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.
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.