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A Mother’s Son. World War 1 mystery of Private Richard Mellor

Written by Tim Lycett and Sandra Playle.

During 1939, in her last letter to the A.I.F.’s Base Records Office, Elizabeth Mellor wrote,

“I had a son named Samuel Rowley Mellor…… His number was 1709 or 709, I forget now it was so long ago, though my tears don’t dry when I think of him. He joined up under the name Richard Rowley Mellor, that was his elder brother’s name. He gave his age as 22 but my darling was only 17 years…… I am now nearing the closing of life, I am 80. I would be very grateful to you for a reply.”

Two weeks later there arrived in the mail the same reply she had been receiving since her first letter twenty years earlier explaining that her son, Richard Rowley Mellor, had illegally absented himself from Rollestone Training Camp, Wiltshire, England on 29th May 1918 and that nothing had been heard of him since. What it didn’t contain was the authorities’ suspicions regarding Mellor’s disappearance. Suspicions they had no way of verifying and therefore understandably couldn’t pass on to his next of kin.

Samuel Rowley Mellor was born at Rockhampton, Queensland on 8th October 1898 to parents James and Elizabeth Mellor, his older brother, Richard having been born in 1893. Samuel was the eighth child to James and Elizabeth who would ultimately have nine children altogether. In 1907, when Samuel was only eight years of age, his father died and although several of the older children were adults by this time, it undoubtedly left Elizabeth widowed with several of her younger children to care for.

In 1909, Elizabeth and the family moved from Queensland to Sydney, New South Wales, where she married her brother in law, Herbert Mellor. The couple was to have no children during their four years of marriage, which ended with the death of Herbert in 1913. On the 3rd August 1915 a young lad enlisted in the A.I.F. at Warwick Farm, Sydney, giving his name as Richard Rowley Mellor, a twenty-one year old mechanic from 147 Wigram Rd, Forest Lodge, Sydney. He was immediately accepted and assigned to the 11th Reinforcements, 1st Light Horse Regiment. After his initial training, Mellor finally embarked for Egypt on the transport ship ‘Hawkes Bay’ in October 1915, arriving in late November to join his regiment. By February 1916, Mellor was in hospital with a case of mumps and over the coming months would be in and out of hospital on several occasions suffering from various ailments including anaemia, rheumatism and fever. During this period he transferred to the 4th Division Cyclist Company and was eventually shipped to England in June 1916.

In August 1916 he was again in hospital, this time suffering from a perforated eardrum allegedly sustained whilst in Cairo during February. The medical report of this injury assessed him as having a permanent disability and that he would be unfit for any further overseas duties, recommending that he be returned to Australia for home service. Why this never occurred is unclear but Mellor managed to remain in England and was sent to the Rollestone Training Camp in Wiltshire. It was from here that on the 7th November 1916, Mellor absented himself without leave until being returned on the 10th January 1917. A subsequent Divisional Court Martial, that interestingly listed his age as only eighteen, sentenced him to six months detention with two months of that being remitted. However in early March 1917 he again absented himself and this time managed to stay at large for quite some time. The following February 1918, he and a fellow absentee delivered a small hand written note requesting the authorities come and collect them. This does not seem to have been acted upon and it wasn’t until 22nd May that he was finally apprehended and returned to Rollestone Camp. Indeed his absence had been so long that that an officer was sent to identify him, but there remains no record of the outcome. Perhaps the identification never even occurred because Mellor’s return was very short lived and on the 29th May he absented himself once more – this time never to return nor officially be heard of again.

At about the same time of Mellor’s final disappearance, a young Englishman named Frank Oswald Wills was caught up in a British army enlistment drive and joined as 253617 Gunner Wills, ‘X’ Trench Mortar Battery, 50th Division, Royal Field Artillery, subsequently being sent to France. Unfortunately, very little is known of Wills before 1919 as his service file was amongst those destroyed by the bombing of London during the Second World War. What has been discovered is that Wills deserted the army two weeks after the Armistice in November 1918 but was located and arrested in Paris the following March. It was during his alcohol-fueled arrest on 12th March 1919, at the Hôtel de la Poste that Wills shot two military policemen with a revolver he’d been carrying. Tragically, one of the two wounded MP’s, Lance Corporal Webster, died three days later.

Between 14th-16th May 1919, whilst delivering his own defense at the military court martial for murder, attempted murder and desertion, Wills made a surprising admission. He claimed he had originally joined the Australian army as a sixteen year old in 1915 and had been in a number of engagements in both Egypt and Gallipoli but had been discharged during 1917 as a result of contracting a fever in Egypt that had left him with mental problems and memory lapses. He further stated he had joined the British army in April 1918 but had got into bad company and began drinking and gambling heavily. At the conclusion of the court martial, Wills was convicted and sentenced to death.

Several days later, on the 19th May, Major Burford Sampson, Officer in Charge, A.I.F. Troops, Paris, received a telephone call informing him that Gunner Wills had expressed the wish to speak to an Australian officer. At 11.00am the following day, Sampson visited Wills at the detention centre in Grand Roue where during the resultant conversation, Wills made the startling confession that he was in reality 1709 Private Richard Mellor. He then proceeded to give Sampson an extremely accurate and detailed description of both Mellor’s personal and service life, adding that he had enlisted in the A.I.F. at age sixteen and that after running away for the final time, he had been scooped up in the British enlistment during 1918. Being too scared to admit his true identity, he had given the name Frank Oswald Wills. His final request to Sampson during this meeting was that he contact his mother, Mrs. E. Mellor of 147 Wigram Rd, Forest Lodge, Sydney, and advise her of his fate. Knowing he was on the eve of his execution with no further hope of preventing it, why would Wills suddenly claim to be someone else and ask for a mother to be notified of her son’s shameful death if he wasn’t really that son? There is no logical reason for this unless Wills and Mellor were the same man.

After the meeting with Wills, Sampson returned to his office and that afternoon prepared a report regarding Wills’ claims. This was immediately forwarded to Lt Colonel Wynter, A.A.G. A.I.F. Headquarters, Charleroi, who in turn forwarded it to A.I.F. Headquarters in London on 23rd May, requesting an urgent reply with what action they wished taken regarding the matter. Unfortunately, as evidenced by a series of telegrams between Paris and London in early June, this report was mislaid and never reached headquarters in London until a second copy was forwarded on 7th June. The reply from London to Lt Colonel Wynter on 12th June 1919 advised him that after being considered by the Judge Advocate General, it had been decided that there was no further action to be taken. By that time it was far too late for Gunner Frank Wills anyway. He had been executed by a firing party at 4.14am on 27th May 1919 and buried later that same day at St. Marie Cemetery, Le Havre.

It is probably fair to assume that since Wills was already dead and buried, understandably there was no possible means by which the Judge Advocate General’s office could reasonably investigate nor verify Wills admissions and therefore no further action could be taken to substantiate his claims. Thus they were to remain unproven.

It must also be noted that a careful examination of the trial transcript reveals that nowhere during the proceedings did Wills state who his next of kin was nor how they could be contacted. However in the weeks following his execution an Australian file was begun for the British soldier 253617 F.O. Wills, ‘X’ Trench Mortar Battery. The file is completely blank with the exception of several memo’s requesting Mrs. Wills be located and notified of her son’s fate. Unfortunately, Mrs. Wills could not be located at the address given; Wigram Road, Forest Lodge, Sydney – the same address as Elizabeth Mellor.

In replying to the request on 11th July, 1919, the Commandant of the 2nd Military District in Sydney stated in a memo,

“I desire to inform you that all efforts to trace the next of kin have been without avail. The matter was referred to the press but no response has been received.”

In the following years, Elizabeth Mellor continually wrote to A.I.F. Base Records, Melbourne, requesting information regarding her son, Richard, and his service record is littered with her increasingly desperate pleas. At one point during this period she declared that her son must have been killed in action and at another time she claimed to have heard that he was in an English asylum. All these avenues were investigated by the relevant authorities and resulted in the same response; illegal absentee since 29th May 1918 with nothing further known.

However in one of her earliest letters during 1919, Elizabeth adamantly claimed to have recognized her son in a newspaper clipping.

This clipping published in The Sun newspaper and the Anzac Bulletin, was of a soldier who claimed to have been a prisoner of war suffering from shell shock and whose identity was uncertain. The authorities eventually replied to her letter and advised her that the soldier in the photo had been identified as an Imperial deserter but not her son. Coincidentally, this clipping had appeared in the newspaper only a matter of weeks prior to the Commandant of the 2nd Military District, Sydney, stating that the search for Wills’ next of kin had been advertised in the press with no response. Of further interest, a hand written note in the margin of her letter made some time later by someone at Base Records makes the comment, “Probably the photo was of her son. See [SaG] AIF 41/75.” This reference relates directly to the documents in Mellor’s service file regarding the execution of Wills and his claims to be Mellor.

In 1933, at the behest of Elizabeth Mellor, J.T Jennings MHR, made a personal enquiry with the Assistant Minister for Defence, Joseph Francis, who in turn requested a report from Base Records about the matter. The subsequent minute paper from Base Records forwarded to Francis was headed ‘secret’ and contained the information regarding the claims made by Wills but stated that, following the instructions received from Army Headquarters, the practice was to advise any enquirers that Mellor had been discharged as a consequence of being an illegal absentee and that nothing further was known about his movements. Francis also adhered to this practice and Jennings was formally advised with the same response routinely provided to Elizabeth Mellor. The minute paper, along with other potentially sensitive documents relating to this matter were then filed together, marked ‘secret’ and kept in a locked steel cabinet inside the Officer in Charge’s office at Base Records.

What is of further importance from this exchange of letters and reports during 1933 is the fact that Elizabeth Mellor makes her first admission in a letter to Jennings that Richard Mellor is actually her younger son, Samuel.

As further proof of his true identity, it must be noted that upon initial enlistment with the A.I.F., Mellor claimed to be twenty-one, the correct age had it been Richard. However during the 1917 court martial of Mellor he was listed as eighteen and in the subsequent 1919 court martial of Wills, he made the admission to both the conveners and later to Sampson that he had been sixteen at the time of his enlistment. Both of these events exactly add up to what would have been Samuel’s age at the time.

Recent investigations of birth, death and marriage records and the National Archives of Australia have proven that Richard Rowley Mellor survived the war years, having been rejected from enlisting in the AIF three times during 1916 on medical grounds, later marrying twice and fathering several children. However of Samuel there is nothing. In a further successful search for Mellor descendants, those located were surprised to hear that a service record for Richard even existed as they were of the belief that he had not served during the First World War. But when questioned about Samuel, they knew nothing, not even any anecdotal family stories except the fact that he had been born.

But when one Mellor descendant produced Elizabeth Mellor’s death certificate, they inadvertently provided information that suggested a somewhat different outcome to this tale that deserves consideration. It has long been an unanswered question why Elizabeth Mellor suddenly stopped writing to Base Records in 1939 after such long and persistent efforts. As suggested by her final letter, it was thought that she was simply elderly, ill and possibly just too heartbroken to continue.

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