Monday Musings From TheWriter’s Desk

 

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The haunting notes of the Last Post cut through the lifting darkness at Strand Park.  In the minute that followed, Darryl and I stood in silence, heads bowed, as is the tradition of an Anzac Day Dawn Service.  A sense of calm spread its wings over the crowd; the only audible sounds were the twitter of birds, soft intermittent whispers, and the gentle lashing of waves on the beach.  It seemed natural during that short interlude to reflect on the lives of those young men who landed at Anzac Cove at dawn on 25th April 1915. My thoughts that morning were also with my Great Grandfather, William Lyons, a local resident, an ordinary person who happened to be thrown into the arena of that extraordinary event. 

The solemnity of the occasion formed a lump in my throat as the school choir sang hymns of old and various dignitaries spoke of death, sacrifice and Peace.  That was my very first Dawn Service experience.  For many years, Anzac Day came and went, along with my intentions of attending the Dawn Service on the Strand in Townsville. Each year brought with it a new resolution on my part to carry through with my good intentions, however on the eve of each Anzac Day, I gave in to the luxury of a couple more hours of sleep.   I had no personal connection to the events of Gallipoli, or so I thought, to urge me to attend.

As a child, the Anzac Day parade in my home town of Giru was all about the ice-creams and soft-drinks we received in the park at the end of proceedings.  I can remember marching with solemn old men dressed in dark suits, wearing bands of medals that glistened like gold.  They strode along heads held high, their arms and legs driven by a purpose that a child could not possibly understand.  I had no idea that my Great Grandfather had been one of those old men in dark suits; that he may have boarded the troop train with them at the tiny Giru Railway Station in 1914.

The violent winds of Gallipoli brought change to many lives; to those who experienced it first hand; to their families; to Australia as a nation.  I must say that those same winds swept change into my own life on the day I read my Great Grandfather’s war records.  I had stirred those angry currents of long ago and kindled a fire deep within.  The decisive moment which drove me to sacrifice my precious sleep and attend my first dawn service was the moment I read the words “Anzac Cove” on those records. Those two words have driven me to each and every Anzac Day Dawn Service since.

In 2013 I was asked to give an address at the Dawn Service in Giru.  Specifically, I was asked to speak about my Great Grandfather because he was a local World War One Veteran.  Normally, I would baulk at public speaking, however on this occasion and much to my own surprise, I agreed without hesitation.  It was as if William Lyons himself was urging me, giving me permission for his story to be told.  I also felt driven by the importance of preserving his story, particularly for future generations.  

Standing before the lectern that morning, I managed to deliver my address to the invisible congregation that stood in the shadows of pre-dawn. Afterwards, people approached me with their own ancestral stories to tell.  The telling of my own story had indeed opened a conversation, it provided hope that those who endured the horrors of war on those distant shores one hundred years before will indeed be remembered.

Later that day a very strange thing happened.  Words, sentences and rhymes began to stream into my head.  The only way to stem the flow was to record them on paper.  Within ten minutes this poem had been formed.

THE SPIRIT OF AN ANZAC

 I stood to attention in full military dress

 And watched the young woman deliver the ANZAC address.

 She may have inherited my Irish blue eyes,

 But she cannot see the broken bodies, blood and flies.

 She spoke of Gallipoli in the Dardanelles;

 She could never imagine our months of living hell;

 How we cowered in trenches dug against the hill,

 Trying to dodge the bullets of Beachy Bill.

 I listened with pride as she spoke of my career.

She couldn’t know the horror I’ve lived with for years.

 Even in heaven, my memories remain;

 My memories of death and despair bring me unrelenting pain.

 I listened to her voice tremble as she honoured lost lives;

 I couldn’t hold back the tears that welled in my eyes.

 As the haunting Last Post cried out across the park,

 I silently moved to where she stood in the dark.

 With an outstretched arm, I gently drew her near,

 As I whispered “thank you” in my Great Grand-daughter’s ear.

Perhaps William Lyons was standing watching me that morning.  I would like to think so and I would hope that I did him proud.  He is in my thoughts each Anzac Day and I often wonder whether any other living relatives spare him a thought as well. His children are long gone, however I wish I could sit with my Grandfather and talk to him about his father.  What thoughts rang through his mind as each Anzac Day came and went during his lifetime.  Perhaps it was a dreaded time for the family; a time best pushed to the back of the cupboard along with their father’s belongings.  Perhaps they did not need to be reminded of the changes they endured from the moment their father left for war.  Would they have been thankful that Dad sealed those cupboard doors; that he kept the lid on painful memories that had been buried along with their father in 1955? 

The Face of The Enemy

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I brush my hands of the grit that transferred from the yellowing card.  The weft and warp of its textured paper is smudged with chalky red earth.  They are minute particles of Africa that have survived more than one hundred years behind those old cupboard doors, but moreover, they have survived since the beginning of time.  They are small pieces of an ancient land that witnessed a bitter war between the British and the Boers.

As I disperse those grains of earth into the air, I am aware I am disposing of layers of history, part of the story of the military man’s life.  More importantly, the card in my hand is the key to another life; that of a man named Gerhardus Atodin who came from Rietfontein.  It is an identity card, written both in English and Africaan. I wonder what memories are embedded in its fibres along with the grains of red earth?  If it could speak a thousand words, I am sure a flood of death and woe would rush forth like speeding bullets.  So, who was Gerhardus Atodin?  Was he a friend or foe?

Of course, only William Lyons would know the answer to that question.  He was sent to a foreign land to fight for Mother England, like so many others who answered her call of distress.  If only I could see through his eyes; if only I could hear with his ears; and most importantly, I wish I could read his thoughts. Sadly, I am left guessing with the little evidence I have.

My imagination takes me back to the desolate wastelands of South Africa.  The year is 1900; it marks the birth of a new century.  Normally such milestones are reasons to rejoice, but contrary to a new year’s promise of good tidings for all, this new year for the ordinary settlers of South Africa brought with it the menacing drums of war.

In Gerardus Atodin, I can see a face like tanned leather, weathered by the harsh African sun.  His bushy blond hair and beard are unruly, like the desolate grassy plains from which he hailed.  But his eyes, the mirrors to his soul, are deep and hollow bottomless pits.  His soul was stolen by an enemy he can never forgive.  They have stripped him of everything, the sum of his life.  His parents, his wife and kids are gone.  His life is now like the wide open plains – it is a void and lifeless space.

His family may have fallen prey to the British Scorched Earth Policy.  Like many others who inhabited the land, the Atodin family farm along with its house and sheds may have been burnt to the ground.  Their animals, their livelihood might all be dead. And, whilst Gerhardus is off fighting a war, his family, his life support, are left homeless, struggling to find food and shelter; they are herded into a concentration camp where they succumb to disease.

Wandering through the years, another century has passed and Gerhardus’ soul finds itself lost in a strange world.  He is a misplaced person, comforted only by his precious memories of happy times and of dreams of what he wished his life to be.  He remembers his wedding day, arriving at the church in a horse-drawn dray, seeing the beautiful smile on his new wife’s face.  He recalls the happiness that both he and his wife felt when each of his children came into their lives. His thoughts are constantly reminded of the home they built together; the beginning of a bright new future.  He, like William Lyons, was just an ordinary man, caught up in extraordinary circumstances.

Yes, it is true, that Mr Atodin, represented the enemy as he was a Boer.  However, how is one classed an enemy?  The Boers, after all, were not an invading force.  They were farmers and settlers who wanted to peacefully live out their lives on their chosen land.  It is feasible that he and William Lyons, if it had not been for the war, could have been friends.  Afterall, their lives were similar; they both grew up on the land.  But, when the battlelines are drawn, what choice does one have?  William had no choice.  He had no say in the Motherland’s methods of war.  Any feelings of guilt or shock he would have had to suppress, and in later years wish his memory would disappear.

I wish I could revisit the past; to a time before he passed away.  I would ask of him, “Great Grandfather, who was the man who belonged to this card?  Why have you kept his identity hidden behind cupboard doors all these years?”

“Girly,” he’d reply, “he was just someone I met long ago…” His voice fades away as he appears deep in thought, wrestling with buried memories he thought had been permanently laid to rest. His hesitance tells me not to push for more.  Respecting his silent wishes, I place the card back in its rightful home, alongside my Great Grandfather’s other suppressed memories behind the old cupboard doors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday Musings from The Writer’s Desk

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Dear Family, Friends and Followers,

This Monday I am going to share with you my inspiration for my post which you can read on Thursday.

I found in my Great Grandfathers boxes of lifetime possessions, a small and seemingly insignificant card which I am sure had been overlooked through my years of exploring behind the cupboard doors.  When writing my posts about the Boer War, I suddenly recalled happening across this small clue to the war; it was one of the very few clues that survived the years.

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Written in English and Africaan, it is an identity card for a certain Mr Gerhardus Atodin.  I questioned whether he was fighting for the Boers or the British as the card was issued by the Red Cross.  So, what does one do in the technological age when one wants to find the answer to a question?  Google it of course.  And with one click, I found an identical card online, up for auction, asking the hefty sum of two hundred euros.

It turns out that this card is a rare survivor of the Boer War, as on the site I discovered, the writers stated that the one in question was the only one they had seen.  It turns out that they were issued by the Red Cross to Boer Soldiers in case they were killed or taken prisoner by the British; so that their families could be notified of their whereabouts or demise.

I like to think that I have uncovered a mystery.  Who was Mr Atodin?  I know he was a Boer, the face of the enemy, but I am left with the question, “were he and my Great Grandfather friends?”  Was that even a possibility?  My questions are endless, however, sadly, the answers are now up to my imagination as no-one is here to answer them.

 

 

The Reality of War

 

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Australian Soldiers, Boer War.  Photo: abc.net.au

William sat cross legged on the dirty floor of his tent, shading himself from the late afternoon sun.  Even though it was showing signs of lowering its blazing glare, he could still feel its intensity through his stiff dirty shirt.  Three or four of his mates sat on their haunches in front of his tent, waiting for a pot of bully beef to boil over the fire.  Interspersed between the rattling of tin cutlery and plates, and the intermittent snorting of horses tethered nearby, was a lethargic flow of talking.  The voices were weighed down with the same exhaustion William felt pressing on his shoulders. Holding a pencil in his hand, he tried to will it to speak; to say something to his Mother at home.

There were too many images and emotions filling his weary head to focus on any one thing.  He stared down at the paper that he rested upon his rolled swag.  Sprinkled with rusty fingerprints, it was still void of words.  Positioning his hand and pencil on the paper he began to write…

Dear Ma,

I trust all is well at home.  So far, I have managed to avoid any harm, although others have not been so lucky. 

You should see me now!  You would not recognize me all painted with layers of thick red dust.  It gets into the pores of your skin and hair.   My clothes are stiff from it and instead of looking khaki, they are now dark brown.  You would be forgiven for mistaking me for a native. Water is scarce out here and we are only given bathing water once every 4 days.  As for drinking water, it is also rationed.  Our poor horses are also doing it tough. Some have not survived the long treks in the heat.  Others have succumbed to disease.  And some poor creatures have been shot.

Ma, I could really do with some of your home cooking.  Food is terrible. Breakfast is usually coffee and bread.  Sometimes hardship biscuits which are also rationed.  We get tinned bully beef for dinner some nights and sometimes soup, if we’re lucky.  I really hunger for some jam. Complaining won’t do me any good as there is nowhere to buy anything.  And well, our tucker here is often better than that we were given on the ship from home.  Even the threat of a loaded gun wouldn’t entice you to eat the questionable meat and mouldy bread that appeared some days!

William stopped writing and wondered how much of the truth he should tell his Mother.  Should he tell her that there have been times when they have been starving due to food shortages.  There have been days when they have nothing to eat from sun up to sun down. He couldn’t bring himself to tell her that they have had to raid farmhouses for food; that he has lost so much weight that his clothes hang on his bony frame.  Suddenly, he felt pangs of hunger grip his insides as the smell of warm bully beef wafted in from the fire, reminding him that he had not eaten all day.

He stared out at the dry barren land, a land that was not conducive to life, except for vultures who thrived on the dead.  His thoughts briefly touched on those friends who have fallen.  One can only afford to indulge in their memory for a split second.  His Mother would not understand how the regular occurrences of death and injuries hardens you.  When a mate pays the ultimate price, they are buried and life continues on in the same drudging way. There is no time for contemplation or grief, for that might cost your own life.  They have become machines, they just keep rolling on with very little to sustain them.  Little food, water and often no sleep for more than 24 hours.  Sometimes he has fallen asleep in the saddle at night, awaiting an order to dismount. But…even the best of machines can only take so much neglect.

The incident where the Mother and her two children were killed by British soldiers continues to haunt William’s waking hours.  As much as he tries, he cannot erase the image from his head, and he has seen much worse since arriving in South Africa.  It is bad enough when those beside you in on the battlefield are killed, but that family was only guilty of not understanding the English signs. Yes, he had seen so many injustices, but what can one say?

There was no way that a written account of how the British command were ordering the burning of the Boers’ farmhouses and sheds would reach home shores.  Nor would the truth about the concentration camps filled with women and children be allowed to leave this God forsaken place.  Those poor beggars have been rendered homeless and are now starving and dying from disease.  No, he knew that he could not mention any of it to his Mother as it would be censured for sure.

He closes his eyes and inhales the smoky meaty aroma of bully beef, imagining it to be a succulent roast dinner in his Mother’s kitchen. As much as he is tired of tinned beef, he knows it might be his last reasonable meal for days.  Opening his eyes, he sighs, trying to muster some positive news to appease his Mother’s fears.  A moment or two passes before the pencil, guided by his long thin brown fingers, begins to unload his censured thoughts, along with more rusty fingerprints, upon the grubby page.   He knows that any news will be welcomed by his family back home.

 

 

 

Monday Musings From the Writer’s Desk

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Dear Friends, Family and Followers…

Welcome to my desk!

I am sure that I am not alone when I say that I wish I could travel back in time and revisit my grandparents, great grandparents, great aunts and uncles, all those characters who are no longer here.  If I had my time over again, I would become a precocious child and incessantly question them about the past.  What would you do if you had a second chance, before your loved ones are gone from this life?  What would you do in an ideal world?

In my ideal world I could visit my ancestors; I could revisit the past.  My train carriage would transport me through a tunnel of time into my ancestral world of old.  I’d wave from my first class seat, to familiar faces, not yet lined by time.  I’d stare into their sparkling eyes; not yet dulled by the sadness that tragedy of Wars and loss brings into their lives.  Yes, I’d watch through the window of my carriage and marvel how I can be a witness to their lives in full bloom, a time when their futures appear so shiny bright, full of wonderful hopes and dreams.

Passing the cane-fields of “Strathfield”, my family’s farm, I’d wave to my Grandfather as he drives his red tractor up and down the drills.  I’d disembark from my carriage and hail a ride; I’d climb up beside my Grandfather’s seat.  We’d chat as he steers; about his years of youth; about my Dad as a child; about his romance with my Grandmother.  Alternatively, if I could choose certain moments in time, I could stop in on my Grandfather, the boy, where he grew up with his brothers on the family farm of Fontenoy.

If my Grandmother happens to appear, whilst I’m there, I would engage in a conversation about her religious beliefs.  Instead of listening with deaf teenager ears, I would listen intently and tell her she was right in her thinking that ‘religion should be an important part of people’s lives’; how the world is falling apart, now that churches are closing; how foreign influences are invading our wellbeing and peace.  But then again, that would only fill her with unrelenting grief.

Perhaps I could take an adventure tour. I would mount a horse and follow the well-worn trails of free spirits like my Aunty Nelly and her sister Lily as they rode their horses across the grassy plains.  I’d be privy to their secret romances and escapades with equally spirited local lads.  I’d drop in on their Father, my Great Great Grandfather, the canefarmer, horse dealer, engineer, miner and an all- round genius of a man.  He was a man of fortitude, so they say, although I never had the pleasure of meeting the man, who they say would dare to do, if he was dared he couldn’t. What a pleasure that would be, to actually meet a real man of steel.

How I would love to visit his older daughter, my Great Grandmother, crowned by her auburn haired beauty of youth.  It was a beauty that disappeared by the end of her ninety two years.  Despite how wonderful such a visit would be, it would also bring me much sadness, knowing the pain and hardships she is yet to face.  I would gladly sit in on her classrooms as she teaches children to read and write; to see her happy face as she is romanced by the handsome young man who would ask her to become his wife.  Lastly, I would ask her questions, oh how I would ask all the questions I never thought to ask during my eight years of visiting her house.

Wouldn’t it be fun to stop in on the 1950’s, the period of Rock and Roll, when my parents were only twenty something years old.  According to their stories, life was pretty cool where they grew up in the small town of Giru.  They romanced in cafes over malted milks, spiders and the like.  There were cafes with sweet names like “Blue bird” or “The Candy Shoppe” where they listened to the latest music played on those big ole Jukeboxes that were ablaze with coloured flashing lights.  They cruised their big bawdy cars down the main streets of local towns each Friday and Saturday night.  Oh what a sight it must have been.

There are so many names and faces on my list, of those I’d love to see.  There are so many conversations I would love to have; perhaps rewrites of conversations from the past. These are the ones I wish I had; the ones that only occurred to me as I enter middle age myself.  Many of my ancestors I only knew in their twilight years; whereas I want to see them in full youthful bloom, living life fearlessly and free.  I long to see them dance to the beat of their authentic drums, instead of moving to the tunes of labels like ‘Grandmother’, ‘Great Aunt’, or ‘Great Uncle’.   How I would love to visit each and every one of them in a world beyond that I know; to meet them again, to enjoy a vibrancy that had long faded with the dawning of old age.   Yes, this is a journey I would take again and again, to my ideal world through that tunnel of time, to a world where my ancestors would become eternal friends of mine.

Of course, the next best thing is to ask questions of those who remember the dearly departed; to sit down with those who are still with us and discuss the past, before they too are gone.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank those cousins who have assisted me on my journey of discovering the life and times of my Great Grandparents, William and Harriet Lyons.  Each time I have asked a relative to share their memories with me, they have replied “I don’t think I can really help you.”  However, each and every one of them have imparted a wealth of information.  Even the smallest piece of memory, no matter how insignificant it may seem, is invaluable.  A jigsaw puzzle is made up of many small pieces.  So is one’s life.  So, many thanks to you all.

On that note, I will bid you farewell until Thursday when we return to the past; to another chapter in the Boer War Conflict.

The Boer War

A volley of rifle shots rang out across the red dusty road, causing  William’s horse to startle. Taking a moment to calm the animal, he swung it around so he could see the source of the sound.

Two British soldiers stood by the road’s edge, in front of a sign that read “No Trespassing.” Two or three yards beyond the sign lay three dark lifeless forms on the ground.  Walking his horse closer to the scene, to his horror, a native woman lay on her side, along with two children face down, their hands entwined.  A broken clay pot dispersed water into the red earth beside them.  All three wore bullets wounds to their torsos. They were void of life.

“Good God Men,” he shouted down at the two soldiers, “why did you shoot them?  They weren’t armed!’

Pointing at the sign, they nonchalantly replied, “Obviously they can’t read.”

As it turned out, the local natives couldn’t read English.  The sign was marking a dump that was placed on a former thoroughfare the locals used to go about their daily lives. The decision of the British to shoot those poor innocents of the conflict changed William’s view on the War.  He quickly learnt that the British were a law of their own and often, a very cruel force indeed.   So much had changed since he was farewelled in Brisbane last November.

 

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1st Queensland Mounted Infantry marching down Queen Street, Brisbane 4/11 1899.  Photograph:  The Queenslander 4/11/1899, P. 906

Seated in his saddle, donned in his khaki military clobber, his polished knee boots and silver spurs, William felt taller than his five feet and ten inches.  Buoyed by the escalating euphoria that rolled along Brisbane’s crowded Queen Street, he listened to the shouts, the choruses of “Long Live the Queen,” and “Hurrah for the Motherland.”  The muffled songs and jubilant cheers accompanied the booming bleating brassy beat of trombones and drums along with thousands of marching feet and horses hooves.

It was a moment to behold and one that filled him with unprecedented pride. His slouch hat set at a jaunty angle and adorned with the distinctive emu plume, set him apart from other infantry men who marched on foot.  On that warm day in November 1899, he was riding his horse into to Australian history books.  He was a representative of the Australian Spirit, he was the embodiment of the Australian bush.  He was a Light Horseman.

(Click on link: Troop Parade Queens St, Brisbane, Nov 1899)

Fifty firsts number 23 QSA Item 91807 Qld Contingent to Boer War 1891 - 1900

Fifty firsts number 23 QSA Item 91807 Qld Contingent to Boer War 1891 – 1900

It was indeed an impressive sight with onlookers lining both sides of Queen Street, all jostling for position close to the road’s edge.  The street itself was aflutter with flags and a teeming sea of green khaki as William walked his horse to the collective beat of marching hooves and feet.  As people cheered, arms waving and some running alongside, he kept his hand gripped tightly on the leather reins and his eyes straight ahead, hoping the deafening noise would not upset his horse.  William was marching with the First Queensland Mounted Infantry to Brisbane’s Port where the “Cornwall” was awaiting to transport them across the seas to South Africa.  He had answered the call from the Motherland, to help fight the Boers.

SS Cornwall departing Brisbane.  Photo-alh.research.com

SS Cornwall departing Brisbane 1899.  Photo: alh research.com

(link to video loading horses: http://aso.gov.au/titles/historical/loading-horses-ss-cornwall/clip1/)

From the crowded deck of their transport, they waved their final goodbyes to the crying, cheering crowd who swarmed the dock.  Perhaps William gave little thought to what lay ahead.  Africa, a continent full of unknowns was awaiting his free spirit. It was a dark continent, rich in native history and culture which would have appealed to his enquiring mind.  He was setting off on an adventure to see the world.  At last he had a chance to prove himself as a soldier.  Only weeks later, however, reality would dim his adventurist spirit.

Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

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Good Morning again from my desk.

If only photographs could talk?  I am sure they would make the family historian’s life much easier, providing the answers to the myriads of questions we have whirring around in our heads.  They could solve the many mysteries of our ancestors’ lives and alleviate the pain when no “who”, “when” or “where” have been provided.

There are some images, however, that perhaps would be best left alone.  Their crowded shoe box graves should be left undisturbed. When you happen upon one of those images and delve deep into its soul, you may be told stories that you would be best not knowing at all.

Most families in Australia have exhumed those images from their resting places of old.  Like myself, many of you have dug into the depths of old cupboards and trunks and retrieved bundles of sepia grieving souls whose troubles had been laid to rest many decades ago. Predominantly, they are photographs of young men who had prematurely aged beyond their years. Their empty staring eyes have seen things that would reduce the strongest man to tears.

You know the ones I am talking about.  We all have them.  We return their stares and wonder about the details of their military lives.  We excitedly order their records online and upon receipt of a bundle of papers, read from beginning to end. But, I’d like to remind you that the official records do not really tell you what happened to those young men.

A few years ago, I sat down with a family friend who had experienced the horrors of the Second World War.  He had an incessant need to document his story.  He felt compelled to tell the truth.  It is that truth that we may not be ready to hear.  The truth of war is more horrible than one can possibly imagine.  Witnessing the capabilities of mankind to inflict such acts of atrocity upon one another is beyond what humans are meant to bear.

So, next time you pull out those old shoeboxes you keep behind your cupboard doors, you might think twice before you ask too many questions of those poor military souls. They rarely shared their experiences when they were here.  They buried their memories as they strove to live out their lives in peace.  So, if you ask too many questions whilst looking into their wide staring eyes, they will more than likely reply “You don’t want to know.  Just leave it be. Please let me rest in peace.”

I know that my Great Grandfather never told my Great Grandmother Harriet the more horrific aspects of the Great War.  To quote his own words, “There are things that are too horrible for a woman to hear!” So, it is likely that he would not wish to burden me either.

I shall end on that thought and return on Thursday as William leaves for the Boer War.