Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

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Every so often, during my wanderings behind the cupboard doors, I hit a bare wall or a space on a shelf.  There are gaps in the story, details are missing. In those moments, I generally make the decision to fast forward the story, to the following year, or to a moment that speaks to me with an abundance of words and images.

I have learnt, however, that the details are always there, embedded in the yellowing timbers of the cupboards, watching from the open cracks in the doors.  As if my Great Grandfather is watching my struggles in determining the details of his journey, I can feel his prodding finger on my shoulder.  I can hear his voice telling me to take my time as the story will reveal itself when it is ready to do so. He warns me to be patient as the story will be revealed, when it is ready.

This week another such moment blocked the road of  my literary challenge.  For the year 1916, I had nil to tell.  My original plan was to skip to 1917, however, a niggling feeling of guilt sent my fingers tapping into cyber space to discover some very interesting facts.  With the assistance of my Great Grandfather’s war records I could vaguely map out his whereabouts during the year 1916.  Upon reading diaries written by fellow soldiers, I can now put flesh on the bones of his story.

I discovered that Colonel Lachlan Chisholm Wilson, the commanding officer of the Fifth Light Horse Regiment, had lived in Townsville for some time prior to the war and is the “Wilson” of the local law firm, Wilson Ryan & Grose.  In his time spent in the area he had observed the use of spears to draw underground water for cultivation.  He solved the water shortages of the desert by introducing spears and pumps in Egypt.  I also discovered that Col. Wilson had fought in the Boer War and wondered whether he and my Great Grandfather were acquainted.  I re-read his diary and discovered that not only were they acquainted, but it appears that they were friends.  Several entries in 1917 mention Col. Wilson visiting him in hospital.

My Great Grandfather was given the position of “Transport Officer” during March 1916 where he was stationed at Serapeum, on the banks of the Suez Canal .  I had no idea what the job entailed until I discovered some government documents that detail what was involved in transporting a regiment and their equipment to a post.  I found similar hand written records he kept from his time as a Drill Instructor on the Darling Downs.  I have ledgers, detailing the equipment needed on an exercise, including quantities and costs.  Now I understand why he acquired the position.  He had a penchant for detail and obviously he possessed the necessary capabilities.  So, perhaps he was involved in the purchasing and transportation of the spears and pumps.  The British refused to pay for them, so they were purchased using Australian regimental funds.  Also, being a farmer himself, he no doubt had the necessary experience to sink them into the desert sands of Egypt and beyond.

Aside from the above discoveries, I also found myself wandering through the leafy streets of the garden town of Maadi, where the Light Horse were camped near Cairo.  Prior to now, I had imagined it as no more than a spot in the desert against the backdrop of the ancient pyramids of Giza.  Little did I know that it was a relatively new flourishing town of villas on acres of lush green gardens watered by the river Nile.  Inhabited by expat Brits and Europeans, it spilled wealth into the once bare desert sands.  Along with photos of villas that existed during the great war, I found myself maneuvering the streets on maps of old, picturing the route my Great Grandfather would have taken from the tiny railway station to camp.  It is wonderful to be able to put myself in his world of 100 years ago.

As usual, when I hit a wall, I know that I just need to exercise a little patience along with a dash of persistance.  The information is somewhere to be found, and by tapping away, it is usually forthcoming.  So, when my posts slow down, you will know where to find me – hammering away behind the cupboard doors, mining for treasure; searching for details of a life long gone.

 

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Departing England

William began the day on a nervous note, although he was indeed pleased to be re-joining the remnants of his regiment.  He tried not to dwell on the 75 men who had lost their lives and instead wondered who out of the remaining 477 survivors he would meet in Egypt on 13th January, the day the “Oriana” is due to arrive at Alexandria.   Many he has encountered here in Monte Video and of those, he knew without being told, some will never return due to the seriousness of their injuries.

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William Lyons standing, second from right, aboard the SS Oriana during voyage from England to Egypt January 1916.

William had already packed his bags the night before and they were now outside awaiting his transport to the local station.  The various pieces of his uniform were laid out in an orderly fashion on the perfectly flat blanket that was tucked in precise folds under the edges of the straw mattress.  He surveyed each item with caring eyes as if they were pieces of himself, and then with slow deliberation began to dress.

The crisp creases in the roomy khaki shirt sleeves deflected attention away from his bony arms that had been eaten away on the fields of war.  His trousers, although tightly belted, struggled to hold the gathers of his shirt in place.  Straightening his tie, he took one last glance in the small mirror on the wall, titivating his trimmed moustache and combing a few loose strands of dark oiled hair into place, before easing on his uniform jacket.  One by one, as the brass buttons pulled the jacket closed, it still hung loosely, waiting for the wide leather belt to give it shape; to give the illusion of a fuller figure.

William preened the front of his coat with brushing hands, straightening it over his trousers, before he was completely happy with his dress.  Once satisfied, he stretched his brown leather gloves over his long fingers and placed his Lieutenant’s cap low over his brow.  Anyone watching would have marvelled at the way his narrow shoulders suddenly appeared wider as he clenched his chin against his elongated neck, transforming William from a man into an officer. Any doubts he may have harboured about his decision to enlist since he left Gallipoli receded once more behind the stabbing points of the swords depicted in glistening brass on his coat lapels. The military man had re-emerged.

Today he was readying himself for his return to the war.  Although he was sailing into the unknown, he was looking forward to reuniting with old chums from his regiment and to see how they have fared.  He had seen some at Monte Video, however many had been forwarded to hospitals in Egypt during the earlier evacuation of wounded.  Then there were others who were on the Peninsula right up to the last day of Evacuation.  He tried not to dwell on the 75 men who lost their lives.

There were so many stories to share; experiences to hear.  Although no-one’s stories were more outstanding than the other.  They had all seen the face of death first hand.  For now, he was looking forward to taking one day at a time, in the warm Egyptian weather. Although, the English winter was an experience to behold.  Something to write home about, other than trying to relate stories about his war experiences. In order to do that, he had to censor his thoughts and well his letters would end up like those that were censored by the authorities – full of blanks.  So what was the point in trying?  He also did not want to worry the folks at home.  There will be plenty of time, once the war is over, once he is back in the jungle, where the only enemies are mosquitoes and wild pigs! 

A voice sounded from the doorway of the barracks which William had called home since mid- November. 

 “Lieutenant Lyons, your transport is ready Sir.” A young soldier announced, holding onto the open door.

“Right you are, lad,” William replied with a hint of humour in his eyes as the heels of his boots echoed on the timber floor. “If I’m not, I never will be.”

He quickly donned his dark woollen overcoat, clutched the handle of his remaining bag with a gloved hand and marched out of the room with a spring in his step, ready to face another freezing winter’s day and the cold unpredictability of a war.

Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

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Clarifying and confirming details of our Ancestor’s lives is like putting flesh on their bones for a family historian.  Remember a few posts ago, I was trying to ascertain which camp at Weymouth, my Great Grandfather had stayed at?  When I read his records, I only caught a glimpse of the word “Weymouth”.  However, there are several pages in the records that seem to a repeat of the one before.  Anyway, this week I had reason to refer to the records and there, shouting out at me in blue ink were the words “Monte Video”.  So, yes, I can say without a doubt that Monte Video was his home from mid November to early January when he left to re-join his regiment in Egypt.

My reason for actually reading the official records once more, was for sorely needed research in order to continue my current writing challenge online.  The February Writing Challenges are a wonderful coming together of creative minds who are recreating the lives of their ancestors to preserve for future generations.  Some are writing  historical novels, others are putting together family stories and others like myself are trying to dissect the life of one ancestor.

By reading the works of others, has really helped my own writing.  Simple words and phrases prompt memories that I have kept stored away for a lifetime.  One gentleman who lives in Granada, is dissecting the life of his ancestors whose lives mirror those of some of mine.  As he pulled my attention into the dusty canefields of Jamaica that were cultivated on the blood of slaves, I thought of George Deane, my Great Great Grandfather, who was the first canegrower in the Haughton River district.  I have no idea whether the Deane family employed “black” labour in their canefields, however North Queensland was not immune to the slave trade.  We selectively forget that the south sea islanders, known as “Kanakas” were brought to Australia to work the canefields.

So, from that one story, I feel compelled to write about my family the cane growing pioneers of the Haughton District.  My Great Great Grandfather was a visionary man, whose great ideas for the future of the district became reality.  When my current project is finished, I would like to dig a little deeper in the dirt to see what surprises I might uncover.  It is all in a days work for a family archaeologist!

Evacuation of the Dardanelles

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Photo:  Lieutenant-General Sir William Birdwood, Commander, Mediterranean Expeditionary force; Field Marshal Lord Kitchener; Major-General Alexander Godley, Commander, New Zealand and Australian Division; and Major-General John Maxwell at North Beach, 13 November 1915. [AWM

By the end of December 1915, winter had caste a mood of death over the English landscape.  The green fields had faded to a ghostly white; skeletal trees reached out their fingerless limbs begging for life; and the grim stone and masonry buildings stood like the new tombstones in the Weymouth Graveyard as a testament to a world that was gripped by war.

During the previous month, Lord Kitchener visited the Dardanelles for the first time.  During the campaign, he had continually denied General Hamilton’s requests for the reinforcements and supplies sorely needed in order to have half a chance of achieving their objectives.  As he climbed to the observation posts, the complex situation he had reluctantly initiated with Winston Churchill earlier in the year, stared back at him with glaring eyes.

In no time, Lord Kitchener’s pristine uniform became tainted by the smell of death. As he walked through the treacherous labyrinth of trenches, sidestepping ill-concealed bodies and inhaling the foul air that was polluted by rotting flesh, he found himself in the middle of a human quagmire.  Perhaps it was the living dead who inhabited the trenches, who brought tears of humanity to his lofty eyes.  They finally saw for themselves the futility of the cause.  Thus, upon meeting with General Monroe and other Generals commanding beneath him, a plan was devised to evacuate the Peninsula.  By the time the full story was reported, the plan had already been executed with astounding success.

oOo

William was met by a chorus of laughter and smiling faces as he entered the barracks.

“Sir, have you heard the news?” One young trooper, holding up the Daily Telegraph, addressed Will.

“What is that son?”

“The war in the Dardanelles is over Sir.” The young man shouted above the background din.

“Well, that is good news.” Will spoke as he sank into the nearest chair, gazing around at the sea of faces creased with joy.  He could even detect a soft glimmer in the hollow dark eyes of a young man who sat in a wheelchair nearby.  For as long as William has been in the camp, the young man has been totally void of expression.

“Can I read the newspaper article?” William outstretched his arm towards the young man who told him the news.

William spread out the newspaper on the table before him and saw the headlines for himself on page 9.

The headline “The Biggest Bluff in the History of the War”, jumped off the page, compelling his eyes to scan the narrow column.  He was hungry for evidence that something was actually achieved on the Peninsula; that the entire operation was not all in vain.

“It is over at last.  Everyman, every animal, every baggage cart and out of the guns, all but six, which were intentionally left behind to fire till the last minute, and were then destroyed, have been embarked from Suvla and Anzac under the nose of the unsuspecting Turks.” 

William shook his head slowly as he thought about the ingenuity of the entire operation.  He continued to read:

“The biggest bluff in the history of the war has been brought off.  A new record has been established and the British Army and Navy, working hand in hand have set up a joint triumph of organization which will last long in the memory of war…

Whatever the fruits of this Dardanelles campaign may prove to have been, it will always stand out in military records for two things – the gallantry of the first landings and the skilfulness of the evacuation….

As he tried to digest the words, his finger ran along the simplistic lines of a map drawn in black and white on the page.  He knew first hand that nothing about the operation was simply black and white.  He continued to read the words, glorious words that were as empty as the millions of spent shells that littered the beaches, gullies and ravines of Gallipoli.  His initial feelings of joy were now drowning as memories began to flood to the surface; real memories of real events that no glorious words could possibly describe.

For a moment, he stared blankly at the page whilst crumpling the edge of the paper with his clutching grip.  Uncurling his fingers, William closed the paper firmly, holding his clenched fists upon the flattened pages, wishing he could erase that chapter of his life.

References:

Daily Telegraph dated 31st December 1915

Weymouth

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Watching his first snowfall through the Mess window, William felt the tensions of the preceding months recede as his body relaxed into the chair. The verdant fields and gently rolling hills around Weymouth were a far cry from the moonscape of Gallipoli that constantly erupted from a deathly storm of arsenal.  When he first saw the lush green landscape of England on the train from London, he suddenly felt alive for the first time in months.

It had been weeks since his evacuation and strangely enough, this new world within the safety of the camp still felt quite alien.  In moments like the present, he had to remind himself that life in England was normal. At Gallipoli, trying to survive in an abnormal world had become normal.  The non-stop destruction of the earth, and every living thing on it, was his norm.  That grotesque face of death watched over their waking hours, stealthily waiting to pluck its next victim, or if it so desired, multiple victims.  Although William was now away from that environment, the smell of death still followed him, along with the sounds that had invaded his waking hours for four months.

He assumed that away from the war zone the noises would stop, but he was wrong.  The most insignificant sound could trigger the resurfacing of those memories that he tried to keep buried in the far reaches of his mind; in a cave on a cliff face, way out of anyone’s reach, most of all his own.  Without warning, marching leather boots along the streets of Weymouth, can set the earth off in a pounding rage.  Even the chink of a silver teaspoon against a china teacup can suddenly transform into a flying bullet pinging against metal.

Today, however, he embraced his new norm as he watched the snow whiten the living fields of Dorset.  He allowed the gradual formation of soft white velvety borders around the square window panes to capture his attention.  Today, he was able to pull the reins in on that horse that liked to cut an angry galloping path across his soul.  He allowed his mind to sail across the seas to his home in “the jungle”.

He chose a spot in front of a window in the hope of capturing the last few minutes of dying sun. Steam rose curiously from the hot mug of tea that sat on the table in front of William as he gathered his thoughts.  Dinner would be served in 45 minutes and he wished to use the time to write a letter to Cis.  Placing a blank sheet of paper on the table, he poised his pencil to begin.  By now, the lights were burning inside and the twilight glow of early evening began to dim the wintry scene outside.

He was amazed at how early the afternoons succumbed to darkness in England.  The brightness of the snowy landscape dulled into shades of grey, like his thoughts. There was so much he could tell Cis of the past year, but he chose not to divulge any details of the worst experiences.  How could he even begin to describe the details of his life at Gallipoli.  No, there was no need to worry her any more than was necessary.  Now that he was in England, there was so much to report about life in the camp.

Allowing the crackling fire to wrap its blanket of warmth around his thinner than thin physique, he took a sip from his mug of tea before bowing his head and allowing his pencil to speak.

Dear Cis….

I trust all is well in the Jungle and a big hello to the boys.

You will not believe it when I tell you that it is 1610 and already night is near.  Tea will be at 1645 so I am taking this opportunity to give you some news.  We are all being well looked after by the staff here at Weymouth and we are never lost for something to do.  Now that I am well enough, I am able to partake in the normal army drills.  Reveille is usually sounded at 0630.  Rising that early and getting ready for the parade at 07.00 is difficult in the freezing cold.  I participate in two route marches each day which usually take us around the town of Weymouth.  I am sure that the exercise has greatly enabled me to  gather my strength.  I also enjoy seeing the local sights.

As ill as I was, I could never really complain Cis.  Many of the chaps here in the camps are much worse off than me.  They have lost arms and legs and have to be assisted in their wheelchairs by their able-bodied mates.  But Cis, as much as they have endured, they never murmur one word of complaint, although I can see the pain in their eyes.  Some will never recover fully and no doubt will be sent home when they are well enough to travel.

The food in camp is good – anything beats bully beef and biscuits!  The Salvation Army have provided us with refreshments at a small cost and we have even been privileged to have a small picture palace set up in one of the barracks.  I have attended a few times now.  They get a good crowd each night.  Many of us have also taken advantage of the good motor service that transports us into town.  The esplanade is a wonderful place to walk, along the seafront.  Apparently, in the warmer months, it was always crowded with Anzacs.  There is also a really grand Picture Palace in town that is like nothing I have ever seen.

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Many of the chaps have met young local girls at the local dance hall and can be seen strolling with them along the seafront, despite the frigid weather. Cis, you would struggle with the cold weather here, although our barracks are heated with burning fires.  In fact we refer to the barracks as hot houses as they tend to get too hot.  Snow is falling as I write and it is such a spectacular show!  The boys would be love it!  At least we are able to get in out of it, unlike the poor chaps who are still at Gallipoli.  Reports of their suffering have trickled into the camp….

William looked up as the quietness of the room became invaded by troops of thumping boots and rolling wheelchairs on the timber floor, accompanied by a discord of voices engaged in lively banter.  The aroma of hot food wafted in from the kitchen, adding to the comforting warmth of the fire.  William quickly signed off his letter and slipped his pencil into his shirt pocket.  As he carefully folded the sheets and placed them into an awaiting envelope, he once more peered out through the white bordered window panes into a hole of darkness.  He tried to discern the outlines of neighbouring huts that stood bleakly against the sleeping sky.  Most, like his future, were dark and indeterminable.

William, straightened his narrow shoulders back, picked up the mug of tea with his thin bony fingers and sipped slowly and deliberately, savouring every drop as if it was his last. He knew there were no certainties about war.  He had witnessed the futures of many good men being snatched from them in an instant.  He knew with certainty that war was the ficklest friend of all.