Harold Burfield Taylor

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Harold Taylor
MC & bar
BrigHBTaylor 1941-005512.jpg
Brigadier H.B. Taylor (1941)
Born (1890-08-10)10 August 1890
Enfield, Sydney, Australia
Died 15 March 1966(1966-03-15) (aged 75)
Concord, Sydney, Australia
Allegiance  Australia
Service/branch Australian Army Emblem.JPG Australian Army
Rank Brigadier
Commands held 22nd Infantry Brigade

First World War

Second World War

Awards Military Cross and bar

Brigadier Harold Burfield Taylor MC and bar (10 August 1890 – 15 March 1966) was an analytical chemist (B.Sc., D.Sc.) and an Australian Army officer who served in the First and the Second World Wars. A junior officer in the First World War, during the Second World War he was commander of the 22nd Infantry Brigade during the Invasion of Malaya. Captured along with many of his fellow soldiers following the fall of Singapore, he spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner of war. In civilian life, he was an analyst for the government and an expert in poisons, often called upon to give evidence in criminal trials involving poisoning.

Early life and scientific career[edit]

Taylor was born on 10 August 1890 in Enfield, Sydney to an Englishman and his Australian wife. He was educated at Sydney Boys' High School and the University of Sydney, where he graduated Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) in 1912. Interested in chemistry and military science, he served with the Sydney University Scouts, (a Militia unit), and was commissioned in 1913.[1]

Taylor commenced his analytic career as assistant government analyst in the New South Wales Department of Public Health in 1915.[1] While his work involved analysis of a wide range of products, he became well known for giving evidence in criminal trials involving poisons.[1]

First World War[edit]

Taylor, as a captain, 1919

Taylor volunteered for the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in 1915 and, commissioned as a second lieutenant in September that year, was assigned to 19th Battalion.[1] The battalion at the time was involved in training in Egypt following the Gallipoli Campaign, before embarking in March 1916 to France for service on the Western Front.[2]

The battalion engaged in the trench warfare that was typical of the front, and took part in the Battle of Pozières. Prior to this, in June, Taylor had been promoted to lieutenant. Early the following year, he was promoted again, this time to captain. At Lagnicourt, Taylor's leadership of his company was crucial in defeating a German attack during the second phase of the Battle of Arras on 15 April,[3] and he was rewarded with a Military Cross.[4]

Taylor was recommended[5] a bar to his Military Cross on 9 October 1917, during the Battle of Poelcappelle which was part of the Battle of Passchendaele, leading a small force of two companies to capture German positions in Daisy Wood, near Ypres.[6] He continued to serve with the battalion until the end of the war and upon his return to Australia, was discharged from the AIF.[1]

Interwar period[edit]

Taylor recommenced his analytical work, authoring or co-authoring a number of papers pertaining to chemical analysis of coal and lead amongst other substances. He also completed extensive work in relation to the preservation of milk and earned a Doctor of Science (D.Sc) in 1925 from the University of Sydney.[1] By 1934, he was Deputy Government Analyst of New South Wales.[7]

Taylor also continued to be involved with the militia, having resumed his militia career in 1920. A battalion commander by 1926, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1927 and continued to be appointed to command various militia battalions,[1] including the 18th and 56th battalions.[7]

Second World War[edit]

Taylor, centre front, with officers of the 22nd Australian Infantry Brigade, Malaya, 1941

After the outbreak of the Second World War, Taylor was promoted to temporary brigadier and given command of 5th Brigade, a militia formation which then tasked with defensive duties in Australia. In July 1940, he was seconded to the AIF, which had been raised for service overseas, and appointed commander of 22nd Infantry Brigade.[1] The brigade was composed of 2/18th, 2/19th and 2/20th battalions and was subordinate to the 8th Division, initially commanded by Vernon Sturdee (who would shortly be made Army chief of staff, Major General Gordon Bennett taking over command of the division in his stead).[8] The brigade was originally destined for the Middle Eastern but the Australian government offered to send it to Singapore to shore up Britain's defences, an offer gratefully accepted by the British prime minister, Winston Churchill.[9]

Malaya and Singapore[edit]

After a period of training in New South Wales, the brigade embarked for Malaya on 2 February 1941 with Taylor traveling in advance of the main body by flying boat.[10] He spent time gauging the current training methods in use amongst the British and Indian units already stationed in Malaya. Observing the terrain in which his soldiers may have to fight, he implemented acclimatisation and jungle warfare training for his brigade.[11]

The brigade was based at Mersing, and spent time constructing defences and laying minefields.[12] It also underwent brigade level training exercises and it was during one of these exercises that Taylor clashed with Bennett, his new commanding officer. Taylor's relationship with Bennett was difficult. Bennett's command in Malaya at the time consisted solely of Taylor's brigade, with other elements of the 8th Division to follow. This meant that Bennett's oversight was more overbearing than would normally be the case and this resulted in disputes over the use and distribution of his brigade.[13] Following the invasion of Malaya by the Japanese Empire, the brigade was forced into fighting rear guard actions against the advancing Japanese. This led to more clashes with Bennett, who felt that Taylor, by requesting to establish fallback positions, was too pessimistic in his defence arrangements.[14]

The brigade later withdrew to Singapore Island, its three battalions taking up positions across an eight-mile front on the north western coast of the island.[15] On the night of 8 February, the Japanese launched landings on Taylor's sector, forcing his brigade into a fighting withdrawal. The Japanese advance may have been assisted by Taylor's directions to his platoon and company commanders to withdraw back to their headquarters position if they felt in danger of being overrun.[16]

By 12 February, the Japanese were well established on Singapore Island and advancing on all fronts. That day Taylor, extremely fatigued, asked Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Varley, commander of 2nd/18th Battalion, to take over temporary command of the brigade. The following day, Bennett promoted Varley to brigadier and made him the permanent commander of the brigade, a command which would last only a few more days before the surrender of Singapore on 15 February.[17]

Taylor spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner of war of the Japanese. While imprisoned at Changi, he set up and ran an educational program for his fellow prisoners which had to be eventually abandoned as men were transferred to other camps.[18] Sent to prisoner camps in Taiwan and then Manchuria,[1] his scientific knowledge was of benefit in ensuring his fellow prisoners maximised their nutritional intake from the limited rations provided by the Japanese.[19]

Later life[edit]

Returning to his scientific career upon his return to Australia after the Second World War, Taylor became the government analyst in March 1946. He continued to be called upon to advise in criminal cases involving poisons, including those by the mass murderer Caroline Grills.[20] He retired from public service in 1954 although worked as a consultant for several more years. At the time of his retirement he was working on setting standards for the amount of fruit in juices and jams.[19]

Taylor died on 15 March 1966. He was survived by his wife, Nellie Birkenhead Starling, whom he married in 1940. The couple had no children.[1]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Reid, Richard E. (2002). "Taylor, Harold Burfield (1890–1966)". Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16. Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne University Press. Retrieved 2 June 2012. 
  2. ^ "19th Battalion, AIF, World War I". Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 2 June 2012. 
  3. ^ Bean, 1941, pp. 386–387
  4. ^ "Recommendation for MC – Harold Burfield Taylor" (PDF). Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 2 June 2012. 
  5. ^ "Recommendation for bar to MC – Harold Burfield Taylor" (PDF). Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 2 June 2012. 
  6. ^ Bean, 1941, pp. 898–899
  7. ^ a b Wigmore, 1957, p. 29
  8. ^ Wigmore, 1957, p. 106
  9. ^ Smith, 2005, p. 53
  10. ^ Wigmore, 1957, p. 60
  11. ^ Wigmore, 1957, p. 68
  12. ^ Smith, 2005, p. 402
  13. ^ Wigmore, 1957, p. 70
  14. ^ Smith, 2005, p. 456
  15. ^ Warren, 2002, p. 222
  16. ^ Smith, 2005, p. 466
  17. ^ Wigmore, 1957, pp. 361–362
  18. ^ Sim, Melanie. "Treasure Trove: The strength of the human spirit shines through Changi University". ABC.net.au. Retrieved 2 June 2012. 
  19. ^ a b "Food For Thought In Analyst's Career". Sydney Morning Herald. 29 September 1954. Retrieved 2 June 2012. 
  20. ^ "Women is charged – four murders alleged". Sydney Morning Herald. 9 July 1953. Retrieved 2 June 2012. 


  • Bean, C. E. W. (1941). Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918. Volume IV – The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1917. Canberra, Australia: Australian War Memorial. 
  • Smith, Colin (2005). Singapore Burning: Heroism and Surrender in WWII. London, United Kingdom: Viking. 
  • Warren, Alan (2002). Singapore 1942: Britain's Greatest Defeat. Singapore: Talisman. 
  • Wigmore, Lionel (1957). Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Series 1, Vol. 4: The Japanese Thrust. Canberra, Australia: Australian War Memorial.