Discovering the identities of World War One soldiers from the Tyrrell Collection portraits has often been a difficult and tedious process. A contributing factor to this difficulty is the use of aliases by soldiers. According to military historian Neil Smith, the “incidence of aliases being used is frequently underestimated” within the AIF. The prevalence of aliases means that the real names of soldiers are “often difficult to establish”.
Many Australian soldiers used aliases for numerous reasons. It is believed that as many as 15,000 members (or around 3.5%) of the AIF served under an alias. It was often an obvious sign of previous indiscretion if a soldier enlisted under an alias.
Perhaps the most famous example of the use of the alias by an AIF soldier is by John (or James) ‘Simpson’ Kirkpatrick. It is still not known for certain why ‘the man with the donkey’ served under a false name, but it is believed that he did so to avoid a contract as a domestic sailor.
An example of an AIF soldier using an alias has been uncovered by my research. The caption from the above image, though badly faded, reads: ‘B.DeCourcy’. Searching this name through the available databases at the Australian War Memorial and the National Archives of Australia reveals no credible results. However a close analysis of the embarkation roll of 9 Field Artillery Brigade reveals that ‘Basil DeCourcy’ was a known alias. This soldier’s name actually was Basil James Ryan.
According to his war record Ryan enlisted in Brisbane on 20 December 1915 at the age of 18 years 1 month. Why he enlisted in Brisbane and under an alias remains unclear. Ryan clearly wished to enlist but as a minor under the age of 21 he would need parental permission. The problem with this though is that his mother was miles away in the New South Wales town of Dapto and would not have been able to sign his waiver, or perhaps more likely, was simply not willing to do so. Ryan successfully enlisted and as a member of 9 Field Artillery Brigade returned to New South Wales for training at The Warren, Marrickville.
Only days before embarkation the ‘DeCourcy’ alias was finally exposed. Ryan admitted that he had lied during enlistment and used his mother’s maiden name ‘DeCourcy’ instead of his actual surname, Ryan. Only days before he was due for embarkation, his mother finally signed a permission form allowing Ryan to serve abroad. Ryan was not punished for hiding his identity. This lack of punishment shows how commonplace aliases must have been in the AIF.
Several other soldiers from the Tyrrell Collection portraits remain unidentified, although many have decipherable captions. It is possible that these soldiers may have also been serving under an alias, using a nickname or perhaps using one of their middle names as a first name.
From my research I have a few common sense tips for those unable to pinpoint a particular AIF soldier. Firstly, if not immediately successful, experiment with different spelling variations of a name or using a potential alias (the most common alias involved the soldier changing his surname to his mother’s maiden name). Additionally Neil Smith’s book contains a database of 3,000 known aliases which may be worth checking.
The Macleay Museum also holds an image of Basil ‘DeCourcey’. It can be found by using http://sydney.edu.au/museums/collections_search/ and entering the Museum Number: HP83.60.8026.
Bean, C.E.W. Anzac to Amiens. Melbourne: Penguin Group, 2014. Originally published, Canberra: The Australian War Memorial, 1946.
Smith, Neil (1996). ‘Aliases of the Australian Military Forces 1914-1919’. Sabretache, 37 (4), 14-19.
Smith, Neil. What’s in a Name: Aliases of the Australian Military Forces 1914-1919. Melbourne: Mostly Unsung Military History Research and Publications, 1995.
Written by Simon Blue, curatorial volunteer