A century on from the end of World War I we acknowledge their service …
Lest we forget.
George Hebden Raleigh was the second son of William Thorp Raleigh and his wife Matilda Jane Hebden, one of five children. The Raleighs and Hebdens were both established Melbourne families. George’s grandfather Joseph Raleigh had arrived in Melbourne from England in 1843. The Raleighs became wealthy through their extensive business and pastoral interests.
In 1889, George’s father purchased a 200 acre property at Gembrook South (Pakenham Upper), which they named “Goronga”. The house, which served as a summer residence, was designed by Matilda Raleigh along the lines of homes in the Indian hill stations. Goronga was used to breed and agist horses for the Indian Army.
An apple orchard was also planted, while George’s sister Hilda later developed a prize dairy Jersey stud on part of the property. Although the Raleighs lost much of their fortune in the Great Depression of the 1890s, the family managed to retain Goronga, as it was held in Matilda’s name. Goronga was later owned by Sir Frederick Mann, husband of George’s sister Adeline, who serviced as Victoria‘s Chief Justice (1935-44) and Lieutenant Governor.
George was educated at Geelong Grammar (1891 to 1896), where he served in the cadets as a sergeant and was appointed prefect in 1896. He later attended Melbourne University, where he studied Arts. In 1899, George was recommended by Melbourne University for a commission in the British Army. This was a privilege that Melbourne University then enjoyed.
George passed a special qualifying examination in “geometrical drawing” and was accepted, although a member of the University Council, Henry Bourne Higgins MLA, was concerned that the ability to apply for the commission was not widely advertised. George received his commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Essex Regiment, and served with the 1st Essex Battalion in South Africa during the Boer War.
There, Raleigh was part of the “Kimberley Relief Force” under Sir John French. In March 1902, George was seriously wounded in the fighting with the Boers at Dreifontein. In a letter home, George described how he “got in the way of a bullet the other day”. His unit was ambushed by enemy soldiers and during the fighting “a jolly old bullet came waling along and gave me a devil of a bang and knocked me down and the men near me”.
Although a stretcher bearer soon bandaged him up, George became faint. He was given some whiskey and water to relieve the pain, but had to wait until the gunfire abated before he could be evacuated to a field hospital. George’s wounds were serious, but fortunately, the bullet had passed through his pelvis, missing both his bones and internal organs. George therefore considered himself “very lucky”.
George was awarded both the Queen’s and King’s medals with seven bars for his service in South Africa. He later served as a captain with the 1st Essex Battalion in Burma, India and on the famous “Northwest Frontier” between India and Afghanistan.
The life of a British officer in India was a privileged one and included such glittering opportunities as attending a dance at the palace of the Maharajah of Mysore in Bangalore and playing in polo matches. Indeed, George was known as a “brilliant horseman”. In late 1910, he had some furlough in Victoria, before returning to India.
After being posted to England in 1911, George learned to fly, and in March 1912, was issued pilot’s licence number 196 by the Royal Aero Club. George was seconded to the fledgling Royal Flying Corps (RFC) later that year. After serving as a Flight Commander with the No 2 Squadron for a few months, he was placed in command of the newly formed 4th Squadron at Farnborough in September 1912, with the rank of “Brevet Major”.
The “brevet” distinction meant that he had been marked out for early promotion to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel when a vacancy occurred. This was a major achievement for a “colonial boy” given that British Army commissions had traditionally been purchased or virtually inherited by the sons of the aristocracy and landed gentry. It also placed George at the forefront of a pioneering era of military aviation, with the RFC experimenting with things like night flying and wireless radio technology.
Back home, the Geelong Advertiser reported that George had been appointed “second in command of the military wing of the Royal Flying Corps”. Amongst the other items of interest reported in the same newspaper column were the the doings of kings, princes, parliamentary delegations, the inventor Thomas Edison and opera singer Dame Clara Butt.
Given his family background, education, the prestige (and social connections) of his rank and the glamour associated with early aviation, George had a very promising future ahead of him, either in England or back in Australia. Indeed, the doors of “high society” or the “corridors of power” may have opened for him in the same way they later did for two other young Melburnians with similar backgrounds and opportunities: Stanley Melbourne Bruce, (Prime Minister of Australia from 1923 to 1929 and later a member of the British House of Lords) and Richard Casey (who as Lord Casey of Berwick served as Governor General from 1965 to 1969).
Destiny though, had a very different fate in store for George.
With the outbreak of WWI, George became the first person associated with the Pakenham district to see action. Initially, the 4th Squadron was involved in home defence activities in the UK, but was then despatched to France to assist the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), which had arrived there in August 1914.
The squadron flew to Amiens, where the officers were put up in a hotel, while the enlisted men slept under the aircraft! The squadron then moved onto Maurberge near Charleroi, close to the Belgian border. From there, it flew reconnaissance flights which helped the British Army better understand German troop movements.
On one of these flights, George’s plane was accidentally shot at by French soldiers. The work done by RFC squadrons including the 4th provided critical intelligence which helped the Allies to check the German advance through Belgium and Northern France at the River Marne.
George specifically carried out air work at Mons, the Marne, the Aisne and Ypres in 1914. Many of his flights were regarded as “exceptional both for speed and altitude”. He also carried out the first night raid on German positions. George was twice mentioned in dispatches by Field Marshal Sir John French.
On 19 January 1915, George took part in a raid on German facilities in the occupied Belgian port of Zeebrugge (Ostend). The bombs had to be actually thrown out of the cockpit by the pilots as their planes were not yet fitted with bomb racks.
He was killed the following day when his plane crashed into the sea off the French port of Dunkerque (Dunkirk). George had lost control of his plane as he performed the spiral manoeuvres necessary in those days to descend for landing. It seems the woodwork to which his seat belt was attached gave way, meaning he may have slipped out of his seat, thus losing control of the plane.
The plane crashed into what was described as “quicksand” or shallow water. George was seriously wounded, including having both legs broken. While he was rescued from the plane conscious, George later lapsed into unconsciousness and died onboard a British hospital ship.
George was 36 years old. He was buried in Dunkerque’s Town Cemetery with full military honours. Men of his squadron took to their planes after the funeral and hovered over the cemetery in memory of their fallen comrade. George’s death was reported across Australia.
Back in Pakenham Upper, George’s service and sacrifice was commemorated on the Pakenham Upper Honour Roll unveiled in 1917, while his family was presented with a framed certificate by the Pakenham Upper community in July 1918. His name was also included on the Pakenham and District Soldiers’ Memorial unveiled in 1921.
Later, a tree was planted in George’s memory in the Gembrook Avenue of Honour. He was also remembered by his “alma mater”, being one of 87 old boys who died during the War. Indeed, for many years there was a special memorial scholarship in George’s name at Geelong Grammar awarded to the sons of men or women who had served in either the Boer War or Great War.
This was established with a £1,000 bequest from his brother and sisters. In reporting the bequest, the Geelong Advertiser stated that George had “won much distinction as an airman in the early days of the War and was described as the finest pilot in the British Army, bar none”.
Perhaps the most personal of tributes paid to George came in early 1916 when Hubert Raleigh named his newly born son after him. Tragically, this second George Hebden Raleigh also died in the service of his King and country: during WWII, he was captured by the Japanese and died of cholera on the infamous Burma Railway.
The promising future ahead of another of George’s nephews, Lieutenant James Mann (a Rhodes Scholar for Victoria and member of the Victorian Bar), was also cut short: during the evacuation of Australian forces from Crete, the ship carrying James and his men was bombed.
James subsequently gave up his place in a life raft to an exhausted man. Rather than overload the other rafts, he then swam out to sea and was never seen again. Meanwhile, James’ brother Bill Mann had been wounded in Greece and taken prisoner by the Germans. Such a terrible personal price for any family to pay!
Despite the tragic loss of a brother, son and nephew (or perhaps because of it) Lady Adeline Mann was dedicated to the Red Cross during both Wars, while Bill Mann later stood by a young cousin who became a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War.
* The assistance of George’s great-niece, Elizabeth Fraser OAM; Geoff Laurenson Geelong Grammar School Archivist; and Jane Beattie, assistant archivist, Melbourne University Archives is gratefully acknowledged.
This is an extract from Patrick Ferry’s book A Century After The Guns Fell Silent – Remembering the Pakenham District’s WWI Diggers 1914-18.
For more details on this and other profiles in the book, head to the website www.pakenhamww1.com