Brothers in arms
Norman Bruhn enlisted a few weeks before Christmas 1914. By the look of police records, he didn’t have much choice. In August that year a warrant was issued for his imprisonment for 14 days for failing to pay a court-ordered fine for offensive behaviour. He went to jail and was released in September. On 1 December, he paid the two pound penalty. Three days later, he enlisted. Gallipoli was a long way to go to escape further police attention.
Bruhn was 20 years old, blond-haired, blue-eyed and fresh- faced according to the Victoria Police Gazette, but he was a young thug in the making. He and his brothers had grown up in the port city of Geelong, their last address in Corio Street, a stone’s throw from the waterfront. Norman’s father, Oscar, had been before the court for larrikinism from an early age. When he was 19, he and a mate brought an action against two magistrates alleging that they had erred in sentencing the young pair for armed assault and bad language. The claimants’ objection was not that they were innocent – their guilt does not seem to have been at issue. Rather, they claimed 500 pounds compensation from each of the magistrates for exceeding their brief by sentencing them to jail for three months with hard labour. The two young prisoners used the ancient writ of habeas corpus to get themselves out of the nick to make their case. History does not record what happened next, but no doubt the newspaper accounts gave locals in the tough inner suburb of South Melbourne a bit of a giggle.
It was probably from this moment that the name Bruhn gained wide notoriety in Victoria, for thereafter it featured often in the country press, usually in stories that were improbable, inaccurate in some key detail, or so vague as to be almost meaningless. Someone called Oscar Bruhn had allegedly assaulted a woman at Connewarre and police expected to lay charges soon. A man named Oscar Bruhn from South Geelong had attempted to throw a goal umpire over the fence when the Barwon Football Club played at Kardinia Park. Oscar Bruhn, 48, had arrived home in a violent mood and thrown his ‘little son, William George’ through a glass window. Even if there was no truth in them at all, these published rumours left no doubt in the observant reader’s mind that the Bruhns were not a soft family.
At 14, Norman went to work in a local woollen mill, where his lower arm was drawn into a loom and fractured, and he got his name in the newspapers for the first but definitely not the last time.
Like any novice hoodlum, he had a magnetic attraction to guns, and was keen to learn how to handle them. His enlistment papers reveal that before he joined the AIF he belonged to a Geelong-based company of the 70th Infantry, which was part of the 18th Infantry Brigade headquartered at Ballarat. This was one of the many civilian militias, Commonwealth-funded and equipped, that were set up to save Australia if it was ever invaded. It was an army of volunteers, often drawn from local rifle clubs.
On his return from war, Norman Bruhn would carve himself a brutal reputation in Melbourne and Sydney, building a rap sheet that ranged from larceny to vagrancy to pimping, from housebreaking to indecent exposure to extortion. He became a firm ally of the high-profile gangster, little Leslie ‘Squizzy’ Taylor. After moving north, he quickly aligned himself with a reviled Sydney razor gang whose membership included George Wallace, an enforcer who raped and slashed the faces of prostitutes who failed to hand over a large slice of their takings. After Norman was gunned down in the street, his embattled widow, Irene, was forced to defend her man when newspapers published accounts of his violent criminal history. Their descriptions of the prominent scars on his body mentioned a bullet-shaped wound on one knee, which particularly excited the press. Irene attributed this scar to a war wound suffered in France. Yet, while Bruhn’s service record refers to a septic knee, nothing else there suggests it was from a gunshot wound earned in battle. The extensive medical treatment shown on his war service record was mainly for VD.
Attached to the AIF’s 6th Battalion, Norman Bruhn embarked for active service on 2 February 1915, shipping out from Port Melbourne in the Clan MacGillivray, a converted merchantman. The main body of his unit had arrived in Egypt a couple of days before Bruhn enlisted. As part of the 2nd Australian Infantry Brigade, the 6th would participate in the second wave of the landing at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915. Norman, however, was in the battalion’s 2nd Reinforcements and did not arrive at Gallipoli until mid-May.
He not only missed the Anzacs’ landing at Gallipoli, but also the Second Battle of Krithia. In early May, the 2nd Brigade was redeployed to Helles, two hours south by sea. The Australians’ task was to reinforce Allied troops there who, after a previous failure, were about to stage a new assault on the strategic peak of Achi Baba, held by Turks and Germans. This engagement was the first time during the Great War that the AIF fought on an open field of battle. As they rushed up a narrow valley towards Achi Baba, the Australians were exposed, making them easy targets for the well-equipped enemy’s artillery and snipers, who picked them off like flies. By the end of the first phase, the 2nd Brigade had more than a thousand men dead or missing.
By the time Bruhn’s troopship steamed into the Dardanelles, his battalion had been relieved at Helles and sent back to Anzac Cove. The disadvantages of that location for an army of invaders have become part of the Anzac legend. The terrain was a nightmare of steep escarpments, deep ravines and narrow gullies descending to an exposed beach. And as the Australians dug in they created a crowded, smelly system of trenches and posts, in many ways akin to the filthy back streets of a city, as Charles Bean observed in his book The Story of Anzac:
In these deep narrow alleys the front-line troops and supports lived as completely enclosed as in the lanes of a city, having their habitations along them in niches undercut in the wall, sometimes curtained by hanging blankets or waterproof sheets. Meanwhile the company and battalion headquarters, the medical aid-post, the quartermaster’s store, and other offices became gradually as fixed and recognised as the public offices of a metropolis. The bivouacs on slopes behind the lines resembled the clustered booths at a great fair. In some respects most men came to regard the routine as one of city life.
Bruhn landed at Gallipoli during a period of high tension. The Anzacs were constantly harassed by the enemy at close quarters – an enemy commanding higher territory and much better armed with big guns. Unloading supplies from ship to beach was dangerous. At night men slept crowded in the trenches, wearing their greatcoats and armed with their guns, ready to respond to attack. Under cover of dark, some brave Anzacs headed into no-man’s-land to reconnoitre. Had the enemy changed position, and were they preparing for a fresh attack?
Norman Bruhn lasted just a couple of months before he was hospitalised with influenza at Mudros, a small port on the Greek island of Lemnos. Illness was rife among the Anzac troops that July, with hundreds of men hospitalised with dysentery and fever. The bodies of the dead, the accumulation of refuse, the manure of pack animals, the flies – all contributed to the unsanitary conditions at Gallipoli.
The crowded tent hospitals of Mudros were no picnic, especially once the dysentery cases began arriving. Bruhn stayed in for 11 days, and was discharged to duty in time for the Battle of Lone Pine in August. The 2nd Brigade distinguished itself in this engagement, winning nine Victoria Crosses. What role Bruhn played, if any, is unknown. In September, the 6th Battalion was relieved, and sent to Lemnos. There, on the 17th, Norman Bruhn was readmitted to hospital, again suffering flu. The patient finally rejoined his battalion on 6 November.
Back in Egypt after the Anzac forces evacuated Gallipoli in December, Bruhn went AWL early in the new year and as a result received 28 days of field punishment no. 2. This meant that he was handcuffed, and possibly fettered as well, and forced to carry out heavy labour. Unpleasant as that undoubtedly was, it was still an improvement on field punishment no. 1, in which the offender was not only shackled but also tied to a fixed object such as a gun wheel for up to two hours at a time. If the army manual was followed to the letter, the offender’s arms would be outstretched and his legs bound together, giving the appearance of crucifixion. At its extreme, FP no. 1 was a cruel punishment that even some officers abhorred.
In late February, Bruhn was assigned to the 46th Battalion, formed from Gallipoli veterans and reinforcements newly arrived from Australia. In late March, the new battalion marched out to Serapeum, in desert near the Suez Canal. The Turks had been active in this area, and the 46th’s job was to help defend it. None of the members of the unit, Norman included, could have enjoyed the three-day march across such unwel- coming territory, each man wearing new boots and carrying 25 kilograms of kit. ‘Weather – hot, Water – scarce, Surface of ground – very deep sand,’ the battalion diary recorded. By the third day, many men had exhausted their ration of water and food, and had to complete the journey on an empty tank.
It was all too much for Norman: a week after the unit’s arrival at Serapeum, he went AWL for four days. Where he went remains a mystery, but for that offence he received seven days close confinement and forfeited five days pay. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Two days later, Norman exited camp again and was AWL for a month, probably reacquainting himself with the booze and other temptations on offer in Cairo’s sleazier quarters.
Returned to camp, he copped 28 days of field punishment no. 2 and forfeited 30 days pay. The day this sentence was over, the army shipped him out from Alexandria, bound for Marseilles. The rest of the 46th had already left for France a few days before, and he was to join them. They would soon play their part on the battlefields of northern France. The question was whether Norman would be there with them.
Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood had a message for the Anzac forces heading to France: ‘You will undoubtedly be faced with temptations in France, for we shall have to pass through and be billeted in densely populated villages. Drink will, I am afraid, be obtainable, while villages will mostly be full of women and children, whose fathers, husbands and brothers are fighting for their country in the trenches against our common enemy.’
This account of France’s temptations must have been music to Norman Bruhn’s ears. It appears he missed the rest of the general’s appeal for good behaviour, particularly the part about booze: ‘That you will respect the women I have not the slightest doubt, because I know how absolutely repugnant the idea of any offence against a defenceless woman is to every Australian and New Zealander. It is against drink, however, that I particularly wish now to warn you, and to implore you to take hold of yourselves, and in the case of every man to absolutely make up his mind and determine for himself that he will not give way to it, and that he will remember that the honour of either Australia or New Zealand is in his personal keeping . . . Remember that a few black sheep can give a bad name to a whole flock.’
The 46th ended up near Bailleul, between Hazebrouck and Ypres, before moving on to Fleurbaix where they went into the trenches, sustaining a couple of casualties before the battalion was relieved. The war in France was very different from the war at Gallipoli, where the Australians were pinned down to a small area. In France they were deployed and redeployed, often by train, and often at short notice. In this fluid situation, Bruhn found his way west to Étaples, near Calais, and went AWL there for 11 days.
Étaples was a working port and a major railhead, with all the hustle and bustle and illicit opportunity which went along with that. Perhaps it reminded him of Geelong. It was also the site of a big military camp, at the height of the war bursting at the seams with 100,000 men. The camp had a detention centre run by a provost marshal and was thick with military police. When Norman was picked up, his penalty was FP no. 1 for drunkenness and being AWL. While still under this punishment, he copped another seven days of FP no. 2 for making a false statement to an officer in the field.
His unit meanwhile had had their first really serious taste of action. On 4 August, they were called in to supply the front-line troops of the 2nd Division at Pozières. Over late July and early August, three Australian divisions fought to take this French village that would become a byword for blood sacrifice. More than 12,000 Australians perished at Pozières, many blown to bits by almost constant German bombardment. The 46th battalion, to which Bruhn still belonged at least on paper, was mainly used as supply and reserve troops in the first stage of the action. But they had two stints in the trenches, and managed to defeat a German counterattack.
The story of Sydney’s gangland crime in the 1920s might have played out differently if Norman Bruhn had been at the Battle of Pozières, but by then the authorities had apparently assessed his character as a soldier, and temporarily parked him at the Australian depot at Étaples, where he could do least harm.
In early September 1916 Bruhn was admitted to hospital with myalgia (muscle pain), then on 15 September discharged. Three days later he was off again, and not sighted until 14 November. He was found lying down drunk seven kilometres from base in a wood at Camiers. One of the arresting officers told the subsequent court martial that Bruhn ‘smelt strongly of drink’ and became ‘very abusive’ as he was being ‘assisted’ to a lorry for the drive back to detention at Étaples. But the accused man protested that he was innocent. ‘I never went to sleep after it and I remember quite plainly seeing the police arrive. I was not drunk,’ Bruhn told the hearing.
He had spent the day of his arrest with friends, he said. They went to a hospital to see ‘a chum’. Afterwards, ‘we had three or four bottles of wine between four of us, not more’. The charges against Bruhn were drunkenness and desertion. If he had been in the British Army, he would have been dead: deserters were shot. But the leadership of the AIF refused to impose the death penalty on their volunteer army.
He was sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labour. Only a couple of weeks later the sentence was suspended, probably because Bruhn’s battalion was moving on. The 46th were briefly at Dernancourt, then St Vaast, where their time was filled with general training and musketry while they waited for their next engagement.
A week after rejoining his unit, just before New Year’s Eve, Norman Bruhn broke camp and went missing until the second week of February. He was now classed as a deserter.
A dose of the clap landed Bruhn in hospital in Étaples in early March 1917. There he stayed for almost seven weeks before rejoining his unit, only to last a day before being readmitted under arrest to hospital for ‘VDG’ (venereal disease, gonorrhoea). This became the pattern of Bruhn’s war, shuffling constantly between the field punishment compound, the hospital, then back to his unit, where he would break out again.
He had been AWL for more than two months when the Armistice was declared on 11 November 1918. On 23 November he was arrested, and a few days later admitted to hospital at Le Havre for VD. He escaped again and was eventually arrested at Amiens in February 1919. He was held there by the provost marshal, ‘pending disposal’, but then escaped from the escort taking him back to his unit.
It was not just that Bruhn had developed a taste for life on the lam in France: he knew that now the war was over the military authorities would have the time and attention to discipline him properly.
At last, on 23 October 1919, he was sent to England. Eight days later he was court-martialled in London, charged with being AWL in France between 29 March and 17 October. He was sentenced to nine months detention and admitted to Lewes Detention Barracks. A bit over a month later, he was shipped home and the unexpired portion of his sentence was remitted. The authorities had washed their hands of him.
Norman Bruhn’s war finally ended on 4 February 1920 when the disgraced digger disembarked in Melbourne and was handed his discharge papers, stamped ‘Services no longer required’. Befitting his misconduct, Bruhn forfeited his entitlement to the standard military decorations and medals. The only reminders of his war service were his scars and tattoos. On his left forearm ‘1915’ and ‘Egypt’ were inscribed above and below a Union Jack and a French flag.
Norman was not the only Bruhn who went to war. His younger brother, Stanley, had joined the 6th Battalion a month before him, and his older brothers William and Oscar also served in France.
Stanley Bruhn was probably the military lion of the family. Just 19 when he landed at Gallipoli, he became well known there for his souveniring. On 28 August, he and another private, Harry Lane, were in a party detailed to help unload a barge moored just off the beach and were copped for pilfering a case of whisky. Both men received 90 days imprisonment, without hard labour. The penalties were later suspended, as sentences often were at the front. When Lane’s record of conduct was read to the hearing, it was without blemish. Bruhn’s file was not quite as glowing. It stated: ‘Has been with the Battalion about three months. During that period his character and general conduct may be classed as fair.’
Next, Stanley earned himself 40 days field punishment for taking a boat while he was stationed at Lemnos. The vessel belonged to a local Greek resident. A month or so later he was off to Marseilles where he joined the British Expeditionary Forces and soon found himself in more strife. He got drunk and threatened an NCO, for which he received 14 days field punishment. But unlike his brother Norman, the 6th did not dispense with Stanley’s services, and even promoted him. As the war chewed up Australian lives, and officers and NCOs died in their hundreds, replacements had to be found. In 1916, Stanley Bruhn became lance corporal.
As part of the 1st Division, Bruhn’s battalion played a key role in France. It served in the Battle of the Somme, then was sent to Flanders. Later it returned to France and played its part in the Battle of Bullecourt. It participated in the Third Battle of Ypres, and was involved in staving off the massive German assault of early 1918. Bruhn played his part but, as at Gallipoli, it was booze that brought him down.
In May 1918, at Hazebrouck, he was pinched for stealing champagne. This village had been under sustained German attack before it was saved by the Australian forces. The locals were naturally grateful – up to a point. Madame Gabrielle Smeets Leroy told a court martial how a group of Australian soldiers, which included Stanley, had arrived at her house one day and sat themselves down in her kitchen. It was an hour or so before midday so she fed them some soup. They repaid her by raiding her cellar.
‘I saw the accused [Bruhn] go into my cellar and pick up some bottles of champagne,’ she told the hearing through a military translator. ‘I closed the door of the cellar at once. Then someone took me by the throat. Then the accused and another man ran away with the champagne.’
Mme Leroy said she often sold champagne to soldiers, but Bruhn and his pals had not parted with any cash. ‘No one paid me. They went to the cellar without asking.’ Some time later, Bruhn returned to her house with other soldiers. ‘The accused stayed in the kitchen while another soldier with a revolver in his hand went into the cellar. The accused had a stick in his hand. They all went away with bottles of champagne.’
The following morning Bruhn and yet another contingent arrived at the house and headed straight for the kitchen, where this time Bruhn descended into the cellar, emerging with more of the sparkling stuff. The tribunal found him guilty of stealing. He was sentenced to five years, which was later reduced to two years imprisonment with hard labour. The army council reviewed the case and promptly quashed the conviction.
The incident is sketchily referred to in As Rough as Bags, a history of the 6th Battalion. Without naming Bruhn, it tells of how a group of soldiers had vanished from the lines, ‘and to the astonishment of their sergeant, reappeared two hours later, somewhat the worse for wear, and carrying a pack full of Gold Top champagne bottles’:
It appears that a well-stocked, but deserted cellar had been found some nights earlier . . . and they had been sneaking out each night for unauthorised refreshment.
Stanley (Stan to his mates) appears to have been a popular member of the battalion, particularly when it came to sporting contests. He starred as bowler in a cricket match played during a stop at Racquinghem camp near Hazebrouck, with figures of 8 for 20 in one match and 9 for 22 in another.
Six days after the Armistice, Lance Corporal Stanley Bruhn was promoted to corporal and appointed acting sergeant, a sign of how depleted the NCO ranks were by the end of the war. It would be another seven months before he made it home and was discharged. Unlike Norman, he earned his war medals.
Older brother William George Bruhn was 28 when he pulled on a khaki uniform in December 1916. His enlistment papers showed he had a large scar on the right forearm and another on the left cheek. A locomotive fireman by trade, Bill Bruhn had already been in trouble with the law.
By late 1916, Bruhn, Service Number 452, was in France with the Railway Unit, 2nd Section. Things went well until early 1918, when he was severely reprimanded for giving out locomotive coal. It is not stated whether the Australian corporal sold or traded the coal, only that his actions were prejudicial to good order and military discipline.
William Bruhn saw out the rest of the war without a further blemish on his record. But on a cold afternoon in Flanders, in late January 1919, he accidentally shot a citizen: a small boy, in fact. He was charged with conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline, and true to the Bruhn family tradition, pleaded not guilty at his court martial.
The evidence against him was overwhelming, however, beginning with fellow soldier, Sapper David Harper, who said that on the afternoon in question he was sitting in the back of a truck with Bruhn, who was checking a malfunction on his automatic revolver. It was an American service model owned by Bruhn. He’d only had it for a few weeks and had never fired it. Harper gave evidence that the weapon had jammed and Bruhn had asked for a knife to prise the bullet free.
‘I heard the report of the discharge of the revolver,’ Harper said. ‘Bruhn then said, “My God, I’ve shot a boy.” On looking out the door I saw a boy lying on his back and blood coming from a wound in the front of his forehead.’
Bruhn immediately reported the incident to his superior officer. Questioned by Charles D’Haenens, Chef de Gendarmerie at Roulers, Harper said he did not see Bruhn point the revolver deliberately at the boy. Crowds of children often approached the military convoys for food and small change. The panel heard that Bruhn had previously dispersed a small gathering.
In his evidence, Bruhn said he had obtained the address of the dead boy’s parents and paid for the funeral out of his own pocket. ‘I feel the death of the boy very acutely,’ he told the hearing. He was found guilty and was ordered to forfeit his seniority.
Despite this incident, the stocky fireman and the AIF parted company on amicable terms and he collected his war medals and tucked his honourable discharge under his arm, then re-enlisted in the family’s criminal empire. Like many returning veterans who could not keep out of trouble with the law, his war service record came in handy whenever he was asking for a lighter sentence.
Last but not least, there was Oscar Charles Bruhn, another son of the original Oscar, who signed up with the 3rd Machine Gun Battalion. After his wife died, the 26-year-old engine cleaner left his daughter in the care of relatives and enlisted in October 1916. His was an undistinguished war, disrupted by VD. Two weeks after disembarking in England, he was admitted to hospital in Bulford suffering from the complaint. In December 1917, he was back in hospital with another dose, this time for 140 days. In between treatments, he went AWL.
As the war ended, authorities remained alarmed at the number of infected servicemen, particularly diggers, who were still in England, spreading VD through the local community. By late March 1919, Bruhn returned to Bulford with VD, where he remained for 62 days.
Eventually he shipped back to Australia with a clean-ish record. He had spent most of his war in and out of hospital with a series of unsavoury conditions. In addition to recurrent treatments for VD, there was a spell at Belton Hospital in the Midlands for a tumour on the penis, and treatment at Eastbourne Military Hospital for a painful anal fistula.
Whether they were contracting the clap, going AWL, pinching booze or mishandling firearms, the Bruhn brothers had undistinguished careers in arms. No doubt the military authorities thought that Norman in particular was more trouble than he was worth.
They were not the only crime family to answer the call to arms. Clans like the Cutmores, Devines and Taylors all contributed more than one member, though some didn’t actually make it out of Australia.
Excerpted from Khaki Crims and Desperadoes by Russell Robinson. Copyright © 2014 by Russell Robinson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.