Receiving William’s war records marked a major milestone in my journey of discovery. Up until then, I only knew that he had fought in the Boer War and Egypt during World War One. I knew little, if anything, about either of the two wars. I knew even less about my Great Grandfathers experiences during his life as a combatant soldier. As we curiously admired his wartime memorabilia that was housed in those old cupboards, we still gained little appreciation of the stories and perhaps emotions of sadness and despair that clung to those items. It was by reading those war records, that suddenly brought the reality of those battles to life.
He would never know of the excitement I felt as I read his personal details; that he was born in Banana, Queensland in 1873; that his complexion was dark, his eyes blue and his hair dark brown; that he was a slight 10 stone and he had a well-marked scar on his left shin. As trivial as these details seem, they are something tangible, something that added a degree of realism to the picture of William the man, and something that fuelled my hunger to learn more.
I was curious why he enlisted at all. By the time this war broke out, he was a 41 years old husband and father. However as I read the details of his prior military service, the answer to my question became clear. He joined the Queensland Militia at age 17, serving 8 years and 11 months; he served in South Africa for 1 year and 3 months; he was with the permanent forces as an instructor for 9 years and 5 months; and he served as an honorary Lieutenant with 27th Light Horse for 15 months. Effectively, he had served with the military for approximately 20 years. It was these experiences that earned him the title of “the Military Man”. He had served with the military for most of his working life.
Will was a single 26 years old when he came home in 1899 and announced to his Mother that he was going to South Africa to fight the Boers. I can imagine Mary Lyons seated in her favourite chair in the upstairs parlour of the family’s hotel in Mackay, listening to her son speak. His words are not pleasing to her ears. They float mid-air, like a bad odour she wishes to escape. She wants to speak, but couldn’t find her voice. She listens to the tick tocking rhythm of the large mantle clock for what seems like an eternity.
She cannot understand why Will would want to fight for a cause that has no bearing on their life in Australia, her family’s land of opportunity. She remembers her parents speaking of the hardships in the homeland. Ireland under British rule was oppressive at best, especially for Catholic folk like themselves. Her Mother had often told her of the poorly conditions aboard the ship as they sailed in 1851 towards what they hoped would be a better life. The ship was crammed with other poor wretched families like themselves, all existing on a whiff of their hopes and dreams. As the days dragged into weeks, shortages of food and disease paid a huge price, the cost being life itself. Those ships became known as the “Coffin Ships”. It was a miracle that Mary who was only 12 months old, survived at all, when so many other babes and children perished at sea.
Finally, she pleads, “Son, why do you want to fight a war that is not yours?”
“So, Ma, would yer rather I go and fight with the Boers?” Will quips.
“No, Will, I would rather yer not go at all.”
“I’ll be alright Ma.” Will smiles at his Mother.
Mary looks down at her lap, fiddling with the rosary she held in her weathered hands, maps of her hardworking life. Then she twists the worn gold band on her wedding finger, silently wishing her late husband John was here to reassure her that everything would be okay. She wishes now that William, her eldest boy had continued his career as a miner, rather than continue with the Militia. She knows that his rewards were minimal, but given the choice of a son of minimal means over one who deliberately places himself in harm’s way, she knew which she would choose.
“Will, being a midwife, I have seen the miracle of life over and over again. Those first sounds of life when a babe takes its first breath…it is the miracle work of God. Do ya understand what I’m saying to yer son?
Without letting him answer, she continues, “What I am trying to say is that I dread the day I might be told that one of my own has taken his last breath.”
She looks down at her hands entwined with black rosary beads and when she lifts her head again, her eyes glisten from tears.
“tis not natural son for a child to die before his Mother. Tat’s all.”
“Ma, you needn’t worry about me, I have had years of training.” Will tries to reassure his Mother. “I’ve been with the Militia for 9 years.”
Mary is aware of her son’s adventuristic spirit; it is a quality that she has always admired, along with his inquiring mind. As she fiddles with the rosary, she silently prays for the answers, from God or from her husband John. None were forthcoming.
Finally, she lifts the edge of her white apron and wipes her eyes before standing. She straightens the creases of her apron and long black gathered skirt before taking the few steps across the timber floor to where Will sat across from her. She bends down, placing one hand on his shoulder, places a kiss on his head and softly says, “I’ll be praying for you son. I’ll be praying every day for yer safe return.”