First a little explanation – ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. The soldiers in those forces quickly became to be known as ANZACs, and the pride they took in that name endures to this day.
Why is this day special to Australians and New Zealanders?
When WWI broke out in 1914, Australia had been a Federal Commonwealth for only 13 years. The new national Government was eager to establish its reputation among the nations of the world. In 1915 Australian and New Zealand soldiers formed part of the allied expedition that set out to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula in order to open the Dardanelles to the allied navies. The ultimate objective was to capture Constantinople (now Istanbul in Turkey), the capital of the Ottoman Empire, and an ally of Germany.
The Australian and New Zealand forces landed on Gallipoli on 25 April, meeting fierce resistance from the Ottoman Turkish defenders. What had been planned as a bold stroke to knock Turkey out of the war quickly became a stalemate, and the campaign dragged on for eight months. At the end of 1915 the allied forces were evacuated, after both sides had suffered heavy casualties and endured great hardships. Over 8,000 ANZACs had been killed. News of the landing on Gallipoli had made a profound impact back home, and 25 April soon became the day on which Australia and New Zealand remember the sacrifice of those who had died in the war.
Although the Gallipoli campaign failed in its military objectives, the Australian and New Zealand actions during the campaign left us all a powerful legacy. The creation of what became known as the “ANZAC legend” became an important part of the identity of both Nations, shaping the ways they viewed both their past and their future.
Sir (Frank) Keith Officer, OBE, MC (1889 – 1969)
This ANZAC was my Great Uncle and a man I am truly privileged to have known. As a child and into my early teens I sat at the feet of both Keith and his brother, Hugh, and was mesmerised with their anecdotes. Although one was a Knight and the other a Brigadier, they were just my Great Uncles. It wasn’t until I was in my 50’s did I realise what truly exceptional men they were and how much they had both sacrificed to ensure I live in the wonderful, peaceful country that is Australia.
I take the opportunity of this ANZAC Day to bring you the stories of my much honoured and ever so honourable relatives.
Keith and Hugh were born of privilege in Toorak, Melbourne in the Victorian era, when the British Empire was at its height of power and Kipling its poetic spokesman. The 1890s were difficult economic years, but they were both educated at Melbourne Grammar School with Keith going to Ormond College, University of Melbourne and, in 1912, graduating LL.B. with honours. He was briefly associated with Mr. Justice Higgins and admitted to the Bar 1914. He enlisted in 8th Light Horse Regiment (AIF) 1914 as a Trooper. No doubt, because of his legal degree, he was soon commissioned as a Lieutenant and transferred to 6th Infantry Brigade, serving on Gallipoli from June to October 1915, when promoted to Staff Captain. From there he transferred to France as DAQUMG 2nd Division, and in 1917 Deputy Assistant Adjutant General and promoted to Major. His decorations included a MC (1917), OBE (1919) and MID (Mentioned in Despatches) 3 times.
During 1917 he advised his younger brother Hugh, who had left school to join up and was a gunner in 107 Battery 1916-17, to apply for an Indian Army commission, which he was successful in obtaining. New Indian Army regiments were being raised and the War Office wanted Subalterns, suitable ones being in short supply. General Birdwood had commented that the Dominion Armies were “chock-a-block with officer material!” So Hugh, already a veteran of Messines, started a long military career in the Indian Army 1918-48. He served in the 3rd Afghan War 1919, NW Frontier operations 1919-22 and 1937. Hugh was Mentioned in Despatches and also had a posting to Tibet in 1930. He served in WW2 in China, Arakan, Manipur State and Burma where he had his 2nd Mention in Despatches. He was Staff Officer GHQ India and Defence Department, New Delhi then promoted to Brigadier before retirement 1948.
Keith joined the British Colonial Service and was posted to Nigeria for a couple of years before returning to Melbourne in 1923. This coincided with the elevation of Stanley Bruce, another Old Boy of Melbourne Grammar to Prime Minister. He worked in his father’s firm Officer & Smith before beginning his long career with the Department of External Affairs in 1927. Bruce was Prime Minister from 1923-29 during which period Keith Officer gained significant experience including attendance at the 9th Assembly of the League of Nations. He became a permanent member of the Commonwealth Public Service in 1933, when sent to London where he was kept busy establishing networks and attending League of Nations assemblies, securing Australia’s place on the League’s Council. Disarmament was in 1933 a major issue, though hardly effective when Germany was no longer a member. Bruce as the prestigious Australian resident Minister in London (1932) and High Commissioner 1933-45 was in a perfect position to dove-tail Australian foreign policy with that of Britain. Casey and Officer largely executed that policy. The three were all highly decorated veterans of the First AIF, and “British to their bootstraps”. Casey and Officer were contemporaries at Melbourne Grammar School.
Keith was sent to the British embassy in Washington in 1937, with the rank of Australian Counsellor. He began discussions with the USA to prepare the ground for a trade agreement. The new Australian legation was established in 1940 by R. G. Casey, under whom he worked for some months. However he was sent to Tokyo late that year as a Counsellor. Becoming chargé d’affaires late in 1941, it fell to him (in Sir John Latham’s absence) to receive the Japanese formal declaration of war. Not until eight months later were he and his staff at liberty again in Australia.
His next posting was to Moscow in early 1943, where after the Australian minister William Slater’s departure he became chargé d’affaires. He spent just over a year at Kuibyshev, Russia because of the German invasion, and later confessed to hating the place and the supervision to which he was subjected. He tried to look after Polish interests while in Moscow. He liked long walks in the woods, but always had to have to suspicious Soviet detectives to accompany him. Generally too he found the atmosphere oppressive.
Within a year he was sent to Chungking as chargé d’affaires. Few Britons had an understanding of the mighty forces building up in that country, or more than a superficial one of its history and culture. He used to mention the relaxation he obtained here from gardening. That may have been just small conversation! His brother Hugh, also in that city for part of the war, said that the Japanese tried not to bomb south of the river where the diplomatic residences were situated, but occasionally made mistakes! The end of WW2 in 1945 enable Keith to have conversations with Mao Zedong and Chou En-lai, which were perhaps of significance later on in 1949. Two years later, Clement Atlee nominated him to represent Britain, Australia, New Zealand and India on the Allied Council for Japan. Dr. H. V. Evatt however wanted him in South East Asia with a grudgingly overdue promotion to Minister. He was involved in the questions of the Indonesian settlement with the Dutch, a peace treaty with Thailand and discussions with Singapore. Not surprisingly, he was transferred in 1946 to The Hague as Minister, a favourite post for him as it was also good for yachting. Here he would also bring his mother from Australia and his niece (my Aunt). But Evatt soon decided to appoint the conservative diplomat again to Moscow without consultation! He was unable to get away with it, for a couple of medical certificates about “bronchitis” cemented Keith Officer in The Hague! He had very good relations with Queen Juliana, for Keith’s famous Golden Labrador, Crumpet, was a full sister to the Queen’s dog. Both had impeccable breeding from a famous kennel in America. Alas, poor Crumpet had a fall from grace in Paris, being seduced by a local mongrel.
As first Australian Ambassador to (Nationalist) China at Nanking in 1948, Keith saw history being made as the People’s Liberation Army took the city in 1949 during the civil war. He moved to Shanghai to do his best for Australian diplomatic staff and citizens there. He was also making his own shrewd assessments of the new communist regime and the Chinese people themselves. After October 1st 1949, with Mao’s new government all over China it was necessary that he leave the country from Hong Kong. A Chinese friend, an official of the Party, pointed out the Chinese difficulty of being cordial to the Imperialists at this period of time!
Time must pass. His status was now simply Australian External Affairs Officer in Hong Kong. He was soon home again and through the Department of External Affairs strongly recommended that Australia recognise Red China. With the 1949 election looming however, Chifley decreed that the question must wait until that was decided. Public opinion was now violently anti-communist. It was to be a long wait of twenty three years before another Australian Ambassador was appointed.
He was pleased to be made Ambassador to Paris from 1950 when he was Knighted, till his retirement in 1954. In Paris he was joined by his mother Ethel, and she acted as his hostess. Ethel was then over 80, but outlived her eldest son, dying when she was 101. They lived in Blackfield, near Southampton till his death (intestate) in 1969.
Keith never married, but he had a photograph of a most beautiful dark haired lady on his chest of drawers in a bedroom so small that it was comparable to the cabin of his yacht. My wife and I asked his mother Ethel about the mysterious lady, but he had maintained perfect secrecy. The sitting room was however full of the usual autographed photographs which important people give to one another. “To Keith, with best wishes from Ike” and that sort of thing.
As the above account shows, Sir Keith led an exceptionally active and significant life, serving his country as an ANZAC on Gallipoli and throughout WWI. As a diplomat he was involved in critical circumstances in the hot spots, Tokyo, Moscow, Chungking, Indonesia, Nanking, during great historical moments. Minister for Foreign Affairs, Gordon Freeth said of him that he was “a man of great resolution and judgement in situations that were delicate and dangerous.” Ella Knibbs in her BA (Hons) thesis called him “genuinely liberal” and “a truly conservative and peculiarly Australian colonial gentleman.” (Australian/Chinese Relations 1944-49; an Analysis of the Keith Officer Years, 1980, by Ella Knibbs). See also – “Who’s Who in Australia 1962”; ADB 1940-80; Liber Melbourniensis; “Maygar’s Boys” (8th Light Horse 1914-19) by Cameron Simpson. A major obituary was in “Quadrant” and Allan Fewster (Department of Foreign Affairs) has completed his writing a biography on Keith.
My own relationship with these two distinguished brothers was mostly with Hugh Officer, who always came to visit my mother on his furloughs from India. She was then a widow, and we children always looked forward to these meetings. As a second cousin, I thought of him as more like an uncle and he had the glamour of a regular Army officer. (My father was dead and my two surviving uncles were overseas.) After his retirement he bought his cousin Harry Officer’s residence at Olinda and became famous as an ornithologist writing two books “Australian Honeyeaters” and “Australian Flycatchers”, the proceeds going to the Bird Observers Club of Australia, as well as two books of birding reminiscences. The two brothers saw each other regularly, often twice a year for extended periods. At Keith’s suggestion, they had in 1949 joined forces and walked the Cradle Mount – Lake St. Clare National Park though “hardly in good walking trim” with heavy packs. In “Recollections of a Birdwatcher”, Hugh’s account suggests that their diet and cooking were rather simplistic, perhaps because both were more used to the ministrations of professionals.
My first remembered meeting with Keith (already a family legend) was at Geelong Grammar School, where he gave an address to the more senior boys. This was in 1946, and he spent extra time with those who were considering or might consider a diplomatic career. Quite a number did indeed do so, before and after that visit.
In his retirement, Sir Keith had annual visits to Australia looking into the affairs of two companies of which he was a director, the ES&A Bank and Australian Estates. He undertook each company visit on alternating years. On such visits he travelled light, and the once elegantly tailored diplomat was usually seen in a light badly crushed travelling suit of a pale colour. He and his brother always visited my wife and me in Seymour on these occasions. We saw him on his home ground in Britain in 1956-57 and again briefly in 1965.
Both brothers were certainly “characters” though of different types. Keith liked the life in southern England, and spent much time in his yacht. He was a member of the Royal Cruising Club (or Squadron), membership requiring minimum long distance cruising. Keith liked the high life and his career as a diplomat had most certainly opened these doors for him. I remember him describing an occasion celebrating the centenary of “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, graced by descendants of Lord Lucan and Lord Cardigan in the original uniforms! As my sister Jean broadly put it, Keith collects Duchesses”, whilst “Hugh collects Bishops in northern Australia. He borrows their boats.” Certainly, to see the wildlife on remote off-shore island, one needs access to a boat.
Though he lived in England, still the centre of the old empire (or Commonwealth) he loved and served, Keith remained an Australian. He made a minor headline in “The Sunday Times” (or was it the “Sunday Observer”) when at a function an Englishman had referred to “their Queen.” “She’s our Queen too!” said Sir Keith.
(Colin Officer’s account of the Officer family)
Croix de Guerre
This following note was written by his brother, Brigadier Hugh R Officer on 26 September, 1982:
As the date for K.O.’s departure from France, en pension, approached he was informed that the French Government wished to appoint him the Legion of Honour. The policy of the British Diplomatic Service was that representatives were not permitted to accept foreign honours.
The Queen mum is reported to say that they did not like their dogs to wear other people’s dog collars.
This rule was generally waived when an ambassador was holding his final appointment before retirement. K.O. informed the Australian Government of the offer and got the reply that they would not permit him to accept the honour!
The above was explained to me at the Club (Melbourne) by Monsieur Rocher, French Ambassador to Australia, for he said he would not like me to think that the French Government had not appreciated the fine work K.O. had done. He added incidentally that Dr. Evatt has actually suggested to the French Government that they might like to give him the Legion of Honour! Hypocritically he said that of course he was not asking for the Honour as a member of the Labour Party but as President of the United Nations Security Council.
When K.O. had his farewell audience with the French President he informed him they were disappointed that they couldn’t give him the Legion of Honour, but they had looked up the rules and discovered that they could give him the Croix de Guerre without getting the prior approval of the government concerned. He said he considered that the giving of the Croix de Guerre was fully in order by reason of K.O.’s service to France in the AIF in World War One and his great service to France as Ambassador.
Keith informed the Australian Government of what had occurred and their reply was that though it was correct that they could not object to his being given the Croix as it was according to protocol but they could and did forbid him to add the medal to his array of medals!!!
It is hard to guess why they were so bloody minded but perhaps it was because he was such a close friend of Bob Menzies and Dick Casey and they feared political comment.
K.O.’s comment to me when he told me of the incident was rather typical – that at least they have saved him the considerable expense of having to have his bar of medals rearranged.
So now you know why the medal still rests in its case. Incidentally you may wonder why in view of all the above K.O. accepted the resplendent Moroccan Star. As French Ambassador he was also Ambassador to Morocco. He visited Morocco only once I believe. He could not hurt their feelings by refusing the decoration but wore it in when in Morocco.
To obtain a copy of the 2009 biography of Sir Keith “Trusty and Well Beloved” by Alan Fewster please click HERE.