George Mitchell was born in Caltowie in South Australia on 30 August 1894. His family moved to Thebarton in Adelaide not long after his birth. When war broke out, he was 20 years old and working as a registry office clerk in Thebarton, South Australia. He enlisted in the AIF at Morphettville, South Australia on 5 September, 1914, and was appointed to the 10th Battalion. They undertook six weeks of basic training, including regular route marches to Glenelg, where they swam.
Mitchell and the 10th Battalion troops boarded HMAT Ascanius and left Adelaide bound for Fremantle on 20 October 1914. There, they were joined by the men of the 11th Battalion, and the ship departed on 31 October to join the First Convoy at sea.
In darkness on 20 November, during a change in convoy positions, Ascanius twice rammed the stern of Shropshire and sustained a large hole high on the bow. After being repaired while in the Suez Canal, Ascanius disembarked troops at Alexandria on 6–7 December 1914. Over the subsequent months, Mitchell trained at Mena Camp and was afforded some time to explore the nearby pyramids and entertainments of Cairo. On 28 February, the 10th Battalion departed Mena Camp for the Gallipoli peninsula, and spent the next seven weeks on board HMT Ionian, where they slept on the decks. In mid-April, they began practising disembarking and landing.
The Australian 3rd Brigade, comprising the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th Battalions, was the covering party in the first wave of the Gallipoli landing. Mitchell and the 10th Battalion came ashore at 4.30am and landed near Ari Burnu – at the site later named Anzac Cove. Their objective was to reach the second ridge inland and locate the Ottoman batteries. Mitchell wrote in his diary, ‘Fierce we expected it to be, but fierce as it was we never dreamed’. They managed to scale the first ridge above the beach. Most of the 10th reached a minor objective and dug in on the northern edge of 400 Plateau beside Wire Gully. Desperate but futile attempts to advance were made under constant Ottoman bombardment. In what became a stalemate, the battalion remained dug in, making little progress over the next three weeks. Mitchell noted, ‘There is no excitement in waiting for the enemy who never appears’.
Two weeks later, on 19 May, the Ottomans launched an audacious attack on the Anzac lines. The 10th Battalion was heavily involved. This strong offensive was successfully resisted and became a massacre with around 3,000 Ottoman casualties. Australian casualties numbered around 160. Mitchell wrote, ‘The Turks came up six and seven deep and every time were repulsed by our fire … just outside the opening trench were twelve men of the 10th – stark in death. Four of them were pals of mine and one belonged to my section: [g]lorious war’. On 24 May, a ceasefire was called to allow soldiers of both sides to remove the bodies of the dead from no-man’s-land. The following day, Mitchell received his first field punishment for being absent from duty. Historian Bill Gammage later wrote that Mitchell was ‘a man … decorated for bravery and fined or imprisoned for indiscipline with almost equal regularity … whose outlook during the war was often to typify the irreverence and valour of the AIF’.
By early June, no further attempts were made to advance, and the 10th tried only to consolidate their position. Mitchell became one of the thousands evacuated from Gallipoli when he collapsed with dysentery and severe enteric fever (typhoid) on 27 July. By 6 August he was in hospital in Alexandria. Failing to respond to treatment, in October he was moved to hospital in England. The 10th Battalion left Anzac Cove at dawn on 22 November 1915. The eventual evacuation of all troops brought the stalemate on Gallipoli to an end.
Mitchell spent four months recuperating at the Royal Victoria Hospital in London before returning to training in England, first at Abbey Wood, and then Weymouth. In March, he was treated for venereal disease, and from May to August his personnel file reveals a series of transgressions that resulted in loss of pay and confinement, including damage to barracks, loss of kit, and overstaying leave. By the time he rejoined the 10th in the Ypres salient on 19 September 1916, reduced to the rank of private, he had spent more than 12 months away from the front line.
Mitchell spent a short time with the 10th before taking ill again. Upon returning, he found himself with men of the 48th Battalion who he observed to be ‘like the 10th before the landing, but the 10th with years of experience and discipline’. Believing that those gone from the 10th Battalion meant more to him than those who remained, Mitchell chose to stay with the 48th Battalion. He was immediately trained in Lewis gun operation, and two months later was promoted to lance corporal.
On 17 February, the 48th Battalion returned to the front line. Their objective was to move forward to the recently captured Stormy Trench. The Germans still occupied part of the trench behind a barricade 75 metres away. In the pre-dawn hours of 21 February, the 48th charged the enemy-held section of Stormy Trench and captured it with little resistance.
A major allied offensive took place at Bullecourt in April 1917. The 48th Battalion, the only remaining Australian troops in the area, breached the ‘impregnable’ German Hindenburg line. Mitchell distinguished himself in battle with his controlled management of the Lewis gun, almost single-handedly driving off an enemy attack.
The British offensive was planned to commence on 9 April 1917, with the 4th Division operating on the extreme right flank at Bullecourt, which had been fortified and incorporated into the Hindenburg Line. The objective was to breach the Hindenburg Line and advance on Cambrai. On 7 April, Mitchell was in the advance party moving into the front line with the 52nd Battalion. Each man was assigned 200 rounds of ammunition, two Mills bombs and two sandbags.
In the early hours of 11 April, the 48th Battalion took up their position in front of the railway line in two waves. The first wave consisted of bombers and bayonet men. Mitchell was in the second wave comprising Lewis gunners, rifle grenaders and a carrying party with tools and supplies. The success of the attack depended on the tanks, which failed to deliver. Troops of the 48th Battalion were the last into the fray and sustained heavy casualties in the ‘unrelenting hurricane of fire’. By 7 am the 48th had seized 500 yards of the Hindenburg Line, but in doing so more than half its strength had been killed or wounded. At 9.30 am roll call revealed that only 9 officers and 218 other ranks remained.
Hard pressed from three sides and in danger of being over-run, Captain A. E. Leane ordered a withdrawal at 12.25 pm. According to official war correspondent, C. E. W. Bean, this withdrawal happened a full hour after every other battalion had left the trenches, and when the 48th came out, it was under heavy rifle and machine-gun fire.
Listen to Mitchell’s testimony about his involvement in the first battle of Bullecourt:
Quoted from: Mitchell, G D, 1937, Backs to the Wall, Angus & Robertson, Sydney
Shortly after the offensive, due to a chronic shortage of officers, Mitchell was commissioned as second lieutenant. The 48th Battalion had lost a total of 15 officers, and 301 other ranks were killed or wounded, with 120 captured. The 4th Brigade, previously thought one of the finest, lost 2,399 out of 3,000 engaged – effectively destroying the brigade. This failure at Bullecourt was later used in training as an example of how not to plan an offensive.
For his actions, Mitchell was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The recommendation read:
At Bullecourt on 11th April 1917 for bravery and devotion to duty. He was in charge of Lewis gun and did fine work in driving off enemy counter attack. He kept is gun in action during the six hours the trenches were held, and when the order to retire was given, carried out his gun under heavy fire from flanks and front. He then went out and recovered the wounded from no mans land, saving many lives.
Mitchell and the 48th next fought at Messines in June 1917. Following the detonation of 19 mines placed beneath German lines, they entered into two days of relentless fighting. Mitchell recalled:
Messines battle was child’s play as compared to any other battle we had encountered, the troops had been engaged only forty-eight hours, yet never before or since have I seen men carrying such a burden of exhaustion. It came to me, too, later.
On 12 October, the soldiers of the 48th Battalion trudged through heavy rain and mud towards the front line of what became known as Passchendaele, named after the village on the ridge that was the offensive’s primary objective. Although immediately encountering fierce enemy fire, the 48th still managed to bomb and overrun a German post at bayonet point and seize several dug-outs, killing or capturing the garrisons. During consolidation of the line, however, the enemy resistance increased and bombardment intensified, with salvoes of howitzer shells descending on frantically digging men. Eventually, the troops were forced back to their original front line, which they garrisoned, and continued to hold back the enemy onslaught. The Second Anzac Corps lost 7000 men on this one day, for no tangible result.
An advance in the German Spring Offensive of late March 1918 took back all ground taken by the British during the previous 18 months. On 27 March, the 48th Battalion was back in the front line on the Dernancourt–Albert Road. The following day, they stoutly resisted nine enemy attacks. The Germans lost 600 men to the 48th’s 62 killed or wounded. In the battalion history, Browning outlines Mitchell’s actions on 28 March:
On the right of the 48th’s line Lieutenant G. D. Mitchell observed the enemy infiltrators behind the 47th’s positions and reported to Capn. L. L. Carter who thought they were probably Australians. Unconvinced, Mitchell ran towards the party of thirty troops with his revolver drawn and discovered they were Germans, with two captives from the 47th. Mitchell aimed his revolver at a German officer and demanded that he surrender. The Germans dropped their weapons and were disarmed and marched off by Sergeant J. Fennell.
Mitchell was awarded the Military Cross on 6 May 1918. His citation read:
For conspicuous bravery and leadership during the German attack at Albert on 28/3/1918. The enemy broke through a battalion on our right. Lieutenant Mitchell immediately charged the enemy and succeeded in capturing about 30. He continued to direct his platoon during the whole of the day in an absolutely fearless manner. His example was very inspiring to his men.
On 3 May, at Monument Wood near Villers-Bretonneux, the 48th Battalion prepared to advance on German lines. While one troop from C Company managed to penetrate enemy lines, the remainder was held up through heavy machine-gun and artillery fire. Many casualties had been sustained, and Mitchell managed to negotiate a short truce to allow the 48th to recover wounded men from no man’s land.
A party of our stretcher-bearers appeared over the railway bank. The leader carried a white flag. Held my breath for fear they would be shot down. Fritz was a gentleman. They went unscathed, not a bullet was fired from the enemy trenches, a short 100 yards away. Then an astounding thing. Full length out of the German line rose an officer. He called ‘Do you want to surrender?’ A chorus: Surrender be ------------!… Just as I was debating whether he had a sense of humour, he marched calmly towards our line…I heaved myself out of the trench and marched toward him…Soon I was face to face with [him]. We saluted … ‘What is it you want?’ he asked … ‘These’, I said, pointing to our wounded all around us. ‘Very well’, he said, ‘I will give you twenty minutes. If we fire three shots in the air we will continue the war … to do him justice [he] was the soul of honour, integrity and generosity throughout the whole proceeding … Fritz started stretcher bearing too … in this way the work went swiftly … The twenty minutes of grace had stretched to two hours. All the wounded had been removed long since …I turned to [him]: ‘I thank you for your generosity. We have all our wounded. We had better continue the war’ … We stood to attention–face to face. He saluted flat handed–I with the palm outward. We turned right about and marched slowly back.
On 25 July 1918, Mitchell received the news that he was to be sent to Army Rest Camp. Those chosen for the rest camp were men who had provided the longest continuous, good service in the firing line; Mitchell certainly qualified. He arrived by 3 August and enjoyed several days in Paris.
Mitchell missed the last two battles faced by the 48th Battalion, at Amiens and the Hindenburg Outpost Line. From 12 September he was in hospital recovering from venereal disease. He rejoined his unit at the end of October. The war ended two weeks later and Mitchell returned home to Australia on HMAT Armagh in May 1919.
Transition back to civilian life was not easy for Mitchell. Failing to make a go of farming on his small soldier settlement block in Mt Gambier, he pursued a range of jobs, mostly in sales. Over time Mitchell had small businesses of his own, running a garage and later mail-order work, however the mainstay of his occupations was as a writer. His flamboyant nature translated well into the written word, and he had a gift for producing colourful and descriptive accounts of his war-time experiences. He wrote for Smith’s Weekly, an irreverent publication aimed at returned soldiers that contributed to the glorification of the Anzac legend. In 1937 he published Backs to the Wall, the first of several publications based on his personal experience of war. Mitchell also edited and toured with an official First World War documentary film called We of the AIF, at screenings of which he would provide vivid commentary and answer questions from viewers.
Enjoying the limelight, Mitchell stood as an Independent candidate for the New South Wales State Legislative Assembly seat of Oxley. Though he lost on his first attempt in 1938, he won convincingly in 1941. At this time he married 20-year-old Thelma Bell, a woman 26 years his junior. They did not have long together before Mitchell was called up to serve in the Second World War. War was close to home in the Pacific region and after Broome was bombed in March 1942, Mitchell was sent there, along with other officers, to assess the situation. His report urged the need for increased vigilance, and saw him appointed commanding officer of a Guerrilla Warfare Unit, tasked to patrol the north-west coast. During this period Thelma gave birth to their only child, a son, George Junior.
In 1943, Mitchell became commanding officer of the No. 43 Landing Craft Company, formed to provide inshore transport for army personnel along the north coast of New Guinea. He eventually had 235 volunteers under his control, including at its core, the 60 men from his previous Guerrilla warfare group. They achieved great success in their role.
Unfortunately Mitchell, with his characteristic disregard for authority, acted independently on some dubious intelligence, and took the full force of his command to attack an uninhabited island. He was relieved of command the following day and spent the rest of the war training landing craft personnel in Moreton Bay.
Mitchell’s second round of post-war occupations was as unsettled as the first. He held positions in various associations and tried to get a mail-order business operational before finding longer-term occupation. In the early 1950s, he worked with businessman Hastings Deering, who owned the Chamberlain Tractor Company and had interests in many large cattle properties in northern and central Australia. Mitchell and his wife packed up a caravan and travelled at Deering’s expense, seeking to identify the best areas in which post-war migrants could settle. During this time he continued to write, and produced a travelogue based on his personal and wartime experiences.
Mitchell died of cancer on 11 January 1961. Thelma died ten years later of a heart attack, aged 50 years. Nothing is known of what happened to their son George Junior.
Australian War Memorial, Embarkation, Honour and Nominal Rolls, http://www.awm.gov.au/
Bean, CEW 1939, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914 -18 Vol. IV, 9th Edition, Angus & Robertson, Sydney
Browning, N 2009, Leane’s Battalion, 48th Battalion AIF, 1916-1919, Quality Press, Osborne Park
Gammage, B 1970, ‘The broken years: a study of the diaries and letters of Australian soldiers in the Great War, 1914-18’, PhD thesis, Australian National University, Canberra
Limb, A 1919, 10th Battalion A.I.F. 1914-1918, Egypt, Gallipoli, France, Belgium, Cassell and Company Ltd, London.
Lock, CBL 1936, The Fighting 10th, Webb & Son, Adelaide, combined in a compendium presented by the 10th Battalion A.I.F. Association
Mitchell, GD 1937, Backs to the Wall, Angus & Robertson, Sydney; and 2007 edition introduced by Robert Macklin, Allen & Unwin, Crow’s Nest
National Archives of Australia: Australian Imperial Force, Base Records Office; B2455, NX156027, Lieutenant George Deane Mitchell’s First Australian Imperial Force personnel dossier,1914-1948; MITCHELL G D, 1914-1948