Walter Richard Gilchrist was born in December 1889, the youngest son to parents Thomas Gilchrist and Mary (nee Clancy) living at “Brooklyn”, Cremorne Road, Cremorne, New South Wales. Walter also had 6 brothers and 5 sisters
Walter’s father, Thomas, was employed at the Royal Mint in Sydney for over 47 years and had been suffering ill health and died rather suddenly in 1905.
At this time Walter was attending Marist Brothers High School at St. Mary’s Cathedral.
When Walter completed high school he gained a cadet-ship as a draughtsman with the Department of Public Works. He completed his cadet-ship and qualified as an Engineering Surveyor before enlisting in the 1st Field Company Engineers on the 8th September 1914.
Walter landed at Gallipoli with fellow originals from NSW on the 25th April 1915. He remained until June when suffering a chest infection he was transferred to the 1st Aust. General Hospital. Walter returned to Anzac but was transferred to the 4th Field Co. Engineers and remained on duty until the evacuation on the 18th December 1915.
While Walter was returning to Egypt from Gallipoli in December 1915 with the 4th FCE, his sister Norah Gilchrist, a qualified nursing sister at St. Vincent’s and Garrison Hospitals Sydney was preparing to embark for London, as she was taking up duties in the Royal Hospital as part of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS).
Norah would spend three and half years looking after our Australian men at war and return home to face very different family circumstances.
Above is an informal group portrait of eight Australian officers having breakfast in a shell hole in Sausage Valley in the forward area near Pozieres, France, taken in August 1916.
They are using wooden food crates for a table, but they have crockery and a teapot. Identified is Captain Walter Richard Gilchrist MC, enjoying a cup of tea , he is seated 2nd on the right foreground with a cup of tea in his hand.
Walter Gilchrist was mentioned in despatches in August 1916 ..“for good conduct in connection with the recent hard fighting round Pozieres, France.”
In the same year, his initiative and devotion to duty on the 20th of October was to be recognised with him being awarded the Military Cross.
That day, Gilchrist provided “…reliable and early information…” to Infantry Brigade Headquarters;
“Lieut. Gilchrist rendered plucky and valuable assistance in guiding parties to their destination under fire. [His] services have been of a most distinguished nature throughout these operations and have maintained the high standard reported during the first Pozieres action.”
Killed in action in France on 3 May 1917
Captain Walter Gilchrist was now an officer in the 6th Field Coy. Engineers and known to be a popular officer among his men. Several witness accounts on this day state that he was in command of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd sections of the company at Noreuil. It was recorded that on the morning of the 3rd of May he volunteered to lead an infantry battalion across to the Hindenburg Line, Bullecourt, as all the battalion’s officers had been killed or wounded.
The official war historian Charles Bean tells us what happened next:
“None … knew who their leader was, but for half an hour or more he would be seen, bareheaded, tunicless, in grey woollen cardigan, his curly hair ruffled with exertion, continually climbing out of the trench to throw bombs or to call to the men in the shell-holes, begging them to charge.” – Charles Bean
Sapper 14540 Palmer…. stated he saw Walter fighting with his revolver without his hat or tunic out in the open, “All the odds were against him. Then I saw him hit by a shell and killed outright.”………Sapper 14945 W.Fairley another witness to the events stated “he was a specially fine soldier who did not know what fear was. I have heard that if he had lived he probably have got the V.C.”
Lieutenant Colonel, Edmund J. H Nicholson – CMG, DSO, VD, like the original sappers was among the first men to enlist, he participated in the landing at Gallipoli, remained there until the evacuation, and then went to France, up to the time of the signing of the armistice. He was ultimately commandant of the Royal Engineers, Australian Corps Troops.
He had seen many things during the war and in 1919 when the war was over, he was asked to describe the achievements of the men with whom he had served…… “his eyes sparkled, and he immediately responded – Splendid Examples – the Gallipoli campaign the work of the Australian engineers was of an extraordinarily high standard, though little recognised”
His account of the Engineers and Pioneers during the war a great tribute to the men of these units and he remembered many moments and acts of bravery from individuals and the Field Coy’s, but one episode stayed in his thoughts and he made a special mention of one particular original sapper, 208 Walter Gilchrist…………
“The episode of Capt. Gilchrist stands out in one’s memory as a magnificent example of the fighting spirit of a true sapper. Unfortunately, it was realized too late, but in rallying a retiring company and retaking its position he ended a brilliant career, his body having been found in an old cardigan jacket, lying across two Germans, with his empty revolver showing what he had done.” – The Register -Adelaide, S.A, Friday 16 May 1919
More tributes to Walter and his bravery followed………..
“Captain Walter Gilchrist, M.C., was killed in France, when most daringly rallying the men for a renewed attack on the German line. The men had been foiled, the officers killed; still Captain Gilchrist rallied them, and led the charge. The daring act cost him his life; but news from the front shows that his courage and daring were the talk of all that knew him. His brother, Sergeant Bert Gilchrist, is at the front somewhere in France”…. Catholic Press – Thursday 1 November 1917.
Major William Henry Ellwood M.C 24th Infantry Battalion wrote ” Capt. Gilchrist was the bravest man I have ever known”
Tragedy struck the Gilchrist family again when Walter’s brother Albert was also killed on the 1st of September 1918. Albert lies in a marked War grave at the New British Cemetery at Assevillers, France.
Walter Richard Gilchrist was reported to have been buried in an isolated grave 200 yards South South-East of Pozieres but by end of the War the exact location of his grave was lost. As a result, his name is recorded on the National Memorial to the Missing at Villers-Bretonneux in France.
A fine posthumous portrait of Walter Gilchrist in oils by Florence Rodway is preserved at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
Story – Copyright © VanceKelly 2017
Sources and Acknowledgements :
AWM, NAA, NLA, RSL Reveille