Ted Larkin: Police Officer, Soldier, and an early supporter of the Police Association movement

This is an abbreviated version of a longer article published in Police News journal, August 2016. Written by Geoff Armstrong.

Ted Larkin is widely credited with having spear-headed the movement to form a union for NSW Police officers in 1914.

Edward Rennix Larkin (‘Rennix’ was his mother’s maiden name) achieved much in his short life.

He was born, the son of a miner, at Lambton, near Newcastle, in the first week of January 1880. After his family moved to Sydney, he earned a scholarship to St Joseph’s College at Hunters Hill. He was briefly a railway worker, joined the staff of the Yearbook of Australia and became a policeman.

He was a keen debater, swimmer, boxer and a rugby footballer good enough to play for Australia. He was the first full-time secretary of the NSW Rugby League and member of state parliament, a Labor man in a conservative electorate. He actively promoted the concept of a police association in NSW.

In August 1914, as soon it was announced Australia was at war, he had made plans to enlist. He was the father of two sons, aged six and two, but explained, “I cannot engage in the work of recruiting and urge others to enlist unless I do so myself.” As the Member for Willoughby, he could have sought rank; instead, Larkin entered the army as a private. Within 48 hours, he was promoted to sergeant. Soon, he might have been second guessing what he had done.

“We have been silly enough to think that the Australian Army had been democratised,” he wrote from Egypt.

“There was never a greater delusion. Class is everything for advancement …Suffice it to say that there would be very few here if the men were free to leave or had anticipated how they were to be treated.”

Larkin contracted a virus so severe he was reputedly offered the chance to be invalided home. He declined.

In another letter home, he derided the politicians who had not followed him into battle, calling them “rotters who think only of themselves”.

He was a member of the 1st Battalion, which was not among the first to land at Gallipoli but was soon rushed into the fray. He didn’t survive long; slaughtered as he led his men over Plateau 400 towards an area that would become known as Lone Pine.

For a while, there was much conjecture about exactly what happened to him. It will never be known absolutely for sure. What is beyond doubt is that, as is documented in official records, he displayed “conspicuous gallantry”.

Private Harold Cavill, a bugler in the 2nd battalion, recorded what he’d heard of Larkin’s demise in his diary, which was reproduced for public consumption in 1916:

Wounded and dying he lay, yet when the stretcher-bearers came to carry him in, he waved them on, saying, ‘There’s plenty worse than me out there.’ Later, they found him — dead.

Corporal Charles Lawler, who smashed an index finger so badly he was invalided out of the war within a week of the landing, told the Newcastle Morning Herald in an interview published on 12 August 1915, that he was only “five yards” from Larkin and “well up in front” when the sergeant died:

It must have been shrapnel that got him. We were charging under bursts of shrapnel and there was very little rifle fire.

Sergeant Harry Sparks, who was in the 1st Battalion, provided his version of events in a letter to Charlie Ford, a prominent North Sydney rugby league official. Sparks recalled that “the night before we left the ship to commence operations, Ted and I had a long talk, and amongst other things he remarked that there would surely be a great scramble for his constituency of Willoughby if he went under”. He also described how Larkin had an early narrow escape when, shortly after landing, “the pannikin hanging to his gear got in the way of a bullet…”

I was with Ted in a hot corner, and as he was in charge, he gave the order to advance, which was done rapidly with bayonets fixed. We got amongst the enemy’s trenches which had been evacuated owing to our hurried visit. We stayed there until shelled out ...

According to Sparks’ account, he was leading one section of soldiers; Larkin was commanding another team.

Eventually, they were separated. “Ted fell with his lads right in front of the argument,” he wrote.

Larkin’s remains were not recovered until the armistice of 24 May, near ground the Anzacs had named the ‘Pimple’. So severe were his wounds erroneous rumours spread from Gallipoli to the streets of Sydney that the Turks had mutilated his body; so toxic were these rumours, the army felt it necessary to issue an official denial from Captain Charles Bean, their press officer on the frontline.

Bean’s cable, in which he described Larkin as “a fine man and a brave soldier”, was published on the front page of Sydney’s Evening News of 29 June. In his official history of Australia in the Great War, Bean concluded Larkin was cut down by “machine-gun bullets”. The rumours his corpse had been attacked by Turkish bayonets might have come from traumatised soldiers unfamiliar with the carnage modern ammunition could cause when fired relentlessly from close range.

Most likely, when the stretcher-bearer offered to help the stricken former Test forward, they both must have known he was done for.

Larkin’s casualty form held at the National Archives in Canberra states his remains were buried by the revered Salvation Army padre, William McKenzie, in or close to the ‘Valley of Death’, now more commonly known as ‘Shrapnel Valley’ or ‘Shrapnel Gully’.

Soldiers who arrived later in the campaign would write home to say they had stopped by the grave. But the cross planted to mark his resting place did not survive and Larkin’s ultimate sacrifice is now remembered at the Lone Pine Memorial, as one of the almost 5000 Australian or New Zealand Gallipoli victims who either have no known resting place or who were buried at sea.