All of us who have a stake in understanding the Great War should be grateful to Joan Beaumont for her magisterial history of Australia’s involvement in that terrible conflict (Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War).
She has explored the complexity of that involvement, of both the engagement and the opposition to engagement. The opposition was less influential in the sense that it did not prevent Australia providing a large military force for overseas deployment, a significant navy and other elements. And it is that army that has left the deepest impression on our national awareness and indeed on our national pride.
Gallipoli maintains a prominent place in the military story but the Australian army’s role in the terrible fighting in Belgium and France in the latter part of the war was more costly and more influential.
The Australians who participated in that war are of course now all dead and there are probably not many of their children still living. (I am one of the latter and I am nearly 87). Both of my parents were in the Australian army, my father in the Engineers and my mother as an army nurse. I have been to the site of a field hospital near Ypres where her service led to her being awarded the Royal Red Cross. My father’s service was in France, largely in frozen mud in 1917 as the engineers were engaged in shifting parts of the front. After the war all the toes on one foot had to be amputated. My mother’s only brother survived Gallipoli but was killed soon after in Palestine when a Turkish shell landed next to him. He had just turned 20.
My parents never wanted to discuss the war or their respective engagements in it with us their children. As far as I recall we respected their discouragement. To do otherwise would anyway have been pointless. And so we grew up knowing very little about their involvement. Our knowledge came only later and mostly after their deaths. I remember the family sitting around a radio each Anzac Day with the set tuned to the commentary on the March and the Last Post at the relevant point in the Ceremony. A few times I think my Mother went to reunions of her former colleagues. But most years they just listened on the radio and my father would stand and stare out of the window when the Last Post was played. At some point, perhaps in later adolescence, I was not required to be present. But what I remember is the earlier times as a family. Then it was in some sense like celebration of a mystery. I don’t think we ever interrupted with questions and they never volunteered. The shutters came down and we could sense I suppose that it was too sensitive to trespass.
My mother was one of six daughters of an Anglican clergyman from Norfolk Island. She and at least one of her sisters became qualified nurses and after the war started she joined the Army Nursing Service. My father went to early school in Balmain and then trained as a fitter and turner at Mort’s Dock. I have his certificate which he got when he was only 16. He then went to sea and gradually worked his way up studying with the assistance of Scottish ships’ engineers (for whom he retained a life-long affection and respect). He took the examinations for successive Engineers’ Certificate exams when he could leave a ship in one of the major UK ports for long enough. After the war started his first attempt to join the AIF was turned down on the grounds that he was more important as a ship’s engineer. I don’t know how he managed to swing it a year or two later.
The above bare facts were never discussed when we were children and neither of our parents was disposed to talk about the war even up to the time they died. Perhaps it was just too terrible to recall, or perhaps they thought that we who had never experienced it could not possibly understand its horror. The one time when I might have gained more insight into my father’s wartime experience was in I think late 1941 when he took leave to travel on a coastal steamer up to Brisbane to visit one of his wartime mates. He took me with him and I remember him explaining the workings of the probably rather old-fashioned steam engine. There was a blackout at night so there must have been already a concern about Japanese submarines. But no sooner did we arrive in Brisbane than I was put to bed in the hotel with raging measles.
In my own old age I have become much more interested in the War and have pored over papers left by my parents and available from the excellent resources of the War Memorial. I think I can understand why my parents never wanted to talk about it.
No doubt there are other surviving offspring of Australian WW1 veterans but I think they would be few. I say that partly because I don’t know them. Those I knew as youngsters who had a parent in “The War” are all dead although obviously there must be some still with us.
My parents were less reluctant to express political opinions when they were old. During WW2 my mother developed an inordinate affection for Winston Churchill. I was myself too young to be aware as I later was that Australia had little reason to have such feelings for him. My father’s views and mine came for a while to a parting of the ways when I was a student at Sydney University but the proprieties were observed.
They were good people and they had served their country well.
Rawdon Dalrymple AO was Australian Ambassador to US, Indonesia and Japan