ELLIOTT, Harold Edward (1878–1931)
Senator for Victoria, 1920–31 (Nationalist Party)

Harold Edward Elliott, was born at West Charlton in north-west Victoria on 19 June 1878. He was the fifth of eight children of Thomas Elliott and his wife Helen, née Janverin, who had arrived in Victoria during the gold rushes of the 1850s. Thomas and Helen, both English-born, married at St Michael’s Church of England, Talbot, in 1867 and settled in nearby Cockatoo. After years of adventurous gold-seeking had produced meagre returns, Thomas selected a block of land five miles from Charlton and switched to farming, which he found just as arduous and unremunerative. Young Harold grew up in an impoverished environment dominated by the perpetual struggle to extract a living from the soil. Life was a constant battle against the elements; bushfires, snakes, rabbits and too much or too little water were just some of them. He acquired a rudimentary primary education at the one-teacher outpost at West Charlton known as the Rock Tank School.

In 1894 his life was transformed. His father, who had never lost his fascination with the pursuit of gold, had ventured to Western Australia, where he ‘struck it rich in a big way’. Thomas purchased a stately residence, ‘Elsinore’, in Ballarat and the whole family moved there the following year, when Harold and his younger brothers began attending Ballarat College. Having been unexpectedly plucked from rural poverty and presented with a marvellous opportunity, Harold was determined to make the most of it.

Supplementing considerable aptitude with great dedication, he excelled scholastically at Ballarat College and in 1897 was dux of the school. At the University of Melbourne, where he resided at Ormond College, he again demonstrated that he could harness his above-average intellect with exceptional self-discipline and powers of concentration. In 1906 he crowned the successful completion of his law degree with the award of the Supreme Court prize for the top final-year student. He was called to the Victorian Bar in 1907. (In 1920 he completed his BA and LL M.)

Elliott was interested in sport—football and athletics principally—but his main recreational activity during these years was his involvement in military pursuits. He had a passionate interest in all aspects of soldiering. He read widely about military history, participated purposefully in peacetime defence units, and dreamed about emulating the feats of the great commanders of the past. During the Boer War he interrupted his scholarly endeavours at the university to serve in South Africa. Enlisting as a private, he returned as a lieutenant with the Distinguished Conduct Medal, which he had been awarded for a particularly daring exploit.

On 27 December 1909 Elliott married Catherine Frazer Campbell, under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church, at the Melbourne suburb of Northcote. They had two children, Violet Isabel in 1911 and Neil Campbell the following year. Now a partner in the firm of solicitors, Roberts and Elliott, he attained the rank of lieutenant colonel in Australia’s militia forces. A conventional middle-class conservative, he read the Argus and agreed with its advocacy of free trade rather than the protectionist views of the more progressive Age. He supported the White Australia policy. Like many other Protestants of Anglo-Scottish descent, he was inclined to be suspiciously hostile to Roman Catholics.[1]

At the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Elliott enlisted immediately and was away for almost five years. He returned as Brigadier General ‘Pompey’ Elliott, a household name, after commanding the 7th Battalion at Gallipoli and the 15th Brigade at the Western Front. The nickname, which he acquired early in the war, endured for the rest of his life; it was derived from a well-known pre-war footballer in Melbourne, Fred ‘Pompey’ Elliott (no relation).

His reputation as one of the AIF’s most famous commanders was founded on his capacity and temperament. He was intelligent, well informed, energetic and decisive. His own bravery was exceptional, but he was vigilant and frank when assessing the advisability of proposed enterprises involving the men under him. It became an article of faith that he would never send a man anywhere he was not prepared to go himself. Emotional and tempestuous, he was also a real character. Anecdotes about him flourished, amusing the men he led and sometimes disconcerting his superiors.

In April 1915 he was wounded at the Gallipoli landing, and rejoined the 7th Battalion in June. In the desperate fighting at Lone Pine in August his battalion performed outstandingly; four of his men were awarded the Victoria Cross. Promoted to brigadier in 1916, he protested with characteristic forcefulness about the inadequacies, in his opinion, of three of the four battalion commanders allotted to his brigade. Having arrived at the Western Front, he saw his carefully prepared brigade butchered in an appallingly botched attack at Fromelles, which he had opposed and tried to prevent. This disaster affected him profoundly, but he soldiered on and rebuilt the brigade once more. His fine leadership was particularly evident at the battle of Polygon Wood, where his brigade overcame severe difficulties arising from the retreat of a British unit and, according to the historian C. E. W. Bean, ‘snatched complete success from an almost desperate situation’. It was, Bean continued, ‘the driving force of this stout-hearted leader’ that ‘was in a large measure responsible for this victory’. His crowning achievement as a commander was his prominent role in the famous counter-attack at Villers-Bretonneux in April 1918.

Elliott was devastated to learn in May 1918 that three other brigadiers had been preferred to him for promotion to divisional command. He was overlooked, despite his outstanding record, because of what his superiors regarded as his intermittently erratic judgment. Pompey nursed this deeply felt and enduring grievance, which he referred to as his supersession, while leading his brigade with customary fire until the end of the war. He arrived back in Melbourne in mid-1919. Later that year Nationalist representatives invited a number of prominent soldiers to stand as candidates at the next federal election.[2]

To the Nationalist powerbrokers Pompey was a highly desirable recruit. He had appropriately conservative political attitudes. His extraordinary popularity among returned soldiers and their families was underlined by the rapturous receptions he was given at the various welcome home functions he attended. And his political usefulness was also demonstrated after a disturbing incident in July when Harry Lawson, the Victorian Premier, was invaded in his office by an angry group of returned soldiers, one of whom hurled an inkstand at him. Pompey played a leading role in pacifying the aggrieved soldiers. Senior Nationalist strategists were concerned about the volatility and disruptive tendencies of the returned soldiers. They were keen to make use of leaders such as Elliott, who had sound, ‘right-thinking’ views as well as popularity and influence in AIF circles.

Pompey was flattered, but wary. The year 1919 was a worrying one for many Australians, who were understandably concerned about the Spanish influenza pandemic, widespread industrial unrest, bitter political conflict and the thousands of soldiers struggling to adjust to their peacetime circumstances. In this unsettling environment Elliott felt he could make a worthwhile contribution. However, the way the party system required politicians to commit themselves in advance to numerous detailed policies was abhorrent to him. ‘If any one wants me to stand for Parliament’, he told a friend in August, ‘they must have sufficient confidence in me as an honest man to trust me to run straight without binding me or attempting to bind me body and soul’. The Nationalist strategists were not deterred. The risk that Elliott might take an independent stance on some issues was outweighed by the electoral advantages accruing from his reputation as a charismatic, courageous commander.

The strategists were sufficiently flexible for him to acquiesce, although another factor may have affected his decision. As recorded by his friend, Frank Green, Elliott confided years afterwards that part of the stimulus for him to stand for the Senate in 1919 was to join a group secretly committed to supporting S. M. Bruce as party leader rather than W. M. Hughes, then Prime Minister. While this is an intriguing notion, there is no doubt that Elliott felt acutely motivated to do what he could to assist returned soldiers, and was influenced by the encouragement he received from many of them to go into Parliament to help ‘fix things up’. Nevertheless one 7th Battalion veteran urged him to avoid Parliament because it was ‘no place for an honest man’.

His campaign tour around Victoria was an odd mixture. There were tumultuous reunions with soldiers who had served under him interspersed with less exhilarating meetings of the political variety, where he laboured in workmanlike fashion through essentially the same lacklustre speech in every district. But the election result confirmed the wisdom of the Nationalists’ strategy. Not only did he top the poll himself; his candidature was instrumental in the election of his colleagues, Frank Guthrie and Ted Russell, giving the Nationalists success in all three Senate vacancies in Victoria.[3]

Entering the Senate in July 1920, Elliott lost no time in living up to his pre-election assertions about his political independence. He called on the Government to ‘revise drastically’ some of its proposals to overhaul public service administration, on one occasion coming up against another lawyer, Senator Keating, over definitions of terms used in the legislation. In August Elliott moved an amendment to the War Service Homes Bill, managing to convince the Minister for Repatriation, Senator E. D. Millen, that the amendment was necessary. The amended clause meant that returned soldiers who had commenced building their houses before the bill’s enactment would not be disadvantaged.

In October he and Guthrie vigorously denounced the expenditure on Canberra proposed by the Government. Amid testy exchanges with Nationalist colleagues Elliott declared: ‘I feel so strongly upon this matter that I have no desire to sit behind the Ministry if they are going to incur this expenditure. I would rather form a party of my own’. Elliott did not carry out this threat, but did rapidly establish a reputation for outspokenness in Parliament. This was dramatically reinforced the following year. Embittered by being again passed over for a divisional vacancy (this time in the postwar militia force), Elliott vented his spleen in a series of extraordinary Senate speeches during debate on the Government’s amending Defence Bill. Pompey repeatedly had his Senate colleagues, who included several fellow generals, on the edge of their seats as he lifted the lid on numerous controversial anecdotes about his wartime experiences and made some remarkable allegations about certain AIF individuals. He was repeatedly scathing about the leaders he blamed for his supersession, the AIF commander General Birdwood and his influential chief staff officer, Brudenell White.

Elliott made headlines when he alleged in the Senate on 21 April 1921 that he had been overlooked for promotion in 1918, after being the chief architect of the stunningly successful Australian counter-attack at Villers‑Bretonneux. He claimed this was because of an earlier incident during those desperate days of defence against the ominous German onslaught. He described how he and his brigade, having been rushed to the rescue, had been flung into a series of alarming situations, and on more than one occasion had to march all night. He went on to tell how his men had been hampered by the unauthorised occupation of a village by a detachment of British ‘fugitives’, his own forceful intervention causing the staff officer in charge of these ‘renegades’ to protest to his superiors. Three weeks later, Elliott told the Senate, his divisional commander paid him a visit:

He said, ‘I want to speak to you privately’, and took me out into the garden. He then said to me, ‘General, I have instructions to tell you that while you are in the Australian Imperial Force you will receive no further promotion by reason of your conduct to the [British] officers’. When he said that, I turned away rather dumbfounded, and he struck me on the back and said, ‘I have got to tell you that; but by God! you were right’. It turned out that this staff officer was the son of a Duke, and ‘put the acid’ on General Birdwood for my conduct, and you see the result.

With numerous other senior commanders in the Senate, the response to Elliott’s barrage of startling revelations was almost as interesting as the revelations themselves. ‘Fighting Charlie’ Cox, a Light Horse brigadier, consistently unleashed vacuous disapproval, but there were more discerning responses from other generals, such as E. A. Drake‑Brockman. Longstanding defence minister George Pearce was unsettled by Elliott’s account of the campaign and did not conceal his distaste. As for ‘Jupp’ Gardiner, Labor’s solitary senator in 1921, he concluded that ‘whoever is engaged in writing up the history of the war should be supplied with a special desk in this chamber and should be given a special invitation to be in regular attendance in the Senate, because matters of the greatest interest to them may crop up here at any time’. That observation by Gardiner had been triggered by one of Elliott’s more astonishing outbursts:

In France, one of the biggest ‘duds’ I know of commanded a regiment of Light Horse, and he was stationed in a village behind the lines for the whole period of the war. During practically the whole of the time he was there he was intoxicated, and the villagers, in pity and contempt, named him ‘Le Toujours Zig-Zag’, by which they meant that he was always drunk . . . He returned to Australia and is now in command of the troops in Tasmania.

Elliott did not name the commander concerned, but it was Brudenell White’s brother, whose lameness and slight speech impediment stemmed from a pre-war accident—he had not been repeatedly drunk at all. After this, Pompey had to eat humble pie, though not for the first or last time. His tendency to lash out rashly, at times relying on inadequately checked information, left him vulnerable to sharp criticism and sometimes undermined his credibility, but his extraordinary exposés were rarely without foundation.[4]

Such contentious contributions confirmed his reputation as a redoubtable gladiator. Throughout his postwar years he was inundated with requests for assistance from returned soldiers. In the main he sought to do good by stealth, but sometimes he raised grievances in Parliament. One such episode led to the formation of the Senate select committee that investigated the case of Warrant Officer J. R. Allen. Elliott chaired it. A majority of the committee concluded that the treatment of Allen by his commander had been justified. Elliott, still convinced that Allen had been unfairly treated, submitted a minority report jointly with Senator Allan McDougall. Elliott was also a member of the Royal Commission on the Navigation Act (1923–25), participating in most of its extensive investigations and contributing to its main report before resigning in August 1924.[5]

At one stage Elliott was single-handedly—though inadvertently—responsible for a change in government policy. One memorable day he was hurrying across King’s Hall when he happened to slip on the highly polished jarrah floor. His burly frame executed a dramatic tumble, reputedly rocking the Parliament House foundations; he accomplished such a spectacular slide on his back that he ended up entering the Senate chamber in arrestingly horizontal style, feet first. This amusing incident led to a less zealous polishing regime. When it was suggested that cleaning costs at Parliament House had been reduced, the press announced that ‘“Pompey” Elliott’s Slip May Save Australia Money’.

In view of Elliott’s forthrightness and maverick tendencies, it is unlikely that he was ever considered ministerial material even though he was in Parliament for over a decade and his party in government for almost all that time. That some of his strident utterances were detrimental to the Nationalist cause does not seem to have resulted in any significant pressure for him to be disowned by his party. His immense popularity—confirmed at the 1925 election when he again topped the Senate poll in Victoria—was simply too valuable to the Nationalists. Besides, apart from some characteristically idiosyncratic outbursts and his occasional willingness to cross the floor in the Senate, he was generally a wholehearted supporter of the Hughes and Bruce–Page governments. During the interminable 1921 tariff debates which resulted in considerable increases to Australian levels of protection, Elliott admitted publicly that he had abandoned his previous faith in free trade. With the zeal of the convert he consistently aligned himself with manufacturers and Victoria’s traditional adherence to the protectionist cause. Whether it was beer or malted milk, corsets or chamois leather, explosives or porcelain insulators, Elliott wanted the local product protected.

Moreover, when Bruce suddenly informed his government backbenchers of his intention to announce an about-turn on arbitration policy in 1929, Elliott responded with an immediate assurance to the Prime Minister that he would support the new policy absolutely. And when the Scullin Labor Government took office without a majority in the Senate later that year, Elliott was one of the opposition senators whose remorseless obstructionist tactics did much to demoralise the government. Nevertheless, as Senator Dooley remarked, Labor senators ‘always knew that with him the political fight was over as soon as he left the chamber’, although Elliott and D. C. McGrath, the ALP Member for Ballarat, had a sustained mutual enmity.[6]

Elliott’s parliamentary career ended with his death on 23 March 1931. The huge toll inflicted by the war on his nervous system, aggravated by the distress and misery of the Depression together with his deeply felt sense of injustice about his supersession grievance (and also, it seems, by a head injury incurred in a horse-riding accident) had undermined his mental and emotional stability. At the age of fifty-two Elliott committed suicide in hospital. His wife Kate and their children, Violet and Neil, survived him. The funeral was an extraordinary event; few, if any, in Melbourne had been bigger. Thousands lined the four-mile route the cortège travelled between his Camberwell home and Burwood Cemetery where he was buried with Presbyterian rites. Many returned soldiers marched sombrely behind the gun carriage bearing the coffin. One of them, Bruce, wrote that he had ‘never seen a greater tribute paid to a man’. Several of the parliamentary obituaries referred to Elliott’s geniality and friendliness as well as his outstanding military leadership. Opposition Leader, J. G. Latham, who had known Elliott well throughout his adult life, captured the essence of Pompey in this brief description: ‘He was a fearless man, of remarkable resolution and tenacity of purpose’. The manner of Elliott’s death was muzzled until it was controversially revealed a few weeks later by Smith’s Weekly.

Pompey Elliott was one of the best-known parliamentarians of his decade in federal politics. The characteristics and temperament which had won him extraordinary fame as a soldier ensured that his political career would prove lively and interesting, but he was clearly more suited to soldiering than Parliament.[7]

Ross McMullin

[1] For a detailed study of Elliott’s life see the author’s full-scale biography—Ross McMullin, Pompey Elliott, Scribe Publications, Carlton North, Vic., 2002; A. J. Hill, ‘Elliott, Harold Edward’, ADB, vol. 8.

[2] Elliott, H. E.—War Service Record, B2455, NAA; SMH, 24 Mar. 1931, p. 10; Argus (Melb.), 24 Mar. 1931, p. 7; Age (Melb.), 26 Mar. 1931, p. 7; C. E. W. Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1916, A & R, Sydney, 1939, pp. 52, 443, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1917, A & R, Sydney, 1939, pp. 823–4, 832, The Australian Imperial Force in France During the Allied Offensive, 1918, A & R, Sydney, 1942, p. 198; Reveille (Syd.), Aug. 1937, pp. 6–7, 48–9.

[3] Punch (Melb.), 13 Nov. 1919, p. 806; Argus (Melb.), 29 Oct. 1919, p. 15, 22 July 1919, p. 5; Age (Melb.), 22 July 1919, p. 3; Letter, Elliott to D. Toohey, 22 Aug. 1919, private collection; Frank C. Green, Servant of the House, Heinemann, Melbourne, 1969, p. 37; CPD, 28 Apr. 1921, p. 7835; Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1988, p. 176.

[4] CPD, 29 July 1920, pp. 3064–5, 30 July 1920, pp. 3138–9, 25 Aug. 1920, pp. 3761–2, 3766, 26 Aug. 1920, pp. 3830–1, 1 Oct. 1920, pp. 5229–34, 21 Apr. 1921, pp. 7552–62, 27 Apr. 1921, p. 7727, 28 Apr. 1921, pp. 7837–43.

[5] CPD, 6 & 7 Aug. 1930, pp. 5394–5, 26 July 1923, pp. 1637–42, 2 Aug. 1923, p. 2016; CPP, Select Committee on the Discharge of Warrant Officer J. R. Allen from the Australian Military Forces, report, 1923, Reports of the Royal Commission on the Navigation Act, 1924, 1925.

[6] McMullin, Pompey Elliott, p. 625; CPD, 11 Aug. 1921, p. 10868, 17 Aug. 1921, pp. 11065–7, 14 July 1921, pp. 10043–6; Telegram, Elliott to S. M. Bruce, 29 May 1929, Latham Papers, MS 1009/39/64, NLA; CPD, 25 Mar. 1931, p. 562.

[7] Reveille (Syd.), 31 Mar. 1931, pp. 32–3; Letter, S. M. Bruce to K. Elliott, 25 Mar. 1931, Elliott Papers, SLV; CPD, 24 Mar. 1931, p. 512, 25 Mar. 1931, pp. 560–3; Smith’s Weekly (Syd.), 18 Apr. 1931, p. 1; George Blaikie, Remember Smith’s Weekly? Rigby, Melbourne, 1966, pp. 190–1.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 99-105.

ELLIOTT, Harold Edward (1878–1931)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Vic., 1920–31

Senate Committee Service

Select Committee on the Officials Engaged In and About the Senate, 1920–21

Standing Orders Committee, 1920–23

Select Committee on the Discharge of Warrant Officer J. R. Allen from the Australian Military Forces, 1923

Joint Committee of Public Accounts, 1923–24

Select Committee on the Case of First Lieutenant W. W. Paine, 1924

Printing Committee, 1925–29

House Committee, 1929–31