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Norman Gibbins - An Inspiring Leader
Our gratitude goes to Pastor Mark Ewards of the Cityhope church in Ripley, Ipswich, for the many excerpts from his Anzac addresses of April 2, 2023.
Norman Gibbins was born to William and Mary (nee Plowman) Gibbins in Ararat, Victoria on 22nd April 1878. They had ten children – four girls and six boys, but three of the boys did not survive past their first year.
Norman’s father was born in England and his mother in Scotland. William migrated to Australia when he was just 22 and he became a very successful and well-known civil engineer. His specialty was railways, then in their infancy in Australia, so he travelled extensively with his work and his family went with him. Eventually, they settled in Queensland, where he oversaw the construction of the Great Western Railway from Toowoomba to Charleville. At some stage, the family settled in Ipswich, Queensland.
At 15, Norman began attendance at the oldest secondary school in Queensland, Ipswich Grammar School. Family letters make it apparent that he was a keen sportsman who loved cricket, football and boxing.
Norman left school at 17 years of age and went to work for his civil engineering father for about 18 months. He decided that civil engineering was not for him and in November 1896 he joined the Ipswich Branch of the Bank of New South Wales (now Westpac). He was a general hand at first and then promoted to teller, a position only for those who showed the right aptitude and skill, particularly attention to detail and the ability to add up accurately.
In about 1898 he joined the Queensland Defence Force and was in the First Queensland (Moreton) Regiment, Ipswich Company and later the 4th Queensland (Darling Downs) Regiment. There is no doubt that he thrived in this environment, being described by his superior officers as very ‘zealous and efficient’. At just 22 years old he was promoted to Lieutenant after completing an Officer’s course.
His leadership qualities came to the fore and when the commanding officer of E Company went to the Boer War, Norman was appointed temporary Commanding Officer. By late 1902 he had served for four years and had gained the respect of both officers and men who served with him. This respect and admiration from the men around him would never leave Norman.
However, the next couple of years would prove challenging. Norman’s beloved 4th Queensland Regiment was disbanded and he was offered a transfer to Brisbane. This did not suit him as he was still residing in Ipswich and he had formed very close friendships in the regiment. An offer of a transfer to another Regiment was declined by Norman and other officers, hoping that their ‘old’ Regiment would be reformed. This did not occur and he was placed on the ‘Unattached List’ and subsequently placed in the Reserve of Officers.
There were also family issues that arose at this time and Norman and his sister Violet became estranged from the rest of the family. This came to the point that on his enlistment papers he originally listed his next of kin as ‘none’, but later changed this to be his sister Violet, not his mother Mary.
Norman’s sister Violet was also pondering her future and both of them moved to New South Wales. Norman had resigned from the bank and, according to letters from Violet, was negotiating to buy land to begin farming.
Off to War – Gallipoli
When war was declared, Norman was among the first to enlist, joining the Australian Imperial Force on 29 August 1914 and he was assigned to the 3rd Battalion. He was so keen to enlist that even with his prior military leadership experience in Queensland he was content to join as a private. His entry status didn’t last for long and he was soon promoted to Sergeant.
His military training continued in the heat of Egypt. All the men were keen to finish their training and ‘get into it’. Little did any of the Australians know that they were about to be part of history on a little-known piece of beach in Turkey.
After just six weeks of basic training Norman left for Egypt on 20 October 1914.
On the 5th of April 1915, the 3rd Battalion travelled to Alexandria and embarked on the SMS Derfflinger and on 24 April they were on one of the destroyers bound for Gallipoli. Norman was in the second wave of the attackers onto the beach. He would have carried, apart from his rifle, 200 rounds of ammunition, two extra days rations and a full pack fastened in a way that it could easily be slipped off if the boat went down.
By the time Norman jumped out of his boat and raced for the beach, the Turkish artillery was intense and bullets were churning the water and thudding into both the boats and the men on or leaving the boats. Norman made the dash across the beach. The records are scant about Norman’s involvement on that first day, except we know that in the early part of the evening he was wounded in the thigh by machine gun fire, described as a ‘flesh wound’, but he carried on fighting.
The next few days saw Norman involved in fierce fighting and on 28 April he received a severe gunshot wound to his right shoulder, which incapacitated him. There is nothing in his records to indicate where his initial treatment was handled, but on 12 May he was transferred to Southampton, England for further treatment.
Norman had obviously left his mark in the hearts and minds of the officers and men of the 3rd Battalion in these first few days of the landings. On May 1st, he was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant for “meritorious service in the field”. Further, on 29 June 1915, Norman’s name appeared in a list of men brought to the attention of the Army Corps Commander for:
“special mention for conspicuous gallantry or valuable services at Gallipoli between the 25th April and the 1st May”.
Back in Britain, Norman had sufficiently recovered from his injuries by 24 May to be given a month’s leave, which he spent doing volunteer administration work at the Australian Military office in London.
Norman left Britain in September and rejoined his unit at Gallipoli in early October. Luckily there was no significant action going on at that time. On 14 November he was promoted to Lieutenant.
Norman’s unit was evacuated from Gallipoli between the 15th and the 20th of December. The relief is the clearly shown on the photograph of the weary men. They arrived in Egypt on 29th December 1915.
During his time in Gallipoli, Norman’s father had died. While family relations were fractured, Norman had written to his mother twice while he was away - once, certainly, when his father died in September 1915.
Back to Egypt
With the heavy losses from Gallipoli and the large number of new recruits arriving from Australia, major reorganizations were underway in preparation for the War in Europe. Norman was transferred to the newly formed 55th Battalion in February 1916. He was promoted to Captain one month later and was to lead B Company. He was described as: “a fearless man who gained his reputation on Gallipoli”. Source: Pastor Mark Edwards, Ripley Church, Ipswich, QLD Anzac addresses April 2, 2023, https://vimeo.com/showcase/7615830/video/812651035
They were initially based in Tel el Kebir. The camp was near the railway line and accommodation consisted of tents. As he did during his time in Gallipoli, Norman wrote to his sister Violet every week.
The new battalion drilled, marched and practised battle manoeuvres. Long marches through soft ankle-deep sand with water rationing were frequent, and dehydration was commonplace. Bayonet practice happened all the time but there appeared to be little training in the usage and handling of bombs and how to deal with barbed wire – skills that would prove essential on the Western Front.
On 15 June, orders were received that the 55th Battalion was to leave for France. No one was sad to leave the sand and the intense heat.
To France and the Western Front
After a boat trip across the Suez Canal and in open rail trucks to Alexandria, Norman and the 55th boarded the SS Caledonia, a vessel described as being:
a “pigsty (with) poor food and crammed in like sheep”.
They left Egypt on 22 June, headed for Malta then Marseilles, disembarking in France on 30 June 1916. A two-day train trip followed, with the troops arriving in Thiennes at 2:30am. They were now just 30 kilometres from Fleurbaix. Training intensified and included the use of gas masks and the exposure to the effects of heavy shelling.
On 9 July they began a two-day march towards the front and they were settled in the trenches for the first time at 1:00am on the 12th.
The plan for the battle was to attack after an artillery barrage across open ground to help them to take the ridge. From the 14th Brigade, the 53rd and 54th Battalions were chosen to lead the attack, with Norman’s 55th in reserve. There was no doubt they would be called into the battle at some point. The reason simply was that the two Battalions chosen had no experience – the 53rd had spent only two days on the front line and the 54th less than one day. More so, the Germans watched all the preparations from the ridge so there was no possibility of any surprise. The Germans knew the Allies were coming.
On 18 July 1916, Norman and the 55th Battalion found themselves billeted in the village of Rae St Naur. The attack was confirmed for the following day.
Norman was sharing a room with the battalion Chaplain James Green. Green and Norman had probably connected on Gallipoli - they certainly knew each other. Green, a tough Boer War Chaplain who gained the troops' respect by continually facing danger on the front lines, was clearly very fond of Norman. In an undated letter, Green wrote of that night:
“It was quite evident that he (Gibbins) faced the situation, and there was no doubt in his mind about doing his share at all costs.”
Eyewitnesses say that at about 4:00pm on the 19th Norman lined his B Company up and reinforced to every one of the men what was required of them. He finished by wishing them “every luck and a safe return”. There is no doubt that Norman cared about his men. Private R. G. Metcalfe wrote to Violet sometime later and said that Norman “loved his men as a father loves his only child”. Source: Pastor Mark Edwards, Ripley Church, Ipswich, QLD Anzac addresses April 2, 2023, https://vimeo.com/showcase/7615830/video/812651035
Private John Bain must have looked nervous as the German shells came ever closer to where Norman’s Company was gathered. He recalls Norman walking along the trench with a private word to the men, encouraging them. When he reached Bain, he stopped and said:
“Well, Bain, you are going into action, and it’s going to be pretty hot, but if you get out of it, you will have something to talk about all your life”.
While the 55th were to be held in ‘reserve’, they went to work moving sandbags, ammunition and other supplies to support the early advances of the 53rd and 54th immediately after the fighting started at 6pm. The initial charges by the attacking Battalions were successful, but at around 7:20pm Brigadier-General Elliott sent a report to Headquarters that the attack was failing and needed support.
In response, Major General McCay sent about 500 men forward and by 9:30pm half of the reserve 55th Battalion had joined into the battle to support the 53rd and 54th Battalions. With the reinforcements in place, the Australians were able to close gaps in the front lines.
Norman brought his beloved B Company forward. It was chaos – the trenches were blocked leading to the front and one of the returning 53rd Battalion men told Norman that he wouldn’t get through. To which Norman loudly replied “The 55th can!” Source: AWM C E W Bean, The AIF in France, Vol 3, Chapter XII, p 389
Norman left the blocked trenches to get to the front via No Man’s Land. By midnight, the Australians had been able to establish communications across No Man’s Land, which helped to direct the effort of the attack. The battle raged on with the Germans throwing many flares, lighting up the lines, which was followed by bombs being thrown at the Australians.
As the night wore on the German counterattacks were able to expose their flanks. The Germans were now behind the Australians and Norman began organizing a counterattack of sorts because he realised the Germans were in the trench further to the left. He also attempted to raise the parapet with sandbags.
Second Lieutenant Percy Chapman later wrote:
“Captain Gibbins was the marvel – he kept walking up and down the lines, never showing any sign of fear, encouraging people and helping them.” “I have never known a braver or cooler man in action than he.”
Norman gathered as many men as he could to counterattack and prevent the Germans from taking the trench. If that happened, all was lost. Of the officers in B Company, only Norman and Chapman remain uninjured. He mustered about twenty men, including nine men from the 31st and each man loaded as many bombs as he could from the wounded and dead in preparation for the counterattack.
The group left the trench in a single file with Norman in the middle of the group. They charged, throwing bombs at the Germans because the rifles were useless in this type of attack. They forced the Germans back 150 yards in the trench, but they soon ran out of ammunition and the attack stalled.
The Germans attacked again. Gibbins and some of the men moved back to find more men and more bombs. They soon returned and launched another counterattack and a furious grenade fight took place. The Germans again were thrown back 100 yards. However, with such limited numbers and no bombs remaining, the attack lost momentum and the Australians had to give ground.
At some stage, Norman was hit in the head. With blood streaming down his face, he bandaged it up and ordered his remaining men to hold the trench. There were no more reinforcements and as they scrounged for bombs in the trench it became obvious that there were few, if any, remaining. Norman and B Company had been in the thick of it for thirteen hours.
There are no fresh orders yet and it was now 7:00 am. The Commanding Officers of the 53rd, 54th and 55th Battalions were discussing whether they should retire.
Norman was then ordered by his Commanding Officer to mount a rear-guard action to help the Australians retire. Australian casualties were still mounting because the saps (covered trenches or tunnels) were now full with the wounded and many men made a dash across open ground to get to the rear. Norman recruited four officers and about fifty men to collect as much ammunition and bombs as they can. Norman then lined them up almost shoulder to shoulder and they opened fire. Sergeant Bert White recalled that:
“Gibbins was quite cheery and moved freely amongst the men although he was wearing a bandage around his head.”
Finally, when all the Australians had left the trench, Sergeant White, who was only a few yards from Norman, heard him yell, “Come on all you gunners”. The rear-guard leapt up and headed towards the rear. White remembered Norman being the last to leave. By this time, the sap is absolutely filled with the wounded and dead and it was impossible to get through quickly. Norman looked at the clogged sap and, despite the very real and obvious danger, climbed out of the trench onto the parapet to dash back to the rear when he was immediately machine-gunned and killed instantly.
Private Hartley recalled the dreaded roll call:
“We could muster half our company and one officer. The exact number is 110 out of 204.....Nearly half the battalion is missing. Oh, the sights were awful, mangled bodies everywhere.”
The initial figures of the impact from the battle for the battalion were 42 soldiers killed, 154 were wounded and 143 were missing. Ultimately, 84 soldiers of the 55th Battalion were killed in action or died of wounds from the battle. 46 of those who were missing were later declared as killed in action. To date (2023), 17 missing soldiers have been identified from the Pheasant Wood burial site.
Lest We Forget
CAPT. GIBBINS KILLED.
Miss Gibbins, principal of the Osborne College, Epping, has received news that her brother, Captain Norman Gibbins, was killed in action on July 20. Deceased volunteered as a private to go away with the First Expeditionary Force, but was promoted to corporal before leaving Australia. He was made a sergeant in Egypt, and was at the landing on Gallipoli where he was wounded, and was mentioned in Army Corps orders for gallant services. He was promoted to be second-lieutenant, and was invalided to England. On returning to the front he was made lieutenant and later, in Egypt, was given rank as captain.
Norman’s sister, Violet, learned of his death several days later. The grief was deep for Violet, and this manifested itself in a form of patriotism that meant she would devote all her energy to attending recruitment rallies where she spoke, fundraising for veterans and ceremonies honouring those who had fallen. Norman never left her thoughts. She pleaded for his letters, his medals, and:
“all the precious personal belongings which may have been removed from his dear body on the battlefield”.
Norman’s story reminds us that grief affected siblings as much as it did the wives, children or parents of the dead.
Norman Gibbins’ body was recovered from the battlefield and buried in a temporary grave. Chaplain James Green, who had shared that room with Norman on the eve of battle, was terribly upset that he was not there to bury his friend.
The rather rough wooden cross was marked by a message from Violet. “With my soul’s homage and my heart’s utmost love to my beloved and deeply mourned brother – Violet Gibbins.”
His grave in France was inscribed with Violet’s words:
“My beloved brother, son of the late William Gibbins, C. E., Australia”. Violet also entrusted Norman’s letters to the Australian War Memorial “so the nation would never forget his sacrifice”.
Norman’s body was later exhumed to a permanent site at the Sailly-sur-la-Lys Cemetery.
Perhaps the last word for Norman’s story belongs to Major Percy W. Woods, the Adjutant 55th Battalion, who wrote to Violet on the 4th of August 1916 about a fortnight after Norman was killed:
“No better nor braver man ever put on a uniform. I can assure you in our minds he was a hero. He did such a brilliant work over here that he would have got a certain decoration had he not been killed. He was undoubtably a born leader. No Victoria Cross was ever awarded to Norman, even though many thought it should have been.”
Lest we forget.
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