Sir Talbot Hobbs

Joseph John Talbot Hobbs was born on 24 August 1864 in London, England, the son of a journeyman joiner who became a clerk of works. He was educated at St Mary’s Church School, Merton, Surrey, England. He worked as a draftsman for a builder, John Hurst, with whom he migrated to Perth in 1887. There, he set up practice as an architect. Hobbs became first of the Western Australian Institute of Architects in 1896, and later served as president from 1909 to 1911. In 1905, he became senior partner of Hobbs, Smith & Forbes.

Hobbs joined the 1st Cinque Ports Artillery Volunteers in 1883. He enlisted in the Volunteer Field Artillery in Perth in 1887, and was commissioned in 1889. In 1903 he was given command of the 1st (Western Australian) Field Battery, Australian Field Artillery. In 1908, he commanded the Western Australian Mixed Brigade with the rank of lieutenant colonel. Finally, on 1 July 1913, he took command of the 22nd Infantry Brigade with the rank of full colonel.

Hobbs studied hard at his military vocation, attending gunnery courses in England in 1902 and 1906, and he took the Diploma of Military Science course at the University of Sydney in 1909. He was attached to the British Army for a time in 1897 and again in 1913. Much of this training was at his own expense.

In August 1914, Major General W. T. Bridges chose Hobbs to command the 1st Division Artillery. Because the batteries were spread across the country, he was unable to truly take charge of the whole until it had arrived in Egypt.

Gallipoli proved a frustrating time for Hobbs and the artillery in general. Ammunition, especially high explosive, was in short supply, and the extremely rugged terrain made it difficult to hit their targets. At one point Bridges ordered Hobbs to place guns in the front trenches on the 400 Plateau to fire at the Turks like giant shotguns. Hobbs protested, but twice carried out his orders, the gunners doing so without loss. In the end, it was demonstrated that shrapnel was ineffective against entrenchments, and Hobbs won his point.

Considerable effort was required to find suitable battery positions and arcs of fire so that the whole position was covered. In the fighting at the Nek, the artillery was blamed for lifting its fire early but Hobbs was able to demonstrate that it was the light horsemen whose watches were set incorrectly.

Hobbs took over command of the 1st Division when Brigadier General Walker was wounded on 13 October 1915, and remained in charge until 6 November 1915, when he was evacuated with dysentery.

He resumed command of the 1st Division Artillery, commanding it through its expansion to sixteen batteries in Egypt in March 1916, and through the fighting at Pozieres. In this battle, the role of the artillery was much greater and far more critical than it had been at Gallipoli. Huge amounts of ammunition were fired, and advanced artillery tactics such as the creeping barrage were introduced.

On 1 January 1917, Hobbs was promoted to Major General and appointed to command the 5th Division. His division provided one of the advance guards for the pursuit of the Germans to their Hindenburg Line position. In this campaign, Hobbs found himself with a delicate task of reconciling the tactical requirements of an impatient Elliott and his men under fire at the front, with increasingly unreasonable and restrictive directives emanating from Corps headquarters to the rear. This he somehow managed to do without losing the confidence of either.

Hobbs was a humane commander who cared deeply for the welfare of his men. He often commuted the prison sentences handed down by his field officers. When his division was ordered to break off its rest period and return to the line at Bullecourt, Hobbs protested strongly. He was compelled to obey, but did win an extended rest after the battle.

At Polygon Wood, the troops on Hobbs’ right were struck by a counterattack, and only the decisive action of Elliott retrieved the situation. For this, Hobbs was awarded the Knight Commander of the Bath (KCB) in the 1918 New Year’s list.

In March 1918, the 5th Division was sent to blunt the German offensive. When Villers Bretonneux was captured by the enemy, it was Hobbs who gained permission for the counterattack to recover it, and Hobbs who put Elliott’s plan of double envelopment into effect. The recapture of the town by the 13th and 15th Brigades brought an end to the German advance towards Amiens.

Hobbs invented a steel casemate for machine guns that went into production in mid 1918. It saw little use only because deliveries occurred at a time when the Allies were advancing.

In the final campaign, the 5th Division won distinction in the Battle of Amiens on 8 August 1918, the capture of Peronne on 2 September, and the assault on the Hindenburg Line at Bellicourt.

When the Australian Corps was withdrawn from the line in October 1918, Hobbs became acting commander. On 28 November 1918, he succeeded Monash, and was promoted to lieutenant general. In the 1919 New Year’s list he was awarded the Knight Commander of St Michael and St George (KCMG).

Hobbs took an interest in the erection of memorials. Of the six divisional memorials, five were of his simple design. He chose Polygon Wood as the site for the 5th Division memorial, and Villers Bretonneux for the national memorial. Later he designed the Western Australian War Memorial.

Hobbs returned to Australia in May 1919. In January 1920, Hobbs, along with Legge, Monash, McCay and White, was appointed to a committee chaired by Chauvel, to examine the future structure of the army. In 1921 he was again made commander of the 5th Division, and the 13th Mixed Brigades, holding these appointments until he retired from the army in 1927. In 1922 he became the military representative on the faculty of engineering at the University of Western Australia, which awarded him an honorary degree of Doctor of Law.

In April 1938, Hobbs left for France to attend the unveiling of the Australian War Memorial at Villers Bretonneux. En route he suffered a heart attack and died. His body was returned to Perth for a state funeral with full military honors. He was buried at Peppermint Grove Cemetery. In 1940 a memorial was erected to Hobbs on the Esplanade in Perth.

Of Hobbs, Monash said: “While he would be the last to lay claim to special brilliance, or outstanding military genius, he nevertheless succeeded fully as the commander of a division, by his sound common sense, and his sane attitude toward every problem that confronted him. He possessed also the virtue of a large hearted sympathy for all subordinate to him; and that gave him a loyal following which carried him through several great crises”.

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