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,
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