Westgarthtown & WWI





Gumleaf Germans

Westgarththtown during WW1

by Robert Wuchatsch


My father, Norman Wuchatsch, was a thoughtful, hardworking and cheerful man. Mention of World War 1, however, wiped the smile from his face. The war began when he was 12 and he said the way his family and others from Westgarthtown were treated was disgraceful. For this reason, when I researched my 1985 book about Westgarthtown, I paid particular attention to events there during World War 1. My father was right.

I find it difficult to disguise my contempt for the shameful behaviour of some ‘Britishers’ during World War 1 toward their fellow Australians. While German-Australian soldiers from Westgarthtown were fighting overseas, outrageous and unsubstantiated accusations were being peddled as fact against their families at home. Some ‘Britishers’, who couldn’t get to the war themselves, brought it here, presumably to make themselves feel relevant and important. These persecutors, whose complaints were described by one victim as ‘a fabrication of falsehoods from beginning to end’ succeeded only in making themselves look utterly pathetic.

A century later, it is possible some people will consider this sorry chapter of the war best forgotten, not resurrected. They might feel that to tell the story now is somehow disloyal to the memory of the great achievements and sacrifices of Australians during 1914-18. However, in the case of German-Australians, at Westgarthtown and elsewhere, truth was indeed a casualty of war. For this reason, the unjust treatment meted out to them should be exposed, for all to see.


Westgarthtown, now part of the northern Melbourne suburbs of Thomastown and Lalor, was established in March 1850 by Germans from Mecklenburg, Saxony and Silesia. By 1854, its population had grown to over 160, made up mainly of families steadily building farmhouses, barns, stables and walls on their land.

There were also some new arrivals, employed to help the original settlers establish their farms. These Germans, men and women, for whom Westgarthtown served as a migration reception point, were either relatives encouraged to emigrate by families here, or other arrivals in search of shelter and work. They were employed as tradesmen, labourers, farmhands or domestic servants until they were able to travel to the goldfields or had enough money to buy their own land and establish farms or businesses elsewhere in Victoria.

The name Westgarthtown honoured William Westgarth, a prominent Melbourne merchant, politician and historian, however, the German settlement had several prior names. In 1850 it was known as Keelbundora, after the parish in which it was located. In 1851 the name Dry Creek emerged and was used for several years. In 1852 the settlement was also referred to as the German Colony, then in 1855 as Neu Mecklenburg, the name given to the Lutheran School opened that year. This name soon proved unacceptable as the majority of settlers came from other areas of Germany. In 1856 the name Westgarthtown began to be used and quickly predominated. The settlement was sometimes also referred to as Germantown, but this name was primarily used by outsiders, rarely by the residents themselves. Use of this nickname was misleading as there was another town near Geelong officially named Germantown (now Grovedale).

When Westgarth visited in 1857, he found ‘considerable progress in the form of a scattered village, with a little Lutheran church…They seemed delighted to stick to their German speaking, and would not even try to speak English.’ He added ‘Considering the strength of home sickness in the Germans, these settlers paid the best compliment to the country, when they assured their visitors that they had no wish but to live and die in Victoria.’

The Lutheran church at Westgarthtown was erected during 1855/56 and dedicated in November 1856. It also housed the school from 1855–1866. A cemetery had been established in 1850. By the mid-1850s dairying was the economic mainstay, with milk, butter and cheese sold in Melbourne, which had expanded rapidly since the discovery of gold in Victoria in 1851. Vegetables and fruit were also produced. Farms were largely self-sufficient.

World War 1

On 4 August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany. This meant Australia was also at war. For ‘Germans’ in Australia, including those of German descent, life would never be quite the same again. Their former homeland was now the enemy and Australia had become a country of Britishers and non-Britishers.

When World War 1 began, Westgarthtown was 64 years old and its residents more or less identical to their British neighbours. The majority were dairy farmers, as were most of the Shire of Epping’s residents. Their lives, needs and aspirations were similar, as was their language, the use of German having effectively ceased with the deaths of the original settlers. Westgarthtown’s children all attended Thomastown State School and many attended Sunday School at Thomastown’s Methodist Church.  Westgarthtown had merged with Thomastown and the name was used only to distinguish between the two churches and cemeteries.

Michael Zimmer had served on the former Darebin Shire Council during the 1880s and Albert Wuchatsch had been elected to the Shire of Epping in January 1914. Ernst Schultz and his son Charles, along with George Falk, John Wuchatsch Jr and Michael Zimmer had all been members of the local School’s Board of Advice. Relations were good and there were few outward indications of the tensions soon to arise between the two groups, although closer inspection would have revealed minor differences, such as names and religion. These differences soon became battle lines.

Westgarthtown: The Home Front

On 12 September 1913, Andreas and Alwine Kreitling celebrated their golden wedding anniversary at their home, now known as Maltzahn’s Farmhouse. They had married fifty years earlier at the Trinity Lutheran Church, East Melbourne. More than fifty people sat down to the celebratory meal, including one son and his family who had travelled from Western Australia. The celebrations continued into the evening, when neighbours joined the festivities and ‘a most enjoyable time was spent by all in singing, music and dancing, which were kept up till the small hours of the following morning.’ Had the Kreitlings’ golden wedding anniversary fallen just twelve months later the day would not have been so carefree.

Initial reactions to the war, by both Britisher and non-Britisher at Thomastown and Epping, were basically harmonious. Few expected the war to last long and Europe was far way. Parties on all sides moved quickly to re-affirm loyalty to the King and the British Empire, through public meetings and statements, by donations to patriotic funds and by enlistment.

Westgarthtown’s pastor from 1867-1914, the Rev. Hermann Herlitz, wrote to the Argus on 13 August 1914 stating:

‘As president, and on behalf of the German Lutheran General Synod of Australia (which comprises provincial synods in Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales, and Queensland), I desire to publically express the faithful loyalty of its pastors and congregations, whether Australian born or naturalized citizens, to the English Throne. We deeply regret that two nations who are so nearly related to each other, by ties of blood and religion, and who could, if working hand in hand, easily command the peace of this world, should be at war. Yet, if it should become necessary, we would be ready to fight in the ranks of our Australian fellow citizens for the defence of this our adopted country; not only because we gratefully acknowledge the privileges of political and religious liberty which we are enjoying under the English Crown; but as Christians also, in obedience to the injunction of the Bible, “Seek ye the peace of the city whither I have carried you, and pray unto the lord for it; for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.’

The Thomastown Lutheran Church at Westgarthtown continued to hold services on a monthly basis throughout the war.

On 5 September 1914, the Preston Leader carried a small article highlighting a generous two-guinea donation to the Ladies Benevolent Society by Carl Oldenburg, the Northcote saddler, for the relief of stress caused by the war. Oldenburg was married to Wilhelmina Karsten of Westgarthtown. The article stated sympathetically that Carl greatly deplored the war, since he was both a very old resident of the district and a naturalized citizen. Many other Germans not naturalized hurriedly applied to do so.

Immediately after the outbreak of war, the Broadmeadows Army Camp was established and its row upon row of tents were clearly visible to the residents of Thomastown, only five kilometres to the east. Troops, both infantry and light horse, trained in the Thomastown area. Early in October the 5th and 6th Battalions fought a mock battle there against the 7th and 8th Battalions. Another battle took place at Thomastown on 1 December in which infantry, light horse and artillery were engaged on each side. At a meeting of the Epping Shire Council shortly after, it was mentioned that soldiers from the camp had recently ‘taken possession’ of Thomastown during exercises. When Cr. Albert Wuchatsch jokingly posed the question ‘Have they bombarded Germantown yet?’ the chamber exploded with laughter. Sensitivities, however, were soon to be sorely tested.

In February 1915, the loyalty of ‘Germans’ at Westgarthtown was brought into question, when an anonymous complaint was lodged against Frederick Siebel who was carting with a horse and dray to the Broadmeadows Army Camp. The complainant claimed the Siebel’s were ‘well to do’ and did not try to hide their sympathy for Germany. It was also claimed ‘there is a town of Germans called Germantown at Thomastown who are all very pro-German and require attention and that there are miles of open channels of water leading to the Preston reservoir that may be poisoned by these people.’

Military intelligence authorities, as a matter of policy, checked out all complaints, usually through the agency of the local police. In this case Constable Henry Woodhouse at Epping reported ‘Siebel…is a native of Thomastown. His father is also but his father was a German. I have never heard of them being in any way disloyal or making disloyal statements.’ Siebel had apparently been employed at the army camp as his father ‘made no lawful claim for the use of and the damage to his property by the troops drilling thereon.’ Woodhouse reiterated that he could find no one who had heard disloyal statements uttered by anyone at Thomastown and added they had all, with one naturalized exception, been born in Australia and had all given freely to the Patriotic Fund.

This was only one of the accusations. Several ‘Germans’ carting for the military camp received similar treatment. Two other local ‘German’ carters complained about were Franz Oscar (Charlie) Bargling, a Swede who had married Augusta Kreitling of Westgarthtown in 1891, and William Zimmer.

William Zimmer, son of Michael and born at Epping, was living at Broadmeadows at the outbreak of war and at one stage held the contract for carting nightsoil from the military camp. Later, after sewerage had been laid on, he carted milk to the camp and at various times donated trees, manure and construction materials. He also made his land available for the grazing of horses and loaned implements for ploughing. Although William Zimmer’s actions appear to have been purely patriotic, complaints against him were regularly received, accusing him of being a traitor and a spy, a profiteer and the holder of jobs that should have gone to Britishers or unionists. At another time, he was accused of possessing two rifles and 2,000 rounds of ammunition, said to have been purchased during a trip to Germany before the war.

Each time police reports stressed the respectability of Zimmer and his brothers. In December 1917, during the second conscription campaign, a ‘true Australian’ woman wrote in support to Prime Minister Hughes and stated:

‘we want to put an end to all disloyalists. I know of a good few myself where I live, all through Germantown, which is now called Thomastown are a great many disloyalists…the man who has the contract for the camp Zimmer…has done well out of it since the war started, it has been a gold mine for him and put him on his feet…when the Government would give the contract to him it is a case of nourishing the enemy.’

In a postscript she added ‘Everything he says is disloyal and against our Minister. Send a detective and then you’ll know who is loyal and who is not.’ The woman also aimed her remarks at William’s brother Charles, of Epping ‘who has been to Germany and is considered a German spy.’

By this time Constable Woodhouse had had enough of the unsubstantiated complaints. Discussing Charles Zimmer he reported:

‘I have made careful enquiries and I have been unable to find anything that would tend to prove that he was disloyal…I am sorry to say that these people who are only too ready to spread reports, are the last to give information to the police. Zimmer bears a good character in the district.’

However, in William Zimmer’s case the complaints bore fruit as the military authorities deemed it prudent to issue instructions that his agricultural implements be returned and no further gifts be accepted. Eight of William and Charles’ relatives, the grandchildren of their aunts Maria (née Zimmer) McLeod/Whyte and Agnes (née Zimmer) Zwar, served with the AIF during World War 1. One was killed in action and another died of illness.

In July 1915, a complaint was made against ‘a German woman named Mrs Wookidge living at German Town in the Epping sub-district.’  She was accused of being ‘very disloyal and openly boasts that she and other Germans hold meetings and discuss the war.’ Constable Woodhouse duly investigated and reported:

‘there is no person named Mrs Wookidge living at Germantown. There is a Miss Wuchatsch residing with her brother [Charles] at Germantown, they are both natives of that place.

I may state that I have made careful inquiries and have been unable to gain any information of secret meetings of any sort being held there.’

Christine Wuchatsch, the subject of the complaint, was aged 52 and had been born at Westgarthtown in 1862. She is remembered as a kindly, stoop shouldered old spinster who seldom ventured out, except for election day, when she apparently voted conservatively. She was one of very few women accused of disloyalty, most victims being men.

It was not only in private or business dealings that allegations of disloyalty were made. Local government matters were not exempt. In August 1916, during the Shire of Whittlesea’s elections, Cr. Albert Wuchatsch was accused of being pro-German. In April 1916 he had been one of 30 councillors of German descent named by Sydney’s Mirror of Australia in its ‘Remarkable List of Huns in the Municipal Councils of Victoria.’

Albert, born at Epping in 1868, had been elected in January 1914. Although his seat was in jeopardy following the 1915 amalgamation of the Shires of Epping and Whittlesea, which reduced the number of councillors from 18 to 12, anti-German sentiment did not help his cause. During the election campaign, Albert took out advertising space in the Preston Leader to refute accusations of disloyalty. He pointed out that his family had lived in the district since 1850; his brother Jim had enlisted; and he had three cousins named Wuchatsch fighting for Australia. However, it was all to no avail and he was defeated.

On 8 September 1916 another newspaper, the Graphic of Australia, questioned Albert’s loyalty to Britain and rejoiced at his defeat. It adapted ‘a well-known couplet’ to include Germany’s floral emblem and stated:

‘You may break and may shatter the vase as you will.
But the scent of the cornflower will hang around still.’

Ironically, in March 1916, the Preston Leader had reported Albert’s support for the Shire of Warragul’s move for the introduction of conscription. It noted Albert’s comments at a monthly Shire of Whittlesea meeting when he stated:

‘He knew any amount of young men who wanted to enlist, but could not do so on account of family objections. Under conscription these men would be available to the country.’

The most public complainant at Epping was John James Naylor, a newly arrived blacksmith from Lexton, who was a member of the Victorian Anti-German League.  On 12 August 1916, the Preston Leader reported on a public meeting held to mark the second anniversary of the war. It noted that when Cr. Wuchatsch rose to speak in favour of a motion:

‘he was greeted by an outburst by Mr. Naylor, who said: “Sit down Germany. John Bull is master here, not the Kaiser…” The chairman (Cr. McCormack) called Mr. Naylor to order, stating that he had known Mr. Wuchatsch all his life, and for one would not believe that he was disloyal, and that the present was no time for such matters as electioneering…But Mr. Naylor continued: “Why the magpies are chirping about his disloyalty from the treetops.” Cr. Wuchatsch told Mr. Naylor that he was liable to be prosecuted for using such language. “Oh, prosecute away,” said Mr Naylor. Mr. Andrews said it was scandalous that Mr. Naylor should accuse any member of the Wuchatsch family of disloyalty. What better expression of loyalty did they require than the fact of Mr. Wuchatsch’s brother, who was present, had enlisted. Cr. Dea also said that Mr. Naylor was not justified in making such statements about Cr. Wuchatsch’s loyalty, as he knew the family better than that.

Ex-Councillor Wuchatsch subsequently took Naylor to court for using insulting words in a public place. Naylor did not deny using the words complained about, proudly stating he intended them to apply to all ‘German’ candidates. He said he did not believe in Wuchatsch’s loyalty on the ground that he associated with ‘Germans’, and was a regular attendant at the Lutheran Church at Thomastown [where Albert was Secretary and Treasurer]. Although fined a nominal ten shillings, with £3/3/- expenses, Naylor must have had some community support as his fine and expenses were immediately paid from an impromptu collection on the court steps.

Although Epping-born Albert Wuchatsch was clearly not a German, Naylor achieved his objective of unseating him from the shire council. Using the same flawed logic, Albert could have accused Naylor of being a convict as John Naylor, his grandfather, was transported from England to Tasmania during the 1830s.

There also seems to have been some personal rivalry between Naylor and Wuchatsch. Both had written patriotic works about the war and been granted copyright for them. Naylor had written a song entitled ‘The Lump on my Leg’ in December 1915 and Albert wrote the poem ‘Our Noble Sons’ in June 1916. Albert also wrote poetry and opinion pieces for the local paper under the penname Kookaburra. Another of Albert’s war poems was ‘The Girl He Left Behind Him’ published in 1918.

A more unfortunate municipal case was that of Michael Zimmer’s former Danish-born employee, Knut Johansen Schou, who was dismissed by the Preston Shire Council in March 1916 for being a ‘German’, the same year in which his son Elias enlisted. A subsequent motion urging Schou’s reinstatement was defeated, only the mover Cr. Allchin and seconder Cr. Warr voting in its favour. Schou’s accuser was local tannery owner, Cr. William Braithwaite. In a florid defence of the Shire’s action, Braithwaite claimed ‘Australia was honey-combed with spies and it is the duty of public bodies to abstain from employing men who have come from enemy countries. Mr Schou was legally a German.’

Schou was clearly not a German, either by birth, or legally. His ancestry was Danish — his certificate of birth and baptism was in Danish - and he was legally an Australian by virtue of his naturalization in 1900. He had arrived in Australia in 1883. But to Braithwaite, described as a patriotic but embittered man who only saw things in black and white, the facts were irrelevant. He sarcastically stated it was to Schou’s credit he did not want to be thought of as a German but he had no doubt he was. Braithwaite seems not to have been man enough to admit his error.

On 27 September 1916, shortly after his battle with Albert Wuchatsch, Naylor took aim at another Epping resident, Hugo Umlauft. The local baker, Umlauft, who was born in Saxony in 1878, had only arrived in Australia in 1908, after previously living in London and New York. He married Bertha Hudaff in Melbourne in 1911, moved to Epping in 1912 and had two sons. He had been naturalized on 24 August 1914, shortly after the outbreak of war.

Naylor wrote to the Minister of Defence alleging Umlauft:

‘…had a contempt for anything British…he said he would bet…Germany would win…civilisation would go back 400 years if England won…He drives one cart himself & is in touch with all the Germans in the district…Soldiers in France from this district inquire in their letters if Fritz is still here…His premises have been frequently bombarded with stones by boys & youths…There is a feeling throughout the district that he should not be here as he knows too much and is taking the place of a Britisher…’

Naylor’s rambling letter was referred to Constable Woodhouse for comment. On hearing of a complaint against him, Umlauft wrote to the military authorities seeking to learn the nature and source of it. He stated ‘I am absolutely sure never to have made use of these words complained of.’ His request for information was refused. Woodhouse reported there was probably substance in some of the statements, but he could not get anyone to say they had heard disloyal remarks. He noted that Umlauft had served as a ‘Private in the German Artillery’, which was presumably compulsory military service in his youth.

This case illustrates the difficult position faced during World War 1 by recent arrivals from Germany. Although Naylor’s accusations were made without evidence, it is not difficult to imagine Umlauft might have had some sympathies for Germany. One can only wonder, however, what Hugo Umlauft, a man who had travelled, lived and worked in four countries on three continents, must have thought about Naylor’s small mindedness. Naylor’s persecution and goading of German-Australians suggests more about his own personal shortcomings and insecurities than those of his victims. His one redeeming feature was his openness – he did not hide behind nom de plumes like most other persecutors.

Naylor and the Victorian Anti-German League continued their campaign against the Umlauft family. In an attempt to have Hugo Umlauft interned, they tried unsuccessfully in 1917 to induce local residents to make statutory declarations swearing they had heard Umlauft utter disloyal statements. Detective Howard reported he was told by the Victorian Anti-German League that locals ‘state they are in business and there are a number of German inhabitants in the district and if it was known that they made declarations against a countryman of theirs their living would be gone.’

Ironically, Naylor himself appears to have fallen victim to the war, dying in 1919 from influenza probably brought from Europe by returning Australian soldiers.

Notwithstanding this persecution, the military intelligence authorities in Victoria were admirably even-handed, refusing to act against Umlauft without evidence. Constable Woodhouse, scrupulously objective in his reports, also deserves great credit for his work in very difficult circumstances. On Woodhouse’s retirement in 1927, one of the Zimmer brothers chaired the committee formed to thank him for his long and distinguished service to the district.

Following the end of the war in 1918 the Umlauft family went on to become long and respected members of the Epping community and Mrs Umlauft continued to attend the Thomastown Lutheran Church at Westgarthtown for many years. In 1936, after 24 years in business, Hugo sold the bakery and they retired to a new house at Epping. In 1940 he was said to have been treasurer of the German Tivoli Club in Melbourne. A son, Sydney, served in the Australian Army from 1942–47.

A tragic case was that of Carl Christian Johann (Charles) Ziebell. A grandson of Christian and Sophia Ziebell of Westgarthtown, he operated the Britannia Pharmacy at Fitzroy in Melbourne. Charles is said to have been the first chemist in Australia to produce hydrogen peroxide and to have been devastated when a large chemical firm obtained his formula. This, combined with deafness and anti-German feeling, depressed him so much he cut his throat in November 1918, aged 48. At his inquest, Constable Mafferzoni testified:

‘I have known the deceased Charles J. C. Ziebell 22 years here he was a chemist and before the War broke out he was doing good business and was very popular in Fitzroy…shortly after the War broke out his business began to fail and during the last 12 months he [has] done little or no business whatever…he was deaf he could not hear a word, every conversation to him had to be written down.’

Charles’ brother Julius confirmed that ‘he had been boycotted in business since the War broke out and his business fell and he was depressed on that account.’ Charles, however, is said to have been ‘strongly pro-German and had a big picture of the Kaiser in his shop,’ which if correct, would not have helped business. One of Charles’ nephews was Albert Ziebell, who served with the 22nd Infantry Battalion in France and Belgium and Charles’ wife Sophia (née Unmack) Ziebell was the aunt of Harry Unmack, who served with the 4th Light Horse Regiment at Gallipoli. Both were badly wounded and invalided back to Australia.

Charles’ brother Julius Ziebell, a traveller who lived at Hawthorn, had been accused of disloyalty in November 1915 by an anonymous complainant who signed his letter as ‘Intern Them All’. The police reported ‘Ziebell is well known here. He is always well behaved.’ Charles and Julius’ cousin, Charles Bernhard Emil Ziebell, operated a pork butcher’s shop at Windsor named E. Ziebell and Son which was ruined by the war and closed. Carl Oldenburg’s saddlery business at Northcote also suffered, so in 1916, he sold it and retreated to the more tranquil surroundings of Woori Yallock until the war ended.

Carl Oldenburg’s sister-in-law Ernestine’s son Frederick Schmutsch, who attended Thomastown State School as a child and later moved to Western Australia, could not get work in 1916 as members of the Albany Lumpers’ Union refused to work with him because he was German-born. He had arrived in Australia as an infant in 1887. In 1920 he changed his surname by deed poll from Schmutsch to Shaw.

Albert Adolph Fiedler, a grandson of Leberecht Fiedler, an original trustee of the Westgarthtown Lutheran Church, had also changed his surname to Fielder during the war.

Even the dead weren’t safe from persecution. Albert Wuchatsch’s uncle August Wuchatsch, who had three sons serving in the AIF, died at Bena in April 1917. Over six months later, The Australian Worker called for the termination of the Victorian country mail delivery contracts held by August and eight other people with German sounding names.

An amusing situation arose at Doncaster, another German settlement near Melbourne. In the early days of the war the local policeman, Constable Ewert, was requested to report on the views and activities of several ‘Germans’. Imagine their horror when in 1916 military intelligence authorities realized Ewert himself was of enemy origin, the son of Prussian immigrants who arrived in the 1850s and married while living at Westgarthtown. After first moving to Wollert, the Ewerts selected land at Tamleugh near Violet Town during the 1870s, where Constable August Henry Albert Ewert was born. Needless to say, the report on him revealed no disloyalty. Sadly, three of Constable Ewert’s six nephews who enlisted in the AIF were killed in action and another lost a leg. His uncle, Carl Ewert, also had a grandson killed in action at the Gallipoli landing on 25 April 1915.

At Broadford in early 1918, a woman with the appropriate name of Mrs. Dobbin, accused the Zwar family of sending morse code signals from a hill on their property there. The local policeman dismissively referred to the complaint as not worth reporting on, but military authorities considered censoring the Zwar’s mail.

All over Australia ‘Germans’ were persecuted, although the areas hardest hit were in South Australia and Queensland, where there were relatively large communities of ‘Germans’. Although all complaints were investigated, no case of spying was ever proven. Disloyalty or divided loyalty probably did exist in some quarters but this was among recent arrivals. The majority of the 6,890 internments in Australia during the war comprised German nationals living and working here, sailors from merchant ships, or prisoners of war. Most were deported after the war. No ‘Germans’ from Westgarthtown or surrounding areas were interned.

Perhaps if Australia had been threatened with invasion the loyalties of some ‘Germans’ may have been tested. But in the majority of complaints, those accused were Australian-born, where there were few grounds for concern. Even in the case of those born outside Australia, it was too simplistic to assert, as Cr. Braithwaite did when arguing for Schou’s dismissal and later for disenfranchisement of enemy aliens, that ‘he (Braithwaite) was British and if in any other country he would be British still.’ This naive attitude not only disregarded the rights of naturalized citizens, but overlooked such factors as reasons for emigration, the effects of time and the influence on an immigrant of having raised an Australian-born family.

Complaints against German-born residents or those of German descent were generally sparked by three main sets of circumstances. Some were made in fits of patriotic fervor, often during enlistment or conscription campaigns. Others were made in times of emotional stress, such as death or injury of a relative or friend. Sadly, many appear to have been made by individuals seeking personal gratification, or financial or political gain. Some appear to have just been envious of ‘Germans’ possessing things they did not. Sadly, aside from Epping councillors such as McCormack, Andrews and Dea, or Allchin and Warr at Preston, few Britishers were prepared to publically stand up for the rights of ‘Germans’.

Although the complaints made against ‘Germans’ at Thomastown, or those elsewhere with Westgarthtown ancestry, revealed no disloyalty, they did not confirm loyalty either. Some ‘Germans’ must have had misgivings at being at war with the land of their ancestors, but most gave freely to patriotic funds and many enlisted. Frederick Ewert, then 81, on hearing two grandsons had been killed in action together at Mouquet Farm in September 1916, is said to have exclaimed ‘All mein friends [in Germany] are killing all mein relatives.’

Even enlistment was not so simple for ‘Germans’. Initially, defence regulations prohibited the enlistment of men of enemy origin whose fathers had not been born within the British Empire. Joe, George and Ray Wuchatsch all enlisted early in the war, their father August having been born in Australia in 1853. Their cousin Jim Wuchatsch, however, along with others whose fathers were born in Germany, had to wait until 1916, when a shortage of men forced the Government to be less selective and accept such recruits. Regrettably, in the same month this new recruitment policy was introduced, a further directive was issued instructing Commonwealth departments not to engage or promote persons of enemy origin. This effectively meant ‘Germans’ could now fight for Australia but ideally, not be otherwise employed by it. Jim and Albert Wuchatsch’s brother Bill, a Victorian State Lands Department officer, later complained of the injustice of a similar policy implemented by the State Government.

Michael McKernan, in his book The Australian People and the Great War, convincingly describes the needs of Australians at home during the war to ‘manufacture threats and crises to make the war feel real and immediate.’ After the Armistice in November 1918, the overt animosities of the war years declined as the small vocal minority put aside their poisoned pens and ceased their slanderous statements, but life for ‘Germans’ in Australia would never be quite the same again. Those ‘Germans’ enduring life in Australia during the war could not forget their experiences easily. Old people willing to discuss the war they experienced as children bitterly related tales of attending school, church, shopping or social events to the whispers of ‘Here come the Huns’.

While World War 1 was a terrible experience for all Australians, it was an unmitigated disaster for German Australians. While they anguished over the welfare of their loved ones fighting and dying with the AIF overseas - husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, grandsons, uncles and nephews – they also had to endure shameful and totally undeserved persecution at home. No wonder they never forgot the injustice of it all.

Westgarthtown enlistments

At least 79 soldiers with Westgarthtown ancestry - those born at Westgarthtown or with parents, grandparents or great grandparents who were born, lived or worshipped there – enlisted in either the AIF or New Zealand Expeditionary Forces during World War 1. Of these, 70 served overseas; three were rejected as medically unfit; two more were discharged on medical grounds; two were discharged as the war had ended before embarkation; one was discharged before embarkation for unrecorded reasons; and one served only in New Zealand. Others are said to have tried to enlist but no personnel records survive to document them.

A few Westgarthtown soldiers Anglicised their surnames (Dau to Dow; Ewert to Ewart) and some used only English forenames, dropping German names such as Gottfried or August. Dolph Schmutsch gave London as his place of birth, instead of Germany, so he would not be rejected as an enemy alien. A number with German surnames did have their loyalty questioned, but all were accepted after positive references from police or British community leaders.

As most Westgarthtown related enlistments took place elsewhere in Victoria and Australia, it is not surprising only one person gave his religion as Lutheran. Most enlistees had British or Irish ancestry as well as German. Even when their ancestry was totally German, they attended other churches if there was no Lutheran one. 52% of enlistees gave their religion as Church of England; 22% as Methodist; 13% as Catholic; and 9% as Presbyterian. One soldier entered his religion as Church of Christ and another as ‘Free Thinker’. Only Dr Bernhard Zwar gave his religion as Lutheran. He was later advised he should change his religion if he wished to avoid suspicion regarding his loyalty. In 1916, he married Essy Craig, a nurse who had also served in World War 1, in a Presbyterian ceremony.

The average enlistment age of Westgarthtown’s men was 25. However, most were younger, including 20 who were under 21. There were 28 aged between 21-25; 19 between 26-30; 8 between 31-35; and four between 36-44. These men served in many different roles during World War 1 – as infantrymen, light horsemen, machine gunners, engineers, tunnellers and ambulance men. 17 enlisted in 1914; 24 in 1915; 31 in 1916; 3 in 1917; and 4 in 1918.

In 1916 the Commonwealth Government decided to introduce conscription in an attempt to increase enlistments and a referendum seeking public approval was held on 28 October. In anticipation of approval being granted, all unmarried men between the ages of 21 and 35 were required to register for military service. Exemptions were to be granted to only sons and for certain occupations such as farm labourers. A few of those who applied for exemption at the Whittlesea and Preston Courts in 1916 were ‘Germans’.

At Whittlesea, William James Hanuske, farmer of Woodstock, received a full exemption as he was an only son. John Albert Hehr, farmer of Wollert, stated that his mother depended on him to work her farm as his brothers were unable to work the implements. He received a temporary exemption until 31 January 1917. His brother Ernest Frederick Hehr stated he needed to take the harvest off for his mother and his brothers could not do it. He was granted a temporary exemption until 31 December 1916.

At the Preston Court, brothers Herman and George Ernest (Ernie) Nebel of Westgarthtown stated they worked for their father. Ernie said he was now prepared to enlist so his application was formally refused. Herman was then exempted as the only remaining son. As it happened, the first conscription referendum was lost, as was a second referendum, in 1917. Neither of the Hehr brothers or Nebel enlisted.

The death rate of the 70 soldiers with Westgarthtown ancestry known to have served overseas with the AIF or New Zealand Expeditionary Forces  during World War 1 was 27%. This rate far exceeded the overall Australian rate of AIF deaths to embarkations of 18%. One soldier was killed in action at Gallipoli; 13 were killed in action in France or Belgium; four died of wounds in France or Belgium; and one died of illness after being invalided back to Australia. Multiple deaths occurred during major battles in France in 1916 such as Pozieres (four) and Mouquet Farm (two) and in 1917 at Bullecourt (two). Other soldiers were killed in action at Polygon Wood, Zonnebeke and Passchendaele in Belgium, during the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917.

A further 30 of Westgarthtown’s surviving soldiers were wounded in action, receiving either gunshot or shell wounds, or shell shock and/or mustard gas burns. Some were wounded several times. Some suffered accidental injuries while many were also hospitalized with illnesses such as dysentery, hepatitis, gastritis, enteric fever, tonsilitis, trench fever, trench feet, influenza, bronchitis, pleurisy, jaundice, nephritis, scabies, arthritis, venereal disease, appendicitis, phthisis, malaria or accidental injuries.

Two deaths between 1920-25 of returned soldiers – George Wuchatsch and Norman Ewert – also appear to have been war related. War neurosis, today known as post-traumatic stress, affected many former servicemen after World War 1. Some returned soldiers also carried bullet, shell and other painful physical wounds until their deaths many years later.

William Albert Frahm, a Ziebell descendant, joined the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force sent to New Guinea in August 1914 to capture and occupy German possessions there. Soon after his return to Australia in January 1915, he enlisted in the AIF and served at Gallipoli, as did 15 other Westgarthtown men. Ewen Ewert, whose father was born at Westgarthtown, was killed at the Gallipoli landing on 25 April 1915. Altogether, 23% of Westgarthtown’s soldiers served at Gallipoli.

Several soldiers won bravery or meritorious service awards. Arthur Herbert Dow was Mentioned-in-Despatches in 1916 and awarded the Military Cross in 1918; William Frederick Field Hehr posthumously received the Military Medal in 1916; and Benjamin George Wuchatsch was Mentioned-in-Despatches and awarded the Military Medal in 1918.

One soldier, Norman Albert Groening, was taken Prisoner of War. He received a gunshot wound and was captured in France in April 1917. He was imprisoned in Germany and remained there until the end of the war, when he was repatriated to Australia.

Another soldier, Ernie Lehmann from Epping, brought back an English war bride when he returned in 1919. They married in London in April 1919, having presumably met when Ernie was evacuated to England in 1917, with a severe gunshot wound to his left leg.

In July 1919, when Ray Wuchatsch returned from the war, he and other local soldiers were given a welcome home at the Bena Hall. One soldier responded on their behalf. He stated that some parcels they received from Australia contained gum leaves, which would be put in a heap, then burned to remind them of home. Home for them, including Ray and other German-Australians, was where the gum trees grew, not the lindens.

Enlistees: Click here for a full list of WW1 enlistees; with links to their individual stories


The information included in this study was obtained from the National Archives of Australia (1st AIF Personnel Dossiers, Applications for Enlistment, Military Intelligence and Repatriation files); Australian War Memorial (Rolls of Honour, Red Cross Files, Unit Histories); National Library of Australia (Trove newspapers); Ancestry.com; and my personal correspondence files (1982-2017) with relatives of Westgarthtown’s soldiers.