b. 13/05/1888 Campbell Town, Australia. d. 12/10/1917 Passchendaele, Belgium.
Lewis McGee (1888-1917) was born on 13th May 1888 at Verwood, Campbell Town, Tasmania, Australia. His father, John Dedman McGee, was a labourer and later a farmer. He married Mary Green on 12th December 1867 at Ross, Tasmania. Mary died when Lewis was just 7 during an operation to remove a tumour on her lung, which was complicated by pleurisy. Prior to her death, John and Mary had eleven children between 1868 and 1888, with Lewis as the youngest.
Lewis was employed by the Tasmanian Department of Railways as an engine driver. He was an accomplished cyclist, winning numerous events as a member of the Avoca Cycling Club. On 15th November 1914 he married Eileen Rose Bailey at St Thomas’ Church, Avoca, Tasmania, and they had a daughter, Nada Mary McGee, born in November 1915.
Lewis enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force at Avoca, Tasmania on 1st March 1916. He was posted to Claremont, Hobart, Tasmania and allocated to 40th Battalion on 1st May. He was promoted to Lance Corporal on 22nd May and embarked with B Company, 1st Reinforcements, 40th Battalion at Hobart, Tasmania aboard HMAT A35 Berrima on 1st July. He was based at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain, until being posted to France on 23rd November 1916. He was soon promoted to Corporal and then Sergeant in 6 Platoon, B Company on 12th January 1917. He was attached to the 3rd Australian Division School of Instruction and took part in the Battle of Messines in June 1917.
As part of the third phase of the Passchendaele offensive, the 10th Australian Brigade—of which McGee's 40th Battalion was part—was detailed to execute an attack on Broodseinde Ridge. The brigade was allocated four primary objectives to seize during the assault, one for each battalion, with the 40th Battalion to take the final target located on the ridge itself. The advance commenced at the predetermined time of 06:00 on 4th October 1917, under the cover of an artillery barrage. The first three battalions were able to seize their objectives, though the fighting intensified with each stage. As the 40th Battalion set to advance towards the final objective, its progress became hampered by increasingly heavy machine-gun and rifle fire, as well as by barbed wire entanglements and sectors of impassable swamp. With McGee's B Company heading the 40th Battalion's advance, the unit was able to progress to a point approximately 270 metres (300 yd) in front of the crest, where it was confronted by a thick line of barbed wire and another bog, while simultaneously subject to the fire of ten machine guns in trenches and heavily defended pillboxes. The men of B Company struggled to within 90 metres (98 yd) of the battalion's objective, when the severe fire of the German machine guns pinned them down in shellholes.
McGee's platoon was suffering heavy casualties from a particular machine gun 50 metres (55 yd) in front of his position, which was set in a recess atop a concrete pillbox and firing directly at his men. Armed solely with a revolver, McGee dashed alone towards the post across the fire-swept ground. Shooting the gunners, he captured the remaining soldiers in the garrison as prisoners and seized control of the pillbox. On returning to his unit, he reorganised his men and led a bombing party in the capture of a second machine-gun post. McGee's actions reignited the 40th Battalion's advance, with McGee himself "foremost in the remainder" of the action. By 09:12 on 5 October, the 40th Battalion had seized its objective and held complete control of the Broodseinde Ridge, having captured 300 Germans as prisoners in the process.
On 12th October 1917—eight days after McGee's Victoria Cross action—the 40th Battalion returned to the frontline, in an attempt to exploit the success of the previous week. The battlefield was drenched in rain, turning the ground into a quagmire that was additionally dominated by several German pillboxes. McGee—who had been appointed acting company sergeant major of B Company that morning—led his unit into the attack. As the men of the company advanced forward, a machine gun began firing upon them from the front, before a second opened up on their flank. Men ran to take cover in shellholes as the German fire inflicted several casualties. McGee, however, made a rush towards the guns in an apparent effort to silence them. As he ran towards the pillbox, a bullet struck him in the head, killing him instantly.
McGee was buried in Tyne Cot Cemetery, Belgium. The posthumous VC was presented to his widow by The Governor General of Australia, Sir Ronald Craufurd Munro-Ferguson GCMG, at York Park, Launceston, Tasmania on 2nd March 1918. Eileen remarried in 1929 and had two further children. In addition to his VC, he was awarded the British War Medal 1914-20 and Victory Medal 1914-19. His VC was purchased by the Tasmanian Government at Spink’s, Australia on 1st May 1984 for $A36,000. It is displayed in Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery, Launceston, Tasmania.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: QUEEN VICTORIA MUSEUM/ART GALLERY, LAUNCESTON.
BURIAL PLACE: TYNE COT CEMETERY, ZONNEBEKE, BELGIUM.
Cemetery Plan courtesy of Kevin Brazier
PLOT XX, ROW D, GRAVE 1.
Boucher Memorial Park, Avoca, Tasmania
War Memorial, Ross, Tasmania