RAWDON DALRYMPLE. A personal link to World War One.

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

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3 Responses to RAWDON DALRYMPLE. A personal link to World War One.

  1. David Brown says:

    My Dad was born 1892. In France, stretcher bearer because he didnt want to carry a gun. Hit with shrapnel in his shoulder, some time in England hospital, then North Africa till the end of the War. University of Melbourne, presbyterian minister, I think in Portland, forced out as the local farmers didnt pay his stipend because of his pacifist views. Met my Mum-to-be matron at Myrtleford (?) hospital with severe stomach ulcers, During WWII , they ran a hostel for (illegal) conscientious objectors in North Fitzroy.
    When my Dad was 50 and my Mum 40 I was their first born 1942. My Dad trained as a fitter and turner, worked in Adelaide at the Pipeworks (?) then they moved to Benalla where I walked to work with him in the Railway Workshops and he maintained Heavy Harry the big steam engine on the Melbourne-Albury goods run.
    I remember surreptitiously attending Hiroshima remembrence evenings at the Pacifist House in Melbourne (Camberwell/Armadale I think) when we were liable to be punished because we talked about dangerous peace. My Dad was happy when we protested about the Vietnam War my Mum marching in Melbourne and I with other students at Melb U. My Dad died 85 sitting reading at home, the Prof Philosophy knocked on the door the following day to congratulate him on passing his D Phil thesis. My Mum continued working at the Melbourne Geriatric hospital into her 80s, looking after patients most younger than her, complained when she had to pay for a 10 year extension to her driving license at 90 and died 95.
    Peaceful, civilised, tolerant, compassionate. Henry George League, United Nations supporters. Labor voters, union members, am proud to be their son.

  2. david gray says:

    Your respect for your parents’ service, and your mixed emotions about the Great War, are touchingly evident, Rawdon. My personal intersection with the Great War is twofold: first, our home in WA is one from which a young ANZAC left to serve having grown up in it and is thus a Red Poppy home; and second, one of my grandfathers was in New Zealand a conscientious objector on religious grounds, a position much reviled by many.

    To respect deeply and sincerely the service given by those who fought or served the war effort – in any Australian conflict – must be distinguished from the support of the political decisions to enter or maintain involvement in that war and also from one’s own moral positions about taking another life.

    My now 99 year old uncle resolved those dilemmas in the Second World War by volunteering as a YMCA representative seconded to the NZ 26th Battalion (yes they are ANZACs too) and also volunteered to act as a medical orderly between YMCA duties to bring back wounded soldiers from the conflict to medical treatment. As a civilian, he was awarded an MBE for bravery bringing back wounded under fire. He was subsequently, after three years, badly wounded.

    Our national narrative needs to include and better highlight those like your mother and like the field surgeons, nurses and medical orderlies for their bravery and service.

  3. It is wonderful to hear the voice of Rawdon Dalrymple, such a reflective and decent influencing voice when I was young in the foreign service.

    I have at times wanted to write of my family connection to the war but not put it down. I did place here


    a letter from my father’s father’s stepfather Tom in April 1918, reflecting anguish at the need to have the army’s clarity as to the fate of his son Preston buried in mud the previous September. On the first day of the third battle of Ypres, Tom’s company was under the artillery at the third advance on that glorious day when Australian, New Zealand and Canadians alongside each other advanced, as never before, a thousand yards before lunch, just over 40% casualties.

    As a sense of the times, the fervour, the whipped in loyalty, such as we seem to be near today, it is terrible to read the end of Tom’s letter, written in what might have been my father’s handwriting:

    “I can assure you it has crushed the both of us, the loosing the two of our sons.I know there are many even worse off than we are that is they have lost more sons. But one satisfaction to us is that they have shed their blood for freedom and righteousness and I am sure if I had more I would not withhold them from going to do their duty.”

    As regards the “if I had more” my grandfather was the (I think) bastard child, sent to the other end of the planet as a boat person (how modern) with his mother from England, mother met with Tom after death of first Australian husband of typhoid along with his brother in the Cobar mine rush, Tom and Annie’s children including two dead on the Western Front… but also three dead before that from diseases, before they reached the age of eight. Death, a commonplace, walked among them all. Different times, contrast the furores attending even slight and unintended mismanagement of hospital cases now. Now we expect short waits for sore knees in A and E… And fast planes to go abroad and impose casualties of war, unseen and unheard, on the other lot.

    The late Eric Andrews


    used to chuckle that after other books of his sold few copies, the rage of the RSL’s Ruxton at his ‘Anzac Illusion’ caused that book to sell out in a week. In it, among other things, he noted that the first Anzac day march was a British thing, a recruitment encouragement, done in London in 1916, troops in transit from the Middle East to the Western Front, with hasty last-minute organisation of events also in Australia. Andrews further noting that the number of Australians who volunteered was exceeded handily by the number who did not volunteer. Also that in the conscription referendum votes, Australian soldiers in France were divided evenly in their vote, with heavy concern that conscription could only prolong war and misery.

    In all our benighted tendency to be swallowed by fears and chauvinistic chants, half of us actually are less driven. But lacking coherent opposition to the heavy booted. Hello Italy 1920s.

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