At 19 years old, John Hamilton was the first private recognised with a Victoria Cross (VC) at Gallipoli. He was one of 7 Australians awarded the honour for his role in the Battle of Lone Pine.
John Patrick Hamilton was born in Orange on 24 January 1896. His parents were William and Catherine Hamilton. John was the eldest child in the family and had 5 surviving siblings.
John's great grandfather, Samuel Frost, was a well-known brickmaker in Orange. Frost's bricks were used to build the city's Holy Trinity Church and public school.
John's family moved twice during his childhood: first to Lithgow, then to Penshurst in Sydney. He attended school in the mining village of Oakey Park near Lithgow.
Catherine Hamilton, John's mother, died when John was only 14. The family split up. John's relatives homed his siblings, and John went to work at his father's butcher shop.
In September 1914, John Hamilton enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).
He was assigned to the 3rd Australian Infantry Battalion and embarked from Sydney aboard the HMAT Euripides. Euripides was one of the larger ships requisitioned by the Naval Board for transporting troops. It travelled between Australia, the Middle East and Europe throughout the war. It could carry up to 20 horses and more than 2,000 troops and supplies.
John Hamilton was one of 30,000 Anzac troops and medical staff aboard the 48 ships that made up the first convoy of ships. The ships set off for Europe but were diverted to Egypt. Hamilton didn't know it then, but he and others on that first convoy would soon be fighting at Gallipoli.
Training in Egypt
The AIF was first sent to Egypt, instead of England, for 2 reasons.
- Army training camps in England were overcrowded and lacked enough equipment and supplies.
- Egypt had better weather for training soldiers during the Northern Hemisphere winter.
Hamilton trained in the shadows of the Egyptian pyramids. The training was hot, hard and long days. There were drills and manoeuvres carrying heavy packs. Rifle shooting practice was carried out in desert sands.
There was, however, time off. For an 18-year-old Australian, seeing the sites of Cairo and the antiquities of Ancient Egypt would have been an unbelievable adventure. As described by one Australian:
In this place you speak of things being old and mean anything up to 3000 years... Sarcophagi in every shape and form, made of granite, marble, etc, all carved out of one block of stone, and if one could only read the hieroglyphics with which the occupant's history is recorded on it!
[Lieutenant Benjamin Champion, personal diary, Cairo, September 1915]
On 1 April 1915, word came through that Hamilton's battalion was headed to Gallipoli. He landed at Anzac Cove on 25 April.
Following the landing at Gallipoli, John Hamilton was out of action with influenza. He recovered at the Greek island of Lemnos until he returned to his unit on 2 June.
The Battle of Lone Pine began in the late afternoon of 6 August 1915. Hamilton's battalion was among the first into battle. He soon distinguished himself for his bravery as a crack shot, a sniper and a bomb-thrower.
Gallipoli was never expected to be a drawn-out affair, and the Anzacs were sent in with too few supplies. They were given guns and bayonets, but not the grenades they needed for trench fighting. Weather conditions and enemy attacks also made it difficult to reliably get equipment, including weapons. That led to soldiers making their own munitions.
The Turks had bombs. We had nothing.
[Ashley Elkins, quoted in 'Anzacs turned to jam tins in arms shortage', SBS, 25 July 2015]
Soldiers made grenades from old food tins. These were filled with shrapnel, nails and small pieces of barbed wire. More than 200 bombs were made each day by June 1915. On Day 2 of Lone Pine, 7 August, 54 men worked tirelessly to make these 'jam tin bombs'.
To supplement their supply of homemade munitions, the ANZACs also used Turkish bombs that fell into the Australian trenches. John Hamilton was a bomb-thrower at Lone Pine. His role was to pick up enemy bombs as they landed and throw them back again at the Turks. It was particularly dangerous work. These bombs often exploded before they could be thrown back.
Two of my bombers – Norton and Hamilton – the latter won his VC there – were up on the parapet throwing bombs as fast as they could light them. One burst prematurely in Norton’s hands, and blew them both to fragments.
[Lieutenant A F Burrett, quoted in Stephen Snelling, VCs of the First World War: Gallipoli, 1995, p 160]
John Hamilton was awarded his Victoria Cross for his part on the fourth day of fighting at Lone Pine.
The 3rd Battalion position at Sasse's Sap came under heavy Turkish bombing at 4 am on 9 August. Hamilton was ordered out of the trench into the open and to shoot down Turkish bombers as they rose up to throw. He did this for 6 hours straight, protected only by a few sandbags. While sniping at enemy bombers, he directed his comrades where to throw their bombs. The Turkish attack was eventually brought to an end. Hamilton's bravery was recognised with a VC.
His citation read:
... Private Hamilton, with utter disregard to personal safety, exposed himself under heavy fire on the parados, in order to secure a better fire position against the enemy's bomb throwers. His coolness and daring example had an immediate effect. The defence was encouraged and the enemy driven off with heavy loss.
[The London Gazette, 15 October 1915, issue 29328, p 10154]
John Hamilton survived Gallipoli. He was evacuated to England in October 1915 with dysentery. In April 1916, he returned to Egypt for further training.
Hamilton joined the 3rd Battalion in France in December 1916. He served with his unit at:
- Mouquet Farm
- Menin Road
By the end of World War I, Hamilton was promoted to lieutenant. He returned to Australia in August 1919.
Between the wars
After the war, Hamilton was a waterside labourer and shipping clerk for 30 years. This period spanned the time leading to his service in World War II and afterwards. He was also a longtime member of the Waterside Workers' Federation and stood for the Sydney branch secretary role in 1952.
World War II service
Hamilton joined the second AIF in June 1940 as a lieutenant. He served near Hay, New South Wales, in the 16th Garrison Battalion. From October 1942, he served in New Guinea and Bougainville in a clerical role. Hamilton left the Army in 1946.
Hamilton's war service left him with permanent poor health. He died from cerebrovascular disease, affecting blood flow to the brain, on 27 February 1961 in Concord Hospital, Sydney. He was 65 years old.
Remembering John Hamilton VC
The Australian War Memorial in Canberra holds Hamilton's war medals.
A life-size bronze statue of the VC hero was unveiled at Orange in 2017.
- 1919 'WELCOMING A V.C. HERO.', Leader (Orange, NSW : 1899 - 1945), 15 September, p 5, viewed 14 Mar 2022, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article117865507
- 2015 'Biography of a forgotten VC winner: the life and times of Patrick John Hamilton', Central Western Daily, 3 April, https://www.centralwesterndaily.com.au/story/2987921/biography-of-a-forgotten-vc-winner-the-life-and-times-of-patrick-john-hamilton/, viewed 15 Mar 2022
- Australian War Memorial, n.d., Victoria Cross: Private John Patrick Hamilton 3 Battalion AIF, accessed 15 March 2022, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C339895
- Champion, Ben William. Personal diary (transcript), accessed 15 March 2022, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C2074046?image=15
- DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs), 2021, First convoy of Australian troops in World War I, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 15 March 2022, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/ww1/where-australians-served/first-convoy
- DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs), 2021, Training Australian army recruits during World War I, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 15 March 2022, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/ww1/military-organisation/training
- DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs), 2022, Transport of Australians to war zones in World War I, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 15 March 2022, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/ww1/military-organisation/transport
- Land, W. A., 2006, Hamilton John (1896-1961), Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, accessed 15 March 2022, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hamilton-john-6539
- Orange City Council, 2021, 'John Patrick Hamilton VC', Orange Wiki, 21 November, http://www.theorangewiki.orange.nsw.gov.au/index.php?title=John_Patrick_Hamilton_VC, viewed 14 Mar 2022.
- Rutherford, Dianne. 'Anzac voices: improvisation at Gallipoli', 12 December 2013, https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/blog/anzac-voices-improvisation-gallipoli, accessed 15 March 2022
- SBS, 25 July 2015, Anzacs turned to jam tins in arms shortage, https://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/anzacs-turned-to-jam-tins-in-arms-shortage/aael35622, accessed 15 March 2022
- Snelling, Stephen. 1995. VCs of the First World War: Gallipoli, Alan Sutton, Stroud.