Remembering Harry Dalziel: Victoria Cross recipient
Grantlee Kieza, The Courier-Mail
July 23, 2016 12:00am
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Remembering Harry Dalziel: Victoria Cross recipient
Grantlee Kieza, The Courier-Mail
July 23, 2016 12:00am
IT’S been a long time since the booming cannons drowned out the birdsong of the quaint villages and verdant fields of northern France. Yet, in outer western Brisbane in the mid-1950s, the reminders are constant as old “Two Guns’’ Harry Dalziel shuffles off the train at Oxley station.
Harry is a small, quiet, nondescript suburban dad now in his early 60s. He’s been a disability pensioner for years. He can’t work or drive because of his fierce headaches, but dressed in his neat suit, thick glasses and dark fedora hat, he makes the most of his lifetime train pass, catching up with mates whenever he can.
But 60 years ago, as Harry ambles home across the bitumen to his modest fibro house in Ardoyne Rd at Oxley, which he shares with his partner Elsie and their three young children, none of his fellow passengers – the office workers with their briefcases, the skylarking students or the housewives with their beehive hairdos – gives him a second look, even though he’s been in The Courier-Mail lately endorsing a popular analgesic.
Every day, as the advertisements say, Harry puts his headaches to rest with a Bex powder and a good lie-down. Elsie always tells the kids to be quiet when Harry’s tired, which is pretty much all the time since he came home from France with the Victoria Cross, the British Empire’s highest award for courage, and a hole in the left side of his skull.
When Harry takes the bandage and wadding off his head, you can still see straight down through the thin shield of skin to his brain. At home he just lets his hair cover the hole and sometimes Elsie will take a toothbrush and clean around the wound to guard against infection.
King George V presented Harry with his medal at Buckingham Palace a few weeks after World War I ended. It was a real shindig for a young bloke born in a remote mining camp southwest of Cairns.
“Dad was so nervous he was bowing to everyone he met – even the waiters,” says Harry’s son David, 73, a retired music teacher from Karana Downs, 20km southwest of Brisbane CBD.
“Dad was an ordinary man who did something extraordinary when real courage was called for. His friends called him ‘Two Guns Harry’ but Dad always said it should have been ‘Four Guns’ because he went into battle with a revolver in each hand, two in his belt and a dagger in his boot.”
David Dalziel is sitting in the leafy idyll at Camp Warrawee, a YMCA retreat at Joyner, 25km northwest of Brisbane. Sixty years ago he was with his dad when Harry was a guest at the grand opening. On July 4 this year, the 98th anniversary of Harry’s heroics in the Battle of Hamel in northern France, the YMCA invited David and his sister Ann Salisbury, 72, to the naming of an accommodation wing as Dalziel Lodge. At the same time their brother Frank, 70, from Goondiwindi, west of Toowoomba, was at a function at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, where Harry’s VC is housed in the Hall of Valour.
“Dad never had any money his whole life, but he loved giving back to the community and to his country,” David says.
“He was very proud of receiving the VC but he never made a big issue of it. He would give it to me to take to school for show and tell. When Prince Charles was about to be born in 1948, Dad sent the medal – the medal he almost died for – to Princess Elizabeth as a gift for her baby.”
David produces a letter from the soon-to-be queen, neatly handwritten on two pages of Buckingham Palace stationery. It says:
“Dear Sergeant Dalziel,
“I was most touched to receive your letter of 1st November and the Victoria Cross which you won on American Independence Day 1918. I know that it must be a very treasured possession, and I am deeply grateful for the honour of being offered this Victoria Cross as a gift.
“However, after consulting the King, and after much thought, I do not feel that it is it right that I should accept such a present on behalf of my son. I do not wish you to think that I do this through any lack of appreciation, but it is because I feel most strongly that you should retain this mark of the King’s, and the Commonwealth’s, esteem for supreme valour in battle.
“In returning your Victoria Cross, I do so with profound understanding of the depth of loyalty and affection which prompted your action.
“I am yours sincerely, Elizabeth”
Henry (Harry) Dalziel was born at Ragged Camp, A TIN mine 120km southwest of Cairns, in 1893. He was a local high-jump champion and worked as a locomotive fireman on the Atherton Tableland. He enlisted, like so many other young men, for the Great War in January 1915 and shipped out of Brisbane, bound for Egypt, on April 16, nine days before the Australians invaded Gallipoli. He arrived on the Turkish Peninsula in July and, with the 15th Battalion, was part of Brigadier General John Monash’s failed offensive on Hill 971, a few miles from Anzac Cove, that ended with the 15th trapped in an oat field, virtually defenceless against Turkish machineguns.
Harry survived, though many of his mates are buried there. He arrived in France a month after the beginning of the Battle of the Somme and the disaster at Fromelles in which 2000 Australians were killed on July 19, 1916, the worst 24 hours in Australian military history and the focus of 100-year commemorations last Tuesday.
At the Battle of Messines in Belgium in 1917, he saw the Allies detonate 19 massive underground mines that killed 10,000 Germans in a few seconds with ear-splitting blasts that were heard in Dublin, 900km away. At Passchendaele, a few weeks later, he was wounded in the arm by shrapnel and invalided to England but on July 4, 1918, he was back – hiding in a yellow wheat field outside the French village of Le Hamel at 3.10am with 7000 other Australians and 1000 Americans waiting for Monash’s signal to begin the first combined military operation between the two countries.
The black sky lit up as hundreds of cannons roared, hiding the low rumble of 60 tanks. The noise was so loud no one could hear their own screams. Soon the tanks were beside the infantry as cover, a vast line of soldiers rising as one, lighting cigarettes, slinging rifles over their shoulders and beginning the march that would turn the tide of war.
Harry was part of a two-man Lewis machinegun team that encountered fire from a German machinegun at a position called Pear Trench. Armed with a revolver in each hand, Harry charged.
“I dashed at (the machinegun),’’ he wrote later, “killing seven Germans with my own revolvers. One German ‘bloodhound’ wounded me in the hand, but I soon had him on the ground. I lunged at him with my German dagger, catching him right over the heart. His dying cry upset me and I shivered.’’
Even though badly wounded, little Harry – all 170cm and 62kg of him – kept fighting, twice racing across open ground under heavy artillery fire and machinegun blasts to grab ammunition dropped by parachute. Even with his wounded hand he busily filled magazines for the Lewis gun and returned fire again and again until a bullet blew open his skull, exposing his brain.
His comrades thought Harry was dead but as he was laid out with other bodies, covered in blood and gore, they detected movement. Thanks to the skills of an American doctor in an army hospital at Rouen, five months later Harry was well enough to shake the King’s hand and receive the 1000th Victoria Cross awarded since Queen Victoria presented the first in 1856.
Harry returned to Australia in 1919 and the next year married an army nurse named Ida Ramsay at the Vulture St Congregational Church, in South Brisbane. His wedding photo was retouched to hide the head wound.
He was discharged from the army in 1919, classified medically unfit, and tried farming with his wife on a soldier settlement block at Atherton, but he couldn’t work much because of his injury. He tried gold mining with his brother Victor around Bathurst, NSW, but returned when his wife fell ill. The marriage faltered and he moved to Brisbane, alone.
In 1933 he joined the Citizen Military Forces as a sergeant in a mostly ceremonial role, and spent much of his time at home painting and making pottery. He wrote poetry and had songs published as well, his favourite being A Song of the Tableland, about his far north Queensland home.
Dalziel volunteered for World War II and was accepted in 1940, aged 47. He was involved in recruiting and fundraising drives and was even offered a commission, but asked for a discharge to be with his new partner Elsie, who was pregnant with their daughter, Ann.
He led the 15th Battalion – what was left of it – through Brisbane every Anzac Day and in 1956 was invited back to London to meet Queen Elizabeth and other war heroes at the VC centenary celebration in Hyde Park. He visited Le Hamel again, too, but without the noise of the cannons and the mustard gas bombs and the roar of the tanks and biplanes, it seemed so very different.
Harry died in Greenslopes Hospital in Brisbane’s south after suffering a stroke in 1965. The street sign at Dalziel St, Nundah, on the other side of town, is said to have toppled to the ground at the exact moment of his passing. He was given a full military funeral at the city’s St John’s Cathedral and the City Hall flags flew at half-mast.
The citation with his VC in 1918 said the award was for “most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty’’ and that “at a critical time (he) undoubtedly saved many lives and turned what would have been a serious check into a splendid success.’’ His family is just as proud, though, of something else Harry did on that frantic fourth of July morning.
As Harry explained, with dead Germans everywhere “the poor Huns came up with their hands above their heads calling ‘Merci, comrade’ ”. A little German boy “in a tin hat and grey uniform, only about 14 or 15 years old” came crying to Harry, begging for his life. “Two burly Yanks came at him with their bayonets fixed,” Harry wrote. “ ‘Stop!’ I cried, raising my two empty revolvers. ‘Don’t move or I will blow your bloody heads off’.’’
Harry’s daughter Ann Salisbury recalls that her father told them to take the German boy to the Australian officers instead. “Later on, among the wounded, Dad saw a German soldier with his foot blown away. The German soldier called Dad over and said: ‘Thank you for saving my son’s life’, and he shook Dad’s hand.”