Borella as an Officer – Destined to Lead
Albert Borella’s earlier life in the Northern Territory gives us an indication of why he was selected to be an officer.
Here was a man who had taken up challenge after challenge. Leave the farm in Victoria and become a Fireman. Move thousands of kilometres and have a go at the land again. Travel 1000 kilometres at his own expense and with immense difficulty to sign up to fight. And accept promotion after promotion – despite at one stage being wounded in battle with a gunshot wound to the right arm – to the epaulettes of an officer after the chevrons of the non-commissioned ranks.
Officers were the gods of the armed forces. They were commissioned by the monarch, and could not be arbitrarily dismissed, as soldiers could be. The management of the “troops” was the province of the NCOs; while the officers made the big decisions, such as how to maneuver their platoon, or company, or battalion.
On 7 April 1917 Borella’s commission was commenced as a second lieutenant. Borella has left no record of his feelings about this honour, which in some ways was a dubious distinction. It would have come about in an everyday but memorable fashion. Soldier Archie Barwick was similarly singled out for such service. He later wrote:
Last night a wonderful thing happened to me. A messenger came and said that Capt McKenzie wanted to see me. He asked me if I would care to enter an Officers’ Training School. I nearly fell through the floor, as you may imagine. I thanked him for the offer & accepted it….Just imagine my feelings if you can at a rise like this: I seemed to be walking on air. I never dreamed of getting so high.
Being commissioned though carried with it an element of danger. Often the officer must be the first to expose himself to fire. Donald Macdonald, fighting against the Boers, noted that “When an officer rises to advance with his resolute ‘Come on, men’, he is the first one seen, and becomes a target for a score of rifles.”
Richard Holmes wrote in Acts of War that “blood is the price of epaulettes.” He notes the often disproportionate price paid by leaders – 27% of officers killed on the Western Front as compared to 12% of the men – but concluded that it was necessary: “in the last analysis it is determined and charismatic leadership, and the selflessness and dedication that it represents, that helps to pull men through the rigors of battle”.
Borella would have looked to other officers for good examples. There were plenty of them.
The Australian general “Pompey” Elliot was well known for his enthusiasm for battle and for his own casual attitude towards enemy fire:
He visited his front line daily about dawn. He thrived on battle and was exhilarated by the achievements of his men. ‘It is beautiful to see them fight’, he wrote in March 1917, ‘and then it is fine to see the old Bosches jump out and run.” After the capture of Péronne in September 1918 he found a punt and took a friend onto the moat while German shells splashed into the water nearby. ‘A great game, isn’t it!’ said ‘Pompey’, smiling at his anxious companion.
Becoming an officer was something that also would have demanded more aggression than Borella had already shown as a sergeant. The Western Front did not tolerate officers who were cowards – they despised them as “Dug-out King” – an officer who remained at the bottom of a dug-out while his men are exposed to danger.
Borella would also have had to analyse what sort of officer he wanted to become, outside of simply showing aggression when necessary. He was doubtless influenced by Captain Albert Jacka, who like Borella, had started Army life at Gallipoli, albeit earlier, where he showed his aggressive spirit in an action that saw him awarded the first Victoria Cross of the AIF.
Jacka also had been transferred to the Western Front, and had been commissioned, and was a household word by 1917 in Australia. The officer role, particularly amongst troops where one had once been one of them rather than holding a commission, could be difficult. One of the hardest aspects was discipline. Jacka’s attitude was worthy of thought.
As long as his men fought well, Jacka forgave their misdemeanors out of the line but only up to a point, and he administered his own justice. When one came back from a village fighting drunk, Jacka said: “Well Nugget, you can have what you like. Either come up before me in the morning, or else take me on for a few rounds.” The crowd formed a ring. Whack, whack, whack. “Now Nugget, off you go and have a sleep, and don’t let me catch you at this again. You’ll get all the fighting you want in the near future.”
Borella by all accounts in his new role was quiet, but forthright and determined to do what was necessary. It showed of course to his grand finale, where he led from the front to storm a German position.
Just as he demonstrated with his steady determination to sign up, Borella took on the duty of a commissioned officer, and went on to glory.
Written by Dr Tom Lewis, Lead Historian for The Borella Ride
Barwick, Archie. In Great Spirits. Archie Barwick’s WWI Diary – from Gallipoli to the Western Front and Home Again. Australia: HarperCollins, 2013. (p. 135)
Australian Dictionary of Biography. (Online edition) Elliott, Harold Edward (Pompey) (1878 – 1931). Accessed 9 September 2009. http://adbonline.anu.edu.au/biogs/A080453b.htm
Australian National University. “Glossary of Slang and Peculiar Terms in Use in the A.I.F.”http://andc.anu.edu.au/australian-words/aif-slang/annotated-glossary?field_alphabet_aif_om_value=91 Accessed June 2014.
Pedersen. (p. 303)