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Remembered Today:

Deserter 'gangs'


Mark Hone
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Watching the 'Anzacs' TV series, most kindly provided to me by Croonaert, I came across the incident where the heroes go to recover one of the platoon who has joined a deserter gang in the old Somme battlefields. Eventually (how is not really explained) they track him down to a group led by a pseudo-officer called Edward Kelly. Is this supposedly based on a real incident? James Hayward, in 'Myths and Legends of the First World War' dismisses the 'deserter bands' as myths and mentions 'Anzacs' and other fictional treatments. I recall this being discussed on the forum before but couldn't find the thread. I can't remember if any conclusion was reached.

Overall I found 'Anzacs' stood up pretty well. There is some routine anti-Haig bashing and a reinforcement of the Aussie superman legend in places, but not as extreme as I remembered. Some of the action scenes are very well done. One of the trench attack sequences bears a remarkable resemblance to the attack on the German gun battery in the D-Day episode of 'Band of Brothers'. One thing I didn't recall is how prominent Keith Murdoch is in the series. Was the show made by News International?

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Hi Mark

I've read an account at the Australian War Memorial of an Australian officer who near the end of the war was given the task with a group of men of his 4th brigade to flush out these mixed group of British & Australian deserters, I believe around October/Nov 1918.

They were called upon to surround a certain area where these deserters were known to operate and to capture them. In his account the officer mentioned that one of the deserters was killed while resisting.

Regards

Andrew

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.....dismisses the 'deserter bands' as myths and mentions 'Anzacs' and other fictional treatments. I recall this being discussed on the forum before but couldn't find the thread. I can't remember if any conclusion was reached.

Mark

I mentioned this on the Forum, probably around 2004-ish.

There are contemporary accounts of 'bandits' roaming the deserted battlefields. There are mentioned in Battlefield Tourism 1919-1939-David W Lloyd- ISBN 1 85973 179 1

Martin

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Am I right in thinking that the 'deserter gangs' also turn up in 'The Monocled Mutineer'? (Not a paragon of historical accuracy, admittedly). They have also featured in supernatural stories of the war, 'devolved' to subhuman scavengers.

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Guest Simon Bull
Am I right in thinking that the 'deserter gangs' also turn up in 'The Monocled Mutineer'? (Not a paragon of historical accuracy, admittedly). They have also featured in supernatural stories of the war, 'devolved' to subhuman scavengers.

Pretty sure that you are right Mark - I remember scenes where there were deserter gangs (of which Topliss briefly formed part) in some woods ?near Etaples?

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The3re's also mention of gangs around Etaples in the 'Battle Picture Weekly' comic strip 'Charleys War' - and before you dismiss it out of hand, the script was heavily researched.

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Guys;

Reading the memoirs of the US General Bullard, the Yanks had a serious problem with deserters, and finally he found he had to go into action with a solid cordon of MPs behind the front-line units. But they did not hang about the battlefields, sensibly they headed off to Paris and joined the underworld, leading to French protests to the Americans. They, of course, were left behind when the Yanks saided back to the US.

Must be a movie in there somewhere.

Bob Lembke

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  • 1 year later...

Just acquired a copy of A Very Man, edited by Gresley Clarkson, comprising the wartime letters of Donald Drummond Clarkson of the Australian Imperial Force. In August 1918 he was based at Fovant Camp, near Salisbury, from where he wrote home:

"Things have been very hot here lately, there is a band of regular outlaws about here and they can't get them. They reckon they are about, hiding in the woods all day and they come out at night in a lonely place.

One of the fellows ... said the night before that two fellows at his camp had been killed - they had sandbagged them and cracked their skulls.

... the Colonel told us all about it and asked us to help in any way we could to keep order or to try to assist in catching them as they were giving a very bad name to the Australians.

I expect they are chaps that were absolute bad eggs in Australia and probably had to get out of it for their own health... none of us care about being out late at night on our own. There have been about a dozen cases of sandbagging in the last month."

Moonraker

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So there were deserter gangs roaming about Blighty as well! Another intriguing anecdote but unfortunately Clarkson's account does bear some of the classic hallmarks of what are now known as 'FOAFS' ('Friend of a friend stories). An unnamed bloke tells him that somewhere else these marauders are attacking, so he has no direct experience himself, although his Colonel clearly believes the story. It would be interesting if there was any official record of all this. It is amazing how such stories can gain widespread credence.

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So there were deserter gangs roaming about Blighty as well! Another intriguing anecdote but unfortunately Clarkson's account does bear some of the classic hallmarks of what are now known as 'FOAFS' ('Friend of a friend stories). An unnamed bloke tells him that somewhere else these marauders are attacking, so he has no direct experience himself, although his Colonel clearly believes the story. It would be interesting if there was any official record of all this. It is amazing how such stories can gain widespread credence.

Mark: I know what you mean. My own Wiltshire researches have come up with other FOAFs: the RFC's wish to demolish Stonehenge because it was a hazard to aircraft at the eponymous airfield; stories of spies; and the allegedly-stroppy Welsh battalion that apparently had to be marched away from Codford Camp in 1914. I'm attaching another version of the story of the "Fovant deserter gangs", taken from the 1984 edition of the Fovant Badges Society booklet.

post-6017-1181828998.jpg

The deserters "kidnapping" two children and treating them like kings does rather smack of an adventure story for the under-12s. But I can well believe that in 1919 some Australians, fed up with waiting to go home and with military discipline, decided to rough it in the delightful countryside around Fovant. But Clarkson's story is pre-Armistice. I don't think that the colonel would have addressed a parade about the problem if there hadn't one. I can well believe that Clarkson's version was an embellished one, but suspect there was some truth to it - perhaps three or four Australians had got into trouble and decided to hide from the authorities.

I've done a very quick glance through the War Graves registers for the churchyards close to Fovant and didn't spot any deaths that matched the dates indicated by Clarkson. I'll do it more thoroughly when time permits.

Moonraker

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Further to bandit gangs in Fovant Woods....there is a local story about an old chap living in an isolated cottage in the woods who used to take his horse into the kitchen at night ' in case those Aussies ate him' which I took to be the usual county man's response to unusual things happening in his part of a formally ordered world. Then I too read Clarkson's letters about the subject. I realise this also is a FOAF story and does not constitute proof but I am at this very time trawling thru the Salisbury newspapers of the time to see if there is a mention of this incident. If I find anything I will let you all know. mamck

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I've done a very quick glance through the War Graves registers for the churchyards close to Fovant and didn't spot any deaths that matched the dates indicated by Clarkson. I'll do it more thoroughly when time permits.

Moonraker

I've now done a more thorough check of the War Graves Register for Wiltshire and one or two just-about-possible soldiers' records at the AWM, but found nothing to support Clarkson's FOAF story.

(I got sidetracked when I spotted a couple of Australian soldiers who had died in the Fovant area as late as early 1920; in one case the man had stayed on in the UK to take a course in Edinburgh, but than contracted tuberculosis and was treated at Fovant Military Hospital.)

Mamck: I know that your perusal of the Salisbury newspapers is more thorough than mine was a few years back, but I wonder if you'll find any coverage of incidents involving soldiers unless they resulted in court cases, even in 1919; come to think of it, such cases mainly involved civilians who had stolen from camps or had run brothels, apparently almost exclusively for soldiers. There was a tendency during the war for local newspapers, certainly in Wiltshire, to play down bad behaviour by soldiers, even in late 1914 when there was little or no censorship. But you may come across some icryptic comments, about unexplained thefts, for example - in which I shall be very interested.

Moonraker

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I am finding this a very interesting thread because FOAFs or 'Urban legends' are notoriously difficult to pin down. From my brief researches into a couple of them the main problems are 1.) Some local and national press reports which appear to back up the story turn out to be FOAFs themselves, inserted by a desperate journalist on a slow news day to use up column inches, and based on his recollections of what that chap in the pub told him yesterday. As several books on urban legends make clear stories such as the famous 'hairy-handed hitchhiker' or the comic 'car trouble' regularly turn up in the media in various guises. 2.) 'Mr Hone's First Law of inventors, quotes, slang and in fact most things' applies to FOAFS: You can always find an earlier example.

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A bit like looking for a needle in a haystack. One could look at all the Court Martials listed in the AWM, for desertion, where they took place, and when.

Now, that would take alot of time and effort, and money, as they have not been digitalised, but it would give you an insight into the question, assuming the deserters were caught. ;)

Cheers

Kim

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One of the fellows ... said the night before that two fellows at his camp had been killed - they had sandbagged them and cracked their skulls... the Colonel told us all about it and asked us to help in any way we could to keep order or to try to assist in catching them as they were giving a very bad name to the Australians.... There have been about a dozen cases of sandbagging in the last month."

Moonraker

Mamck has just sent me a copy of a Fovant resident's recollections of the Great War. These note that after the Australians arrived in the camp "the dread word sand-bagging began to be heard in every-day conversation". A bag with a small amount of sand could be used to stun someone without permanent after-effects, apart from the rifling of his pockets. Occasionally the attack would prove fatal, the memoirs said.

Notwithstanding my remark to Mamck of June 15, above, I would have thought that civilian deaths would have been reported in the local paper, and I can't recall any such cases from my skim through the Salisbury press for 1916-19. Deaths to fellow-soldiers might have been hushed up, but there might be some reference in the victims' records. But I'm not inclined to work through the records of all the Australian soldiers who are buried locally.

Moonraker

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  • 12 years later...
On 02/01/2006 at 22:50, Andrew P said:

Hi Mark

I've read an account at the Australian War Memorial of an Australian officer who near the end of the war was given the task with a group of men of his 4th brigade to flush out these mixed group of British & Australian deserters, I believe around October/Nov 1918.

They were called upon to surround a certain area where these deserters were known to operate and to capture them. In his account the officer mentioned that one of the deserters was killed while resisting.

Regards

Andrew


Hey Andrew, I know this thread is from a while ago, but do you possibly have any more information about this source? I'd love to read it.

Thanks,

Ashleigh

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