Rattling skeletons in the family closet


The Third Battle of Ypres/Passchendaele in 1917

One of the advantages of blogging for almost 4 years (as I have done for my sins), is that you can occasionally get away with brazenly recycling old posts that have become lost in the dim recesses of the blog archive files.

This republication effort was prompted by reading a wonderfully nostalgic post by Gummo Trotsky about  salvaged curios and detritus of an old man’s life.   My original post, back in 2003, was prompted by my mother’s rummaging through old family documents and finding military records about the WWI war service of her father and his brothers.   Maybe recycling it just after Anzac Day could even be justified as fitting.   Incidentally, Gummo and David Tiley both have superb Anzac Day posts (published on time – unlike this one which is three days late – I blame the cyclone that didn’t come).

My passing mention of the Anzac myth in a post earlier today has triggered a train of thought I can only quench (derail?) by writing. It’s perhaps the most powerful aspect of Australian heritage and tradition, its effects flowing down through Australian society to the present day. The Anzac myth is especially potent in my own family, where the echoes are felt even now.

Anzac heroism was a very real phenomenon, but Australian forces also exhibited their fair share of cowardice as well, something the national mythology has airbrushed away until quite recently. The convenient failure of popular history to deal other than in passing with the bombing of Darwin and the mass desertion that followed the first huge raid is a case in point, but World War 1 provides the example that impacts my own family most directly.
My maternal grandfather Denis Cadigan was one of five children who were orphaned when grand-dad was 10. Grand-dad and his brothers Cornelius and Andrew were sent to Glebe Boys’ Home in Sydney’s inner suburbs, while their sisters Martha and Kitty went to a girls’ home nearby. All three brothers enlisted in the First AIF as soon as they were old enough (in fact grand-dad, the youngest brother, lied about his age to enlist early), and were sent to France to fight in 1915-16.

The eldest brother, Uncle Cornelius (“Con”) , endured perhaps the heaviest fighting, eventually going AWOL for a week or so. The medical and military reports from the time, copies of which my mother recently obtained, speak powerfully of a man who had simply cracked under the unimaginable pressure of mud and death of trench warfare. Today we’d recognise an acute case of post-traumatic stress disorder and he’d be retired and hospitalised. Instead, he was branded a deserter and sentenced to 3 months imprisonment.Returned to the front lines, Uncle Con soon afterwards participated in a large-scale mutiny of Australian forces, and was again tried, this time for mutiny as well as desertion, along with many others. He was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, and served just over a year. However, once the war ended his sentence (along with those of his fellow mutineers) was commuted and he was shipped back to Australia, returning in the same convoy as his 2 brothers.

On their way back to Australia, Con, Andrew and Denis discussed their two sisters. The younger of them, Kitty, was still a minor and still living in the Girls’ Home. The brothers vowed that they would meet at the Girls’ Home on a designated day after their demobilisation, get Kitty out and pool their military severance pay to support her until she could get work and look after herself.

Andrew and Denis arrived at the appointed time, and they duly rescued Kitty. Con never turned up. Grand-dad Denis refused to speak to Con or even acknowledge his existence for almost 30 years afterwards, until my mother insisted on inviting him to her wedding when she married my father a few years after the next world war.

Parts of grand-dad’s subsequent life are recounted here.   Wendy James commented:

Ken, you’ve got about 15 novels there, I reckon. And all best-sellers.
What happened to Kitty & Martha?

I responded:

Both married and lived fairly standard suburban lives in Sydney. When I was a kid Auntie Martha lived in comfortable widowhood in Seaforth not far from where I grew up. I don’t remember Auntie Kitty, but she figures in family yarns because one of her daughters was a woman named Joy Cavill, a lifelong avowed lesbian (before it became trendy) who became a fairly well-known Australian film and TV producer. She was the producer of two of the three series of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. She also wrote and produced a movie about the life of Dawn Fraser (called, unoriginally, Dawn) and wrote a truly appalling movie called The Nickel Queen, which starred Googie Withers, Ed Devereaux and (of all people) John Laws.

Wendy’s right.   I really should write something more substantial about this family history.   I must take a digital recorder with me next time we go to Sydney and sit down with mum to recover more detail from her  densely-populated  memory banks.   I wonder what mutiny Uncle Con participated in?   I vaguely recall grand-dad telling me that he (and possibly Uncle Con too) served at Ypres and Passchendaele.   I Googled and found this Wikipedia article:

The Australian infantry did not have regiments in the British sense, only battalions identified by ordinal number (1st to 60th). Each battalion originated from a geographical region. New South Wales and Victoria, the most populous states, filled their own battalions (and even whole brigades) while the “Outer States” often combined to assemble a battalion. These regional associations remained throughout the war and each battalion developed its own strong regimental identity.

In the manpower crisis following the Third Battle of Ypres, in which the five divisions sustained 38,000 casualties, there were plans to follow the British reorganisation and reduce all brigades from four battalions to three. In the British regimental system this was traumatic enough however the regimental identity survived the disbanding of a single battalion. In the Australian system, disbanding a battalion meant the extinction of the unit. In September 1918, when the call was made to disband eight battalions, there followed a series of “mutinies over disbandment” where the ranks refused to report to their new battalions. In the AIF, mutiny was one of two charges that carried the death penalty, the other being desertion to the enemy. Instead of being charged with mutiny, the instigators were charged as being AWOL and the doomed battalions were eventually permitted to remain together for the forthcoming battle, following which the survivors voluntarily disbanded.

If this was the  relevant mutiny (and I assume there weren’t all that many), I wonder why Uncle Con was convicted of mutiny itself  (as he was; I’ve seen the military records) instead of being treated more leniently like his brother mutineers?   And why he was only sentenced to 15 years imprisonment instead of death?   I must check Mum’s old documents next time we’re in Sydney and see what battalion Con served in.   Maybe I’ll research and write that book yet.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Gummo Trotsky
18 years ago

Was that the mutiny at Etaples featured in The Monocled Mutineer? Just askin’. Muchly chuffed by the use of the words “wonderful” and “excellent” – Ta Ken.

david tiley
18 years ago

Wot Gummo said, of course. When you get on song, those posts are a terrific rush that pull me clean through the words into a rich world beyond.


I was under the impression that the Australians never condemned anyone to death and were unique for that reason.

13 years ago


The wikipedia entry has a number of errors of fact (imagine that!)

There were two sets of AIF mutinies in 1918.

First, the so-called ‘disbandment mutinies’ occurred when eight battalions were ordered to disband and provide reinforcements for other battalions in their brigade. The Battalion was an essential part of their identity. The men of seven of these refused, and for a week or so there was a standoff while the men, under the command of just their NCOs maintained the tightest discipline of possibly any AIF units during the war. Eventually, there was a minor reorganisation within each battalion, and the seven mutinous battalions were permitted to go into battle on the Hindenburg line with their own identity. No man was charged as a result of the disbandment mutiny, as it was seen by General Monash among others as an ‘honourable mutiny’.

The second mutiny involved 1st Battalion. After some particularly nasty fighting, they were in the process of being relieved by another unit when orders came for them to rejoin the line. Many members rebelled at this, and when the Battalion did eventually go back into battle, 89 of its 208 enlisted men had deserted. These men could properly have been charged with mutiny, but Monash had no stomach for the death penalty, and instead determined that they should be charged with AWL. Although perhaps understandable, the 1st Bn mutiny was a more conventional (and therefore dangerous) mutiny, and could not be allowed to spread.

It it likely that your great uncle was a member of 1st Battalion. However, if you have seen a record of conviction for mutiny, he may also have been part of the Etaples mutiny of 1917, which makes sense if he served a year’s imprisonment. Most sentences for non-criminal offences (other than rape, murder etc) were commuted at war’s end.

Hope that helps, four and a bit years after your original post.

11 years ago
Reply to  Charlie

“Uncle Con” in this story is my great grandfather.
He was convicted of mutiny in 1917.
Also, there was no sister Martha or brother Andrew. If you obtain the youngest brothers birth certificate you will see this.
If you read ALL of the war records they returned to Australia a couple of years apart.