Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

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Thank you readers for taking the time each week to read my posts.  A year has now passed since I launched this blog on 25th December 2015 and it has become much bigger than I initially imagined it to be.

Unfortunately, I never had the pleasure of knowing my Great Grandfather and much of what I write is a matter of joining the dots with the little information I possess and bucket loads of imagination.  And, by putting my posts out into the world wide blogisphere, I have become acquainted with family members I had no idea existed, who have provided me with invaluable information.

Recently, I had a conversation with my sister about my portrayal of William Lyons.  She said “It would be interesting to know how close you are to the truth.” Through my studies on how to write family history stories, I have had to analyse his actions and the reasons behind them.  For instance, “why did he enlist in 1914?”, “was he a selfish man?”,  “what was he like as a man?”, or “was he a respected officer?”  Without personally knowing a person, it is a very difficult task, it has been a weight of responsibility on my shoulders.  If I were creating a fictional character I could choose any number of scenarios, however, in writing about a real person, I need to be careful with my deductions.

In “The Desert Column”, written by Ion Idress, he mentions the various officers in the Fifth Light Horse Regiment.  He gave a favourable account of most, however said there were two who he didn’t care for at all.  On reading his account, I wondered which category William Lyons came under.  Of course, one doesn’t want to believe the worst about an ancestor, especially when one has placed so much effort into researching their life.

I needn’t have worried as this week I received a newspaper article about William Lyons that paints him in a very good light.  An article in the Charters Towers Newspaper on 18 May 1910, announcing his retirement from the forces, lyons_wmj_goes-a-sugaring  said the following:

Sergeant Major William Lyons of the instructional staff, Commonwealth Military Forces, Q, had decided to retire from the service much to the regret of all concerned, as he is considered one of the most capable officers in the Commonwealth.

Another article written in the Ipswich Herald about Williams impending wedding, lyons_wmj_presentation-for-wedding-3 dated 30 October 1902, refers to his personality as modest and retiring.

 These articles have reinforced my former belief that he was indeed respected by his men.  When I read the latter article, his son Bill came to mind.  This helped me create a living picture of my Great Grandfather.  Bill was a quiet intelligent man who also possessed a seemingly retiring personality.  Obviously, William was well respected and his quiet, modest demeanour belied a core of steel that was required to perform his tasks on the battlefields of the Boer War and World War One.

Finally, I thank those who have assisted my research and welcome anyone’s input that might help paint an accurate picture of my Great Grandfather.  I liken it to a jigsaw puzzle.  The more pieces I can find, the more complete his final portrait will be.

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Christmas 1915

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1915 was a long worrying year for Harriet Lyons.  As the weeks and months of war progressed, she often found herself reflecting on her life.   With the boys in bed each evening, she had only her thoughts for company.  She’d take a kerosene lamp out onto the verandah and re-read Will’s letters, however old they were.  She had fallen in love with his handwriting.  It had become vital to her world, something to look forward to.

Peering out into the darkness of the cane fields, Harriet held a bundle of letters against her chest.  The sky was darker than usual, void of stars.  Even the moon was hidden behind dark clouds.  Placing a lamp onto a small table she sank down into her favourite chair letting the gentle fingers of the evening breeze caress her face.  Christmas was only days away, the second she would celebrate without Will.  It has been a long nervous period of separation.  She looked down at the bundle in her hand, the postcards that arrived in the parcel today were on top.  “Christmas is just not the same without Will. Any celebration is not the same without him,” She thought to herself. 

Her thoughts turned to her boys, her windows.  Through them, she could see their father, living and breathing.  They all possessed their own personalities, but Will’s blood flowed through their veins. In each one of them she could see something, a look or a spoken word.  Ron is so like his father.  He has his curious mind and he lives for his books.  Perhaps too much. Harriet shook her head and recalled her moments of frustration with Ron.  He lives in his own world..  And Kevin, he is always writing cards and letters to his father.  For a young boy, he has the most beautiful copy book writing. She smiled as her thoughts moved to Jacky, the family larrikin.  He certainly has inherited the Irish spirit of his Uncles.  But, his father will be waiting until the end of time if he expects a letter from him!  

Harriet sighed and picked up a postcard and turned it over to read the inscription, “Dear Willy Boy from Dadda”.  She gently stroked the card with her thumb, knowing that the precious words in her hands may be the last she will ever receive.  How can the boys truly understand the war?  Especially little Billy, he is only 5 years old. For that matter, I don’t understand the war! She sighed.

The weight of her thoughts pushed her head against the high back of the chair. Harriet closed her eyes and allowed happy Christmas memories to fill her mind.  The lilting notes of a fiddle broke the evening’s silence, followed by the tapping of a shoe on the timber floorboards to the quickening tempo. She began to hum to the music, Will’s music.  Engrossed in the melodious notes of his fiddle, he drew the bow, back and forth across the strings. Back and Forth.  Harriet’s tiny bare foot tapped up and down; and she swayed as she gazed up at her husband, entranced by the joy in his face as he made his fiddle sing.

The music suddenly digressed into a loud thudding commotion.  Harriet’s eyes jerked open and she straightened up in the chair.  The wind had picked up and was knocking a tree branch against the side of the house.  She peered down the length of the verandah and realized she was alone once more.  Holding the bundle of letters against her chest, she sank back into her chair and stared, out into the dark emptiness of night.  Drawing a deep breath, she savoured the sweet comforting scent of burnt sugar cane, and whispered,

“May you have a safe Christmas Will Lyons. Wherever you are.”

Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

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Christmas is a time of year when our world sparkles and shines.  Our Christmas Trees are filled to the brim with baubles and tinsel; our mantle pieces are weighed down with wreathes and cards and of course the tree is surrounded by an assortment of beautifully wrapped presents filled with surprises to bring joy on Christmas Day.  However, as we gear up for this season of joy, spare a thought for our ancestors who spent four Christmas seasons marred by war.

During my explorations behind the cupboard doors I stumbled upon four cards that brought many questions to mind.  William Lyons sent them to his family for Christmas 1915. No doubt it was a year of worry for his family from the moment he was sent with his regiment to the Dardanelles.  Word of the many lives that were lost during the campaign would have added fuel to their worry.

Fortunately, William was evacuated from the Peninsula due to illness and spent Christmas 1915 in the safety of the London General Hospital.

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I can only imagine how my Great Grandmother felt when she received the following cards in the mail.  Unlike many families who were left grieving the loss of their much loved sons, husbands, uncles and fathers, my family had reason to celebrate.  Their husband and Dad had survived his first year away.

The above card was written to my Great Grandmother, which I find quite touching.  Note the strips of Egyptian postage stamps that are still inside the card.

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This card is addressed to my Grandfather, Jack Lyons.  He was seven years old at the time.

 

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Willy was William’s youngest son who was five years old.

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12 year old Ron was William’s oldest son.

Note that there is one card missing – written to his son Kevin who was 10 at the time.

For the families who endured the Great War, the only means of communication was by letter or telegram.  There was no internet or mobile phones for soldiers to alert loved ones day by day of their whereabouts or state of health.  Patience was vital.  I am sure that these cards represented the hope that my family was craving for.  He was alive – at the time of writing that is.  That knowledge would have been the best Christmas gift of all.

 

 

 

Photos from Gallipoli

 Several years after I embarked on my journey through the battlefields of my Great Grandfather’s past, I found myself under threat from my own field of foes.   My wounds weren’t inflicted by enemy bullets or flying shrapnel. My enemies were the old scratchy nylon carpet in my Grandparents’ empty house that caused my skin to itch; the heat that induced cascades of sweat to run down my forehead and pool in my eyes; and the air, laced with dust and mould.  With each disturbance, the lifting and shifting of the items that were strewn around me, brought the imminent threat of yet another explosive volley of sneezes and coughs.  To add to my discomfort, my clothes, ringing wet, clung to my body as summer’s heat ferociously clung to the iron walls of the house.  No-one had lived in the house for 20 years.  There were no fans to lift the oppressive steam as the power supply had been cut.  My Grandparents’ house was now referred to as “the hot house”.

As years grew into decades, cupboards and boxes of memories became buried beneath dirt from the shifting layers of the neighbouring cane fields. The only inhabitants now were cockroaches and rats, who seemed to thrive on the remnants of my ancestors’ lives.  Despite the discomfort I felt, nothing could deter my determination as I fought my way into the past, once again.  I had sat on that same dirty, scratchy old carpet countless times, each time hoping to uncover another clue, as small as it might be, about my Great Grandfather’s life.

The background noises of the farm faded into oblivion.  The chickens ceased to incessantly squawk as they grazed on the outside lawn and the dogs no longer barked for no apparent reason.  I was no longer distracted by the tractor grinding up and down the drills in the nearby paddock.  I was no longer sitting on the floor of the “hot house”.  Instead, I became immersed in the past, the years of the Great War.  What surprises await me today?  An envelope addressed to Lt Lyons, c/- of The Dardanelles? Or perhaps more photos? Each visit brought more surprises; an envelope or card I had not noticed before.  This day brought much more than I could ever have imagined.

As I began to file through an assortment of ephemeral treasure, I savoured each breath, consumed by the heady woodiness of old papers and books. My fingers stroked the brittle yellow documents as one would stroke fine bone china.   And yet despite my determination to exercise the utmost care, old letters cracked and crumbled as they were unfolded for the first time in decades.  Books that had not been read since the turn of the century, aged before my eyes; their fragile spines began to crack with the gentlest touch.  As much as revisiting the past filled me with joy, it was also cause for sadness.

That day, like many others before it, was an adventure into a lost world; one that was begging to be preserved. I found myself transiting across the Sahara Desert admiring the ancient monuments of the Egyptian Pharaohs; stopping to decipher notes scribbled by my Great Grandfather on the battlefield; unfolding yellowing newspaper clippings hoping to read some titillating news from the War front. Then I happened across a small insignificant looking box, about 5”x7” in size and marked ‘Christmas Stationery’.

I cannot recall the number of times I had filed through the contents of those old cupboards and boxes.  Perhaps I had handled this little box previously and upon seeing the lavender lid dismissed it, without giving it a second look.  Whatever the case, that day was different.  I chose to lift the lid.

Inside the box were two stacks of small black and white snapshots.  There were images of dugouts and weather-worn faces of uniformed men, mixed with those of warships and foreign shores.  Each photo was indelibly inscribed. Amazingly, the inscriptions had survived the test of time.  They were messages from the grave, parts of untold stories of lives long ago, lives long forgotten; lives lost on foreign shores. It took a few minutes to grasp the magnitude of my discovery; to feel the weight of history in my hands; to realize I was indeed holding a box of gold.

 As I leafed through the two small stacks of snaps, I was there with William Lyons, meeting his friends as he introduced them, one by one, by their name and rank as well as telling me where each were from.  As I peered into their staring eyes, he continued to speak of each with the highest regard.  Pointing out towards the bay, he told me a story of a hospital ship called “The Guildford Castle”; of how the Turks had fired over the ship aiming at transports on the other side, killing two men.  He voiced his concerns for the welfare of Australian Nurses and patients aboard.  He showed me the pier where he landed upon his arrival on May 21st.  Then he guided me into the trenches, to the dugout he called home for five months in 1915.

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I had lifted the lid on William Lyons’ secret world; the world that he chose to forget.  My fight against the invading forces in the “Hot House” that day was minute compared to the battles he endured at Gallipoli in 1915. Taking a closer look at the lid of this little box I read “Links of Friendship”.  The contents of that little box were the few surviving links to the many friendships my Great Grandfather made in that arena of war.  I had opened the door to a significant chapter of his life.  Was he offering me his hand in friendship, in readiness for his story to be told, for the liberation of his and his friends’ troubled souls?

Lest We Forge

 

Photographs:  From William Lyons’ collection.

 

Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

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 If you are reading this blog, I think it is safe to assume you are interested in family history.  For those of you who are interested in writing your own family stories, I would highly recommend the courses conducted by The Family History Writing Studio.  Teacher, Lynn Palermo will take your writing to heights that you could not imagine. When I began writing my story about my Great Grandfather, I had no idea of the mechanics of writing.  Since completing courses in writing blog posts, scenes, and now plotting, my writing has done a complete turnaround.   I’ve had to totally rewrite what I had originally written when I first embarked on the project..

Over the past few weeks, my course in plotting has forced me to live inside my Great Grandfather’s head.  Through brainstorming and loads of research, I have gained a greater understanding and insight into how he might have thought. Of course, I don’t really know what inhabited his mind.  There is no way of knowing the details of conversations he had with himself or with others more than a century ago.  However, by opening the cupboard doors, I have been forced to analyse, slice and dice, and enhance my research with loads of “what ifs”.  It has indeed been a detailed post mortem – the research of his life and the times in which he lived, have provided clues to his character and the life altering decisions he made.

The biggest clue to his character has been a single word that has been bandied around for a good part of a century.  Everyone I have interviewed about William Lyons has summed him up in this little word – soldier.   In fact, every photo that exists of him, except two, depicts him in uniform.

The big decision that changed his life, possibly for the worse, was his decision to enlist in 1914.  He apparently told no-one until after he had actually enlisted.  I thought it rather selfish, but at least he was being true to himself. By all accounts, he was a soldier, not a farmer.  Through my research, however, I have gained some added insight into his decision.

True, he was a soldier at heart, but there may have been other forces at play.  William continued his interest in the military after he began farming.  He was member of a local Light Horse Reserve Regiment.  According to my research, the Government expected the Reservists to enlist first.  So, a strong sense of obligation had a part to play.

As I have progressed with my course, I have learnt to understand the inner journey of a soldier who was away from home for three years.  After-all, he was a real living person who I’m sure missed his wife and children, despite finding his niche abroad.  He also would have grieved the constant loss of friends and comrades and his mind would have been burdened by horrific acts he has witnessed or been forced to perform.  That burden would have returned home with him in 1918 and remained with him for life.

I wish I could actually sit down and speak to Captain Lyons, the soldier, and Will Lyons the husband and father.  Perhaps the way he survived was to keep the two separate.  Although I am sure that they crossed paths more often than he or his family would have wished.  Perhaps I should visit him at the Belgian Gardens Cemetery. He might speak to me from the grave.  Until then, I will have to continue relying on my research and imagination in the hope that I get it right some of the time at least.