Arthur Percy SULLIVAN VC

Badge Number: 77174, Sub Branch: Orroroo
77174

SULLIVAN, Arthur Percy

Service Numbers: 56133, 133003
Enlisted: 27 April 1918, Port Pirie, South Australia
Last Rank: Corporal
Last Unit: 45th Battalion Royal Fusiliers
Born: Prospect, South Australia, 27 November 1896
Home Town: Crystal Brook, Port Pirie City and Dists, South Australia
Schooling: Crystal Brook Public School and Gladstone High School
Occupation: Bank teller
Died: Accidental (fractured skull), Wellington, England, 9 April 1937, aged 40 years
Cemetery: Northern Suburbs Memorial Gardens and Crematorium, NSW
Memorials: Adelaide B1 Torrens Training Depot*, Adelaide HB23 National Australia Bank*, Adelaide MG3e* North Terrace Sesquecentenary Pavement Plaques WW 1 VC Winners, Crystal Brook HB1*, Crystal Brook M2* Arthur Percy Sullivan VC, Gladstone High School - Gladstone HB3*, MaitlandM*
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World War 1 Service

27 Apr 1918: Enlisted AIF WW1, Port Pirie, South Australia
23 Jul 1918: Embarked AIF WW1, Private, SN 56133, 1st to 6th (SA) Reinforcements, HMAT Marathon, Melbourne
23 Jul 1918: Involvement AIF WW1, Private, SN 56133, 1st to 6th (SA) Reinforcements, Enlistment/Embarkation WW1
12 Jun 1919: Discharged AIF WW1, Corporal, SN 56133
13 Jun 1919: Involvement AIF WW1, Corporal, SN 133003, 45th Battalion Royal Fusiliers, North Russia 1918-19
10 Aug 1919: Honoured Victoria Cross, North Russia 1918-19, For action at Dvins River, south of Archangel, north Russia whilst serving with 45 Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, Sadlier Jackson's Brigade as a Corporal

Sullivan, Arthur Percy (1896–1937) - by Anthony Staunton

Arthur Percy Sullivan (1896-1937), soldier and banker, was born on 27 November 1896 at Prospect, Adelaide, son of Arthur Monks Sullivan, storekeeper, and his wife Eliza, née Dobbs. Educated at Crystal Brook Public School and Gladstone High School, he joined the National Bank of Australasia at Gladstone in 1913 and was transferred to Broken Hill, New South Wales, and then to Maitland, South Australia.

Sullivan enlisted as a private in the Australian Imperial Force on 27 April 1918 and embarked in July as a general reinforcement. He transferred on 5 October to the artillery, but the war was over before he was allotted to a unit in France. Promoted acting corporal on 23 May 1919, he joined the British North Russia Relief Force five days later and was officially discharged from the A.I.F. on 12 June. The relief force landed at Archangel in June and July, and relieved most of the original 1918 expeditionary force which included nine A.I.F. members. Sullivan was with the 45th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, in L. W. de V. Sadleir-Jackson's brigade which moved 150 miles (241 km) down the Dvina River.

On 10 August the British attacked on the Dvina front in order to demoralize and disorganize the Bolsheviks and so give time for an unhindered evacuation of North Russia. During the attack, which was a complete success with minimal British casualties, Sullivan won the Victoria Cross. His unit was cut off and, while fighting their way back to their lines, an officer and three men fell from a narrow plank into a deep swamp on the Sheika River. Without hesitation and under intense fire, Sullivan jumped into the water and rescued all four, bringing them out singly. The evacuation was completed by late September and the relief force was demobilized in England. Sullivan left for Australia on 1 November without waiting to be decorated by the King. He was presented with the V.C. in Adelaide in April 1920 during the tour of the Prince of Wales who smiled and said to Sullivan: 'Aren't you the man who ran away from father?'

Known as the 'Shy V.C.', Sullivan was a popular personality. At Fairfield, Melbourne, he married Dorothy Frances Veale with Anglican rites on 5 December 1928; they were to have three children, including twins. After the war Sullivan had rejoined the National Bank and in 1929 moved to its Sydney office; in July 1934 he was appointed manager of the Casino branch. He joined the Australian contingent to the coronation of King George VI and took with him the ashes of British V.C. winner Sergeant Arthur Evans who had died in Australia. On 9 April 1937, eleven days after handing over these remains, Sullivan died when he accidentally slipped and struck his head against a kerb in Birdcage Walk near Wellington Barracks, London. After a military funeral, his ashes were returned to Australia and placed in the Northern Suburbs crematorium, Sydney. In 1939 a memorial plaque was erected on the gates of Wellington Barracks. His wife died in 1980, leaving his V.C. to the Australian War Memorial where it is displayed in the Hall of Valour.


Published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990.
Select Bibliography

L. Wigmore (ed), They Dared Mightily, second ed revised and condensed by J. Williams and A. Staunton (Canb, 1986)
Reveille (Sydney), July 1966, p 11
Defence Force Journal, no 22, May-June 1980, p 31
Advertiser (Adelaide), 1, 2 Oct 1919
Times (London), 10, 12, 14 Apr 1937
Age (Melbourne), 30 July 1980
Canberra Times, 13 Feb 1980
News (Adelaide), 4 May 1988
Lummis, V.C. and G.C. files (Military Historical Society, London).

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Victoria Cross Citation - 10th August 1919

‘For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty on the 10th August, 1919, at the Sheika River, North Russia. The platoon to which he belonged, after fighting a rearguard covering action, had to cross the river by means of a narrow plank, and during the passage an officer and three men fell into a deep swamp. Without hesitation, under intense fire, Corporal Sullivan jumped into the river and rescued all four, bring them out singly. But for this gallant action his comrades would have, undoubtedly, been drowned. It was a splendid example of heroism, as all ranks were on the point of exhaustion, and the enemy less than 100 yards distant.’

Awarded 29th September 1919

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Biography

Father Arthur Monks Sullivan and Mother Eliza Sullivan, (nee Dobbs) lived at Crystal Brook, South Australia, Arthur was their only child. Leaving school in 1913, he took up a junior position with the National Bank of Australasia at Gladstone. At just 17 years old,  the outbreak of the WW I, he was too young to enlist without his parent's consent, which was not forthcoming. In May 1915 he accepted a promotion to general clerk and a transfer to the Broken Hill branch. This was followed, in October 1916, by a transfer to the bank's Maitland branch in South Australia.

On 27 April 1918, Sullivan attended a gala parade in the streets of Port Pirie, 150 kilometres north of Maitland, in aid of the Returned Soldiers' Appeal. Now 21 years old and no longer requiring his parents' consent, he enlisted on the spot and, after initial training, was allotted to the 3rd General Service Reinforcements as private 56133. 

23/7/1918      Embarked in Melbourne on HMAT A74 Marathon
27/9/1918      disembarked into England
                      he was attached to the Reserve Brigade Australian Artillery as a gunner
                      but the war ended before Sullivan could see any active service.

23/3/1919      Promoted to acting corporal

Instead of returning home, Sullivan volunteered for the North Russia Relief Force (NRRF), a unit formed to assist the withdrawal of British troops stationed in Russia following the Bolshevik uprising of 1917. He was one of around 150 Australians in the 8,000 strong NRRF contingent. Sullivan joined the British 45th Battalion Royal Fusiliers on 28 May as corporal (sern: 133003).
Part of the NRRF brigade under the command of General L W de V Sadleir-Jacks. To complete his enlistment in the British army he was officially discharged from the AIF on 12 June 1919.

British troops had first been sent to North Russia in 1917 after the Bolsheviks had seized power and signed a peace deal with Germany. By 1919 the Armistice had resolved the German issue
however British troops had become mired in the ongoing Russian civil war with no clear policy or objective. In March 1919, the NRRF was proposed as a mainly volunteer force to counter the offensives of the Bolsheviks thereby creating the opportunity for the withdrawal of the Allied troops already in Russia. In August 1919, Sadlier-Jackson's brigade pushed down the Dvina River and attacked the Bolshevik lines. The attack had three main aims;

  • to lower the morale of the enemy

  • to push the Bolshevik's river fleet back far enough to mine the river for the impending
    withdrawal and

  • to raise the morale of the loyalist Russians.

Sullivan was posted with 16 Platoon D Company, part of the column charged with taking the river towns of Sludka and Lipovets. The attack began at around midday on 10/8/1919 and by that afternoon the towns had been captured. That evening the column moved off to try and link up with the main force. Their progress was hampered by the wounded, over 500 prisoners, and the need to take the village's inhabitants to stop them alerting the Bolsheviks. Sullivan's platoon was acting as rearguard for the column. In the early hours of the 11 August, the column was moving across the swamp-like Sheika River, on a flimsy single plank bridge when it came under enemy machine gun and rifle fire. The rear guard moved on to the bridge under a hail of fire. Close to Sullivan, Lieutenant Lord Settrington, son of the Earl of March and a former prisoner of the Germans, was wounded and fell into the river.  In the face of intense fire, Sullivan immediately jumped in and rescued Settrington, together with another three men who were in difficulty after falling into the swamp.

For his actions during the withdrawal across the river, Sullivan was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC). One of only two awarded during the campaign, both going to Australians. The recommendation for the award says;

"For very conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty during a withdrawal across the Sheika River, North Russia, during the withdrawal of his platoon across the river on a narrow plank, after a rearguard action to cover the column. One officer and three men fell into the swamp, which was very deep. Without hesitation, and under intense rifle and machine gun fire, he jumped into the river and rescued these four men one by one. But for this gallant action these men would have undoubtedly been drowned. It was a splendid example of heroism, more so as everybody was on the verge of exhaustion and the enemy were less than 100 yards away from him."

Sullivan knew of his VC award before he returned to England but decided to return home to Australia rather than endure the ceremony of a Royal investiture. Later he would describe his actions at the crossing of the Sheika River as 'not much to talk about'. He became known as 'the shy VC' for his unassuming character and reluctance to talk of his exploits. He arrived back in Adelaide on 12/12/1919 to a hero's welcome and was finally presented with his VC by Edward Prince of Wales at Adelaide's Government House on 13/7/1920.

On 05 Dec 1928 he married Dorothy Francis Veale in Melbourne. Following the war he resumed his banking career with the National Bank of Australasia, rising to Branch Manager in Casino, NSW, in 1934. In 1937, Sullivan was chosen to join the Australian Coronation Contingent (ACC) for the crowning of King George VI. The on 31 Jan 1937 Sullivan re-enlisted as a gunner (470009) with the Royal Australian Artillery Regiment. He embarked from Melbourne on the RMS Oronsay. Sullivan had another reason to take this voyage. His friend and fellow VC winner, Sergeant Arthur
Evans had died while in Australia and he had promised to return Evan's ashes to his family in England.

While on board ship, Sullivan did not always appreciate a return to military discipline. On two occasions he was charged with offences. The first charge of failing to attend a 7am parade on 3/3/1937 was dismissed, however it seems his response to the first offense instigated a new charge of the same date: 'Conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline in that he at the termination of an interview in the Orderly Room, and after having been refused permission to speak, said:"Thanks very much, Sir, I had some things to say to you" or words to that effect, in such a manner as to show disrespect to his Commanding Officer." On this charge he was found guilty and fined 10 shillings. 

The ACC arrived in England later that month and Sullivan duly presented the ashes to Evan's sister at Lytham-St Anne's on 27/3/1937.

On 09 Apr 1937, Sullivan was returning to his lodgings at Wellington Barracks along Birdcage Walk when he was 'besieged by autograph hunters'. Being that he was a 'shy' person, he attempted to escape from the melee, he slipped on the kerb, trying to cross the road to his barracks and fell heavily to the ground, fracturing his skull. The guards on duty at the barracks took him to the orderly room but Sullivan died soon afterwards. This event was confirmed at a court hearing, as stated by the young lady requesting his autograph;

Florence Mead, of Peabody Buildings, Westminster, stated in evidence:- "that about 8 pm. she asked the soldier for his autograph. She did not get it, and ran across the street to the barracks side. The soldier was going to step into the roadway to cross, but slipped and fell backwards and struck his head on the road. She saw a man on a bicycle. He did not knock the soldier down. The soldier was down before the bicycle reached him.”

As a mark of respect, the contingent cancelled all engagements for 3 days, including the honour guard that was to meet General Sir Harry and Lady Chauvel on their arrival in London. Sullivan's death had a profound effect on the contingent and to the highest levels of government. To General Chauvel, the leader of the ACC, Sullivan's death was a 'severe blow', telling reporters;

"I was doubly shocked at the tragedy, firstly because Sullivan was a friend, and secondly because he was the contingent's only VC."

Chauvel, as Director of the National Bank of Australasia, also knew Sullivan professionally. The King and Queen telegraphed Stanley Bruce, Australia's High Commissioner in London and former Prime Minister, of their distress at 'the sad news of Sullivan's death.'


13/4/1937    Sullivan was given a full military funeral at Wellington Barracks.
                    Among the many dignitaries attending were nine VC winners.

12/5/1937    Following the funeral he was cremated at Golders Green, London, UK
                    with members of the ACC lining the road leading to the crematorium.

When the ACC finally took their place in the coronation procession a gap was left where Sullivan would have been.

In 1939 a plaque in his honour was placed on the railing of Wellington Barracks near where he fell at Birdcage Walk, near the Wellington Barracks in London, England. He was survived by his wife and three children. 

In 1980 Mrs Dorothy Sullivan bequethed Arthur's VC medal to the Australian War Memorial.

Julianne T Ryan.  7/11/2014.  Lest we forget.

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