The procession of empty sulkies tethered along the road that ran parallel to the railway line at Minehan siding was not unusual. Once a week the farmers’ wives gathered at the tiny siding shelter to collect their orders of meat and bread that were trained from Ayr. Mrs Hughes, the owner of the Minehan General Store and Post Office, was also a regular face as she waited to collect supplies and mail. This weekly gathering was normally a time for gossip, to compare lives and see faces they only encountered once a week. On this particular November morning in 1914, however, Harriet Lyons and her family were not waiting with the women of the community for provisions. She certainly was not in a mood for idle small talk.
William’s appearance in his Light Horseman’s uniform caused a hush to fall over the gathering with ladies peering through the doorway of the shelter to take a look at the latest enlistee going to war. Trains carrying men in uniform were becoming more common each week as men left their homes for Townsville where ships were waiting to transport them abroad. Many viewed them with an air of awe and excitement, however, nothing could alleviate the deep sense of anxiety felt by Harriet Lyons on that day.
Harriet and the boys formed a circle around William on the platform. She noted how handsome William looked in the khaki uniform of the Light Horse. It gave shape and contour to his otherwise straight thin physique. Seeing him in uniform always filled her with pride, but today was different. She felt an uneasiness she has never felt before.
William put his arm around the shoulders of his eldest son Ron and told him what he had already told him several times over the previous weeks.
“Now, son, just remember that you are now the man of the house. You have to take good care of your Mother and your brothers while I am away.”
“Yes, Dad, I know.” Eleven year old Ron seemed to grow taller before their eyes. His nodding chin came to rest upon his inflated chest.
Meanwhile, Kevin announced, “I wish I was going with you Dadda. We could both give ‘em Germans what for!”
“Yeah,”piped in Jack, punching his clenched fists into the air. “We’d give ‘em what for, eh Dadda?”
“That is right boys,” William couldn’t help laughing at his spirited young sons, running his fingers through the red curls of little Billy who giggled by his side.
“Now, now boys.” Their Mother admonished. She was in no mood today for their silliness.
William turned to his wife of twelve years and embraced her. She had been quietly dreading this moment for weeks; since she signed the letter authorizing her husband to enlist. If she was a religious person, she would have resorted to praying, like some other wives whose husbands had joined up. But no, Harriet’s mind was too practical for such inclinations. She was a realist. In her way of thinking, no amount of praying was going to prevent a stray bullet hitting her husband 10000 miles away. It is just not logical. Nothing can alter fate. Fate is what it is. She would have to accept the outcome, whatever it may be.
“Don’t worry, Cis,” William tried to reassure his wife. “I’ll write as often as time will permit. Anyway, they say this war will be over in six weeks. That is not long to wait is it?”
Before Harriet could speak, someone yelled “here it comes!”
Heads turned towards the thicket of trees down the track that lined the Haughton River. Stormy clouds of smoke and steam billowed ominously into the clear blue sky as it neared. Harriet watched it take the form of a giant moving brown and green caterpillar as it edged its way along the line. She wondered about the waving arms of khaki outstretched on either side of the procession of carriages; about the families who have not long said their goodbyes as she was about to do. As the steel wheels slowly squealed to a halt, filling the air with suffocating coal smoke, Harriet could feel her future running away, leaving her with a sense of dread.
Time for Harriet was running at record speed; too fast. The world around her became a whir. Sounds melted into one as doors clanged opened and shut; goodbyes were repeated; and whistles sounded. Before she knew it, William had gathered up his kitbag in readiness to board. She wished she could stop the clock; to prevent that inevitable moment… but, the realist in her knew that nothing can change the wheels of fate, once they were set in motion. She could hear herself saying “Look after yourself Will,” as she watched him slip through the door of the carriage.
The whistle blew its final series of high pitched notes. Harriet and her four sons stood alongside the tracks waving to William even though they could not see him through the windows of the crowded carriage. Their arms kept waving as the train began to move, spilling steam from its various orifices; as it gathered momentum; and as it clattered its way down the tracks; and even long after it disappeared beyond the dark shadows of Mount Elliott in the distance.
My Knowledge of Minehan Siding – written by Dulcie (Hughes) Brookes.