Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

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Antique and Secondhand shops have always been my favourite places to visit. Whilst apple pie is comfort food for some, these little shops filled to the brim with old memories are the equivalent for me.  I love to browse through the crowded forests of cedar, silky-oak and pine tables, cupboards and chairs.  I let my eyes wander across shelves arranged with an assortment of bric-a-brac and am mesmerized by the soft glistening jewels kept in glass cases.  Whilst I inhale that wonderful musty smell of old, I wonder about the faces that stare at me from their sepia resting places on the walls.

Two years ago whilst wandering through an antique shop in Bendigo, I stumbled upon an entire album of photographs, including wedding photos.  The black and white images depicted the life of a family in the 1950’s.  It fills me with sadness that these ancestors have become unwanted and discarded like orphans.  Perhaps the previous custodian had no living relatives to leave them to?  I considered buying the album just so the faces had a place to call home, however I considered the asking price of $70.00 too high.

Many questions went through my head.  How did it end up in an antique shop?  Who were the people in the photos?  Was there no family left to claim them?  They were beautiful photographs, better than the average family snaps.  Obviously that the album had been someone’s prize possession.

I am so thankful that I have inherited my Great Grandparents’ belongings.  What would have happened to them otherwise?  The boxes from the house might still be sitting in someone’s shed and then what?  Dumped?  The dilemma for me is who will want them when I am gone?

A few years ago, I found this poem in a scrapbooking magazine. It provides some food for thought.

The Strangers In The Box

Come, look with me inside this drawer
In this box I’ve often seen
At the pictures, black and white
Faces proud, still and serene.

I wish I knew the people
These strangers in the box
Their names and all their memories
Are lost among the socks.

I wonder what their lives were like,
How did they spend their days?
What about their special times?
I’ll never know their ways.

If only someone would have taken time,
To tell who, what, and when,
Those faces of my heritage
Would come to life again.

Could this become the fate
Of the pictures we take today?
The faces and the memories
Someday to be tossed away.

Make time to save your pictures
Seize the opportunity when it knocks
Or someday you and yours could be
The strangers in the box.

Author: Pam Harazim

 

Perhaps it is worth considering who the beneficiary of your precious photos and memories should be.  It is far better that they be passed down the family line, than ending up in a dumpster or in secondhand shop.  I have been compiling memories for many years.  My shelves are brimming with scrapbooks, the fruits of my labours.  I would hate to see them discarded when I am no longer here to protect them from such a fate.  It is so important that our memories are kept alive.  Otherwise, what is the point of our lives at all?

The Old Cupboards

The keepers of my family history sit in what is left of my Grandparents’ home, sad and alone, orphans of the past.  The polished timbers and sparkling mirrors are now smudged and dulled from the ravages of time. My Grandmother’s laundry is their final resting place, where they have stood in swirling floodwaters, river silt and debris.  Those old cupboards have long been depleted of their contents, but the memories remain, for they have been the keepers of family secrets, messages from the past.  They held the key to my Grandfather’s childhood, his father’s military career and his Mother’s pioneering family.

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When I look at the photograph above of the old wardrobe that possibly housed Grandma’s dresses and hats, I am saddened at its weathered appearance.  Nothing before me matches my childhood memories of my Sunday visits to Grandma’s house, many years ago….

Sitting on the bed, I gently stroke the shimmery fabric of Grandma’s quilt.  My eyes follow the delicate lines of running stitch which fade into a pool of light formed below the window.  A few stray rays of light escape the lace curtains and bounce off the moulded brass knobs and rails that support Grandma’s mound of pillows.  I love Grandma’s bed; I love the way it glistens like gold.  There are so many treasures to explore at Grandma’s house.

My eyes keep bouncing along the ripples of the tongue and groove walls, following the lines up to the edge of the tall ceiling, falling upon the knotted mosquito net suspended way above Grandma’s head.  There is so little time, so much to see.  An elegant wide brimmed hat sits on the chair by the French doors that open onto the verandah.  I stop for a brief moment to admire my reflection in the mirrored cupboard door.  I giggle to myself as I recall the white porcelain pot I had once glimpsed on the floor beneath the bed.

Sitting in silence at Grandma’s house was never boring.  My daydreams, my friends, kept me busy.  Most of my memories of our visits to Grandma’s house are visual.  Most are associated with objects and pieces of furniture in her house.  I loved to sit on one of the two miniature bentwood chairs that sat along the back kitchen wall and my eyes opened wide with delight as they admired the scrubbed pine hutch that sat on the opposite wall.  It was overflowing with an assortment of cups hanging from hooks and plates sitting in rows against the back cupboard wall.  The soft muted colours and cracks and lines indicated they were as old as Grandma herself.  Yes, Grandma’s house was a feasting ground for my hungry young eyes.

Often, other family members visited Grandma as well.  I recall sitting on the front verandah listening to the various Aunts, Uncles and cousins catching up with each other’s lives.  My roving eyes watched the outside world through the gaps in timber rails; they watched football fans lining up along the old iron fence, as they filed into the Sports Reserve across the street.

There was one room in Grandma’s house that was for the most part out of view.  Occasionally, through an open door, I spied a sparsely furnished space.  Out of the shadows, loomed dark timber cupboards and bookshelves that sat solemnly against the dull grey walls.  Those walls according to my memories, were mostly unadorned, although I cannot say for sure.  It was a room shrouded in a heaviness like that of death.  The roller blinds were kept lowered like a flag at half-mast.

The past is often clouded by a shadowy cast; making colours blur and fade into shades of grey.  Our memories can be fickle, as they waver and flicker like a candle in the wind.  What can we believe?  How reliable are impressions formed fifty years before?  Images in our minds become fragmented by time.  However, whenever I think of that front room in Grandma’s house, my impressions remain unchanged.  I sense there was a mystery buried deep within.  It is biding time, waiting to take a chance; waiting to be freed.

Looking now at those old cupboards, I am thankful that I have my memories and of course that the contents of those cupboards have for the most part been saved.  Yes, it is sad that a household has been reduced to a few old empty cupboards in such state of  neglect, but the souls of the occupants will live on.  Stories have been passed down through generations, photographs are proof that life once existed in the house of my childhood memories and there is a lifetime collection of memorabilia to ensure that the spirit of the family will live on.

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Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

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Last week I visited the “Spirit of the Anzac” collection that has been travelling the country, courtesy of The Australian War Memorial. It was a very moving experience which steered my attention to the 61000 Australian men who gave their lives for a cause that had little to do with Australia at all.  Naivety is a wonderful thing, or is it?

As I walked through each area of the display, I became absorbed in the drudgery, death and destruction of each battle as it played out around me and through the headphones I wore on my ears.  Of course we have all grown up hearing the words “Gallipoli”, “Anzac Cove”, “Beersheba” and the “Western Front”, but I now have a new appreciation for what transpired in those foreign lands one hundred years ago.

Each Anzac Day we witness the tragedy that took place on 25th April 1915, however, I knew little about the other battles of the First World War.  When I stumbled onto the trembling quagmire of the Western Front, I found myself transfixed to the spot, watching the scene unfold before me.  Through the periscope lens, each bombardment shuddered the earth as it decimated what was left of the desolate wastelands of France and Belgium.  It was industrial warfare that left no trace of life in its path.  In the few minutes that I stood watching history unfold, I experienced the constant bombardments and shelling that sent men both deaf and mad.  We all know of the Gallipoli horrors, however, it has been said by veterans that “Gallipoli was a beach holiday compared to the Western Front”.

Of course, one can only try to imagine those soldiers’ reality.  How can one truly understand the fear, the shredded nerves, and the effects of the constant bombardments that seemed to never end?  How can we as observers of history, a century later, know or begin to imagine life in the trenches flooded with water, mud and rotting body parts?   How could those poor men who survived the inhumanity of those times, make the transition into normal life as they once knew it?

Often the truth is in the eyes.  Have you ever paid close attention to old military portraits?  Those staring eyes are the windows to a damaged soul, and many damaged souls who came home after the war could never talk about their experiences.  What was there to tell?  How could folks at home understand?  My Great Grandfather was no different.  He rarely spoke about his experiences. When I spoke to his Granddaughter Norma, she remembered him talking about superficial things like the food at Gallipoli being full of maggots.  However, he spared even Grandma of the more horrific details of his war experiences as he deemed them “too horrible for a woman’s ears”.

So, how did those old diggers survive after the war?  Life for many, including my Great Grandfather, was a challenge.  Unlike today’s soldiers, there was no counselling to help them assimilate into normality.  Many became alcoholics and perhaps were written off as hopeless.  There are many stories that have been bandied around by my family about William Lyons.  One could accuse him too of being a hopeless alcoholic, however, I choose to say that his drink of choice was his medication.  It helped deaden the pain and wipe the bad memories from his brain. He, like thousands of others, volunteered to fight for freedom in the world.  Admittedly, most of the volunteers had no idea of what they were in for.  There were no television crews to film the daily happenings on the war front and newspapers were censored.

It is by attending exhibitions like “The Spirit of the Anzacs” that we learn to appreciate the sacrifices made by all men of our Armed Forces, both of yesteryear and today.  And, by bringing my Great Grandfather out from the obscurity of those old cupboard doors, I am honouring the sacrifices he made during the two wars in which he fought.  The next time you see an old Digger sitting on a bar stool at your local pub, spare a thought for what he has endured.  Instead of dismissing him as a drunk, salute him as a hero.  God knows, he has earned it.

 Lest We Forget.

Egypt

 

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Australian Troops disembarking at Alexandria, Egypt.

 

Nuit, the Goddess of the sky, opens her golden wings across the expanse of blue, beckoning the crowded troopship into her motherly fold. A blue sky tinged with yellow from the sweeping desert sands, commands William’s attention, allowing his mind to fill with frivolous thoughts of ancient Gods he had encountered in history books.  He thinks it fitting, perhaps a good omen, that she was the protector of the living and the dead.  Enjoying the moment, allowing time to stand still, his blue eyes widen as he welcomes the ancient land of Egypt into his life like a long lost friend.

William’s weathered hands grip the steel rail of the open deck, as the deep baritone of the SS Persic’s horn announces its arrival at Alexandria on 1st February 1915. Despite his natural need for order and structure, he is mesmerized by the scene on the dock below.  It is like a junction where two great sea currents verge; where modern man meets his ancient counterparts.  The foreignness of the people, bodies hidden beneath flowing robes and heads bound in cloth, intermingle with the teeming sea of military khaki green.  Through this swirl of human motion, are horses and camels, and rolling wooden cart wheels, along with motor vehicles, all seemingly going nowhere on their way to somewhere.

He stands shoulder to shoulder with others who are as fascinated as he.

One young soldier says, “I have read that the pyramids are absolute wonders of mankind.”

Another pipes in, “Consider yourself lucky, mate, you’ll be able to see them for yourself.”

William interrupts their conversation whilst still gazing at the wharf below.

“Men, I’m sure you will get to see the Pyramids, but you are here to do a job first and foremost.  Don’t forget that.”

“Sergeant, you’ve been to war before, haven’t you?” Enquires a fresh faced young man.

William glances sideways at the young man who addressed him and notices that he could only be three or four years older than his twelve year old son.

“I have,” he replies.

“Will things be that bad?  I mean, they say it will be over in six months at the most.”

William places his hand on the young man’s shoulders and speaks in a fatherly tone, not wishing to alarm the lads.  “Son, my advice is to just do as you are told.  Follow orders as best you can.  That is all you can do.”

His gaze is drawn back to the teeming scene below.  He savours the visual feast; he inhales the exotic pungency of spices mixed with dung and salty sea air; he absorbs the ethereal callings from a distant mosque and tries to interpret intermittent words of a foreign tongue wafting up from the dock. Anything, to divert his thoughts from the task at hand.  He knows that War is a cruel and fickle friend who randomly chooses who shall or shall not survive her daily torments.  He knows that some of these young men will grow old prematurely and others will never return to their homes again.  They all face a possible fatal shore on the whim of an irreversible decision.  He included.

A whistle sounds.  Sergeant William Lyons simultaneously straightens his posture and preens his woollen tunic. Then, with the precision of experience, he turns on the heels of his polished leather boots and marches towards the horse stalls on the forward deck.  It is time to unload the horses.  For him, the war has begun.

The Passage To War

 

Melbourne Dec 1914 - Australian War Memorial

Melbourne Wharf December 1914

 

Melbourne dockside revellers battled with arctic weather as they broke down the barriers to catch a final glimpse of the nations sons leaving for war.  Cheering and singing, they helplessly watched the troopships fade away like ghost ships into the fog that engulfed Port Philip Bay.  With fog horns sounding every three minutes, an uneasiness fell upon quivering loved ones as they watched their shivering sons weather  an eerie passage into the unknown.

The ships that left Melbourne on 23rd December 1914 joined  the remainder of the 2nd Australian Convoy of troopships in Albany on 28th December 1914.  The contingency of 20000 men were not allowed to go ashore whilst anchored in the bay, however many threw bottles containing messages for loved ones into the water in a last minute effort to say goodbye. Then on 31st December, the people of Albany witnessed the impressive departure of the convoy of 16 ships that stretched for seven and a half miles as it steamed away from Australian Shores.

The new year was announced the following morning by the tolling bells of death.  The first on-board fatality of the journey took place on the “Borda” the previous night.  That morning, mourners stood to attention in full dress uniforms, silently staring fate in the face as they watched their mate’s body, sewn into a canvas bag, drop feet first into the dark waters of the Indian Ocean.  For the first time since enlisting, they watched the illusionary war they had so blindly embraced, slip away into a deep inky void.

For the men of the Fifth Light Horse Regiment aboard the SS Persic there was little time for idle contemplation of one’s fate during the voyage.  William Lyons and his shipmates, when they weren’t rostered for stable duties, were kept busy with a systematic regime of training. Regular musketry practices at landscape targets were conducted along with courses and lectures given to and by officers.  William took part in non-commissioned officer training and spent much of the journey sitting for examinations.  Before the end of the journey he had earned the non-commissioned rank of Lieutenant.

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Stables on SS Persic 1914 – Photo: William Lyons

Reaching the shores of Ceylon on 13th January, the town of Colombo was barely discernible through the early morning haze.  As the convoy anchored at the breakwater the ships were met by Ceylonese hawkers in small vessels selling papers, fruit and jewellery.  In return, the men  of the Australian and New Zealand Expeditionary Forces embraced the foreign culture, the exotic sights, the movie theatres and souvenir shops during the next two days.  However, the mood of frivolity dissipated upon departure from Colombo. The winds of war were blowing dark clouds of gloom onto their horizon.

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Postcard from William Lyons’ collection.

 

As the line of ships continued to plot its way across the world, constant messages and reports of German ships were cause for rising tension and nervousness amongst the men for whom the reality of war was creeping upon them at a racing speed.  Four of the ships in the convoy were armed and had orders to immediately attack an enemy ship at first sight.  Morale amongst the men was also tested with each death on board.  Six men had died before reaching Aden Harbour on 23rd January.

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Ferry Post, Suez Canal

 

 

SS Suffolk (HMAR A23) passes thru the Suez Canal 1916 (AWM P00998.027)

SS Suffolk sailing into Suez Canal.

Steaming into the intense heat of the Suez Canal on 28th January was a sobering experience for those green men in khaki.  The seas had become a busy highway of warships and gunboats.  All boats were barricaded with chaff bags and bales of hay.  Surrounded by sandy desert, the banks of the canal were minefields of trenches in readiness for the Turks who were reported to be making attempts to block their passage.  Fighting was reported from the bridge; aeroplanes were constantly buzzing back and forth across the skies; and reports of wounded being brought in from the distant battlefields began to reach the ships. Nerves were frayed.  Ships’ crews were on alert. The enemy was near. For those 20000 men from Australian and New Zealand, the war was an imminent force of which they had no control.

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Suez Canal – William Lyons’ postcard.

 

Reference:

  1. History of the Fifth Light Horse Regiment by Brig. Gen. L.C. Wilson & Captain H. Wetherell
  2. Frank Smith Diary

 

 

Monday Musings From Behind The Writer’s Desk

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Discovering something new fills me with a wonderful feeling!  After years of exploring those  boxes that were once housed behind the old cupboard doors, I still find items I never noticed before; hidden gems that have survived beneath the layers of dust and cobwebs  as the years come and go.

On one such visit, as I thumbed through a box of books, old cards and photographs, my fingers stumbled across an item that sparked my curiosity. It was a diamond in the rough which I had previously overlooked.  As I picked it up, brushed off the dust and held it to the light, I saw something wonderful beyond its dull brown surface.

It shone light on world events that impacted my family and many others.  The details of its multi-faceted story glistened like the tears that welled in my eyes.  The story is one we Australians have all grown up hearing, but my discovery was an account by someone who was there and witnessed it first hand.

My precious discovery was a book titled “The Fifth Light Horse Regiment” penned by Brigadier General L.C. Wilson who was for the most part, the Commanding Officer of the regiment, along with Captain Wetherell, a regiment officer.  Its pages detail the story of the regiment’s activities during the Great War. Whilst devouring the words on the yellowing pages, I found myself sitting beside my Great Grandfather in a boat heading towards the shoreline of Anzac Cove, amidst a showering of Turkish bullets that hit the water, splashing those on board.

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That was the moment I realized the value of my newfound treasure and read it from cover to cover.  Like all ancient artefacts that have been buried in a safe dark place for more than a lifetime, it soon began to age and fall apart before my eyes.  Now I try not to handle it too much and keep it in an archival bag.  Fortunately, it is now available for reading online.

My treasure is a piece of history that was presented to members of the Fifth Light Horse Regiment as a souvenir  of their participation in the War.  It has proved to be invaluable for my research, so much so that I refer to it as my “Bible”.

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I would hazard a guess that my Great Grandfather, William Lyons, held the same respect for the book that he did for his own bible.  For him, I am sure, the war never entirely ended.  When I found the book, there were pieces of paper marking pages; certain passages were underlined and notes scribbled on paper scattered throughout.  Perhaps he analysed the various conflicts, reliving the details that I am sure stayed with him for life.  I imagine he would have been deeply saddened each time he read the passage about the search party he led out of the trenches of Gallipoli, amidst enemy fire, to retrieve the body of his dead friend, Lt. Hanly.

Out of respect for my Great Grandfather I vow to preserve that little book of memories; to keep that piece of history alive to honour the sacrifices that were made by ordinary Australians like he.  Lest we forget.

Leaving Home Shores

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A mixture of emotions gripped the passengers on the crowded deck of the SS Persis as it manoeuvred its way out of Port Jackson, Sydney.  Buoyed by the jubilant crowds that had lined the dock, the myriads of waving ribbons and bands playing uplifting songs, any anxieties that these men might have harboured seemed to have dissipated into  the ocean breeze.  William leaned forward against the rail, enjoying the cool sea breeze and revelry that surrounded him, both on the deck and in the water.  He enjoyed a party and this was no different.  “Besides,” he thought to himself. “it will keep my mind off the future.  Whatever it may bring.”

On the morning of 21st December 1914, the sea was a glorious hue of blue.  William’s thoughts were with Cis and the boys. “If only they could see this splendid show.” He thought to himself.  He knew that he will miss them terribly.  He wished he could photograph the scene before him.  At least he will write to Cis and describe it to her, something to cheer her, to lift her spirits albeit briefly.

William listened to  the sea of youth that swirled around him on the open deck; singing and cheering.  He had stood in their shoes fifteen years before.  He too had sought adventure when he set sail for South Africa to help the British fight the Boers.   He envied their young free spirits, their naivety.  Is that not better than knowing what to expect?   He was now 41 years old and his expectations were more real than those of his ship mates, or so he thought anyway.  He knew he was now the fittest he has been in years. His regular 30 mile walks from Minehan Siding to Townsville surely will keep him in good stead.  He learnt from his experiences in the Boer War, the importance of being physical fit and being able to ration water in case of shortages.

Gazing at the throng of happy smiling faces, William suddenly felt a pang of sadness.  He realized that some of them appeared not much older than his eleven year old son Ron.  He pondered the thought of his own son wanting to enlist.  How would he feel?  Would he be proud or would he try to dissuade him?  He allowed the thought to slip away on the ocean breeze as quickly as it had fluttered into his head.

There was an eagerness about these young men that he felt unsettling.  He had seen it in their eyes whilst being schooled in horsemanship and weaponry at the Enoggera training camp during the preceding weeks.  Training  was purely an adventurous game for some of these lads, but he knew first hand the deadly game they were soon to play.  It is a game that will end tragically for many who are blissfully unaware they are on a one way ticket.

Leaning on the rail, he felt something crackle in his top pocket.  Undoing the button, he retrieved a folded piece of paper.  It was a railway ticket issued for passage from Newmarket to Liverpool. Looking down at the ticket, William recalled the sombre procession of khaki clad troopers alighting the awaiting brown carriages on the morning of 12th December.  For the Fifth Light Horse Regiment there were no cheering crowds and bands playing Auld Lang Syne or God Save The King. There were no public announcements of their departure.  No, their departure from Brisbane was a mass shuffling of leather boots on the platform floor and muffled banter of men who had already bid farewell to their families in home towns throughout Queensland in the preceding weeks.  That thin piece of paper, he returned to his pocket, reminded him of the seriousness of his duty bound loyalty to the British Empire; of the task he has undertaken.

The ship’s horn sounded as it cruised beyond the heads, leaving the boats carrying well-wishers  behind in the bay, along with remnants of past lives.   William stood erect, clasping his hands behind his back, facing the stormy horizon.  The winds were now feverishly stabbing at his face and neck with a biting chill and the jubilant atmosphere on deck had lulled into an eerie quiet.  As the coastline and city faded away, he knew that the lives of those aboard were now in fate’s fickle hands.

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William Lyons – Second Row, third from right.

References:

  1. History of The Fifth Light Horse Regiment, by Brigadier-General L.C. Wilson and Captain H. Wetherell
  2. Frank Smith Diary – 13 December 1914 to 8 July 1917