The Man in the Mud-Stained uniform: Pte George Giles MM – I Was Only Doing My Job: Australia's Military History
29-JULY-1918. While serving with the 29th Infantry Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, Private George Giles, participated in the attack on German positions at Morlancourt. After which, he was instructed to proceed to the headquarters of the 8th Brigade, and surrender his uniform and equipment to the Australian War Records Section. Photographs were taken, and he was issued new equipment. The intent being to ‘show how our men came out of the trenches’ to the public. Who was the man behind the most famous uniform in the collection of the Australian War Memorial?
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George James Giles was born on 5 November 1884 in Ballarat, Eastern Victoria. The son of George James Giles, and Elizabet Mary Ann Sharp. Not much is known of his formative years, or where he had his schooling, but what is known is that as an adult he worked on the railways, reaching the position of ganger and married Hannah May Heathcote in Victoria in 1907, and would have two children.
By 1915, however, Giles and Hannah appear to have been separated, on accounts that he was allegedly an abusive alcoholic, claims that he denied. It would also appear that he fathered an illegitimate child in 1916 with another woman.
However, when he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 1 August 1916 at the age of 33, his paperwork bears the name George Smith, and listed the mother of his illegitimate child Hilda Elizabeth as the initial next of kin and he signed his papers on 16 May 1916. It wouldn’t be until the following January that he would amend his record, to have his proper name and his wife as his next of kin listed.
He would be allocated to the 10th Reinforcements to the 29th Infantry Battalion, and after his initial training at Ascot Vale, he depart for overseas service aboard the Troop ship HMAT Port Melbourne on 21 October 1916, arriving in England on 28 December 1916, arriving in France the following April where he would be formally taken on strength with the 29th Battalion as it was in camp around the Pozieres region of France, occupying positions around those that Sergeant David Twining had repelled German counter attacks from just nine months prior.
Giles and the 29th Battalion would rotate between training camps predominantly around the Pozieres region of France for the next three months, including occupying positions held by Sergeant David Twining, when he repelled German Counter Attacks nine months prior, this period also saw a brief rotation to the front-line trenches around Lagincourt-Marcel which were by the accounts of the Battalions official unit history, it was a particularly quiet stretch of the front, making it perfect to give Giles his first introduction to trench warfare.
It should be noted that there is a prevailing misconception, perpetrated by Hollywood, that during the First World War, soldiers spent their entire time in the front lines, when in reality unless actively engaged in an offensive, they only spent an average of eight days in the front trenches, followed by another four days in a reserve trench. And while the 29th Battalion as a whole spent eighteen days in the front, during this three-month period, it rotated its four companies with two in the front, and the other two in reserve or support positions, so that they only spent at most eight days in the front line.
In June as the 29th would relocate to Senlis to the south, and it would be here that Giles would go absent without leave for two days, presumably to travel to Paris roughly an hour away, and in response he would be fined two days pay.
By the end of July, as the Battalion would relocate closer to Belgium in preparation for the Battle of Polygon Wood, the same battle that John Hines participated in and his famous photo was taken, but Giles would not participate in it, as he would fall ill with influenza, and would spend the next four months in hospital, finally re-joining the unit on 26 October as they rested in camp once again in Ouderdom, west of Ypres, as it replenished its losses following the capture of Polygon Wood.
On 15 November, the Battalion was once again in the front lines, in support of operations near Wulvergem, mainly preparing defensive positions, and transporting duckboards to shore up the front line, before spending the end of the month in positions near Gapaard where they came under heavy German Shelling.
Giles would return to hospital once again with influenza on 11 December, this time his condition was so severe that he would be evacuated to England to convalesce.
Following the capitulation of Russia with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Germany briefly gained a temporary manpower advantage over the Allies, and a very small window in which to exploit it, as the United States of America, which had joined the war in 1917, was close to being able to fully deploy its resources. When campaign conditions improved in the spring, German Quartermaster-General Erich Von Ludendorff launched a series of attacks with the intent of smash through Allied lines, outflank the British forces to the north and defeat the British Expeditionary Force, that would hopefully encourage France to seek an Armistice. While we have the advantage of hindsight in 2021, in 1918, particularly in March, there was no guarantee that the war was going to end in November, and there is still some possibility that Germany, had the Spring Offensive succeeded, could have come out on top. However, even after initial successes, including the near destruction of the British Fifth Army which bore the brunt of the German Offensive, issues with logistics and increasingly stiff Allied resistance, as Fresh Dominion troops were fed into the trenches to defend key locations like railway hubs and supply caches, meant that by the time that Giles had recovered and returned to his unit in April, most of the gains that Germany had taken during this offensive had either already been retaken, or was in the process of it being taken.
One of the reasons for this sudden reversals was due in part to the lack of fortifications, and for the most part the trenches at this point were non-continuous, it also took place on land that hadn’t experienced four years of continual artillery bombardment, which meant an end to statis warfare and a return to a more fluid style of combat. For the 29th Battalion, its first introduction to this kind of fighting, would be during operations around Morlancourt, a village that had been captured by the Australian 3rd Division in March, lost to the Germans during the Spring Offensive, only to be recaptured by the Australian 2nd Division on 10 June. On 29 July the 29th Battalion, along with the rest of the Australian 5th Division would commence limited offensive actions around Beacon Hill, utilising the tactic of Peaceful Penetrations, an Australian and New Zealander tactic that combined the tested tactics of offensive patrols and trench raiding, where ANZAC troops would quickly occupy German positions with minimal resistance, for Morlancourt, this meant the capture of two lines of German trenches, 128 prisoners and 38 machine guns, in an operation that was criticised as unnecessary by senior British officers.
It was following this battle as Giles was marching back down into the valley of the river Ancre when he and another soldier, Private John Wallace Anderton of the 32nd Battalion, were ordered to present themselves to the 8th Brigade Headquarters, some four miles away through muddy communication trenches. It is said that when Giles arrived, he was in a foul mood and was ‘expressing himself in a true Australian style’.
Now when the two soldiers arrived, the story for a long time was that they were greeted by Charles Bean, the Australian Official War Correspondent, Historian and later founder of the Australian War Memorial, and that the asked both soldiers for their uniforms and equipment, and this narrative has been accepted quite readily for over a hundred years, however, Beans own diaries at the time have him in a completely different section of the front at the time, and the request to Giles and Anderton was actually given by Brigadier Edwin Tivey, who told them that he was going to make them famous. He was acting on a request from the Australian War Records Section to collect sets of uniforms and equipment taken from men immediately after a raid.’
Before either man knew what was going on, they were taken to be photographed, both front and rear, then hand their uniforms, kits and rifles handed over to the Deputy Assistant Director Ordnance Services, who issued them men with fresh equipment, and handed their battle worn gear to the Australian War Records Section, so complete was this collection, that Giles’ Tobacco, cigarette butts and eating utensils, that he apparently kept in his puttees, were taken. This one act would result in one of the most known objects in the collection of the Australian War Memorial, as Giles Uniform would go on display almost continuously for over eighty years, still bearing the mud and detritus of that battle.
The war, for Giles however, would go on beyond this chance encounter. In August, he would participate in the 8th Brigades advance up the treacherous Morcourt Valley offensive, eventually capturing Vauvillers on 9 August, in this action he would receive the Military Medal, the citation read: “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during the operations near VAUVILLERS, East of VILLERS-BRETONNEUX on 9th August 1918. During the work of consolidating, several of his comrades, whilst covering the working party, were wounded by snipers, who were operating from concealed positions at very close range. Pte. GILES though not a stretcher bearer, and in spite of the fact that he was exhausted, went forward and succeeded in dressing the wounds of his comrades. He organised stretcher parties and personally assisted to remove the wounded to a place of safety. By so doing he undoubtedly saved the lives of several men. Throughout the whole operation he displayed great courage and coolness under most trying conditions. By his personal efforts he did much to ensure the success of his platoon.”
In Late September the 29th would fight its last battle alongside the US 30 Infantry Division in breaching the Hindenburg Line at the battle of the St Quentin Canal tunnel. Following this, and due to the casualties sustained by the Australian Corps, the decision had been made to disband one battalion in four to reinforce the remaining three, the 29th was chosen to be one of these disbanded Battalions, and Giles would join the 32nd Battalion on 12 October. By this point, the 29th was a little over half of its authorised strength of a thousand men.
By this point, the entirety of the Australian Corps had been withdrawn from the line to rest and retrain for the expected renewed offensives of 1919, and thus did not participate in any further campaigning. Giles would return to England in April 1919 and return to Melbourne aboard the HMAT Orita on 23 June 1919. He would be formally discharged in September
It would seem that his returning to Australia was not a joyous reunion as Hannah May would file for divorce on grounds of desertion and misconduct, while he would remarry and resume his pre-war career on the railways. He would later work at a bakery, but would be unemployed during the Great Depression.
In 1936 he unsuccessfully applied to the Repatriation Commission for a disability pension, stating he had been declared fit for service upon enlistment, and that the rheumatism and neurosis he suffered – likely factors in his struggle with unemployment – were a result of war service. “I hope you are able to help in this matter,” he wrote, “as I am just about desperate and destitute.” His claim was rejected; his ailments deemed by medical officers to be “not due to war service”. His health declined and he died in 1942 from a heart condition, aged 58.
Sadly, despite the assurances of Brigadier Tivey, Giles never saw the fame that his uniform received, as it wasn’t until the 80’s that his uniform, which had been on display for sixty years was finally attributed to him. The story is worse for Anderton, as his whole uniform would disappear when it arrived in Australia.