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From larrikin to war hero

Updated: Mar 4, 2021

When Charles Bean described the Australian Digger as an instinctive leader with the capacity to act with initiative, he was describing James Hartley Morgan, the sleeper cutter from Melbourne.

Picture 1: AIF record for James Hartley Morgan Source: National Australian Archives

Six weeks after the Great War erupted, James, who was aged 21, enlisted at Woodburn, New South Wales. He trained at Enoggera, was assigned to the 15th Infantry Battalion and embarked for war three days shy of Christmas 1914.

James landed on the infamous Gallipoli Peninsula on the afternoon of 25 April, 1915. From May to August he was heavily involved in establishing and defending the front line of the Anzac beach head. On 8 August he was shot in the foot and evacuated to Cairo.

After a long convalescence, James was selected for the Anzac Provost Corps on 12 April 1916. Only the best were chosen for the Military Police, yet James was apprehended for being absent-without-leave in Cairo on 15 November that same year. This was the first of six similar indiscretions for which he endured both Field Punishments No.1 and No.2 and the withdrawal of 69 days pay.

Clearly James could not be easily controlled by the traditional methods of the British Army.

In April 1917 James embarked for the Western Front rejoining the 15th Battalion on 27 May. Within three months he was appointed Lance Corporal. James fought at Passchendaele and was awarded with a Military Medal for his action on 26 September during the Battle of Polygon Wood.

He showed conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. This man took charge of a section after his section commander had been wounded and showed great skill and leadership.

Promoted to Corporal, James was part of the unprecedented Allied advance at Amiens on 8 August, 1918, the 'black day of the Germany Army'. The 15th Battalion continued operations on the Western Front until September.

On 2 December 1918, James Hartley Morgan returned to Australia, a decorated war hero sporting a Military Medal and a Conduct Record as long as his arm.

James died in 1971 and was buried with his wife Helen, who predeceased him 1949, at Heidelberg (Warrigal) Cemetery.

Picture 2: Gravestone of James Hartley Morgan, buried with his wife Helen Pettery at Heidelberg Cemetery. Photo: Billion Graves

Written by Caleb Elley, Year 10 student for his History class.

More Tales:


* "James Hartley Morgan", written by Caleb Elley, Year 10 History project, Evans River K-12 Community School, 2017

* "James Hartley Morgan Petty", Billion Graves,, accessed 19th April, 2020.

* 'James Hartley Morgan', National Archives of Australia,, accessed 19th April, 2020

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