remained would have been for the British to retreat to the coast and then embark for Bordeaux and join up again with the French forces, abandoning Paris to the enemy. That was unthinkable. About 4 o'clock in the morning the barrage opened up, and I issued orders for my men to fall in under arms. At that time the British troops started to stream back in utter rout, and at 9 o'clock in the morning an effort was made to stem the panic because there, was a, great danger of the British troops sweeping away with them many of my own men. Any one not accustomed to military operations, will" find it difficult to realize what really happens when a panic once commences. It was necessary 'for a time to prevent my men from taking; the -law- into their own hands- and opening fire on -the retreating men, whom they regarded as. -cowards. It.-was-at that, time that I issued" the order" mentioned,, and, strange as if may seem to the Minister for Defence, we had not to fire a. single shot, but . merely approached the men, and in front of the pistol compelled them. to fall' in. They did so, and the colonel of the British regiment, who. had failed- to rally, his men, came to meand himself recommended the two officers' intrusted with the task for the Military Cross for the magnificent work they had performed in rallying his troops.

Senator Pearce - I am not cavilling at the order issued.-

Senator ELLIOTT - It was quoted inan endeavour to discredit me.

Senator Pearce - It was . merely quoted' to show that you. do not believe in a trial.

Senator ELLIOTT -It was my. duty to act as I did in that instance because it was. a case of extreme urgency. I wasquite aware that, if my officers acted on. that order,. I tried for. murder, and I mentioned, that- in- my- report; I would;, however, have -been.- in a position., to., appeal.- to His; Majesty- the King . for a remission of'- the: 'sentence orfor a free pardon. .

Senator Duncan - Were these -British ' troops under your command?' '

Senator ELLIOTT - No ; they were holding the front, on my. right, and, -as I have mentioned, there was a great danger - of my troops being swept away- with -them- in the panic. When these British troops were rallied by our men they fought bravely; but it was necessary at first to take the most drastic steps to stop the panic that had commenced. I am ready, if the Minister for Defence thinks I committed an offence,- to be tried by any Court which he may select.

Senator Pearce - I have not suggested that.'

Senator ELLIOTT - At the same time as I communicated the order to my junior officers I sent a copy of it by wire to my Divisional General,, and my superior officer held it before him for four hours until the work was done, and then by direction of General Birdwood it was cancelled. Possibly, because it was hoped that then any record to the discredit of the British Army would be wiped out.

Senator Rowell - Is the British Army such a rotten Army?

Senator ELLIOTT - The British Army is just as good as any other Army, but at certain times the best of armies are subject to panic.

Senator Rowell - Does it not apply to all armies?

Senator ELLIOTT -Yes. My action was necessary at an extremely critical time to prevent the panic extending to our own troops. Those who are familiar with the history of the Peninsular Wars will remember that the famous Light Division, said to be the most famous body of disciplined troops that has ever existed, was on one occasion seized with sudden panic, and fled. Therefore, knowing my military history, I was prepared, even with my own troops - there were none finer in the world - to act as I did, because I knew that the whole German Army was coming, on, and there was every possibility of a general rout. Moreover, we had received an order from General Haig that every man must die where hestood rather than retreat. I took the law into my own hands, although I was liable to be tried for murder.

Senator Cox - You did not take much risk.

Senator ELLIOTT - I was taking a great risk under the law. The order which the Minister mentioned was actually adopted by the British authori ties as the order for the attack on Villers:Bretonneux and they actually took credit for it by the publication of a congratulatory order in which it was stated that "the idea so brilliantly conceived by the staff of the 3rd Corps (British) was ably and gallantly carried out by the 8th British Division, assisted by the Australians."

Senator Duncan - If that situation were justified, then the Minister for Defence is justified in submitting this clause.

Senator ELLIOTT - He is not. That was necessary during a crisis, and if I could not have justified my action I would have been tried by court martial for murder. Supposing any of those men who were running away had been tried by court martial and sentenced to death, I think that they should have had the right to appeal, because when I made' further inquiries I found that some of them were ordered by their officers to run away. It is, therefore, quite clear that some of them would have had a good' case.

Senator Pearce - If you had shot one of those men it would have been for obeying an order.

SenatorELLIOTT. - It was necessary under the circumstances, and he would have been shot by my order for refusing to obey the later order, which cancelled his previous order to retire.

Senator PRATTEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - What would have happened if you and your men had run away ?

Senator ELLIOTT - I imagine that the Germans . would have been in Paris pretty soon.

Senator Gardiner - That was the opinion of the Minister for Defence at the time.

Senator Pearce - I am not condemning the order.

Senator ELLIOTT - It is an old saying that necessity knows no law, and that was one occasion on which I had to act promptly; but that must not be taken as a precedent. Such extreme action could only be justified by extreme necessity. I think honorable senators will realize that there is no analogy between the case submitted by the Minister and the point I have been arguing on. In the circumstances I have outlined, it was necessary to act promptly, and I did so, realizing that I would be responsible for whatever orders I issued.

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