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SGT Lewis McGee, VC

4 OCT 1917: World War I and Sergeant Lewis McGee, 40th Battalion, originally from Campbelltown, Tasmania, earns the Victoria Cross near Ypres, Belgium. It was a posthumous award. Lewis McGee (1888-1917), railway engine driver and soldier, was born on 13 May 1888 at Campbell Town, Tasmania, son of John McGee, labourer and later farmer, and his wife Mary, née Green. McGee left for posterity virtually no record of his pre-war days. He married Eileen Rose Bailey at Avoca on 15 November 1914. When he enlisted in the 40th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, on 1 March 1916 he was living at Avoca and was employed by the Tasmanian Department of Railways as an engine driver.

The 40th Battalion, known as the ‘Fighting Fortieth’, was raised as a Tasmanian unit, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel J. E. C. Lord, to encourage recruitment in that State. Soldiers attached to it were trained at the Claremont military camp near Hobart before sailing for England and eventually the French-Belgian border, which they reached on 24 November 1916. McGee quickly developed a reputation as a reliable and fearless soldier. He had been promoted lance corporal only twenty-two days after enlistment and on 4 December, when the battalion was operating near Armentières, he rose to corporal; on 12 January 1917 he was promoted sergeant.

The 40th Battalion took part in the battle of Messines in June after which it joined in the 3rd battle of Ypres. From September conditions were appalling with soldiers battling in a ‘sea of mud and water’. On 4 October the battalion was engaged in the attack on Broodseinde Ridge. McGee’s platoon was ‘suffering severely’ from machine-gun fire coming from a German pill-box. Single-handed, McGee rushed the post across open ground armed only with a revolver and, descending upon the garrison, shot some of its crew and captured the rest. His action enabled the advance to proceed. Afterwards he reorganized the remains of his platoon and was ‘foremost’ in the rest of the advance. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his ‘coolness and bravery’, but the decoration was posthumous for on 12 October he had been killed in the fighting at Passchendaele. He was buried there in Tyne Cot cemetery.

The announcement and accompanying citation for McGee’s Victoria Cross was promulgated in a supplement to the London Gazette on 26 November 1917, reading: “For most conspicuous bravery when in the advance to the final objective, Sjt. McGee led his platoon with great dash and bravery, though strongly opposed, and under heavy shell fire. His platoon was suffering severely and the advance of the Company was stopped by machine gun fire from a “Pill-box” post. Single-handed Sjt. McGee rushed the post armed only with a revolver. He shot some of the crew and captured the rest, and thus enabled the advance to proceed. He reorganised the remnants of his platoon and was foremost in the remainder of the advance, and during consolidation of the position he did splendid work. This Non-commissioned Officer’s coolness and bravery were conspicuous and contributed largely to the success of the Company’s operations. Sjt. McGee was subsequently killed in action.”

McGee had been ‘respected by all’. However his comrades and family were not the only ones to suffer from his loss. The Launceston Examiner commented that his death marked the fourteenth young man from Avoca who had paid ‘the supreme sacrifice’ which was a ‘heavy toll’ for a small community. McGee was survived by his wife and a daughter; in 1929 Eileen remarried but remained in Avoca. She and her daughter attended the unveiling of a memorial plaque to McGee at the town’s cenotaph in 1984. More;


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