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.