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Thursday, 28 April 1921

Senator ELLIOTT - I want honorable senators to clearly understand that my remarks this afternoon were based, in the main, on statements made to me by officers. I cannot, of course, vouch for their absolute accuracy, as I had no means of investigating . them. I only know that the statements made to me by Colonel Peck were confirmed by Jacka, and that the essential fact to be borne in mind is that, whereas Jacka, up to a certain stage in the history of the Australian Imperial Force, was marked out for rapid advancement and decoration, he suddenly disappeared from the ken of the military gazettes, although he was fighting all the time in the front line. The Minister may deny these statements, or say that even if they are correct they do not show that General Birdwood was responsible. If this is so, it is advisable that, if ever we send 'our men away again, the officer in command of them should have very wide powers to refuse to carry out any manifestly impossible orders.I have heard it stated that General Birdwood knew that the action to which I have referred was hopeless from the beginning, but, nevertheless, ithad to be carried out.

Senator PRATTEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - If that is so, does not it show a great want of character in General Birdwood?

Senator ELLIOTT - I am not going to discuss General Birdwood's character on this measure. I say that an officer can and shouldprotest if called on to attempt impossible attacks. I have done so on two occasions. I received orders to make an attack which was manifestly impossible. Being in the front line with the men, I could see it was impracticable, so I rang up my divisional commander, and said, " You are ordering me to do the impossible. If I am to carry out your orders, I want you to send them to me in writing, to relieve me from all responsibility, and also to relieve me from my command in the event of the. order having to be carried out." I know that time after time officers were damned because they were compelled to carry out orders that were utterly impossible, and I may point out that Marshal Foch has laid it down that no general should order his troops to attack until every battalion com- mander in the front line is satisfied that the attack will be successful. After all, the men who are the best judges are those who are on the spot, not men 25 and 30 miles back from the front lines in a magnificent chateau, and with the fat of the land available to them. As a rule, they know nothing about the position in the front line at all. However, I will leave this subject now, and confinemyself to the amendment.

This power to supersede disheartens and disgusts officers. Yesterday Senator Pearce said that two officers who were senior to me had also been superseded, but had raised no objection. . That statement was absolutely false. I do not say that the Minister knowingly made a false statement, but it was false, nevertheless. General McNicoll, one of the officers referred to by the Minister is my oldest friend in military and civil life. In fact, I selected General McNicoll to join the Australian Imperial Force. I knew what a magnificent officer he was. He was in the Reserves at Geelong and I said to him, " Look here, Mac, I have been appointed to a battalion command. Will you come as my second ? " He said " Certainly." And so we went away together. We both fell early in the war- I was shot at the landing, and he a few days later, only whereas my wound was comparatively slight, and I was able to get back into the field again within four weeks, he was shot through the stomach; and the bullet went into the thigh nailing his pelvis to his thigh joint. The result was that he had to face six very painful and difficult operations, and for months ivaa at death's door. The King took such an interest in his case that he sent the Duke of Teck to present General McNicoll with the D.S.O., because it was believed then that the final operation would be fatal. However, he was tremendously tough, and after the operation had given him relief, he was soon on his feet again, though permanently lame, and was able to resume his duties. At about this time the 3rd Division was raised, and 'he was appointed to the command of a. brigade. By some accident - I do not know how H happened - McNicoll's promotion to a full colonel was dated one month antecedent to my own, although I started out as a colonel and he as a major, and, as I have shown, I had been fighting almost continuously whilst he was in hospital. When the orders came out I said to him, "Mac, this is not fair; I have to salute you now, and take your orders." In 'his reply he said, " Yes, it does seem funny, and if you care to make representations, I shall be satisfied to have the matter put light." I approached General Birdwood, but he absolutely refused to make any alteration, although it was easily within his power to have the date altered.

Senator Pearceyesterday said that General McNicoll raised no objection to supersession; and his statement is absolutely, false. By a strange coincidence, I found a letter from General McNicoll on my table last night, written from Goulburn, New South Wales, and the following is an extract : -

Herewith a note of mutual good wishes on the sixth anniversary of Anzac. I was delighted -to see that at lost a voice had been raised publicly against the "close, corporation," and I must- congratulate you on your speech in the House last night. ... I hare -never recovered from having stood up for a decent thing.

The latter sentence is a reference bo our joint protest made at the -time, for, like myself, he felt it hard that he should have been superseded by General Gellibrand. He saw General White, who said, " General Gellibrand has been in the field all the time, while you have been in hospital, so he. has very much more experience." General- White quite suppressed the fact that during the major portion of the time General Gellibrand was at Salisbury Plain, in England, though he fought at Pozieres and Bullecourt, and in several intermediate and minor engagements, while General McNicoll went through the great Messines1 Ridge engagement under General Monash, and fought through the bitter and successful battle of Polygon Wood, also at Passchendaele. As a matter of fact, it was his brigade that was chiefly responsible for checking the Germans on the Somme in the first in. stance in March, 1918. Therefore he had all the latest information as to successful attacks ; but all this was brushed aside. After his unsuccessful interview, McNicoll came to me and said, "What can we do? Can we write a joint letter to the Minister?" Now, I am a lawyer, and so I said to him, "Look here, , you will have both of us court martialled if we do that. We are each at liberty to write a letter to the Minister, but if we write a joint letter to him we shall bo guilty of mutiny."

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