John Alexander Milne D.S.O.
9th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force
Died 12 April 1918 age 46
Lieut.-Col. J.A. Milne D.S.O. – Aus. Ex. Force
John Alexander Milne (known as Alexander) had a truly remarkable career and has earned a place in the Australian Dictionary of Biography. Thanks to this and the wonderful online Australian National Archives we probably know more about his experiences of the war than about anyone else on the war memorial. He was born at Woodside in Cromar on 23 March 1872, a son of labourer Alexander Milne and Jane McCombie, a dressmaker. His paternal grandfather lived in Torphins and in 1881 the family were living at North Footie, Kincardine O’Neil. He had at least four younger brothers all born in the parish – George, Robert, David and James. By 1891 the family were living at Waulkmill. He went to school in Torphins and later attended Aberdeen Grammar School.
In 1890, aged 18, the young Alexander emigrated to Australia on the “Dorunda” departing from London bound for Cairns. He found work as a farm labourer, miner, engine driver, farmer and commercial traveller in agricultural hardware. In 1898 he married Mary Elise May Bull at Kilkavian Junction, Queensland. They had three sons. He also had an interest in military matters and by 1908 was an officer in the 1st Battalion of the Wide Bay Regiment.
Milne (then aged 42) enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (9th Battalion) very shortly after the war broke out, on 20 August 1914, and was accorded the rank of Captain and dispatched to Gallipoli. The 9th Battalion were the first ashore at Gallipoli in the early morning of 25 April 1915. Milne led his company ashore that day in the storming of Anzac Heights and, in two separate incidents the same afternoon, sustained serious wounds of the left hand and arm, resulting among other things in the amputation of the terminal phalanx of a finger in hospital in Cairo a few days later, and an infection of the wound to his hand.
Mrs Milne was advised in a telegram that her husband had been severely wounded. He was declared unfit for service for four months. A more favourable report was sent to her on 11 June, but a week later the patient was clearly far from well as he was shipped to England and admitted to the Royal Free Hospital in London. It was not until October 1915 that he returned to Egypt for duty. Within a few weeks of his return he was promoted to the rank of Major but on 12 November he took ill with paratyphoid fever and was transferred again to hospital. He wrote home from the 1st Australian General Hospital in Heliopolis in terms which clearly alarmed Mrs Milne, talking of further Mediterranean fever “caught too just as I was going to get a Temp. Lieut. Col. My luck is out. I am still very sick so you must just let me say a Merry Xmas + H N Year to you and the boys and all at St M…I am sick and lonely”. We have this letter because Mrs Milne sent it to the Base Records office on 30 December 2015, with a stamped addressed envelope for its return, complaining that she had not been informed of her husband’s illness and that her letters (“I send at least one by every mail”) were clearly not reaching him, and enquiring as to his present condition and whereabouts. No doubt she was much cheered by a telegram on 11 January1916 informing her that he was on his way back to Australia on the “Ulysses” (following certification by a medical board) for “three months change”.
On his return home, Milne was enthusiastically received, made recruiting speeches, unveiled the honour board at St Andrews Presbyterian Church, Bundaberg, and went on a fishing holiday at Urangan. In May 1916 he embarked again from Sydney, this time for France via England. A mysterious note in his record dated 5 September 1916 reads “Rejoined Unit from Cookery School Weymouth” (where there was an AIF command depot). He then proceeded to Le Havre from Southampton on 25 November. In February 1917 Milne was attached to the 36th Battalion, and in the following month granted the temporary rank of Lt. Col., the temporary promotion being made permanent in April.
In May, Milne was sent for a short time on leave to England. On 25 August he was awarded the DSO for gallantry at St Yves 7-12 July 1917. The citation reads:
“ For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He showed great capacity and initiative in commanding his battalion when on carrying party duty. He kept the front line well supplied with stores, ammunition and water, and arranged for the relief of the parties in a most efficient manner although constantly depleted by casualties and exhaustion”.
In November 1917 he was granted a week’s leave in Paris, during which he again received recognition for his gallant conduct, being mentioned in dispatches “for Distinguished and gallant Services & devotion to duty in the field during the period 26 February 1917 to midnight 20/21 September 1917”.
In January 1918 Milne was sent for a few days’ flying course in Belgium followed by a month’s leave in the UK, during which time he was in Scotland and bought a shotgun, which Mrs Milne understood was to be given to his eldest son (also on active service) if anything happened to him. It was to be his last period of leave. In March Mrs Milne, anxious for news as she had not heard from her husband since a cable of Christmas greetings on 16 December, wrote again to Base Records “I know he was not too well, result of being blown up by a gas shell but he was still in action Nov.28th”. A reply came back on 14 March 1918 reassuring her that no report of casualty had been received.
On 12 April 1918 Milne’s brave and illustrious career came to an end at the age of 46. A report from Lieut. Dunn, Assistant Adjutant records: “Colonel Milne was badly mutilated by a shell that exploded right into Headquarters whilst he was dictating orders to the Adjutant. He was buried…about 20 yards from the spot at which he was killed. A suitable wooden cross was prepared and erected”.
When the news reached Bundaberg, flags were flown at half mast as a mark of respect. The authorities forwarded to Mrs Milne the insignia of her husband’s DSO in January of 1919. Correspondence followed regarding his various belongings. In April Mrs Milne wrote enquiring, pointing out that a year had passed since her husband’s death, and was informed (the news lagging some considerable time after the event once again) that three packages sent from England on the S.S “Barunga” the previous June had gone down with the ship when it was lost in transit as a result of enemy action. Inventories of Milne’s belongings were preserved. They betray a more than passing interest in both fishing and the various accoutrements of smoking, but also included books and letters, mathematical instruments, a portable camera, photographs and map of Paris. His kit bag, retrieved from the field, contained “Scotch heather” – a souvenir perhaps of the trip to Scotland shortly before his death.
According to the ADB, drawing among other things on personal information, Milne was an excellent rifle-shot, “Strong, broad-shouldered, seemingly fearless, with a powerful voice and marked Scotch accent, the sandy-haired Milne was well-liked and respected by his troops. A rugged individualist, with little respect for formality though a rigid disciplinarian, he was an eminently practical and competent soldier with a strong sense of duty”.
As an interesting post-script, in 1919 the Adelaide Observer reported on a court application by Mrs Milne to set up the terms of a will which her husband had made, commenting that he was killed on active service by a shell “which blew him to pieces and destroyed the will which he had in his pocket”. On 24 March1921 the Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser reported on the completion of a Milne memorial Challenge Shield for the Wide Bay and District Rifle Association, featuring a photograph surrounded by a laurel wreath flanked by the Union Jack and Australian flags.
Lt.Col. Milne was reburied in 1920 at Heath Cemetery, Harbonnieres. There is an excellent photo of him at the following address (highlight and right click to open):