The Real Sullivans

Surely you remember the television series The Sullivans? If you do you may not realize that the name was based on two real life characters.
A close look at Dave Sullivan and his great mate, Jack, the barman, when they were kitted out for the Anzac Day march in their old uniforms would have revealed that their colour patches were the diagonal two blues of the 4th Light Horse Regiment.
Film and television producer Ian Jones, a renowned authority on Ned Kelly, has also long held a keen interest in the Australian Light Horse of the First War, the 4th Light Horse Regiment in particular. As one of those involved from the early days with The Sullivans it was inevitable that his enthusiasm for the 4th should have some influence, and since Dave and Jack were both returned men, both Victorians, why not of the 4th Light Horse Regiment, the regiment unique as the only AIF unit that served on all three fronts where Australians were to be found.

But why the Sullivans? Thousands of other surnames could have been chosen from amongst the more than 2 500 who served with the 4th. There were any number of Andersons, Browns, Campbells and Clarks, Halls, Johnsons and Johnstons, Kellys, McLeishs and Murrays, Robertsons, Smiths innumerable and Scotts, Taylors of course … and Sullivans.

By the time Ian Jones and I knew the men of the 4th Light Horse there were a lot less than 2 500 of them, in fact on any one occasion in the 1970s and 1980s perhaps ten or a dozen was the greatest number gathered at a monthly dinner or reunion and they were by then old men. Two who were often there were Arthur and Arch Sullivan and regimental folklore had a good yarn to tell about them.

Unrelated, they were according to regimental folklore wounded by the same shell during the fighting around Mont Kemmel on 26th April 1918. Arthur’s wounds to his left arm, leg and shoulder were severe enough for him to be evacuated to the Royal Victorian Hospital, Netley in England. He already had some experience of English hospitals, having spent 57 days at Bulford recovering from a venereal disease contracted during UK leave in September 1917. Despite the care and attention he received at Netley Arthur’s leg did not heal properly and was amputated. After convalescing in England he was invalided home to Australia in March 1919.

From 1968 until his death in 1978 Arch Sullivan was president of the 4th Light Horse Regiment Association. His prerogative at each of the Association’s monthly dinners was to ensure that little or nothing remained of the contents of a bottle of Johnnie Walker placed with him at the head of the table. At Kemmel in April 1918 he was hit and badly wounded in the forehead. Evacuated to 4th London General Hospital, Denmark Hill, there it was discovered that his skull had been fractured and so on 31st July 1918 he was also repatriated home to Australia.

Much earlier, in September 1916 Arch had also spent time in hospital in England, being invalided from France with a bout of pleurisy that had taken its time to be cured. After a lengthy convalescence Trooper Sullivan apparently deemed himself fit to return to the front, despite his doctors thinking otherwise. Via an alleged miscellany of misdemeanours he attempted to make his way back to the regiment. From this arises the tale (which Arch cheerfully endorsed, particularly for the benefit of naïve young listeners) that he somehow crossed the Channel and was making his way back to his unit when apprehended by British Military Police. Searching for any sort of reason to hold him they charged Arch with: ‘…accosting the King’s enemies without his (the King’s) permission’. The charge apparently proven, Arch was imprisoned, in his words, ‘for a bit of a spell’.

A thorough search of Arch Sullivan’s service record at National Archives offers no evidence to support the story. Rather, the tale almost certainly evolved from the fact that Arch was at one stage apprehended outside the details camp at Wareham where he had been posted after convalescence, that on another occasion he was absent without leave and fined two days’ pay, a few days after which he was charged with assaulting a British military policeman (Arch was a big fellow) and placed in detention for a fortnight. Towards the end of July 1917 he was again absent when he should not have been and was fined a further eight day’s pay. It was not until December 1917 that he did reach France again; but it does seem a pity to demolish such a good yarn!

Nonetheless, and with the benefit of such a great story, no wonder Ian Jones chose to name his hero Dave and the television series after two such real characters, ordinary blokes who did to the best of their abilities exactly what they were asked to do despite paying a price for doing so.

Contact Dr David Holloway about this article.

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