Commemoration of Sergeant Lewis McGee VC.
Lewis McGee (1888-1917)
Lewis McGee was born at Campbell Town, Tasmania on 13 May 1888. His mother died when he was aged seven and the family shortly afterwards moved to a property near Avoca. He became an enthusiastic cyclist and after an apprenticeship was employed as an engine-driver at the nearby Storey's Creek and Royal George mines. (2) He married Eileen Rose Bailey on 15 November 1914 and they had one daughter, Natasha. He enlisted in the 40th Battalion, a unit of the 3rd Australian Division under Major General John Monash, on 1 March 1916. After initial training at Claremont camp near Hobart he sailed with the 40th to England to finish their training. On 12 January 1917, six weeks after the 40th Battalion moved from England to Armentieres, France, he was promoted Sergeant.
The Victoria Cross
Lewis McGee was awarded the Victoria Cross for most conspicuous bravery on 4 October 1917 during the Battle of Broodseinde Ridge in Belgium. The award was gazetted on 26 November 1917 with the following citation.
For most conspicuous bravery when, in the advance to the final objective, Sergeant McGee led his platoon with great dash and bravery, though strongly opposed, and under heavy shell fire. His platoon was suffering severely and the advance of the company was stopped by machine-gun fire from a `pill-box' post. Single-handed, Sergeant McGee rushed the post armed only with a revolver. He shot some of the crew and captured the rest, and thus enabled the advance to proceed. He reorganised the remnants of his platoon and was foremost in the remainder of the advance, and during consolidation of the position he did splendid work. This non-commissioned officer's coolness and bravery were conspicuous, and contributed largely to the success of the company's operation. Sergeant McGee was subsequently killed in action. (3)
Lewis McGee never learnt of his award having being killed eight days later in the 2nd Battle of Passchendaele. He was buried in the Tyne Cot Cemetery.
40th Battalion War Diary
The 40th Battalion War Diary records the Victoria Cross recommendation for Sergeant McGee. That recommendation is worded slightly differently to the citation published in the London Gazette. The last line of the citation specifically states that Lewis McGee was killed in action on 12 October 1917. (4)
There is an after action report included in the 40th Battalion War Diary as an appendix to the October 1917 War Diary. The narrative of the operation on 12 October 1917 is written by Lt William Leslie Garrard, OC B Company (5), and commences as follows:
At 9 pm on 11 October 1917 B Company fell in for the approach march which was completed successfully by 3.30 am, 12 October 1917. On the way the enemy shelled the area lightly with high explosive and gas shells (the latter from the smell I took to be mustard gas). There were no casualties on the approach march. From 3.10 am to 5.25 am on 12 October 1917 we lay in rear of the platoons of C Company on the sunken road. The enemy shelled our position constantly with high explosive but most of the shells fell behind us about 4 fell short. There were no casualties in the company. At 5.25 am 12 October 1917 our barrage opened and we advanced. Within the first 500 feet the 37th, 38th and 40th Battalions appeared to be telescoped units one another. This was mainly due, in my opinion, (I) to the rear battalions moving off too soon after them (II) one of the leading battalions being held up by enemy machine gun fire. When we reached the first wood the hostile machine gun fire became very concentrated from out front and I led such of the company as were with me round to the left flank of the wood. A machine-gun then opened on us from the left (apparently on the NZ sector on the other side of Ravebeek). My company sergeant major was shot through the head and three other NCOs were killed, numbers of men fell apparently hit by machine-gun bullets and the remainder of us coming around Augustus Wood and entering it from the west. We captured the pill box and sent back about 20 prisoners. (6)
Lewis McGee was acting Company Sergeant Major on 12 October 1917. This report supports the fact that he was killed shortly after the attack began at 5.25 am on 12 October 1917. The date of 12 October 1917 is also supported by entries in the diary of the Official Historian.
C E W Bean's Diary
The diary of the Official Historian, C E W Bean, general editor and the author of the first six volumes of the Official History, including the 1917 volume, is held by the Australian War Memorial. Bean mentions both the act of valour for which Lewis McGee was awarded the Victoria Cross and the circumstances relating to his death. He records in his diary:
Sgt McGee, B Company During the advance (probably at Hamburg (7)) finding a machine-gun firing over a concrete structure and holding up the attack walked straight up to the pillbox and shot the machine gunner through the head with his revolver. McGee was on every wiring party B Company ever put out at Armentieres from the very start. He was in every stunt. He went after and settled another machine-gun by organising a small bombing party and getting the gun. These machine-guns were holding up the advance. He was recommended for VC and commission. On October 12 he was with Lt Garrard, OC B Company, near Augustine Wood when machine-guns from there got onto them. The whole of headquarters, all signallers and most of the runners, except Garrard who was left alone. It was there that McGee acting Company Sergeant Major was shot through the head and killed. (8)
The Victoria Cross awarded to Sergeant McGee was presented to his widow, Mrs Eileen Rose McGee by the Governor-General of Australia, Sir R Munro Ferguson, on 4 April 1918. The letter, dated 13 December 1917, that requested he make a formal presentation of the award included a citation. The citation, similar to the citation that appeared in the 40th Battalion War Diary stated that Lewis McGee was killed in action on 12 October 1917. (9)
A number of Australian publications including C E W Bean in The AIF in France 1917, (10) Lionel Wigmore in They dared mightily (11) and Quentin Beresford the author of McGee's Australian Dictionary of Biography entry state that Lewis McGee was killed on 12 October 1917. (12) A photo of the original grave marker for Sergeant McGee is held by the Australian War Memorial. The photo clearly shows that this states that he was killed in action on 12 October 1917. (13)
13 October 1917
Although published Australian references and the original grave marker of Lewis McGee state that he was killed on 12 October 1917, his permanent grave marker for eighty years showed that his date of death was 13 October 1917.
The date 13 October 1917 appears throughout his Army file which is available from WWI Personnel Records at the National Archives of Australia. Army Form B2090A indicates Lewis McGee was killed in action in Belgium on 13 October 1917. This form is dated 28 November 1917 and cites as authority Army Form B213 dated 20 October 1917 which was made by the Commanding Officer of the 40th Battalion AIF. (14) Unfortunately Form B213 does not appear to have survived.
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
On 14 May 1998, a submission was presented to Air Vice Marshal Beck, Director, Office of Australian War Graves, drawing to his attention that the date of death on the grave of Lewis McGee VC seemed to be incorrect. The submission included a copy of the photo of the grave marker and copies of the original documents from National Archives of Australia and the Australian War Memorial. Air Vice Marshal Beck forwarded the submission to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission responded two weeks later with the decision that they would amend Sergeant McGee's date of death to 12 October 1917. They advised that the Commonwealth War Graves database had already been amended and that arrangements would be made to amend the headstone. A new headstone was erected in 1999 which finally showed the correct date of death for Sergeant Lewis McGee VC as 12 October 1917.
In Memory of LEWIS McGEE VC Sergeant 456 40th Bn., Australian Infantry, A.I.F who died on Friday, 12th October 1917. Age 29. Citation: An extract from "The London Gazette" No. 30400, dated 23rd Nov., 1917, records the following: "For most conspicuous bravery when, in the advance to the final objective, Serjt. McGee led his platoon with great dash and bravery, though strongly opposed, and under heavy shell fire. His platoon was suffering severely and the advance of the Company was stopped by machine gun fire from a `Pill-box' post. Single-handed Serjt. McGee rushed the post armed only with a revolver. He shot some of the crew and captured the rest, and thus enabled the advance to proceed. He re-organised the remnants of his platoon and was foremost in the remainder of the advance, and during consolidation of the position he did splendid work. This Non-commissioned Officer's coolness and bravery were conspicuous and contributed largely to the success of the Company's operations. Serjt McGee was subsequently killed in action." Additional Information: Son of John and Mary McGee, of Ross, Tasmania; husband of Eileen Rose McGee, of Avoca, Tasmania. Commemorative Information Cemetery: TYNE COT CEMETERY, Zonnebeke, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium Grave Reference/ XX. D. I. Panel Number: Location: Tyne Cot Cemetery is located 9 kilometres north east of leper town centre, on the Tynecotstraat, a road leading from the Zonnebeekseweg (N332).
The present GWGC database entry showing 12 October 1917
(1) At http://www.pcug.org.au/~pdownes/dps/mcgee.htm Patricia Downs has dedicated a page to the memory of her relative, Lewis McGee.
(2) Lionel Wigmore, They dared mightily, Australian War Memorial, 1963, pp.106-108. Spohn, Martin. `Victoria Cross: Story of a Tasmanian Lewis McGee and his medals', Arms & Militaria Collector No. 1, pp.47-50. His attestation papers states he did an apprenticeship.
(3) The London Gazette 26 November 1917, p.12329 reprinted in the Commonwealth Gazette, 7 March 1918, p.401. This was the first of two Victoria Crosses awarded to members of the 40th Battalion. The other was to Sgt P C Statton at Amiens, France, on 12 August 1918.
(4) AWM 4 Roll 76 War Diary 40th Battalion AIF.
(5) Lt Garrard was awarded the Military Cross for his actions on 12/13 October 1917. The award was announced in the London Gazette of 18 April 1918 and the citation `For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He showed great determination and resource when in command of his company under heavy fire, and afterwards in charge of a section of the brigade line of consolidation' was published a week later.
(6) Op cit War Diary 40th Battalion AIF.
(7) According to F C Green the author of The Fortieth: A record of the 40th battalion AIF (Hobart 1922) Hamburg Redoubt consisted of a double pill-box partly surrounded by a moat.
(8) 3 DRL 606 Item 174, pp12-15.
(9) National Archives of Australia CRS A6661 Item No. 85.
(10) C E W Bean. The AIF in France 1917 at page 865.
(11) Op cit Wigmore pp. 106-108.
(12) Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, pp.267-268.
(13) AWM Negative No. P0735/23/05
(14) National Archives of Australia, WWI Personal Records, 456 Sergeant Lewis McGee.
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|Date:||Mar 1, 2000|
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