By Judy Chant

The eldest of four children born to William Henry Purser and Amy Elizabeth (nee Doyle), Muir was born on 7 January 1887 at Maryborough, Queensland. The family moved to Sydney and at the age of twelve years, Muir joined Cleveland Street Superior Public School’s detachment of the Cadet Force. The first Cadet unit was established in Australia in 1866, at what became the King’s School Cadet Corps. Muir was one of 200 students who were selected to represent the Cadets on 1 January 1901, when Naval Forces, about 1,000 representatives of all arms of the British Army, several hundred Indian Troops and all NSW Troops marched from the Domain to Centennial Park in Sydney, where Lord Hopetoun was sworn in as the first Governor General of the newly formed Commonwealth of Australia.

In 1903, before his seventeenth birthday, Muir joined the voluntary infantry regiment, St George English Rifle Regiment, claiming that he was 18 years of age. He quickly rose through the ranks. In 1909, he married Beatrice Klein, known as Nell, at St Mary’s Church of England, Waverley, NSW. They produced four children over the years. At the outbreak of World War I (WWI) in 1914, the 36th Battalion, recruited chiefly from Rifle Clubs in NSW to form a separate army, the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), absorbed the St. George’s English Rifles to become the 36th Battalion (St. George’s English Rifles). The Battalion was designed for overseas service and distinguished itself during the War, earning many Battle Honours.

On 26 July 1915, Muir Purser was accepted for Active Service abroad. Muir entered a crowded training camp at Liverpool and was placed in command of approx. 1,400 reinforcements. He was appointed to 30th Battalion and then 32nd Battalion, which was formed at Liverpool. Muir was one of the youngest officers of field rank to join the AIF. On 9 November 1915, he embarked on the HMAT Beltana at Woolloomooloo wharf with the rank of Major. Throughout the voyage to the Suez, Reveille was blown at 6.00am and the Last Post was sounded at 9.00pm. All activities were closely defined on the voyage, officers gave lectures on military topics, the men trained daily and the food was said to be contaminated with weevils and other vermin. The 8th Brigade was tasked with providing carrying parties for supplies and ammunition, but was soon drawn into fighting and flank protection.

While much time was spent undertaking tactical exercises as part of the Suez Canal Defence, on 21 December 1915, Muir received orders to establish a post at Hill 353, a sand hill that was 353 feet above sea level. It was later renamed ‘Australia Hill’, situated about 10 miles on the Arabian side of the Suez Canal. The garrison consisted of C Company and 2 machine guns of 30th Battalion, Australian Army Military Corps (AAMC) details, and a detachment of Bikaner Camel Corps, who were reinforced a week later by a Field Company of Australian Engineers and a further detachment of Bikaner Camel Corps. Rations, water, firewood and engineering materials were brought daily by camel trains. After allowing for cooking, each man was allowed only a water-bottle full of water per day, and while they occasionally received some fresh meat, rations consisted mainly of bully beef, biscuits and cheese. So hard were the biscuits, said Purser, they could only be eaten by breaking off flakes, or pounding them as porridge. There were no green vegetables. Soldiers dug trenches, erected wire entanglements and continued training. Muir commanded the Post until 30th January 1916, when he was relieved by 5th Brigade and Hill 353 garrison returned to the Suez Canal.

Orders were received to proceed to France and on 23 June 1916, Muir disembarked from the HMAT Hororata during twilight at Marseilles. A French destroyer kept watch. The following morning other transports arrived. Muir had been advised that the object of Fromelles, where a coordinated attack was launched in waves, was to prevent the transfer of enemy reinforcements to the Somme. According to Muir’s notes, the 1916 winter in France was one of the most severe on record, with trench fever, frost bite and pneumonia taking their toll on the troops. The battle was fought on the night of July 19-20, 1916, by 61st (British) Division on the right and 5th Division, AIF, on the left. It was the 5th Division’s ‘baptism of fire’. The 32nd Battalion fought at Fromelles just 3 days after entering the trenches. Machine gun fire was constant, enemy snipers were abundant, shells played havoc with the parapets, and large grey rats played havoc with food supplies, clothes and equipment. Between the allies and the enemy lay 300 yards of no-man’s land, described as a “desperate wilderness of rank grass, barbed-wire, and splintered trees” (Sloan 1938) that became a fairyland of flares at night. Each man carried 150 rounds of ammunition, two bombs and two sandbags. Fighting was severe and casualties were heavy on both sides. As a result of the number of casualties, several senior officers were transferred to other battalions, with Purser being temporarily transferred to the 32nd Battalion as Senior Major, and subsequently being appointed to the command of the 29th Battalion, as Lieutenant Colonel. Many other battles were fought in the area and many soldiers died, resulting in the amalgamation of the 29th and 32nd Battalions in 1918. Apart from Fromelles, Muir served at Fleurbaix, Houplines and the Somme. In a letter to the Battalion Comforts Committee about the Battle of Fromelles, the Commanding Officer (C.O.) of the 30th Battalion commented that the work of C Company during this fight “reflected the cool courage of its C.O., Major Purser” (taken from personal documents).

Makeshift Australian graves close to
        Menin Road, Polygon Wood
         (Australian War Memorial)

On 26-29 September 1917, the 32nd Battalion’s major offensive was at Polygon Wood, 7.5km west of Ypes, on the France/Belgium border. With a view to preventing the leakage of information, orders were issued that no telephone lines were to be erected and that all messages were to be carried by runners. The Battle of Polygon Wood was the fifth major battle by the British Army during the Third Battle of Ypres, later known as Passchendaele. More than 20,000 Allied casualties resulted, including those killed and wounded, while an estimated 13,500 casualties occurred on the German side. It rained incessantly and some of the wounded suffocated in the mud. Incendiary shells lit the sky, bayonet fighting began early in the attack and casualties were heavy. Purser called this the “Battle of the Supermen and called for a form of heroism not only common to man in his natural element but in his assumption in the characteristics of the troglodytes and the amphibians” (Purser, unpublished notes). The Battalion’s losses were 15 officers and 383 men. Nevertheless, the Battle of Polygon Wood was the 5th Australian Division’s most decisive victory on the Western Front.

After being mentioned in Despatches on two separate occasions, Purser was presented with the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty” in the Battle of Polygon Wood from H.M. King George V at Buckingham Palace. On presentation of the DSO, General Sir William Birdwood wrote:

“This is a line to tell you how pleased I am to see that you have been awarded the D.S.O., upon which I congratulate you most heartily, for I well know how thoroughly you have deserved this distinction not only for your very fine work in the operations at Polygon Wood on the 26th September, but for your good service and devotion to duty in command of your battalion for a long time now. The gallant way in which you led your battalion to the attack on the date mentioned was indeed excellent, as were the results achieved. ” (taken from personal documents)

Muir was wounded and after recuperating in England, he returned to Australia on 13 March 1918, citing family reasons. On 6 June 1918, his appointment with the AIF was terminated. However, on the following day, he resumed duty as Second in Command of 19th (Kuring-Gai) Infantry, which on 1 October of the same year became 2/18th Infantry. The following year, he took command of the 2/45th Infantry and was also awarded the Colonial Auxiliary Forces Officers Decoration, entitling him to the letters V.D. after DSO.

Purser retired from the Active List in 1943, with the honorary rank of Colonel. His grandson remembers him as a quiet, softly spoken man, with an air of authority about him, who often sat on the front porch of his home, smoking a pipe. At 83 years of age, Colonel Muir Purser DSO VD died on 14 October 1970. He is buried at the Rookwood Necropolis, NSW.

Colonel Purser’s service record is documented on the Australian War Memorial (AWM) website: Other sources include the official history of the 30th Battalion, The Purple and Gold, by Hannibal Sloan 1938, and personal notes of Colonel Muir Purser DSO VD.