It was 109 years ago last week when Brian Pockley made a prediction to his family: “Personally I think it will be a very pleasant little picnic,” he assured them.
He was foreshadowing the occurrence that was to make him a household name.
The Pockleys were already well known in Sydney, and Brian had played his part. Born in 1890, he was the middle child of Frank and Ellie Pockley, and grew up in Sydney’s upper north shore at Wahroonga.
Frank was a renowned ophthalmologist. His prominence peaked in 1911, when he presided at a prestigious conference of the Australasian Medical Congress. He had abundant recreational enthusiasms including sport, gardening, (pioneer) motoring and photography, and was an engaged and nurturing father for his five children.
Ellie was a devoted mother, but lacked Frank’s energy. Her health was delicate, and her anxiety exacerbated her heart trouble.
Brian excelled at his school, Shore. His conspicuous aptitude enabled him to follow his father and older brother, Guy, into medicine. Brian won Shore’s athletics championship with a record points tally, and he led the football team to its inaugural premiership.
His years at university were similarly successful. He graduated with honours, shone at athletics, and his dashing rugby tries led to interstate selection.
Even more compelling than these achievements was Brian’s temperament. Engaging and companionable, with natural unostentatious charm, he was amiable and considerate, helpful and obliging, a high achiever without being driven.
His endearing personality was revered. He was, the Shore headmaster declared, “as near to my ideal schoolboy as any boy in my experience”. Brian was extremely popular at school, at university, and as a promising doctor at Sydney Hospital.
Military training had been a priority for Brian. He involved himself in the Shore cadets, and was one of the first two students to be chosen as officers. Frank had reinforced this interest, taking his sons to witness the preparatory training, and pre-departure march along Macquarie Street, of volunteers bound for the war in South Africa.
Moreover, the Pockleys had a military heritage of their own – Brian’s great-grandfather had been a British army major who accompanied Governor Lachlan Macquarie to NSW in 1809.
So Brian’s family and educational background prompted him to volunteer when European war erupted in 1914. He became a doctor in the nation’s initial contingent, the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force, or ANMEF, which was rapidly formed to deal with German wireless stations not far from Australia, especially those in German New Guinea.
The ANMEF was feted during a stirring farewell march through central Sydney, but Brian found it “dusty and hot” at the rear. It was also an unsettling reminder of his family’s discord.
His parents had separated. Frank was watching the procession from in front of his rooms at Macquarie Street with Brian’s younger brother Jack, while further along the historic thoroughfare a separate Pockley group had gathered in front of Guy’s rooms to farewell Brian – Ellie, her youngest daughter Nell, and Guy himself, who had resolved that he would never speak to his father again.
Brian’s older sister, Phyllis, was in neither group. She and Brian were close, but she was in England, struggling to adjust to the abrupt cessation of her “lovely honeymoon”. The husband she had just married was a British naval officer, and he had been suddenly summoned back to duty.
The ANMEF headed north after leaving Sydney, and reached Port Moresby on September 4. Arrangements were made to send naval reservists ashore south-east of Rabaul to deal with any wireless stations in the area, and Brian was to accompany them as their doctor.
“We are not even certain that they exist and much doubt if they are defended,” Brian observed in his letter home predicting “a very pleasant little picnic”. He was reflecting the confidence of his senior commanders, who had complacently concluded that a token force would suffice.
Brian accompanied the reservists ashore at Kabakaul at 7am next morning. Their leader, Lieutenant Rowland Bowen, sent scouts forward while the rest went to ground. They encountered no opposition, but discovered that some Germans had hastily scarpered along a narrow track that led to a wireless station.
Bowen considered his options. He sensed trouble. The thick jungle on both sides of the track looked forbidding. But if an enemy force was lying in wait to defend the wireless station, his small party would be like sitting ducks if they proceeded obligingly along the track in the open. So, instead, he directed them to spread out and advance through the jungle.
This was tactically astute, but proved terribly difficult. The jungle was exceptionally tangled. The dense undergrowth was almost impenetrable, and towering trees intertwined overhead, combining with creepers to form a canopy that blocked much of the daylight. Forcing a way through the thick, thorny vegetation in intense, humid heat amid a horde of mosquitoes was challenging in the extreme.
Progress was slow for Bowen, Pockley and the reservists. At times, it became impossible, impassable – they had to revert to the track for a while before pushing into the jungle again further on. They all felt tense and vulnerable.
A reservist up ahead spotted Germans and New Guineans poised to ambush them. Firing began, and rapidly escalated. A wounded German was taken prisoner. His shattered hand was bleeding so profusely, Brian felt, that without medical intervention he could die. So he proceeded to amputate the prisoner’s hand without an anaesthetic, and bandaged the stump expertly.
Brian was then notified that a wounded Australian back along the track needed attention. He felt impelled to assist. Bowen tried to dissuade him because it was too dangerous, but Brian insisted. It did prove hazardous, but he managed to find the wounded sailor, Billy Williams.
Pockley quickly realised that Williams could not survive. He did what he could, and arranged for Williams to be conveyed back to the shore.
Brian had no doubt what he had to do next. He headed back towards the front of the firing zone. Proceeding along the narrow track, he encountered a volley of shots from in front, which prompted him to take cover, but only temporarily.
He was still determined to return to the fighting, so he set off again. But he managed only ten yards. Brian was shot and gravely wounded, just like Billy Williams.
They carried him back, and made him as comfortable as possible. Brian was asked if he had any final messages, and he provided them, including a special one for Ellie. He knew she would find the news more overwhelming than anyone.
Brian Pockley died a few hours later. He was 24.
The news reached Sydney the following day when a brief official dispatch about Australia’s first skirmish of the war was released. The ANMEF had overcome “vigorous opposition” after a “bush fight”, but some casualties had resulted. Two of the four fatalities were identified, and one was “Captain B.C.A. Pockley”.
This caused consternation. Anguished shock was widespread. He was so “immensely popular”, and it was so completely unexpected. There had not been years of casualties to shape perceptions. And he was a non-combatant, for goodness sake – how could he have been vulnerable? Those able to reflect beyond the jolting shock of his death found this baffling.
Newspapers throughout Australia highlighted Brian’s death. Profiles proliferated, emphasising his illustrious scholastic and sporting achievements together with his outstanding future potential that would never be fulfilled.
But the circumstances of his death remained a mystery. No explanation materialised for some time. Eventually, it was revealed, on a newspaper’s front page in sensational style, that he “gave his life to save that of a wounded soldier”.
The scoop came from Frank Pockley, who had ascertained from a naval surgeon that Brian had relinquished his protective brassard, or badged armband – which proclaimed his non-combatant status – to assist a wounded comrade.
Brian had given it to the sturdy sailor carrying Billy Williams away to help them get back safely. He had then resolved to return to the firing zone, and without his protective brassard had been fatally wounded.
“It was just like him,” Frank remarked. “He never counted the cost to himself of anything if it meant a service to anyone else.” Brian’s best friend, Dudley Williams, agreed: those “who knew him best realise that he acted just as they would have expected him to act under the circumstances”.
The discovery of these circumstances led to further fervent eulogies. Publications across the nation saluted Brian’s selflessness. Some declared that it symbolised a hallowed biblical sentence: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Strangers delivered church sermons about him, wrote lyrical verse about him, and extolled his “exceptional ability … beautiful character and sterling worth”. In fact, no Australian fatality during the whole war was mourned more deeply and widely than the unexpected death of Brian Pockley.
Worse was to follow for his family. Brian’s brother Jack, an admired infantry officer, also died in heroic circumstances.
His battalion was among the Australian units rushed to the rescue when British formations were driven back in March 1918, and he was wounded in a counter-attack. He told the stretcher-bearers to take away a nearby wounded sergeant before him, and when they returned to collect Jack they found him dead.
It was a terrible war for the Pockleys. The grief that consumed Frank and Ellie was exacerbated when their marital split became increasingly bitter.
For Phyllis, too, these were years of torment. Devastated by her brothers’ deaths, she was also terrified by her husband’s perilous experiences in the North Sea that left her feeling swamped with “constant dread”.
He survived the war, but Phyllis died in 1929 aged 43 due to undetected internal bleeding after a minor operation. Ellie died two years later, aged 71.
Three of Frank’s children had predeceased him – “cruel blows” that were “so crushing and devastating”, a friend confirmed – and in effect he had lost four because softening a grudge was not in Guy’s repertoire.
Frank endured chronic illness in his declining years, when he spent most of his time in his den at Wahroonga “surrounded by pictures and mementos of my dear ones who have gone and some of those I have left”.
His younger daughter, though, had not gone. Nell never ceased to grieve for her brothers. Almost half a century after Brian died, she was still emphasising how special they were and how heartbroken she remained about their deaths and the splendid unfulfilled futures they and their nation had been denied.
(Frank, and others, claimed that Brian was the first Australian to die in the war, which is not correct, although he was the first officer to perish in an Australian unit in the conflict.)
Ross McMullin is the author of a Life So Full of Promise: Further Biographies of Australia’s Lost Generation, which has been shortlisted for the Mark and Evette Moran Nib Literary Award.
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