Updated: Aug 30, 2021
Two unexplained episodes of people vanishing stand out in the memories in my childhood. One was the disappearance of an Australian Prime Minister, Harold Holt, who in 1967 vanished while swimming off a dangerous beach in Port Philip Bay. As the sea on this occasion was particularly rough and hazardous, his disappearance was not really all that great a mystery, and had he not been such an important public figure it would no doubt have gone unnoticed. For me, the memory of is particularly salient because I had been with my family at a nearby beach on that fateful day, and consequently was witness to much of the commotion that prevented us from leaving the beach for several hours. But disappearances of people in Australia are by no means infrequent events, and statistics (I cannot vouch for their reliability) claim that around 30,000 people are reported missing each year — one person every 18 minutes.
The other disappearance that is prominent in my memory was a much more traumatic one. It involved three small children who vanished after going to a beach near Adelaide in the summer of 1966. The case of the Beaumont children was a major news item for weeks, discussed by parents and children alike. It remains an unresolved mystery to this day, and the psychological effect it had at the time was such that it is said to have changed the way in which parents henceforth supervised their children.
Another intriguing disappearance of Australians was long regarded as an unfathomable mystery, although according to a recent study it has a rational explanation of misinterpretation and clerical error. I refer to an event that took place over a century ago, and that has been given the delightful detective novel title - the Mystery of Celtic Wood. It relates to the apparent disappearance of men serving in the 10th Battalion of the 1st Australian Division near Passchendaele, Belgium on the 9th of October 1917. I came across this interesting story when looking into an ancestor of mine who had served in the 10th Battalion in its earlier action at Gallipoli but had not gone on to serve in Flanders. Although vast numbers of First World War soldiers are regarded as missing, presumed dead, about six million by some accounts, the complete disappearance of a large number of men from the company at Celtic Wood was considered to be so remarkable that it became one of the most celebrated accounts of missing soldiers in the entire war. According to the popular version, the 10th Battalion were on a mission to enter the small forest known as Celtic Wood at dawn. They were to blow up German dugouts and return on the fire of a signal flare. Of the men who entered the woods a large number were never seen again. Few made it back and no bodies were recovered, nor were any subsequently recorded among the prisoners of war. In the turmoil of battle, particularly the First World War where untold numbers of men were lost; buried in the mud, caught in the barbed wire, shattered by shells; the disappearance of this company does not really seem so remarkable. Perhaps it gained part of its fame because of the mystical name of the place where the event occurred.
One of the most famous historical disappearances was that of thousands of children who left their homes and never returned - participants in the so-called Children’s Crusade. This crusade is said to have consisted of two main groups. One of these, supposedly numbering some 30,000 participants, mostly children, headed to the Holy Land via Marseille and was led by a twelve-year-old French shepherd boy named Stephen of Cloyes. The other group consisting of tens of thousands of children and adults, gathered in Germany under a visionary shepherd from the Rhineland named Nicholas of Cologne. His group crossed the Alps, but soon became exhausted and hungry. Two out of three died on the march, some perhaps returned home, and only about 7,000 arrived at Genoa in late August, where they faced a largely hostile reception from the townspeople. Nicholas had told them the sea would divide and that they would walk safely to Jerusalem, but when this failed to occur the crusade dispersed. Perhaps some of the children remained in the Mediterranean ports, and according to some accounts many were sold into slavery or drowned at sea. The whole thing is a mix of fact and fiction, probably mostly the latter, and it is consequently not surprising to learn that the famed tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin is said to have been inspired by this strange episode (a tale, by the way, remarkable not only in its similar theme of children enchanted by someone who leads them away from their families to a disastrous fate, but one that, as travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor recalled in the account of his walking tour through Transylvania in 1933, in the case of the children of Hamelin led them all the way from a town in lower Saxony to a cave in the Carpathians where their descendants subsequently emerged, still bearing the "outlandish ways and dress" of Brunswickians, as remarkable a vision in the eyes of Transylvanians as the children from Rhineland or central France must have appeared to the merchants of Genoa or Marseilles.