More to spirit of a hero than war
A soldier’s sacrifice must always be remembered, but so should the life
One hundred years ago this past July, Albert Chalmers Borella, 37, was awarded the Victoria Cross for valour in the presence of the enemy.
It was then, and it remains, the highest award that could be granted to members of Australian armed forces and it behoves us, on the eve of Remembrance Day, to be reminded of Borella’s courage in the face of violence and terror on the Western Front — but, in so doing, shouldn’t we also remember the life he lived before and after the Great War?
Men such as Borella built this country, opened it up, explored it. Stories such as theirs make Australia. We are not — we could not be — this place without them.
Borella was born on August 7, 1881, in Borung, Victoria. His mother, Annie, died when he was just four, “probably from one of the fevers, typhoid is our guess”, says Rowan Borella, who at 85 is Albert Borella’s only surviving son and the keeper of the family flame.
Albert’s father, Louis, remarried and soon had a daughter to go with two already born, plus four more sons, so “there were eight of them in total”, says Rowan. Across time the family moved to Thyra, west of Mathoura in NSW, where Albert’s job, as eldest son and family crack shot, was to keep shirts on backs and snakes at bay.
This Albert did throughout his teens and early 20s. Then, in 1910, with all the children pretty much raised, he left the farm and moved to Melbourne, where he became a firefighter. That’s an important job now, but in Melbourne in the early part of the 20th century? With so many houses made of timber, with outdoor kitchens, open fireplaces, incinerators? When so many factories were, frankly, combustible?
Albert took his responsibilities to Melbourne extremely seriously, sleeping in quarters and living with his horses at the Eastern Hill Fire Brigade on the corner of Victoria Parade and Gisborne Street. Ready, he was always ready.
In 1912 he came across a circular urging capable men to take up land on the Daly River in the Northern Territory. “The government wanted people to open the north up to farming,” says Rowan.
“My father was granted one of 13 lots and was one of those men who wanted to make a go of things. There was nothing up there but he cleared an area, he sank a well, he did three miles of fencing, he built a house — it was ‘one of the best houses on the Daly, with a freestanding kitchen’, according to the local Land Board — and the government had promised assistance, but after 2½ years he had received a horse but no plough.
“He was running through his savings but it was hopeless, and he was the last to give up, but when he went to Darwin to front the authorities, they said, well, you have walked off your land, you’re in debt to us now, 70 pounds.”
Determined to pay that debt, Albert took a job as a cook in Tennant Creek but, very soon after, war broke out, and with no idea of the awfulness ahead — who could have known how Australian blood would soon soak the soil of France? — Albert quit his job and began making his way towards the nearest recruiting office. It happened to be 1000km away in Townsville, Queensland.
Of course there was no highway, indeed no clear route, and so he started walking, hacking through bush when necessary and swimming through swollen rivers, stopping only when he got to Renner Springs, where he borrowed a horse from the mailman and rode another 400km to Katherine, where he hitched a ride on a mail buggy to Pine Creek, then hopped the train to Darwin before hitching another ride on a boat to Townsville.
This astonishing journey — Borella’s Ride — later would be celebrated in books and in a documentary. There has been a re-en- actment, and there are plaques along the route.
And yet, when it came to serving Australia, Albert hadn’t got started.
From the recruiting office in Townsville he was posted to the 26th Battalion of the First Australian Imperial Force, which embarked from Brisbane on May 24, 1915. Albert sailed first to Egypt before landing in Gallipoli in September 1915, “with that battle already being a lost cause”, says Rowan.
In the years that followed, Albert served on the Western Front in France, a place of near unimaginable sorrow and sadness for Australians. He received a Military Medal for conspicuous bravery on May 11, 1917, and he was mentioned in dispatches, but it was at Villers-Bretonneux that he earned his Victoria Cross.
“My father never talked about this. We had to find out,” says Rowan.
On the night of July 17-18, 1918, Albert and his men found themselves under fire.
He ran into the path of a German machinegunner, shot two of the enemy dead and captured the gun, “but the real object that night was to push the Germans back to the road, except you couldn’t recognise the road. It was cut up. There had been fighting in that area — shrapnel, and bunkers, and explosions — and they overran their objective, and came across a trench full of Germans, and with his platoon reduced to just 10 men, you would think they had no chance. But they were on top of the trench, they had the upper hand, and they succeeded.”
Albert soon after returned to Australia, landing in Melbourne on New Year’s Day 1919, never to speak of the horror he witnessed; to gratefully take up a soldier settlement lot just outside Hamilton in Victoria; to finally embark on his real life’s work: building a family of his own.
Something to do. Someone to love.
Those two things that people need to survive in peacetime came together for Albert in 1924 when he stood for the seat of Dundas in the Victorian Legislative Assembly.
“He was defeated, but my mother, Elsie Love, was his secretary in the campaign,” says Rowan. He won her heart. The couple married in 1928 and soon had four boys (besides Rowan, born 1933, there was Mervyn, born 1930; Maxwell, born 1932; and Neville, born 1938.)
“He lived the farming life for many years,” says Rowan, “and he enjoyed that peace.”
Yet when World War II broke out, Albert re-enlisted at age 58.
“They put him in charge of the garrison units in Australia,” says Rowan, “and they promoted him to captain. He never said why he did that, except that if the nation was at war and you could serve, you served.
“He was a very straight up-anddown man, quietly spoken, didn’t look for anything from anyone, went about his business. Only one thing he did: he marched every Anzac Day until he was too old and they took him in a jeep.”
Albert Borella died, aged 86, on February 7, 1968. He was buried with full military honours at the Albury Presbyterian cemetery in NSW.
“Mum died in 1974 — she had a heart attack — and I’ve had Dad’s medal (the Victoria Cross) since her death, really, although a couple of years ago we placed it in the war memorial in Canberra, the reason being I’m the only son still surviving,” says Rowan.
“My eldest brother, he was killed in a glider accident when he was 21.
“Maxwell, he went up to the Northern Territory, being a guide on tours where people are shooting buffalo, crocodiles, and he had a heart attack up there in 1999.
“Neville, the youngest, he went up there too, and he was out duck shooting and shot a couple of ducks, went out to retrieve the ducks, and he drowned in a water hole. So it’s only me now.”
Placing the medal with the war memorial will help ensure that Albert Borella’s life remains a story for the ages. As for his legacy within his family, Rowan this year arranged for the entire Borella tribe — “all children, grandchildren, wives, partners and the whathave-you, 28 of us in total, just one grandson who had to work couldn’t make it” — to travel with him to the battlefields of France.
“Our objective is to be over at Villers-Bretonneux on July 17-18, exactly 100 years to the day that my father was there. And it was a private tour, we did it ourselves. Not a cent of government money,” Rowan says, firmly.
“We followed Dad’s footsteps through France and we used Google Earth to find the trenches, to find the roads, and to the day, to the hour, that he was there, fighting that battle, we were there and we put a plaque down. And we stood and we remembered him.” And what was that like? “I cried,” says Rowan. “I think we all did.”
‘Borella marked an enemy machinegun firing … He ran out ahead of his men into the barrage, shot two German machinegunners with his revolver and captured the gun’ THE LONDON GAZETTE, SEPTEMBER 16, 1918
Rowan Borella with the statue of his father Albert Borella (inset) after its unveiling in Wedderburn, northwest of Melbourne, earlier this year
Rowan Borella at Villers-Bretonneux, 100 years to the minute after his father earned the Victoria Cross there