Mike Scanlon: The truth about "missing in action" soldiers

War is hell, an American Civil War general once said. 

That it is, but sometimes, long after the guns have fallen silent, more secret and unnerving stories come to light. One such grim tale involving Australian soldiers on the Western Front after World War I has emerged in Marianne van Velzen’s remarkable new military history book, Missing in Action (Allen & Unwin $32.99).  

GRIM ACCOUNT: The cover of new book Missing in Action, which tells the controversial  story of misconduct and fraud after WWI.

GRIM ACCOUNT: The cover of new book Missing in Action, which tells the controversial story of misconduct and fraud after WWI.

The subject matter reveals this to be an important book, even if profoundly disturbing on many levels. The story is subtitled “Australia’s World War I Grave Services” (AGS) and labelled “an astonishing story of misconduct, fraud and hoaxing”.

The author writes of almost 50,000 Australians dying on the Western Front battlefields with some bodies hastily buried mid-battle in mass graves. Often soldiers were also listed as “missing in action” because no one knew for certain.

Van Velzen’s forensic study reveals that many of the Australians charged with the grisly task of finding and reburying the dead were deeply flawed men. Each had his own reason for remaining in France.

Then came a scandal, with allegations of “body hoaxing”, gross misappropriation of possessions and money sent by relatives to have tombstones erected. There were two highly secretive inquiries trying to get to the bottom of the controversy. There were calls to hold a third inquiry, but the matter was dropped, believing it would embarrass the armed forces.

One person looking to find out what had become of his son was the father of Lieutenant Robert Burns. His unsuccessful search for the truth caused him to say he was disgusted with the whole business but well aware of the consequences that further action would have on the military’s reputation.

At the heart of the matter was the self-declared ‘Major’ Alfred Allen of the AGS who seemed to have extraordinary success finding battlefield corpses when everyone else had failed. Known as the ‘body diviner’, his modus operandi was to set out with his divining rod to survey suspected burial spot. He then used a steel rod to probe the ground, which magically yielded its secrets. According to a biographer, the ‘major’ found 70 to 100 dead men a week, mostly on already cleared areas.

What would have really secured Allen’s place in the history books was the discovery of five mass graves at Pheasant Wood (Fromelles), but he didn’t. The graves were finally uncovered in 2009. They had remained unnoticed for almost 90 years, and it was later remarked how curious the “finder of lost men”, ‘Major’ Allen, who had once walked around the area, would have had difficulty in missing the major burial site. Maybe it would have meant a great deal of unwanted, gruesome work to dig up scores of bodies, identify them, then rebury them. Hardly an appealing job.

The modern Pheasant Wood exhumations did unearth more than 200 Australian bodies, their identities confirmed by a new method: DNA.

One of the prime movers behind the discovery was Melbourne art teacher Lambis Englezos, who was quoted as saying at the time of recovery of the first bodies: “G’day boys, I know it’s been a long time but be patient, don’t worry, we’ll get you”.

The remains of about 11,000 Australian soldiers in France, however, have never been found.

ONE of the most disastrous voyages in Australian history must be that of the plague-stricken sailing ship Ticonderoga. Crammed with poor emigrants, mostly Scots, the ghost ship crept into Port Phillip Bay in late 1852 with more than a quarter of the clipper’s 800 passengers struck down with fever and already dead.

So many bodies went over the side, that the ship’s crew ran out of sailcloth and weights, which were used for the burials. 

Author Michael Veitch has meticulously researched this harrowing, forgotten true tale in his new work Hell Ship (Allen & Unwin $32.99).

Veitch felt compelled to tell the narrative as he is the great-great-grandson of the ship’s assistant surgeon who was on his first sea appointment when the deadly typhus epidemic struck.

CORRECTLY identifying dead people is an unenviable task of the NSW Police. Most of us usually carry some form of identification, but I once lost a dear friend who died while jogging, carrying only his house keys. He, of course, hadn’t expected a fatal heart attack to prevent him from ever returning home. His body must have been unclaimed in the city morgue for a week. And this can’t be an isolated case.

I was reminded of this onerous task of identifying a deceased person recently when I came across some old, unpublished notes taken almost a decade ago.

Retired Newcastle region detective Peter Doyle told me the following tale, and I hope he doesn’t mind me repeating it here. At the time, he was reminiscing about the old, now closed, Hunter Street police station.

“I first went to Hunter Street station in 1968 and then worked the last afternoon shift in at the old station and the first shift at the new Church St station in the 1980s,” he said.

As befitting the last Hunter Street shift in the police wireless car, it was a rowdy night.

“But what I tend to remember now were some of the old characters and lives wasted back around 1968-69. We brought the vagrants in to dry them out, for want of a better term. One we nicknamed, the ‘Squadron Leader’. He was among those picked up by police pretty regularly for being found intoxicated in a public place,” Doyle said.

“It was tragic what had happened to him. He was a very British gent with a beautifully waxed and twirled handlebar moustache. He was supposed to have been a Spitfire pilot in World War II whom grog had later got the better of. It was sad. This was in the days before people were fully aware of post-traumatic stress from wartime duty,” Doyle, a Vietnam veteran, said.

Another of Doyle’s memories was of Sgt Jack Irwin, who devised a simple way to make work easier for Hunter Street police and to give closure to the relatives of some missing persons.

“Jack was based at Carrington. At that time, police often acted more like a defacto social agency; picking up intoxicated, homeless people who were in dire need of a good wash and a feed and who slept in parks, on wharves or under the old Carrington bridge” Doyle said.

“A lot of them would died in winter, sleeping rough. Police then had the devil’s own job identifying them. No one knew who they were. They were only known by their first name, or nicknames. They had pauper’s graves, no one knew who they were. They were known only to God,” Doyle said 

“Then Sgt Irwin hit on this pretty smart idea. He went around and interviewed all the blokes still living at the usual haunts, getting their real names, even their next of kin and recorded individual identifying marks like tattoos or, say, if someone had a finger missing on the left hand.”

All the details were then kept on a police clipboard for instant access.

“It was a beaut idea,” Doyle said.

GHOSTLY: Michael Veitch’s tale of a plague-stricken sailing ship.

GHOSTLY: Michael Veitch’s tale of a plague-stricken sailing ship.

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