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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McGee, Lewis (1888–1917)

by Quentin Beresford

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Lewis McGee (1888-1917), by unknown photographer

Lewis McGee (1888-1917), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, A02623A

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.

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.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Broinowski, Tasmania's War Record (Hob, 1921)
  • F. C. Green, The Fortieth, a Record of the 40th Battalion (Hob, 1922)
  • L. Wigmore (ed), They Dared Mightily (Canb, 1963)
  • Examiner (Launceston), 8 Nov 1917
  • Mercury (Hobart), 19 Mar 1984.

Citation details

Quentin Beresford, 'McGee, Lewis (1888–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 20 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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