Percy Lay: Farmer to Soldier, ANZAC to Legend

The Gold Museum holds a small but significant collection relating to World War I veteran, Percy Lay.

Percy Lay was born on 8 February 1892 in Ballan, Victoria, Australia. The son of Edward and Annie Lay, he worked as a sheep and cattle dealer before enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force in 1914). Lay was posted to the 8th Battalion and embarked for Egypt. He was in the 8th landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 until Imperial forces evacuated the following year.

Portrait of Percy Lay (Gold Museum collection, 83.0408)

Portrait of Percy Lay (Gold Museum collection, 83.0408)

Lay was known for his courage and determination under duress and it was these qualities that had him promoted to the rank of lance corporal in June 1915, corporal in February 1916 and sergeant in August 1916.

He fought near Pozieres on the Western Front and won his first decoration for his refusal to leave a wounded comrade behind in the enemy trenches after an assault upon them on 18 August 1916. Percy was recommended for a Victoria Cross by the company commander but received a Croix de Guerre avec Palme award instead.

Amongst other honours on the battlefield, Lay was also awarded the Military Medal for courage on the battlefield at Bullecourt and the Distinguished Conduct Medal for leading a platoon to its final object after the wounding of his commander. For the latter honour, he was made a second lieutenant on the field . In addition, he attained the Military Cross for his taking command of an attack after the other officers had become wounded at Broodseinde near Ypres.

Percy Lay wearing his medals (Gold Museum collection, 83.0409)

Percy Lay wearing his medals (Gold Museum collection, 83.0409)

In February 1918 Lay was made a lieutenant and then shortly thereafter detached to Persia in 1918 for special duty. He returned to Australia in March 1919 and was demobilised from the army, establishing a farm in Alphington near Melbourne.

Lay’s courageous deeds on the battlefield and within the army weren’t restricted to World War One. He desired to help with the World War Two effort but was generally restricted to serving in garrisons and training units in Victoria, which helped him attain the rank of major. This is where he remained until illness forced him into hospital at Heidelberg and died shortly thereafter on 28 August 1955.

Lay’s passing was met with a number of newspaper obituaries and tributes published in The Argus and Stand To.

Percy Lay’s contribution to the ANZAC legend exemplifies Australia’s baptism of fire during the Gallipoli campaign of 1915 and later campaigns on the Western Front such as Bullecourt, Somme and Ypres. Lay is an excellent example of the ANZAC spirit and legend within our national consciousness and memory.

Search the Gold Museum’s collection to find more material relating to Percy Lay.

Written by Richard Eldridge, history graduate from Federation University and Gold Museum volunteer.

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