James was in big trouble. He knew it, the Army officials knew it. Impersonating an Anzac was a serious offence, and in 1918, one that could result in serious consequences.
To the officials, it all seemed quite cut-and-dried. This ‘imposter’ had certainly been out and about in military uniform – Anzac rosette on display, and four stripes on the arm indicating four years’ service.
When approached and questioned, he gave his name as Private James McGee – a returned soldier who according to military records, didn’t exist.
But James was a soldier in the Australian Imperial Forces, having enlisted at the age of 17. He served in Egypt, Gallipoli and Lemnos, and fought alongside his fellow men in the trenches. He did exist.
Just not under that name; James McGee. It was his birth name, a name he hadn’t used in years…
…until that day in 1918, when James panicked. He had a secret that was under threat of being discovered – if they knew who he really was, James faced being discharged. Faced being rejected.
The first time James was discharged, he was deemed medically unfit.
Night terrors, sweating and palpitations were not uncommon for those exposed to the horror and drudgery of their conditions and duty while on active service – a terrible (and understandable) effect of war. But sadly, for James these things were not new. Along with bed wetting, they had been a constant, frequent companion in life since childhood. Possibly a medical condition, but perhaps more-so as a result of his upbringing.
Since his time in Egypt and Gallipoli however, things had gotten progressively worse – the night terrors in particular increased in severity as the months passed. With the addition of heart pains and weight loss, his future was decided. His service ended in 1916.
For a time.
Not to be deterred, James tried again. This time falsifying his details and advising that he had not served previously (nor had ever been declared unfit). He was soon found out, however, and discharged once more.
Re-enlisting for home duties a few months later, James began yet another stint in the armed forces, only to be discharged again – his services ‘no longer required.’
Taking a different tact, he applied to the 3rd District Guard in Victoria and enlisted again. It was during this time – at the age of 21 – James ‘McGee’ stood facing charges of being a Bogus Anzac.
As James awaited his fate, it’s easy to wonder what may have been going through his mind. Perhaps he thought of his father, who took him and his younger siblings from Tasmania to Victoria when he was only seven…and then abandoned them to fend for themselves. Perhaps he even thought of the day they were discovered in terrible conditions, charged as State wards, and handed over to the Department for Neglected Children.
It’s possible he also thought of his mother, who knew where he was, but during the 10 years he was in state care, never came to get him back.
More likely though, he thought of his ‘secret’ – the one he was trying to protect. That he, Private James Adams, had just been released from a short stint in prison, charged with presenting a false cheque. Faced with the possibility that he may be found out and discharged – again – giving a ‘false’ name was a risk he appeared to have been willing to take.
Why was the military so important to James? For a young man who never knew a real home, and who possibly never felt like he belonged, the Army may have provided just that. A sense of being needed, useful…even important. Something young James perhaps never felt. The sense of belonging, of contributing, of mateship and comradery, is possibly the reason why every time he was discharged, he simply re-enlisted – clawing his way back into the fold again and again.
Realising that this time things were more serious – that he could be discharged and sent to prison – James pleaded his case in a letter. Along with outlining his service, he explained why he panicked and gave a false name. He was not a “bogus Anzac” – he just wanted to keep his mistake hidden. To keep his good character intact.
“…I was granted leave to proceed to Korumburra and was arrested there for False Pretences and was sentenced to 3 months Hard Labour. That was my only reason for denying my previous service when I was recognised by the Corporal who checked my attestation. I am fit in every way and am anxious to wipe out the only stain on my character by going away to the front. I am sorry for causing everybody so much trouble but I did not want anybody to know that I was in prison. I have always had to battle around for myself. My mother has never looked after me. I have been in the care of the Neglected Children’s Dept. I ask to be allowed to soldier and if so allowed I am prepared to go away with first Reinforcements. I want to get my good character back. James Adams.”
The authorities appear to have understood – or perhaps simply needed more soldiers on the front. Regardless, James Robert Henry Adams, alias McGee, had made it back in once more.
Before he could commence active service, the war ended. Returning to Australia, James now faced a different future. Many men in his position found other employment, married, and raised families. But sadly for James, he chose a different path.
James didn’t fall on the battlefields of Gallipoli like so many of our ancestors, nor did he succumb to the illnesses prevalent in Lemnos. But he was there in the trenches, there in battle, there during the horror, death and sacrifice. He was an Anzac, and he did fall. Turning to a life of crime when the war was over, he fell further still.
James Adams died at the age of 37 in Geelong Gaol. He never married or had children, nor did he reunite with his mother in Tasmania. Mrs Adams had moved on. No doubt she had her reasons, and times were certainly different back in the early 1900s, but my heart still goes out to James, who struggled all his life to find a place to belong. To the boy who since the age of seven ‘battled around for himself’ until later finding that place as a soldier.