Monday, 7 April 2014

Deserters and the pain they left behind

So much of our focus when we think of war is on war heroes.
We remember the men and women who died and in our collective memory they all died heroic deaths, although, as I have shown in this blog, many died by accident, through illness, quirks of fate or as the result of wounds they received before they’d even had a chance to fight.
We remember the men and women who returned with terrible injuries, physical and psychological, although we don’t always know how to deal with them when they do return.
We remember those who were prisoners of war and we write stories and make movies about their (often horrendous) experiences.
We demonise the enemy as though that somehow that justifies the often unjustifiable acts of our own soldiers, for no one wants to think of their own side as being less than honourable.
We rarely remember the men who spent long periods in prison as a result of their criminal actions while on active service.
We prefer not to think about the men who spent most of their war service being treated for venereal disease.
We rarely speak of soldiers who deserted. Nor do we think of the extraordinary burden their desertion placed on their families.

One such man was 60914 Private William Dunne, also known as William Dunn, Louis Jean Dunne and 2647 Louis Jean Deschamps. His attestation papers run to 124 pages, reflecting the confusion caused by his enlistments and re-enlistments under a variety of names.

Born and bred in Coburg, Dunne was a 19 year old married broom maker living at ‘Kinvarra’, 46 Reynards Street when he enlisted at Coburg in December 1917. He was discharged on 14 March 1918 on account of a hernia that was identified on the morning of embarkation. A week later he re-enlisted at Fitzroy as William Deschamps (his mother’s maiden name), claiming to be from Newcastle, NSW and a motor mechanic. It was soon discovered that he was, in fact, William Dunne, husband of Veronica Dunne. Despite his young age, Dunne had married an even younger Veronica Baylis in 1917. One child, William, was born in 1918, around the time his father left for the war. Another, Lawrence died as an infant in Coburg in 1919.
Dunne embarked for England on the Barambah on 31 August 1918, but did not see active service on account of the Armistice. He deserted on 12 December 1918 and was not seen again.
On 26 March 1919, his allotment to his dependents ceased on account of his desertion, so Veronica Dunne not only had to bear the shame of a husband who was a deserter and endure the death of her infant son Lawrence, but through his actions, her husband had left her to raise their son William without financial support. In 1920, she applied for a living allowance but this was not allowed because he was still illegally absent. 

Veronica Dunne must have found work at Lincoln Knitting Mills in Gaffney Street, Coburg, because in a letter written in 1924 from the Mills’ Silk Rooms she says that he deserted her six years before and she planned to divorce him.

When her son William, a textile worker (a hosiery topper, so he possibly worked at Lincoln Mills), enlisted in World War Two in January 1941 she is recorded as Mrs Veronica Stephens of Officedale, via Officer. William married while in the army, served in New Guinea, survived the war but died in 1947 aged only 29.
Whatever became of William Dunne is a mystery and Veronica Dunne was to suffer the loss of her son soon after another war. But at least the official records have revealed that she did remarry and hopefully she found happiness in this second marriage. She died in Parkville in 1966 aged only 65.


  1. I reckon it is a bit of a syndrome. Men who enlist, desert and enlist again. Another fellow who followed this path was a fellow called George Abbot. Rod Martin researched his story, and wonders if he was in fact killed in action, or merely disappeared again?

  2. Thanks for the comment. I've found others from Coburg but this is the only story where I've got any real sense of the impact on the families at home. And then, in some cases, I've found evidence of men listed as deserters when they were actually on the ship taking them to the war. Seems as though the authorities had a bit of trouble keeping track of everyone. I'm not surprised really.