George Medcalf was born in 1889 in Sydney and moved with his family to Western Australia at age eleven. He attended Claremont Central State School and quickly earned a reputation as an outstanding sportsperson. After the 1905 soccer final The West Australian reported, ‘[t]he finest player on the field was without doubt the Claremont captain Medcalf. He played a dashing and brilliant game’. Of his cricket skills, The West Australian wrote ‘his fielding was brilliant and he saved a good many runs. Some of the Claremont men can take a lesson from him’.
In 1906, Medcalf enrolled at Scotch College, where he studied Latin, Greek, English literature, history and mathematics. His interest in sports continued: he excelled in cricket and football, and became captain and vice-captain of these teams, respectively. In 1908 he became senior prefect, was one of four lieutenants in the school cadet corps, edited the school magazine The Reporter, and won the English literature and history prizes at the end of the year. The following year, he received a general proficiency prize.
Upon leaving school, Medcalf began training as a surveyor under the direction of his uncle, George Nunn. He spent a great part of his time in country districts and bush camps, with occasional visits to the city to attend ‘Old Boys’ events. He kept up a good banter with his school friends and in June 1910 the ‘Old Boys’ section of The Reporter included the following note from Medcalf:
It’s raining, and somehow the cook has pitched the tent badly, and accordingly, since the tent poles were greasy, the latter started to slip, and half an hour ago the whole caboose descended most gracefully in obedience to Newton’s law of gravitation.
He also wrote, ‘[n]ext time a regatta is to happen, you might place a rein on the sweet temper of Ferox Auster’. The editor, Medcalf’s friend Sos Knight, was not a student of Latin. Knight consulted a classics scholar who informed him that ‘Ferox Auster’ meant a cold south wind. For the obscure reference, Knight suggested that ‘Meddy deserved a Ferox Auster in his tent’.
After completing exams in Sydney in 1912, Medcalf returned to Western Australia in mid-1913 and began courting Rita Fry. The following year he passed his final exams.
When war broke out in 1914, Medcalf was a licenced surveyor, still living in Claremont, and engaged to Fry. He enlisted in the AIF at Blackboy Hill Camp on 6 October 1914 and spent several weeks training before preparing to embark for war. A few days before they left he wrote:
During the last days in camp, much excitement was caused by an order that all must have their hair clipped within 1 inch of the head. Some complied at once; many others, observing the effect, and being secretly proud of their curls, hesitated. The resemblance to a common felon was too marked in many instances to make the move popular.
On 31 October 1914, Medcalf departed from Fremantle aboard HMAT Medic which, together with HMAT Ascanius, joined the rest of the First Convoy at sea two days after it had left Albany. Medcalf described their accommodation on the ship:
On each side of the hatchways ran a series of tables with forms on each side, all at right angles to the sides of the ship. Eight men were accommodated on each side of the tables. Overhead, hammocks could be slung above each table, sufficient to hold the sixteen men of each particular mess. Rifles were numbered, and stacked in their place in racks alongside; equipment was treated in the same way; black kit bags were stowed away, and white sea bags placed in rafters above each man’s position at table. Certainly not an inch of space was wasted; yet each man found room somehow … [We] were duly incensed at the comparative percentage of deck space allotted to commissioned officers, sergeants, and men…
All quickly settled down to troopship routine, with early to bed and early to rise, and day occupied with parades and lectures. There were four decks on the ship. The boat deck was used for parade, the main deck carried the cook house and such places and two levels of troop decks were underneath. At the best of times, the air in the lower quarters was sultry; and throughout meal times, it was no uncommon sight to see mens’ faces shining with perspiration ... One of the troopers died from pneumonia, and was buried at sea, with the regulation services and bugle calls.
… [I] had become half owner … of a very useful telescope … scanning the cruiser on the left flank [I] suddenly exclaimed excitedly – “Look! She’s turned south, and is steaming away for her life.” In a moment, too, the cruiser on the starboard wheeled, and steamed at full speed across the bows of the advancing troopships, taking up its position on the left. Excitement ran high, when shortly afterwards word came that the HMAS Sydney has sighted the Emden, and was giving chase. Following on this, a wireless report stated that the Sydney had run the raider to earth on Cocos Island. Of course, [we] felt as though [we] had personally fired the winning shot; and the day became a red letter one.
Medcalf disembarked at Alexandria, Egypt on 13 December 1914. The troops arrived at Mena Camp, outside Cairo, the next day. Medcalf wrote:
I gazed at the huge encampment with a feeling of pride [realising] that I personally formed a portion of such an enterprise … the array of tents made an imposing spectacle. For the next three-and-a-half months, they trained in earnest.
Medcalf landed on Gallipoli, with A and C Companies of 11th Battalion, in the first wave on 25 April 1915. They and others captured Plugge’s Plateau and pushed to capture the heights of the second ridge to the left, towards Battleship Hill. Medcalf was Major Edwin Brockman’s observer for most of the day. In the confusion, separated men of the 11th often fought localised battles in the labyrinth of gullies and on the ridges across the whole front. Medcalf wrote:
In traversing the broken country, men of various units had become mixed; and reinforcements arriving from the beach took position where they were most needed, irrespective of battalion; consequently, men of every unit were to be found spread at random throughout the line. Accordingly, officers had to take charge of men whom they did not know: and many men found strange officers in charge of them.
Many eventually found themselves under heavy shell-fire, resisting strong Ottoman counter-attacks in a rough firing line on the second ridge. Here, ‘with the Turk’s [sic] appearing to get the upper hand [and] having lost touch with the Major’, Medcalf dug in with ‘strangers’ at what later became known as Courtney’s Post. Medcalf stated:
a shallow trench had been dug; two machine guns were close by; and good rifle practice was to be had on the enemy at 400 or 500 yards distance, as they advanced in short rushes.
The crisis was averted, according to Medcalf, by a massed naval bombardment:
The big shells hurtled overhead with a whirring noise and fell … amongst the Turkish reinforcements of batteries and troops. Masses of debris, including pieces of Gallipoli, Turks and guns could be observed flying skywards.
These attacks persisted relentlessly for days. On 27 April Medcalf remarked:
the three days and two nights of unprecedented strain was making itself very much felt … I dozed at frequent intervals [and] on regaining consciousness would fire several shots, then [my] head would droop forward and quite exhausted [I] would fall asleep.
Struggling to stay awake after nearly 60 hours in action, he was shot in the shoulder and ‘felled to the bottom of the trench’. His right arm hung powerlessly. Medcalf crawled back to the rear first-aid post across the dead and wounded in the trench, and was sent by the medical officer to crawl to the beach for further treatment. However, weak and utterly exhausted, he did not reach the beach until the next morning. There, the medical officer examined and dressed his wound and expressed amazement at his luck: ‘[t]he bullet [has] seared through three inches of your flesh half an inch deep and [has] done no other damage! An inch further in and your shoulder would have been smashed!’
The rest of the cold and utterly exhausted men of the 11th were relieved on 28 April. Medcalf, possibly buoyed by his lucky escape, and another lightly wounded member of his section walked out of the medical post and re-joined their battalion. The 11th returned to the firing line directly in front of Shell Green on 1 May 1915.
Listen to Medcalf’s reflections on life on Gallipoli:
On 5 May, two commanding officers and 98 volunteers from A and C Companies, including Medcalf, attacked the heavily defended Gaba Tepe promontory, 1.6 kilometres to the south of Anzac Cove. It was a formidable position. Protected by a high cliff and an embankment enveloped in belts of barbed wire, it had a commanding view of all allied movements in the southern sector. The raiding party, landing by boat, was met by the waiting Ottomans with a wall of machine-gun, rifle and pom-pom fire. According to Medcalf:
bullets slashed the water all around. Several men were hit while still in the boats, others while in the water. [I ] splashed and stumbled to the beach together with my comrades who were unscathed … [We] dashed to the friendly cover of some sand cliffs … Machine gun and rifles enfiladed [us] all the while.
The failed attack was pinned down on the beach. Medcalf and others
descrying an inlet running ten yards into the side of a hill and only 20 yards away, made a dash and gained this haven of safety. Evacuated to safety by the Royal Navy, the battalion suffered 34 casualties in this raid.
Upon returning that day he was promoted to corporal. By 8 May 453 men, over half of the original effective strength of the battalion, were listed as killed, wounded or missing.
Medcalf returned to duty in the trenches. On 19 May, as a member of the 11th Battalion, he helped to successfully resist the strong Ottoman offensive along the Anzac lines. Medcalf was in the support line and ‘made for the firing line to take the place of any who had fallen and to be ready with bayonet in the event of a charge being necessary’. He stated that the Ottoman attack was met by ‘bursts of machine gun and rifle fire, as well as shrapnel and high explosives from field and naval guns … [B]ravely the enemy attempted to struggle on; but the withering fire blasted their efforts’.
Piles of Ottoman dead and wounded lay in front of their lines. On 24 May a truce allowed both sides to bury the fallen in no man’s land. Medcalf was put in charge of a ten man burial party at Silt Spur. He graphically described his work:
The grave diggers worked in pairs, making a shallow excavation into which bodies were rolled. Some of the bodies had lain there since April 25th; others had only been there since the 19th. They were accordingly in all stages of decomposition. Most of the bodies from foot to head were a crawling mass of maggots. In an attempt to roll the more decomposed bodies a foot away into their graves, the bodies became disintegrated and pieces of decayed flesh adhered to the picks and shovels of the workers. The stench was atrocious. Many men turned away, vomiting. [I] felt utterly sick … It was indeed a gruesome place … Of all the experiences that [I] had yet known or that [I] afterwards went through, that grim armistice-day had the most horrifying effect on me.
Medcalf was promoted to sergeant on 26 May. Over the next period, engineers dug tunnels to a new trench in front of Silt Spur and twice a week, Medcalf’s platoon and another were rostered to lie out over the tunnel works in no man’s land until dawn, to prevent any Ottoman attack or reconnaissance. This was dangerous and nerve-wracking work. One night a machine-gun burst narrowly missed him, putting a bullet-hole through his cap.
On 1 July 1915, Medcalf was promoted to second lieutenant in charge of D Company. After almost 11 weeks in the front line, the men were relieved on 13 July for a two-week rest in Shrapnel Green. They then reoccupied front-line positions at Tasmania Post, but by this time the battalion was in poor shape. Many were ill, malnourished and war-weary. Dysentery was a particular problem.
On 31 July, Medcalf was involved in a support capacity in the battalion’s bloody but successful capture of the ‘Turkish Despair Works’ (later named Leane’s Trench), to the south of Lone Pine, a necessary preparatory attack for the later Australian assault on that position. The battalion lost 36 killed and 73 wounded in this attack. When the Ottomans counter-attacked on 5–6 August, a desperate bomb and bayonet fight defending this position resulted in severe losses, with 55 killed and 100 wounded. The battalion was spent.
Medcalf was transferred to command A Company. He fell ill with dysentery on 19 August 1915 and was evacuated to Mudros, Lemnos, before being hospitalised in Egypt on 28 August. By this time few from the First Convoy were unscathed. Most had either been killed or evacuated wounded or sick. A census taken on 4 October recorded that only 69 surviving 11th Battalion ‘originals’ were still on the peninsula.
Medcalf rejoined the unit on Gallipoli on 17 October and was soon appointed commanding officer of B Company. Severely depleted, sick and exhausted, the battalion hung on at Anzac until evacuated to Lemnos on 17 November. Medcalf was promoted to first lieutenant the same day.
On 4 January 1916 the battalion left for Egypt, where Medcalf was promoted to captain on 12 March and placed in charge of C Company. He saw service on the Canal Front in late January and February.
The battalion embarked for service in France, arriving in Marseilles on 5 April. After some training, especially in gas warfare, they moved to the Armentières sector, in northern France, close to the Belgian border.
They occupied the front line at Fleurbaix on 20 May in what was regarded as a ‘nursery’ sector. However, on 30 May 1916 there was a sudden, intense, German bombardment, followed by a raid on the 11th Battalion trenches. The Australian official war historian Charles Bean credits Medcalf with responding to this raid with ‘great coolness and courage’.
Medcalf at once began to get his men strung out across the open country in the rear of the shattered trenches. A line was thus rapidly formed. A machine gun was brought up near the right-hand edge of the gap in the breast work and began to fire through it. Then with the enemy’s projectiles still flying overhead, the Australian troops advanced, directing their fire through the breach.
Nevertheless losses were heavy, with 120 casualties and 11 taken prisoner by the Germans.
For his actions, Medcalf was recommended for a Military Cross. The recommendation read:
For conspicuous gallantry and good work. During an intense bombardment by the enemy which completely swept away whole sections of his front line, he rallied his men, and by prompt and gallant action prevented a hostile raiding party from damaging important works [Mine tunnels] in the line. Under heavy rifle and machine gun fire he supervised the construction of a fresh parapet during the night thus making the line secure and preventing the enemy from observing the effect of the bombardment. This officer is always cool and collected and determined under fire, and his conduct invariably inspires confidence in the ranks.
While the Military Cross was not awarded, Medcalf was Mentioned in Despatches on 13 November 1916 ‘for distinguished and gallant services and devotion to duty’.
On the night of 2 July 1916, after much rehearsal, approximately 70 11th Battalion volunteers, led by Medcalf, conducted a successful raid on the German lines at Fleurbaix. Listen to Medcalf’s report on the raid:
Apart from causing much material damage and many German casualties, the intelligence gained on this raid revealed that the German trenches were held by the 21st Bavarian Regiment of the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division.
On 10 July 1916 the battalion began its move to the Somme, where it took up a position in the front line opposite the village of Pozières, which they were ordered to capture. Their objectives were firstly the German trench in front of Pozières, and secondly the light railway that ran through the town. For the attack Medcalf was appointed commanding officer of A Company, which was to capture the first objective. On 23 July the battalion attacked Pozières with the 9th Battalion on their right. They quickly captured both objectives, and as the 12th Battalion had been delayed, also captured their objective, the main road to Bapaume. Listen to Medcalf describe the attack:
Over the next two days, these units were subjected to the worst artillery bombardment ever suffered by Australian troops. Medcalf described the bombardment:
Throughout Monday the volume of enemy artillery fire increased; and at night it continued even more violently than by day … The enemy followed this up with the most fearful concentration of shell fire that [I] had undergone. A continuous succession of crashes rent the air without an instants pause for ten hours, from 3 am till 1 pm. The air was musty with gas and chloroform fumes … [I] experienced a sense of being overcome. [I] tried to think but [my] brain refused to act … [I] lost all thought of place and time … [ I] wanted to be killed at once … I knew I would lose [my] senses altogether soon.
On the 25th Medcalf was severely wounded by this shell-fire:
I felt sure a missile would strike [me]. Shells were falling thick and fast around, bursting overhead and everywhere, so close that the concussion caused a choking sensation while [I] was in the act of breathing … Oh! … I realised that someone was binding up my arm and [I] was sick and faint. The blood oozed through the bandage. [My] arm hung limp at [my] side. [I] lay on [my] side; the shelling was too intense to stir from the front trench … The fire grew even hotter. Suddenly, hells damnation! A second missile struck [my] ankle and a third [my] thigh … The shell fire slackened … I gathered my remaining strength and crawled along the communication trench as best I could.
The utterly exhausted and shattered battalion were relieved later that day. Over half of the battalion, 530 men including Medcalf, were casualties. This was the heaviest battalion loss by the 1st Division at Pozières.
In September Medcalf was awarded a Distinguished Service Order for his actions in this battle. The citation read:
For conspicuous gallantry when, in leading his company in an attack, he put the crew of a hostile machine gun out of action with a bomb and captured gun. He showed unfailing courage and resource in holding captured ground. When wounded in three places and unable to walk, he ordered the stretcher bearers to take up a seriously wounded man and to leave him to crawl to the rear.
After receiving treatment in France, Medcalf was evacuated to England on 2 October 1916. He was deemed to be ‘permanently unfit for general service’ and sent back to Australia on 14 January 1917.
Medcalf returned to Western Australia on the hospital ship Kanowna in March 1917 and was sent to No. 8 Australian General Hospital at Fremantle. There, his left elbow and leg gunshot wounds were assessed. He was deemed unfit for further service, at home or abroad. He did, however, serve in the Perth metropolitan area as an inspector of German internees in Fremantle Prison, and as an orderly officer to the Army Principal Medical Officer, until the end of the war.
George had carried his fiancée Rita’s photo with him throughout the war. George and Rita, a teacher, married in April 1917 as soon as possible after his return. It was said that Medcalf, ‘the idol of the Regiment’ remained loyal to the 11th Batallion, in going so far as to choose the 11th day of the month for his wedding!
By 1919, Medcalf had re-established himself as a surveyor in nominal partnership with his uncle George Nunn. He and his wife moved to Albany, where he worked as a private and contract surveyor, his career for almost fifty years. Medcalf worked all over the state and it was said that ‘few men knew Western Australia as he did’. His early work included surveying group settlement areas in the South West, travelling by horse and cart and setting up camp accompanied by his wife and small son. As the Depression years hit at the end of the 1920s there was little surveying work, Medcalf went farming at Karlgarin on land he had taken up with his father and brother Clive in 1921. The family (now including Joy and Margaret) settled in the bush, while son Ian remained at school in Albany. As times got better, Medcalf returned to his surveying work and sold his farm in 1933.
Medcalf’s surveying skills were important in the Second World War. At the age of 51 he re-joined the AIF, serving with Western Command as a staff officer and later as a captain in the 4th Field Survey Company, which produced military maps of Western Australia. In 1944, prior to the development of the Ord River Irrigation Scheme, Medcalf prepared a particularly important topographical report and survey of the Ord River area that showed erosion.
After the Second World War, Medcalf carried out much contract work for the Mines Department. He surveyed many of the post-war mineral discoveries and laid out Wittenoom townsite. Responsible for surveying war service land settlement areas, particularly in the Albany hinterland, he also provided advice to Albany’s Town Planning Committee.
Medcalf, a gregarious, outgoing person before the war, is said to have become more subdued and less outgoing, much preferring to sit under a gum tree in the bush than attend social functions. He endured ongoing pain in his elbow, often had trouble sleeping, and suffered stomach problems. He was described as an unusually modest type of man ‘who could seldom be persuaded to talk about his experiences – interesting though they were’.
Medcalf retired in 1967. He suffered a stroke in late 1968 that led to his death at the age of 80 on 18 February 1969, and he was buried in Albany Cemetery. He left three children: Joy, who joined the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service in the Second World War; Ian, who became a lawyer and Member of the Legislative Council; and Margaret, who went on to become the state archivist and principal librarian of the state’s Battye Library. The Albany Advertiser declared that Albany had lost ‘a good man and a good citizen’, and the state Surveyor General proclaimed, ‘Medcalf’s personal contributions towards state development have been tremendous’.
Albany Advertiser, 28 February 1969
Australian War Memorial, Embarkation, Honour and Nominal Rolls – Ferdinand George Medcalf
Bean, CEW 1939, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914 -18 Vol. III, 9th Edn, Angus and Robertson, Sydney
Belford, WC 2009 (c.1939), Legs Eleven: Being the Story of the 11th Battalion AIF in the Great War, The Naval and Military Press, Uckfield, & The Imperial War Museum, London
Gill, I 2003, Fremantle to France: 11th Battalion A.I.F. 1914-1919, Perth
Hurst, J 2005, Game to the Last: The 11th Australian Infantry Battalion at Gallipoli, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne
Medcalf F (unpub.) c.1919, ‘The Adventures of Sydney Blobbs in World War I’, State Library of Western Australia, MN 1265
National Archives of Australia: Australian Imperial Force, Base Records Office; B2455, Ferdinand George Medcalf’s First Australian Imperial Force personnel dossier, 1914-1920; MEDCALF F G, 1914-1920
Olson, W 2006, Gallipoli: the Western Australian Story, University of Western Australia Press, Crawley
Webb, A, Webb, M, and Shire of Kondinin 1988, Kondinin-Kalgarin-Hyden: Community, Time and Place, Shire of Kondinin, Nedlands, distributed by the University of Western Australia Press