Sons of empire

This week, I was looking at the service records of some other family members who served in the world wars -- those that have been digitised anyway -- and as today is 'Straya Day,1 it seems appropriate to write a little about them.

The first one I looked at was Robert Francis McCormick, NX2097, a labourer from Narrabri in country NSW; my great-uncle. He enlisted in the Australian Army in November 1939, about a week shy of his 21st birthday, and joined the 2/1 Machine Gun Battalion. In May 1940, he sailed with his unit to the UK (on the Queen Mary), arriving in June. They were stationed at Tidworth in Wiltshire and would have in been the thick of things had Sealion taken place. In November the unit sailed to Egypt via the Cape, and in April 1941 was sent to defend Greece. Unfortunately I don't know which platoon or even company he was in, so I don't know which actions he might have taken part in. But I do know that he was evacuated to Crete and took part in the defence of that island in May. In fact, he was captured there (though the exact circumstances are unclear, as his handwriting degenerates at that point: 'Capitulation of ---' is all I can make out so far),2 and spent the rest of the war as a POW: first in the temporary (and execrable) Salonika camp, then in Stalag VIIA (Moosburg, Bavaria) from September 1941 to March 1943 (by his own account; the Army reckons he moved to Stalag XIIA (Limburg, Hessen) in November), then Stalag VIIIB (Lamsdorf, contemporary Silesia) until March 1945, when he was marched all the way back across Germany to Stalag VIIB (Memmingen, Bavaria). There he was finally liberated on 26 April 1945 and returned to Australia in August.

Next is Robert Leland Garfield Holman, 2357, my great-grand-uncle and a farmer near Cummins, South Australia. He enlisted as a private soldier in the Australian Army in February 1916 at the age of 19. He was originally in the 9th Light Horse Regiment, but upon arrival in Egypt joined the 3rd Light Horse at the start of June. But after little more than a month he was transferred to the gloriously-named Imperial Camel Corps. His record gets confusing after that -- lots of temporary promotions (he ended up a sergeant), transfers to different battalions, several hospitalisations, and the records are only partially organised chronologically. But it seems he remained with the ICC until it was disbanded in June 1918; then he was in the 15th Light Horse until the end of the war. So he could have seen a lot of fighting: Suez, Gaza, Palestine, Syria. He arrived back in Adelaide in February 1919 and was discharged as medically unfit in May.

Finally, there's Leonard Joseph Platt, 439491, a native of Tumut, NSW: another grand-uncle. He was a junior clerk in the NSW Justice Department when he enlisted in June 1943, at the tender age of 18 and 1 month, in the Royal Australian Air Force -- yes, a flyboy! In fact, he volunteered for aircrew duty and trained as a pilot. Seconded to the RAF, he arrived in Britain in August 1944, where he underwent advanced training in a number of units, such as 81 OTU (special operations and glider towing, I think) -- in fact, he seems to have spent the rest of the war training, as there's no record of his ever being assigned to an operational squadron. Apparently, because post-D-Day losses were lower than expected, there was a surplus of aircrews arriving from the Empire. It looks like he was frustrated by this, because he took the unusual (but only somewhat) step of taking the flight engineer course at St Athan in April 1945, presumably to increase his chances of being posted somewhere. It didn't work; the war in Europe ended in May and that in Asia in August. In October he set sail for Australia and demobilisation, ending up as a warrant officer.

It's always sobering to think of the enormous numbers of young men and women who put their lives on hold, and at risk -- in these cases, essentially in the service of a far-away country of which they knew nothing (they were all second- or third-generation Australians, I think). I wonder how it changed them when they when back to their farms and families. They certainly got to see and experience more of the world than other Australians of similar background (all fairly humble, and all country boys). Were they more worldly, more cosmopolitan? Did living and fighting in Europe and the Middle East make them more, or less, welcoming of the influx of migrants in the 1950s?

As with John Mulqueeney, I think there is probably a disconnect between the experiences of these men and the current Australian memories of the world wars. The First World War mostly means Gallipoli; there's also some awareness of the light horsemen (for example, of their role in the great cavalry charge at Beersheba). But camels? Camels?? I think the reaction would be puzzlement or amusement. Turning to the Second World War, it's well known that significant numbers of Australians became prisoners of war. But of the Japanese, not the Germans. Even though nearly as many Australians were captured by the Germans, it's the prisoners of the Japanese which dominate Australian memory. And as I commented recently, there's not much memory of the many thousands of Australians who served with the RAF in Europe. As one might expect, the veterans themselves didn't talk much about their experiences, nor did their families, it seems: my mother wondered why nobody had ever mentioned that her uncle had been a POW for nearly four years of his life.3

The other thing I found interesting about these three men is that they all had black marks against their name. Australian troops had a reputation for being undisciplined and not particularly deferential to authority (which conforms to the generally positive Australian stereotype of the larrikin). I don't know whether that reputation was statistically justified, but on this sample (N=3) it was. In May 1940, while on the Queen Mary, Private McCormick was reprimanded for 'an act to the prejudice of good order and military discipline', namely breaking a wash basin; he was fined 5/- and a further 8/- towards the cost of repairs. It may be that sea travel didn't agree with him, because he was in trouble again during the transit to the Middle East in December -- absent without leave at Durban. (Fine: 5s and three days confined to barracks.) Sergeant Holman's misconduct was apparently serious enough to warrant a court martial, in August 1918 -- though he escaped the firing squad, losing 3 month's seniority. The offence? Neglecting to turn out his guard on reveille, and also for allowing some of his men to 'undress during their tour of duty'. (The mind boggles!) He pleaded not guilty. Also, one undated instance of what looks like drunkenness while in hospital. And I suspect alcohol was also involved in young Warrant Officer Platt's offence :) In June 1945, while at St Athan, he illicitly entered No. 3 Sergeant's Mess at 0030 hours; wilfully broke into the refrigerator by breaking the lock; 'misappropriat[ed] 12oz. Bacon the property of the public'; and then was 'insolent' to Flight Sergeant Purdham of the RAF Police; and to cap it all off, he 'Attempt[ed] to strike F/S. Purdham with his fist'! Platt was probably lucky that Purdham was inferior in rank; as it was, he received a severe reprimand and had 30/- deducted to pay for damages. Of course, these bare facts don't really give much insight into why these incidents happened, so you can put it down to good old larrikinism if you like; but given the dates I'd say boredom and frustration may have had something to do with it, particularly for McCormick and Platt -- cooped up on a ship and itching to get into the fight, respectively. But Holman's record could be read to mean that he was a troublemaker -- in the first place, many of the men assigned to the ICC were problem cases being ditched by commanders who didn't want them; and all that bouncing around between units and ranks, too. Then again, he wouldn't have made sergeant if he didn't have some redeeming qualities. At any rate, I won't be campaigning for a posthumous pardon :)

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  1. Tags: bonza; strewth; grouse; sorry, ocker, the Fokker's chocker. []
  2. Now that I look at it again, I think the missing word is probably 'Island', which is exceptionally unhelpful. []
  3. To which I couldn't resist replying that nobody had told me that my uncle is a member of the freakin' British aristocracy -- not just a lowly lord or even a viscount, either, but an earl! Maybe it's just my family then. []

6 thoughts on “Sons of empire

  1. Reading about Robert Francis McCormick and his involvement in the campaign in Greece and Crete leads me to ask whether you've read Charles Lamb's To War in a Stringbag. I had a copy on the back shelf for years that I unearthed the other day and decided to give it a go. Of all the war memoirs I've read (and there are plenty), Lamb's is one of the most vivid, and he gets the feel of aerial combat like no one else. I suspect you already know the book, but just in case I did want to mention it, especially given your relative's involvement in many of the areas where Lamb was active.

  2. Post author

    Thanks, I haven't read it -- from the summary on Amazon it does sound like he had an extremely interesting war! I haven't read many war memoirs actually, not for a long time anyway. One of the things I like about doing the family history stuff (and why I post about it here) is that most of my work is fairly big-picture/broad-brush, so looking at individuals gives me a different perspective. Memoirs are another way into that, and in a different way, so is local history.

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  4. mary blanch

    Robert Francis McCormick is my father and I,m am not quiet sure where your family link is to my father .He was the youngest of ten children, so I guess that your link is from one of his siblings. I would be interested to Know from what writings you are basing your research on .

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