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WO2 Walter Peeler, VC

4 OCT 1917: World War I and Lance Corporal (later Warrant Officer Class 2) Walter Peeler, 3rd Pioneer Battalion, originally from Castlemaine, Victoria, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions at Broodseinde Ridge, during the battle of Ypres, Belgium. Walter (Wally) Peeler was born on 9 August 1887 at Barker’s Creek, near Castlemaine, Victoria, eighth surviving child of William Peeler, a farmer and miner from Tasmania, and his English-born wife Mary Ellen, née Scott.

His education is not recorded but he worked on his parents’ orchard at Barker’s Creek, then at Thompson’s Foundry, Castlemaine, and in the Leongatha district. He married Emma Hewitt, on 10 July 1907 at the Congregational parsonage, Castlemaine.

Peeler enlisted as a private in the Australian Imperial Force on 17 February 1916 and embarked with the machine-gun section of the 3rd Pioneer Battalion in June; he was promoted lance corporal on 6 November in France and was slightly wounded by shell-fire during the battle of Messines on 7 June 1917.

Peeler was one of twenty-four Lewis-gunners of the 3rd Pioneers who were attached for anti-aircraft duties to the 37th Battalion for the assault on 4 October on Broodseinde Ridge, Belgium.

He joined in the first wave, leading an attack against three enemy posts which were sniping the advancing Australians and then turned on a machine-gun post. He accounted for thirty of the enemy and for his fearlessness and fine example was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Peeler remarked in 1966: ‘I never saw the faces of those I killed. They were just men in an enemy uniform. It was simply them or me’. Exploitation of the Australian success that day was hampered by heavy rain.

The 3rd Pioneers next attacked in shocking conditions on 12 October in the 2nd battle of Passchendaele; Peeler was wounded in the right arm.

While recuperating he received his Victoria Cross from King George V at Buckingham Palace on 8 January 1918. He returned to his unit on 17 May and was promoted corporal two weeks later and sergeant on 30 July.

While recuperating in England, the announcement and accompanying citation for Peeler’s Victoria Cross was promulgated in a supplement to the London Gazette on 26 November 1917, reading: “For most conspicuous bravery when with a Lewis gun accompanying the first wave of the assault he encountered an enemy party sniping the advancing troops from a shell-hole. L./Cpl. Peeler immediately rushed the position and accounted for nine of the enemy, and cleared the way for the advance. On two subsequent occasions he performed similar acts of valour, and each time accounted for a number of the enemy. During operations he was directed to a position from which an enemy machine gun was being fired on our troops. He located and killed the gunner, and the remainder of the enemy party ran into a dugout close by. From this shelter they were dislodged by a bomb, and ten of the enemy ran out. These he disposed of. This non-commissioned officer actually accounted for over thirty of the enemy. He displayed an absolute fearlessness in making his way ahead of the first wave of the assault, and the fine example which he set ensured the success of the attack against most determined opposition.”

Peeler arrived back in Australia on 11 October and was discharged on 10 December. He worked with the Victorian Department of Lands for six years and then took up an orchard, but returned to Melbourne to work on the staff of the Sunshine Harvester Works. He was appointed custodian of Victoria’s Shrine of Remembrance in 1934.

During World War II Peeler, understating his age by fourteen years, enlisted in the 2nd A.I.F. in 1940 and saw service in the Syrian campaign as company quartermaster sergeant of ‘D’ Company, 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion.

In June 1941 he led a patrol to recover four Australian wounded. His battalion was part of a small Australian force hastily landed in Java in February 1942 to assist the Dutch against the rapid Japanese advance; after the island’s surrender to the Japanese he survived a long period on the Burma Railway.

He was one of only three World War I V.C. winners then serving overseas, the others being Walter Brown and Arthur Blackburn. He returned to Australia in October 1945 to learn that his son Donald had been killed on Bougainville in December 1944 while serving with the 15th Battalion.

Wally Peeler resumed duty as custodian of the Shrine of Remembrance and was an early member of the Victorian Corps of Commissionaires.

He was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1961 and retired in 1964. Survived by his wife (d.1969) and four of his children, he died at South Caulfield on 23 May 1968 and was buried in Brighton cemetery. His medals are on display in the Hall of Valour at the Australian War Memorial. More;

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