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The Great War - voices from the past

The Great War – Voices from the past

by Jenny Hume

Last November I wrote for Webdiary the piece In Flanders Fields – Lest we Forget, the story of Cyrus David Johnson, my uncle, a farm boy from the valley of Taylors Arm on the North Coast of New South Wales who went missing in action in Flanders Fields during a raid on Warneton on 3rd March 1918.

Since then I have had time to read the many letters written by this lad to his family, and those they wrote to him. They are cheerful and positive letters until the day he was lost, after which the black-edged sympathy notes from his mates and cousins in the field and at home reveal the heartache that followed.

Written on everything from scraps of paper to the fancy letterhead of the YMCA Australian Expeditionary Forces with the grand heading For God, For King and For Country the letters are an important historical record of the attitudes, feeling and actions of those men and women for whom the Great War was a daily reality. Here I have extracted a few pieces, giving voice to a soldier, his mates, and his family from nearly a century ago. Throughout the letters reveal a deep faith, a belief in the purpose for which they were giving their lives, and an unfailing dedication to their mates under fire.


From Liverpool Camp, NSW 16 April 1917 to My Dear Mum:

We all went out to the park where they [the Salvation Army] were holding their usual Sunday meeting and listened to them and then walked back with them and had tea, enjoyed listening to Bert’s account of Gallipoli and Egypt and then went to church in the Army Hall. The nights are getting pretty chilly here now but they have given us a straw mattress so Bed is A1. This morning our Coy and two others are doing musketry at the Anzac Rifle Range. I did not get a shot but enjoyed watching my squads scoring. An aboriginal got the highest score.

On the Gallipoli campaign to My Dear Mum – date missing.

A great many of the fellows at the School are returned soldiers. I was talking to one chap yesterday who was wounded the day after the Lone Pine Battle. He was one of 30 survivors from a whole battalion. They were sent on a charge across a neck of ground about 200 yds wide on which it was afterwards found between 30 and 40 machine guns were concentrating their fire, not one man reached the Turkish trenches. Little wonder the casualty lists were long when such blunders were made. That Gallipoli business seems to have been one big blunder at the start and then a series of blunders right to the end. The end of this wretched war seems to get more out of sight as each days news comes along…

Leaving Australia on 3 May 1917 to My Dear Mum:

I think we are going to get away next week all right. D Coy is to go on the troopship “Benalla”. There will be quite a fleet of troopships as there are about 1500 men to go from here and 3600 New Zealanders marched in here yesterday to wait and go with us.

Extracts from letters at Sea, May 1017:

Our quarters on the boat are nice and roomy but they are very badly ventilated. When the sea is too rough to allow the portholes to be open the place gets horribly hot and stuffy. Yesterday at dinner we decided to risk opening the port hole above the mess I am in but in less than five minutes about 20 gals of sea water came splashing in and nearly swept our table clean.

We get our war news by wireless every day. I hope the Russians do not back out…..

We have about a dozen prime specimens of cut throats with us who sere escorted aboard from Darlinghurst Jail between fixed bayonets. Some of the swine went through my coat pockets and pinched my fountain pen and picket book with all my addresses in it for England…..

The Antics of the “Port Sydney”, 21 May 1917 to my Dear Dad:

We nearly had an accident this morning calm as it is. All the way from Melbourne the “Port Sydney”, a big troopship has been hanging on behind our boat and sometimes behaving in a very peculiar fashion. Sometimes in the rough weather she would come wallowing up alongside us and twice swung completely broadside for no apparent reason. The crews were always swearing she would ram us. Anyway this morning she suddenly rushed up a few hundred yards ahead of us and then turned to cross our bows. Our skipper, as soon as he saw this move gave full speed astern and began to snort like mad on his whistle. A collision seemed certain and the order was given to don lifebelts and stand to boat stations and we saw them do the same on the “Port Sydney”. However our skipper managed to swing our nose around a shade and we just grazed the stern of the other ship….

The ship docked at Fremantle where Cyrus wrote of having to be on duty to evict many of the men drunk in the pubs and brawling and to get them back on board, and even so some got left behind. Before reaching England Cyrus’s ship was attacked by a submarine, and he wrote that for the last thirty six hours of the voyage the troopships were accompanied by thirty destroyers and arrived safely in England. During the attack the soldiers on guard were ordered to load rifles and they blazed away at the periscope of the submarine. On arrival he entered camp at Candahar to undergo further training before being sent to the front in France.

30 October 1917 to My Dad:

We may not have to wait long for promotion when we join the Battalion. Our Division is out of the line at present re-organising and will not get back again for some time I am thinking as some of the Battalions were practically wiped out in the recent battles. The 36th when withdrawn had 90 men instead of a 1000 fit for duty……

From France, 18 November 1917 to My Dear Mum:

I am up here in a working party loading bricks on the wagons to take to the muddiest part of our camp. Old Fritz started dropping gas shells around us when we first started work so we had to scoot…but a dozen of our big guns have opened up and are still roaring and barking at him. There is plenty of tucker up here and we have a fairly comfortable camp…

Unless Fritz sends a shell over with my address on it I think there is not much fear that I will not get back again to the only country in the world worth living in. It was hard luck for poor Owen Butt to have to stay here. He is buried only about 2 miles from here so I must try and visit his grave. I have been over here four months now and in 4 or 5 months I will have a chance of getting 14 days leave back in England…..Eddie Barr [Cyrus’ cousin] is away on leave in England

3 March 1918; Eddie Barr to his aunt, Cyrus’ mother following Cyrus’s death:

I saw Cyrie on the afternoon of the 3rd, he was cheerful, making preparations for the raid, he had a letter written to you and had his things done up to follow him to hospital if he was wounded. I was up at Ploegstreet Wood helping with coffee for the raiders on their way back. I was on the lookout for Cyrie and couldn’t get any news of him till next day. I hope Charlie [Cyrie’s younger brother] will stop home and do his best to help take Cyrie’s place. Anyhow he is too young to stand this hard life. There is no need for me to say how sorry I am about Cyrie. I miss him so much as if he was my own brother…..

The file of letters now becomes a sad record as Cyrie’s family commiserates with their relatives and friends over their lost sons, fathers and husbands.

From Harry Bragg to Cyrie’s mother and father:

If I could see you I might be able to express my feelings but words and pen fail to express my feelings for you all…..when youth is cut down the blow seems to be so much heavier…..remembering you all before the throne of Grace. It is six years today since my brother fell at Lone Pine…

From Eddie Barr to his aunt again, 23 July 1918:

The name of the wounded man he was carrying was Sgt Kellaway, he was hit in the knee and disabled. They would have been between 400 and 500 yards within enemy lines and there would have been a lot of big shell holes as a lot of heavy artillery was used. The officer that was in charge gave the order to leave the wounded as they were endangering the whole party by being so long in getting back, but Cyrie tried to get his Sgt back….the officer is missing as well as Cyrie and the Sgt and a fourth man…

Captain Bushell was killed at about the first week in April, he had a high opinion of Cyrie's worth and said he was writing to you…

Cyrie’s mother to her daughter in school, 28 March 1918:

My dear Em, Lila has told you of our dear Cyrie being missing. Isn’t it dreadful…Our darling Cyrie, poor Lila [Cyrie’s older sister] takes it hard I know though she doesn’t say much, just goes on with her work all day and when night comes sews for a little while and suddenly seems to lose heart and go to bed. Strange that dream of mine must have been just when he was lost….of course there’s a possibility of his being a prisoner of war….it is my turn to tell you to be brave and hope for the best….

Cyrie’s aunt to his mother 8 April 1918:

…he may have been taken prisoner of war, didn’t the Germans say they had 30,000 was it 70. I hope that is where he is gone, what awful fighting must be going on now, when will it all end. What a relief Cyrie’s message to Lila or was it you, must be, I’m always thinking about it (I’ll come back if I can but if I don’t you’ll know it will be all right)…

Epilogue: Cyrie was not a prisoner of war and his body was never found.

Hope was the last casualty and it was not till 1921 that the family felt they had to let go, and held a memorial service. The file of these letters, some photos of a handsome lad, and a small envelope labeled pressed flowers from the service are all that remain, along with his name amongst the missing on the Menin Gate in the Belgian village of Ypres. Other letters from friends and relations tell of their own losses, brothers, fathers, sons. A friend of Cyrie’s sister wrote:

It is always the good boys who are taken but I suppose God has a wise purpose in it all which some day we will know and understand. We got quite a lot of our boy’s belongings returned to us. His brush and comb looked as if he had used it only yesterday….

But summing up the breadth of the sense of loss was a letter from one of Cyrie’s English cousins, writing of the loss of his own brother, Willie March on his first air sortie over enemy lines:

My dear brother Willie has been missing and at last we received the terrible news that had died on 24.10.17 and is buried at Staden, a little village about five miles over the German lines. Nearly all my old school pals have been taken, the many friends one makes can never take the place of the those you knew at school and played and worked with… three of the sons of my old school master have been taken….with the trees bursting in bud, and the young lambs frisking about it seems too cruel to think that he can no more enjoy the beauties of this life here on God’s earth.

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Harsh regimes

John Pratt,  I believe you, and I am sure I would agree that "some of them are the best men I have ever met."

So, can you throw any light on the paradox that so many harsh/cruel regimes, such as Burma's, are run by the military or ex-military?

Military force is what gave us our democracy.

F. Kendall, you correctly point out that harsh/cruel regimes are often run by the military or ex-military officers. Most regimes including our own have been brought into power only by the use of force. Chiefs, warlords or kings were forced to give up power when people banded together to topple them. Our democracy had to be fought for.

It was always the rich and powerful that could fund armies. The rich and powerful used their armies to keep in power. In advanced democracies we use our Parliaments to collect taxes and maintain armies to prevent being taken over by harsh or cruel regimes. The average soldier fights because he has to, either forced by conscription or the need to earn a living.

Military power can be used for good or for evil. Unfortunately we live in a world that needs policemen.

We have to stop meeting like this

I had wondered if you were speaking of evil in a metaphysical way:  however I see that you are speaking of it largely as the actions of the power-crazy, overly greedy, hubristic, immoral etc.

For a start, we could reduce the power that we give our glorious leaders. They are reliant on a compliant populace to fulfill their schemes.   And I think that that is, in some small ways, beginning.

I believe so too

F Kendall: "For a start, we could reduce the power that we give our glorious leaders. They are reliant on a compliant populace to fulfill their schemes.   And I think that that is, in some small ways, beginning."

I think you have hit on it there - but I see it as a big lever, not a small one.  Historically most wars and atrocities have been perpetrated in the name of religion, race or culture, oftentimes disguising territory, resources or the cementing of domestic power as the real motives. 

As the increasing connectedness of western societies facilitated by the internet and new media grows, the ability of politicians to enter wars or commit atrocities their populations wouldn't support will be further restricted.  Even now, the real bad stuff is pretty much only happening in poor countries with impoverished and uneducated populations - eg: Zimbabwe. 

So what's important in ending wars?  Something along the lines of:

  1. Reducing poverty
  2. Improving education
  3. Fostering democracy
  4. Promoting independent, critical and widely available media
  5. Disconnecting church and state

If climate change is the threat science believes it is, the world has more reasons to cooperate than ever before - let that be the common enemy galvanising peoples to push aside other differences.

Europe in the 19th century

F. Kendal, the 19th century in Europe was not so peaceful.

Have you forgotten the European revolutions of 1848, the Crimean War, the Polish uprising, the Austro Prussian War or the Franco Prussian War? 

What about the European armies conquering continents in Australia, Africa, India, America and China?

The European taste for war continued throughout the 19th Century. 

Hundreds of thousands were killed by European armies throughout Europe and the rest of the world, many stone age nations were destroyed by the new power of industrialised war.

Pax Britannica

As I understand it, "Europe as a whole ha(d) enjoyed peace with itself" for the 100 years before WW1, Jenny Hume, (although there were internal disputes), so no net gain there from WW1 or 11.   Things reverted to the status quo, got back to normal, as they are inclined to do. 

"To eliminate all war we have to eliminate all evil."  Wow.  Big statement.  How do you define evil?

"So there will continue to be wars till our species has left this planet."   That is certainly a possibility, but - um, a little negative?  As with the above, it's not a statement that I could agree with.

A peace of sorts for some I guess.

So you believe, F Kendall, that one day we will know a world in which there are no wars? Well I like your optimism but, based on our species track record to date, I think my pessimism is probably more realistic.

You really need a definition of evil? Maybe an example or two of perpetrators and deeds will help you out there: 9/11 hijakers, Abu Ghraib, Mugabe, Pol Pot, the Japanese in China in WW2, Hitler and the Holocaust, the Melbourne underworld figures depicted in Underbelly, the Bali bombers - if one had till eternity one could not list them all.

But if you look at those few people and events for starters you will soon be able to define evil for yourself.

Europe I would suggest did not know in the 19th Century the united peace that it has enjoyed since the end of WW2. There is a trust there between the member states that never existed in the 19th Century. WW1 was the child of that period you describe as being one of 100 years of peace. There is peace and there is distrusful coexistence which some might define as peace, but I would not.

My orphaned grandfather was well aware of how that distrust played out when the spike helmeted Prussians marched into his Danish homeland. He was Cyrie's father, incidentally. A cruel irony that he would lose his son fighting those same forces some fifty odd years later.

I doubt very much that he found 19th Century Europe peaceful. But I guess it was a peace of sorts after Napoleon had been dispatched from the scene.

War crimes - oh, that's a tautology, isn't it.?

Jenny Hume: "I do not know how many from the past suffered pts. I'm fairly confident that, at least in the early days of WW1, shell-shock was not recognised, and its sufferers were shot as malingerers."

It used to be said that war was a way for old men to kill young men.

Nowadays it's a way for all men to kill women and children.

I interact in a small way with a small number of regular military. The fathers I meet are most loving, kindly men...(do you think his problems are that I love him too much? said one) or are they "trained killers", as some say? Perhaps they are loving, kindly trained killers. I happen to find them to be quite fine and decent men.

I would single out Y, who leaves his 8 yr old son with me for about an hour, (with other children). Y is quintessentially military: tall, superfit, macho: every bristle on his formidable skull seems to stand at attention.

Y speaks to his child with the most astonishing tenderness as he leaves him. Often he hesitates in the doorway and swiftly reenters to kiss and hug his son again, before leaving. If Y is ever in a combat situation where children are damaged or killed, I would be very surprised if he could handle that with any kind of equanimity. I don't think that such warfare, against civilians or children, is why he joined up. They don't show that in their recruitment ads on telly, do they? But, I suspect that such has something to do with the high rates of PTS from modern wars.

As for WWII: - how disgusting that we need to number them - I felt that the youtube link I gave was particularly pertinent for such as Cyrie:

"And I can't help but wonder, oh Willie McBride
Do all those who lie here know why they died
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause
Did you really believe that this war would end wars.
The suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the pain
The killing, the dying, were all done in vain
Oh Willie McBride it all happened again,
And again and again and again and again"

From the WW1 vets I knew, yes: they had believed that this war would end wars, and as a result they became quiet cynics. An appropriate response.

But, to honour the Cyries and Willy McBrides, can maudlin ceremonies repay them? Or, does it need our resolve in saying, "Never again. Never again. Never again."

That's the way that I see it. Out of respect for the value and the loss of those kids, as they were, I will try to stop it happening to any other young men. Or young women, now that the machine has found it can use them too.

I think that Willy McBride would like that.

An unhappy world but did they die in vain?

F Kendall, like every caring person I would like to see a world where there was no killing, no hunger, no torture, no cruelty to man or beast. I find what I see in the world very distressing, even more so because I know it is not going to change. All I can do is give as much money as I can to agencies I think might ease the suffering of as many as possible.

In every war women, children and old people inevitably become victims. That is the nature of war. Those in Iraq and Afghanistan are no different. The Germans probably managed to kill more women and children, more disabled, and more elderly in WW2 than any other war in recent history, through the Holocaust. Millions more died in the occupied zones though the hostilities. Millions of innocents die in wars waged on them by their leaders, eg Pol Pot. I doubt there is a war in history where women and children and the elderly have not been innocent victims in large numbers. War kills indiscriminately.

If every man and woman truly lived today by the Christian Bible that teaches thou shalt not kill then there could be no wars. But they don't. Until they do there will be more wars, both international and civil.

To eliminate all war we have to eliminate all evil. And we all know that is impossible. So there will continue to be wars till our species has left this planet. Sad but true.

I am sure you are quite right that the PTS than many soldiers suffer after a war is not necessarily just from the fighting itself but just as much from the scenes that they witness when innocent people are killed. I know my uncle, who died far too young after the Second World War, found the experiences in New Guinea far more distressing than being injured by an exploding shell at Tobruk. In NG he said he had come across a baby bayoneted by the Japanese and stuck up in a tree. No he was not trained to deal with that sort of thing.

But those boys in Flanders and the millions who died in WW2 did not die entirely in vain. Apart from the Balkans conflict, Europe as a whole has enjoyed peace with itself since the end of WW2. One would now include Eastern Europe in that, and of course Japan has been quiet since then. So did they die in vain? I don't think so. We remember them for the peace they brought us with their sacrifice. And rightly so.

The noble foolishness of youth

John Pratt: Yes, it's a beautiful and heartfelt poem, John...a little ironic for it to be quoted so often on such occasions, in that Lawrence Binyon was a Quaker, and, as such, a pacifist.

In his days war profiteering was regarded as shameful. Now it is a legitimate, highly profitable business. ...haven't Halliburton shares gone up 1300% or somesuch since the invasion of Iraq?

If this war fizzles out, (unlikely tho that is), I suspect that there will soon be something else somewhere else for the powers-that-be to tell us to be frightened of and to feel a need to defend ourselves against. It's the business of business to both find and create opportunities for expansion and profit. They won't give that up easily, and the trusting public unfortunately will probably go along with it., particularly if we are only attacking people with brown skins.

And, of course ... I wonder whether young men are still so silly, romantic and misguided; which attributes provide so much of the fuel for these conflagrations.

I recall at the time of the 1st Gulf War, (or 1st Bush War, whatever you like to call it), asking my son how many from his all boys high school would volunteer, if given the option.

"The whole school would stampede down to the recruitment office," was his reply.

Well, that's youth. The, sweet , sad, regrettable, noble foolishness of youth. As with so much of their other young silly risk takings, we need to protect them from themselves.

They shall not grow old



I really have a problem with "they shall not grow old/As we who are left grow old", in that it suggests some kind of benefit or privilege from dying young.

We all know that that is not so.

Why do we repeat this mantra? Because it sounds good? Feels good?

Because it gives some kind of meaning and purpose to these myriad of slaughtered lives?

Or, because it makes us feel good, or at least ok?

And, it allows us to distort the past enough to repeat it.

Richard:  F Kendall, cou old you be so kind as to add a heading to your posts?  I love everything you write, which is why I don't like writing headings for you :)

Dying young

Yes F Kendall, it is a rather odd expression. guess if it is an old soldier saying it it might have more significance, especially since the legacy of war for them was often so painful. I am sure some of the old soldiers felt it would have been better to have died young in the war than to have lived on into an old age full of painful memories and disabilities, in many case causing them post traumatic stress that in those days was not even recognised, let alone acknowledged. Many continued to suffer from the war all their lives.

But for those of us for whom they fought it is rather self indulgent moaning about the difficulties of old age when we have had a good life as a consequence of their lost youth.

The contradiction is that when a young life is lost in any other circumstance we do not recite those words. We expess shock and horror for the young life lost , for their being cheated of their expected span..

But we do tend to think that those who died suddenly after many years of good living and before the onset of old age had the best of both. In that situation the expression often can give us comfort if nothing else. 

Best we forget

I thought about writing this some weeks ago but decided against the idea as possibly being offensive to some people and akin to whacking a hornets’ nest with a stick but I think it might strike a chord with F Kendall.

So just for how long do we “celebrate” Anzac Day? What will it mean in a hundred years' time?

I ask these questions because as an alien (of the planet let alone this country) I have never been able to comprehend the level of its significance.

“It defined us as a nation.”

I have a rough idea of what constitutes the political entity but try to define it in any other terms. Are we more humane than other nations? I think not. Is there a national ethos that distinguishes us; mateship perhaps and the idea of a “fair go”? Bollocks to that, we’ve all seen evidence to the contrary in recent times.

That some men can be altruistic in times of extreme hardship is meaningless in the context of their ordinary lives. Shag your best mate’s missus if she gives you the nod, rip him off if he’s dumb enough, and show no kindness to his children. Little makes me as sick as hypocrisy.

That said there was an ethos that transcended ordinary behaviour, but what has happened to it? Many of the men of my father’s and grandfathers generation have spoken to me and a hell of a lot of them wanted nothing to do with Anzac Day, Armistice Day or anything else connected to their experiences of both wars.

Look at the RSL. Has there ever been a president that held the rank of Gunner, Corporal or even Staff Sergeant? Most of them “desk wallahs”.

Ethos has devolved into mythos and Anzac Cove a sort of theme park. Anzac Day is now more popular than ever and with the last note of the oh so evocative last post dying on the breeze we can all get to the club for a piss up and two up. False emotion.

What does intrigue me is the difference between the Australians’ reaction to the debacle that was WW1 to that of the English. Nowhere in the Oz psyche do I find evidence of the sense of betrayal so eloquently expressed by the likes of Sassoon, Graves, Owen and even Kipling.

Fallen in the cause of the free.” How hollow are those words when the men at the sharp end knew differently.

I have never experienced anything remotely like that which they had to endure but through their works I know their pain and cannot read them without reaching for the tissues. “Oh Jesus Christ let it stop.”

In one of his “lighter” pieces Sassoon wrote:

"Good-morning; good-morning!" the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
"He’s a cheery old card," grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Where’s this going? Not really sure now but I’ll let the Nazarene have the second to last word. “Let the dead bury the dead.”

(Yes Jenny, I do believe in Jesus, only not as the son of god and I don’t think he was right all the time.)

We should never forget how and why they died but we did.

It’s come back to me now, I’m a child of the universe first, a human secondly, and all else pales.

Can we junk jingoism?

Remember the sacrifice of those who had died in war.

When war broke out in 1914 Australia had been a federal commonwealth for only 14 years. The new national government was eager to establish its reputation among the nations of the world. In 1915 Australian and New Zealand soldiers formed part of the allied expedition that set out to capture the Gallipoli peninsula to open the way to the Black Sea for the allied navies. The plan was to capture Constantinople (now Istanbul), the capital of the Ottoman Empire and an ally of Germany. They landed at Gallipoli on 25 April, meeting fierce resistance from the Turkish defenders. What had been planned as a bold stroke to knock Turkey out of the war quickly became a stalemate, and the campaign dragged on for eight months. At the end of 1915 the allied forces were evacuated after both sides had suffered heavy casualties and endured great hardships. Over 8,000 Australian soldiers were killed. News of the landing at Gallipoli made a profound impact on Australians at home and 25 April quickly became the day on which Australians remembered the sacrifice of those who had died in war.

Although the Gallipoli campaign failed in its military objectives of capturing Constantinople and knocking Turkey out of the war, the Australian and New Zealand actions during the campaign bequeathed an intangible but powerful legacy. The creation of what became known as the "ANZAC legend" became an important part of the national identity of both nations. This shaped the ways they viewed both their past and future.

Scott, I think we will be stopping in a hundred years' time to remember the sacrifice of those who have died in war.

Today's remembrances saw record numbers across the nation, but also crossed the oceans to the now-peaceful Western Front and of course the small cove in Turkey that gave its name to a nation's image of itself.

Australia has asked its young men and women to go to foreign countries and fight for over a century. Many have paid the ultimate sacrifice and we should pause once a year to remember them. Even though the numbers of marchers has dropped off with the passing of the WWI and WWII soldiers the crowds continue to grow. We need to keep pressure on all governments to care for those that come back wounded both physically and mentally, and to care for the families of those that have paid the price for our freedom. The RSL is an organisation of ex-servicemen and women whose sole function is to provide welfare and support for servicemen both current and veterans.

The RSL is one of Australia’s oldest and most respected national organisations. The League was founded in 1916 and supports serving and ex-service Defence Force members and their families and promotes a secure, stable and progressive Australia.

As an RSL welfare officer I spend a lot of my time with elderly exservicemen many still suffering from wounds they incurred as young men. It is a privilege, and some of them are the best men I have ever met - down to earth Australians who have learnt the hard way that to succeed we must work together, we must cheerish our mates and be willing lay down our lives for others.

‘The good and the bad, the greatness and the smallness of
their story will stand. Whatever of glory it contains, nothing
can now lessen. It rises, as it will always rise, above the
mists of ages, a monument to great-hearted men;
and for their nation, a possession forever...’

For The Fallen

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables at home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England's foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

Laurence Binyon (1869-1943)

F. Kendal, you ask why we repeat this mantra? It was written at the end of the first world war, in an attempt comfort the families of those that were killed. The loss of so many young men and women was an open wound and mothers needed to be told that their sons would not be forgotten. It was written at a time when the thought of repeating the mistakes was thought impossible. Servicemen returning from the war did not want to forget their mates who had been left behind. They thought that their sacrifice should be remembered, in the vain hope that future generations would not be so foolish to repeat the slaughter. But time and time again we repeat the same mistakes. Maybe one day we will remember them.

Great days for sentiment

Such as Anzac Day are great days for sentiment ... right up my alley. In that spirit, I contribute:

He comes when the gullies are wrapped in the gloaming
And limelights are trained on the top of the gums,
To stand at the sliprails awaiting the homing
Of one who marched off to the beat of the drum.

So handsome he looked in the putties and khaki,
Light hearted he went, like a youngster at play,
But why comes he never to speak to his Darkie?
Around at the rails at the close of the day.

We'll take the old horse to the paddocks tomorrow,
Where grasses are waving breast high on the plain,
And there with the clean-skins we'll turn him in sorrow,
And muster him never, oh never again.

The bushbirds will sing when the shadows are creeping
A sweet plaintive note, soft and sweet as a bell's –
Oh, would it might ring where the bush boy is sleeping
And colour his dreams by the far Dardanelles.

I absolutely cannot understand why everyone does not agree with the brave young girl/woman at the first anti-Iraq war protest, in Brisbane, with her sign saying: "We forgot."

Yes, we've forgotten.

Thanks Craig

Thanks Craig, haven't seen that one. I think all of the lads have passed on by now except Peter Jenson, a lovely bloke.

I remember talking to him not so long ago; he said the old man was the best navigator in the squadron. Doesn't surprise me really, he could do infinitesimal calculus in his head just for fun.

My Dad had an unusual childhood actually; abandoned by his mum at the age of 3, and taken in by a loving old (unrelated) couple who he thought were his parents. Dad couldn't understand why he had a different surname to his "mum' & "dad".

At about 6 or 7 years of age he was playing in his front yard out in country NSW when two strangers pulled up in an old Model A Ford and kidnapped him.

He was terrified; hysterical in fact:

"Shut up kid, I'm your mother," one of kidnappers said.

That was the first memory of his mum.

The bloke driving was her boyfriend, a local con man and rogue. He never really knew his father who was found floating in Sydney Harbour in 1941 - death by misadventure was the verdict.

During his childhood Dad went to 12 different high schools and was palmed off from relative to relative during the depression; but in general was loved and cared for - by someone.

He always said he was very lucky to have people close who loved him. His cousins would give him books to read on all sorts of things, his aunties helped with his education, an a loving uncle discreetly left a sex education book where he would find it.

And his rogue stepfather stole all the money he had saved up to go to uni.

Dad duxed his high school at age 16, already a  Latin scholar and a mathematical wonder; no wonder he knew how to navigate.

He went to war and returned home to dedicate his life to Public Service.

Today thousands of human beings drive daily across the bridges he built or land safely on the aerodromes he designed and constructed.

He is living proof that although you can have shit parents a little bit of love can go a long way.

He helped support and loved his mum until she died.

He was a man and a gentleman in every sense of the word.

If only I was a small fraction of his measure ... if only ...

Of poets and their legacies

Justin, now that is some childhood. What a story and what a wonderful man he must have been. And his poetry is so beautiful. I can see why you miss him so much. The gaps some people leave in our lives can be so very great but I think yes, sweet sadness will be a lasting legacy for you.

I am inclined to think that sometimes a difficult childhood is very character building and many children of the era of WW1 and the Depression did not have it easy, nor for that matter the children of those children. Also I think those years made people more supportive of each other. In the bush the isolation itself meant that people had to depend on each other so much, and still do from my experience.

My Dad was a poet too, and I published a book of his poetry after he died. He too did it a bit tough, losing his Dad and two little sisters before he was ten, while his mother was in poor health, and so he too was raised mostly by caring aunts. 

A few lines from one of his poems:

Tonight somehow I'm haunted
By forgotten memories taunted
So we're meeting in the shadows
Just I and yesterday.

That should probably be just me...but I think your father and many an old soldier might have related to those lines.

Oh and I think you are a pretty good chip off the old block.

Your father's son

Justin, from what little I know of you through Webdiary I think your Dad would be proud of having fathered so gentle a man (in every sense) as you.

Have you seen this picture Justin?

An Airman's Paradise

F Kendall, indeed, from what I can make out these guys did their job with honour and even risked their lives to help save their enemy. The Sunderland 461/U dropped its dinghies after it sunk the U boat 461, to help save the lives of the surviving Germans.

This was a big no no for they may have needed those dinghies to save their own lives.

Fancy that – flying back into fire to help rescue their foes from drowning.

They were / are a great bunch of blokes and yes, like you I had the pleasure of knowing some of them.

There is another picture (artist's impression) of the 461/U somewhere on the net (I have a copy with me now along with photographs of the entire squadron) which shows the Sunderland on its initial approach, the nose gunner blazing 303s splashing into the water leading up to the sub.

"Bubbles" Pierce, the nose gunner of 461/U, claimed the artist got it wrong. All his shots hit the target, he boasted, none went into the drink; they flew in that low it was almost impossible to miss. Bit of a character Bubbles was; sadly he departed to An Airman’s Paradise some years ago.

An Airman's Paradise
High above Betelgeuse, they say,
Beyond Orion's questing eyes,
Ten million star-strewn years away,
There hangs an airman's paradise.

Thither, when airmen's bodies fall,
Their spirits climb on eager wings,
To greet old comrades and recall,
Old days, of earthward sojourning,

They talk of flack, intruders, beams,
Of dummy runs and how to weave,
Sorties and strikes, and talks like dreams,
Which none but airmen would believe.

From aerodromes of ruffled green,
Mid cloudless skies forever blue,
They sport themselves; and each machine
Is every morning bright and new.

With strong young hand and keen young sights,
They climb to meet each glowing day,
And every kite when it alights,
Touches gently down in fine white spray.

What dawns are those, what noonday sun,
From which no enemies descent,
What flights when duty here is done,
To enter at your log book's end.

I found that in my Dad's things. I don't know who wrote it; but the following poem was written by my Dad on 15 April 2005, a year before he died. He wrote it in honour of the nine Aussie airmen/woman who died in Indonesia on a humanitarian mission. Their bodies were returned to lie in peace in their home soil; some may remember the tragedy.

"Not in the fields of Flanders
Not on some foreign shores
Not in the depths of the oceans
Because of other men's wars
Do they lay

But, because of their compassion
And their concern for the human race
Now, returned to their Australia
And here, in its warm embrace
Do they lay.

Sic Transit Gloria - 15 April 2005


After some quick hunting through various references (hard copy and virtual), it's possible that An Airman's Paradise may also be your father's work, Justin.

In any case, they are both moving pieces. Thank you for sharing them.

Darren Coggan's songs

Anyone in NSW listening to ABC 702 this a.m. may have heard Darren Coggan's new album, with its most interesting songs.

For example:  The story of Peter Handcock, written from the pov of his wife, when Kitchener came to unveil the memorial in Bathurst, and then refused to do so when he realised that Handcock's name was there.  'It's all about gold."  Yes, then as now.

Another, about the difficulties faced by aboriginal soldiers:  "Too dark for the Light Horse, Too white for the tribe."   Again, then as now.

Wishing them well

Aside: Michael Bentine, one time Goon, and presenter of "Potty Time" in the 70s, has written of his difficulty in WW2 of seeing off some air crews on missions.

This was because of his supposedly inherited psychic abilities, which caused him to see some crews in front of him as skeletons, as he shook their hands, slapped their backs and wished them well.  And tried to keep up a positive front for them, knowing that they would not make it back.  As they didn't.

461 Squadron

Justin Obodie, three close connections of mine were in 461. All were lovely, jovial, kindly men. And resilient, shrewd, forgiving. Great blokes.

Sadly, I know from those closer to them that at least one of those men (who as a farmer's son could have avoided service, but chose not to, and signed on as an 18 year old) had nightmares every night of his life until he died.

Alas. We miss them, have missed them and will continue to miss them. So be it.

Epic flights

I had intended instead of this post to write one about one of the most epic flights of WW2.

It was described, in the citation for the VC posthumously awarded to the dead Australian pilot, as an heroic feat unsurpassed in the annals of the Royal Air Force. The English village where he is buried has adopted him as its son and has in over sixty years never allowed him to be forgotten.

 Maybe next time.

Anzac day in Cairns

My wife and I set the alarm for 4am, we showered and set off for the dawn service. It was a beautiful morning if a little chilly for Cairns. On the way we stopped to pickup a ex army friend in his early thirties. He was going to lead the Anzac day parade later on, he would be carrying the RSL banner. He has recently returned from East Timor. His wife had left him while he was overseas, taking his two children with her. He now receives a TPI pension for post traumatic stress disorder, he does volunteer work for RSL welfare, but may never hold another job. He looked really smart, it was the only time I had seen him wearing a tie, it was hard to see the pain he has suffered, his newly won medals glistened in the early morning glow.

The Cairns dawn service was emotional; the sun rose over the Coral Sea highlighting the lone soldier standing on the cenotaph. A sailor, a Vietnam veteran I had met about a month ago, came up to me with a smile on his face. He is also suffering from PTSD and on a TPI pension; he too had lost his family when his wife left him. We had been to court together over the last couple of weeks trying to get a drug addict out of a unit he owned in Cairns. The tenant had not paid rent since Christmas, the financial stress and several court appearances had almost destroyed him, but a last he had won a eviction notice and with help of the police had regained possession of his unit. You could see the relief in his face as he shook my hand giving me the news.

After the dawn service my wife and I drove to pick up another WWII veteran. He is 91year old and a "Rat of Tobruk", one of the last. He had not been to an ANZAC day parade before and was very emotional. I met him earlier this year when he joined the Cairns RSL day club. He is almost blind; he still lives with his lovely wife but they had become very socially isolated. He loves to talk and writes wonderful poetry. The RSL had had his medals mounted and this morning my wife pinned them to his chest, the first time he had worn them for over 60 years. We invited his wife to come but she thought it would be too much for her. She had lost her first husband when his ship was sunk during WWII.

We drove in the front of the parade in an WWII army jeep, waving at the crowd. Although he could not see he heard the cheering and was brought to tears. We sat on the VIP platform because he had been asked to pass the torch to the youngest member of 51FNQR PTE Jack Otis. The service service began with the hymn Abide with me. Tears streamed down the old veteran's cheeks. I began to wonder if we were pushing him too far, could he stand up to all this emotion? When the time came we helped him up to the microphone and he addressed the Cairns audience of 2 or 3 thousand people.

"With ageing hands, I pass this torch, protect it well...."

He stumbled with the words and said "sorry I have forgotten the rest, we are passing on the ideals of an older generation to the next."

That concluded the service, as we were climbing back into the jeep, people lined up to hug him, with tears running down their cheeks. He had been a teacher since the war - old students came up to shake his hand, the newly elected mayor of Cairns gave him a hug with tears running down her cheeks. On the way home he said he was sorry he hadn't been to an ANZAC day before. He had not understood what the RSL was all about.

Fiona: Thank you John - I'm all choked up too.

Old soldiers never die

Yes thank you too John. Old soldiers like that never die. Their spirit will live on. As I watched the various services on TV, being housebound at the moment, I was struck by the fact that the old hymns never die either. Maybe the young, in connecting with their history, will through those hymns and the religious nature of the Services on occasions such as ANZAC day also connect a little with the religion upon which our nation was founded. It would not do them any harm in my view.

The children of villages like Villers Brettoneaux could answer your question Richard.  Wars sometimes have to be fought to prevent evil from prevailing. I think your daughter would understand that.

Original sin

I wonder if their are any as yet unposted answers to you, Richard.

Having pondered it, as far as I can see you are going to have to start off with the concept of original sin.


For those who do have the time, "Regeneration" is a very worthwhile read.

Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Dr Rivers ( British Army psychiatrist), all fictionalised but historically accurate, are among the protagonists.   Not only is it a ripping yarn, but it explores the moral and ethical ambiguities.

Like the (perhaps better known) "Testament of Youth" by Vera Brittain, it also shows the sociology of the times.  For example, in that very physical war, the required height of some  regiments from impoverished areas of London was just 150 cm, 5 feet, tall.  How sad.

How to explain this to a child

As we're watching the Last Post being played, my daughter is asking me why we have wars. Where do I start?

She's just seen the photographs that were in my uncle's breast pocket as the bullet went through.  It's had an effect.

It's a long process

I took my 7 year old to Villers-Bretonneux last year, where his great grandfather was mustard-gassed (not fatally) re-taking the town from the Germans in 1918, on what would become Anzac Day.   He asked the same questions, and it's been almost a year of on and off explanation since.  And, it's going on for a while yet.

Passchendaele and Villers-Bretonneux

David, I have just finished reading the official war diary of the 36th Battalion to which Cyrus, whom I write about here, was attached at the time of his death on 3/3/18. These diaries are not easy to read as at times they were in pencil and are quite faint but I did find the details of the raid on the German trenches the night he died, and his name in tiny writing in the margin as being a casualty. These war diaries are very detailed.

I read the record for the month of October when the battalion was decimated in the battles of Ypres and Passchendaele, its strength falling from 900 to about half. My uncle arrived as part of the reinforcements after Passchendaele. It must have been sobering for the new arrivals to join the battalion at that time, and I note in the period following there were several court martials for 'shooting oneself in the left foot' and for desertion while in the line of fire, the penalty for the latter mostly to be shot but which was it seems generally commuted to ten years' penal servitude. After the hell of Passchendaele who could blame anyone wanting out?

I do not know whether the ten years was actually served out by these soldiers after the war as they were all volunteers, I believe. After what they all went through it seemed a tough penalty.

The 36th battalion was thrown into the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux in April 1918 and again suffered appalling losses, including a shell that took out Lieut Colonel Milne, the officer commanding. No doubt many survivors of Passchendaele finished up dying in the attack on Villers-Bretonneaux. I saw where the Captain Bushell mentioned in my post (who was going to write to my grandmother after Cyrie's death) was commended for his courage at the latter battle, but who was then killed, so the letter came.

The hour by hour description in the diary of the Villers-Bretonneaux battle is sobering to say the least. One interesting point was the comment made that the Australians had met English soldiers retreating and the Australian commander tried to get them to turn around to assist but 'in vain'. Clearly they had had enough though some did regroup under new leadership and provide support for the Australian battalions of which the 36th was just one. The village was described after the battle as being uninhabitable.

It is hard to believe when reading these diaries that this was all 93 years ago. It is all so vividly described; one gets the feeling it could have just been yesterday. And even more sobering to reflect that this was followed by another even more devastating war after just twenty years.

I would not know what to say to your boy. How could one ever explain what it was all about, and even less, what those men all went through on both sides at Villers-Bretonneaux, not forgetting the civilians caught in the middle.

So valuable

Thanks Jenny.  It's always great to read that stuff.  My Grandfather wasn't in the36th, but he did fight at Fromelles (two days after arriving in France), Passchendaele, and Villers-Bretonneaux - which as far as I know were three of the worse battles the AIF was involved in.  Despite being a junior soldier in communications, and spending most of his time in the trenches relaying back reports to Field HQ (he knew Morse code having worked in the railways), he survived the war relatively uninjured, mustard gas aside.  The worst malaise listed in his service record prior to the gassing was a dose of syphillis, which made me laugh.  Francophilia persists in our family to this day.

The tragedy is, like many other families, we know little or nothing about his war.  He never spoke of it, and died when I was only 4 years old.  All I remember is a smelly old man with a stubble trying to cuddle me as I squirmed. 

My own father died a few years back knowing precious little about his father's experience, other than that it left him a bitter and disabled man who turned to the bottle to kill the pain.  I in turn I know next to nothing other than what I can glean through various military history web sites and archives, and the search goes on.

The wave of sentiment each year at Anzac Day spurs me once more to restart the quest.  There's a strange sense of unfinished business, and it grows.

The very worst of the battles

Yes, David, they were indeed three of the very worst of the battles the Australians were engaged in, as well as the Somme of course.

Those war diaries I referred to actually list the comings and goings of troops by name into each battalion on an almost daily basis, and of course the lists after those big battles were very long in terms of dead and wounded being taken off strength. You would be able to track your grandfather to some extent through the diary of the relevant battalion right down to where it was bivouacked each day, where it was fighting and so on.

What a lot of people forget is just what you have set out, and that is that the terrible legacy of those two wars touch several generations right to this day, and, yes, created a sense of unfinished business. I don't know if you read my earlier piece referred to at the beginning of this one, but if not you can call it up. There I showed how the loss of my uncle, her brother, troubled my mother all her life until we were finally able to find out enough and take her to Ypres to try and lay some ghosts to rest in 1989, by which time she was 82.  She has since died.  I think that where there is unresolved grief in a parent it touches the children, leaving its own legacy. I picked up on my mother's ongoing grief from a very early age and felt helpless in the face of it. It gave rise in me to a growing sense of wanting to help her find closure, to deal with the unfinished business that had hung over our family life for so long. And so began the long journey through the archives to Ypres in search of an uncle who had died twenty-two years before I was even born. He had been dead seventy years before I made that journey with, and for, my mother.  

That your grandfather turned to the bottle is not surprising and the legacy of the war clearly impacted on his own son. I had many other relatives in both wars and drink became an issue for some of them, and close to insanity for one uncle. Another uncle in the first war was a teetotaller when he went, and an alcoholic for the rest of his life on his return. And yes, they seemed never able to talk about it all, and when you read those diaries, you get considerable understanding as to why.

Good luck in your quest. You'll get there, just as I did. My comfort is knowing that I helped my mother find peace before she died.

I wonder if the world will ever be able to find lasting peace. War is a truly terrible thing and still it goes on.

Me OK but Dewar's bought it.

Jenny, I surfaced about half an hour ago, it was a glorious battle; my head is a little sore but I have survived. Sadly the bottle of Dewar's didn't make it - gone for a burton as they used to say.

"Sweet sadness" a lovely way to describe it. Heart felt thanks for your kind words and I trust that one day you will, in one way or another, be reunited with all of your loved ones.


"Eh?" My father half turned to the soldier who 'd spoken to him.

As a result, the bullet that would have gone through his chest just ploughed across it. Wounded, repatriated.

The fortunes of war.

I bring my old soldier out

I bring my old soldier out on Anzac Day, in his gilt and maple frame, to let him take a look around. He's a nice looking boy: Light Horse. His folded arms look resolute, and his calm expression always reminds me of W.B.Yeats' "An Irish Airman..."

"I know that I shall meet my fate..."

What's missing now is the $2 price tag that was on him when I bought him in the 70s. There were lots like him in the junk shops then, (along with their medals at 20c a pop), I expect that at that time their old mothers were dying, and the families just junked every old thing.

We used to buy them for the frames: but something stayed my hand with him, and I've been happy to honour him. He's part of my family now.

I'm sure that their families would covet these photos now. What an interesting and intriguing change in attitude there has been since then.

Richard: My grandfather was a Light Horse captain, and I've never seen what you're talking about F Kendall. Sadly.


Was I making a point?  Or just giving a comment from a different perspective? Hmmm.

Who knows and of grief and loss?

Only you would know F Kendall. Comments obscure in their intent are just that, obscure. And I do not have the time to read a Trilogy in an attempt to throw more light on what your perspective actually is.

I was giving voice to some who suffered in the Great War - just as the title of the post states. Their perspective of that time, not mine or anyone else's.

Justin: I wonder how the head is this morning. I read your links and was very moved by them.

That you miss your father greatly after two years is not surprising at all. I have found that I never stop missing the ones I loved and lost - all five of them, suddenly. The grief was so unbearable I could not describe it if I tried.

But what I can say is that as the years pass the sadness and grief finally loses its edge. If it didn't one would go mad. It is replaced with what I call sweet sadness. By that I mean that the sadness and sense of loss remains, but the sweetness of the memory of what they were and remain in your heart becomes like a gentle breeze on the soul, blowing away the pain. As is the belief that one day we will all be re-united.


No conclusion

No conlusion F Kendall. Just as there was no conclusion in 1918. This is just a brief historical record, nothing more, nothing less.

Cyrus' mother lived till 1949, only to see her younger sister's son, also called Cyrus die in the second War. Two sisters, two sons called Cyrus.

My mother grieved for her lost brother all her life. But many thousands of our generation grew up with the grief of our parents from the losses in two World Wars hanging like a dark curtain over family life, until one by one they passed away taking their pain to the grave. 

But the shadows will remain until we too are gone.

Frankly, the point you are trying to make is not clear.  And no, I have not read the Trilogy.

Now I'm gunna get really pissed.

I lost my Dad just over two years ago; we cremated him on St Pat's day (he would have got a kick out of that); I still talk to him (in my mind) and miss him terribly.

My Dad was a navigator who flew 78 missions in Sunderlands during WW2. Having read his notes and log books I discovered he saved more human beings than he destroyed; both friend and foe alike.

I happened upon a (minor) correction he noted about one of the greatest air battles in history :

"Douglas was in the ante-room with a few of the boys. They had been drinking to the damnation of all JU-88’s. He got the phone." -

My dad was one of the boys in the ante-room on the 2nd June 1943; his correction to the following story is not important; but it encouraged me to find out a little more.

This is a story about one lone Sunderland; the N/461 and an epic air battle that has no equal in history.

For those who would appreciate a little more about the realities of war then the following is a story about a  strange coincidence. My Dad assisted in the rescue of the German sailors; one becoming (by coincidence) a life long friend.

Scroll down to The Bullet With Your Name On It. U-461 Sunk by 461/U!

Tomorrow is Anzac Day; a day that has been hijacked increasingly  by emotions misunderstood; you can make up your own minds about Anzac Day but to me The Ode says it all; and always will:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Yes; we will remember them - that's all ; and that's they way they would want it.

Now I'm gunna get seriously drunk.

Fiona: Justin, thank you for both stories. Tears in my eyes...

Your conclusion?

And, your conclusion is?

Have you read "The Regeneration Trilogy", which won the Booker prize?

My father was in France as part of the first AIF.  So I feel that , while you speak for those who mourned Cyrie, I can speak for some of the Cyries who were there and survived.

What my father often spoke of was the inscription on the tomb of Amenemhet:

'In my reign men lived in peace and harmony.

Arrows and swords lay idle in my reign."

Or, he spoke "After Blenheim". (R Southey).

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