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How a vanished soldier’s “deserter” label harmed his family, and how he eventually “died”
Russell Atkinson was labelled a deserter on the basis of no evidence at all. How Smith's Weekly reported his eventual vindication.

How a vanished soldier’s “deserter” label harmed his family, and how he eventually “died”

Private Russell Atkinson went into the front line with his unit of the Australian Imperial Force’s 54th Battalion in October 1916. When his unit was relieved on October 28, he had disappeared.

On the tumultuous Western Front in The Great War many men disappeared. Sometimes they deserted to enemy lines in the hope of surviving the war as a prisoner. Sometimes they drowned in waterlogged shellholes, were buried by explosions or were blown into unrecognisable fragments. In the case of Private Atkinson, the army decided desertion would be the official explanation. He had already been treated for shell-shock, so may have been a nervous soldier. And it may have been more convenient for his commanders – from the point of view of quick replacement – to be able to close the case of his disappearance speedily.

Russell Atkinson, of Islington NSW. Australian War Memorial photo PO7995.001

Russell Atkinson, a hairdresser of Islington, Newcastle, NSW, had enlisted in July 1915, aged 21, leaving his pregnant wife and giving up a thriving business to go and fight for the Empire with the 13th Battalion. He was fighting in France with the 54th Battalion in July 1916 when he was hospitalised with shell-shock. He rejoined his unit in August and was in the front line in October that year. According to his official record, when his unit was relieved on October 28, he did not come out of the line. The army, in its wisdom, decided he had deserted, effectively labelling him a coward.

For some time all his family in Australia knew was that he was missing, but after a court of inquiry apparently declared him to be a deserter, stern machinery was set in motion. His widow, for example, was not legally able to remarry, since Russell was considered to be still alive and presumably on the run. She was forced to go through a very expensive process to obtain a divorce, on the legal grounds of desertion. Worse for his widow was the fact that the Government refused her any of the normal financial assistance due to the wife of a fallen soldier.

London bank account untouched after the war

Russell’s mother, Alice, never believed her son would have deserted and constantly argued with the Government, demanding it prove its assertion. Even when she was able, with the help of the Salvation Army, to show that Russell had deposited money in a bank in London well before his alleged desertion – and had never withdrawn a penny – the Government refused to budge from its story. It was only when the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League took up the case that a different picture emerged: Russell had likely been killed in the front line and his body was never recovered. There had never been any evidence to the contrary, and it appears the “court of inquiry” may have been a hastily convened formality designed to clear unaccounted-for names from the battalion strength so that reinforcements could be taken on.

When the RSL pressed the point it emerged that no proceedings of the court of inquiry existed anywhere, nor was there any record of who presided over it. The adjutant of Russell’s battalion, when tracked down and interviewed, said the evacuation from the front line on the day Russell disappeared was “not without artillery activity”. In other words, it seems more likely than not that Russell may have been killed by a shell while leaving the front line.

The RSL and Smith’s Weekly fought a long battle on behalf of Russel’s family.

In 1932 the Government issued a formal apology, reinstated Russell’s medals and ensured his name was belatedly added to official war memorials. But it took more years and more fighting before it did the decent thing and paid Russell’s family the equivalent of the pension they should have received since his death. His now-remarried widow, Mrs Dora Tripp, of Tourle Street, Mayfield, eventually received a hefty sum. For Russell’s mother, reportedly, one of the most important aspects of the decision was that the shame of being labelled the mother of a deserter was now removed. This was said to be the only case of its type in the AIF for the whole of the war.

From our book, The Hunter Region in The Great War:

https://www.phototimetunnel.com/product/book-07-hunter-region-great-war

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