Anzac Day is still on the Australian calendar as a day to celebrate and commemorate the deeds of our military personnel.
Traditionally centered on World War I, the mythology of the Anzacs – bronzed bushmen who storm the cliffs of Gallipoli or fearlessly walk through artillery bombardments on the Western Front – has long obscured the reality of the experience of fighting in what was then an unprecedented conflict.
Many Australian soldiers did not fit into this Anzac myth. Some were taken prisoner of war and some broke down with shell shock. Others were simply “bad characters”, whose turmoil, both inside and outside their units, caused endless headaches for military and civilian authorities.
Australian soldiers stationed in Egypt, England and France were charged with a variety of offenses including insubordination, repeated malingering and theft. Some were charged with committing heinous acts, such as murder and rape.
In our research on these soldiers, we found that a total of 115 Australians were court-martialed and sentenced to death for serious military crimes – mainly desertion – during World War I.
Read more: Why Australia is still struggling with the legacy of the First World War
Investigation of desertion
Desertion should be distinguished from being absent without, or extending, authorized leave from the unit. Under the military law governing members of the Australian Imperial Force during WWI, desertion was defined as abandoning or refusing to enter the front lines or being absent from areas behind the front lines for more than four weeks.
Desertion was considered such a serious offense because the soldier had refused to fulfill the task he had applied for, wasted resources, weakened military strength, and endangered comrades.
Not surprisingly, the sanction was severe. More than 3,000 members of the British Empire’s armed forces were sentenced to death for desertion and similar offenses during World War I, of whom 361 were executed by firing squad. (They included 25 Canadians and five New Zealanders.) The remaining deserters had their sentences commuted to somewhat less—usually a substantial prison sentence.
But Australian law – specifically the Defense Act first passed in 1903 – effectively prevented the Australian Imperial Force from carrying out the death penalty. Soldiers could be sentenced to death, but no one was executed.
In our research, we scoured amateur histories, dissertations and historical archives to unearth the 115 Australian soldiers sentenced to death in WWI (fewer than the usually called number of 121, which we consider exaggerated). We then examined their service records, court-martial records, and repatriation records.
Who were these men? We discovered that they weren’t just bad soldiers, but men for whom military service was just an unhappy aspect of their lives.
As historians look into their lives, we see them struggle with their obligations in the armed forces and confront the military justice system. We witness their back and forth with government repatriation authorities as they plead for financial and other assistance, and all too often we see their early or otherwise unfortunate deaths.
Two cases stand out for us: that of Privates James McCormick and Nicholas Permakoff. Both had colorful records prior to their sentences, including hospitalization for venereal disease, insubordination and absence from their units. And both had sad and lonely, though very different, endings.
Read more: The Anzac legend blinded Australia to its war atrocities. It’s time for a reckoning
The chronically absent
McCormick enlisted in Western Australia in June 1915 at the age of 36. He saw hardly any action on the battlefield; he spent more time in hospital with a venereal disease, episodes of epilepsy and stomach problems (he was identified by military authorities as an alcoholic), or in a military prison.
He disappeared almost as soon as he arrived in France in June 1916 and was sentenced to a year of hard labour. As a result of the manpower problems faced by the Australian Imperial Force, his sentence was suspended in early 1917 so that he could rejoin his battalion.
Two months later, McCormick disappeared again. This time he was charged with desertion and sentenced to death. This was later commuted to ten years of hard labor and finally suspended again. And in May 1918 he returned to his battalion. He was hospitalized almost immediately for chronic stomach problems and was sent to England, where he remained until almost the end of the war.
McCormick was finally discharged from the Corps in December 1918 as “medically unfit”. His less than glorious track record made him unsuitable for war medals or the war tip. He traveled around Australia picking up odd jobs, but continued to struggle with an upset stomach and alcoholism. He died in 1950.
McCormick’s body was found in a school shed in Albury, New South Wales, an empty wine bottle next to him and his feet in an old onion sack. The coroner attributed his death to chronic alcoholism and exposure. No next of kin were found, so local police organized his burial in Albury cemetery.
The deserter shot past his own side
An even more curious case – and just as sad – is that of Nicholas Permakoff. Born in Russia, he served in the Russian Army for two years before migrating to Australia where, when he enlisted in 1916, he was a miner in NSW.
He later claimed that he joined the Australian Imperial Force with the bizarre promise that he could transfer to the Russian army once he got back to Europe. However, by the time he got there, the Russian Revolution was underway and Permakoff had decided he didn’t want to be part of the war.
In November 1917, he told his superior officer “yes, fuck you”—or words to that effect—when ordered to put on his pack and march to the front, earning a six-month prison sentence.
After his release, he was essentially forced to go to the front lines, despite telling his officers he would not fire. That night, according to Australian sentries, he was spotted walking towards the Germans without his weapon. Permakoff was fatally shot by his own side – an action later approved by a committee of inquiry.
He left behind very vague next of kin information: “Mrs Permakoff, Archangel, c/- Imperial Russian Consul, Sydney”. Attempts to contact his mother in Archangel, a town in Russia, were unsuccessful and the NSW public trustee was unable to find anyone to claim his few assets.
Permakoff is one of only five Australians who died in WWI to be excluded from the Australian War Memorial honor roll. He lies on a Commonwealth war graves in Esquelbecq, France.
Revealing the complexities of military service
In the 1990s and 2000s there were lengthy public campaigns in Britain, New Zealand, Canada and Ireland to posthumous pardon those executed during the war.
But death row Australian deserters have been largely overlooked. This is perhaps because they were ultimately not executed (with the exception of Permakoff), so they did not elicit an outraged sense of injustice.
In addition, they present an uncomfortable counter-narrative to the idealized Anzac character and performance.
Our research seeks to rescue these men, their experiences and their voices from the historical void. This expands our understanding of the complexity and diversity of Australian military experiences and highlights the impossibility – for most – of the Anzac ideal.