In Service

Historian Tony Cunneen outlines the contribution of NSW solicitors to the Great War.

As a special Remembrance Day approaches, 100 years since the end of World War I, historian TONY CUNNEEN outlines the contribution of NSW solicitors to the Great War.

An impressive stone monument in the old NSW Supreme Court building lists the names of the men in the legal profession who served the Imperial cause during World War I. The stonework also records the names of the 19 NSW solicitors who lost their lives to this cause.

 The Chief Justice during the war, Sir William Cullen, set the tone for lawyers' service in that both his sons fought at Gallipoli and then the Western Front. Another 10 sons of NSW Supreme Court judges also enlisted for war: three were killed, most of the others were wounded.

 Solicitors, barristers, articled clerks, law students and their families followed this judicial lead and enlisted for front-line service in all theatres of the conflict. Other members of the legal community, including their wives and daughters, supported the cause through active involvement in war-related activities such as the Red Cross, recruiting  campaigns, or the many unit-based Comforts Funds. Solicitors gave free legal advice to soldiers and their families, often while they were themselves in grief or shock from their own traumatic experiences.

 There are a host of individual stories behind the names on the monument. Many of the 84 practising solicitors who enlisted had remarkable experiences: Charles MacNaghten descended into an alcoholic mental trauma as a result of the Battle of Lone Pine; Arthur Hyman survived Gallipoli to become a much respected claims officer on the Western Front; and Leslie Seaborn organised the Sportsman's Battalion and received the Military Cross for his wild charge at Mont St Quentin in 1919.

 Nineteen solicitors lost their lives in the battlefields that have become synonymous with the war, including: Ernest Roberts, shot on Gallipoli after having enlisted "as an example to others"; Robert Hunter, killed by artillery fire near Armentieres; Clarence Collier, who disappeared at Fromelles in 1916; Frank Fry, killed trying to rescue a wounded man near the Somme River; and Hubert Thompson of Bathurst, killed at Polygon Wood, in the same battle and on the same day as both his cousins.

 After the war there were many lingering effects of the conflict. "Shell shocked" war veterans studying in the Sydney University Law School were likely to jump if someone suddenly dropped a heavy legal tome loudly near them. Other veterans tried to re-join normal lives: Arthur Wigram Allen, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross while serving with the Royal Naval Air Service, went on to complete his articles and join the family firm of Allen, Allen and Hemsley - now known as Allens, one of the many modern firms such as Clayton Utz, Garland Hawthorn Brahe and King & Wood Mallesons whose antecedents had war veterans among their lawyers. Bertie Vandeleur Stacy was awarded the Distinguished Service Order with Bar and was one of a number of war veterans later appointed to the Bench. Many current solicitors are the descendants of soldiers whose experiences in World War I defined their lives.

 This sense was best put bu the headmaster of Sydney Grammar School, the educational home of many lawyers. He exhorted his young charges to remember that, "To whom much is given, much is expected".

 And so the legal profession fulfilled that expectation in the currency of war, spending its sons in battle for a cause that is very remote from the modern world, and whose legacy remains only in the emptiness of lives cut short and carved into the stonework of the old Supreme Court building.