Hobbs was born in London in 1864 and migrated to Perth aged 23. He became a successful architect and prominent member of society, serving on numerous boards and committees. On 24 April 1890, he married Edith Ann Hurst. Together, they raised three sons and four daughters.
Hobbs was an equally passionate part-time soldier, and studied the latest artillery doctrines and gunnery techniques on return trips to Britain. When war broke out, he was appointed Commander of the 1st Division Artillery. Despite his lack of combat experience, not having served in the Boer War, he displayed a combination of knowledge, intelligence, instinct and the ability to listen and adapt.
Hobbs left Melbourne on 20 October 1914 aboard HMAT Shropshire, arriving in Albany five days later. There, Shropshire assembled with the rest of the First Convoy before departing on 1 November 1914.
Hobbs arrived in Alexandria on 4 December and transferred to Mena Camp, where he trained his gunners on the plains near the pyramids. Making the best of limited equipment and ammunition, their exercises adopted the latest available artillery techniques.
Artillery plans passed to Hobbs from Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF) headquarters established that naval firepower would support the beach landing and initial advance. At 4 am on 25 April 1915, Hobbs watched from the deck of SS Minnewaska ‘[f]lashes, and the report of musketry intimated that our covering force was ashore and engaged with the enemy'. He went ashore around 10 am and immediately climbed Plugge’s Plateau. According to Lieutenant Colonel Brudenell White, the 'small figure with eyes aflame sought positions for his guns, and chafed that they were not allowed to be disembarked earlier'.
By mid afternoon Hobbs had identified two suitable positions and ordered field guns ashore. He awaited their arrival impatiently, recording in his diary that it was not until 5.30 pm that ‘the first … field gun ... was landed and whisked along the beach to the cheers of hundreds of wounded, waiting to be removed to the ships'.
In the early weeks, Hobbs worked tirelessly to identify positions while his men hauled the 18-pounders across the rugged terrain. The razorback peaks and narrow gullies of the peninsula limited the effectiveness of artillery support; the guns’ relatively flat trajectory could not penetrate the Ottoman soldiers, who were well dug in. The Ottomans also had the advantageous higher ground, and were able to relocate more easily once the Australians found their mark. In addition to ammunition restrictions, Hobbs was frustrated by Major General Sir William Bridges’ order that guns be employed in the front line. Hobbs considered that this method was less effective and put his gunners unnecessarily at risk. Artillery’s role, he argued, was not to be ‘shotguns for the infantry’.
As the Anzacs secured their foothold on the peninsula, Hobbs conducted reconnaissance to chart trenches and artillery emplacements. By June, he had strengthened communication with the NZ&A Divisional Artillery and its Howitzer battery to coordinate an effective coverage of the Anzac front. Not long after, he was able to put together the Australian Heavy Howitzer Battery. On 1 June he reflected, ‘everything now seems to be in excellent order'.
As the artillery commenced the three-day slow bombardment for the diversionary attack on Lone Pine, Hobbs commented, ‘I will always remember the calm resolute faces of these splendid men of NSW so patiently waiting for the time … determined to succeed. So many of them [going] to their death.'
The infantry advanced on 6 August and endured a desperate four-day struggle. It was a costly victory. On 11 August, Hobbs wrote,
‘I went through the Lone Pine work today, the horrors of which I can never I think forget … bodies lie in the most atrocious, grotesque [positions]. The stench and flies are abominable and how our men can fight, eat and sleep among these awful surroundings I do not know.’
Hobbs was admitted to hospital suffering dysentery on 30 August and re-joined the division nine days later. From 4 October he temporarily commanded 1st Australian Division, however, he remained unwell and was evacuated from Gallipoli on 9 November.
In recognition of his service during the Gallipoli campaign, Hobbs was appointed Companion of the Order of the Bath for Distinguished Services and later awarded the White Eagle 3rd Class (with swords) by the King of Serbia.
Hobbs recovered in Egypt before spending Christmas with family in England. Meanwhile, the evacuation of troops from Gallipoli was completed and his gunners were relocated to Egypt. Hobbs resumed command on 25 January 1916. His early priorities were training, morale and helping to create the new 4th and 5th Divisional Artilleries.
On 22 March 1916, Hobbs departed for the Western Front. Though incomplete in number and training, his men were directed to a quiet sector near Armentières. Training continued ‘in the line’ and Hobbs’ necessarily vigorous program saw rapid improvement in artillery work, including contemporary tactical concepts such as the creeping barrage. While the artillery went into reserve on 5 July, Hobbs continued to visit the front. His diary entry of 12 July reads, ‘very narrow escape from enemy’s shell as we were walking from above Fricourt Wood across to Mametz. Hundreds of guns are emplaced facing the German lines of all caliber — the noise of the bombardment was terrific — the sense of waste and desolation of the battlefield is awful'.
The preliminary barrage for the attack on Pozières began on 20 July. On 23 July, Hobbs wrote,
[The attack] commenced at 12.30 [am] ... and has been going on all day … as far as can be seen we have captured vast parts of the village and inflicted severe losses on the enemy. We have I fear suffered severely too … It was a weird and amazing scene last night with the guns and shells lighting up the night like day while the roar and thunder of the hundreds of guns engaged along the front was appalling. I was congratulated … on the achievements of the artillery by … General Gough, General Birdwood and others most warmly.
The gunners worked tirelessly through four days of relentless retaliatory bombardment. Hobbs conducted personal reconnaissance and stationed observers to convey support and information. He responded quickly to changing conditions, but the circumstances were challenging and, at times, he could not re-position due to German counter-battery fire. The buffer springs on the 18-pounders wore with the excessive workload, and as they were hurriedly repaired, Howitzers covered the front. While 1st Division infantry were relieved on 27 July, the gunners stayed an additional three days until, exhausted, Hobbs and his men were relieved to the luxury of baths and clean uniforms. The German lines were finally captured at nightfall on 4 August.
From 13 August, Hobbs and his gunners returned to the front for ten days of bitter fighting at Mouquet Farm. Again, communication and quick response was critical, however Hobbs struggled to obtain definitive information and the infantry was, at times, under fire from their own guns.
From October until December 1916, Hobbs temporarily commanded 1st Anzac Corps Artillery and formed a closer working relationship with Birdwood and Brudenell White, affording him the opportunity to demonstrate his knowledge, capacity and leadership qualities. Birdwood selected him to command 5th Division. Hobbs reflected on this news during Christmas in Ribemont,
[U]nfortunately I was still suffering from the effect of … bronchitis. I had also experienced a fairly worrying time as Acting G.O.C.R.A. of the Australian Corps, but … Birdwood … appointed me to command the Fifth Australian, and this was the best tonic … and helped me to pull myself together in order to face my responsibilities.
Replacing the unpopular Major General McCay, Hobbs injected new spirit and energy into the division, improving low morale through his consistent visits to the front line and dedication to the troops’ welfare. This, coupled with high expectations for efficiency and discipline, gained him the respect and trust of his soldiers.
Captain A.D. Ellis wrote,
From a distance there was nothing imposing in the slight, almost frail, figure. It was when one’s eyes rested on his face, that one felt the strength … of the personality behind it. It was the face of a man who had worked at high pressure for many years. … [T]he mouth was determined … the eyes were clear, quick and penetrating, yet immediately responsive to humour or to compassion. ... A quick, almost nervous manner betokened latent springs of energy that soon showed themselves to be almost exhaustible.
Hobbs, now Major General, selected his bold 15th Brigade Commander ‘Pompey’ Elliott to pursue the German retreat towards the Hindenburg Line. Elliott set out on 18 March 1917 and undertook a successful advance. However, his capture of Bertincourt in the British sector angered Birdwood and Hobbs ordered the column to halt. When the Germans counter-attacked Beaumetz, taken during the advance, Elliot sent his 59th back to defend. While his initiative forced the Germans back, he then ordered attacks on two more villages, thereby breaching the order to halt. He reportedly exclaimed, ‘I don't care if I hang for it.’ Hobbs rushed to Elliot’s headquarters and discreetly cancelled the attack without informing Birdwood. Of this incident Bean wrote, ‘what passed between them was known to them only; but, despite Elliott's magnificent qualities of leadership — in some ways unequalled in the AIF — not every superior could, like Hobbs, after so flagrant disobedience have continued to accord to him his confidence and support'.
After successful attacks on Louverval and Doignies, Hobbs’ diary entry for 2 April read, ‘[it] certainly has been a very fitting finish to our ... continuous fighting since January 18. I only hope we can hang on until we are relieved'.
The division was rested briefly, then returned to the front during the Second Battle of Bullecourt. Hobbs, recognising the fatigue of his men, approached Birdwood to have them relieved. After the Germans withdrew on 17 May, 5th Division was afforded extended rest and Hobbs took leave in Britain. Returning in June, he maintained fitness 'rather by encouraging relaxation and games than by more formal training'.
Moving north to the Ypres sector, Hobbs prepared his division for their first major engagement in Belgium. On 26 September 1917, 5th Division successfully advanced on Polygon Wood under thunderous artillery, which Bean described as the ‘most perfect [barrage] that ever protected Australian troops. Roaring, deafening, it rolled ahead of the troops “like a Gippsland bushfire”.’
Earlier Hobbs had reflected,
[the division] has done well and has earned a good name for … discipline and efficiency. My heart swelled with pride and sorrow as I thought of how many of these gallant, splendid fellows would be no more. When I watched 14th & 15th Brigade Groups march past me yesterday my heart was sad.
After the initial attack, Hobbs visited the front to convey his thanks. For the next four days, the men endured mustard gas and heavy counter-attacks. 3,723 5th Division men were killed, wounded or missing and Hobbs later selected Polygon Wood as the memorial site for the division.
Before departing to spend ten days in London with family, Hobbs gave a heartfelt Christmas address to the division.
I wish all my comrades of the 5th Australian Division a happy Christmas — as happy as it can be under existing conditions. I hope indeed it will be the last we shall spend away from Australia. I take this opportunity of thanking you all for the splendid and loyal assistance you have given me during the last twelve months. By your gallantry, efficiency, and good discipline you have won for the Division a reputation of which we may be justly proud — a reputation that inspires the hope that in the coming struggle we shall with honour and distinction take our full share.
In January, Hobbs was made a member of the Military Division of Knight Commander of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath for valuable services rendered in connection with Military Operations in the Field.
The German Spring Offensive saw a number of the places in which 5th Division had previously fought, including Polygon Wood, fall to the enemy. Hobbs and his men repositioned to defend the heights around Villers-Bretonneux and the vital rail hub of Amiens.
In the dawn mist on 24 April, the Germans took Villers-Bretonneux. Working quickly, Hobbs orchestrated a successful night attack over 24-25 April. Heavy covering fire supported Elliott’s 15th and Glasgow’s 13th Brigades as they enveloped the town, while a limited protective barrage denied the enemy time to reinforce. 22nd Durham Light Infantry (8th British Division) came temporarily under Hobbs’ command to provide support; one of the few times British troops were led by an Australian general.
Of Villers-Bretonneux, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig wrote,
At 10.00 p.m. on the night of the 24th/25th April, a counter-attack was launched by a brigade of the 8th Division and the 13th and 15th Brigades of the 4th and 5th Australian Divisions, Major-General Sir J. J. T. Hobbs commanding the latter division, and met with remarkable success. A night operation of this character, undertaken at such short notice, was an enterprise of great daring. It was carried out in the most spirited and gallant manner by all ranks.
Reflecting on the significance of the battle, Field Marshal Sir William Birdwood, former Commander of the Australian Corps, recalled,
At 3.45 am on the 24th April the Germans bombarded us heavily for two hours, and we quite expected a big attack. When it came, however, it fell in strength on the 8th Division and the III Corps on our left, compelling them to fall back from Villers Bretonneux. This was serious, for the retention of that position was essential. To Talbot Hobbs and his 5th Division I entrusted the task of retaking it, and right well did he carry it through. He counter-attacked that same night, sending in Elliott’s 15th and Glasgow’s 13th Brigades simultaneously, from the north-west and south-west respectively. The operation was well planned and brilliantly executed. The 15th Brigade cut out the greater portion of Villers Bretonneux as far as the main road, with very small loss to themselves. The 13th were not quite so fortunate, for though they accomplished their task an exposed flank cost them considerable casualties. By morning the whole village was in our hands.
And that was Anzac Day, April 25. We felt that it was a good augury — and so it was. From that day the Germans never advanced a foot. For them it was the beginning of the end. I have always maintained that this action was the great turning point of the war, and that the British Empire owes a far greater debt to the gallant little General Hobbs than has ever been realised. I had given him no more than my broad idea of that cutting-out attack, but he carried it out with the infinite care so characteristic of him.
Hobbs began planning 5th Division’s involvement in the upcoming battle of Amiens. His proposal that buses be used to transport the men to the assembly area was vetoed by Monash, who considered route marches the best cure for tiredness.
The coordinated attack, involving artillery, infantry and aircraft, began at 4.20 am on 8 August with the Australian 2nd and 3rd Divisions alongside the British and Canadians. The 5th advanced at 8.35 am. They captured 370 prisoners and 22 guns, including a German 28-centimetre railway gun that had earlier shelled Amiens.
On 1 September, Hobbs’ soldiers came under heavy fire during an unsuccessful attack on Péronne. Monash pressed the need to take it quickly and so Hobbs issued orders for a repeat advance at midnight. Elliott believed Hobbs placed unreasonable expectations on his exhausted men. Hobbs, troubled, wrote,
I have been up against many trials, difficulties and problems in my life ... but never have I had to face such an awful responsibility and danger ... I shall never, I think have a tougher problem to solve. My position was difficult indeed ... when General Elliott told me his men were practically done (he certainly was very, very tired).
Over subsequent days Péronne, Flamicourt and Darmastadt Trench were captured. The troops withdrew to rest and Hobbs took leave in Britain, returning on 27 September to the defensive strong points around Bellicourt. On 8 October Hobbs and the division were withdrawn to the Oisemont sector for a rest that lasted until the end of the war.
In January 1919, Hobbs received the honour of Knight Commander of St Michael and St George in connection with military operations in France and Flanders. The recommendation read:
Major General Hobbs has, throughout the period, rendered most distinguished service, as Commander of the 5th Australian Division, in opposing the enemy attacks between the Somme and Villers-Bretonneux in April and May 1918, and in series of operations from August 5th till Sept. 18. including the capture of Bayonvillers, Harbonnières, Framerville, Villers-Carbonnel and Péronne. His Division has always been maintained in a high state of fighting efficiency and has uniformly acquitted itself magnificently. This is due to the fine organising capacity and the qualities of leadership displayed by its Commander.
At this time he was also awarded the French La Croix de Guerre. Throughout the war, he was Mentioned in Despatches eight times.
After the Armistice, Hobbs succeeded Monash and commanded the Australian Corps between 28 November 1918 and 30 May 1919.
On his return to Perth in October, Hobbs resolved, ‘for the rest of my life I shall be at the service of the men who did so very much to win this war, the Australian soldiers'. He reflected that their ‘determination, their courage, their extraordinary endurance and cheerfulness, often under the most appalling conditions, I can never forget'. He became committed to the welfare of returned soldiers, advocating publicly on their behalf and opening his home to those in need of a meal.
They, in return, also held him in high regard. In the 5th Division history published in 1920, Captain A. D. Ellis wrote:
It can be said without possibility of contradiction that the luckiest day in the history of the [5th Australian] Division was the day that brought General Hobbs to it as its commander ... [I]t is doubtful if a single officer, NCO, or man in the many thousands he commanded ever cherished any feeling for him save that of the highest regard. And that is a rare circumstance even with the most successful commanders.
Hobbs retired from the army in 1927 but remained an active member of committees and advisory boards. He also maintained close friendships with wartime comrades and though his relationship with Elliott remained strained, he was saddened when Elliott took his own life in 1931.
Hobbs’ architectural practice continued to thrive and he became heavily involved in the design of memorials in Australia and overseas. After departing with his wife and daughter for the unveiling of the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, Hobbs suffered a heart attack and died at sea on 21 April 1938, aged 73. He was given a state funeral and the Perth Western Mail’s tribute, commenting on his postwar work, read:
Sir Talbot was a fine example of an old man living, not in the past but in the future. Through a difficult period which suffered greatly from the loss of its natural leaders, he helped do the work of younger men who had gone, and accepted as the first call of his energies, the making of the future and the leadership of youth.
A memorial to Hobbs was unveiled in 1940 on the Esplanade in Perth. Shaded by palm trees, it faced his first major commission, the Weld Club, and was within sight of the State War Memorial at Mount Eliza (Kings Park), also built to his design. In 2014, the statue was relocated to the Supreme Court Gardens due to the Elizabeth Quay development.
Australian War Memorial, Embarkation, Honour and Nominal Rolls, http://www.awm.gov.au/
Australian Dictionary of Biography, Sir Joseph John Talbot Hobbs (1864-1938)
Bean, Charles, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914 -18 Vol. I, 9th Edition, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1939
Birdwood, William Riddell, Khaki and Gown: An Autobiography, Ward, Lock & Co., London, 1941
Coombes, David, The Lionheart: Lieutenant-General Sir Talbot Hobbs, Australian Military History Publications, Preston Victoria, 2007
Ellis, Captain A. D., The Story of the Fifth Australian Division: Being an Authoritative Account of the Division's Doings in Egypt, France and Belgium, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1920
Haig, Sir Douglas, Sir Douglas Haig’s Despatches (December 1915-April 1919), ed. Lieut.-Colonel J. H. Boraston, published 1919 by J. M. Dent & sons ltd in London & Toronto, E. P. Dutton & co. in New York
Hobbs Diary, Hobbs Papers, Battye Library. MN 1460, item 5523A/1
Hobbs, Sir T., 'A Gunner's Reflections: Gallipoli Campaign', Reveille, RSS&AILA, NSW Branch, Sydney, 31 March 1932, p.29, 66, 67 < http://www.anzacs.org/reveille/hobbs.html>, accessed 10 April 2014
National Archives of Australia: Australian Imperial Force, Base Records Office; B2455, Joseph Talbot Hobbs First Australian Imperial Force personnel dossier, 1914-1920; HOBBS J J T, 1914-1920