National Archives of Australia

Issue 2 March 2011

National Archives plays vital role in returning lost war medals

The British War Medal and World War I Victory Medal that turned up in a garage sale in the Sydney suburb of Kogarah last year have a proud tale to tell. First, there’s the story of Australian soldier Private Murray Thomas who was awarded the medals. Then there’s the story of how the medals were reunited with Private Thomas’ family via the Lost Medals Australia initiative. Canberra writer Philip O’Brien tells these stories for Your Memento.

Private Murray Thomas’ British War Medal and Victory Medal

Private Murray Thomas’ British War Medal and Victory Medal. Photographer: Glyn Llanwarne

For the past 11 years, Lieutenant Colonel Glyn Llanwarne, founder of Lost Medals Australia, has been acquiring, researching and returning Australian war medals. In his day job, he is deployed to Sudan as part of the Australian Defence Force commitment to the United Nations Mission. In his part-time work with Lost Medals Australia, he is assisted by Captain Scott Revell and retired army officer Bill Wyndham.

Lost Medals Australia has already returned 680 medals to veterans and their families. The initiative does not search for lost medals, but works from a list of medals in its possession dating back to the late nineteenth century. In this work, the National Archives plays a crucial role in providing the defence service records of medal recipients.

War medals remain a potent symbol of service and are worn proudly on Anzac Day and Remembrance Day by returned servicemen and women, as well as younger descendants of deceased war veterans.

Murray Wilton

Murray Wilton. Courtesy Radio 2UE

But the attitude to these medals was once very different, according to Lieutenant Colonel Llanwarne. ‘The majority of medals we deal with are from World War I. Many were sold during the Depression or in later years when there was no family interest in them. And some were accidentally thrown out with the rubbish or left on the bar after Anzac Day.’

Just how Private Thomas’ medals became separated from his family remains a mystery. After the war, he returned to Australia in April 1919, married but died in the early 1930s. His wife Ruby, who had no children with Thomas, subsequently remarried. She would often talk about him to her grandson Murray Wilton, a broadcaster on Radio 2UE in Sydney.

‘Even though he died more than 30 years before I was born, she still spoke about him with great fondness,’ Wilton recalls. ‘We often used to wonder what had happened to his war medals.’

Ingenious detective work

Unbeknown to Wilton, the medals resurfaced last year. The challenge was to reunite them with Private Thomas’ family. And what eventuated was a process of ingenious detective work. The task was given to Lost Medals Australia researcher Bill Wyndham. His search began with the Archives’ online database, RecordSearch. Here he found Private Thomas’ enlistment and service details.

Thomas Murrary's attestation paper, 1916

Thomas Murrary's attestation paper, 1916. NAA: B2455, Thomas M

He then went to the NSW Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages to discover that Private Thomas had married Ruby Hucker in 1927 and died in 1932, and that Ruby had remarried in 1935 to Frederick Raymond. Ruby died in 1996 and newspaper death notices of the time listed a daughter Jennifer, son-in-law Barry and grandchildren Murray and Mark. Then, a painstaking search of newspaper marriage notices and electoral rolls finally led to Murray Wilton.

‘When Glyn rang, I was initially wary,’ Wilton admits. ‘Being in the media you’re always dubious of people who contact you privately. He had a lot of information about my family. I wondered if it was a prank but soon realised otherwise.’

Private Thomas on the Western Front

Private Thomas’ war record – pieced together from the Archives’ online defence service record and the Australian War Memorial’s unit war diaries – reveals that he took part in one of the most significant campaigns of the war. He had enlisted on 20 March 1916, aged 21 years, and after initial training was sent to France in November 1916 with the Machine Gun Corps, which was to provide sustained fire from fixed locations to support operations along the trenches of the Western Front.

As a member of the 14th Machine Gun Company, attached to the 14th Infantry Brigade of the Australian Imperial Force’s 5th Division, Private Thomas was involved in the Battle of Mont Saint-Quentin – part of the Allied counteroffensive on the Western Front in the late summer of 1918.

‘We are very lucky in Australia that so many records are available online,’ Lieutenant Colonel Llanwarne says. ‘Access to the Archives’  World War I defence service records, for example, is a major benefit for us. Other countries don’t have similar ready access.’

Private Thomas’ medals were polished, had their ribbons restored and were presented to Wilton late last year. ‘The amazing thing is that they never really travelled far,’ he says. ‘Nan lived in Kogarah when she was married to Murray and that’s where the medals turned up. If these things could talk, it would be fascinating to know where they had been all these years.’

Meal time at a machine gun post of the 5th Australian Machine Gun Battalion, of which Private Thomas’ 14th Machine Gun Company was part, Villers-Bretonneux, 1918

Meal time at a machine gun post of the 5th Australian Machine Gun Battalion, of which Private Thomas’ 14th Machine Gun Company was part, Villers-Bretonneux, 1918. Courtesy Australian War Memorial: E02296

3 comments on "National Archives plays vital role in returning lost war medals"

  1. Elaine says:

    This is a wonderful story – but the soldier is not related to the person who received the medals. Surely they should (if at all possible) have been given to the family of one of his siblings?

  2. tony campion says:

    marvellous work…I am 72 and starting on tracking down WWI medals in my family…the main problem is in New Zealand who does this? There must be medals everywhere that mean nothing to the owners and do not see daylight. I am wondering why legislation making it compulsory for dealers etc. to publicly list their holdings so that the rightful owners can get them back at fair market value is not being put in place? Make a good ANZAC initiative by the Returned Services of both countries.

  3. John Snowden says:

    In the the majority of cases “lost medals” have not been stolen or lost but have been sold either by the original owner or the family. Returning them to family is no guarantee of them not being sold again later down the track. I have found that medal collectors in most cases do as much research as is possible on any named medals in their collection thereby keeping “alive ” the spirit and story of an old soldier. As regards rightful owners, once the medals have been sold by the person they were awarded to, then the rightful owner is the new owner. We already see a few members of the British armed forces selling their War in Iraq medals on completion of service, and the Falklands war medal is also on sale now. Every thing has a value, it’s a business.

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