On Thursday evening, my sister Cate and I caught the train to North Williamstown to attend the launch of The Sons of Williamstown – ‘A Labour of Love’ – the completion of a project funded under the Anzac Centenary Local Grants Program.
We received the invitation after establishing a connection last October, with the two historians researching the project: Lindy Wallace and Loraine Callow. Lindy had read my blog post on discovering a relative who was an ANZAC . He came from Williamstown and she emailed me about their project and we shared information. I had no idea there was an Honour Board with photographs of the 265 men who died in WW1 and a photograph of the elusive George.
George Alexander McInnes is one of the ‘Sons of Williamstown‘, Lindy and Loraine were tracing to make the men who died more than a photograph imprisoned in glass. Their labour of love ‘to conserve, research, document and share the many stories behind the faces on the Williamstown Town Hall Honour Board.’
Thursday evening, a culmination of months of diligence, perseverance, exhausting days, sleepless nights and tears for the researchers. I also met Emma Ciolli who worked on the website and she admitted the project had been emotionally draining because most of the men were so young and the grief and loss felt by families and friends still palpable.
Five of the stories are short films on Youtube, but the others each have a page and it is hoped more information will be gathered over time with the exposure of the Internet.
Lindy’s email last year reveals her wonderful commitment and dedication to discovering more about the 265 men:
We’ve been able to confirm and identify all but 6-7 of them so far. Because of the number of people involved, we early on decided mainly to stick to documenting service details and then expand on five stories, making them into little videos. Oh but Mairi we’ve come across some truly beautiful and moving stories and would like to share as many personal stories as possible. Only two weeks ago someone brought in their relatives diaries for us to read and copy. Very moving to read his inner thoughts. He was a poet and wrote a lot of his thoughts in verse (sound familiar?).
Our aim, like you with George, is to make the men more than just a number on their service dossiers and a name on an honour board. All the while though we’ve been conscious that the stories of the men belong to their families; they’re not our stories and we don’t want to appropriate them.
Poor George McInnes – enteric fever was terrible and was suffered by a huge number of men at Gallipoli because of the appalling sanitary conditions. I recently read correspondence from a man describing the conditions to his family – they must have been horrified.
The above images from from The Spirit of Anzac Exhibition affected me deeply because I know there were not enough nurses or resources to cope with the injured or sick of Gallipoli. In Alexandria, where George died, hotels and other buildings were commandeered for the wounded – even the roof of the hospital.
There were two wards with 100 patients each and a ‘small’ ward with anything between 50-250 patients! The workload overwhelming with too few nurses working until they were numbed to not think too deeply of what was happening around them.
Nurses write of the stench of death and putrid wounds. Uniforms covered in blood and excrement, kits and bodies stank, soldiers unbathed, uniforms in shreds, no antiseptics, wounds remaining undressed, only cold water, kero tins converted to foot baths, fly blown wounds and amputations, men so ill beyond nursing… ‘one loses all sight of honour and glory’- these women dealt with the saddest part of the war and yet had to keep a professional detachment.
The manufactured and sanitised newspaper reports have to be read with caution – the primary sources Lindy and Loraine uncovered will be invaluable for future generations of researchers – if harrowing reading for descendants. I weep for fear George died alone and unattended.
No wonder Lindy and Loraine took so many of the stories to heart.
However, with the website up and running and the photographs and Honour Board lovingly restored I’m sure Lindy and Loraine will be looking to devote their amazing expertise and time to another historical project – after a well-earned rest!
Australia’s fascination with Anzacs and World War One does not seem to diminish – in fact it is growing each year. I know there are many in the community uncomfortable with the money spent on celebrating last year’s centenary but I’m glad I played a small part in the success of this project. George Alexander McInnes was 19 years old and like so many others his future was stolen. Evidence that they lived, worked, and left a family who grieved reminds us the cost of war is always too high.
Postcards from Gallipoli by Mairi Neil
He survived the assault on Gallipoli
to die an unheroic death
from ‘enteric fever’ in Alexandria.
Weak, miserable, hungry and alone,
the tent hospital overcrowded,
too few nurses overwhelmed.
Our family’s Aussie digger
buried in foreign fields.
His working class parents too poor
to visit his grave
and the body count too high
to return him home.
A nineteen year old larrikin
eldest son farewelled,
a rabbit skin vest, Holy Bible,
and pipe welcomed home.
His war brief,
like his life.
Postcards ‘from the trenches’
sent love to family and friends
missing home, and wishing for peace.
Passed down through generations,
the neatly pencilled sentences
hint at the man he could have been.
A great uncle I never knew.
Each ANZAC Day I think of
George Alexander McInnes
and the thousands like him,
acknowledge the debt owed
to previous generations
for sacrifice, trauma, and loss.
But in the remembering there is
no forgetting the madness
and futility that is war.
When I came to Australia in 1962, I attended Croydon State School, which sat opposite the Croydon War Memorial in Kent Avenue. The ceremonies and wreaths of flowers at the Cenotaph vivid in memory, but my knowledge about Anzac Day scant. And when I discovered George was an Anzac I wondered why his name was not on the memorial, having no idea of the family’s previous history.
It was the era when we observed a minute silence at the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month for Remembrance Day regardless of whether you were shopping, working or at school. I can recall being in Myer one day and the announcement to pause came over the tannoy. The elevators and escalators were stopped, the bustle silenced and heads bowed as many people did indeed ‘remember them’.
A minute in the more than half a million minutes in the year is not too much of a sacrifice is it?
It was only when I went to high school and studied Australian History for my HSC that I began to think deeply about Anzac Day’s meaning and the effects of the war on the Australian psyche.
My final year at school in 1970 also coincided with the Vietnam Moratorium. For several years we had the Vietnam War beamed into our lounge rooms each evening via the television, the tragic scenes profoundly affecting teenage me. I had three brothers, who were potential canon fodder to be conscripted and my parents often talked about their experiences during the Second World War.
Government political machinations aside, the fact conscription was introduced and it was reliant on whether your birthdate was pulled out of a barrel a bit like Tattslotto numbers added to the anger and opposition to Australia’s involvement.
In English, we studied The One Day of the Year , a play written by Alan Seymour in 1959. It was banned for fear of offending the RSL and not performed professionally until 1961, and seemed to hit raw nerves again.
This essay by Associate Professor Anne Pender is worth reading in full:
Anzacs and us
Consider the play today as we find ourselves in a period of intense commemoration of the Great War. We live in a period when thousands of young Australians flock to Gallipoli every year to participate in commemoration ceremonies and to see for themselves the place where many soldiers fought and died in 1915. The resurgence of patriotic fervor and heightened interest in the disastrous campaigns of the Dardanelles reinforces the significance of the play, and offers potential for new interpretations of its themes.
Australia is currently spending $325 million on commemorating the centenary of the First World War, 200 per cent more than the United Kingdom is putting towards its commemorative events, and a great deal more than what we spend on the mental health of returned service personnel (Brown pp. 20, 5; ABC interview). With this in mind, the meaning of the play takes on a new significance more than 50 years after it was first staged.
The central question about why we romanticise war, and why Anzac Day is so precious to Australians is salient. Historians have expressed concern about what they call ‘the relentless militarisation of our history’, arguing that ‘the commemoration of war and understandings of our national history have been confused and conflated’ (Lake and Reynolds p. vii)…
Any play should be considered in relation to its historical period. The context for the original performance, especially its banning, is vital to understanding the play. Equally important is to understand how the context for performance has changed and developed over time…
Historian Mark McKenna puts the question strongly, asking why after the mass slaughter of the wars of the 20th century we ‘cling to a nineteenth century concept of nationhood: the belief that a nation can only be born through the spilling of the sacrificial blood of its young?’ (p. 34). Why are we fixated on constructing what was an horrific military disaster at Gallipoli as a marker of nationhood? How should we remember the soldiers who fought for Australia, and how do you think a play such as The One Day of the Year in performance should invite an audience to remember them? These are important questions and relate to an even bigger question: what does theatre offer democracy?
Tim Watts MP, the Member for Gellibrand spoke at the launch on Thursday, not only talking about his grandfather who returned from World War One a much changed man, but the effect his grandfather’s behaviour had on his wife and daughter, Tim’s mother.
In hindsight, Tim recognises that his grandfather would have had PTSD – undiagnosed and untreated. He grew up with the family referring to his grandmother as ‘a hard woman’.
Tim now considers what kind of life his grandmother had living with her damaged husband and his traumatic memories.
‘They say she was a hard woman,’ said Tim, ‘but is it any wonder?’
When I congratulated Tim on his insight and sincerity, he admitted having a speech prepared by his assistants in his pocket, but chose instead to speak from the heart and share his personal story.
‘Thank you,‘ I said, ‘heartfelt speeches are much better.’
The other speakers added personal stories too – it was that kind of evening. My sister Cate said she’ll remember the relaxed, friendly atmosphere in the room and the warm welcome from Lindy and Loraine whom we’d only met once.
Snatches of the Mayor of Hobsons Bay Councillor Peter Hemphill’s excellent speech can be found in his informative press release here.
The honour board is a truly special memorial – it is one of the few honour boards in Australia that has photographs as well as the names of those who died in the Great War.
The brave men who enlisted from Williamstown came from all walks of life: they were butchers, bakers, lawyers, architects – there was even a piano maker.
The honour board was put together by former Williamstown City Council Mayor Bill Henderson. Between 1917 and 1924, Cr Henderson went around to visit the families of the men who died during the war, seeking photographs of the fallen soldiers.
These were mounted on a blackwood honour board with doors opening out.
The work of Councillor Bill Henderson to track down most of these photographs was quite extraordinary. While it was truly a ‘labour of love’ for Cr Henderson, it also exposed him to the extraordinary grief being felt in his community by family who had lost fathers, sons or brothers…
Some of the gold paint lettering naming each photograph had stuck to the glass covering the honour board and the deterioration meant some soldiers’ names could soon be lost forever.
Expert conservator Jude Shahinger did an amazing job restoring the lettering and the beautiful woodwork in the honour board.
Local historians Lindy Wallace and Lorraine Callow researched each of the men to find out their service records and the stories behind some of the men. They sought information from the Australian War Memorial, Australian Infantry Force records and newspaper plus that from today’s families of the soldiers.
Confusing the research was that some surnames were misspelt and one had a surname that did not match the one the honour board.
This work has been extraordinary and quite an emotional experience for both researchers.
…professional photographer Rob Lawler photographed the images of the soldiers during the restoration process. Most of the photographs collected by Cr Henderson are not held by the Australian War Memorial, so this project will benefit the national collection.
The President of the Williamstown RSL also spoke to lead the very moving and well-known recitation: The Ode before we listened to the Bugle Call.
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.
He shared personal reminiscences too and mentioned a conversation when his son finished university.
‘How old are you, son?’
‘Twenty-two and a half.’
‘Do you know what I was doing at your age?’
‘I had just come home from Vietnam.’
If his son has watched the recent series on SBS I can imagine his reaction would add a few ‘expletives deleted’ because the grief and loss from the Vietnam War is still occurring as Vietnam veterans struggle with ongoing physical and mental health issues and the emotional pain of feeling the lack of reverence and gratitude so often given to World War One and Two veterans.
The Sons of Williamstown website and videos, the documentaries, memoir, novels, poetry and song testimony to the power of individual stories. They add to the larger narrative to give others a better understanding of war and I hope communities across Australia will continue to value them.
On Monday, there will be many dawn ceremonies commemorating the landing at Gallipoli, but for most people it will be a time to remember the fallen of various wars – including the ones Australian troops are currently fighting.
In the words of ex-prime minister, Paul Keating:
Out of the Great War came a lesson of ordinary people that were not ordinary. They did extraordinary things.
His sentiment can be applied to all conflicts and peace keeping assignments. The most enduring symbol of remembrance for most people is the poppy and projects like the ANZAC quilt blocks my sister was involved in and the 5000poppies catch the public’s imagination in a world where the images and news of conflict is incessant and instant.
Being able to take part in or make a physical symbol to show care, compassion and empathy is important for many people. For me, being creative is to make a statement for peace, to find alternative ways of affirming values and beliefs other than death and destruction.
Tim Richardson MP, the member for Mordialloc sits amidst some of the poppies that volunteers knitted, sewed or felted. Some of the over 250,000 poppies, were displayed at Federation Square as a tribute to all those who served in wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations.
The poppy project is ongoing as is my family research.
Lest we forget!