MAURICE LITTLE (1893-1938)

Maurice Little returns (SLQ)
Lieutenant Little arrives home

What is a hero?

As the first world war has retreated beyond memory, there has once again been a re-making of the myths surrounding the involvement and motivations of Australian soldiers. This has in part resulted in a re-exploration of the stories of individuals, and an appropriation of their histories to the needs of the times.

At one end of the spectrum there has been the reimagining of the story of the part Chinese Gallipoli sniper Billy Sing, who served through the war, was responsible for the deaths of at least 100 Turkish soldiers, and was honoured in the field for his bravery. Yet upon his return, he quickly drifted into obscurity and died a pauper in a boarding house in Brisbane’s West End[1]. 

And then there is the story of Maurice Little, who was treated as a hero from the moment he returned to Australia, and is still remembered in that way today.[2] What makes a hero?

Little was born in Barcaldine, central Queensland, on 6 July 1893, the son of a Methodist minister. His family moved to Ipswich and he was educated there and at Brisbane Grammar. At school, he was a gymnast and played cricket for the second XI[3], and upon leaving made the A Grade team for the Toowong Cricket Club (now part of Western Districts club).[4] During winter he played football.

Upon passing the NSW junior public examinations, in early 1909, he became a teacher, first in Brisbane, and then at Gladstone Central State School. In Gladstone, he conducted the church choir, and was a member of the church management committee.

Little had served in his school military cadet corps, at a time when the affairs of the cadets were listed in the School Magazine, between the cricket and football reports. When the war broke out he lost no time in enlisting, was appointed a Sergeant during his training, and landed at Gallipoli on the afternoon of the first Anzac Day. He was promoted to Lieutenant in the field, but at Quinn’s Post, on 29 May 1915, a Turkish grenade he was trying to return exploded in his hand. He lost his eyesight, his right forearm, and required surgery to his left knee.

He recuperated in hospital at Alexandria, and there, as one of his recent memoirists recorded, ‘a miracle occurred’[5]. Little met and fell in love with his nurse, Bessie (or Lizzie) Crowther, a medical missionary, who was 22 years his senior. They married in September 1915.

Even before his return, he attracted admiration. The first third of the Brisbane Grammar magazine for 1915 was dominated by reports of dead and wounded old boys. It said, of Little, that ‘his indominable spirit is shown by the manly fortitude with which he is bearing up against his fearful injuries[6]’.  And at this stage of the war, the newspapers were still reporting on casualties one by one. In their reports on Little, there was a sense of lost promise, of a talent sacrificed. [7]

Some 20,000 Australians were wounded at Gallipoli.[8] But something about Maurice Little seems to have been special. A few days after his return he was accorded a civic reception at an overflowing Ipswich City Hall,[9] at which he was presented with a Braille Bible, and congratulated on his courage, his recovery, and his ‘romantic marriage’. A fund was established to provide for him, and he went on a tour of Queensland towns, speaking in support of recruitment. After the war ended he moved to Corinda and was the inaugural president of the Sherwood RSL. He spoke in favour of the temperance movement and was a conservative candidate in the state elections, at a time when Queensland was a Labor state.

He seems to have served in some way as a symbol of what was lost in the war. Emily Bulcock dedicated a poem to him in her first book, Jacaranda Blooms (1923):

Oh youth! that held great gifts in fee,[10]

Stricken to Age by War’s vile brand,

How shall the seeing understand

Thy ever deepening tragedy?[11]

                                            From To Lieutenant Little

In the early 1920s Little began to work as a freelance journalist, and contributed poetry to the Daily Mail, one of the predecessors to the Courier Mail.  His only book of verse, ‘Sonnets and other poems’ appeared in 1923 (or possibly 1924). It was published by the Queensland Book Depot, which was then owned by the Methodist Church.  The book contains just 15 poems, all purely formal in structure, about half of which are directly concerned with military themes.

The book’s foreword, by the headmaster of Brisbane Grammar, says simply, ‘The poems reflect the sane and cheerful optimism that is characteristic of their author’.  That’s probably true, but there is also a note of concern that the sacrifices of the soldiers should not be forgotten:

One recompense alone to those who fell

Can we who hold the land in trust yet make,

And that, the dark disrupting force to quell,

And raise the nation’s standard for their sake.

From The True Memorial

It’s perhaps not surprising then that he was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the Graceville War Memorial, in Brisbane.

In 1925, Little and his wife departed for England to live, ‘because he thought that every man had a longing to visit the country to which Australians owed so much’.[12] He returned to live in Sydney for a while, and then went back to England where he passed away in 1938.  His remarkable wife outlived him by 20 years.

Little is no Wilfred Owen, but his book was warmly received by the Queensland press[13], and his poems reflect an attitude of his times, that has traces even today. Despite that, his poems were overlooked for inclusion in The Queensland Centenary Anthology (1924), and so far as I can tell in every anthology since then. For that, if for no other reason, I suspect Little will be remembered more for who he was than for what he wrote. So, it’s a pleasure to republish a selection of his poems for the first time in 93 years.

Best book to buy: Little, M. Poems and Sonnets, Brisbane, Queensland Book Depot, 1924. Click here to view a copy of his book on line.

Special thanks to Brisbane family historian Mr Jim Gibson, for information provided about Maurice Little.

Return to Poets.


[1] See Australian War Memorial, case studies, William ‘Billy’ Sing, https://www.awm.gov.au/learn/schools/resources/case-studies/billy-sing accessed 23/7/2017

[2] Ian Lang: The Inspiring Story of Edwin Maurice Little, (15th Battalion, no.309), State Library of Queensland Blog Queensland’s World War 1 Centenary.  http://blogs.slq.qld.gov.au/ww1/2016/01/25/the-inspiring-story-of-edwin-maurice-little-15th-battalion-no-309/ accessed 1/7/2017

[3] Brisbane Grammar School Magazine April 1909 http://www.brisbanegrammar.com/About/GrammarHistory/PDF%20Documents/1909-04%20Vol%2010%20No%2031.pdf  accessed 21 July 2017.

[4] Queensland Times, Ipswich, Tuesday 15 June 1915, p6.

[5] Gibson, James W., Maurice, Queensland Family Historian, vol, 36, no.1, February 2015, pp10-15.

[6] The Brisbane Grammar School Magazine, No.50, August 1915, p16.

[7] See for example, The Brisbane Courier, 10 June 1915, p7

[8] Gammage, B. The Broken Years, Ringwood, Penguin Books, 1975, p283.

[9] Queensland Times, 10 December 2015, p5.

[10] A legal term, meaning to own absolutely

[11] Bulcock, EH, Jacaranda Blooms, Brisbane, The Queensland Book Depot, 1923, p56.

[12] Daily Mail, 30 April, 1925, p9

[13] See for example ‘Lieutenant Little’s poems’ in The Telegraph, 18 October 1924, p11.