True to Australia

Born in Vladivlastok, Peter Chirvin was one of over a thousand Anzacs of Russian descent. He served on Gallipoli, was wounded twice in action and was awarded the Military Medal for his bravery as a stretcher-bearer at Mont St Quentin. ‘By his splendid devotion to duty’, the citation reads, ‘numbers of wounded were saved’.

Chirvin was repatriated to Australia in 1919, not long after the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia. He became ‘moody and depressed’ on the voyage home, many of his comrades questioning his loyalty and calling him a ‘Bolshie’. A few days before Anzac Day, Chirvin was found hanging from a beam in the ship’s washroom. An inquest would return a verdict of ‘suicide whilst temporarily deranged’.

Before taking his own life, Chirvin wrote to a woman who befriended him in Brisbane, the Australian city he had made his home. ‘Do not think me a coward’ he asked her. ‘If you see the 49th Battalion boys, ask them and they will tell you’.

Chirvin’s story signals Australia’s drift to the right in the aftermath of the Great War. We became a less progressive and less inclusive society. And even an Anzac awarded for the Military Medal for bravery found his country of origin counted against him and mattered more than so-called ‘mateship’. Chirvin claimed he had been ‘true to Australia’. But had his country been true to him?

For full attribution of sources, suggestions for further reading and an extended version of the story itself see ‘True to Australia: Peter Chirvin’ in Bruce Scates, Rebecca Wheatley and Laura James, World War One: A History in 100 Stories (Melbourne, Penguin/Viking, 2015) pp. 18-21; 354.