STEELE, Alexander

Service Number: 41
Enlisted: 25 August 1914, Enoggera, Queensland
Last Rank: Major
Last Unit: 11th Infantry Battalion
Born: Mount Gambier, South Australia, 20 August 1888
Home Town: Mount Gambier, Mount Gambier, South Australia
Schooling: Mount Gambier Grammar School, South Australia
Occupation: Bootmaker
Died: Killed In Action, Broodseinde, Belgium, 7 October 1917, aged 29 years
Cemetery: No known grave - "Known Unto God"
Memorials: Adelaide National War Memorial, Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour, Menin Gate Memorial (Commonwealth Memorial to the Missing of the Ypres Salient)
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World War 1 Service

25 Aug 1914: Enlisted AIF WW1, Private, SN 41, Enoggera, Queensland
24 Sep 1914: Involvement AIF WW1, Staff Sergeant Major, SN 41, 9th Infantry Battalion, Enlistment/Embarkation WW1
24 Sep 1914: Embarked AIF WW1, Staff Sergeant Major, SN 41, 9th Infantry Battalion, HMAT Omrah, Brisbane
25 Apr 1915: Involvement AIF WW1, Staff Sergeant Major, SN 41, 9th Infantry Battalion, 'ANZAC' / Gallipoli
28 Apr 1915: Promoted AIF WW1, Second Lieutenant, 9th Infantry Battalion
19 May 1915: Wounded Second Lieutenant, 9th Infantry Battalion, 'ANZAC' / Gallipoli, GSW (wrist)
3 Jun 1915: Honoured 'ANZAC' / Gallipoli, Distinguished Conduct Medal
4 Aug 1915: Promoted AIF WW1, Lieutenant, 9th Infantry Battalion
5 Aug 1915: Honoured 'ANZAC' / Gallipoli, Mentioned In Dispatches
7 Jan 1916: Transferred AIF WW1, Lieutenant, 3rd Infantry Brigade Headquarters
20 Feb 1916: Promoted AIF WW1, Captain, 3rd Infantry Brigade Headquarters
13 Mar 1916: Transferred AIF WW1, Captain, 3rd Machine Gun Company
21 Jul 1916: Involvement AIF WW1, Captain, 3rd Machine Gun Company, Battle for Pozières
21 Aug 1916: Promoted AIF WW1, Major, 3rd Machine Gun Company
27 Apr 1917: Transferred AIF WW1, Major, 10th Infantry Battalion
5 May 1917: Involvement AIF WW1, Major, 10th Infantry Battalion, Bullecourt (Second)
5 Jul 1917: Involvement AIF WW1, Major, 11th Infantry Battalion, Third Ypres

Distinguished Conduct Medal Citation

From 25th to 29th April, 1915, during operations near Gaba-Tepe, for distinguished conduct in manning and maintaining his machine gun which he continued to work after the remainder of his section had been killed or wounded.

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Major Alexander Steele, DSO, DCM MiD

from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Alexander Steele (1888-1917), soldier, was born on 20 August 1888 at Mount Gambier, South Australia, son of Dugald Steele, painter, and his wife Elizabeth Burton, née Laywood. Educated at Mount Gambier Grammar School, he worked for a local bootmaker (a member of the volunteer corps) under whose influence Steele began his military career in the ranks of the South Australian Infantry Regiment.

From qualifying school, he was appointed to the Administrative and Instructional Staff of the Permanent Military Forces in August 1910 and posted to Gawler where in January 1911 he was appointed staff sergeant major; next year he qualified at the Permanent Military Force's School of Musketry. Posted in September 1913 to the Royal Military College, Duntroon, as the non-commissioned instructor in infantry and musketry, he passed a course on machine-guns at the School of Musketry and applied for a commission, but withdrew from the examination.

Travelling to Queensland, reputedly to meet a friend who was about to join up, Steele enlisted on 25 August 1914 in the 9th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force. He sailed with the unit's machine-gun section next month and served as machine-gun sergeant during the Gallipoli landing on 25 April 1915. His work in the first ten days ashore earned special mention in Army Corps routine orders. For manning and maintaining his gun in action for several days after the rest of his section had been killed or wounded, he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal; on 28 April he was also commissioned second lieutenant. Wounded on 19 May when an expanding bullet struck his forearm, he was evacuated to hospital in Egypt. He was mentioned in dispatches on 3 August and promoted lieutenant on the 4th; he returned to his battalion a few days later, but was re-admitted to hospital at the end of the month and did not rejoin his unit until December.

Having been made machine-gun officer for the 3rd Brigade, in February 1916 Steele was promoted captain. He raised the brigade machine-gun company and was its commanding officer when the brigade went to France in March. During the period of trench-raids to which the A.I.F. was first exposed on this front, Steele showed himself to be skilled in machine-gun tactics. In the battle of the Somme in the months to October, his services were 'conspicuous and consistent' for displaying 'marked resourcefulness and leadership'. He was promoted major in August, awarded the Distinguished Service Order in December and again mentioned in dispatches in January 1917.

After attending a senior officers' course in early 1917 at Aldershot, England, he resumed command of his machine-gun company on 4 April. On the 27th he was given temporary command of the 10th Battalion and led this unit in the 2nd battle of Bullecourt on 6 May. Transferred to the 11th Battalion on 5 July as second-in-command, he was temporarily commanding this unit at Broodseinde Ridge, Belgium, when, on 7 October, the battalion headquarters were heavily shelled and he was killed; nothing reportedly remained of Steele save his tunic. He had been, as the historian Charles Bean noted at the time, 'a splendid officer … [who] was the makings of the 11th Battalion'.

Steele's rise from non-commissioned rank on the outbreak of war to his first command of a battalion three years later, at the age of 28, was clear evidence of the calibre of the personnel serving in the ranks of Australia's small pre-war permanent forces. The fact that, by his ability, he was so able to rise, was one of the strengths of the A.I.F. He was unmarried.

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Chris Clark, 'Steele, Alexander (1888–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 30 December 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990