My grandfathers were both heroes to me
WITH Anzac Day approaching, I feel it is a good time to tell the stories of my two grandfathers and their part in the two world wars.
They are contrasting stories - one of a very successful military career, the other is one of the many tragic tales of bravery and tragic loss from World War I.
One, my paternal grandfather Lt. General Sir John Lavarack, is well known, although now fading from the memory of most people.
On the other hand my maternal grandfather, Lt. John Reid, is known only to family members, but his tragic story is well worth telling.
John Dudley Lavarack was one of 12 children of Cecil Wallace Lavarack, who came to Australia in about 1872.
He had been a British Army Major and in Brisbane he worked as a draftsman and later had a property near Julia Creek.
JD, as I will call him, was born in Brisbane in 1885 and attended Brisbane Grammar School where he was a top scholar and won prizes for mathematics.
He wanted to be a doctor, but his older sister Muriel was already at medical school and his father decided he could not afford the fees, so he joined the army at the age of 19 in 1905.
When the First War broke out he held the rank of Captain and was at a training course at the British Army Staff College at Camberley in England.
He served in the First World War as an artillery officer, initially as Brigade Major with the 22nd British Division in France and Macedonia, before being recalled to the AIF where he saw action in heavy fighting and was mentioned in dispatches on three occasions.
He ended the war as a Lieutenant Colonel with a DSO (Distinguished Service Order) and the French Croix de Guerre.
When the Second World War broke out in 1939 J.D. Lavarack, then a Lieutenant General in the regular army, pushed hard for the highest command but this went to Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Blamey, a militia or reserve officer who had had a controversial stint as Commissioner of Police in Victoria.
Blamey had been senior to Lavarack in the First World War.
It is hard now to understand the tensions between the militia and the regular Army at that time.
In some ways the militia had the higher popular standing and when the Prime Minister Robert Menzies, who had been a captain in the militia before the war, came to make a decision he favoured the militia.
Early in the war Lavarack took a voluntary drop in rank from Lieutenant General to Major General to enable him to take a field command. He served in North Africa where he set up the famous and highly effective defence of Tobruk.
He then was in charge of the successful Syrian campaign and later received a knighthood for his efforts in North Africa and Syria.
From all accounts he was a very able commander and was popular with the troops. However he was also noted for his fiery temper and an unwillingness to suffer fools gladly.
Unfortunately for him, some of the "fools" were in high positions.
In 1942 the threat from Japan saw him return to Australia. On arrival in Australia he ran afoul of Blamey (as many officers did).
The title of the biography on J.D. Lavarack by Brett Lodge is Rival General and that title tells the tale.
Blamey was wary of him, seeing him as a rival. Although both were competent, even brilliant soldiers, they were very different men. Blamey had a reputation for womanising and drinking, while Lavarack was straight-laced, strict and moral.
Their differences were more than professional - they detested each other. Blamey made sure that once back in Australia, Lavarack had only desk jobs and refused to give him a field command in New Guinea, where the action was.
Of course, to be fair, Lavarack was by now 57 years old and, although physically fit, it was thought that generals in the thick of the action should be 10 or 15 years younger than that.
He was appointed to the position of Commander of the First Australian Army, which was based in Toowoomba. This involved the defence of northern Australia and might have been an important command if the Japanese had invaded Australia.
However the successful campaigns at Milne Bay and the Kokoda Track, along with the crushing defeat of Japan by the U.S. Navy at Midway, soon removed any possibility this. The First Australian Army position was sidelined, with its key personnel sent to New Guinea and Lavarack found himself little more than a spectator to the historic events to the north.
In 1944, accepting his fate, he agreed to take a position as Head of the Australian Military Mission in Washington, where he stayed to the end of the war.
After the war he and Lady Lavarack returned to Australia where he retired from the army after 41 years on the active list. He was 61.
He was then appointed as Governor of Queensland, being officially sworn in on October 1, 1946. He was Queensland's 16th Governor and the first Australian born Governor of any State.
He held the office for almost 11years and died in retirement at Buderim in December 1957.
From all accounts, he was popular in the position, travelling widely throughout the state.
In those days the position of Governor was seen very differently to the way the public view it today. When Sir John and Lady Lavarack arrived to take up their position in 1946 there were 50,000 people lining the streets between Fortitude Valley and Parliament House to welcome them on their way to the official swearing in ceremony.
Today most Queenslanders could not name their Governor or would even bother to cross the road to see him or her.
John Cecil Drury Reid MC, my maternal grandfather, in contrast had a much shorter military career.
He was born in 1876 in Eaglehawk, Victoria, one of seven children of the Reverend John Bentley Reid and his wife Sybil.
One of his brothers, the Reverend Stanley Reid, was killed in the Boer War.
Reid was educated at Scotch College and went on to gain a Bachelor of Civil Engineering at Melbourne University. He later became a licensed mining surveyor.
In 1912 he married Jessie Philip and they had three children. The eldest, named after his brother Stanley, became a very successful surgeon and the youngest, Margaret Lyell Reid, was my mother.
On the outbreak of war Reid was a licensed land surveyor for the Federal Government involved in laying out the new capital city, Canberra.
He is described as being 5 ft 7 inches with fair hair and blue eyes.
In 1916 he was nearly 40 with two young children and had not enlisted in the war at that stage.
Family legend is that he received a white feather in the mail - an anonymous accusation of cowardice.
Whether for that reason or for another, he enlisted on February 22, 1916 and was given the rank of Second Lieutenant.
As an experienced engineer and mining surveyor, he was posted to the No. 5 Tunnelling Company. He attended the engineer officers' school of instruction in Sydney shortly after enlisting.
In October 1916, Reid transferred to the 4th Pioneer Battalion in France and was promoted to full lieutenant. Amongst other tasks, the Pioneers carried out dangerous work between the lines of trenches.
In June 1917, just a few weeks after he arrived in Europe, the 4th Pioneers were in the front line at Messines Ridge near Ypres.
On the afternoon of June 7, Reid was in charge of a reconnaissance party looking to establish a communication trench. They were in full view of the enemy and under heavy fire.
The reconnaissance party located the route for the trench and Reid returned with the party. The following evening he carried out the dangerous task in a different part of the frontline.
Two days later he took a party forward to undertake similar work, but this time he was wounded, shot in the head, and taken to a field dressing station.
As his men carried him out of the front line on a stretcher, he was conscious, and those who saw him did not think him in much pain. Nevertheless, he died at the dressing station that night.
For the fine example he set in establishing communication trenches in the most dangerous of situations, Reid was posthumously awarded the Military Cross. He was 41 years old.
A newspaper clipping in a family bible reads as follows:
Lt John Cecil Drury Reid Anzac Entrenching Btn. - For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in making a daring and successful reconnaissance, under heavy fire, in order to establish communication between certain important points. He performed similar valuable work on two subsequent occasions, on the latter of which he was seriously wounded.
His daughter Margaret (Peg), my mother, was born after he left for the war and never saw her father. The bereaved family was well looked-after, thanks largely to Legacy, and my grandmother was able to give her children a good education including university.
To her dying day my grandmother claimed that she saw an apparition of her husband in the hallway at the time he died.
Was his enlistment at the age of 40 really necessary and was, what reads today like a suicide mission, really necessary, especially as he had three young children to support?
But then, was anything in "the war to end all wars" really necessary?