Honour Guard at Canberra Commencement Ceremony 1913

Honour Guard at the Canberra Commencement Ceremony, 12 March 1913

contributed by Michael Hall

Denman inspects Guard of Honour 12 March 1913


Image from: Canberra : Capital City of the Commonwealth of Australia : Laying the Foundation Stones of the Commencment Column and naming the Federal city, page 32 

The 12th of March 1913 was a momentous day in the history of Canberra. It was the day when Australia’s capital city was given a name, and it was also the first national function held in Canberra. It was a day of optimism and hope but we reflect upon those events with the knowledge that many of the participants would soon be involved in a war from which some of them would not return.

The military played a big part in the pageantry surrounding the naming ceremony. For the first time the cadets of the Royal Military College (RMC) at Duntroon paraded outside of the college grounds. The second and third classes of cadets from Duntroon marched to Kurrajong (Capital) Hill in their full dress uniform of khaki helmet, khaki tunic with scarlet velvet collar and cuffs buttoned to the neck with a starched white collar. The stiffness of the collar prevented movement of the head from the vertical position, emphasising the perception of an orderly march from which their only relief was when they were ferried across the Molonglo River. The fourth class of cadets had only arrived in Canberra during the previous few days and had to be content with being spectators.

The senior cadets were the guard of honour. They formed up in front of the grandstand on Kurrajong Hill at about 11 o’clock, impressing the crowd with their immaculate presentation and “handling their rifles with the skill of expert jugglers, obeying the word of command with the speed and regularity of an automaton”, standing-to as Lady Gertrude Denman and Lady Gladys Barttelot arrived by car from the vice regal camp at Acton shortly afterwards. One of the cadets, Joseph Lee, was particularly interested in seeing Lady Denman as she was a distant cousin of his and he later recalled not only the great honour of being present at the ceremony, but of hearing her announce the name of the city.

At 11.30am the Governor General, Lord Thomas Denman, arrived on horseback accompanied by his two aides and a contingent of the New South Wales Lancers. As he arrived the Union Jack unfurled and a battery of guns from the Royal Australian Artillery fired a salute. After being greeted by Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, Lord Denman, a veteran of the Boer War, who went on to serve in a staff capacity in France during the Great War, was invited to inspect the guard of honour. There have been hundreds of honour guard reviews in Canberra in the last century, but this was the first such inspection in the new national capital and it was captured in one of the photographs of the day’s events, shown above.

Looking closely at the image of the cadets in the guard of honour you see young men nearly all aged between 18 and 21 years. They were among the best and brightest young people Australia had in 1913, each attaining their position at RMC on merit. They reflect, to paraphrase Lord Denman from his speech that day, “all that is finest and noblest in the national life of the country.”

There were 60 Australian cadets from Duntroon on parade (plus some New Zealanders). By the end of 1915, seventeen of the Australians had been killed and 34 wounded at Gallipoli and a further seven died before the end of 1917.

The first to be killed was Penistan Patterson on 25 April on the slopes of Baby 700 on Gallipoli.

William Dawkins, believed to be the first cadet at the left of the front row in the image of the honour guard (at just 5 feet 4 inches in height he was certainly one of the shortest), served on Gallipoli from the landing on 25 April as an engineer, nd in the first two days sunk twenty wells which provided 20000 gallons of precious water to the troops. Dawkins was killed by shrapnel on 12 May 1915 while protecting the water pipes.

Four highly regarded leaders, Tom Elliott, Arthur Hutchinson, Clive Hopkins and Charles Arblaster survived Gallipoli but were lost as a result of the fighting at Fromelles in France on 19 July 1916. Two other former cadets, Kenneth Mortimer and Gregor Robertson, who entered the college on 9 March 1913 and were spectators at the Canberra naming ceremony, were also killed at Fromelles making that battle the single deadliest 24 hours for Duntroon cadets in the war.

Undoubtedly the presence of so many distinguished looking young men attracted admiring glances from the women in the crowd. Amongst the honour guard are three men who married into prominent local family, the Cunninghams of Tuggeranong and Lanyon. The Cunninghams, like many local graziers, occasionally entertained the young cadets and officers from Duntroon.

In the photo King O’Malley is brushing past the back of Captain Stewart Davies, one of the captains of the guard and an instructor of musketry at RMC. Davies entered the war as commanding officer of the AIF’s 8th Infantry Brigade and married Dorothea Cunningham in Egypt in 1916. Their daughter Sheila would marry a Duntroon graduate, John Oliver in 1941.

Cadet William Dunlop wed Mary Paule Cunningham in London in December 1916 and in 1921 another cadet, Harold Nimmo married Margaret Cunningham. Their son James, born when the family was living at Duntroon in the 1920s, served as a pilot in World War 2 but was shot down and killed over Denmark in April 1944. Harold Nimmo also served in World War 2 and, after retiring in 1950, commanded the United Nations peace keeping force in Kashmir.

There is also a touch of the British Empire in the ceremony provided by the two soldiers described in newspaper reports as being “resplendent in scarlet jackets and tall black bearskins” marching ahead of the Governor General. They are his aides. Both served in World War I and both were dead before the end of 1918.

Sir Walter Barttelot, a Captain in the Coldstream Guards, was wounded at the Battle of Aisne in September 1914 but recovered and served in the Gallipoli campaign and then in Mesopotamia (Iraq). He was appointed as the military attaché in Tehran in 1918 before being killed, not on the battlefield, but in bed by a jealous husband, on 23 October 1918. Barttelot had inherited his baronetcy when his father was killed during the Boer War and after his death it passed to his son who, during World War II, was killed during the fighting in Normandy in August 1944.

The other vice regal aide is Major Arnold Quilter, a Grenadier Guardsman who performed the duties of military secretary to Lord Denman. When war broke out he was appointed as commanding officer of the Hood Battalion of the Royal Naval Division (RND) which fell under the control of the Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Churchill was responsible for two misadventures early in the Great War which nearly destroyed the marines of the RND. The first was the abortive attempt to halt the Germans at Antwerp in 1914 and the second was the campaign against the Turks in the Dardanelles.

In 1915 Quilter’s unit was sent to the Mediterranean to fight the Turks on Gallipoli. Under his command were a group of junior officers known as the ‘Latin Club’ which included Arthur Asquith, son of the British Prime Minister, the musician Denis Browne, poet Patrick Shaw-Stewart, future New Zealand Governor General Bernard Freyberg and an Australian, composer and Olympic gold medallist, Frederick Septimus Kelly. Kelly was the younger brother of William H. Kelly who, as Minister responsible for the Federal Territory in the Cook government which came to power in June 1913, rescinded the Departmental Board plan for Canberra, brought architect Walter Burley Griffin to Australia and hired him as the Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction.

The most notable member of this clique was the soldier-poet, Rupert Brooke. Brooke died on 23 April 1915 from sepsis which developed after a mosquito bite. He was buried in his own “corner of a foreign field, that is forever England”, on Skyros Island in the Aegean Sea, on the eve of the Gallipoli landings, in a service led by Quilter who laid a wreath of olive leaves on his grave. Less than two weeks later Quilter was killed in action, striding out, walking stick in hand, leading his men as ordered, in a futile attack on Turkish positions near Krithia on Gallipoli.

In the grandstand (to the left in the image) watching the review of the cadets was the RMC commandant, William Throsby Bridges. Bridges was related to Charles Throsby Smith and his uncle Charles Throsby who explored the Canberra district in search of the Murrumbidgee River in 1820-21. Smith didn’t find the river but did climb Black Mountain. It was left to Throsby to find the Murrumbidgee himself, passing through the Duntroon area on the way. Bridges would form and command the AIF before dying on 18 May 1915 from wounds received on Gallipoli. He is the only known soldier killed in the war whose body was returned to Australia. Bridges is interred on Mount Pleasant in a grave designed by Walter Burley Griffin – the only Griffin designed structure in Canberra.

With Bridges was Colonel Ewen Sinclair-Maclagan who arrived at Duntroon in 1911 as director of drill. Cadet Sydney Rowell described him as being impeccable in turnout and appearance, whose “ringing word of command together with his striking personality made him a leader who was easy to follow.” Sinclair-Maclagan was a contemporary of Rudyard Kipling at the Westward Ho boarding school in Devon and appears in Kipling’s schoolboy memoir ‘Stalky & Co.’. He commanded the 3rd Infantry Brigade, the first Australian troops ashore on Gallipoli at dawn on 25 April, and ended the war as a Major-General in command of the 4th Division of the AIF.

When the South Australian Rowell and his fellow first class cadets were graduated early in August 1914 he was allocated to the 10th Battalion which was part of Sinclair-Maclagan’s 3rd Brigade. However, Rowell’s cousin was in the 3rd Light Horse Regiment and he wanted to serve with him so he sought permission to swap his posting with another South Australian cadet, Eric Talbot Smith. Sinclair-Maclagan agreed but it was a fateful decision for Smith. He was amongst the first to land on Gallipoli on 25 April (with the 10th Battalion) but he would die from wounds five days later.

Despite the discomfort of standing to attention in the heat of early autumn in Canberra, the guard of honour had a front row view of proceedings as the Governor General, the Prime Minister and the Minister for Home Affairs (whose grey lounge suit, Rowell noted, was sorely in need of pressing) laid the foundation stones for the Commencement Column. Then came the announcement of the name of the capital city by Lady Denman. The cadets at RMC led an almost monastic existence, but even they had heard gossip that if ‘Canberra’ was not chosen “there would be demonstrations and disorder at the ceremony” from locals keen to keep the name by which they had known the place for decades.

Following Lady Denman’s pronouncement of ‘Can’bra’ as the name of the capital, the noise of appreciation from the crowd was so loud that the order of the commander of the honour guard to ‘present arms’ was only heard by the right half of the guard, who duly obeyed. The rest of the cadets, including Sydney Rowell, “realizing that something had happened, came to the ‘present’ rather like Browns’s cows.”

After the ceremony was over the cadets, their job completed, headed back to Duntroon where they were each rewarded with a bottle of ginger ale. Unfortunately they had no bottle openers and used their bayonets instead. There was a further highlight for them. Teddy Evans (later Baron Mountevans) had been second-in-command to Robert Falcon Scott during the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica attempting to become the first men to reach the South Pole. Evans and his ship had arrived in New Zealand in February 1913 with the news that Scott had died nearly a year earlier while returning to his base from the South Pole. Antarctica was on the minds of many Australians in March 1913 as news about Douglas Mawson’s expedition had only recently reached home as well.

On 12 March 1913 Evans was in Canberra as a guest of the government and was invited to speak to the RMC cadets by the commandant of Duntroon. To Sydney Rowell, who would achieve much in a long and distinguished military career, the talk was the “most unforgettable experience” of his lifetime. Evans told the story of Scott and his companions and, according to Rowell, “was not ashamed to break down and weep in telling of his comrades who perished.”

Several of the cadets from the guard of honour who survived the war went on to become leaders during World War II. Rowell served as Thomas Blamey’s staff officer in the Middle East before being sent to Port Moresby in August 1942 to command New Guinea Force and defeat the Japanese who had begun their advance along the Kokoda Track. He was controversially removed from his post just as the Japanese began their withdrawal back along the track in late September 1942. Although virtually ‘exiled’ for the remainder of the war, Rowell still became Chief of the General Staff in 1950 and served in that role until his retirement in 1954.

Cyril Clowes would command the operations at Milne Bay in Papua and inflict the first land defeat of the Japanese army during the war in August 1942. George Wootten would lead the 18th Infantry Brigade at Milne Bay and later at Buna on the north coast of Papua. Like many of the cadets Horace ‘Red Robbie’ Robertson would return to Canberra which he did in the 1930s as director of military art at Duntroon. In 1937 he became the foundation president of the ACT Rugby Union then, during the war, he led the 19th Brigade in the capture of Tobruk.

Not all stayed in the military. William Hodgson was seriously wounded on Gallipoli and eventually looked for a civilian career. By 1935 he was Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, a post he held until 1945. After World War 2 Hodgson was a member of Australia’s delegation to the first General Assembly of the United Nations and Australia’s representative on the UN Security Council and Human Rights Commission.

But on 12 March 1913 all that was in the future. Canberra’s first honour guard should itself be honoured for the sacrifice and contribution its participants would make to the new national capital and to the nation. 

Cadets of the honour guard (excluding New Zealanders)

Second Class (as of 1913), entered RMC 1911

Noel Ernest Biden (died, Gallipoli)
Allan Joseph Boase
John Raymond Broadbent
David Richmond Brown
George Herbert Capes
Cyril Albert Clowes
Norman Clowes
William Henry Dawkins (died, Gallipoli)
William Archibald S Dunlop
Alexander Moore Forbes
Dudley Freeman Hardy (died, France WWI)
William Roy Hodgson
John Morphett Irwin
Hugh Lambert Marsland
Price Jacob Morgan (died, France WWI)
John Heathcote Newmarch
John Henry F Pain (died, France WWII)
Peniston James Patterson (died, Gallipoli)
Ralph Carlyle Prisk
Sydney Fairbairn Rowell
Arthur Roland Selby
Eric Wilkes Talbot Smith (died, Gallipoli)
William Alan B Steele
Walter James Urquhart
Eric Lacy Vowels
John Stewart Whitelaw
Eric Arundel Wilton
Clarence William Wolfenden (died, Gallipoli)
George Frederick Wootten

Total of 29 of whom 7 died on active service in WWI and 1 died in WWII.

Third Class (as of 1913), entered RMC in 1912

Leo William H Anderson (died, Gallipoli)
Warren Melville Anderson
Charles Arblaster (died, France WWI)
Henry Noel Boyle
Francis George Chabrel (died, Gallipoli)
Bertrand Combes
Arthur Herbert Curwen-Walker (died, Gallipoli)
Charles Coning Dale (died, Gallipoli)
Robert William Donald
Norman Henry Durston (died, Gallipoli)
Thomas Patrick Elliott (died, France WWI)
Arthur Leeman Fulton (died, France WWI)
Francis George Granger
William Hugh Hamilton (died, Gallipoli)
Thomas Vivian W Hill (died, Gallipoli)
Arthur Justin S Hutchinson (died, France WWI)
Cyril William Huxtable
Clive Boyer Hopkins (died, France WWI)
William Lang (died, Gallipoli)
Joseph Edward Lee
Reginald George Legge (died, France WWII)
William James Locke
Kenneth Alexander Macleod (died, Gallipoli)
John James L McCall
Ross Cairns McCay
Kenneth Alan McKenzie
Stirling Alexander McWilliam (died, Gallipoli)
Robert Harold Nimmo
Horace Clement H Robertson
Heinrich Christian Schrader
Alan Thorne (died, Gallipoli)
Leslie John Waters (died, Gallipoli)

Total of 32 of whom 17 died on active service in WW1 and 1 died in WW2.

Other Soldiers

The three captains of the guard were (from left to right) Captain Charles Stewart Davies, Captain Hugh William Smith (Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment) behind Lord Denman and Lieutenant H.D. Gale at right.


Canberra 1820-1913 by Lyall Gillespie
Mary Cunningham – An Australian Life by Jennifer Horsfield
Royal Military College of Australia 1911-1946 by Colonel J.E. Lee
Full Circle by Sydney Rowell
Rupert Brooke online
“The Soldier” (poem) by Rupert Brooke
Canberra & District Historical Society – Canberra Day file
Australian Dictionary of Biography online – entries for William Throsby Bridges, Edward Evans, William Hodgson, Frederick Kelly, Robert Harold Nimmo, Horace Robertson, Sydney Rowell, Ewen Sinclair-Maclagan
Daily Telegraph, 14 March 1913
Sydney Mail, 26 May 1915
Sydney Morning Herald, 13 March 1913
Times (London), 29 October 1918