Andrew Gillison

An Inspired Life

The Story of St George’s Memorial Sunday


With an address given simply as "Gallipoli" a letter dated December 9, 1915, was written to Mr Kidd, Session Clerk of St George’s Presbyterian Church, East St Kilda, to say that a collection had been made amongst the 14th Battalion "for the purpose of erecting a suitable memorial to our late Chaplain Captain Andrew Gillison.  Portion of this money has been sent to Egypt for the purchase of a headstone and railing to be placed upon the late Captain Gillison’s grave.

"The balance of the money so far collected has been deposited with the paymaster in Egypt forming a fund to be known as the Andrew Gillison Memorial Fund.

"It is desired that this fund remain open for the present owing to the fact of many of our officers and mend being away who would wish to contribute.

"Ultimately we would like this money to be spent on a memorial to be erected in your church by this Battalion which would in some way convey to those of your church the esteem in which his memory is held by all of us who knew him so well."

This wish would come as no surprise to the congregation, whose hearts he had touched so deeply from the very first, according to newspaper reports of his official welcome to the church in April, 1910.  Incidentally this occasion, like so many held at St George’s, included a program of music. And, in keeping with the bond he was later to establish with pastors and priests of other religions at Gallipoli, Andrew Gillison was also welcomed on that occasion by representatives of several denominations in the community.

What would have surprised both battalion and congregation was how this letter, written by William Laver, Regimental Q.M.S. and Treasurer of the Andrew Gillison Memorial Fund, would turn the early link between St George’s and the 1st 14th Battalion into an extraordinary bond.  A bond that has been maintained for 80 years, with a unique memorial service commemorating not only the man whose life inspired it, but, as he would have wished himself, the members of the 14th Battalion and over time, could he but know, the members of the 2nd 14th Battalion and veterans up to Vietnam.

The relationship of the church and the 1st 14th had begun following the padre’s departure from St George’s to join the Battalion at the Broadmeadows Camp, and with his consecration of the colours, donated by the citizens of St Kilda and presented to the Battalion by the Governor General, at a ceremony on the lawn by St Kilda Pier.  Subsequently there is a moving account in Andrew Gillison’s diary of the impressive ceremony at St George’s on December 20, 1914, when the colours were consigned to the custody of the church. In accordance with the wishes of the members of the Battalion -- his "boys" as he called them with great affection -- the memorial tablet, erected with funds raised by the congregation and Battalion combined, was unveiled at St George’s on April 1, 1917, at the evening service at which the preacher was the Chaplain-General Rev Prof J. Laurence Rentoul, returning to the church where he was the first minister.

For many years on those chilly August nights remaining members of the old Battalion gathered at the corner of Chapel Street and Dandenong Road and marched proudly down the street to the church.  They occupied the front pews for the service, heard their own Battalion piper play the Last Post and Reveille and then gathered for supper in the hall where they reminisced with undiminished enthusiasm and talked of their padre as if it had all been yesterday.

After the Second World War members of the 2nd 14th Battalion began joining them and today they, in turn are joined by veterans of Vietnam and the soldiers of today.

The military connection with St George’s now also continues in the good neighbourly relations with the 2nd/10th Medium Regiment Artillery -- based next door to the church -- whose much acclaimed band played at last year’s St George’s Memorial Service and will again today as well as presenting this afternoon’s concert.

Andrew Gillison’s own military links began early on in Scotland when he was padre to the Scottish regiment stationed close by his church in Maryhill.  They continued when he was padre to the Melbourne Scottish Regiment on his arrival from Brisbane.

A former King’s champion on the Williamstown Rifle Range, who proved a winner with his pistol at shooting competitions on board ship on the way to the Middle East, the padre was said to have helped improve the men’s’ shooting at target practice.  It was noted in the Jacka, VC biography that Andrew Gillison, whose "reputation in the 14th was on a par with Jacka’s, " had shortly before his death, "prophetically described in his diary the cold-blooded efficiency of Turkish snipers."

The padre, twice mentioned in despatches for gallant and distinguished conduct in the field -- which he dismissed saying it was the men who deserved the acknowledgment -- was described by soldiers as always in the van, giving the lads encouragement during the day, while he supervised burial of the bodies at night.

A sense of how this padre was "a man among men" is gained from the account, by Corporal J. W. Barr of the 2nd Australian Field Ambulance, of an informal church parade on board the hospital ship. Having come on board with a party of wounded he was asked to take over the evening service.  It was, the Corporal reported, "a most impressive sermon," adding, "it was a but a talk -- a simple, quiet address, but it had features which made it beautifully solemn... He was one of us. Three weeks of toil and hardship ashore, facing death by day and night, had left their mark.  Stained by mother earth and the life-blood of fellow men, he was grandly eloquent; his clothes and appearance telling us what he did not ... Imagine a steamer’s deck lit by the setting sun; the shore, less than a mile distant, echoing the sound of artillery and rifle fire, and from time to time illuminated with the quick golden flash of bursting shells.  Wounded men lying around, unshaven and unwashed; their wounds dressed, buy their clothes blood-stained and mud-covered.  All bear this earthy quality, for one hugs mother earth when the air is full of flying missiles ...

"To these men is speaking a rough gaunt figure. Tired as the men are after twenty nights of broken sleep, which cannot be otherwise when one seeks rest crouching in a ‘dug-out’.  Rest is the one thing desired and the minister in his homely Doric, gives Christ’s message. ‘Lean on Me all ye that are weary, and I will give you rest.’

Y.M.C.A. Secretary C.H. Browne, who had organised the service that evening on the hospital decks and invited a tired and reluctant padre to take over, told in his report to Melbourne, how Andrew Gillison had chosen to speak of Christ’s works, "He that saveth his life shall lose it, but he that loseth his life for My sake shall save it," and of how he had described the calmness and fortitude of the men prior to landing as magnificent -- they had waited their turn to go ashore and watched some 600-odd wounded men brought on to their ship, yet "they went to face the same thing as they, without a flinch."

His sermons - delivered in Vermont in the United States, in Edinburgh, Glasgow and North Shields, before Brisbane and Melbourne, at the series of churches he was called to -- have been described as fresh, fascinating in style, atmospheric and thought provoking; appealing to all ages and particularly interesting the young.  Indeed on his departure home to Scotland the Congregational Church Council farewelled him from Vermont with a testimonial describing him as a most persuasive preacher "rarely gifted with those qualities of heart and mind which fit him for the Christian ministry and endear him to all who come under the spell of his personality."

On his way to the Middle East however, he already found, as he wrote to his wife Isobel, that non of his sermons would be much use on board.   As he set off for Gallipoli he listed what he was taking -- including his Bible, saddle and pistol -- saying he was leaving his sermons behind him.  The 14th’s padre was a man of surprises and a rich experience of life was brought into play in his ministry.  A son of the manse -- he was five when his pastor father died -- at 19 he graduated M.A. brilliantly at Edinburgh University and with honours in theology at New College.  Too young to be licensed as a preacher he enjoyed a couple of years as a tutor before he went to his first church in the United States.

He was a keen traveller -- and a prize winning photographer with his travel shots -- and his sea voyages included signing on as a cargo ship’s carpenter to go to Russia in the 1890’s.  Known among his friends as "the sporting parson," he was also Greek scholar and chess player, equally at home with poets and philosophers as he was with horses and dogs, or messing about in boats and making flies for his trout fishing.

In the Commission proceedings of the State General Assembly in 1915 the "very varied gifts" of the chaplain were recalled and it was noted that "Perhaps his greatest gift was a large humanity, radiating good fellowship ... enabling him to enter into easy and pleasant relations with all sorts and conditions of men."  At East St Kilda he had early won "the confidence, esteem and love of his people."

In Gallipoli a soldier wrote, "He ranked as Captain, but those who knew him best and loved him most were soldiers of the line -- he entered into all their joys and all their sorrows, shared their hardships and organised their recreations .. he went into the most dangerous places ... (saying) ‘If the men can go there, so can I.’"

Andrew Gillison had left Australia well equipped to, as he said, "supply some of the little luxuries" that would make life a bit easier for the lads.  A member of the congregation had given him a belt with one hundred gold sovereigns sewn into it and others had donated to a fund to the same end.

The much loved Padre was 47 when three bullets from a sniper fatally wounded him.  "On this day August 22 the 14th Battalion suffered the greatest loss it had yet incurred in the death of any one man," records the History of the Fourteenth Battalion A.I.F., "Its popular and heroic Chaplain Andrew Gillison was mortally wounded when endeavouring to bring a wounded man from the slopes of that horrible and bullet-swept hill.

"Chaplain Gillison was the first Chaplain in the A.I.F. to be killed during the war.  He had a most engaging personality, and was the most popular man in the 4th Brigade.  A man of exceptional courage, his kindness had endeared him to all ranks, and his death on an errand of mercy sent a cold chill through the hearts of the whole Battalion.  There was not any personal incident in the whole campaign which caused a greater sensation or gave rise to more sincere regret in the Battalion."

There are moving first had accounts of this, the endeavour by Andrew Gillison and his friend, a Methodist minister and enlisted man, Corporal Pittendriegh, to rescue the wounded soldier.  But it is not the hero’s death that has proved a lasting inspiration, it was the life of a remarkable man.

His daughter Mary (Lady Cawthorn), herself the wife and mother of soldiers, whose son Michael, serving with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in Korea, also died from a sniper’s bullet, planned a biography of her father.  The following was her choice of a quote for her book.  It comes from Pericles:

"For the whole earth is the sepulchre of famous men; and their story is not graven only on stone over their native earth, but lives on far away without visible symbol, woven into the stuff of other men’s lives."

St George's Uniting Church
4 Chapel Street, East St Kilda

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