BRUCE SCATES: The statue in front of me goes by the name “The Man and His Donkey.” It was erected by the Red Cross in 1936. The name of that man was John Simpson Kirkpatrick, a medic who rescued the wounded from the slopes of Gallipoli and carried them to safety on the back of his donkey. Simpson’s become a universal symbol of sacrifice, a man who gave his life for others. And so it’s not surprising that he was adopted by the Red Cross. You see, Simpson’s also a symbol of mercy. His mission was to save life, not to take it. In the 1920s, Simpson acquired an almost saintly status. Children in particular warmed to his gentle, Christlike nature.
And no doubt that little donkey there helped in that appeal. So the comfort the Red Cross offered during the war wasn’t just physical in nature. It wasn’t just about rescuing the wounded. It was also emotional in its character, as well. It was a kind of psychological healing.
One of the most important agencies established by the Red Cross was the Wounded and Missing Information Bureau. And it offers us a family-centered view of history. In London, Paris, and Cairo, Red Cross workers tried to make sense of the chaos of battle. They interviewed survivors. They sifted truth from hearsay. And they tried to explain what may have happened to those missing men, those men literally swallowed up by the war. The Red Cross sent verbatim accounts home to wives, to parents, to loved ones anxious for any kind of news. And by an accident of history, these rich, emotionally-charged files have survived. This year, Australia’s Red Cross celebrates its centenary.
And this year, Bec and Laura are going to help you work through those remarkable files.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: The Red Cross wounded and missing files are made up of some 32,000 individual files of Australian personnel reported wounded or missing during the First World War. In 2002, the files were digitised by an army of volunteers, and the collection can be viewed in full on the Australian War Memorial website. The Wounded and Missing Bureau of the Australian Red Cross began work in October, 1915, investigating the fate of the wounded, the missing, and the dead. To begin searching these files, start at www.awm.gov.au/people/role search/wounded and missing/ or you can web search “Red Cross wounded and missing files” and select the top result.
When searching the catalogue of Red Cross wounded and missing files, the more information you can input, the more refined your search result will be. The search criteria available are name, service number, and unit number. Some names are more common than others and call for some more detail. But even if you’re not certain of some information, you can find who you’re looking for. For example, I’m going to look for Thomas Elliott. Now, if I was unsure whether his name was Elliott spelled with two Ts or one, in the search box I can type Thomas Elliot with an asterisk, and the search engine will find both Thomas Elliotts with one T and with two.
Basically, the asterisk can widen the scope of one’s search.
So here we have four possible men. And I know that the Thomas Elliott I’m after was in the 60th Battalion– Thomas Patrick Elliott of the 60th Battalion. His 16-page file shows the various material that might make up a Red Cross wounded and missing file. Many pages of these files are devoted to the witnesses of a soldier’s wounding, death, or burial. Private Searle describes the violent death of Major Elliott. “I saw Major Elliott killed by a shell on July 20 near Fleurbaix during the attack. The shell must have burst near his feet. He went up in the air.” It’s so definite. And yet so often, the Red Cross investigations raised doubts and gave bereaved families false hopes.
Private Poolman testified, “On 19th July, after I was brought in, I was told by Wrigley that Major Elliott was lying wounded near the 1st line German trench and I expect the Germans took him in and that he is wounded and a prisoner. Wrigley said he did not think he was badly wounded.” But such testimony was incorrect, merely hopeful speculation in the chaos of battle. Tom Elliott was killed at Fromelles. His mother, Mary, did not want to believe it, though, especially after the misinformation and the inaccuracy of some early reports. Mary’s grief, confusion, and her struggle with false hope are also part of Tom Elliott’s Red Cross file.
Mary and other families wrote desperately time and time again to the Bureau, seeking answers and details. She wrote to the Red Cross, “He was reported wounded in the first place, then not wounded but missing. Then, about a fortnight after, killed in action on the 19th July, 1916. I don’t think they know what happened to him.” She wrote again, “The last message I got, they said he was unofficially declared killed in action. Officially, they do not know what happened to him. If he is alive, please try and find him for me. The suspense is dreadful.” That dreadful suspense appears again and again in the Red Cross wounded and missing files.
But that is part of what makes these files such an incredibly rich resource. They tell the story of the battlefield and the story of bereavement.