Centenary of war’s end and Borella VC

By Riverine Herald

THIS year will commemorate the centenary of the end of World War I but on a more personal level also recall the remarkable story of Albert Borella Chambers.

Because 2018 also commemorates the centenary of his being awarded the Victoria Cross.

Borella was born near Borung in northern Victoria in August 1881.

His mother died when he was just four years old and he spent the next four years with his maternal Chalmers grandparents at Mt Rowan.

After his father remarried in 1889 he returned to Borung, and after completing his schooling he worked with his father Louis on the farm.

The Borella family was lured to the Southern Riverina in 1902 by Borella’s uncle Archie Chalmers, who had selected ‘Rangemore’, west of Deniliquin, in 1895.

The new Borella farm was named ‘Deepdene’, and was situated at Thyra, west of Mathoura. It was part of the subdivision of Perricoota Station in 1902.

The property remained in Borella hands for almost a century, and a road in the vicinity is still named Borella Road.

An incident which occurred in April 1903 during Borella’s time at Thyra gave an early example of the raw courage required to be awarded a VC.

Whilst sneaking on game through long grass, Borella was bitten on the finger by a tiger snake.

Immediately recognising the gravity of the situation, in which he was 50km by horse and gig and several hours away from medical help, he realised that drastic action was required to avoid certain death. This incident was reported in the metropolitan media at the time, and upon Borella’s return from the war in January 1919 the local media described the incident in detail:

An incident in the boyhood days of Lt. AC Borella VC, as showing his pluck, coolness and courage, was related at a social gathering in Echuca.

Major Blezard told how, while young Borella was on a hunting excursion with a gun, he was bitten on the finger by a snake.

Not having the means of scarifying the wound he placed his finger on the top of the muzzle and pulled the trigger, hoping to blow off the bitten part. The charge however merely grazed the surface.

Nothing daunted, he reloaded the gun, and firing again with his finger close to the muzzle, blew off the bitten part.

In 1984 Geoff Waters, writing in Echuca’s Rich River Review about Borella stated that ‘‘many of the older residents of Thyra knew him well, and those we have contacted all pay tribute to a superb bushman and a very brave man. One former resident observed that when we knew that Bert had enlisted, we all said that he would win a VC.’’

During his time at Thyra, Borella was a member of the Thyra Rifle Club. With links to the Victorian Rangers militia, the club boasted many members who enlisted and served in the war.

Borella farmed at ‘Deepdene’ until 1910 when he headed to Melbourne and joined the Metropolitan Fire Brigade.

He remained with the MFB for three years, and in search of further adventure he headed to the Northern Territory after seeing a government advertisement for young men with agricultural experience to select land on the Daly River.

He arrived in the NT in early 1913 but the venture was not a success, and in late 1914 he headed south to Tennant Creek as part of a camel mounted survey party in remote Central Australia.

After three months of survey work, and knowing that war had broken out, Borella was keen to return to Darwin and enlist.

He at first set out on foot, then borrowed a horse, and later caught a ride on a mail cart. The last stage of the epic 1000km journey was by train, with the entire trip taking six weeks.

On arrival in Darwin he found that the NT were not taking volunteers, so undeterred he embarked on a coastal steamer for the 2000km trip to Townsville, the nearest recruiting centre.

Borella’s extraordinary trip to enlist became folklore in the AIF and to mark its centenary the NT government in early 2015 re-enacted the trip as its hallmark Anzac Centenary event.

Borella was drafted to the 26th Battalion AIF and served with it throughout the war.

After two months service at Gallipoli he was wounded in July 1916 in the battalion’s first major battle on the Western Front at Pozieres and evacuated to England, returning to the front four months later.

He was awarded the Military Medal ‘‘for conspicuous bravery in action’’ at Warlencourt in March 1917 and was soon afterwards promoted to 2nd Lieutenant and also mentioned in despatches.

While on English leave in June 1917, Borella met his two half-brothers Charlie and Jim in London, both of whom had enlisted in the 7th Battalion AIF.

Both his brothers survived the war but Jim died soon after his return to Australia. Charlie carried on farming at ‘Deepdene’ before moving to Deniliquin after World War II.

Actively involved in the Deniliquin RSL, he was also a keen golfer, and the Borella Cup at the Deniliquin Golf Club is named in his honour.

Another half-brother Rex had also enlisted in the AIF and served in the Middle East in the light horse and Imperial Camel Corps.

Meanwhile Albert Borella was promoted to Lieutenant in August 1917.

In July 1918 whilst leading his platoon in an attack designed to straighten the Allied line east of Villers-Brettoneux, he was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross ‘‘for most conspicuous bravery in attack’’.

His citation states in part that after the initial advance in which 30 prisoners were taken ‘‘the enemy twice counter-attacked in strong force, on the second occasion outnumbering Lt Borella’s platoon by 10 to one, but his cool determination inspired his men to resist heroically, and the enemy were repulsed with very heavy losses’’.

It was subsequently acknowledged by General Birdwood that Lt Borella came out of this action with 10 men remaining from a platoon of over 30, but that over 150 Germans lay dead around his beleaguered post.

After his VC action Borella’s health broke, and he was subsequently evacuated to England before returning home to Australia.

He arrived in Melbourne on New Year’s Day, 1919. At the age of 37 he was the oldest Australian to be awarded a VC during the war.

Between the wars Borella farmed on a soldier settlement block near Hamilton, and upon the outbreak of WWII he re-enlisted in the army and served another six years in uniform.

He retired in Albury in 1956, at which time the main thoroughfare to the east of the city was named Borella Road in his honour.

He visited Deniliquin several times over the ensuing years, and on his final trip to Deniliquin in 1964 he stayed with his cousin Grace Adams at ‘Springdale’, which adjoined the old Chalmers property at ‘Rangemore’.

Borella died in Albury in February 1968, at the age of 86.

■Brad Chalmers is a local historian and the author of Next to Impossible: The remarkable life of Albert Chalmers Borella VC.