MITCHELL, George Deane

Service Numbers: 1014, N84702, NX156027
Enlisted: 5 September 1914, Adelaide, South Australia
Last Rank: Major
Last Unit: 43 Port Landing Craft Company
Born: Caltowie, South Australia, 30 August 1894
Home Town: Adelaide, South Australia
Schooling: Not yet discovered
Occupation: Farmer
Died: Natural causes, Darlinghurst, New South Wales, 11 January 1961, aged 66 years
Cemetery: Rookwood Cemetery & Crematorium
Memorials: Adelaide Holy Trinity Church WW1 Honour Board 2
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World War 1 Service

5 Sep 1914: Enlisted AIF WW1, Private, SN 1014, 10th Infantry Battalion, Adelaide, South Australia
20 Oct 1914: Involvement AIF WW1, Private, SN 1014, 10th Infantry Battalion, Enlistment/Embarkation WW1
20 Oct 1914: Embarked AIF WW1, Private, SN 1014, 10th Infantry Battalion, HMAT Ascanius, Adelaide
25 Apr 1915: Involvement AIF WW1, Private, SN 1014, 10th Infantry Battalion, 'ANZAC' / Gallipoli
23 Jul 1916: Involvement AIF WW1, Lance Corporal, SN 1014, 48th Infantry Battalion, Battle for Pozières
29 Oct 1916: Involvement AIF WW1, Lance Corporal, SN 1014, 48th Infantry Battalion, Flers/Gueudecourt
11 Apr 1917: Involvement AIF WW1, Lance Corporal, SN 1014, 48th Infantry Battalion, Bullecourt (First)
24 Apr 1917: Promoted AIF WW1, Second Lieutenant, 48th Infantry Battalion
4 Oct 1917: Promoted AIF WW1, Lieutenant, 48th Infantry Battalion
28 Mar 1918: Involvement AIF WW1, Lieutenant, SN 1014, 48th Infantry Battalion, Dernancourt/Ancre
15 Jul 1919: Discharged AIF WW1, Lieutenant, 48th Infantry Battalion

World War 2 Service

20 Jan 1941: Enlisted Major, SN N84702, Randwick, New South Wales
11 Jan 1943: Involvement Major, SN NX156027, Army Training Units
11 Jan 1943: Enlisted Australian Military Forces (Army WW2), Major, SN NX156027
28 Feb 1946: Discharged Major, SN NX156027, 43 Port Landing Craft Company

George Mitchell's "Backs to the Wall" - Gripping Western Front Diary

Backs to the Wall is one of a handful of first hand accounts by Australian Diggers that were published commercially. By the time it was published in 1937, Australian audiences were possibly somewhat 'war weary' and wanted to move on from the scars of the Great War that were still very raw in the nations consciousness, and it was not a great commercial success. It remains however one of the great descriptive accounts of infantry combat generally and on the Western Front in particular.

George Mitchell's account was used extensively by Charles Bean.

An accomplished author, Mitchell articulates the essence of infantry combat and the book culminates in the 48th Battalion's defence of Dernancourt,as part of the 12th Brigade; one of the key battles in the latter stages of the AIF campaigns on the Western Front. They did indeed have their "Backs to the Wall".

At the time (late March 1918) the British front was crumbling in the face of the great German offensive that sought to seize a strategic victory before the Americans arrived at the front in numbers. It very nearly succeeded.

Australian Brigades were being rushed albeit piecemeal, to fill key gaps in the line as the German juggernaut rolled towards Amiens and victory.

The description of their night march to the line captures the anguish and frustration of the Australians. They sensed that all they and their comrades had fought and died for over the previous two years was being swept away by the great German offensive. The losses they had sustained the friends they had lost were for all for nought and that they were about to be sacrificed and would 'die hard' trying to stem the irresistible tide of grey sweeping towards them.

The 12th Brigade's defence at Dernancourt was fought against great odds but the fatalistic determination of the Australians held firm. Mitchell's account magnificently describes and evocatively conveys the fury, confusion, anguish and finally the exhausted elation of an unlikely victory.

This book is a must read for any student of Australia's military history.

Steve Larkins April 2014

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By Professor Bill Gammage

George Deane Mitchell (1894-1961), soldier, author, politician and lifelong larrikin, was born on 30 August 1894 at Caltowie, South Australia, one of five children of George Deane Mitchell, railway porter, and his wife Annie, née Smith. Young George was a clerk in Adelaide when he enlisted in the 10th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, on 5 September 1914. He served at Gallipoli from 25 April 1915 until he was evacuated with enteric fever on 6 August. Rejoining his battalion on 9 September 1916 in Belgium, he was transferred to the 48th Battalion on 31 October and promoted lance corporal on 17 March 1917.

On 11 April, after six hours of bitter trench fighting in the first battle of Bullecourt, France, Mitch covered his comrades' retreat, then shouldered his Lewis gun and strolled through heavy enemy fire to his lines. He won the Distinguished Conduct Medal and was promoted second lieutenant. His walk entered A.I.F. legend, and Charles Bean ('s official history used it to characterize Mitchell's brigade in the battle. On 28 March 1918 Mitchell's platoon held an exposed hillside at Dernancourt. On his right the enemy broke through. He ran to the break, waving a pistol, and captured about thirty soldiers. He was awarded the Military Cross. In May 1919 he returned to Australia an A.I.F. rarity, having survived four years of front-line service unwounded.

Mitchell wrote the A.I.F.'s most evocative diary, with a knack of seeing significance in events. 'We had come from the New World for the conquest of the Old', he observed at the Anzac landing. 'They all bore the hall mark of the Cog', he remarked of Londoners in 1916. 'I feel that I have lost touch with any life but this one of war', he wrote in 1917, it 'is hard to recall Australia, and apart from my people nothing stands out vividly. I feel an outsider. We are lost in the magnitude of our task'.

In peace he could not settle. In South Australia until 1922, he grew potatoes and was an army area officer at Mount Gambier; in Victoria until 1926 and Queensland until about 1936, he worked as an estate agent, garage-owner and motorcar salesman; and in New South Wales until 1940, he was a journalist and author. Although Mitchell was a Militia officer in 1920-26, he never liked officers, but he was proud of his war service and from 1934 wrote about it for Reveille, then for Smith's Weekly and in a book, Backs to the Wall (Sydney, 1937). Convinced of the importance of defence to his country's future, he wrote The Awakening (1937), a novel describing the invasion of an unprepared Australia, and Soldier in Battle (1940), a handbook for front-line infantry. In 1939 he edited and toured with We of the A.I.F., an official film on 1914-18, for which he provided a vivid commentary. He became a State councillor of the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia. He ran as an Independent for the Legislative Assembly seat of Oxley, losing in 1938 and winning in 1941. Because of war service, he was present for only three sitting days, and lost the seat in 1944.

Having been appointed captain, Reserve of Officers, on 8 July 1940, Mitchell trained militiamen. He was promoted major on 1 September. At St Michael's Anglican Church, Vaucluse, on 30 July 1941 he married Thelma Agnes Bell, a 20-year-old New Zealand-born stenographer. In north-west Australia in 1942-43 he led an independent guerrilla force which lived off the land for weeks while searching for Japanese and training local resistance. Transferring to the A.I.F., he commanded the 43rd Landing Craft Company. With equipment vastly better than at Anzac Cove, he landed troops under fire at Dove Bay, near Wewak, New Guinea, on 11 May 1945. He returned to civilian life in February 1946 and worked for the T.B. Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen's Association. In his retirement he listed his recreations as swimming, hiking, experimenting and writing. He died of cancer on 11 January 1961 at Darlinghurst, Sydney, and was cremated with Methodist forms. His wife and son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1918 (Syd, 1937)
  • B. Gammage, The Broken Years (Canb, 1974)
  • Reveille (Sydney), Mar 1936, Feb 1961
  • People (Sydney), 18 June 1952
  • G. D. Mitchell diary, 1914-18 (Australian War Memorial).

Bill Gammage, 'Mitchell, George Deane (1894–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 8 May 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Used with the kind Permission of Professor Bill Gammage