George MCQUAY ... A soldier lost and found...

Pre war photo of George McQuay
"...with fine determined face and almost sartorial fastidiousness just before he enlisted from Auckland with the Fifth Contingent."
We have such a better understanding of the impacts of post traumatic stress disorder  [PTSD] nowadays.  One of the tragedies of World War 1 was that of course mental illness was not perceived as an illness per se. 
The impact on men suffering after witnessing horrific sights and/or battle shocks has become well known now.  The angst caused to many families with men arriving back home having to recuperate, changed forever can't be imagined in some cases - very few support systems in place at that time. 

I have recently found the story of a Kiwi soldier who appears to have suffered much.  After absenting without leave, he was considered a deserter, only to have that status rescinded in 1928 when he was identified in a 'mental hospital' in Sydney, Australia, a decade after disappearing.  The torment his family must have gone through is unimaginable.
On the 28th April 1928 the Evening post reported:

Arrangements are being made by the Government to have George Thomas M'Quay, the New Zealand soldier inmate of Callan Park Hospital, Sydney, whose identity has remained a mystery since he was found wandering about in an Australian uniform in London in 1918, brought to the Dominion for treatment. The Minister of Defence (the Hon. F. J. Rolleston) stated yesterday afternoon that the Government had considered M'Quay's case, and as there appeared to be no doubt as to the identification, it had agreed to accept him for treatment as a war service patient. Accordingly arrangements had been made with the Commonwealth Government for his return to New Zealand at an early date. Mrs. M'Quay, of Orlando [sic] street, Stratford, mother of M'Quay, left for Australia yesterday afternoon by the Maunganui to bring her son back, and before sailing expressed her pleasure with what the Government had done and intended doing.
George was born in Auckland, New Zealand on 25 August 1886,  son of Emma Louisa and Robert MCQUAY. He had siblings Robert William born c1885 [who  also saw service in WW1]; Emma Eliza born c1890 and Ethel May born c1892.

On enlisting, his occupation was a carpenter.  His description was given as 5ft 6.5 inches, weighing 140lb with a fair complexion; blue eyes; brown hair and his religion was Church of England. He had a scar over plexus of left hand at wrist and a flag tattooed over left deltoid region He was living with 'Nurse McQuay' in Stratford - this was his mother. By 1928 his mother was living in Olando [sic] Street in Stratford and his father was living at Waihou - apparently separated for many years. 

George was allocated military service number 12/2582 and posted to the Wellington Infantry Regiment, later to be transferred to the Auckland Infantry Regiment.  On 9 September 1915 he embarked at Alexandria for Gallipoli and joined his unit.
The following ensued:

2 Nov 1915 Madras Bronchitis re-joined unit 24 Nov 1915

29 Dec 1915 Disembarked ex “21.T.Vansora” Alexandrina

His conduct sheet states that at Moascar, when in confinement, escaping, absenting himself without leave from 6.30pm 27 Jan 1916 to 8.15 pm 18 Feb 1916 – 22 days 2 hrs.  Punishment: 28 days detention and forfeits 2 days pay.

 6 April 1916 Embarked for France at Alexandria “Franconia

At Morbeeque [sic] 18 April 1916 he was charged with breaking  into Iron Rations and his punishment for this was to forfeit 1 days pay


21 June 1916 Armentières

23 June 1916 Admitted hospital Morbeque - Melancholia
29 June 1916 re-joined unit Morbeque
13  July 1916 soldier absented himself Armentieres
Medical reports stated:
"Dull, depressed and has not improved"
"Moody and apathetic, shows loss of memory completely disorientated. Takes no interest in anything, expression vacuous appears semi stuporous. Recommended for discharge as permanently unfit." F. McLeathy Capt. R.A.M.C.
"Improved.  At first refused work but now does certain amount of work.  Demeanour much brighter.
Patient appears dull and stupid.  Memory very bad. Suffering from Hallucinations of hearing.  Says he heard voices coming over on the boat.  Easily startled, Suffers from slight headache.  Distressing dreams.  Wakes up in a fright." 
26/12/16. Does not hear noises so frequently,  Does not start of dream so much as before but still feels shaky and nervous.

27/12/16 Broke leave from Broughton Hall, in Pyjamas.  Sent to Cottage.
28/12/16 Removed bedding from S. Room cottage and broke leave.  Major, A.A.M.C.
15 Sept 1916  Appeared before a medical board and recommended for his discharge as permanently unfit. F.N. Qudgers, Major, R.A.M.C. Registrar, The Lord Derby War Hospital.
Remarks bearing in the cause, nature or treatment of the cause: Stress of campaign, Rest Liberal. Improved Jas. B. Lewis, Major"
9 July 1917 Recommend discharge, having returned over 6 months.  Total incapacity.  Requires further Hospital treatment.
25 May 1918 Still absent
11 Sep 1919 Struck off strength as a NZEF DESERTER

Once discovered after his long disappearance his military records state: 
  • Discharged no longer physically fit for service [with arrow to] discharge prepared under telephone instructions from A G 28 June 1928
  • Desertion of this soldier assumed to be due to his mental condition and discharge has been issued to him “on account of being no longer physically fit for war service.” See ministerial letter of 27th June 1928.   23 June 1920 Discharged as a Deserter statement was struck out.

He received his decorations on 6 July 1928. British War Medal; Victory Medal and 1914-15 Star.

He suffered shock after being buried under sandbags as a result of shelling.  The medical fraternity believed his insanity was proven by loss of memory, mental depression and mental hebetube [dull & lethargic].  They stated he was silent and melancholy; incapable of recognising his position or of keeping count of time, takes no interest in anything.  The medical board attributed it to the stress of the campaign and that it was a permanent disability with total incapacity.

Comprehensive coverage of story.  click on each photo to open

The mother, sister and brother of the mystery man George Thomas McQuay.  Both mother and daughter are nurses."
For full newspaper report, READ HERE

NZ Truth , Issue 1166, 5 April 1928, Page 1
Wandering Digger

Could not possibly have been inspired by a diseased imagination. This poor, broken creature managed to tell the authorities at Callan Park Asylum, Sydney, that he had enlisted IN Australia with the Second Battalion IN 1914 and had gone to Egypt, indeed a land of riddles; thence to Gallipoli — Gallipoli of the treacherous slopes and white crosses. At the evacuation, he asserted, he was shifted to Tele el Kebir and later went on to France with the 15th Battalion, being among the first batch of Australians in action on the Western Front. He had experienced a month of stationary warfare, when fate moved a relentless, set purposeful, hand. A shell burst on the dug-out in which McQuay was sheltered and the structure collapsed on top of him. They pulled him out of the debris a mere number — a soldier without memory or identity — knowing not from whence he came or whither he was bound. That was the only construction the Australian authorities could place on what they knew and what McQuay had intermittently mumbled to them when he felt communicative. After a sojourn in a French hospital, he somehow reached London. One day a digger was seen wandering  aimlessly and pathetically around the streets of the British capital. Yes, one can be lonely even in vast London. The digger was wearing the Australian uniform and was therefore placed in the hands of the Australian authorities. Obviously a hospital case, a man incapable of looking after himself — physically and morally ill — he was not sent back to the front. Subsequently McQuay reached Australia on the S.S. Karoola, landing in Melbourne and then being entrained to Sydney. But the stalwart young man who had gone away a soldier found himself a gibbering, unknown, irreconcilable nobody. At Broughton Hill military hospital, as it then was, he was entered as a patient, and it was there that he told a disconnected, but logical, story. His name was "George" and the surname "Brown" was either attached' to him at some period before his arrival — in order to give him at least some semblance of identity — or else he assumed it as the next best thing in an extremity of mental instability. However, from being a patient of meekness and contentment, the unhappy digger developed into a very bad mental case, utterly irresponsible at times and liable to strange fits of violence in the nature of hurling himself on the floor, contorting himself or else suddenly attacking the person nearest him..."   Read in full

George died at Stratford 28 Dec 1951 and is buried at Kopuatama Cemetery, Stratford. Block SOLD1 Plot 40.  His brother William Robert died 20 March 1951 and is buried in the same cemetery, as is his sister Emma Eliza and her husband Charles MATHER.

Other links with parts of the story:

Emma Eliza MCQUAY, George's sister married in 1922 to Charles Gordon MATHER
Ethel May MCQUAY, George's sister died in 1893 aged 8 months
William Robert MCQUAY, George's brother, married Annie PILKINGTON 20 Dec1923

Emma Louisa WHITE married Robert MCQUAY c1884. There is a marriage record c1919 for Emma Louisa MCQUAY [George's mother] to John Edwin KNUDSEN so it is interesting to see her name recorded throughout as Mrs McQuay still.  John KNUDSEN died 1953 aged 78 so this would indicate his birthdate as c1875, making him quite a bit younger than Emma.



Military records - Archway, ArchivesNZ
George’s Cenotaph database record:
NZ Department of Internal Affairs – Historic BDM indexes


©2013 Sarndra Lees


  1. Thanks for this Sandy, a great account and so important to record these things. Reading the war records of my great-uncle Alf Butler, there are notes of his having gone awol on 3 - 4 occasions. From what I can work out he was put on 'tunnelling' duty which (after a bit of research) I am guessing meant he had to cart dirt out through the long tunnels, to the mouth of the tunnels - a horrible job and I am guessing it was punishment for desertion. He died about 2 weeks later of wounds. My heart just ached for him when I read the record. The death of his (younger) brother at Gallipoli must also have had its impact on him.

  2. Oh Kay how sad :(

    Aren't the stories still amazingly powerful when we read them. My heart ached for this fellow above [and his family] when I found the article online that started off my search about him. So too it must have indeed been wrenching to read of your great uncle's trials and subsequent death...more so because he was your blood.

    I have a great interest on the effects of the men and their families that the war caused. Often forgotten even in this day and age when the focus is memorialising those that died...although rightfully so, the men that returned often lived their lives out, sometimes shortened due to war effects, in a fog of mental illness.

    Thanks so much for your feedback.



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