Adolph Schmahl in Victoria, c. October 1915.

Australians responded eagerly to the call of the Empire at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Thousands of men enlisted for service, seeing it as an expression of their loyalty to Great Britain, and an opportunity for adventure. Adolphus Schmahl was keen to serve in the Australian Imperial Force, but was aware that he may be rejected on the grounds of his German heritage.

Adolphus Fredrick Anton Schmahl was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1863 and immigrated to Australia when he was 22 years old. By 1911 he was naturalised and married with eight children. Like many Australians, Adolph was keen to enlist for service; however, at 51 he was well above the maximum enlistment age of 45. Desperate to join, Adolph reduced his age to 43 and enlisted under the name George Albert Edward Fraser, as he felt it would have been “impossible to join the forces under the name of Schmahl”. He and his son Gottlieb, also serving as George, were accepted for service in 1915. Two more sons, Gordon and Victor, would join up in 1917.

Sent to Egypt and then France, Adolph and his son soon realised that the reality of war was very different from what they had anticipated. After a promotion to corporal, Adolph took part in one of the costliest battles of the First World War at the small village of Pozières. Over a period of six weeks, Australia suffered 23,000 casualties during bitter encounters with the Germans. Adolph, now a sergeant, was one of those wounded during the battle and thereafter suffered from regular bouts of ill-health.

From the trenches of the Western Front Adolph wrote letters home to his family in Australia, trying to sound cheerful.

After being wounded at Geudecourt, Adolphus succumbed to the pressures that the war was placing on his body. He was sent home to Australia in February 1917, suffering from “cardiac debility”. Before he left, Adolph tried to confess to his commanding officer the details of his real age and identity, but received the curt response, “I have no time for private conversations, I only know you as Fraser, you will do me.”

Back in Australia, Adolph found it difficult to adjust to the stillness of life at home. He wrote a letter to Senator George Pearce, giving details of his story and offering himself for further service. His request was declined on the grounds of his age. Undeterred, he continued his attempts to enlist, finally joining the Home Service as a clerk, again using the name “Fraser”. At a time when Germans in Australia were viewed with suspicion, it did not take long for Adolph’s real identity to be discovered, and he was accused of being a German spy. Rejecting the accusations, Adolph signed an affidavit asserting that his previous military service, along with that of his three sons, was proof of his loyalty to the allies. He was not prosecuted for using an alias.

Both Victor and Gordon were wounded during their service, but all three of Adolph’s enlisted sons returned from the war. George had been recommended for a Distinguished Conduct Medal and awarded a Military Medal, and Ada Schmahl was given a Female Relatives badge recognising her family’s service in the First World War.

Activities for research and classroom discussion

  1. What is a Female Relatives Badge? Who were they given to and why? Why would some have two bars, while others had four?

  2. Ada Schmahl continued to wear her Female Relatives Badge after the war. Why would she have chosen to do this? What might it represent to her?

    Female Relative Badges.
    Schmahl Family Portrait, 1919 (back row, left to right) Leopold, William, George and Gordon (front row, left to right) Vera, Victor, Clive, Ada (wearing her Female Relative Badge), and Sylvia.

  3. Discuss the challenges that Germans living in Australia may have faced during the First World War.

  4. What are internment camps? Why would they have been established in Australia during the First World War?

  5. Considering the social environment in Australia at the time, what could have motivated Adolph to continually try to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF)?

    Holsworthy Internment Camp New South Wales, 1916.

  6. What were some of the criteria for enlistment at the beginning of the First World War? How did this change through the war?

  7. Research the origins of the Military Medal. On what basis was a Military Medal awarded?

    Military Medal

  8. After the war, Adolph Schmahl continued to serve for Australia, translating German files in the territory of New Guinea. Why, at his age, may he have chosen to continue to serve in the AIF?