John Volkoff: A return from oblivion

October 16, 2016

John Volkoff, a 30-year-old carpenter from Russia, was one of the thousand Russian Anzacs who fought for Australia in the First World War.

The records of his service kept in the Australian archives are brief:

2 August 1915 Joined battalion in Gallipoli

8 August 1915 Killed in action in Gallipoli

However hard Volkoff tried to convey his father’s address on the enlistment form, the Australian military did not manage to crack this brain teaser and inform his family in Russia about his death. The address in the service records was recorded as follows: ‘Weetsk, Pockesnky, Erask, Sergensky, Small, Uhtunose’. It was a bibliographer from Viatka who suggested I decipher it as Viatka province, Iaransk, Serdezh, pochinok Malyi Iukhtunur.

Viatka province, in the heart of Russian forests in the northern reaches of the central Volga River, was famous for its carpenters, and Volkoff, like many of his countrymen, probably moved to Siberia to build the Trans-Siberian railway. In December 1911, Volkoff and another fifty Russians, many of whom were carpenters as well, sailed to Australia via Dairen and Nagasaki on the Japanese boat Nikko Maru. They landed in Brisbane on 8 January 1912 and newspaper reporter commented ‘The new comers had the appearance of being sturdy and healthy people. They are described as agriculturists and artisans, who will endeavour to enter into rural life in Queensland. They are mostly from Harbin’. In 1912 Volkoff is mentioned in the Russian newspaper Echo of Australia, published in Brisbane, as a cane cutter on the Linwood plantation near Bundaberg.

Volkoff enlisted in the AIF on 5 April 1915 in Townsville with another Russian from Siberia, Gregory Smagin. Strong and nearly 6 feet tall, he was readily accepted in the AIF without naturalisation. Two months later he sailed to Gallipoli with a group of seven other Russians from northern Queensland, landing there with the 6th reinforcements to the 15th Battalion. A few days after joining the battalion he was killed at the battle for Lone Pine.

His name is engraved in the memorial panels at Gallipoli and the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, but otherwise he seems to have disappeared without a trace. But luckily the digital age brings people and records together, and some materials about John Volkoff have been uncovered. First Kim Phillips, a Gallipoli historian, found John’s photo, published in Sydney Mail after his death. Then an interesting memoir came to my attention. It was written by Captain C.E.W. Bean, the official reporter with the AIF, who would later write his famous multi-volume Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918. He recorded an episode witnessed by his friend during the August fighting (Bean himself was wounded but refused to be evacuated from Gallipoli during the battle.)

According to this report, the friend ‘had noticed a man of the Fourth Australian Brigade making his way, apparently alone, up towards the head of a valley where Turks were fairly thick. Two Turks in particular were visible there, and a few hours later my friend, in passing the same place, went back to see how that duel had ended. He found the Australian, but he was dead. He had been shot through the head, but in the last few moments of consciousness he had apparently remembered that he had no identity disc upon him. My friend searched for the disc and the pay book, but could find none, but in the dead man’s hand was a scrap of paper, and on it was written a Russian name, Slavoff, I think, or something like it. It was the name of a private who enlisted in Melbourne. His brain had served him to make that record before his senses failed.’

There was no Slavoff enlisted in Melbourne or anywhere in Australia and no other Russian-born man with a Slavonic surname was killed during the August battle, so there are all grounds to believe that ‘Slavoff’, whose last exploit was witnessed by Bean’s friend, was in fact John Volkoff.

His family in Malyi Iukhtunur was never found and the village where he was born has long been wiped from the map of Russia, but the memory of Volkoff, a Russian Anzac fallen in Gallipoli, has not been lost.

Pulpe, Cromer, Kalinovsky, Mauchin, Samaroff

October 16, 2016

Charles Martin Pulpe

  • Charles Martin Pulpe from Riga in Latvia came to Australia in 1905 and worked as a fisherman in South Australia and then as a miner in Broken Hill.
  • Enlisting in the AIF in Sydney, he was allocated to the 1st Pioneer Battalion, but deserted six weeks later. When apprehended in 1918 and court martialled, he explained that he did not want to be a soldier. He was sentenced to 140 days of hard labour and discharged.
  • After the war he worked as a labourer in New South Wales and Queensland, constantly traveling in search of employment.

Samuel Cromer

  • Samuel Cromer, a Jewish man from Riga, by the time of his enlistment was working as a tailor in Geraldton in Western Australia.
  • Enlisting in Geraldton, he arrived with the reinforcements to the 27th Battalion to England and absented himself.
  • He was never found, and was discharged as an illegal absentee.

William Kalinovsky

  • William Kalinovsky came from Zhagare in Lithuania. He emigrated to the USA and in Chicago mastered the skill of tailoring and later moved to Australia. By the time of his enlistment in the AIF he worked in Cloncurry, Queensland, as a tailor’s cutter.
  • He served with the 21st Machine Gun Company on the Western Front, attaining the rank of lance corporal.
  • After the end of the war he got some professional training in a clothing factory and cutting academy in England. Returning to Australia he married an Australian girl, Clarisse McFeeters, in Broken Hill, and worked as a tailor.

J. Mauchin

  • J. Mauchin enlisted in the AIF in New South Wales. His service records have not been found.

A. A. Samaroff

  • A. A. Samaroff, a Russian, also enlisted in New South Wales, and his service records are not found.

Lominoga, Stepanoff, Mikkonen, Kekoff, Nelson

October 7, 2016

Matthew George Lominoga

  • Matthew George Lominoga, a Russian from Astrakhan, arrived in Brisbane from the Russian Far East with his parents and worked as a motorcar driver. In 1915 he married an Australian girl, Phyllis Ignatius, and had a son born in 1916.
  • Nevertheless he enlisted in the AIF and served with a transport company on the Western Front as a driver.
  • Returning after the war to his family, he worked as a motorcar proprietor, but later changed his profession, becoming a dancing master and the head of a dancing school.

Nicholas Stepanoff

  • Nicholas Michael Stepanoff also came to Australia with his parents and siblings in 1911 from the Russian Far East. They settled in Brisbane, where his parents ran a boarding house for Russians; the family was at the core of the Russian community in Brisbane. Like Lominoga, Stepanoff became a driver and a mechanic.
  • Enlisting in the AIF together with Lominoga, Stepanoff also served in the transport units on the Western Front as a driver. In September 1917 he was gassed, but continued to serve to the end of the war.
  • He was still in Europe when the house of his parents in Brisbane became the center of a pogrom unleashed by returned servicemen after the Russian participation in the Red Flag Riots in Brisbane. In 1921 his family returned to Soviet Russia, but Nicholas stayed in Harbin, where he married and worked as a bookkeeper. His naturalisation was revoked in 1930 and he managed to return to Australia only in the 1940s, when he reapplied for naturalisation.

Johan Mikkonen

  • Johan Mikkonen, a Finnish seaman from Uleaborg, enlisted in the AIF in Melbourne.
  • He served in the 37th Battalion, but deserted in 1917 and disappears from the records.

Michael Kekoff

  • Michael Kekoff, an Ossetian from Khristanovskoe in the Northern Caucasus, worked in Grafton as a labourer.
  • Enlisting in the AIF in Sydney, he served with the 45th Battalion on the Western Front. In June 1917 he was killed at Messines in Belgium.
  • His family in Ossetia was never found.

Hugo Nelson

  • Hugo Nelson, a Finn from Hango, was a blacksmith by trade, but came to Australia most likely as a seaman.
  • Enlisting in the AIF in Sydney, he served with the 3rd Pioneer Battalion on the Western Front. In May 1918 he was gassed and in September 1918 was wounded in the elbow.
  • Returning to Australia, he continued working as a seaman.