Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Walter Leslie Schwarz (1896–1969)

by Peter Burness

This article was published:

Walter Leslie Schwarz (1896-1969), by unknown photographer

Walter Leslie Schwarz (1896-1969), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, P00160.001

Walter Leslie Schwarz (1896-1969), soldier, was born on 17 April 1896 at Toowoomba, Queensland, son of Heinrich Schwarz, labourer and sawmiller who was born at sea, and his Ipswich-born wife Augusta Wilhelmina, née Otto. He is believed to have been educated at East Toowoomba State School before commencing work with a local grocery. He was very active in the Commonwealth Cadet movement and in 1913 was commissioned second lieutenant.

Army life appealed to young Schwarz so in June 1914 he joined the permanent artillery at Fort Lytton as a gunner. When World War I broke out he tried to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force but was held back with other regulars and was an acting sergeant major instructor to A.I.F. recruits at Enoggera Camp, Brisbane. Eventually in June 1915 he was accepted into the A.I.F. as a gunner with a siege brigade of heavy artillery. He embarked with the unit from Melbourne on 17 July.

Schwarz went into camp at Lydd, Kent, England. However, he was being increasingly harassed because of his German name and became very sensitive to insults. The anti-German hysteria in Australia had followed him to England and after being passed over for promotion and hearing rumours that he might not be allowed to go to the front he deserted.

On 25 October 1915, three days after leaving his unit, Schwarz presented himself at Scotland Yard recruiting office, London, and joined the 23rd Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, as Walter Lancelot Merritt. He was promoted corporal shortly before arriving in France during March 1916. On 1 May, near Lens, he was wounded in the arms, leg and face, and was invalided to England. He rejoined his battalion in September with the rank of sergeant.

Tall and athletic, Schwarz combined sound military knowledge with personal courage. In December 1916 he was sent to an officer cadet battalion. Commissioned second lieutenant in the British Army in April 1917, he was sent to the 2nd Battalion of his regiment in France in June. He was wounded in October during the fighting beyond Ypres but was again in action next month at Cambrai. During his subsequent service he received his division's card of honour four times, was mentioned in dispatches and, in 1918, was awarded the Military Cross and Bar. The first decoration was given for outstanding work as intelligence officer in the 86th Infantry Brigade at Ploegsteert, Belgium. There, 'at a very critical moment, when one battalion was completely out of touch … he readjusted the whole line under extremely heavy fire at close range'. He had carried a large red flag, visible from either flank, in the centre of the attack.

In the closing weeks of the war, during an attack on Ledeghem, 'Merritt' again carried his flag. 'He and his observers captured 28 of the enemy during the advance and held the objective until the remainder of the brigade arrived'. He attracted heavy fire throughout the action and was eventually severely wounded; his right leg was amputated. For his actions he received the Bar to his M.C.

Despite his remarkable war service in the British Army, Schwarz was still a deserter from the Australian forces. He eventually approached his commanding officer, revealed his identity and was granted a full pardon in 1921. He returned to Australia, reverted to his true name, and worked in real estate and later as a manager for a large department store. He finally joined the Shell Co. of Australia Ltd and remained for fourteen years, retiring in 1940 as assistant manager of the Queensland branch. He served briefly during World War II as a lieutenant in the 1st Australian Garrison Battalion.

On 4 February 1938 he had married Charlotte Maud Hart at St Thomas's Anglican Church, Toowong, Brisbane. They had no children but Les maintained a kindly interest in a neighbour's son, (Sir) Reginald Swartz, for many years.

Schwarz died of cancer on 9 January 1969 in Greenslopes Military Hospital, Brisbane, and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • London Gazette, 11 Jan, 15 Feb 1919
  • personal papers of W. L. Schwarz (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter Burness, 'Schwarz, Walter Leslie (1896–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 3 October 2023.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2023

Walter Leslie Schwarz (1896-1969), by unknown photographer

Walter Leslie Schwarz (1896-1969), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, P00160.001

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Merritt, Walter Lancelot

17 April, 1896
Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia


9 January, 1969 (aged 72)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.