War brides: where there is war there is love

Media release: Wednesday, 10 June 2015

During World War I, more than 13,000 Australian soldiers married while overseas on service.

Most of their new wives were English women the diggers met while on leave, while training or while in hospital. Some men also married French or Belgium women. Some took it to excess; one Australian man was found to have married eight times during the war.

Greg Cope, from the National Archives' Brisbane office, has found a treasure trove of information on war brides and will share his findings in two public talks on Wednesday 17 June and Friday 19 June.

'Possibly the most infamous war bride was Matilda Tess who at the age of 16 married an Australian soldier in 1917,' said Greg.

'She had been a prostitute since the age of 14 and met her husband on the streets of London. Her soldier was Queensland shearer, Sapper James Devine and, to be with him, she travelled to Australia on a special brides' ship in 1920.'

Within several years, for all the wrong reasons, she would become the most notorious woman in Australia – Tilly Devine.

'Tilly and her husband "Big Jim" led a life of crime in Sydney over many decades,' said Greg. 'James Devine's service records reveal that his criminal tendencies had certainly been recognised during the war. His return to Australia was delayed by eight months because he was in jail in England.'

While on a break in London in January 1916, official war correspondent Charles Bean noted in his diary that girls 'are simply throwing themselves at our mens' heads'. He wrote than many men were marrying, but he feared the marriages were being taken on rather lightly.

The Australian Government took on the responsibility of transporting the wives and fiancés to Australia. Some soldiers wrote to the government, insisting that their wifes' passage should not be funded. While many women arrived in Australia to be met by their new families, some arrived here with only a name and address that did not exist.

World War II created different sets of war brides. For the first time, Australia saw many of its own women become war brides, with an estimated 15,000 marrying American servicemen and leaving Australia, often forever. Many Australian soldiers married English or European women, with more than 20,000 brides coming to Australia.

Greg Cope will give his talk War brides: where there is war there is love at the National Archives Brisbane office, from 10 to 11.30 am on Wednesday 17 June and again on Friday 19 June, from 2 to 3.30 pm. The talks are free but bookings are essential on (07) 3249 4224 or gregory.cope@naa.gov.au

Contact information

  • Greg Cope (Director, Queensland State Office)
    t (07) 3249 4224 m 0400 753 854
  • Elizabeth Masters (Media Officer)
    t (02) 6212 3957 m 0417 247 157 e elizabeth.masters@naa.gov.au

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