Charles Rosenthal was born in Berrim, New South Wales on 12 February 1875, the only son of a Danish born schoolmaster. He was probably educated by his father until, at the age of 15, he was articled to an architect, A. J. Derrick of Geelong, Victoria. He completed his articles in 1893 with J. E. Burke in Melbourne and was elected an associate of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects in 1895. He then took a job as architect with the Department of Railways and Works in Perth. He was involved with the design of the Perth Law Courts, the Free Public Library and the Royal Mint. He was also an organist and choirmaster at the Coolgardie Wesley Church and his fine singing voice made him popular as a concert artist.
After going bankrupt, Rosenthal decided to return to Melbourne. He put his wife an the boat and set off across the Nullarbor Plain on a bicycle in December 1898, arriving in Melbourne in January 1899. He joined the firm of G. C. Kinslip and W. R. Butler, architects and surveyors, who sent him to manage their Sydney office in 1900. Here he prospered. He was elected to the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1904 and became a fellow of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects in 1906.
His main work was in the design of houses but his interest in music led to commissions for the design of churches. In 1906 he became architect for the Anglican diocese of Grafton and Armidale, and designed a number of churches. As a singer, he performed with the Sydney Philharmonic. Eventually he set up his own architectural practice and was organ master of the Holy Trinity Church at Dullwich Hill, Sydney, a church which he had designed. He was also one of the founders of the Aerial League of Australia in 1909 and was a pupil at W. E. Hart’s Australian Flying School at Penrith.
Rosenthal enlisted as a gunner in the Geelong Battery of the Victorian Militia in 1892 but had to quit when he moved the Melbourne. On 1 January 1903, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the militia Garrison Artillery. He became a lieutenant on 18 June 1904 and a captain on 26 May 1908. On 1 August 1908 he transferred to the Australian Field Artillery. He was promoted to major on 5 October 1908. On 1 July 1914 he became commanding officer of the 5th Field Artillery Brigade, the first battery in the Australian Field Artillery to be armed with howitzers.
Rosenthal was appointed to the AIF on 18 August 1914 with the rank of major. On 25 August 1914 he took command of the 3rd Field Artillery Brigade. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel on 17 September 1914. On 25 September 1914 he embarked for Egypt on HMAT Rangatira.
Coming ashore at Anzac on 26 April 1915, Rosenthal’s energy and optimism brought him into conflict with his superior, Major General W. T. Bridges. Bridges feared losing guns, and as the position was insecure, did not wish any more landed, for fear that they might be lost. Rosenthal was of the opinion that there were gun positions available, and obtained leave to place the 7th Field Battery on Bolton’s Hill, under the command of Major F. A. Hughes.
Stationed within a few yards of the front line, one of these guns over looked an area known as the Wheatfield. When the Turks attacked that night, they moved through the Wheatfield and came under fire from that gun. With fuzes timed to burst at the muzzles so that the gun acted like a giant shotgun, the gunners defeated the Turkish attack. Rosenthal always remained critical of Bridges’ attitude, stirring up a bri ef controversy in a public address in 1936.
It was also the 7th Field Battery on Bolton’s Ridge which replied when, on 5 May 1915, Turkish guns from the the area south of Gaba Tepe that came to be known as the Olive Grove began firing on the Australian positions at Anzac, the Turks using high explosive for the first time. Although exposed, the 7th Field Battery fired until the Turkish shelling ceased.
In the meantime, one of the Turkish shells burst in Rosenthal’s headquarters dugout, wounding Rosenthal and one of his battery commanders, Major W. L. Burgess. Rosenthal, wounded in the head, back left arm and right knee, was evacuated to Egypt. En route he entertained the other wounded men on the hospital ship with a rendition of Handel’s “Arm, Arm Ye Brave” from his hospital bed.
Rosenthal found time to write to his family, describing the incident that led to his being wounded, which landed in him hot water with the 1st Division chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel C. B. B. White when it was published in the British Australasian, ostensibly on the grounds of a policy that casualties were not to be publicly mentioned. Rosenthal was forced to write an apology that scarcely concealed his feeling of how absurd this was, given that the casualty lists had already been published in the newspapers.
Rosenthal returned to Anzac on 22 May 1915. He was wounded a second time on 27 July 1915, a rifle bullet passing through his left leg, but he remained on duty. On 25 August 1915 he was evacuated to England with an enteric illness. He did not rejoin his brigade until 3 January 1916, in Tel el Kebir, Egypt, after the evacuation of Anzac. For his services at Gallipoli, Rosenthal was mentioned in dispatches and made a Companion of the Bath (CB) on 8 November 1915.
On 21 February 1916, Rosenthal was appointed commander of the artillery of the newly formed 4th Division, and promoted to colonel and temporary brigadier general. For brigade commanders, Rosenthal had three men who had commanded batteries on Gallipoli, Major G. H. M. King and R. L. Rabett, New South Welshmen that Rosenthal had known before the war, and F. A. Hughes. For gunners he had infantry and light horse reinforcements, some of whom had never seen a gun before, much less fired one.
All told he had only about 150 trained officers and men. Getting the division artillery ready was a major challenge. Rosenthal embarked for France at Alexandria on 2 June 1916, arriving in Marseilles on 8 June 1916. The next month his guns were in action at Fromelles, supporting the 5th Division, and then at Pozieres. For Fromelles and Pozieres, Rosenthal was mentioned in dispatches in November and again in January 1917 and made a Companion of St Michael and St George (CMG). He was wounded again on 20 December 1916.
The German counterattack at Lagnicourt on 15 April 1917 found the Australian artillery well forward and M Group of the 1st Division Artillery around Lagnicourt were overrun and lost a number of their guns. At one point, Rosenthal ordered Rabett, commanding Q Group in the Noreuil Valley, to bring up his horses and prepare to remove or disable his guns by removing the sights and breech blocks. But Rosenthal left this up to Rabett’s discretion and as it turned out, the infantry under Brigadier General R. Smith stopped the enemy short of Noreuil and it was not necessary.
Major General C. B. B. White ordered a court of enquiry into the temporary loss of the guns (all having been recaptured before they could be destroyed). Rosenthal felt that the whole thing was ludicrous, concluding that “the day has surely gone by when the possible loss of a gun or guns is considered so serious as to curtail the usefulness of the artillery.” No disciplinary action was ever taken against anyone.
Being slightly senior to the other brigadier generals of the 4th Division — C. H. Brand, D. J. Glasfurd and T. W. Glasgow — Rosenthal was acting commander of the 4th Division for brief periods five times in 1916 and 1917. Earmarked for the next divisional command, Rosenthal was given command of the 9th Infantry Brigade to gain infantry experience.
The Official Historian, Captain C. E. W. Bean, wrote that Rosenthal was “a man with a breezy, thrusting personality, and keen, simple enthusiasms — especially for the British Empire, its history and its traditions — who brought to the leadership of the brigade a robustness and audacity intensely welcome to its members…
Throughout he had given an example of spirited front line leadership, and he never hid his light under a bushel. He wore his heart, like his five wound stripes, consistently on his sleeve. He loved not only to be in the front line but to be seen there. To his brigade this type of leadership came like a fresh draught to a man thirsty for natural stimulant. A new life infused the force. The troops leapt at the breezy courage that was keen to test any danger before they entered it.”
This came at a cost; he was gassed at Passchendaele on 18 October 1917 and evacuated, not rejoining his brigade until 12 January 1918. For Third Ypres he was mentioned in dispatches a fourth time. Rosenthal was acting commander of the 1st Division from 12 January 1918 to 13 February 1918, and then the 3rd Division from 16 March 1918 to 26 March 1918. He was made a brevet lieutenant colonel in the AMF on 1 January 1918.
He was mentioned in dispatches a fifth time on 7 April 1918 in common with many other Australian commanders at a time when the Australian Army was moving to the rescue of its British counterpart, and on 3 June 1918 was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for Broodeseinde in October 1917 and his brief command of the 1st Division.
On the morning of 4 May 1918, Rosenthal was making his morning trudge around his brigade’s positions near Sailly-Le-Sec with his brigade major, Major W. A. S. Dunlop, and Lieutenant Colonel H. F. White, commander of the 33rd Infantry Battalion, when they came across wiring parties of the 33rd erecting posts some 150 metres short of where there had been ordered to.
When Rosenthal directed the lieutenant in charge to move the posts forward, he was informed that it would then be behind the German flank. At this time there was considerable emphasis being put on securing identification of German units in order to determine the location of the next German Offensive, and Rosenthal decided to see if he could find one.
They presently found a German corpse and removed his identifying shoulder strap. On returning, they found another subaltern who had placed his post too close to the white tape marking where the wire was supposed to be erected. Rosenthal and his party then moved the tape forward. While they were pegging it down, six Germans came towards them from the rear. Rosenthal and White ordered them to halt but though unarmed they decided to run.
White shot one and Rosenthal another and they captured five of them. After having the wounded Germans attended to, Rosenthal started back to his headquarters. A subaltern warned him that he was walking towards the German line. “Nonsense boy — I was soldiering before you were born!” Rosenthal told him. But then a German flare went up and Rosenthal reconsidered the situation.
On 22 May 1915, Rosenthal was appointed commander of the 2nd Division and promoted to major general. He was wounded a fifth time on 19 July 1918, this time by a sniper while performing a daylight reconnaissance of a dangerous spot, and evacuated, but rejoined his division on 6 August 1918, just in time for the Battle of Amiens on 8 August 1918.
On 31 August to 2 September 1918, the 2nd Division took Mont St Quentin by storm, in what is widely regarded as the AIF’s greatest achievement of the war. In October 1918, the 2nd Division punched through the German front at Montbrehain the Australian Corps’ last fight of the war. For the 1918 fighting, Rosenthal was mentioned in dispatches twice more, bringing his total to seven. In the 1919 New Year’s list he was created a Knight Commander of the Bath (KCB).
Rosenthal became commander of the AIF Depots in the United Kingdom on 10 March 1919. On 22 November 1919, he embarked for Australia, where his appointment to the AIF was terminated on 12 March 1920. He commanded the 2nd Division from 1 May 1921 to 30 April 1926 and from 18 January 1932 to 1937. He was honorary colonel of the 33rd Battalion from 1 November 1924 to 31 October 1929 and of the 36th Battalion from 1 December 1923.
After the war, Rosenthal was faced with rebuilding his architecture practice. He briefly studied law at the University of Melbourne. He served as alderman of the Sydney Municipal Council from 1921 to 1924 and was chairman of its works committee. He was a Nationalist member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly from 1922 to 1925 and later a member of the Legislative Council from 1936 to 1937. He was president of the New South Wales Institute of Architects from 1926 to 1930 and also president of the Federal Council of Australasian Institutes of Architects from 1925 to 1928.
He was a fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and a life fellow of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects. He was president of the Australian Museum in Sydney from 1926, and was actively interested in native flora, reafforestation and wireless communications. In 1930 he once again went bankrupt.
In 1937, Rosenthal accepted the post of Administrator of Norfolk Island, which he held until 1945. He supported tree planting and conservation of the old convict buildings. During World War II he organised an infantry unit. After he relinquished the post of administrator he lived on the island privately until 1948 when he returned to Sydney.
He died on 11 May 1954 and was cremated with full military honours after a service at St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney.