Sunday, April 25, 2010

Lest We Forget

I am probably the least patriotic Australian you're ever likely to meet. I get a bit vocal about the cricket now and then, I'm fine with my nationality, but there's no way I'd get a Southern Cross tattoo, and I've tried over the years to temper my accent. Thankfully, my Adelaide accent  - a pared down version of some of the ocker tones you hear, does me well and I'm often taken for an Englishwoman - which I quite like.

ANZAC Day is the one day of the year I feel patriotic. I always have felt like this on this day. Up until last year, my family always remembered my grandfather's eldest brother who died in Egypt in 1916 from thyphoid, never seeing action. He was the family hero - or so I thought.

A bit of digging around the family tree late last year has put me right. Maybe I have a bit more to feel patriotic about.

Both of my grandparents on my mother's side were one of six, both born in 1899. So at the outbreak of WWI, my grandfather was sixteen. Too young to go to war.

What never got told to me was what happened to the rest of his brothers and his father in this time, not just the venerable Uncle Keith, who lays in a war cemetery in Egypt. Nor was I ever told of what my grandmother's brothers got up to. Grandma had three brothers, all Methodist ministers - you'd imagine they would have nothing to do with this. She never said anything.

How wrong could I be.

I got digging around the National Archives one winter day last year. First up, lets look around the family. Uncle Oliver.

Uncle Ol, mild mannered Methodist Minister from Dromana. The unspoken family secret. Uncle Ol was part of the 6th Field Ambulance in Gallipoli. He ended up with thyphoid three months later and was then sent home - only to return in 1918 to lend field support, stationed at Balmoral Castle for a time. What he must have seen and done. He returned to his parish on the Mornington Peninsula in 1919.

Nobody said anything.

Then there was my grandfather's records. He did enlist. Formally classed as too skinny after a bout of pleurisy in the year before. My six foot tall grandfather weighed all of sixty kilos. It's strange to look over his handwriting eighty years on.

His brother Harold, a bugler, made it over to the other side of the world as part of reinforcements for Gallopoli, only to come back with rhumatism, six months laters after seeing no action. Similar went for their father, who enlisted at the age of 46 only to do field support work in Adelaide with the intelligence units.

Uncle Keith, the one who died has the longest of war record. It's heartbreaking to see his life at war. He never saw action - apparently he went swimming in some thypoid infected waters in the Sudan while in the navy. In his normal life he was a fisherman. His record reads of being in and out of hospital for a year - in the hospitals where the battle injured were sent to recover or sent to die. He died on the last day of 1916 and buried in the Christian cemetery in the Suez the following day. He has a grave number. He was exhumed and moved to the war cemetery the following year.

What is most heartbreaking about going through his records is following my great grandmother's copperplate handwriting asking for things from the navy in regards to the death of her first born son. The story is written on a typewriter and in pencil. Letters asking whether his father is still alive to collect his medals. Letter stating changes fo address. Curt letters informing the family of his remains being moved. A list of his personal effects sent back to the family - an identity disc, writing paper, pencils and envelopes, hankies, toothbrushes, razors, his false teeth and glasses, a few scarves, a waistcoat, his watch and his razor strop.

On reading his file last year, I spent a day in tears.

Uncle Roy, on the other hand, the second brother, faired better. In his life in Victor Harbour, he was with the Post Office, a signalman, and this continued during the war where he was posted to France.

I found this on the web:

"In July 1915, after eighteen months in the 75th Battalion cadets, Jarvis enlisted as a private in the 10th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, but his telegraphic skills were soon recognized and in March 1916 he was transferred to the 5th Divisional Signal Company in Egypt. Soon afterwards his unit sailed for France. He was promoted lance corporal in May 1917 and temporary corporal next August. On 4 April 1918, at Hamelet near Corbie, he led a party of linesmen to establish a forward station under fierce shelling. This action earned him the Military Medal and promotion to sergeant. On 8 August, at Villers-Bretonneux, for 'continuously … repairing lines under heavy shell fire' and displaying 'courage', 'cheerfulness' and 'total disregard for danger', he received a Bar to his M.M. He won a second Bar on 29 September, at Bellicourt, when he again established an advanced post under heavy fire and gas-attack. Later, as one of Australia's most decorated soldiers, he was presented to King George V."

According to my aunt, Uncle Roy never spoke of his time in the war. He was fond of saying the he got the medals for "milking the cow on no man's land".

This is my family, who nobody remembers, and nobody celebrates.

On this ANZAC day, this is my very small effort to salute them.

Lest we forget.


Kilometres walked since 29 January: 284 km
Kilometres run since 29 January: 177 km
Currently reading: The Remains of the Day bu Kazuo Ishiguro, Marathon Running for Mortals
Weight lost since 29 Jan: 1.7 kg
April Kms: 161/220


Kath Lockett said...

How sad it is to read that not only did they deal with the horrors of war, but also with severely life-threatening illnesses and diseases that were caught whilst swimming, breathing and living in a time without anti-biotics.

The only family member we know of is my Great Uncle, John Russell (quite cutely referred to as 'Jack Russell') who was tall and strong enough at fifteen to lie about his age and enlist. I have hand-stitched silk greeting cards and postcards he sent to my grandmother Kathleen, who was only seven at the time.

His records (obtained by my sister-in-law a few years ago) show only 'trenchfoot' as injuries that caused him a few spells each time in hospital (mildly described but it must have been agonyy) but he was disciplined on three separate occasions for going AWOL in Egypt. Poor boy.

Pandora Behr said...

Some of the stories are incredible, aren't they. Keep hold of those postcards - they are priceless.

I wonder how the folk of today would cope with what they had to endure.