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Gallipoli - chaos, then closure for loved ones

Red Cross helped families in their desperate search for news from Gallipoli

Monday April 28, 2014


Seven News reporter Chris Bath was in Gallipoli this year ahead of ANZAC Day.   She filed this moving story about the Red Cross tracing service that helped families learn the fate of their soldiers fighting on the shores of Gallipoli.

See Seven News story

Well away from the utter chaos on World War One battlefields, tens of thousands of Australian families waited anxiously for any news of their loved ones.

When the military could not give them answers they turned to the Red Cross Tracing Service, which was so successful that it still exists.

Lance Reginald Alderson was just 19 when he arrived in the first wave of Australians to land at Gallipoli.

Just over a week later, he was dead. But his family didn't know for more than a year.

Historian Professor Melanie Opphenheimer says the military has no chance of keeping track of the wounded.

"The first report they got was in June -which was a month after this happened, saying that he was wounded and that he was in a hospital somewhere in Egypt and they'd keep the family posted," she said.

"Lance's father wrote to the Red Cross and said 'I want to know what happened to my son. The military has told me this, but I want confirmation. It has been five or six months. What's happened to him?'."

It was Vera Deakin who helped him find out.

At just 24 she set up the Red Cross Tracing Service for Australia.

Her daughter, Judith Harley, said, "The lynchpin of the organisation was the volunteers in the office of the tracing service, and they had searchers in the field.

"They had men, Red Cross uniform who go and talk to men who were in hospital. They go and talk to men who were in the camps - they go and talk to anyone."

Lance's father wrote letters to the Red Cross to try to find out what happened to his son.

At some point in that first week Lance landed at Anzac Cove.

It would have been chaos, with dead and wounded men everywhere and sniper fire from the hills. The military simply could not keep track of what was happening to the diggers.

What the Red Cross tracing service managed to find out was that Lance did make it up there, but on May 2 he was shot, brought back down to the beach by two of his mates and ended up on a hospital ship.

These ships cared for thousands of our troops and among the crews on board were around 200 Australian nurses.

Professor Opphenheimer added: "The Anzac Story always focuses on those who were on the peninsula, and because they nurses weren't and because the Red Cross wasn't - officially, they always tend to get omitted in my view and yet I think they're critical to the Anzac story."

Perhaps they are just as critical as the men - like Sergeant Lancelot Reginald Alderson fighting on the beaches.

Lance is remembered at the Lone Pine memorial, with no grave.

There is a name on the wall, because like so many men who died onboard hospital ships, he was buried at sea.

Without the Red Cross Tracing Service, we may still be wondering what happened to him.