HARD DE­CI­SIONS

The Weekend Post - - News -

traor­di­nary ex­ploits of Vic­to­ria’s Cap­tain John El­dred Mott. Much-loved by his men, he is wounded mul­ti­ple times at Bul­le­court. Re­treat­ing in the face of over­whelm­ing forces the Dig­gers ban­dage him and hide him in a dugout, where he some­how stays alive for three nights un­til found and cap­tured by Ger­mans. Within months he re­cov­ers enough to es­cape from a Ger­man prison camp and makes it 146km across the en­emy heart­land to free­dom and a Mil­i­tary Cross.

It’s boys’ own ad­ven­ture stuff – but the back­drop is a de­feat where Aus­tralians were an­ni­hi­lated (10,000 be­came ca­su­al­ties in the two bat­tles for Bul­le­court); and John’s younger brother Arthur is killed just weeks af­ter the es­cape in a train­ing flight.

An­other amaz­ing es­cape, this time at Messines. NSW in­fantry­man George Ec­cle­ston is shot in the shoul­der and ab­domen and left alone in No Man’s Land. The thick, sticky mud ap­pears to have sealed his wounds, stem­ming the blood loss as he crawls back inch by ag­o­nis­ing inch to Aussie lines. Alive, yes, but wrecked in­side, as his son Redge told An­za­cLive: “He never spoke about the war, but had loud night­mares yelling out dur­ing the night for Amby his brother, my un­cle, who was killed af­ter ar­riv­ing in France only three weeks ear­lier.”

Be­fore George’s ac­tion at Messines are the fa­mous mine blasts that oblit­er­ate Ger­man po­si­tions. Rightly, we re­mem­ber the ex­ploits of the tun­nellers led by Cap­tain Oliver Wood­ward and im­mor­talised in the film Be­neath Hill 60. But the men are mor­tal and many, many die dur­ing the sub­ter­ranean work to make the ex­plo­sion hap­pen – in col­lapses, ac­ci­dents and short, sharp un­der­ground fights with en­emy raid­ing par­ties. Among them NSW coal miner James Sned­don, who fol­lowed his son Wal­ter to war to look af­ter him – but is buried by a Ger­man coun­ter­charge.

Even se­nior of­fi­cers suf­fer. The leg­endary Gen­eral Harold “Pom­pey” El­liott stuns sub­or­di­nates at Poly­gon Wood by go­ing right into the front line – un­heard of for his rank – and steers his men to vic­tory. Some­how he main­tains his calm and ster­ling leadership, de­spite learn­ing half­way through the bat­tle that his brother George has been mor­tally wounded.

Then there are those killed at Pass­chen­daele, in­clud­ing three broth­ers on the first day of bat­tle among 38,000 Aussie ca­su­al­ties over three months of car­nage. Nurses, such as Ada, shine not just as care-giv­ing an­gels. Our beloved Alice Ross-King and Ali­cia Kelly are among those awarded medals for their brav­ery and swift think­ing in dev­as­tat­ing Ger­man air raids on ca­su­alty clear­ing sta­tions – in the case of Mel­bourne’s Ali­cia, cov­er­ing pa­tients’ heads with enamel wash basins and bed­pans, know­ing they are prac­ti­cally use­less as hel­mets but might give a sense of se­cu­rity to the men. Their sto­ries stand out in wartime com­mem­o­ra­tions, but what about the men and women at home, on the front­line of a so­ci­ety riven by divi­sion? The con­scrip­tion de­bate had al­ready torn through Aus­tralia the pre­vi­ous year, with com­mu­ni­ties di­vided against one an­other, of­ten along loose re­li­gious lines – Catholics op­posed and Protes­tants for en­forced ser­vice – and a ref­er­en­dum at year’s end a nar­row win for the an­tis that saw the La­bor Party split.

Prime Min­is­ter Billy Hughes’ sec­ond doomed push to in­tro­duce con­scrip­tion, in 1917, turns those wounds sep­tic and the ran­cour bleeds into other so­cial is­sues in a coun­try weary of war, where ev­ery fam­ily is in some way suf­fer­ing.

“Com­mu­ni­ties, fam­i­lies were torn apart,” says Stan­ley, re­search professor at UNSW Can­berra and for­mer Aus­tralian War Me­mo­rial prin­ci­pal his­to­rian. “Pro­pa­ganda was ap­pallingly di­vi­sive, not just from the fac­tions but even com­ing from the Prime Min­is­ter.”

By com­par­i­son, he says today’s same-sex mar­riage con­ver­sa­tion is a model of civilised de­bate. In ad­di­tion to mass demon­stra­tions and brawls, the con­scrip­tion bat­tle leaves com­mu­ni­ties di­vided for years to come.

“The bit­ter­ness en­dured for gen­er­a­tions; peo­ple did not speak to each other for years,” Stan­ley says. Those for con­scrip­tion ac­cuse those against of dis­loy­alty and worse; those op­posed can be just as vit­ri­olic.

Stan­ley, whose new book The Cry­ing Years: Aus­tralia’s Great War ex­am­ines the is­sue, gives an ex­am­ple of a man “dobbed in” by Com­mon­wealth Bank of­fi­cials for voic­ing an­ti­con­scrip­tion opin­ions in the queue.

The “Great Strike” that spreads across the coun­try midyear raises sim­i­lar lev­els of vit­riol with sim­i­lar ac­cu­sa­tions: strik­ers are traitors to the cause, those who con­tinue work are scabs.

How­ever on Novem­ber 11, 1917, with the sec­ond con­scrip­tion ref­er­en­dum a month away, pos­i­tiv­ity is hard to find. It will be an­other bit­ter year – and 8000 more Aus­tralians will die – be­fore the Ar­mistice comes, and with it Re­mem­brance.

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