b. 09/08/1887 Barker's Creek, Victoria, Australia. d. 23/05/1968 Caulfield, Australia.
Walter Peeler (1887-1968), known as Wally in the Army, was born on 9th August 1887 at Barker’s Creek, near Castlemaine, Victoria, Australia. His father, William, a farmer/miner, married Mary Ellen Scott at Birkenhead, Victoria in 1870. They had a large family of eleven children including Wally. It is not known where he was educated, but he did work in his parents’ orchard at Barker’s Creek, Castlemaine. In 1908 he was a wood carter there, then he worked at Thompson’s Foundry, Castlemaine before working in the Leongatha district.
Walter married Emma Hewitt on 10th July 1907 at the Congregational Parsonage, Castlemaine, Victoria. She was born in Cambridgeshire, England, and they settled in Castlemaine. Walter and Emma had five children – Walter (born and died 1908), Alice, Winifred, Jean, and Kenneth. It is understood that Walter and Emma did separate between 1919 and 1924, but no divorce has been traced. Walter did remarry to Kathleen Emma McLeod, from County Wicklow, Ireland. She had a son from a previous relationship, and there is no record found of their marriage. Walter and Kathleen had four children of their own – Jeanette, Margot, Donald and Elspeth. Donald was killed in action in World War II.
Walter enlisted in the AIF at Leongatha, Victoria on 17th February 1916. He embarked on HMAT A62 Wandilla at Melbourne with A Company, 3rd Pioneer Battalion on 6th June. He was charged with being AWOL at Cape Town, South Africa on 3rd July, but was admonished and fined 1 days’ pay. He arrived in Plymouth and was posted to Larkhill on Salisbury Plain on 26th July. He was promoted to Lance Corporal on 6th November. He was posted to France, arriving in Le Havre on 25th November.
He was in trouble with the authorities in January 1917 for writing a letter contrary to censor regulations. He forfeited one month’s pay. He was severely reprimanded for having a loaded revolver in his billet on 30th March. On 8th May, he was instructing a squad in the use of the Lewis gun. The butt, pistol grip, pinion group and gas regulator were stripped and the magazine was to one side when he was asked to demonstrate a stoppage. He loaded what he thought was a dummy cartridge in the magazine and pushed the cocking handle forward causing the cartridge to fire. The bullet seriously wounded Private John Fife in the right buttock, resulting in him being discharged in December 1917. As a result, Walter was reduced in the ranks and severely reprimanded.
On 4th October 1917 at Broodseinde, Belgium, when with a Lewis gun accompanying the first wave of the assault he encountered an enemy party sniping the advancing troops from a shell-hole. L./Cpl. Peeler immediately rushed the position and accounted for nine of the enemy, and cleared the way for the advance. On two subsequent occasions he performed similar acts of valour, and each time accounted for a number of the enemy.
During operations he was directed to a position from which an enemy machine gun was being fired on our troops. He located and killed the gunner, and the remainder of the enemy party ran into a dugout close by. From this shelter they were dislodged by a bomb, and ten of the enemy ran out. These he disposed of.This non-commissioned officer actually accounted for over thirty of the enemy. He displayed an absolute fearlessness in making his way ahead of the first wave of the assault, and the fine example which he set ensured the success of the attack against most determined opposition.
Eight days later, he was shot in the arm and was evacuated to England on 15th October and admitted to Northampton War Hospital. He transferred to 1st Australian Auxiliary Hospital, Harefield, Middlesex on 30th October. On 9th January 1918 he was presented with his VC by King George V at Buckingham Palace. He returned to France on 17th May and was appointed Temporary Corporal on 31st May. He attended the Corps Gas School 22nd- 30th June. He was promoted to Sergeant on 30th July and returned to England next day. On 24th August, he and nine other Australian VCs embarked on HMAT D21 Medic to return to Australia to support recruitment. Walter was discharged on 10th December 1918.
After the war, Walter worked as a labourer before securing employment with the Victorian Department of Lands for six years as a member of its Soldier Settlement Branch. He resigned to run an orchard in Castlemaine, but later abandoned this venture and returned to Melbourne. He attended the ANZAC Dinner in Melbourne with 22 other VCs in April 1927. He was a machinery assembler in 1931 and then joined HV McKay Harvester Works at Sunshine, Victoria, where Lawrence McCarthy VC was a commercial traveller. In 1934, he was appointed Custodian of Victoria’s Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne and remained in post for 30 years.
In May 1940, he re-enlisted at Caulfield, Victoria, understating his age by 14 years. He joined 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion and was posted to Puckapunyal, Victoria. He was posted to Staff Sergeant and left Sydney on RMS Queen Mary, arriving at Suez on 3rd May 1941. He served in the Middle East and then in Java. He was taken prisoner in March 1942, and spent the rest of the war on the Burma Railway. He was liberated on 18th August 1945. He was treated at Heidelberg Military Hospital, Melbourne and was discharged from the Army on 11th December 1945.
Walter attended the 1956 VC Centenary Celebrations in Hyde Park, London. He was a keen sportsman, being a member of Castlemaine Cricket Club, secretary of Wesley Hill Football Club and captain of East Sunshine Cricket team, winning premierships in 1931 and 1932. He was also a member of Richmond Returned and Services League. In 1947 he became a member of the Victorian Corps of Commissionaires. He was awarded the British Empire Medal for his service as Custodian of the Shrine of Remembrance on 10th June 1961. Walter died at his home, 10 Moore Street, South Caulfield, Victoria on 23rd May 1968 and was buried in Brighton Cemetery, Melbourne.
In addition to his VC and BEM, he was also awarded the British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19, 1939-45 Star, Africa Star, Pacific Star, Defence Medal 1939-45, War Medal 1939-45, Australia Service Medal 1939-45, George VI Coronation Medal 1937, and Elizabeth II Coronation Medal 1953. The Africa Star was awarded posthumously when service in Syria was recognised for this award. His medals are held by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL CANBERRA.
BURIAL PLACE: BRIGHTON CEMETERY, MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA. LAWN SECTION, G.36
Memorials to Valour
Springvale Crematorium, Melbourne (Richard Yielding)