Heroes, hope and heartbreak
Families reveal the stories of our Anzacs
THEY are the war stories that have been waiting a century to be told.
They are the voices of loss and longing, courage and fear, that have been carefully folded away and stored for safekeeping.
But now, 100 years on, personal diaries and letters from Tasmania’s wartime past are being dusted off and shared.
“All these old stories have come to light … we’ve learnt so much,” said Ted Domeney, who has been part of a team of Channel residents gathering together their families’ World War I memorabilia for an upcoming exhibition.
The exhibition has been sparked by a resurgence of interest in military history since the Anzac centenary commemorations that started four years ago and culminate today, 100 years since the Armistice.
Graham Rae, who is one of the exhibition organisers, said locals’ interest in their families’ military history has grown after each Anzac Day dawn service.
“The centenary of Anzac has stimulated a lot of families and seen them digging out their memorabilia,” he said.
Old boxes, diaries and photo albums have been opened, and their heartfelt contents shared.
“These are really historic documents,” said Sue Edwards, whose grandfather’s World War I diary and letters to his fiance will be part of the exhibition at Woodbridge Hall.
Ms Edwards said she always knew there was a box of war memorabilia in her mother’s old Huon pine dressing table, but it wasn’t until recent times that she was motivated to open it. “I knew there was this wooden box of old stuff … but the stories that have come out of it are amazing,” she said.
As well as her grandfather Robert Rowley’s war diary, which notes the time and places of his war service, the box contains 20 poignant letters sent to his future wife Eliza.
“She kept all of his old letters, and they show a side to him that’s not in his diary.”
Alongside the love stories are the letters home from young soldiers who had no idea of their tragic fate.
Seventeen-year-old Owen Domeney, who enlisted underage, reassures his parents of his good health only days before he was killed in action.
Such historical artefacts are being unearthed and re-examined around Tasmania because of the national focus on war history, said University of Tasmania history professor Stefan Petrow.
He said the surge in interest in families’ military history was
shown in the large numbers studying his online unit “Families at War”, which is part of the Diploma in Family History.
He said 1200 students had taken the course in the past two years, many of whom were mature-age people wanting to unlock their own family secrets.
“When people are researching their family history they discover that people who serve at war often don’t want to talk about their experience — so families never ask.”
As a result, it was often the adult grandchildren of veterans who would dig through archives once their ancestor had passed away.
“They might go through a box or the attic and discover all these personal effects.”
The results were often “life changing”, as people begin to understand the impact war had on their families
“It might explain why their grandparents didn’t get on, or grandad drank or didn’t go to Anzac Day,” Prof Petrow said.
Friends of Soldiers Walk president Adrian Howard said the Anzac centenary had definitely prompted people to search their own histories.
“There have been these triggers that have inspired people to suddenly look in a box or go through old letters,” he said.
He said research has also become more popular because war service records were now kept on digital databases, such as the National Archives of Australia and the Australian War Memorial.
For Ted Domeney, his research into family history has not only concentrated on his ancestors’ war service but their land acquisitions through the 1916 Soldier Land Settlement Scheme.
The government program helped returned soldiers purchase land around the state, but in many cases the acquisitions were a failure because soldiers struggled to make a living off the land and repay loans.
In the case of Ted’s uncle William Domeney, who purchased land in Flowerpot through the scheme after serving in World War I, the land became part of the Channel’s rich fruit growing history.
William bought land next to property belonging to his brother (Ted’s father), and the family went on to build apple orchards — leading to the successful Domeney Bros fruitgrowers.
Eventually the Flowerpot property was handed down to Ted, who went on to grow cherries on the site.
Alongside the diaries and letters, the exhibition at Woodbridge will also show trench art brought back by soldiers.
“These brass souvenirs were made out of the artillery shells,” said Graham Rae.
Soldiers’ favourite war poetry, carefully cut from newspaper pages, will also be on display.
Mr Rae said the exhibition would have four components — detailing life at war, the Armistice, life back home and the reasons to commemorate.
The exhibition at the Woodbridge Hall will be on next weekend, November 17 and 18, from 10am-4pm. Entry is free.