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Portrait of Francis Leofric Armstrong in uniform, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Sharing stories of service: Lieutenant Francis Leofric Armstrong

By Ethan Devereux-Phillips, Engagement Officer, Anzac Square Memorial Galleries · 19 March 2024

Within the vast, varied and sometimes mysterious bowels of the State Library collection are the stories of numerous lives – the loves, losses and memories of Queenslanders past. Rarely are these tales written in clear chronological prose. Instead, their narratives must be discovered amongst an assemblage of diary entries, postcards and letters. Such is the case for the life of WWI soldier Francis “Frank” Leofric Armstrong, found in the aptly named Frank Armstrong and Armstrong Family Papers.

Frank’s early life must be assembled from newspaper clippings and journals. They tell of how he was born on 25 October 1880 in Mt Perry, the fourth son of Jessie and Octavius Armstrong. Octavius was a police magistrate and the family relocated with his postings, first to Goodiwindi in 1883 and then to Brisbane in 1890. Their Brisbane family home was “Sorrento” a South Brisbane terrace house which still stands today. Following the 1890 move, Frank attended Brisbane Grammar School where he would later work as a pupil teacher. It was during this time that Franics first became involved in military matters. He joined the school’s Cadet Corps and reached the rank of Lieutenant, boding future service as an officer. After graduating he joined the New South Wales Bushmen in the Boer War from 1901-1902, keeping journals of his time on campaign. He was promoted to Corporal in the Prince of Wales Horses and received the Queen’s South Africa Medal. Frank was invalided home but returned to South Africa, working in the banking sector. Around 1910 he returned to Brisbane and took up a role at the Queensland National Bank. He maintained his military associations, joining the 7th (Moreton) Infantry Regiment and in 1913 was appointed 2nd Lieutenant of the Nundah-Sandgate-Nudgee-Nambour-Chermside Company.

Terrace House "Sorrento"
The Armstrong family home "Sorrento," a terrace house on Edmodstone Street, South Brisbane.
Frank with Moreton Regiment
Frank Armstrong during service with the 7th Infantry (Moreton Regiment).

A souvenir wedding invite and letters of congratulations record the marriage of Frank to his sweetheart Annie Munro Mackay on 1 June 1914. The two sweethearts had been in correspondence since at least 1906 and shared several similarities: they were both residents of well-off, socially respectable Brisbane families who married late. Well, late for their time – they were in their early thirties. Annie’s father John was an explorer and pastoralist, being among the first Europeans to survey and establish a cattle run in the Mackay district, for which he was the namesake. After his failed pastoral endeavours, John had taken jobs as a ship’s captain and later harbourmaster at Cooktown and Brisbane, providing the family with prestige and residence at “Kinnell” in Kangaroo Point.

Newspaper article of Armstrong and Mackay Wedding
Account of the wedding between Frank and Annie, published in The Queenslander.

When the First World War broke out later that year, Frank was quick to enlist, being commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant with the 15th Infantry Battalion, E Company. Mirroring previous habits, Frank kept a diary of his service and, although now fragile, it continues to provide valuable insights into his experience. A transcript of the diary is also thankfully available for easy reading.

After training in Brisbane, Frank departed aboard the former ocean liner HMAT Ceramic bound for Alexandria. A note pasted in the back of the diary proudly announces it was the “biggest steamer ever dispatched south of the line.” The journey was arduous. One man died of pneumonia and another of heatstroke, while a wave of influenza racked the ship. Frank was among those caught by the flu and would be hindered or confined to bed rest for months. When the unit arrived in Egypt they were put to a mixture of long marches and mock attacks – interspaced with the avid Australian tradition of sightseeing. Frank was particularly enthralled with the Heliopolis Palace Hotel which had been re-purposed by the 1st Australian General Hospital, but he also visited the classics: Cairo Museum, the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids. Correspondence between Frank and Annie at Kinnell remained frequent and on 27 February came with the splendid news that his son Francis Munro Armstrong had been born five days before.

Studio portrait of baby Francis Munro Armstrong
Studio portrait of baby Francis Munro Armstrong.
Frank on Camel in Egypt in front of Sphinx and Great Pyramid
Postcard showing Frank sightseeing in Egypt. On the reverse it reads "To my son with fond love, Francis Armstrong."

Alas, the relatively favourable times in Egypt were not to last and on the morning of 25 April 1915 Frank and the rest of the 15th battalion watched, from transports off the peninsula, as the 9th Battalion stormed the beaches of Gallipoli. The next day, it was their turn ‘to play the game.’

“We landed this morning under heavy shrapnel fire, under fire the whole time. Inaccessible cliffs, but not to Australians in front of us. We climbed the heights to-day undercover of guns from ship… Ryan killed, three wounded, some missing, under a perfect tornado of lead, shrapnel, etc. Tonight collected wounded and dug into trenches” – 26 April.

“All day to-day in front trench with periscope. Dead and wounded scattered everywhere, and smell terrible, worst of the lot, Turks entrenched on our left flank, and also directly in front of us about 50 yards. German Officers urge on Turks, Sappers working in trench with us, throwing hand grenades but falling short of trench. Sparkes and Melia good men, Weedon and Fielding shot to-day, 25 of our chaps buried in one trench – Turks everywhere in front and fairly brave, wear leaves in front of cap and hold small shrubs when advancing, Macbeth over again.” – 30 April.

“Still in the trenches, stench of the dead is awful, Australian troops all scattered and fighting anywhere. The massacre is awful, losing some of my best men. My eyes are swollen with using the periscope all day, and feel awfully ill. Still fighting in the trenches. Death trap this sap entrance. Kirby, Daniels, Perrett, Corporal Melia of my command killed.” – 2 May.

“Turks attacked at dawn and reached our trenches, only one of them - Only about a dozen came on, the others wavering - We have the dead Turk's rifle and bayonet. A.R.M.L.I. (a lad of sixteen) shot himself this morning.” – 8 May.

Handwritten will of Francis Leofric Armstrong
Frank's will written at Gallipoli.

On the evening of 9 May, Frank (by this time a full Lieutenant) was part of an assault on the Turkish-held Quinn's Post. Perhaps sensing ill fortune, he authored a will before the attack bequeathing all he owned to Annie and wrote her what would be his final letter, both of which he gave to a friend. The initial assault on the enemy trenches was successful, but in a counterattack, tragedy befell Frank. The accounts of his death vary, but there is general agreement Frank had begun to fall back with his unit when, realising a flank was exposed, he turned them around to cover the retreat. It is at this point that he was fatally shot; in some accounts by enfilade fire from a machine gun and in others while cheering the men on. Several retellings claim he had attempted to scramble over the parapet to rescue his wounded men when the bullet struck. Certainly, it was the end of his story.

Yet, it was not the end of his legacy. The collection contains numerous letters to Annie mourning the loss of Frank, including from Major Hugh Quinn (Frank’s good friend) and Chaplain Reverend Ernest Merrington who had married the couple. Elsewhere, Frank is mentioned in “The Story of ANZAC” by Charles Bean and several newspaper articles. Many of these have been meticulously collected and ordered in a scrapbook, likely by Francis Armstrong Jr, who never got to meet his father. Akin to the rest of the assemblage, it is a collection of fragments which recall the familial memory and trauma of a life cut short by conflict and the subsequent ripples of grief. This collection – stored in clear, almost clinical preservation sleeves at odds with the emotional nature of the material – is a testament to the material marks a life lived and lost leaves upon family, community and the nation. The Frank Armstrong and Armstrong Family Papers, and many other collections of stories, can be freely accessed by the public at John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

“You speak several times about Frank Armstrong. He was one of the officers in ”C” company and a splendid one at that. Always cool, very brave and the men thought the world of him. A clever officer and one the boys thought a lot of… I was in action under him more than once and we all thought the world of him as an officer, and the boys would do anything for him and follow him anywhere. He was a big loss to us.” - Extract from letter by W.H. McClymont “C” coy 15th Bn dated 29 August 1915.

References and further reading:

“John Mackay (1839-1914),” 1974, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,

“Men of the Dardanelles,” 1915, The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 May, p. 8,

“Sorrento,” 2021, Brisbane City Council,

“Weddings,” 1914, The Queenslander, 4 July, p. 15,

“Yeppoon Notes,” 1917, The Western Champion and General Advertiser for the Central-Western Districts, 10 March, p. 14,

Frank Armstrong and Armstrong Family Papers, 1834-1985, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Mackay and Armstrong Family Correspondence, 1909-1916, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

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