More to spirit of a hero than war

A sol­dier’s sac­ri­fice must al­ways be re­mem­bered, but so should the life


One hun­dred years ago this past July, Al­bert Chalmers Borella, 37, was awarded the Vic­to­ria Cross for val­our in the pres­ence of the en­emy.

It was then, and it re­mains, the high­est award that could be granted to mem­bers of Aus­tralian armed forces and it be­hoves us, on the eve of Re­mem­brance Day, to be re­minded of Borella’s courage in the face of vi­o­lence and ter­ror on the West­ern Front — but, in so do­ing, shouldn’t we also re­mem­ber the life he lived be­fore and af­ter the Great War?

Men such as Borella built this coun­try, opened it up, ex­plored it. Sto­ries such as theirs make Aus­tralia. We are not — we could not be — this place with­out them.

Borella was born on Au­gust 7, 1881, in Borung, Vic­to­ria. His mother, An­nie, died when he was just four, “prob­a­bly from one of the fevers, ty­phoid is our guess”, says Rowan Borella, who at 85 is Al­bert Borella’s only sur­viv­ing son and the keeper of the fam­ily flame.

Al­bert’s fa­ther, Louis, re­mar­ried and soon had a daugh­ter to go with two al­ready born, plus four more sons, so “there were eight of them in to­tal”, says Rowan. Across time the fam­ily moved to Thyra, west of Mathoura in NSW, where Al­bert’s job, as el­dest son and fam­ily crack shot, was to keep shirts on backs and snakes at bay.

This Al­bert did through­out his teens and early 20s. Then, in 1910, with all the chil­dren pretty much raised, he left the farm and moved to Mel­bourne, where he be­came a fire­fighter. That’s an im­por­tant job now, but in Mel­bourne in the early part of the 20th cen­tury? With so many houses made of tim­ber, with out­door kitchens, open fire­places, in­cin­er­a­tors? When so many fac­to­ries were, frankly, com­bustible?

Al­bert took his re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to Mel­bourne ex­tremely se­ri­ously, sleep­ing in quar­ters and liv­ing with his horses at the Eastern Hill Fire Bri­gade on the cor­ner of Vic­to­ria Pa­rade and Gis­borne Street. Ready, he was al­ways ready.

In 1912 he came across a cir­cu­lar urg­ing ca­pa­ble men to take up land on the Daly River in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory. “The gov­ern­ment wanted peo­ple to open the north up to farm­ing,” says Rowan.

“My fa­ther was granted one of 13 lots and was one of those men who wanted to make a go of things. There was noth­ing up there but he cleared an area, he sank a well, he did three miles of fenc­ing, he built a house — it was ‘one of the best houses on the Daly, with a free­stand­ing kitchen’, ac­cord­ing to the lo­cal Land Board — and the gov­ern­ment had promised as­sis­tance, but af­ter 2½ years he had re­ceived a horse but no plough.

“He was run­ning through his sav­ings but it was hope­less, and he was the last to give up, but when he went to Dar­win to front the au­thor­i­ties, they said, well, you have walked off your land, you’re in debt to us now, 70 pounds.”

De­ter­mined to pay that debt, Al­bert took a job as a cook in Ten­nant Creek but, very soon af­ter, war broke out, and with no idea of the aw­ful­ness ahead — who could have known how Aus­tralian blood would soon soak the soil of France? — Al­bert quit his job and be­gan mak­ing his way to­wards the near­est re­cruit­ing of­fice. It hap­pened to be 1000km away in Townsville, Queens­land.

Of course there was no high­way, in­deed no clear route, and so he started walk­ing, hack­ing through bush when nec­es­sary and swim­ming through swollen rivers, stop­ping only when he got to Ren­ner Springs, where he bor­rowed a horse from the mail­man and rode an­other 400km to Kather­ine, where he hitched a ride on a mail buggy to Pine Creek, then hopped the train to Dar­win be­fore hitch­ing an­other ride on a boat to Townsville.

This as­ton­ish­ing jour­ney — Borella’s Ride — later would be cel­e­brated in books and in a doc­u­men­tary. There has been a re-en- act­ment, and there are plaques along the route.

And yet, when it came to serv­ing Aus­tralia, Al­bert hadn’t got started.

From the re­cruit­ing of­fice in Townsville he was posted to the 26th Bat­tal­ion of the First Aus­tralian Im­pe­rial Force, which em­barked from Bris­bane on May 24, 1915. Al­bert sailed first to Egypt be­fore land­ing in Gal­lipoli in Septem­ber 1915, “with that bat­tle al­ready be­ing a lost cause”, says Rowan.

In the years that fol­lowed, Al­bert served on the West­ern Front in France, a place of near unimag­in­able sor­row and sad­ness for Aus­tralians. He re­ceived a Mil­i­tary Medal for con­spic­u­ous brav­ery on May 11, 1917, and he was men­tioned in dis­patches, but it was at Villers-Bre­ton­neux that he earned his Vic­to­ria Cross.

“My fa­ther never talked about this. We had to find out,” says Rowan.

On the night of July 17-18, 1918, Al­bert and his men found them­selves un­der fire.

He ran into the path of a Ger­man ma­chine­gun­ner, shot two of the en­emy dead and cap­tured the gun, “but the real ob­ject that night was to push the Ger­mans back to the road, ex­cept you couldn’t recog­nise the road. It was cut up. There had been fight­ing in that area — shrap­nel, and bunkers, and ex­plo­sions — and they over­ran their ob­jec­tive, and came across a trench full of Ger­mans, and with his pla­toon re­duced to just 10 men, you would think they had no chance. But they were on top of the trench, they had the up­per hand, and they suc­ceeded.”

Al­bert soon af­ter re­turned to Aus­tralia, land­ing in Mel­bourne on New Year’s Day 1919, never to speak of the hor­ror he wit­nessed; to grate­fully take up a sol­dier set­tle­ment lot just out­side Hamil­ton in Vic­to­ria; to fi­nally em­bark on his real life’s work: build­ing a fam­ily of his own.

Some­thing to do. Some­one to love.

Those two things that peo­ple need to sur­vive in peace­time came to­gether for Al­bert in 1924 when he stood for the seat of Dun­das in the Vic­to­rian Leg­isla­tive Assem­bly.

“He was de­feated, but my mother, Elsie Love, was his sec­re­tary in the cam­paign,” says Rowan. He won her heart. The cou­ple mar­ried in 1928 and soon had four boys (be­sides Rowan, born 1933, there was Mervyn, born 1930; Maxwell, born 1932; and Neville, born 1938.)

“He lived the farm­ing life for many years,” says Rowan, “and he en­joyed that peace.”

Yet when World War II broke out, Al­bert re-en­listed at age 58.

“They put him in charge of the gar­ri­son units in Aus­tralia,” says Rowan, “and they pro­moted him to cap­tain. He never said why he did that, ex­cept that if the na­tion was at war and you could serve, you served.

“He was a very straight up-and­down man, qui­etly spo­ken, didn’t look for any­thing from any­one, went about his busi­ness. Only one thing he did: he marched ev­ery An­zac Day un­til he was too old and they took him in a jeep.”

Al­bert Borella died, aged 86, on Fe­bru­ary 7, 1968. He was buried with full mil­i­tary hon­ours at the Al­bury Pres­by­te­rian ceme­tery in NSW.

“Mum died in 1974 — she had a heart at­tack — and I’ve had Dad’s medal (the Vic­to­ria Cross) since her death, re­ally, al­though a cou­ple of years ago we placed it in the war memo­rial in Can­berra, the rea­son be­ing I’m the only son still sur­viv­ing,” says Rowan.

“My el­dest brother, he was killed in a glider ac­ci­dent when he was 21.

“Maxwell, he went up to the North­ern Ter­ri­tory, be­ing a guide on tours where peo­ple are shoot­ing buf­falo, crocodiles, and he had a heart at­tack up there in 1999.

“Neville, the youngest, he went up there too, and he was out duck shoot­ing and shot a cou­ple of ducks, went out to re­trieve the ducks, and he drowned in a wa­ter hole. So it’s only me now.”

Plac­ing the medal with the war memo­rial will help en­sure that Al­bert Borella’s life re­mains a story for the ages. As for his legacy within his fam­ily, Rowan this year ar­ranged for the en­tire Borella tribe — “all chil­dren, grand­chil­dren, wives, part­ners and the whathave-you, 28 of us in to­tal, just one grand­son who had to work couldn’t make it” — to travel with him to the bat­tle­fields of France.

“Our ob­jec­tive is to be over at Villers-Bre­ton­neux on July 17-18, ex­actly 100 years to the day that my fa­ther was there. And it was a pri­vate tour, we did it our­selves. Not a cent of gov­ern­ment money,” Rowan says, firmly.

“We fol­lowed Dad’s foot­steps through France and we used Google Earth to find the trenches, to find the roads, and to the day, to the hour, that he was there, fight­ing that bat­tle, we were there and we put a plaque down. And we stood and we re­mem­bered him.” And what was that like? “I cried,” says Rowan. “I think we all did.”

‘Borella marked an en­emy ma­chine­gun fir­ing … He ran out ahead of his men into the bar­rage, shot two Ger­man ma­chine­gun­ners with his re­volver and cap­tured the gun’ THE LON­DON GAZETTE, SEPTEM­BER 16, 1918


Rowan Borella with the statue of his fa­ther Al­bert Borella (inset) af­ter its un­veil­ing in Wed­der­burn, north­west of Mel­bourne, ear­lier this year

Rowan Borella at Villers-Bre­ton­neux, 100 years to the minute af­ter his fa­ther earned the Vic­to­ria Cross there

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