Herbert Rockliff was born in Wardell on the Richmond River in NSW. He attended school in Millthorpe, where his father John was headmaster for many years. An accomplished euphonium player, he later moved to Orange where he became secretary then bandmaster of the Orange Town Band. No social event was complete without the enormously popular Herbert and his euphonium. He was later appointed deputy Town Clerk in Orange.
Herbert – also known as “Bert” or “Rocky” – boarded at Dover House in Anson Street with his good friend, Bernard Kelaher. The pair enlisted together on 1 February 1915 and proceeded to Liverpool camp. On the eve of his departure, Rocky played a final euphonium solo at Orange’s Empire Theatre where he was a member of the orchestra.
At the army depot at Liverpool Rockliff founded the 17th Battalion Band of which he was appointed bandmaster. The band utilised the depot’s instruments, but were unable to take them overseas. Band members subscribed money to a fund to purchase their own instruments and the Leader encouraged readers to contribute to the fund.
Sergeant Rockliff boarded the Themistocles in Sydney on 12 May 1915. He fought right through the Gallipoli campaign and was one of the first Australians to arrive in France. He was killed in action on the Somme on 27 July 1916, aged 31. According to fellow soldier and band member William Eyles, Sergeant Rockliff was “buried and shell shocked in a shell explosion. He could have left the line, but returned manfully to his duty and was killed about an hour later. He proved himself a man in every sense of the word, and he died a man.”
In an obituary the Leader claimed: “He was one of the best known men about town, and one of the most popular…one of the gayest of our young men”. Fellow soldier Lieutenant Keith McKenzie described him as “the best known and most popular Sergeant in the Battalion”. During his time in the field Rockliff had one ambition that he was ultimately unable to fulfil – that of returning to Orange and marching down Summer Street with his old band.
Herbert is commemorated on the Holy Trinity Church Orange Honour Roll and on the World War I Roll of Honour on the southern face of the Orange Cenotaph.
On 25 April 1917 the second ever Anzac Day service in Orange was held at the Orange Public School. Mayoress McNeilly placed a laurel wreath on the Union Jack for each fallen soldier who had attended the school, including Bert Rockliff.
In 1923 the Anzac Memorial Avenue of trees was planted along Bathurst Road to commemorate fallen WWI soldiers. A tree was planted in honour of “Sgt H Rockliff”; it was donated by Town Hall Staff. Very few of the trees are still standing today.
Rocky’s friend Bernard did not survive the war either; he was accidently killed in France two months after Rocky was killed in action.
Leader, 8 September 1916
Bandmaster Bert Rockliff. Killed in action
Leader, 18 September 1916
In memory of Rocky
Leader, 22 January 1917
The late Bert Rockliff