Sir Leslie James Morshead was born on 18 September 1889 in Ballarat East, Victora. He was one of 6 children to William Morshead and Mary Eliza.
Leslie attended Mount Pleasant State School and kept a busy social life. He was a part of Ballarat's Christ Church Cathedral choir and captain of the local cricket and football teams.
He graduated from Melbourne Teachers' College and taught at several schools before moving to Melbourne Church of England Grammar School in 1914 to command the cadet corps.
While at Melbourne Grammar, he met Myrtle Catherine Woodside, who he later married in 1921. They had a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1923.
World War I
When World War I broke out in August 1914, Leslie resigned from teaching to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). He gained a reputation for calmness and good organisation, climbing the military ranks quickly.
Leslie was appointed Lieutenant in the 2nd Australian Infantry Battalion and then Captain soon after. Leslie served in the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915. He took part in the Gallipoli landings in April 1915 and then served as a Major in battles at Baby 700 and Lone Pine, where he was wounded.
The Allied commanders quickly recognised Leslie's leadership skills. In April 1916, at the age of 26, he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and became the youngest Colonel in the British Army. He was placed in command of the 33rd Australian Infantry Battalion.
Over the next 2 years, Leslie served in battles on the Western Front, including Messines, Passchendaele, Villers-Bretonneux and Amiens. His leadership and courage had a lasting impact. He was mentioned in despatches 6 times and awarded the Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG), the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and the French Legion of Honour.
Leslie's division commander, Major General John Monash, wrote in the citation for the DSO:
This officer has displayed conspicuous ability in administration and organisation of his battalion, which has attained a high standard of fighting efficiency. His energetic attention to the training of his officers and men prior to embarkation was responsible for the smoothness and despatch with which his battalion relieved a British battalion in the line a few days after arriving at the front. Since the battalion has taken its place in the line it has proved itself to be an efficient fighting unit due to this officer's personality and marked capacity for command. He organised and controlled two raids on the enemy's trenches and carried them out successfully. His courage and strong personality has created an excellent spirit in all ranks of the battalion ...
At the war's end in 1918, Leslie was assigned to the AIF demobilisation staff unit in London. The following year, he returned to Australia.
After the war
Soon after his return to Australia, he accepted a soldier settlement block of 23,000 acres (9,300 ha) in country Queensland, but the farming life wasn't for him. He soon returned to Melbourne.
Leslie worked at Brindley Park, a large sheep station in Merriwa, New South Wales, before moving to Young Street, Sydney, in 1921, where he worked odd jobs.
In late 1924, Leslie joined the Orient Line, a British shipping company, and was appointed passenger manager of the Sydney office. Between 1924 and 1937, he received various promotions and worked across offices in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
Leslie maintained a role in the Australian Army after World War I. He commanded many militia battalions in the Citizen Military Forces, rising to the rank of temporary brigadier in 1938.
World War II
Leslie was quick to enlist at the outbreak of the war, joining on 10 October 1939. He was involved in some of Australia's most well-known battles of World War II.
Leslie served in the Second AIF in command of the 18th Australian Infantry Brigade.
At the beginning of 1941, he deployed from England to the Middle East. He was promoted to Brigadier-General, commanding the 9th Australian Division in the Western Desert Campaign.
Siege of Tobruk
The 9th Division and other Allied troops readied themselves in Tobruk for what became a long and formidable battle.
In the defence of Tobruk, Leslie's soldiers constantly raided the enemy to gather intelligence, take prisoners, steal supplies and disrupt attack preparations. The 9th Division held Tobruk for 8 months, leading to the eventual defeat of the Germans.
Leslie had a reputation for being a tough disciplinarian. However, this seemed to be balanced by respect as a capable leader who stood up for his men's best interests.
In recognition of his leadership, Leslie was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire on 6 January 1942. This honour entitled Leslie to use the title of Sir before his first name. From the Polish government, Leslie received the Polish Order of the Virtuti Militari awarded for outstanding courage on the battlefield.
Battles of El Alamein
The 9th Division remained in the Middle East in 1942, pivotal in the Battles of El Alamein.
Leslie showed great pride in his men. This is what he wrote in a letter to a friend after the battles:
It was a very hard and long battle, twelve days and nights of continuous and really bloody fighting, and it was not until the last day that the issue was decided.
A big battle is very much like a tug-of-war between two very heavy and evenly matched teams, and the one which can maintain the pressure and put forward that last ounce wins. Our men were truly wonderful and our reputation here has never been so high. It's a great feeling for a commander to be sure that his men will respond to every demand and God knows I demanded a great deal of them in this battle.
[Letter to DL Dowdell, 12 November 1942. AWM 3DRL 2562]
Leslie received another mention in despatches for his efforts in this campaign. Then in November 1942, he was also made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath.
New Guinea and Borneo campaigns
The 9th Division returned to Australia in 1943, preparing for action against the Japanese in New Guinea.
Leslie commanded the II Australian Corps and was involved in the battles around Finschhafen and Lae. By November 1943, Leslie was promoted to command the entire New Guinea Force and the Second Australian Army.
Leslie returned to Australia for further training before leading the I Australian Corps through the final campaigns in Borneo until the war's end.
More than just a nickname
During World War II, some Australian defence force units and individuals were bestowed with nicknames. The media adopted some, and others were used as insults in German propaganda. The Australian and German troops had their own nicknames for Leslie.
Leslie's own men called him ‘Ming’ or ‘Ming the Merciless’. This was based on a villain in the popular Flash Gordon science-fiction film series of the 1930s. 'Ming' was a reflection of Leslie's strict standards. For example, during training in Australia, he noted that:
an awful lot of objectionable and meaningless swearing is occurring in work parties – not a good sign of discipline.’
[JM Moore, Morshead – a biography of Lieutenant General Sir Leslie Morshead, Haldane, Sydney, 1976, p 68]
Leslie was just as strict with the officers. He told them not to have their wireless radios so loud that the nearby soldiers could not sleep easily.
German propaganda gave Leslie and the Australian soldiers more nicknames during the Battles of El Alamein. When the Australians rushed from Syria to the El Alamein battlefield in June 1942, German propaganda broadcaster Lord Haw Haw called the general ‘Ali Baba’ and his men the ‘20,000 thieves’. Based on the Arabic folktale Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, implying that Australian soldiers were disrespecting the local lands and peoples.
By August, one or several anonymous Australians in the Middle East had penned a poem about Leslie and the 9th Division titled 'Ali Baba Morshead and his 20,000 Thieves'. Parts of it were published in the British Army's Middle Eastern magazine, Parade, along with an article on Leslie. By September, families back home were receiving from their sons a full copy of the poem.
The press also used the ‘Ali Baba Morshead’ nickname, with the Sydney Morning Herald saying that ‘Major General Morshead had accepted the nickname with relish.’
Life after defence
Leslie's wife Myrtle remained by his side in a seemingly endless war over the long years he was deployed. After the war, Leslie declined many offers for further military postings. Instead, returning to employment with Orient Line.
He continued supporting military efforts, chairing a military court of inquiry into the Malayan campaign and the fall of Singapore. Throughout the post-war years, he gave lectures to young officers and made speeches at reunions.
Leslie held various positions during civilian life. He was president of the Bank of New South Wales, chairman of the department store chain David Jones, and director of several companies. In 1957, he was appointed to chair a committee reviewing the organisation and functioning of the Department of Defence.
Not long after, his health began to deteriorate. On 26 September 1959, Leslie died of cancer.
The Sir Leslie Morshead Memorial Fountain was established to commemorate Leslie and all the men who served with him throughout both World Wars. He has a major road, Morshead Drive in Canberra, dedicated to him and a home for veterans' and other aged persons in Canberra named after him.
1917 'WEDDING.', Ararat Chronicle and Willaura and Lake Bolac Districts Recorder (Vic. : 1914 - 1918), 5 June, p. 2. , viewed 04 Jul 2023, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article154261782
1918 '394th CASUALTY LIST.', The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), 27 April, p. 15. , viewed 04 Jul 2023, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article15769200
1942 ''ALI BABA' MORSHEAD IN CHARGE', News (Adelaide, SA : 1923 - 1954), 12 August, p. 2. , viewed 06 Jul 2023, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article128363249
1942 'LETTERS FROM SOLDIERS', Balonne Beacon (St. George, Qld. : 1909 - 1954), 24 September, p. 3. , viewed 06 Jul 2023, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article217056656
1942 'GAINS EXTENDED IN EGYPT', The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), 28 October, p. 7. , viewed 06 Jul 2023, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article17824611
DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Ali Baba and his 20,000 thieves, DVA Anzac Portal, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/world-war-ii-1939-1945/events/el-alamein-october-november-1942/ali-baba-and-his-20000-thieves, accessed 2 December 2022
Discovering Anzacs, Morshead Leslie James, National Archives of Australia, https://discoveringanzacs.naa.gov.au/browse/person/251713, accessed 5 December 2022
Australian War Memorial, Guide to the papers of Lieutenant General Sir Leslie Morshead, AWM, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/accessing-records-at-the-memorial/findingaids/private/morshead, last updated 2 March 2020, accessed 1 December 2022
Hill, AJ (2000), 'Morshead, Sir Leslie James (1889–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/morshead-sir-leslie-james-11180/text19923, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed 5 December 2022.
Horner, DM (ed) (1992), The Commanders, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/815613489
National Archives of Australia: NAA: MORSHEAD LESLIE JAMES: Service Number - NX8: Date of Birth - 18 Sep 1889: Place of Birth - BALLARAT VIC: Place of Enlistment - SYDNEY NSW: Next of Kin - MORSHEAD MYRTLE; B883, NX8; 1939 - 1948, https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=4864164
RAAF Museum Point Cook No 450 Squadron, https://www.airforce.gov.au/sites/default/files/minisite/static/7522/RAAFmuseum/research/units/450sqn.htm, accessed 5 December 2022.
NSW War Memorials Register, Lieutenant General Sir Leslie James Morshead, https://www.warmemorialsregister.nsw.gov.au/content/leslie-morshead, accessed 6 December 2022, accessed 5 December 2022.
Wikipedia contributors. (2022, Oct 22). Leslie Morshead. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leslie_Morshead, accessed 2 December 2023.
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