Sir Leslie Morshead
1889 - 1959
Sir Leslie James Morshead was born on 18 September 1889 at Ballarat. He grew up in country
Victoria. He was good academically and also excelled at sport, captaining his school’s football and
cricket teams. Morshead qualified as a teacher and worked at a number of schools. During this
time he became involved in the cadet corps.
Morshead’s military career spanned both world wars. When the first world war broke out, he
resigned his teaching position to enlist as a private in the 2nd Infantry Battalion, the first
Australian Imperial Force. He served as a captain at the Gallipoli landing and later as a major at
Lone Pine. His reputation for calmness and organisation brought him promotion to lieutenant
colonel. He went on to serve in France where he developed under the eye of Sir John Monash.
Morshead was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and mentioned in dispatches five times.
Back in civilian life after the end of the war, Morshead was a successful businessman working for
the Orient Steam Navigation Co. During this time he was active in the militia, commanding a
number of battalions. He was promoted to colonel and later temporary brigadier.
On 13 October 1939, Morshead was appointed to the A.I.F. Early in 1941, Morshead was sent to
the Middle East; he was promoted to major general and placed in command of the 9th Division.
As a leader, Morshead was vigorous and resolute. His insistence on discipline and hard work
brought him the nickname ‘Ming the Merciless’, which in time became ‘Ming’. The 9th Division
eventually reached Tobruk. By then they were almost exhausted but were still an organised
force, eager to have a go. At Tobruk, Morshead initially came under the command of Major
General John Lavarack. However, he quickly succeeded Lavarack as commander of the fortress of
Tobruk. Talking to his men, Morshead famously said: ‘There will be no Dunkirk here. If we
should have to get out, we shall fight our way out. There is to be no surrender and no retreat.’
Morshead was a brilliant strategist, often using tactics which were new to the Germans.
Morshead and his mixed force of Australian, British, Indian and Polish troops won this important
defensive battle. Not only had they denied the Axis powers the port of Tobruk, but they had also
compelled General Erwin Rommel to hold a significant part of his army back from the Egyptian
frontier for six months. After Tobruk, Morshead and his 9th Division went on to fight at El
Alamein. In February 1943 they finally returned to Australia.
Back in civilian life after the war, Morshead was again a successful businessman. He attended
many unit reunions and other special occasions, including the opening of Tobruk House. He was
always received with acclaim by his men who greeted him with the rousing ‘Ho Ho’ cry of the 9th
Division. Sir Leslie died of cancer on 26 September 1959.
This is a précis of an article ‘Morshead, Sir Leslie James (1989 – 1959), by A. J. Hill which is published in Australian Dictionary of Biography. You can read the full article by using the link below: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/morshead-sirleslie-james-11180