Dead to rights: how an Aussie hero framed the world’s conscience

William Roy 'Hoddy' Hodgson: ALH Gallipoli Album photoHeroes and heroines emerge in war and in peace. A forgotten Aussie hero, brave on the front line at ANZAC Cove in April 1915 and resolute in framing the world’s human rights 30 years later, has left a personal legacy which even today continues to shape a better world. CLA’s CEO Bill Rowlings tells the story.

Dead to rights: how an Aussie hero

framed the world’s conscience

By Bill Rowlings*

An Australian forward artillery observer, one of the most exposed men on the front lines, lasted just a few days on Gallipoli in April 1915 before a Turkish sniper took aim, fired, and shot him through the hip.

Reported dead, the young lieutenant in fact survived to read his own obituary and to become one of the world’s most influential but rarely recalled Australians.

Surgery in Egypt and England resulted in one leg shorter than the other and forced William Roy Hodgson to limp for the rest of his life. He was Mentioned In Dispatches and received the Croix de Guerre avec palme for heroism, commended by his CO for “great gallantry” in a position of “great risk and responsibility”.

But it wasn’t physical bravery in World War One which made “Hoddy” an outstanding international figure. Instead, it was moral courage after World War Two as one of the nine people who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The 30 clauses of the UDHR lay down the rights to which people everywhere are intrinsically entitled. It is the world’s “conscience”, the foundation of all United Nations-sponsored civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. The UN General Assembly adopted it on 10 December 1948 at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris.

Hodgson was no shrinking violet in tough negotiations over UDHR clauses with the other eight representatives from the USA, UK, the Soviet Union, China, France, Lebanon, Chile and Canada. A US State Department official described him in writing as “peppery and aggressive, with a blustering and provocative approach”. Hodgson was considered very knowledgeable but not particularly diplomatic, very much an Aussie who had seen war up close and had no time for bullshitting bureaucrats who had never faced anything more dangerous than paper clips at 10 paces.

One of his Australian work colleagues at the time, Alan Watt, commented that “his direct, blunt and rather aggressive style was apt to give offence”. But Watt also said Hodgson had a “quick mind and a bold spirit” and the “courage and determination which had marked his career never left him”.

On the UDHR drafting committee, “Hoddy” stood out for arguing strongly for ways to enforce adherence to the rights laid down in the document. He wanted an international tribunal where individuals could file a complaint or, as an alternative, an amendment to the UN Charter to make the UDHR legally enforceable on nations.

Unfortunately, he won the battle for neither. However, Hodgson would probably be astonished in 2012 to see how the UDHR itself, the other human rights instruments it has spawned, and bodies like the European Court of Human Rights are continuing to gradually change the world for the better. He would be disappointed that there is still a long way to go before the patchwork liberties quilt is evenly toned across the globe. The straight-speaking ex-soldier would be calling for all nations to have the commitment and courage to abide by the basic rights that are so important in helping powerless people live in freedom with the opportunity to fulfill their personal potential.

The USA to this day lionises Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of former President Franklin Roosevelt, for her role in chairing the UDHR drafting committee. Since 1992, Canada has honoured its representative on the committee, John Humphrey, with an annual freedom award now worth $25,000 to enable a human rights leader from a usually perilous third world situation to undertake a speaking tour of Canada and the West.

Australia remembers many military heroes, but has forgotten this one Aussie courageous in both war and peace, who gave the world a legacy of civil liberties and human rights principles which continue to guide global society in the 21st century.

Hodgson should be better remembered in Australia, even if only for some of his other firsts. Born in Victoria in 1892, he was a member of the original 1911 officer class at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, in Canberra, graduating due to the war in 1914 after three years instead of the planned four. He sailed for the Middle East in October that year as a lieutenant in the 5th Battery, 2nd Field Artillery Brigade.

When the Gallipoli injury ruled out continuing active service, he came back to Australia to join the General Staff at Army HQ in Melbourne until the end of the war. From 1925, he was head of military intelligence, retiring from service life in 1934 with the rank of lieutenant-colonel.

Studying nights in early 1920s, Colonel Hodgson gained accountancy qualifications, and then a law degree at the University of Melbourne in 1929. He began his public service with the Development and Migration Commission, before heading up in 1934 the external affairs branch of the Prime Minister’s Department as assistant secretary. In 1935, when External Affairs became a department in its own right (it’s now called Foreign Affairs and Trade), Hodgson became the first Secretary, remaining head of department until 1945.

From 1943 onwards was a hectic period for reforming international organisations and treaties and preparing for recovery after World War Two.  During this period and for more than a decade, Hodgson guided Australia’s place in the world as head of mission at many conferences and on numerous commissions. Formally, he was acting High Commissioner to Canada, Ambassador to France, and Australian delegate to the first General Assembly of the United Nations.

With fellow Australians H.V. Evatt and Jessie Street, he was credited with helping to create the blueprint for the UN itself. He attended the San Francisco conference in April 1945, and led the Australian delegations to both the UN Preparatory Commission on London and to the Paris Peace Conference. His other roles including being Australian representative on the UN Security Council in New York, the Atomic Energy Commission and the Human Rights Commission. He was ambassador to France until November 1949, and head of mission to Japan and the British representative to the Allied Control Council in that country.

Hodgson was High Commissioner in Pretoria, South Africa, until mid-1956. He enjoyed the briefest of retirements after a lifetime of serving Australia: retiring in May 1957, he died in Sydney in January 1958.

Which Australian Defence Force officer serving today will make as great a contribution to human rights and civil liberties as this courageous Australian?

Hodgson Photo of William Hodgson (Credit: United Nations)

Photos of the nine drafters is available at


Background on Hodgson:

Article also appears in newmatilda » …

* Bill Rowlings is CEO of Civil Liberties Australia. CLA is asking Attorney-General Nicola Roxon to introduce an annual “Hodgson Award” in Australia, similar to the Humphrey Award in Canada.

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One Comment

  1. Important Australian History is most unkind to persons who have contributed mightily to the best interests of Australia’s citizens, especially in the life and times of the late William Roy Hodgson Lieutenant Colonel ret’.
    One is left to wonder at the malaise of our current Federal government which no longer cares to honour people who had fought for the rights of All Australia’s citizens.
    The Federal Liberal leadership government of today has deteriorated from the very essence of the word, Liberal.
    The Liberal party government of today can no longer qualify as an aggregate of respected ministerial individuals, albeit that is empowered to lead Australia into its futures.
    The person depicted has never been recognized for the enormous contribution to Australia by the likes of the late ‘Bill’ Hodgson.
    Indeed, the Liberal party of today is more known for turning its back on Australia’s citizens by demonstrating its obeisance to the wealthy elites, bankers and the scourge of incorporated business empires.
    Human Rights in Australia have descended into the deep dark abyss.

    William Boeder

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