Indeed, his strict Methodist upbringing inculcated a true ‘protestant work ethic’ in young Tom. His father and mother toiled all their lives to provide for their large family. Tom’s father, a Welsh immigrant, was a butcher and a contract livestock drover who had a dream to become a successful grazier. The harsh economic climate of his time meant this was not to be. Several of his business and farming ventures came to nothing and he struggled, along with his young family, for most of his life. One of Tom’s brothers, Jim, became a successful shopkeeper in Wagga Wagga but none of the Blamey clan became rich and famous.
Tom, during his outstanding military career in the Great War found a certain fame, which later turned to the infamous. Tom earned good salaries in the military and his initial stipend of ₤1500 per year, as the Victorian Police Commissioner, was the largest income he or any of his family ever earned.
Young Tom was a voracious reader thanks to the mentoring of a family friend who was a writer and a man with an all-round education. Tom developed keen interests in poetry, literature, science and modern technology. These diverse interests were to shape a man who was endlessly curious as to how things and people worked.
Of the many innovations he brought about in the military and in the Victorian Police Force was the on-going education of his charges. With thousands of young Australians cooling their heels in the UK after WW1, Tom instigated a system whereby his soldiers could do work experience on English farms and businesses to improve their employment chances upon their return to Australia.
Some of Tom’s hobbies and interests outside the military were surprising. He became an expert grower and propagator of orchids, grown not for agriculture but purely for their beauty. Being brought up far from the sea, Tom became an accomplished sailor and a keen fisherman.
Tom also was deeply interested in new inventions and innovations. He actively encouraged any new device or system that could improve the safety or effectiveness of his soldiers. The WW1 rifle periscope and later the Owen gun were two notable examples.
On Tom’s more personal side, there was a significant change in circumstances that was to have a profound effect upon his earlier upbringing. Tom was the first Australian Army officer to actually pass the examinations at the Imperial Military College, Quetta. Previous officers were, basically, ‘passed-through’ as a matter of routine because they needed the College on their military CVs.
Tom, although a good reader and a tireless ‘swatter’ was academically outclassed by his fellow students at the College. He had to work harder than his contemporaries and he finally graduated with a glowing report from the College Commandant. While there Tom was inducted into the traditions and customs of the British Officer Corps. He discovered alcohol in the Officers’ Mess and in the surrounds of Quetta he developed a love of rich, spicy foods. It is also said it was here that Tom Blamey, although a married man, developed a taste for encounters with exotic and worldly women. It must be said that our research has not been able to verify this last aspect of Tom’s private life, save for the existence of two letters, written by two single women, to the Australian Army asking if Thomas Blamey was a married man.
It has been noted by Tom’s enemies, and friends, that he thoroughly enjoyed drinking, night clubbing and the company of attractive women. Given the morals of the day and the possibility of perishing in the Great War at any time, it is not surprising that Tom, like millions of other servicemen, and women, embraced the more hedonistic side of life. This does not even rate a mention in the case of an ordinary soldier. In a Commander-In-Chief, or in a Police Commissioner, these character facets are often the breeding ground for scandal and controversy. Such was the case with the life-loving Tom Blamey.
Volumes have been written about Tom Blamey’s personal attitudes and motivations during his time as Australia’s Commander-In-Chief . This is where the word ‘enigma’ can be so easily applied to Tom. He was an acutely private person not given to showing outward signs of weakness. Even when the news of the death of his son, Charles, was given to him some noted he was expressionless and ‘dry-eyed’. Yet his family and friends swear Tom loved a practical joke and was keenly aware of the humour and irony of everyday situations.
Blamey, the General, was also well aware of the rivalries within his Army. He knew there were several senior officers who were convinced they should have got his top slot. For the most part Tom ignored them. If any posed too great a threat he would side-line them. He sacked senior commanders, but almost always because they were not getting the job done to his high standards of self sacrifice. A couple of junior generals he removed from command he later recommended for high decorations. A former friend, Sydney Rowell, was not directly after Tom’s job but was sacked when he over-stepped the mark and was openly disrespectful of Tom’s position and personally insulting to him.
For new information and our take on the infamous ‘Running Rabbits’ speech made to members of the 21st Brigade at Koitaki, you’ll have to wait to see our documentary series, 'The Blamey Enigma'.
Deeply considered and informed speculation about Thomas Blamey’s approach to WW2 has led Bernie McDonald and I to reach the following conclusions:
- The Great War had, as it did on many millions, a profound effect on Tom. He had just been exposed to the hedonism of the British Officer class and then plunged into the senseless, unspeakable carnage of WW1.
- Almost from the day Tom became the Chief Commissioner of the Victoria Police he was embroiled in personal scandals that led to an 11-year campaign by the press and the Victorian Police Union to remove him and destroy his reputation.
- Yes, Tom lied to a Royal Commission. An appalling mistake. But one he made to protect, as he saw it, innocent parties. The same with the Badge 80/Brothel Affair. Despite howls for his blood Tom ignored all assaults on his character until he was compelled, by a friend, to resign and protect his right to rejoin the Army.
- From his resignation, in 1936 until his re-activation as a soldier in 1939 Tom was almost totally abandoned by scores of his ‘friends’ and publically shunned by the society he’d sought to protect. Tom never forgot this experience and he never forgot those who had slighted him nor those who stood by him.
- At the outbreak of WW2, we think Tom made some kind of a solemn, private vow to carry on regardless of what anyone thought of him; regardless of any damage to his public image, reputation or personal integrity. This, simply, was no longer important to him when his job was to send thousands of young Australians into battle. Tom knew he, as Commander-In-Chief, could no longer ‘take a bullet’ for his country; that he must ask others to do this for him. This, we believe, was the most noble and self-sacrificing act Thomas Blamey could make in the service of Australia. He resolved that if his life was not on the line then the next best thing he could do would be to sacrifice his place in history to help win World War 2.
This, then, is our take on the religious, athletic, studious, hedonistic, private soldier who belongs to all Australians, warts and all. A true blue Australian who didn’t care a jot if his fellow Australians loved him, hated him or — as it has turned out — forgot him.
Hobart, Tasmania 2010