Leon Maxwell Gellert – Adelaide’s Own Soldier-Poet of the Great War

 Just now it is difficult to sit down to read novels. Have you ever noticed that in times of illness or of stress one turns either to something read before, something one can dream over, half reading, half remembering? Or if it is stimulus or encouragement you want, then you find yourself hunting for thoughts wrapped in a few forceful words, in verse for choice; a message that sings itself into heart as well as brain.1   

So wrote the Adelaide Observer’s columnist known as Magpie, on the 5th of September 1914. Although referring to songs of the Great War, the comments could be equally applied to its poetry. While the poetry of great British and American poets was shared with audiences at home in Australia, local newspapers also gave precious column inches to writers raised under the searing southern sun.

Leon Maxwell Gellert

 In today’s article we would like to introduce you to one such local poet, Leon Maxwell Gellert. Born in Walkerville, and educated at Adelaide High School, Gellert studied European history and education at University (Teachers’) Training College in 1912, followed by English language and literature at the University of Adelaide in 1913. He was teaching physical education at Hindmarsh Public School when the war broke out.2  

Gellert served as a corporal and then a sergeant with the 10th Infantry Battalion and was sent to Gallipoli, where he contracted typhoid dysentery as a result of “septic poisoning of hands and knees” and spent some months in hospital in Malta before being sent to England in October.3 On the 30th of April 1916 he was diagnosed as having epilepsy and was returned to Australia on a hospital ship, being discharged on the 30th of 

June as a result of being declared medically unfit. Although he managed to enlist again in November, Gellert was immediately discharged. After the war, he returned to poetry, teaching and finally journalism.4

While his military service inspired his poetry, Gellert’s protracted convalescence gave him the time to write. His collection Songs of a Campaign published by Hassell & Son in Adelaide in 1917, won the University of Adelaide Bundey Prize for English Verse, which had been established by Ellen Milne Bundey in 1912.5 The collection was described in the Adelaide Observer as a work that “everyone should read”.6 So, without further ado, we would like to share with you a sonnet from one of Adelaide’s own soldier-poets that attempts to describe what was so often, to those who had not served, indescribable. 

 The Husband

Yes, I have slain, and taken moving life
From bodies.  Yea! And laughed upon the taking;
And, having slain, have whetted still the knife
For more and more, and heeded not the making
Of things that I was killing.  Such 'twas then!
But now the thirst so hideous has left me.
I live within a coolness, among calm men,
And yet am strange.  A something has bereft me
Of a seeing, and strangely love returns;
And old desires half-known, and hanging sorrows.
I seem agaze with wonder.  Memory burns.
I see a thousand vague and sad tomorrows.
None sees my sadness.  No one understands
How I must touch her hair with bloody hands.7

   Songs of a Campaign     



1.      “Australian War Songs,” The Observer (Adelaide), 5 September 1914

2.      Gavin, Souter, 'Gellert, Leon Maxwell (1892–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 2/11/2015, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gellert-leon-maxwell-10288/text18201.

3.       National Archives of Australia: B2455, Gellert L M, accessed 02/11/2015, http://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/NameSearch/Interface/ItemDetail.aspx?Barcode=4104382

4.      Souter, “Gellert, Leon Maxwell (1892-1977).”

5.      “An Adelaide Poet at the War,” The Observer (Adelaide), 26 May 1917.

6.      “An Adelaide Poet at the War.”

7.      “An Adelaide Poet at the War.”    

© Elsa Reuter, RSL Virtual War Memorial