Mufti Vol. 61 No. 2
Photography: Commonwealth War Graves Commission and Australian War Memorial
Eric Schiele was one of eight children born in Australia to their father Erdman Gottfried Gustav Schiele, known as Gustav, and Gertrude Lumby, daughter of Arthur and Tamara Lumby from Gunnedah in New South Wales.
Gustav was born in Zerbst, Germany, on December 26, 1889. Ten years later, he travelled across the globe to Australia, arriving in Melbourne on November 24 of that year.
Having married Gertrude in September 1913, Gustav became a naturalised Australian at the age of 35 in November 1923. He, Gertrude and their children were living in Warrandyte where Gustav worked as a labourer.
By the late 1920s, the Schiele’s moved north to the Mallee district and the township of Werrimull before the family moved east to Red Cliffs, near Mildura on the banks of the Murray river.
Despite his German heritage, it was at Mildura in July 1941 that Gustav, then aged in his fifties, enlisted for service in the Australian Army during the Second World War, listing himself as a British subject on his enlistment papers.
Eric had already enlisted in the Army on October 30, 1939, while his brother Victor enlisted in January 1940, going on to become a Warrant Officer 2nd Class with the 7th Australian Infantry Battalion. Three of their siblings, Arthur, Leo, and Owen, also enlisted in the war, as did a sister-in-law and brother-in-law.
According to letters written by Gustav soon after the war ended, “9 members of family served our country in this war willingly…”
Within a month of enlisting, Gustav was promoted to the rank of Sergeant and by mid-September 1941, was posted to the newly established 13 POW Camp in the Victorian township of Murchison where he served as an interpreter.
Purpose built to detain prisoners of war in Australia during the Second World War, the Murchison POW Camp was the largest of Australia’s POW camps, housing more than 4,000 prisoners including 1500 Germans.
After three years of service, Gustav was reclassified in June 1944 and aged out of service, discharged from the Australian Army.
After the war ended, Gustav began writing his letters to Prime Minister Chifley, begging to be reinstated for service to work as an interpreter on the ships taking German and Italian POWs held in Australia back to Europe after the war.
The reason for Gustav’s request was heartbreaking, having had the “misfortune to lose two sons in the war,” with one of them buried in Brookwood Military Cemetery.
With the UK being so incredibly far away, Gustav was desperate to see his son’s grave, writing that “It is the only possible chance I will have. I am not asking anything for nothing, I have carried out my work for four years. Please Sir, can you help me.”
That son was Private Eric Schiele, and while all death during wartime is heartbreaking, the death of Eric was particularly tragic.
Embarking for overseas service in early May 1940, Eric was only in the UK a matter of weeks when he was “knocked down by a bus in London during a blackout” in the lead up to The Blitz, the German bombing campaign across the UK. Eric died, aged just 23 years, and is one of the 446 Australians buried at Brookwood Military Cemetery.
Eric lost his life not on a bomb-riddled battlefront in Europe, but in the streets of London.
The Schiele family would suffer more tragedy during the war when Eric’s brother, WO2 Victor Schiele was killed in action 30 June 1945 in Bougainville, aged 26 years. He is buried at Port Moresby (Bomana) War Cemetery.
Both Eric and Victor Schiele are commemorated in Red Cliffs.
Given just how far from Australia Eric’s war grave is, Gustav saw re-enlisting as an interpreter and serving on the ships taking POWs back to Europe the only chance he would have to visit Eric’s grave.
For those whose loved ones died far from home, often on the other side of the world, their grief was amplified by the realisation that the visiting of a grave, the honouring of the person they loved at the place they were laid to rest, would almost certainly never happen. Distance and the expense of travel restricting the privilege of visiting a loved ones’ war grave to a fortunate few.
We may never know if Gustav made it to London to visit Eric’s grave, but his story and that of the Schiele family is just one of thousands of stories of incredible service to Australia, and of the grief and desperation experienced throughout the country in the aftermath of yet another world war.