THE WAR, AT HOME

Patsy Adam-Smith’s 1978 work The An­zacs, be­ing re­pub­lished to com­mem­o­rate the cen­te­nary of the Great War and the 99th an­niver­sary of the Gal­lipoli cam­paign, is an Aus­tralian clas­sic. And the book’s open­ing chap­ter, Why Did You Go to the Great War, Daddy,

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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 rela- tives 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 looks at her.) You are sent to take soup to a fam- ily 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 wheel­chair; 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 ar­ti­facts 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 — al- ways 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 20 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.

“Why? 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

A por­trait of Lance Cor­po­ral Al­fred Wood­burn Cook (in uni­form) and his fam­ily mem­bers gath­ered for his home­com­ing to Ade­laide in 1918

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