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Thursday 14 July, 2016
Russian Anzacs have formed an important page in Australian WWI history. 1037 servicemen in the 1st AIF were born in the Russian Empire and 804 among them were on active service overseas. As a whole they constituted the most numerous non Anglo-Celtic national group in the AIF, ranking immediately after those born in the UK, Ireland, and New Zealand.
The case of South Australia allows us to closely explore the ethnic tapestry of this national cohort. Among the 135 South Australian enlistees, 53 were from the Baltic provinces of the Russian Empire (mostly present day Estonia and Latvia) and 46 were from Finland. The number of Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians, and Poles) and Russianised Germans was 17; seven men were Jewish; seven were Ossetian. Three more Germans were born in Poland and there were certainly a number of people with German ancestry among enlistees from the Baltic provinces; a few enlisted as Russian-born although they had been born in other European countries.
The peculiarities of this ethnic distribution closely correlate with South Australia’s employment opportunities in these years. Natives from Russian Baltic provinces and Finland often left their homelands to work as seafarers in their youth. Over a hundred enlistees came to South Australia as seamen: descriptions of their tattoos in their attestation papers and the types of the ships on which they arrived allow us to distinguish their seafaring pasts. Many continued working in coastal shipping or moved inland in search of farm work; some found employment at the Port Pirie smelters. In the early 1910s these smelters also became a major destination of Ossetian mountaineers from the Caucasus, whose community there numbered several hundred.
One of the reasons for the mass enlistment of Russian émigrés was the pressure exerted by the Russian government, which demanded the conscription of all its subjects overseas. These regulations were introduced in January 1916, but half of South Australia’s Russians enlisted before that date for various other reasons. Some, like Alex Hiltunen from Port Elliot, felt their attachment to their new home: ‘Australians have befriended me, Australia is now in trouble; it is my duty to help her’. Others joined together with their mates or due to unemployment. Their tough seafaring backgrounds made South Australian Russians perfect Army material. 114 out of the 135 enlistees served overseas, including 36 who fought at Gallipoli; 24 among them fell in the battles at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. The Russians were especially numerous in the 10th, 27th, and 32nd battalions, as well as the 5th Pioneer Battalion.
But the stories of these Anzacs are important not only because of their contribution to the war effort. Through their example we can see how the Anzac legend worked in application to someone who was ‘different’, had little English, or spoke with an accent; how mateship was forged in battles, how suspicions ruined lives. Their stories are also stories of the unsung heroes of the war – the Australian women, those landladies who sent parcels to their Russian boys and Australian girls and widows who fearlessly married these strangers after the war, healing not only their physical wounds, but also their emotional scars. Their stories are also a tribute to South Australian communities, which raised money for monuments commemorating people with strange names, such as Brenka or Hiltunen, and opening their hearts to the ‘Russians’ in their midst.
The stories of the thousand Russian Anzacs are available on the author’s website http://russiananzacs.net/; it has links to archival documents, newspaper articles, and portraits of the Anzacs. The map http://russiananzacs.net/map shows the names of Anzacs associated with different places in South Australia.
Lest we forget.