Families of men reported Missing in Action, were sent minimal information about the soldiers’ fate. If the Red Cross couldn’t help, their only recourse was to write to the Australian Imperial Forces. These letters were often tear stained, desperate, and some plain angry. The replies they received were a standardised answer containing no comfort.
Private John Augustus “Gus” Olston, was a 37-year-old coal lumper, husband and father of two young children, whose family could be traced in The Rocks back to 1807. Gus went Missing in Action on 19 July 1916 after the Battle of Fromelles. His wife, Mary, was informed in September and she wrote to the Army hoping that there was a mix up with his battalion.
“I do wish you would be so kind as to give me a little information about my husband Pt JA Olston No 4570 who was reported missing since 19th July last. On the 1st Sep we received a cable from the military saying he was missing from the 54th Batt on the 19th July. I received a letter from him dated four days before reported missing saying then he was still in the 59th, so if you would kindly look up the records of both Batt. Hoping in trust you will be able to trace him and would you be so kind to let me know at your earliest convenience as I am very anxious and upset.”
Mary wrote again and again, without success. A friend, who had enlisted with Gus, wrote to his mother that Gus had been killed at Fromelles. This prompted Mary to write again. A court of inquiry was held in August 1917, which ruled that Gus had been Killed in Action. 16 months after Gus’ death, Mary was finally informed. She had struggled to feed the family because she could not get a widow’s pension as an official declaration of death was needed, and his pay had stopped months before.
Gus’s sister also wrote during the war, and again after, in the hope that Gus was found unidentified in an asylum. This had occurred with other soldiers well into the 1920s, giving false hope and renewed anguish to those whose men were reported missing.
Lest we Forget