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The French wartime orphan smuggled into Victoria by Australian troops

In March 1918 on a French battlefield somewhere east of Amiens, Australian troops encountered a youn..

In March 1918 on a French battlefield somewhere east of Amiens, Australian troops encountered a young French boy kneeling over a family member killed by shellfire.

Heavy shelling from the retreating German artillery had laid waste to the nearby village and pulverised the landscape, and the boy had shrapnel wounds to his legs.

He gave his name as Jean Berthe and said he was an orphan.

The Australians gave him medical attention and when the Third Australian Pioneer battalion moved on, he went with them.

And so began a remarkable and enduring wartime mystery.

Initially, the boy was a camp follower running errands in exchange for food, but the troops soon became fond of him and made him an unofficial mascot.

They even had an Australian uniform tailored to suit his small frame.

With the Armistice on November 11, 1918, troops relished the prospect of returning to Australia.

One of them, a fisherman from Paynesville in eastern Victoria named Private Bob Simpson, also longed for home, but he couldn't countenance the thought of abandoning the orphaned boy to the chaos and further deprivation of war-torn France.

Author Sandra Hargreaves has spent the past few years piecing together Berthe's fragmented life.

Sandra Hargreaves stands at the Paynesville Cenotaph.

"I think [Simpson] was the one who instigated smuggling him back to Australia," she said.

It is possible that he was also smuggled aboard departing troopships from France to England and then on to Australia in a large blanket roll.

Another account mentions he was hidden from authorities behind a wall of soldiers' kit bags.

Berthe later stated that, dressed in his khaki uniform and presumably blending in with the disembarking troops, he simply marched down the gangplank unnoticed at Port Melbourne in June 1919.

Orphaned boy kept a town secret

Ms Hargreaves learnt of Berthe's story while researching the lives of local men who enlisted from the Paynesville area.

The story of the smuggled French orphan boy was familiar to older locals, but it was virtually unknown beyond the town.

For most of its history Paynesville was a quiet coastal fishing village, and Simpson and Berthe had good reason to keep their story under the radar of officialdom.

Jean Berthe as a young man in his football uniform.

At war's end, Army regulations expressly forbid troops bringing civilians, no matter their plight, into Australia.

Simpson never detailed how he got the orphan boy into Australia, however, there was talk humanitarian spirit won out.

"The story goes that he was smuggled on, and the commanding officer of the ship found him and turned a blind eye," Ms Hargreaves said.

Simpson, a commercial fisherman on the Gippsland Lakes, already had six children.

Berthe joined the family and took up fishing — he even played Australian rules football and won a trophy for best player.

In time, he lost any trace of a French accent and forgot his mother tongue.

He married a local woman in 1943 and the couple ventured up and down the east coast chasing fish.

Berthe is remembered as a man of exceedingly few words, and never mentioned who his parents were or the circumstances of his discovery by the Australians in 1918.

He barely spoke of his childhood in wartime France and only ever remarked that he had left a battlefield and had no wish to ever return.

"He was a very private man and it was kind of like putting a jigsaw together, finding a piece here and a piece there, and gradually it began to crystallize," Ms Hargreaves said.

But like Berthe's few professed particulars, the official records were fragmented.

Janet and Jean Berthe walking together, circa early 1950s.

He stated he had been born in Amiens in 1906, but Ms Hargreaves scanned the census records of hundreds of towns across France and found nothing that matched.

"Maybe his name wasn't Jean Berthe," she said.

"Perhaps he'd been born illegitimately and had a different name, perhaps he hadn't been born in Amiens at all."

And perhaps Jean Berthe was so traumatised by the horrors of war that he simply couldn't remember much.

We will never know.

A father figure to those in need

Berthe's illegal entry to Australia in 1919 left him in limbo as a non-citizen.

Despite concerted efforts over several decades to be naturalized, his attempts seemed to have stalled in federal bureaucracy.

He tried to enlist in World War II, but was rejected when his French origins were discovered.

The Army medical did however give credence to the story of him being wounded as a boy, when the doctor found extensive scarring on his ankles consistent with shrapnel wounds.

Jean and Janet Berthe had no children, but Jean was very community-minded, growing vegetables and distributing fish to needy families.

To Leigh Robinson, now 88, he was like a father figure.

"Dad got killed in 1941," Mr Robinson said.

"I was 11. There was no widow's pension in those days.

"[Berthe] was just a loving, caring, quiet man. I've never known a man as quiet in my life."

Leigh Robinson, 88, sits in his home at Paynesville, Victoria.

Berthe died in 1974, seemingly taking many secrets to his grave.

His wife survived him by a decade, but if she knew more of her husband's childhood story, she never revealed it to anyone.

Locals knew of Berthe as 'Jeannie the Frenchman'.

Ms Hargreaves has written and published a book, 'Jean Berthe — The Quiet Frenchman' to mark the Centenary of the Armistice.

The book details how at least two other orphans were brought back to Australia from the Western Front by Australian troops at the end of World War I.

The war left an estimated 900,000 orphans in France alone.

Ms Hargreaves believes there must be other traces of this mysterious man that have yet to come to light.

She has vowed to keep searching.

"Maybe someone will uncover something one day," she said.

Watch this story on Landline on Sunday at 12:30pm.

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China deploys anti-ship missiles in the desert making them harder to intercept

Beijing has announced it has deployed intermediate ballistic missiles to the country's north-we..

Beijing has announced it has deployed intermediate ballistic missiles to the country's north-west region, saying the weapons have the capacity to destroy US ships entering disputed waters in the South China Sea.

Key points:

  • The missiles can fire long distances and would be difficult for US ships to shoot down
  • Defence strategy expert Dr Malcom Davis said the move means China can back up its threats
  • The news came after a US guided missile destroyer passed through the South China Sea

The DF-26 missiles — which have been previously dubbed the 'Guam Killer' or 'Guam Express' by Chinese media and defence experts — are capable of carrying conventional or nuclear warheads.

They have a range of 4,500 kilometres, making them capable of reaching as far as Guam in the east and Indonesia in the south, providing Beijing with a powerful weapon as tensions continue to rise in the South China Sea.

External Link: @globaltimesnews: China's df-26 missiles

According to Chinese state media publication The Global Times, the DF-26 missiles are now stationed in north-west China's sparse plateau and desert areas, carried on the backs of trucks able to traverse the harsh terrain.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Beijing-based military expert told the Times that positioning the missiles deep in China's mainland made them more difficult to intercept as it allowed the missile to enter its final stages at a high speed.

Footage on CCTV showed trucks carrying the missiles driving through rough terrain and sand dunes.

The missiles were first paraded in 2015 and China confirmed they were now operational in April last year, but this is the first footage of the missiles outside of a parade.

It is unclear when the missiles were moved to the northwest region, the Times reported. (more…)

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Melbourne driver who cheated death when sign fell on car in no rush to drive again

Related Story: Dashcam footage shows moment car was crushed by falling freeway sign

The Melbourne ..

Related Story: Dashcam footage shows moment car was crushed by falling freeway sign

The Melbourne driver who cheated death when an overhead road sign fell and crushed her car says she cannot believe such an accident could happen in Australia.

Key points:

  • A second sign on the Tullamarine Freeway has been taken down as a precautionary measure
  • An inspection of similar-sized sign and gantries is underway
  • VicRoads says an independent investigator has been brought in to determine what happened

Extraordinary dashcam footage shows the moment the five-by-four metre sign fell in front of, and then on top of, Nella Lettieri's car as she was travelling on Melbourne's Tullamarine Freeway earlier this week.

While the 53-year-old was not seriously injured, she is bruised and battered — and wondering how she is still alive.

"It felt like a roller door had slammed shut in front of me," Ms Lettieri said.

"I've gone to swerve, but as I swerved, it just felt like the sign was actually falling on the car.

"And it just kept bouncing, and I felt like it was pushing me to the right, and I'm thinking, 'OK, is it going to stop?'"

A woman smiling and looking off camera.

She thought the metal object may have been from a plane landing or taking off from the nearby Essendon Airport, or from a truck on the freeway.

But she was shocked to discover it was actually an overhead sign, meant to be directing drivers to their destination. (more…)

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In his Brexit speech in Wakefield, Jeremy Corbyn again demanded the impossible

Speaking in Wakefield this morning, Jeremy Corbyn restated his demand for a solution to the Brexit i..

Speaking in Wakefield this morning, Jeremy Corbyn restated his demand for a solution to the Brexit impasse that appears effectively impossible: a general election.

In what is likely to be his last major public statement before MPs vote on the withdrawal agreement next Tuesday, he attempted to redefine the terms of the question facing both the Labour leadership and its MPs – from those that threaten to stretch his fissiparous electoral coalition to breaking point, to those which, on paper, unite it.

That resulted in a speech whose thrust was an appeal to class consciousness from Remainers in Tottenham and Leavers in Mansfield, rather than any meaningful debate over the validity or viability of Brexit itself. “Youre up against it,” Corbyn said, citing austerity, stagnant wages, and the cost of living crisis, “but youre not against each other.”

Accordingly, his cursory repetition of Labours policy – that a second referendum should remain on the table as an option in the event a general election does not happen – came with a caveat so huge that it amounted to an implicit dismissal of a so-called peoples vote. “Any political leader who wants to bring the country together cannot wish away the votes of 17 million people who wanted to leave, any more than they can ignore the concerns of the 16 million who voted to remain.”

But despite the fact that his attention was more or less exclusively focussed on the question of what sort of future relationship with Europe would negotiate – with the fact of the divorce undisputed – Corbyn categorically ruled out doing anything but whipping his MPs to vote against the withdrawal agreement. The vast majority of them will do so on Thursday, after which point Corbyn said, as expected, that Labour would table a motion of no confidence in the hope of securing an election and with it the chance to renegotiate Brexit (rather than, say, holding a second referendum).

Notably, however, he did not specify a timescale for tabling a confidence vote after Mays deal falls – despite several of his shadow cabinet ministers insisting that he would do so “immediately”. He instead put on the record the more cautious line briefed by his team yesterday: “Labour will table a motion of no confidence in the government at the moment we judge it to have the best chance of success.”

That statement of intent was followed with a caveat seldom offered by shadow cabinet ministers sent out to spin the partys line on Brexit. “Clearly,” Corbyn said, “Labour does not have enough MPs in parliament to win a confidence vote on its own.” As he himself alluded to when he urged opposition MPs to join Labour in voting against the government, Labours chances remain slim until such time that the ten DUP MPs drop the government. (That every other party will is a racing certainty.) Paradoxically, the defeat of the withdrawal agreement – and with it the backstop Mays sometime coalition partners object to – will make that chance even slimmer.

We know from what Corbyn said this morning that the Labour leadership will not whip its MPs to approve Theresa Mays Brexit, back a second referendum out of choice – both courses threaten its electoral base in different ways – or support any attempt by Downing Street to make the Brexit deal more amenable to Labour MPs by tacking on guarantees on workers rights. That strategy has held until now.

But failure to roll the pitch for any alternative at all – or, indeed, for the inevitable breakdown in party discipline after Mays vote is defeated and Labour has no way to bind MPs who seek mutually exclusive Brexit aims – will make the messy politics of the aftermath of next Tuesday rather more difficult to finesse.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent. (more…)

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