"The Scout of All-Leans" Capt David Twining MC, MM, CdG, MID – I Was Only Doing My Job: Australia's Military History
7-AUGUST-1916. Serving in the 48th Infantry Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, Sgt David Twining would participate in the Battle of Pozieres; during the second phase of the First Battle of the Somme. Following horrific German counterattacks, a wounded man would enter the 48th Battalion Headquarters with a simple message: “I’m the only one left, do you still want me to hold this position?” That message came from David Twining, and would start a monumental military career that would span Australia’s involvement in the Great War on the Western Front, but would sadly end with Captain David Twining taking his own life in 1931. His most known act, the defence of the Windmill at Pozieres was immortalised in the Pozieres Diorama at the Australian War Memorial. Sadly, the diorama has become more well-known than the man depicted in it.
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David Austral Twining was born near Ballarat on 19 November 1895, to Australian-English Parents. His early life was spent travelling between Johannesburg, Melbourne, and Elmhurst, and with the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War, his father David Snr, enlisted with the Rand Rifles, a unit tasked with guarding the goldmines around Johannesburg. His mother would return to Australia with their children in September 1903 while David Jnr was seven years old, with the family’s belief that his education should take place in Australia.
He was an avid sportsman, and dedicated student participating in school cricket, and football and was both dux and Head Boy at the ages of ten and twelve respectively. He would also regularly perform at local eisteddfods. When his original school Grenville College closed in 1911, he finished his schooling at the Ballarat Church of England Grammar School, graduating in 1912 and commenced study in civil engineering, eventually moving to Kalgoorlie in Western Australia to work on the construction of the Trans-Australian Railway Line. He had also followed in his father’s footsteps with a career in the military, serving as a second lieutenant in the Ballarat School Cadet Company, and holding a commission within the Citizen Military Forces.
He had been working on the section connecting Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie when he received word that his father had died on 30 March 1914.
Just over a year later, on 19 June 1915, David Twining, still only 19 years and six months old presented himself to the Kalgoorlie recruitment depot to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force, in his hand, a wired consent form from his mother. This was a requirement at the time as the AIF required parental consent for all recruits under the age of 21. despite his work on the railways, he listed his occupation as a ‘student’. He was apparently a strongly built man, slightly shorter than both Bull Allen and John Hines at a modest 5-feet 8 ½ inches, he was what was considered at the time the average height of Australian men of the era.
Two days later he passed the medical evaluation he arrived at the Blackboy Hill Camp to complete his formal attestation to the AIF. He was posted to the 8th allocation of reinforcements to the 16th Infantry Battalion.
There is a degree of confusion about what a reinforcements allocation represented, and this system was modelled on the much older British system, where military units were raised, equipped, and reinforced from localised geographical locations, and all recruits would train locally and then be assigned to replace battle casualties or if the unit was expanded. Any recruit that enlisted after the initial allocation of soldiers to a Battalion was assigned to a reinforcement’s allocation based on their date of intake, for example, Twining was part of the eighth group of recruits to join at the 16th Battalion depot.
With the industrial horror that came out of the World Wars, and the need for reinforcements became disproportional, these allocations became a piecemeal resource that could be drawn on by whoever needed more men.
Having completed initial training, he provisionally rose through the ranks, first as a Lance Corporal and then as a Sergeant on 10 August. He embarked for overseas service on 2 September aboard the HMAT Anchises bound for first Egypt and then onto Lemnos, arriving in Mudros Harbour on 23 October. He would officially be taken on strength of the 16th Battalion and would return to his proper rank of private, though he wouldn’t stay at that rank for long. David would be promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal once again on 9 November while on Gallipoli.
His time on the peninsula would be short as the evacuation took place soon after, and David was one of the first to return to Alexandria, arriving there on 30 December.
In February 1916, David came into contact with a soldier who fell ill with Cerebrospinal meningitis or acute inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord and was admitted to hospital for two days as a precaution but thankfully didn’t contract this life-threatening disease.
At this point in the war, the Australian Imperial Force, underwent a period of expansion and retraining, where the existing two Australian Divisions were doubled, with each Battalion gaining a ‘sister’ Battalion comprised partly of Gallipoli veterans, and fresh recruits from Australia, with the intent being that the veterans would train up the replacements, imparting the lessons gained from the campaign.
In response to this, the 48th Battalion was raised on 16 March 1916 under Lieutenant Colonel Raymond Leane, and David Twining would join the “Joan of Arc Battalion” named such due to the number of the Lieutenant Colonel’s family would be within its ranks, prompting the quip that the 48th was “Made of all Leanes.”
On 2 June the 48th departed Egypt for the Western Front. Whilst the crossing to Marseilles was uneventful, conditions on board the ship were less than ideal with overcrowding and poor food both causing issues. David had, by this time, been promoted again to the rank of sergeant and he was soon to prove his worth as a strong and capable leader within the unit.
The 48th Battalion arrived in Albert on the Somme at the beginning of August, and they moved almost immediately into frontline trenches in preparation for an attack on the Pozieres as part of the second phase of Britain’s larger Somme Offensive, Australian troops had already participated in the capture of Fromelles the week before which was the debut of the Australian Imperial Force in the Western Front Campaign. The 48th was tasked with defending gains captured by the Australian 2nd Division. David was assigned as the sergeant of the 48th Battalion’s Scout Platoon and occupied positions beyond the front line.
As the capture of Pozieres was the only success of this phase of what would become the First Somme Offensive, it became the focus of intense German counterattacks and artillery barrages. In one of these, the 48th Battalion endured what is said to be the heaviest artillery barrage ever experienced by Australian troops, with just over half of the battalion’s 1000-man complement becoming listed as casualties.
It was in one of these counter-attacks on the afternoon of 5 August that David’s patrol leader was wounded, and David took charge, organising positions to be set up approximately 50 yards from the geographical location known as the Windmill, an elevation northeast of the town of Pozieres that dominated the surrounding countryside and was vital for the sighting of artillery for both sides.
He organised patrols along the front between the windmill and the Bapaume Road and reconnoitred the mill. He remained in this position the whole time from the night of Aug 5/6 until about 10 am on 7 August. During a German counter-attack on the morning of 7 August, he was able to bring flanking fire on the attacking infantry and was instrumental in repelling an attack that had already overrun other Australian positions along the front, including a number of the 48th Battalions’ other outposts.
By about 10 am on August 7, David was the only unwounded man on the patrol. Back at Battalion Headquarters, Lieutenant-Colonel Leane, who had no idea his scouts were in such an isolated position, was astonished to receive a message by way of a walking wounded soldier from David that stated, ‘…I am the only one left. Do you want me to hold the position?’ and immediately ordered him in, but afterwards returned in an attempt to bring in his wounded comrades, he was wounded himself.
In an interview David made after the way when asked about the defence of Pozieres, he stated. “After the first twelve hours, we took off our puttees and used them to bandage the wounded. By the end of 24 hours, most of us had our coats off and were trying to use them on the wounded.”
He was evacuated to the 4th General Hospital at Camiers, suffering a relatively minor wound to his left arm.
Because of the costly nature of the defence of Pozieres, and that more Australians were killed in the two days of fighting than in the entire Gallipoli Campaign, prompted Australia’s official War correspondent and historian to write that the site marked a ‘ridge more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on Earth.” And pushed the Australian Government to purchase the land where the windmill previously stood, this site would go on to become the site of numerous memorials, and it is from here that soil was collected for the interring of the Unknown Australian Soldier.
For his actions in the defence of the Windmill, David would receive a battlefield commission to 2nd Lieutenant, and cabled his mother. He had also been recommended for the Distinguished Conduct Medal, but this was inexplicably downgraded to a Military Medal. Charles Bean was so impressed by the young soldier’s conduct, that he later featured him in the setting of the Pozieres diorama that was commissioned for the Australian War Memorial.
Fortunately, the wound healed quickly, and, on 14 August, David was transferred to a Convalescent Camp. He re-joined his battalion in billets at Hérissart on 5 September. Where he would serve for a period as Battalion Intelligence Officer.
News of his Military Medal was received on 4 October when the 48th was at Ridge Wood near Voormezeele in Belgium. It was wet and miserable, but the battalion had a raid on the salient planned, so it was business as usual for David Twining.
When the battalion adjutant, another member of the Leane family, left on leave for England on 11 October, David was appointed acting adjutant in his stead. The following day he received his second “pip” when he was promoted to full lieutenant. At the time he was said to be the youngest officer in the 48th Battalion.
1917 was to prove a pivotal year for David Twining, one that saw him progress from his achievements at Pozieres to becoming one of the best officers in the 48th Battalion. His constant gallantry in the field saw him Mentioned in Despatches on several occasions. The recommendations bear reading in order to understand the nature of this remarkable young officer.
On 5 March 1917, he was mentioned, ‘…For consistent good work and devotion to duty ever since the Battalion has been formed. As Adjutant of the Battalion, he has proved of immense value, always at his post, hardworking and reliable. He sets a splendid example by his soldierly bearing and cheerful manner to all those who come in contact with him…’ This recommendation was submitted by his Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Raymond L. Leane DSO MC.
General Douglas Haig’s Despatch of 9 April made special mention of David Twining for his ‘great devotion to duty and consistent good work throughout recent operations.’ The MID also recommended him for his captaincy. This promotion became a reality on 10 July, after Captain Joseph Mayersbeth was killed in action at Messines on 12 June.
In sending home news of his MID to his mother, David also included a card. from Major-General Holmes, C.M.G., D.S.O., V.D., commanding the 4th Australian Division, which contained congratulations for his gallantry and devotion to duty during April 1916.
Lieutenant-Colonel Leane again recommended David for a MID on 20 September.
‘…For gallant conduct and consistent good work and devotion to duty during the past six months. Captain Twining is extremely loyal, energetic and tireless in his efforts to maintain a high standard of efficiency in the battalion. As Adjutant, he has proved very valuable, always at his post. He can rely upon no matter how dangerous the conditions to carry out any tasks set him…’
This was seconded by Haig’s Despatch of 7 November for his ‘devotion to duty from 26 February to 20 September 1917. This was immediately followed by a further mention of work carried out during the period 23 September 1917 to 25 February 1918.
Obviously, seeing so many young men being killed and mutilated around him had some bearing on David making the decision to gift the 1917 prize to the Dux of his old school in Ballarat.
During the spring of 1918, the 48th Battalion played a critical role in blocking the main road into Amiens when the Germans launched their last great offensive.
On 5 April 1918, the 48th Battalion was in action near Albert. As the men came under heavy attack, David briefly took command of a rifle company and repeatedly exposed himself to hostile fire as he supervised the movements ordered by battalion headquarters. When it became necessary for the men to withdraw, he coordinated the operation. Brigadier-General John Gellibrand, in recommending David for the Military Cross, noted that ‘his coolness in action was as conspicuous in this as in all previous actions of his battalion.’
For David Twining, the possibility of further military honours must have seemed unimportant alongside the painful task he had in writing to the families of men who had died alongside him that day
For his actions in the Albert sector, David received a special communique from the Corps Commander, General John Monash, for ‘gallant conduct displayed during the enemy attack…on April 5th 1918.’
In July, Clara Twining received word from her son that he had been awarded the French Croix-de-Guerre. He apparently made a particular reference to being ‘pleased for the sake of his old school that he has been awarded his decorations.’
Further heavy fighting near Proyart in August 1918, as a part of the Battle of Amiens, saw David once again in the very thick of it. When part of the assaulting line was held up by intense machine-gun fire, he led a party forward and worked around the flanks of the enemy-held position. His successful capture of the machine gun and several prisoners prevented further casualties for the 48th.
He was sent on leave to England on 3 September. Upon returning, he was detached for duty in an advisory capacity as an operations officer with the 107th New York Regiment, American Army on 24 September. The following day he received word that a second recommendation for the Military Cross had been awarded. The citation read:
‘For his indomitable courage and devotion to duty during the advance on Proyart on the 8th August 1918, Captain D. A. Twining MM, seeing a portion of the assaulting line held up by enemy machine-gun position still holding out in the final objective, went forward under the very heavy machine and rifle fire, reorganised the men and worked around the flanks of the enemy. He then rushed the post from the rear, capturing the gun and 7 of the enemy. This party of the enemy held a very commanding position and was considerably hampering the troops on the flank. It was due to Captain Twining’s skill and a fine example that a large number of casualties were avoided. Captain Twining’s work throughout the whole operation displayed untiring energy and utter disregard for personal safety. His example to the men assisted materially in maintaining their untiring energy and interest…’
The awarding of the Military Cross was confirmed by Major-General E. G. Sinclair-Maclagan, Commander of the 4th Australian Division. Sinclair-Maclagan then took it upon himself to send a card of congratulations to the young man’s mother, remarking especially on David’s ‘gallantry, coolness and valuable work when in action.’
When the 48th Battalion took part in the fight to seize the Hindenburg “outpost line” between 18 and 20 September, it was to be the unit’s last battle of the war.
David Twining returned to England in early 1919 to await repatriation to Australia. The 48th Battalion was disbanded on 31 March and David embarked home two weeks later as adjutant onboard the transport Commonwealth.
Returning to civilian life was probably always going to be difficult for a young man who had forged himself in the heat of battle. David certainly attempted to resume his pre-war career, but this only lasted a few months.
After his appointment with the AIF was terminated on 1 August 1919, David successfully passed the entrance examination for the Royal Military College, Duntroon. He entered the college as a thoroughly over-qualified ‘Special’ staff cadet.
Graduating as a lieutenant in 1921, David took his first appointment in the Citizen Forces as adjutant to the 6th Battalion (Melbourne City Regiment).
From professional to personal, David’s life seemed to be blossoming. On 20 February 1922, he married Phyllis Margaret “Madge” Wise.
The following year they welcomed their first child, Jessica Phyllis Clare. David continued his work with the Citizen Forces and, in April 1923, he was in charge of the detention camp at Broadmeadows for members who had neglected to perform the prescribed number of drills during the year, or had failed to attend the annual camp. He was categorised as firm but fair and known for his cheery disposition and was generally well-liked.
In June, David was also appointed as Staff Captain of the 3rd Infantry Brigade in South Australia, resuming his association with his former battalion commander, Raymond Leane.
By November 1925, David had been promoted to brigade major. He was one of the youngest staff corps officers in South Australia, but his natural ability and perseverance resulted in him achieving well beyond his years. His concern for the welfare of his men was something that added to his popularity.
In September 1926, David was chosen to head to India on a two-year attachment to units of the British and Indian Armies.
After returning to Australia, David and Phyllis welcomed the arrival of their second child, John Raymond David, who was born at Elmhurst on 13 August 1928.
Continuing to pursue his military career, David returned once again to Keswick Barracks in South Australia, this time as adjutant to the 27th Battalion.
David’s position as a highly decorated officer afforded him a degree of respect in the veteran community. Visibly, he appeared to have come through the Great War largely unscathed. He certainly was known for his positive, cheerful personality, so what occurred at Keswick Barracks on 27 August 1931 remains something of a tragic mystery.
Events began to unfold in the early hours of 27 August. A fellow officer, Lieutenant Walter Parker, had been cycling home after a dance when he was struck by a car. Suffering from severe head injuries, Parker was not expected to survive. In attempting to locate David Twining to inform him of the situation, a watchman at the barracks went to the 27th Battalion office at the Drill Hall shortly after 9 am. There he discovered a man seated at his desk with a gas ring turned on and an overcoat pulled over his head, David Twining was dead.
As in so many instances, there had been no outward issues or change in David’s behaviour or demeanour. It was mentioned that he had suffered from the effects of gas poisoning, but that in itself was not enough to push a man to take his life. With the absence of a note, we may never know the reason why he took his life, and it would be disrespectful to his memory to speculate.
Strangely, the coroner decided against holding an inquest. The cause of death was ultimately determined as ‘suicide’. He would leave behind his wife, a daughter and a son.
His burial at the West Terrace Cemetery in Adelaide was conducted with full military honours.
One of his pallbearers was Lieutenant Colonel Harry Downes, his Commanding officer, and fellow 48th Battalion Veteran. He wrote an epitaph for the RSL newsletter Reveille. “For some people, the war ended in 1918/ but for those of us who understand, the grim reaper is still taking his toll, just as surely as he did at Messines or Passchendaele. And to me, Don Ack Toc (Twining’s nickname) has gone to join his comrades of Gallipoli and Flanders ‘killed in action just as surely as if he had ‘stopped it in the strenuous days of 1914-18”
While we may never know why David Twining enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force at such a young age, he may have believed that the Great War was an adventure too grand to miss, or he may have felt that he could never live down the shame of not going, but like for so many, the chances are that he went for no other reason than that he believed that it was his duty, and all the great deeds that he did in the War that was supposed to end all wars, was simply his job.