Albert Henry Victor Brackley enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force under a false name in 1916. He had ‘deserted’ his wife and two children when he sailed for England later that year. His ruse was discovered when he went absent without leave and after his wife told the Australian Army he had enlisted as ‘Herbert Walters’. Just a few months later, he ended up on the Western Front – facing the greatest danger. Here, I look at the story of Albert, who was connected to my family.
He didn’t fight on the front line – but beneath it. He helped to dig tunnels under No Man’s Land to allow explosives to be detonated under enemy positions.
The work was exhausting and dangerous. The explosions were frequently devastating, sometimes killing thousands of soldiers.
Albert, a sapper in the Royal Australian Engineers, was one of tens of thousands of tunnellers on the Western Front in the Great War.
He joined the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company – who carried out vital offensive and defensive mining work in France – in the summer of 1917.
Just a few months before arriving on the front line, Albert found himself at the centre of a major controversy.
He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) on October 10, 1916 under a false name, calling himself Herbert Walters.
He was not the first or last soldier with an assumed identity. But he was found out after going ‘absent without leave’ – and deserting his wife and two children in Australia.
Albert sailed to England with the AIF on October 25, 1916 and arrived in Plymouth on December 28 that year.
Ten days later – on January 7, 1917 – he went missing from Perham Down Army Camp on the edge of Salisbury Plain.
He surrendered himself in London to a sergeant in the Army Military Police on February 20 that year, and was sentenced to 60 days’ detention.
When he had been sailing to England, Albert’s wife, Queenie Alice Maud Brackley, wrote to the officer in charge of Army base records in Melbourne, declaring that she had been ‘advised by the police to let you know that my husband had enlisted under the name of Herbert Walters’.
Queenie, aware that he had left Australia with the AIF, said she had a warrant out for his arrest – issued on November 9, 1916 – for deserting her and her two children.
She revealed that a Mrs (Lydia) White – Albert’s aunt, listed as a ‘friend’ and next of kin when he enlisted under a false name – had been ‘drawing his money’ (wages) since he joined the Royal Australian Engineers.
On March 2, 1917, while in custody, Albert signed a declaration that he had enlisted under an incorrect name after Queenie submitted a sworn statement before a Justice of the Peace that he and Herbert Walters were ‘one and the same person’.
When in France, Albert was twice admitted to hospital with diarrhoea and repeatedly punished for going absent without leave.
At one stage he was promoted to lance-corporal but ‘reverted’ to sapper shortly after the appointment.
Admitted to the Australian Dermatological Hospital at Bulford on Salisbury Plain in 1919 with syphilis, Albert returned to Australia from Devonport in January 1920.
In May that year, Albert was charged, on warrant, with deserting his wife and children after he arrived back in Australia.
He and Queenie were divorced in February 1922. Albert, then a tramway worker, petitioned for the divorce on the grounds of misconduct.
He claimed that during his active war service, his wife gave birth to a third child fathered by another man.
Albert married Alma Beck (1895-1959) on September 9, 1922 in Victoria, and they had a son, William Albert Ernest, who was held as a Japanese prisoner of war in Thailand in the Second World War.
Albert was a farmer when he died on May 20, 1924 at the public hospital in Swan Hill, Victoria, aged 33. He was buried at Swan Hill Cemetery, Victoria.
Queenie, born on May 24, 1895 in Inglewood, Victoria, died on August 14, 1963 in Bendigo, Victoria, aged 68. She was buried in Bendigo Cemetery.
Alma Beck, born on June 28, 1895 in Victoria, married Albert’s younger brother, George Alfred Brackley (1897-1963) on May 2, 1925 in Victoria. She died on October 10, 1959 in Parkville, Victoria, aged 64.
The Victoria Police Gazette in Australia reported on November 9, 1916 – under the headline ‘Deserters of wives and children’ – that Albert was charged, on warrant, with deserting Queenie.
Albert’s service records reveal that he initially enlisted in the 14th Infantry Battalion of the AIF under his own name in May 1915 in Tarnagulla, Victoria, Australia. Aged 24 at the time, he was a labourer. The records show that he failed to embark for service abroad in September 1915.
The 1st Australian Tunnelling Company were one of four tunnelling companies of the Royal Australian Engineers in the Great War. They helped to spearhead offensive and defensive mining work, including placing mines under enemy lines and building dugouts and trenches for troops.
In the months leading up to the Battle of Messines in June 1917 – which began with the detonation of 19 mines which killed 10,000 German soldiers and left 19 large craters – the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company helped to ensure that tunnels and explosives in the area remained intact and undiscovered.
Albert, born on October 10, 1890 in Tarnagulla, Victoria, Australia, was the son of Henry George Brackley (1850-1924) and Mary Elizabeth Hurford (1872-1899). Mary was the daughter of William Hurford (1840-1915), of Stockleigh English and Mary Ann Roberts (1842-1926), who emigrated to Australia after their marriage in Cornwall in 1863. William was the son of William Hurford (1802-1881) and Charlotte Roberts (1815-1884). Charlotte was the daughter of Thomas Roberts (1770-1852) and Elizabeth Sharland (1776-1841). Thomas was my great-great-great-great grandfather. Albert married Queenie Alice Maud Hughes (1895-1963) on February 12, 1913 in Bendigo, Victoria.
Albert Henry Victor Brackley. Used with the permission of his great-granddaughter, Sonya Salzke.