The Soldiers' General
Newport, NSW: Big Sky Publishing, 2020
Hardback 424pp RRP $34.99
Reviewer: Mike O’Brien, November 2020
It’s marvellous that biographies of Australia’s senior commanders in the First World War are now being published. This volume, in the series promoted by the Army History Unit, is the second biography of the ill-fated General Officer Commanding of the 4th Australian Division. William Holmes was killed in action in France while conducting a visit to his front line by the Premier of New South Wales, William Holman. He was the most senior Australian killed in action in that war – he was the antithesis of a ‘château general’.
The earlier biography William Holmes: secretary and soldier: a first biography (2016) was written by B. H. Travers, the uncle of the present author. Geoffrey Travers is the great grandson of William Holmes. This is indeed a family affair.
You can be certain that a biography sponsored by the Army History Unit is disciplined and accurate and this volume does not depart from that norm. It adds mush to the earlier volume.
Holmes had an extensive career in Sydney’s water authority and was an enthusiastic citizen soldier. Unlike Monash, he volunteered for the Boer War and served with distinction in the early phases of that conflict. On the outbreak of the First World War he was appointed to command the Australian Naval & Military Expeditionary Force which successfully neutralised the German forces in Rabaul. He was the victim of a poor interface between military forces and their political masters – an event deserving of close study by both such authorities with implications right up to the present day.
After returning from New Britain Holmes was appointed to command the 5th Brigade which he took to Egypt and to Gallipoli in August 1915. He continued this command in France, notably at the Battle of Pozières in 1916. At the end of that year he was promoted to the command of the 4th Division. Throughout he continued his habit of close reconnaissance of the front lines, on one occasion taking over or a sniper’s role.
Holmes commanded the division during the very difficult battles at Bullecourt and then moved with it to Messines. While conducting a tour of the area for the Premier of New South Wales (William Holman) he was struck by shrapnel from a German shell, dying soon afterwards.
Holmes was a successful citizen soldier, leader and commander and leader at brigade and divisional level. This book contrasts his leadership style with that of Monash - a discussion of great interest. Would Holmes otherwise have progressed to corps command?
This is a well-written biography that deserves close study by military professionals. General Holmes deserves to be remembered for his significant achievements.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.