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FREEMAN, Neil Mackenzie (1890-1961)

FREEMAN, Neil Mackenzie DSO (1890-1961)

Neil Freeman (Football 1906).

Neil Freeman (Football 1906).

Neil Mackenzie Freeman was born on the 21 April 1890, the son of Thomas William Freeman and Mary Brown nee McKenzie. He was educated at Geelong College where he was enrolled as a day student in 1903 and his entry address was Bailey St, Geelong. He probably left in 1905/06. Neil was a member of the 1st Football XVIII in 1906.

He is recorded in the Geelong College Annual Reports as gaining the following awards:
1904, 1st, Arithmetic, University Form B.
1905, 2nd, Arithmetic, University Form A.
1905, 1st, French, University Form A.

He later studied at The University of Melbourne, where he took a Law degree.

He was a prominent member of the Geelong football team, playing 45 games from 1911 until 1914. After World War I, he was on the Football Club Selection Committee.

Neil worked as a solicitor before he enlisted in the AIF on 1 June 1915 during World War I. He embarked as a 2nd Lieutenant with 24 Battalion (7th Reinforcement Group) on 26 November 1915 on HMAT A73 Commonwealth. He transferred to 58 Battalion on 23 February 1916, was promoted Lieutenant on 4 April, Captain on 6 September, and Major on 30 April 1917.

Long after the war Freeman remembered ‘Pompey’ Elliott after the Battle of Fromelles
'I . . . . will always have before my eyes the picture of ‘Pompey’ . . . . the morning after Fromelles, tears streaming down his face, shaking hands with the pitiful remnant of his brigade.'

Neil was Mentioned in Sir Douglas Haig’s Despatches, gazetted 28 December 1917, and promoted a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order, gazetted 19 November 1917, the citation read:

'For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when his battalion was attacked by the enemy after a preliminary bombardment of great intensity. Though his right flank was exposed by the enemy attack, he held his position with the greatest determination, and repulsed the enemy, inflicting heavy casualties. When reinforcements arrived he personally directed their dispositions under a very heavy enemy barrage, and continued to send clear and encouraging reports upon the situation. He was able eventually to cover the gap on his flank, and to consolidate the position. On a subsequent occasion he rendered great assistance in supporting an attack, and in consolidating a captured position. His courage and devotion to duty were beyond all praise.'

Neil Freeman, 1915 (S Gawler).

Neil Freeman, 1915 (S Gawler).

Neil Freeman was Major and Second-in-Command of the 58th Battalion, and was recommended for the Military Cross, the citation read:

'For great gallantry whilst acting CO of his battalion. On the morning of the 25th September last the 58th Battalion under his command was holding a section of our front line extending from the south-west corner of Polygon Wood for a distance of about 450 yards northwards. At 5.30 am after a preliminary Artillery and Machine Gun Barrage of great intensity the enemy advanced to the attack of the battalion sector and on the sector of the British Brigade on our right. Under the strain the Middlesex Regiment holding the line on our right were compelled to give way and fall back for a distance of nearly half a mile. Major Freeman held to his front line with the greatest determination and after repulsing with great loss the enemy in his immediate front, with the aid of a section of the 15th Australian LTMB, attached under Lt Gamble (Walter Morris Felix Gamble MC, the son of Morris Gamble and Ann Maude nee Maule of Kew, 15th ALTMB seconded from 59 Battalion, awarded the Military Cross on this day, he embarked on 16 July 1915 as a Private with the 7th Reinforcement Group for ‘Pompey’ Elliott’s 7th Battalion), he pushed out his supports in advance of the original line he was holding and endeavoured to counter-attack the enemy. This bold attempt failed in its entirety owing to heavy machine gun fire from the enemy and the failure of the Brigade on our right to adequately support him but he was able to make the enemy withdraw sufficiently to establish a line echeloned to the right of his original flank without withdrawing a foot from his original position. Subsequently when I sent up Reinforcements to him he took an active personal part in directing them into position despite the enemy’s barrage then at its greatest intensity. His reports on the situation from time to time were most clear and encouraging. In conjunction with Colonels Marshall and Stewart, who arrived in succession with their battalions, he was able to extend the line to the right far enough to link up with the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders who advanced to counter-attack the enemy when they broke through on our right and make our flank finally secure. During our attack on the enemy on the 26th September his Battalion under his direction rendered the greatest possible assistance in forwarding supplies to and messages from the front line. On the 27th September after the attack on Cameron House he advanced to the Red Line when Colonel Mason of the 59th Battalion was engaged in reorganising and strengthening his position. The 59th Battalion had lost a great number of officers and Major Freeman’s assistance was greatly required. His courage and devotion to duty deserves special recognition.'

Ross McMullin wrote of his service at Polygon Wood in Pompey Elliott:
'The 58th would occupy the front line before the battle, and remain there as a garrison and brigade reserve after it started. Elliott’s decision on the 58th’s role was perhaps influenced by the absence of its commander as well as the fact that it had suffered more than any other 15th Brigade battalion in its last engagement (Bullecourt). Denehy, increasingly troubled by the stress of command, was granted a fortnight’s leave in September. Returning shortly before the battle, he was placed in charge of the Fifth Division nucleus (the portion of each unit now customarily kept out of a major action to facilitate the restoration of morale and esprit de corps should heavy casualties be incurred). The 58th went into action under Major Neil Freeman, a 27-year-old solicitor and renowned footballer from Geelong, which had strong links to the 58th. Freeman lacked experience as a battalion commander, but Pompey was convinced he was a leader of abundant promise. He so distinguished himself at the Aldershot course for prospective colonels that he had been offered (but rejected) a position there as an instructor. . . . Mason’s glowing praise for the officers from other units, who enabled the 59th to move into position so smoothly before the attack, was matched by his commendation of the assistance he was given during the battle by the 58th’s leaders, notably Majors Freeman and de Ravin (Stanley Melville Deravin, of Bendigo, another original 7th officer to join ‘Pompey’ Elliott’s brigade). The victory was also a personal triumph for Elliott.'

He transferred as Lieutenant-Colonel to 31 Battalion on 1 February 1918. Ross McMullin again spoke of his service after transferring to 31 Battalion:

'Neil Freeman had also left the 15th Brigade, having been promoted to lead one of the battalions in Tivey’s brigade, the 31st, which had participated at Polygon Wood under Elliott’s command. ‘He has got on splendidly’, Pompey enthused. ‘I did not want to lose him by any means, but when the chance came to him I would not try to stop him’ (a practice not always followed, he believed, by other commanders in equivalent circumstances). Before long Hobbs told Elliott that Freeman had made the 31st Battalion ‘twice as good as it was before he came’.

C E W Bean made numerous mentions in the Official History of Freeman’s service at Polygon Wood late in September 1917, as well as Der Schwartze Tag on 8 August 1918 and the Hindenburg Line on 29 September.
He was also recommended for a Bar to his Distinguished Service Order, gazetted 16 August 1918:

'This Officer was in command of the 31st Battalion in the operations to the east of Villers Bretonneux on the 8th August 1918. His was one of the assaulting Battalions of this Brigade which was detailed for the second phase of the attack. He had the difficult task of pushing his Battalion through the units which took the first objective and forming up east of La Motte-en-Santerre. The difficulty of this task was greatly enhanced by the dense fog on the morning of the attack.

By his careful preliminary arrangements and personal reconnaissance he brought his Battalion to the ‘Jumping Off’ line in good time and with very few casualties. During the assault itself he inspired the men to greater efforts, moving about freely in the face of heavy enemy fire issuing instructions and encouraging the troops. When on the arrival at his final objective he found that the troops on his right flank had been held up, he formed a defensive flank and gave every assistance possible by supporting fire. During the operation carried out by the Brigade on the 9th August this Officer frequently made reconnaissances of the front line and sent back very valuable information to Brigade Headquarters. His gallantry and capable leadership throughout was of a very high standard.'

He wrote to a Geelong friend on 20 August 1918, this letter was published in the Geelong Advertiser:
'I have met many Geelong chaps in various units other than my own; where, of course, there is a Geelong company, or rather was, as it has been rather severely strafed on several occasions. It has been rather unlucky in having to bear the brunt of several severe encounters with the Boches. I cannot give you the detailed list of those who have fallen yet, but a number of familiar faces will be missing when the company returns to Geelong. My brother Alan has been wounded a little distance from where I am stationed at present. I am pleased to say that he has fallen into good hands, as he met his aunt, Mrs R R McKenzie, immediately after landing in England. Leslie Hodges is away from the battalion at present owing to sickness, but is progressing well in England. France is a beautiful country, and it seems an absolute sin to desecrate it with bloodshed. I have been very impressed by the people. They are not the frivolous nation some people think. They all seem fired with patriotism of the highest order. I have hardly seen a single case of that half-hearted fatalism or pessimism which seems to have taken hold of some of our own people. I find plenty to do whether in the trenches or out of them, as my position of Adjutant means constant work in regard to the organisation of the battalion. However it gives a certain amount of scope for the exercise of what little legal knowledge I possess, as a large amount of the work re courts martial etc falls my way. Roy Gullan (Captain Herbert Roy Gollan MC, DSO, 15th Brigade, newspaper reporter of Newtown, embarked with 3rd Light Horse Brigade as Corporal H R Gollan, awarded the Military Cross for service in Egypt, on Gallipoli, and in France and Belgium, and the Distinguished Service Order for service near Bellicourt on the Hindenburg Line in September 1918) is a subaltern in the battalion, and doing very well indeed. He shows a natural aptitude for organising work, and will go far (in fact he has already started on the way to further promotion). I was awfully sorry to hear of poor Billie Sayer’s death (Lt William Samuel Sayer, 12 Bn, He was born at Richmond in 1877, the son of Benjamin William and Annie (Nixon) Sayer, husband of Ada C. Sayer, of Wynyard, Tasmania, killed at the Battle of The Lys on 23 April 1918, aged 41, buried Meteren Military Cemetery - Grave IV.B.576) I did not know he was in France until the news of his death reached me. Poor Ralph Barnfather, who held a lieutenancy in the battalion, is missing. He was a general favourite and doing very well.'

Certain well-known footballers will, I am sorry to say, not return home.

Sgt George Challis (George David Challis, of Carlton, and Campbelltown, Tasmania, the son of Michael Charles and Margaret Challis, of Cleveland, Tasmania, killed in a raid on our trenches by a bomb on 25 July 1916, buried Rue-Petillon Military Cemetery - Grave I.K.109. The eldest of eight children, George was educated at Launceston High School, and played seventy games for Carlton, his last game being played on the wing in Carlton’s 33-point grand final win over Collingwood in 1915, Challis being mentioned among the Blues’ best players).

Sgt Nolan (Richmond), (William Nolan, born at Mansfield in 1888, the son of John Patrick and Elizabeth Mary Agnes Nolan, of Kensington, 58 Battalion, died of wounds sustained at Fleurbaix on 23 July 1916, buried Bologne Eastern Cemetery, France, Grave VIII.A.138. Sadly when Nolan’s mother completed the ‘Particulars Required for the Roll of Honour of Australia in the Australian War Memorial’, she noted that three of Bill’s cousins also had been killed in action).

Corporal ‘Cherry’ Douglass (of Chilwell) (Frederick Charles Douglass, born in Geelong in 1892, the son of James Thomas Douglass and Angelina nee Williams, of Geelong, 58 Bn, killed in France, 14 July 1916, buried Rue-Petillon Military Cemetery, France - Grave I.K.108)

Little ‘Plugger’ Landy, who played for St Mary’s and Geelong, (William Joseph Landy, son of John Landy and Sarah nee Perry, of Geelong, 58 Battalion, killed at Fromelles on 19 July 1916, he has no known grave, his name is commemorated on the VC Corner Australian Cemetery, France. Landy, who stood a mere 5 feet 5¼ inches and weighed 9 stone 3 pounds, was just 18 years of age when he played for Geelong and then sailed for war. Just a month after arrival in France, he disappeared from the face of the earth in battle at Fromelles, north France, and his grief-stricken mother was left with only memories and a small pension).

‘Waxy’ Campbell, of Chilwell, and others have gone down in action. (William Campbell, 58 Bn, of Geelong, died on 17 July 1916 of wounds sustained the day before at Fleurbaix, buried at Estaires Communal Cemetery, France - Grave III.F.17).

‘Matt’ Connor, of running fame, is wounded, but is, I think, progressing favourably. Norman Grigg (a flax mill manager in civilian life, of Werribee) is with our transport at present. An old injury made it impossible for him to stay in the line on account of the heavy marching, so he is now a driver. Please forgive this disjointed screed, as I have been interrupted several times while writing, and with the usual accompaniments of trench warfare and various people coming in with requests for everything from a pin to an issue of rum, I really forget what I intended to write about. I will write again soon. PS The N.O.W. (News of the Week) is seen literally in hundreds of copies in our battalion.'

Freeman was demobilised on 12 September 1919, having returned to Australia, embarking on 14 June 1919 on HMT Durham. He served in the 2nd AIF, and was discharged on 3 July 1943 as a Brigadier at Head-quarters Southern Command (3rd Military District) Infantry Training Brigade. He died in 1961.

His brother, Allan John Freeman (1893-1964) was also educated at Geelong College. His cousins, Gilbert Mackenzie and John Mackenzie, also attended Geelong College.

Sources: Geelong Collegians at the Great War compiled by James Affleck. pp 192-5 (citing The University of Melbourne: Record of Active Service of Teachers, Graduates, Undergraduates, Officers and Servants (1926); Ross McMullin, Pompey Elliott; Jim Main & David Allen, Fallen: The Ultimate Heroes - Footballers who never returned from the war (2002); Australian War Memorial; Pegasus; National Archives of Australia); Image of Neil Freeman, 1915 courtesy of S Gawler..
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