Captain Charles MILLS 1876-1937
AWM Collections, P03236.097

Charles MILLS

War Service
Egypt and Western Front, POW Germany and Switzerland
Prior Military Service
Senior cadets 3 years; 1896-1909 Royal Australian Artillery (No. 1041); 1909-1915 Royal Australian Engineers (No. 180)
12 Aug 1915 at Melbourne, VIC (Transferred to AIF)
09 Nov 1915 from Melbourne, VIC, on the HMAT A62 Wandilla
Next of Kin
Wife – Jessie Mills, “Lexie Glen” Foam St, Hampton, VIC, With 4 children, one died in infancy
Date & Place of Birth
17 Jul 1876, Cheltenham, VIC
Mary Ann (nee CARTER) and John MILLS
Marital Status
John, Roderick, Henry, Alfred, Robert, William, Stanley, Walter, half-brothers Alfred, Thomas
Electrical fitter
Physical Description
5 feet 8 1/2 inches, 168 pounds (174.0cm, 76.2kg)
Eyes hazel, Hair brown, Complexion dark
Prisoner of War at Fromelles, 20 July 1916 - released 11 January 1919
Returned to Australia
12 Dec 1919. Retired as Lt Colonel, Army Headquarters Victoria
Fought at Fromelles, survived. Taken prisoner. Died, 21 April 1937, Victoria - aged 60
Place of Burial
Cremated, Fawkner Memorial Park Cemetery, Victoria - Garden of Remembrance 1, Section 37, Niche 81
Positively Identified
Yes, None

Fromelles and the Later Humanitarian works of Capt Mills

When researching a soldier’s records for the Soldier Stories of Fromelles, there is one item that comes up (all too) often – a note from a Capt Mills. This is his story.

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Note certified by a “Capt. Mills” on the Red Cross file for one of hundreds of Australian soldiers. Sadly, this is a part of dedicated attempts to locate and/or determine the fate of so many soldiers who fought in the Battle of Fromelles. This is the story of that “Capt. Mills”.
source AWM: Australian Red Cross Society Wounded and Missing Enquiry Files – Patrick McManus

Charles Mills – His early life

Charles Mills was born in Cheltenham Victoria on 17 July 1876 to Mary Ann (nee Carter) and John Mills, the seventh of their nine sons. John and Mary Ann were farmers in Heatherton, near Cheltenham, Victoria.

Charles unfortunately lost his mother when he was 6 years old and his youngest brother was only 2. His father, John, remarried a year later – to Eliza Noy, and they had another two sons. A family of eleven boys!

While Charles went on to have a very notable military career, his older brother Roderick 1869-1940 became more widely known at the time.

Charles’ brother: “Saltbush Bill” Roderick Hill 1869-1940

At 14 years old, Charles’ brother, Roderick, moved to Queensland. He was an excellent horseman spending many hours out in the saltbush on his horse. The station owner he worked for dubbed him ‘Saltbush Bill’, and he is said to have provided inspiration for Banjo Paterson’s Saltbush character.

Roderick also developed a reputation as a champion whip-cracker, touring the country in roughriding shows and doing vaudeville. He even attracted the attention of King George V during a tour of Australia and the King invited “Saltbush Bill” to perform at Buckingham Palace. After a full routine of his tricks, the finale was cracking out several bars of “God Save the King” on his 65-foot whip.

Roderick married and lived in Heatherton where he and his wife, Hannah, had a family of eleven children.

Source: Peninsula Essence 16 January 2019, ‘Saltbush Bill’ – the Balnarring connection

In 1899, Charles married Jessie Cameron 1876-1929 and had four children – Alex 1900-27, Florence 1904-36, Glennie Millicent 1905-76, and Ronald 1910-10.

Early Military Career

In his teens, Charles served for four years in the senior cadets and he had “in every way, proved himself a thorough soldier”. He also won first prize in the Senior Cadet Rifle matches three years running and was described by his commanding officer as “the best shot in the senior cadets”.

Source: NAA: B2455, MILLS, Charles – First AIF Personnel Dossiers 1914-1920, page 45.

After he finished school, in which he earned a 1st Class Certificate of Education, he worked for a while as an electrical fitter, but then chose to pursue a military career. Charles enlisted in the Royal Australian Artillery in early 1896 with his first five years as a gunner and a bomber. His first promotion to Corporal was in mid-1901. In 1906, he became a Sergeant Electrician. In 1909, he moved to the Royal Australian Engineers and by early 1915 had become a Warrant Officer.

Off to War

The Australian Imperial Force was formed in late 1914 for support of the War in Europe and experienced military men were in demand. In August 1915 Charles was transferred to the AIF and assigned to the 31st Infantry Battalion, initially as a Lieutenant, but was promoted to Captain in October. They departed for Egypt on 9 November and arrived in Suez on 7 December. Their time in Egypt was spent training and guarding the Suez Canal.

On 15 June 1916, the 31st began to make their way to the Western Front, first by train from Moascar to Alexandria and then aboard the troopship Hororata, sailing to Marseilles. After disembarking on 22 June, they took trains to Steenbeque, 35 kilometres from Fleurbaix, arriving on 26 June.

After settling in and continuing their training and planning for an upcoming attack, they were into the trenches for the first time on 11 July. The battalion strength was 979 soldiers.

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Map of the Fromelles battlefield showing the 31st Battalion’s position in context of other units.
source FFFAIF:

The original plan for an attack was on July 17th, but bad weather caused it to be postponed.

Charles was in the front line on the 19th and at 4.00pm the 31st were in position for their attack. Their assault began at 5.58pm, with four waves of men going over the parapet. According to the battalion’s war diaries (AWM):

“Just prior to launching the attack, the enemy bombardment was hellish, and it seemed as if they knew accurately the time set.”

War Diaries AWM4 23/48/12 31st Infantry Battalion July 1916, page 24

The pre-battle bombardment had a significant impact on German first line trenches and the 31st quickly advanced to the second line, which was mostly ditches filled with water. Even with the initial support, they remained under heavy artillery from both sides.

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Extract from the unit’s war diaries describing events at the Battle of Fromelles.
source War Diaries AWM4 23/48/12 31st Infantry Battalion July 1916, page 24

Unfortunately, with the speed of their advances, ‘friendly’ artillery fire caused a large number of Australian casualties. They were able to take out a German machine gun, but they were being seriously enfiladed from their left flank. Fighting continued throughout the night, with heavy firing from concealed machine guns from Delangre Farm and houses.

Private Albert Porter (1088) said he was bombing with Mills for the best part of the night and he confirmed that they had advanced into the German trenches.

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Evidence given by Private Albert Frederick Porter, 1088, as to his knowledge of the fate of Captain Mills.
source AWM: Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Files, Captain Charles MILLS, page 12

At first light on the morning of 20 July 1916, German soldiers had showered Charles’ position with grenades before rushing in from the flanks, firing their rifles from the hip and overwhelming the soldiers. Charles’ right hand had been lacerated during the attack.

A German NCO stopped his men on the parapet, jumped into the waterlogged ditch and seized Mills by his wounded hand. ‘Why did you not put up your hands, officer?’ he asked.

The rest of the 31st were out of the trenches by the end of the day on the 20th. The headcount was just 512 soldiers of the 979 who began the battle.

After the battle, Charles was pronounced “missing”, as many had reported him as wounded and/or dead. As Private Patrick Cloutt (1998) and Private John Bradford (3762) had stated:

“No bodies were brought in; he was never seen again.”
Source: AWM: Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Files, Captain Charles MILLS, page 11


As the fighting came to an end, Mills and other prisoners were escorted along a communication trench to a farmhouse that was a collecting station for prisoners of war. A German medical officer took care of the walking wounded and Charles had his hand cleaned and bandaged.

As part of his interrogation by a German intelligence officer, Mills had to turn out the contents of his pockets, a photograph and a diary. The diary was of particular interest because it gave an account of the 31st Battalion’s activities since it arrived in France from Egypt just a few weeks earlier. The diary also contained a copy of the orders issued by British XI Corps headquarters that revealed to the Germans that the Fromelles attack was nothing more than a feint.

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A German photograph of Captain Charles Mills, 31st Battalion (left) in conversation with Hauptmann Fritz Lübke (taking notes) at the Neuhof farmhouse on 20 July 1916. The diary containing British XI Corps’ order for the Fromelles attack can be seen in Mills’ tunic pocket.
source AWM Collections A01549

Despite knowing the British intent behind the attach, German commanders decided to keep its troops in the Lille area.

While the discovery of the orders had no bearing on German activities in the area, it shows that divulging operational information to the enemy, either willingly or unintentionally, was a reality of captivity in the First World War. Charles later confessed that it was ‘a serious error of judgement’ to allow such an important document to fall into their hands.

The material above was largely sourced from Aaron Pegram’s extensive research for his ANU thesis, “Surviving the War - Australian Prisoners on the Western Front 1916-18.

A Prisoner, but Already Supporting Finding the Missing

Six months after his capture, Charles was at a camp for Allied officers at Hannoversch Münden in Lower Saxony.

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Prisoners in the grounds of the Hannoversch Munden Officers' lager (camp); this is an authorised postcard for sending to friends. In the background is the Weser River, showing construction and material for bridging the river and training purposes, used by the Germans.
source AWM Collections, A01701

While here, he wrote to his commanding officer describing life as a prisoner of war:

‘Our daily life is much as we make it. Daily routine is in our own hands, and except for a roll call at 9.30 morning and night, we are left alone, which suits us very well’.

He spent his days in captivity reading, exercising, learning French and German, and enjoying walks beyond the prison walls. His captors were ‘uniformly courteous’ and the food was decent and better than expected. His greatest concern was the uncertainty of the war’s duration. ‘Time hangs! Day after day with absolutely nothing to do! I have led a busy and active life and find this enforced lack of occupation very trying’.

AWM, Mary Chomley papers, 1DRL/0615 - Letter from Capt Charles Mills, 31 Bn, to Maj James Coglin

As result of his wounds, Charles was among the first Australians exchanged for internment, in Germany and Switzerland. To be transferred, the wounded had to have a disability that would negate their further military service or interned over 18 months.

He was able to have surgery on his hand and he wrote on 8 February 1918:

"I am writing with left hand. Right hand operated on last Thursday. All O.K. Stones and Wells getting on alright too."

AWM: Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Files – MILLS, Charles, page 3
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Charles Mills recovering during his Switzerland internment.
source AWM collections, P0326.150

Charles spent the remaining twelve months of the War in internment camps as the senior representative of approximately 100 interned Australians. During this time, he was dedicated to finding missing members of the AIF whose names appeared on prisoner of war lists from Berlin and relaying their whereabouts to London via the International Red Cross Office in Berne. This was the beginning of his Red Cross Wounded and Missing information exchanges.

After Armistice, he arrived in England on 11 January, 1919.

Charles’ Quest for the Missing Prisoners of War

There were huge post-war efforts to locate the graves of missing Australian soldiers and prisoners. All told, there were 3,848 members of the AIF who surrendered to German forces in the fighting on the Western Front and all but 327 survived.

Source Aaron Pegram “Surviving the War - Australian Prisoners on the Western Front 1916-18”

Instead of returning home, Charles stayed in Europe and was seconded to work with the Australian and International Red Cross to locate the missing Australian prisoners of war.

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19 April 1919 Meeting of British, Australian and German Red Cross representatives. Identified from left to right: Herr Trier, Manager British Section Frankfurt Red Cross; Mr W Lerffi, Enquiry Branch, British Military Mission; Captain C Mills, Australian Red Cross Society; Herr Lissmann, Director Frankfurt Red Cross Society; Major H Charley, Manager British Red Cross Society.
source AWM J00177

The Germans often had given a ‘soldier’s grave’ to Australian soldiers who had died in their custody. The graves were as well tended as those of the German soldiers:

‘engraved with the names and regiments of those who lay there, exactly in the same manner as the graves of each German soldier.’

“The last Shilling”” A history of repatriation in Australia – Clem Lloyd, Jacqui Rees

However, the prison camps were spread all over Germany making Captain Mills’ task a daunting one.

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Main Prison Camps in Germany and Austria
source British Prisoners of War in First World War Germany Oliver Wilkinson, Cambridge University Press

Accordingly, Charles then went back to Germany and spent months travelling across the country locating and photographing graves of Australians who had died as prisoners or were missing. His progress was often reported in the newspapers back home.

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News report on progress made by Captain Mills in his task to locate graves of Australian soldiers.
source Printed and published for the Department of Repatriation by Albert J. Mullett, Government Printer, 1919 Issue

Incredibly, amidst all the turmoil caused by the war he found all but two of the Australian soldiers.

His quest complete, Charles finally came home to Australia in December 1919. His efforts were well recognized and, just after he returned to Australia, he was appointed to the Order of the British Empire.

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Charles Mills OBE Announcement
source London Gazette, 30 January 1920, page 1225 at position 1

Post War

Charles’ appointment with the AIF ended on 15 March 1920, but he rejoined the Royal Australian Engineers at Army Headquarters as the Area Officer of Tasman Area and Quartermaster of Citizen Force Units, Quartermaster/Hon Captain.

Charles also became a well-known lecturer on his experiences in Germany, once noting that:

“he believed their hopes of world dominion were far from shattered by their defeat.”

HAWTHORN BRANCH A.N.A, (1920, July 23). The Reporter (Box Hill, Vic. : 1889 - 1925), p. 3. Retrieved March 25, 2022, from

In his personal life, Charles suffered numerous tragedies. He lost his oldest son Alex in 1927, his wife Jessie in 1929 and his oldest daughter Florence in 1936, but he still had his youngest daughter, Glennie. Charles and Glennie shared a “dramatic voyage” between Australia and England in 1935 as two of the eight passengers on the barque C B Pedersen, one of the last few windjammers sailing that route. The C B Pedersen had held the record sailing speed from Australia to Britain for ten years.

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Sea voyage to Gothenburg carrying eight Australian passengers. (Top left) The Nairana passes the barque as she swings from her anchorage under control of the tug Euro. Mrs. Lynch is waving good-bye. (Top right) Major Mills, Miss Mills, Mrs. Lynch, and Miss Violet Teague. (Centre right) William Littlejohn and Miss Warren. (Lower left) The crew bid farewell to Melbourne. (Lower right) William Another view of the barque leaving the anchorage. (Inset) Dr. Rutter, of Yarram.

Charles passed away suddenly at the Epworth Hospital, Richmond VIC on 21 April 1937. He was 60 years old. His remains were cremated at the Fawkner Crematorium.

The 31st Battalion was out in force to honour him at his burial.

Captain Charles Mills – a career soldier truly dedicated to his mates.

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