Patsy Adam-Smith (1926-2001) wrote ‘The Anzacs’, her remarkable account of The First World War, in 1978 after reading more than 8000 diaries and letters from the time. Her book remains a moving, detailed account of Australia at war.
This extract, ‘Why Did You Go To the Great War, Daddy?’ begins her story.
We children of the 1920s and ’30s didn’t need to be told by our parents that the angel of death had been abroad throughout the land: we had almost heard the beating of his wings.
We were the generation whose fathers, uncles, and sometimes elder brothers were either dead, or ‘returned’ men: not ‘returned’ in the sense of the English and Germans coming home from battle as they had done since time immemorial; the Australians – and the New Zealanders – had not before been to a war. For this country, the Boer War was a skirmish to which we sent a few men, and even these went without an invitation.
This was the real thing.
‘The people didn’t know what to do,’ my father answered when, as a child, I questioned him about the ill-treatment of a German in his town. ‘We hadn’t had a war before this.’
If there was no precedent for the returning men themselves, there was none for the people at home who waited for the heroes to come back. And none for the children who followed.
We grew up in a wrenching dichotomy of deep pride and bewildering discomfort; we lived in a world of proud April days when we wore our fathers’ medals to school, in moments of thrilling, chilling excitement as the Last Post died away, the bugle silenced, and we stood with bowed heads beneath our family names on the ugly stone memorial in our little towns.
We were children who saw those daunting cliffs, actually saw them in our minds’ eye, because the men who had been at the Landing, having no need to boast, spoke rarely, and then only in grudging monosyllables; through their brevity we toiled up Shrapnel Gully, over Rhododendron Ridge, along Dead Man’s, and attempted to force a way across to the Dardanelles; we knew the Somme because we saw the long, shapeless, faceless bundle in a hospital bed when we were taken to visit.
The reputation of the men who lived in our world, their endurance, the buoyancy of their spirits, shrouded us with an aura, a legend, a heritage that every Australian since that day has been born with, like it or not.
‘It is part of the inheritance that my father did bequeath unto me’. Shakespeare said, as did Sophocles’ Antigone. There was no denying it: we could ridicule it – and many of us later did so – but we could not rid ourselves of it. So we grew up in an ordinary world shot across with mysterious, disturbing spectres.
We lived in a world where men were called ‘Hoppy’, ‘Wingy’, ‘Shifty’, ‘Gunner’, ‘Stumpy’, ‘Deafy’, ‘Hooky’, according to whether they lost a leg, an arm (or part of one), an eye, their hearing, or had a disfigured face drawn by rough surgery into a leer. A world where the smell of suppurating sores (we called them ‘running’) and Rexona ointment was not unknown; where our parents’ friends or relatives graduated from crutches to squeaky ‘wooden’ legs.
We watched the blind man beg outside Sydney’s Central Station with a plaque around his neck that said Help a Blinded Digger; we saw the unemployed men pack Martin Place, carrying placards that read ‘We Were Good Enough to Fight For You, Surely We’re Good Enough to Work For You’. And we listened through the thin walls when our parents came home from visiting a ‘returned’ uncle in hospital: ‘I can’t stand it. I can’t go again.’
It is mother. Your father’s voice comes, strangled, like hers. ‘You’ll be alright.’
‘No, but the smell. When he coughs … and breathes out … it’s … oh, I’m going to be sick.’ But she goes back next Sunday and the next until the day you go to school with a black rosette on your lapel, and the flag is flying half-mast for your Uncle Dick who was gassed.
You are small, and you go into a room unexpectedly, at night, because something has disturbed you when you are visiting Grandmother and she, that fierce little old lady, is kneeling on the floor, her face turned up to the family portrait taken in 1914, and you know she is praying for Jack, the beautiful boy, and Stephen, the laughing roly-poly, her sons, who were ‘missing’ at Lone Pine, August 1915, although she never mentions it to a living soul. (Except the night World War II was declared and she suddenly says, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if they found the boys wandering round – and they got their memories back!’ And none of us look at her.)
You are sent to take soup to a family down on their luck in the depression.
You hate going: once you saw the husband’s leg being ‘aired’ when you entered without their hearing your knock, and you tried to avoid him ever after, and sometimes took the soup home and lied to your mother, ‘they were not home’, rather than smell that smell again.
And the hook instead of a hand, the ‘Stumpy’ in a wheel chair; one man even skating along on a little trolley, his hands taking the place of his absent legs; the man who shook and trembled and the other one who stuttered from ‘shell shock’ and regularly had to be ‘put away’.
They were the flotsam and jetsam of war but no one told you. This is what the world is, was all your child’s mind knew; we had no way of knowing that it was the world only for some of us.
There were the artefacts of war, trophies ‘the boys’ brought back to a new, isolated land which had not seen the things they had seen, and the other mementoes that were never shown. You waited till your parents were out and pried, in terror of what you would find of that sombre land of muffled drums and strange, uncaring revelry. You found a postcard, addressed to Grandmother at Calrossie, Yarram-Yarram, Victoria, Australia, saying ‘I’ll be in touch with you soon, Jack’ and the date is July 1915, one month before Lone Pine.
There were postcards from your father, to his mother asking her to write – always they wanted letters from home, these men. And there was a piece of jagged, heavy metal, three inches long – was this what was in cousin Jackie Pearce? You remember a conversation overheard – ‘You could hear him roaring. He’d scream like a horse, hanging on to his stomach’.
You moved so you couldn’t hear, but then moved back to hear more. ‘They’d got a big piece out but the fragments had gone everywhere. He is lucky to be alive, old Jackie is!’
There is a bent bullet, three inches long, twisted from some impact; a neat swagger stick of Uncle Dick’s, hand carved, with both ends decorated with bullet casings. You know ‘every man who went to Egypt had one to beat off the beggars and Eggs-a-cook men’, but you don’t touch it; you remember mother retching. There is a leather pouch and you get your smaller-than mother’s hand in a pocket and winkle out a letter, a love letter to father. You try to put a face and dress on the writer from 12,000 miles and 10 years ago. She has written, ‘Dearest the day is over, ended the dream divine; you must go back to your life, I must go back to mine’.
You put all the mementoes back, uncomprehending, but the thread of ‘Roses are Blooming in Picardy’ runs through the waking hours of all your young days and when you learn the piano, you play every Sunday night for visitors to sing: ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’; ‘It’s a Long Way’; ‘Australia Will Be There’; ‘One Two Three! Australian Boys Are We!’
Then, one day, carelessly, your guard down, you tell a girl at school about the postcards, the jagged metal, the bent bullet.
‘They must be funny, your parents,’ she says.
‘All that rubbish from that war!’
Her father wasn’t there, nor her uncle, and you envy her. Suddenly embarrassed, you realise you’ve never seen her at the railway station seeing-off ‘stumpies’ or blind men tap-tap-tapping with their sticks or Lew who stuttered and wept. ‘Oh, they just keep them for a joke!’
And you hate, hard, the things that embarrass you. Even on Anzac Day, when you wear the medals on your left breast as do all the other kids of returned men. When you are in your teens, those kids whose fathers hadn’t gone tease you, ‘Think you’re smart don’t you! We know why your father went to the war! Well he came a gutzer didn’t, he!’
Your father had been invalided out when he was aged 21 and for a long time he was too sick to work and wouldn’t go for a pension, but you didn’t know that others knew. That night you ask truculently, with fear, ‘Why did you go to the war?’ And he doesn’t know.
He, who has an answer for everything, says, ‘Oh, well, a man feels he’s got to go you know’. There was no conscription. ‘No, but, a man feels it’s his duty.’
This had sufficed before, but now it seemed as vapid as my tormentor had said it was. ‘The uncles – Jack, Stephen, Oick and Jackie Pearce, Mick Byrne – you didn’t all go for duty!’ I tried to sneer and he, that quiet man, looked up at me.
‘Well, what do you think we went for? The good of our health?’ Four dead out of that group, Jackie Pearce twice wounded and Dad invalided out before he had long been a grown man; but still the question remained. Why did they go? You ask the kids next day, not cap in hand, but taking up a fighting stance, ‘Why do you think my father went to the war?’ They say in unison, ‘So he could have a good time!’
You are too stupid with youth to wonder what sort of time a man could have patrolling the North Sea, out of sight of land, for four unbroken years of his youth. Even if you had thought of that you still would not have known what sent him and all the others. You were too close, the nearness blinded, deafened, stupefied you with its immensity.
Your mother is not so quiet, not so monosyllabic as your father and yet, on this one subject she is inarticulate and resorts to cold, aching rage (that breaks your heart while you taunt her) when she senses your doubts.
‘Pack up your troubles!’ she hears you criticise. ‘That song is evil in content and intent.’ She is taken aback a little by that, and for one sentence humours the growing child.
‘And what do you think the intent is?’
‘It was to drug men into forgetting what the trenches were really like, what killing men was like, to make them fatalistic about death and to believe that nothing can be done to alter anything in life.’
Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag
And smile! smile! smile!
While you’ve a lucifer to light your fag
Smile boys that’s the style! What’s the use of worrying?
It never was worth while –
So! Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag,
And smile! smile! smile!
‘That song made it easier for them to go back to the trenches each time didn’t it?’ I thrust at my mother. She was quiet, looking at me, and then she said a terrible thing, softly.
‘Yes,’ she said.
And I was too young, raw, obtuse to know the truth of the necessity of which she spoke.
Of course there were things I never doubted. Horror for instance, the one vignette above others that all children can conjure up at the chance hearing of the sketchiest remark. That the Germans butchered babies was brought home to me nightly in my dreams. ‘There was this picture with a Hun with no less than six Belgian babies skewered on his bayonet!‘
Walls were thin and ears long.
‘And what they do to the women no man can repeat even to another man.’ (To a child brought up in mid-Victorian prudery even a wild imagination couldn’t fill the gaps there.) But there were the posters. There was a harsh red and green painting of Norman Lindsay’s with the Hun with his face of Beelzebub slavering over a globe with the blood from his fingers running over Europe and trickling down towards Australia; another of his with Huns (the word was as common and unthinkingly used as was Dago for Italians) already in Australia – you knew it was Australia because the outback Aussie ‘cocky’ had his back to a galvanised iron tank as the bayonets pressed towards him and his wife cowered back from hands clutching and eyes leering at her. There was Belgium, the Madonna-like figure trampled and beaten but still refusing to acquiesce.
For a child of the 1930s, when a map of the world with the dominions of the British Empire painted over in red was on the wall of every school throughout the land, the call to defend that Empire was still strangely immediate; while reading Macaulay – ‘How can man die better/than facing fearful odds/for the ashes of his father/ And the temples of his Gods’ – we were transfixed: we could believe in the rush to avenge ‘Little Belgium’.
We learnt, ‘Never the Lotus closes/Never the wild fowl wake/ But a soul goes out on the east wind/That died for England’s sake’, and thought we knew what sent our fathers to the war. The fingerpost of our youth was that lexicon of names, that rosary that began with Gallipoli, Sari Bair, Lone Pine, Beersheba, Amman, and went on to Fromelles, Amiens, Mouquet Farm, Pozieres, Passchendaele, Villers-Breton neux; as though slipping the beads between our fingers, the names were as familiar to us as they once were unfamiliar to our parents in their schooldays. We felt the pitch of an excitement that nothing else engendered; we felt the delicate sting of the champagne bubbles of adventure the like of which these men knew; no other group of men we encountered had the freemasonry of comradeship that these had; and we knew that war gave to man the chance to defy his mightiest enemy – death – and the trace of the combat was etched on him for all time.
‘My mate used to say’, wrote a soldier, ‘that there are two days you need not try to escape death: the day you are not going to die for nothing will harm you on that day; the other time is the day you are to die for nothing will prevent your death that day. When we were called out to “Hop-over” my mate would say “Come on! Let’s see which day it is!'”
For twenty years, until the next ‘world’ war engulfed us, we lived with that first ‘great’ war shrouding us, as tangible and real as the event of the day. The fabric of our lives, of the country itself, was knitted by the event. As Noel Coward had Jane say in Cavalcade, ‘Let’s drink to our sons who made part of the pattern, and to our hearts that died with them’.
Later, as adults, many of us rebelled against war and, in our anger, linked the men who had gone to war with war itself. Many found it impossible – some still do – to grant to the survivors of that greatest tragedy the world has known the memories that made those years peerless, inimitable, irreplaceable.
For those five years they were away from Australia were both the best and the worst of times men had known. They had been brought up in an age of belief, allied to an epoch of incredulity but now it was ‘the season of light, it was the winter of despair’. No men since (and perhaps before) have lived through such an age. We who had grown up admiring them as fathers were still in doubt: why had they gone to a war for which no man has been able to give any logical reason for its being? Why did they stay?
(And this author had the uncanny experience of being asked recently by her own daughter after reading of some of their travail: ‘But why didn’t they desert?’) And why, seeing they lost most battles except the last, were they so quietly proud that the depth of their pride made it impossible for them to articulate it?
To answer my own perplexities I began to read voraciously, to search through the countryside for diaries and letters of these men, then to tape-record the reminiscences of others so as to leave a record of matters not recorded elsewhere.
Finally, I travelled to Jordan, Egypt, Gallipoli, France; I walked over the battlefields, up and down the cliff-face of Anzac Cove, up those narrow stony valleys where the bullets had whistled; I waded shoulder-deep into the Aegean Sea to try to recapture the moment of the Landing (and, note, we always use the majorscule). Then up and down the flower-scented, silent cities of the dead who overcrowded 60 miles of the banks of the River Somme in France and Belgium.
To this day, 60 years later, the inhabitants drink eau minerale (mineral water) because they believed when they returned to their valley in 1918 that so many ‘missing’ bodies, 110,000 men of the allies, lay unrecovered in that narrow strip that the water seeping through to the river must be polluted.
At the end of such an Odyssey one is no nearer the whole truth. But one is unshakeably certain that tattooed on the folk-memory of these men was an urgent drive as old as pre-history, the blood-sacrifice of a nation.
In the almost epicless land that is Australia the diaries of these men become our Homeric Iliad. Their patriotism might not be the beliefs we hold today but they were the dominating sentiments of their times.
To a man, the belief had been drilled in them by tradition, legend, lore, verse, story and song that nationhood is forged in battle, that glory consummates the rag-tag and bob-tail of humanity into a nation.
It’s only an old piece of bunting
It’s only an old coloured rag
But many have died for its honour
And shed their life’s blood for the flag.
They quoted such Brittanic themes but beneath the words was the knowledge that it was not their flag they sang of. Their nation was only 13 years old and no blood had been shed for it; a document had been signed, a parliament prorogued, but there had been no selfless act of valour to crown its coming of age. This they would do.
Within eight months of the outbreak of war the deed had been done. By 29 April, 1915 the newspapers of the world had emblazoned the baptism of a new nation, not least those of Britain, whose press was deep in admiration of these men who, up till now, had been thought of as Colonials.
‘Before the war who had ever heard of Anzac?’ wrote General Sir Ian Hamilton. ‘Hereafter who will ever forget it?’
By the time the Gallipoli Peninsula was evacuated, it had become hallowed ground, the forging place of a nation. The blood sacrifice had been enacted albeit by the most unchivalric wild colonial boys the ‘mother country’ had ever despaired of.
It was Australia’s Shrine, her Westminster, the cradle of her traditions; and the tomb of her princes; as an elite free masonry the survivors were given the deference due to a fraternity comparable to the 300 who stood the ground at Thermopylae; men who were not at Anzac saluted the survivors- and envied them their immortality.
The ‘White Gurkhas’ they were called on Gallipoli, and the Australians at home passed the story on. ‘The supreme exploit of the British infantry in the whole of its history,’ the Melbourne Argus recorded on 22 December, 1915, while in London a British officer wrote of the Australian soldier, ‘The bravest thing God ever made’.
‘I tell you’, Henry Lawson had written in a clarion call, ‘The Star the South shall rise in the lurid clouds of War’. So it had, in that first wild magnificent gesture, but ahead were four years during which they must maintain that which they had begun.
‘A hero’, wrote R. W. Emerson, ‘is no braver than an ordinary man but he is braver five minutes longer’. They had fallen for one of the most ancient and dangerous of human illusions – the belief in the possibility of a short, decisive war.
* Extract from the book The Anzacs by Patsy Adam-Smith, published by Penguin rrp $9.95.
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