Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

Vintage letter

Research can present the most wonderful surprises, as I discovered when photographing the old cupboards that originally graced the walls of my Great Grandparents’ home.  Now sitting empty and alone in the shed, it is difficult to believe that they have yielded so much valuable information.   As I clicked away, my father pointed to an old tin trunk that sat on top of a chest of drawers and said, “there are still some things in that old trunk!”

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At first glance it appeared dirty and nondescript, as you can see from the above photograph.  However, I was very soon to realize that I had discovered a chest full of treasure, although I was yet to realize the real treasure that sat before my curious eyes.

The trunk contained a wooden box full of papers – newspaper cuttings, letters, cards and memorabilia from both the Boer War and and World War One.  These included detailed handwritten logs from Great Grandfather’s days as a Drill Instructor in southern Queensland prior to moving to the Haughton River district and there was even a notebook of verse, handwritten by my Great Grandmother during her school teaching days.

After lifting the box of papers out of the trunk and perusing each item with trembling fingers, I discovered a riding whip and a yellowing cloth bag containing some objects sitting in the bottom. The significance of the chest was starting to come to light.  Inside the bag were a set of spurs, two pieces that might have been part of a bridle and an unused military field bandage still in its fabric casing.

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The riding whip and a leather saddle bag found in the trunk.

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Note, the handle of the whip is the shape of a horse’s leg.

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Dad has researched the spurs and they are different to those used everyday by Light Horsemen.  Only last week, we took a closer look at the ‘blade’ under a magnified glass and discovered they are coins issued during Queen Victoria’s rein, so conclude they were part of his ‘dress’ uniform.

Now, you might be saying as you read this “wow, what a find!”  Well, the biggest treasure turned out to be the tin trunk itself. Hints of military green still shines through the century long accumulation of dirt and hornets nests and Great Grandfather’s painted initials can still be determined across the front.  Can you imagine my excitement as that light bulb went off in my head, telling me that Great Grandfather’s war trunk was sitting before my eyes?

With that realization, my father and I discussed how we were going to preserve this piece of treasure.  He suggested that he could sand blast it and give it a new coat of paint.  Fortunately, I visited the Jezzine Military Museum and happened upon similar trunks all equally as weathered by time.  I was told, in no uncertain terms, to leave it alone.  To a collector, it is more valuable in its current condition.  Not that I have any intentions of parting with it soon!

Old war trunk

Each little piece of treasure that I uncover stills fills me with a sense of wonderment.  They are all windows through which I can look into Great Grandfather’s world. I also hope that by bringing these pieces out from their hiding place, behind the old cupboard doors, other members of his extended family can appreciate that precious part of their family history as much as I do.

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Romani – Night of October 2, 1916

Later that night the canteen marquee  was a raucous blast in the dark.  William’s senses were overwhelmed by the bitter fumes of beer that accompanied the roar of singing and drunken laughter, as he fought his way to the bar, guided by the occasional candle.  Lights were not permitted for fear of being bombed by enemy planes.

The barman filled his quart pot with frothy beer and he then squeezed his way back to a spot where a young trooper sat on the ground writing in a notebook that sat on an upturned box and illuminated by a candle.

“You’ll strain your eyes soldier,” William spoke as he also sat on his haunches beside him.

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Trooper Ion (Jack) Idriess – 5th Light Horse Regiment.

Lifting his eyes from his notebook, the Trooper smiled.

“What is your name Trooper?” William asked.

“Idriess, Sir,” The young soldier replied. “Jack Idriess.”

“Jack, I’m William,” he replied. “Are you writing a book?”

He noticed the pages were covered with handwriting from top to bottom.

“Just a diary sir,  putting pen to paper keeps me sane.  Besides, if something happens…” he hesitated.  “well you know. ”

William nodded, taking a sip from his beer.

 “So, where are you from Jack?’ William enquired.

“North Queensland.  Herberton to be exact.”

“I’m a North Queenslander myself. Minehan Siding, south of Townsville.” William enjoyed the connection to home, a place that seems so very far away.  It was like a dream, a long lost memory.

Sipping his beer, William enjoyed chatting with Trooper Idriess.  He could feel the effects of the alcohol relax his mind and body, for the first time in such a long time.  That was the first time any drink was in such good supply.  A warm feeling cocooned his being as he soaked up the air of jubilation, allowing himself the one small luxury of feeling incredibly lucky that he had survived thus far.  The feeling passed almost as soon as it appeared.  He never allowed himself to dwell on it for long, in case his luck changed, well aware that others have not been so fortunate.

“You know, son,” William mused.  “In some ways, we are very fortunate.”

“How is that?” The younger man appeared puzzled.

“We are surrounded by history, we have followed in the footsteps of the Pharaohs, the Romans and Napolean,” William replied, allowing the beer to free his thoughts.

“Indeed we have,” Idriess nodded in agreement.  “Here’s to ancient soldiers.”

Both men raised their quart pots in celebration, avoiding any discussions about their previous weeks’ stunts.

Jack Idriess closed his notebook and slipped it in a pocket of his great coat.  He then bid William goodnight and disappeared in the crowd.

William tipped up his quart pot to savour the last drop of beer and stood up, stretching his back before heading out towards the tents that stood like ghostly apparitions against the black sky. The cold night air fought against his great coat as his boots quietly sifted through the sand. He pulled his leather gloves over his long thin fingers and raised his woollen collar so it shielded his long bare neck.  Despite the slight discomfort, he was thankful for the cool evening. He was thankful for being alive.

 “Free at last,” he thought to himself.  “How strangeHow can one suddenly turn off the noise? The whizz of bullets, the screaming of shrapnel. The moaning of men.”

Since the Charge at Katia on August 5th, the regiment had been involved in vicious conflicts with the enemy.  The heat and lack of water exacerbated the situation.  At times the heat was so intense that after half an hour of solid shooting, rifles were too hot to hold.  There were days when the torrential raining of bullets and shrapnel continued for hours.  Horses and men dropped like flies onto the sands that turned red from blood.

Suddenly, William was drawn out of his dark void of thoughts by  a wailing sound that seemed familiar but was totally unexpected. As it increased in intensity, the wailing was accompanied by the beating of drums.  The outline of men  appeared like mad ghosts in the desert.  There were bagpipers squealing to the drum beats as the band of merry men marched across the sand, some performing an impromptu jig, others singing with glee.

William smiled at the merry band of minstrels as they jigged across his field of vision, fuelled by beer and joy.  God knows, they deserve it.  He knew how short lived joy could be in their unpredictable world.

He let the noise fade away as he thought of Jock Dakers, his Scottish brother in law, and wondered how he was faring since he enlisted.  His attention then switched to home, treasuring the moment, as he tried to make out the outline of his squadron’s group of tents against the dark sky.  He looked forward to collapsing onto his bedroll and awaking the following morning, knowing with a degree of certainty what the day would bring. Although he knew he had no control over his dreams.

Notes:

Ion  (Jack) Idriess mentions the drinks in the huge canteen marquee at Romani in “The Desert Column” – beer was provided to mark the end of the campaign at that time.  He also mentioned that he encountered the Scottish bagpipers and drummers on his way back to his tent. I have no way of knowing whether he and William Lyons knew each other, although they were in the same regiment.  It is likely.  

Romani – 2 October 1916

The Fifth Light Horse Camp at Romani was unusually quiet on the morning of October 2nd . No reveille sounded to break the sleeping silence. No twinkling campfires glowed against the predawn sky. No nervous fingers clutched smoldering cigarettes to desperate mouths seeking courage to face another day. The previous afternoon saw wretched battle weary men and horses stagger into camp, totally depleted by heat and thirst. They were now bestowed the well-earned luxury of rest.

By mid-morning the camp had awoken and men were busy readying themselves for General Chauvel’s address. The General’s modest demeanor belied a certain professionalism that William admired. He knew the capabilities of his troops and always endeavoured to keep losses to a minimum. Following each difficult stunt he visited his troops and offered words of praise, lifting morale.

He had already scrubbed away two weeks’ accumulation of dirt and sand before pulling his only clean shirt over his slight frame. He looked down in dismay at the faded murky colour and the patches he had hand sewn over tears. Many of his uniforms were now beyond repair, having weathered months of sun and physical exertion. Fingering the frayed cuffs, he admitted It will have to do, as he hurriedly tucked it into his equally worn jodhpurs. Next, he grabbed his misshapened hat, with its emu plumes reduced to a lifeless tuft, and began stroking it with a small brush. The damn sand gets into everything!He cursed as his hand busily worked the felt. Once satisfied, he then tried to tame the sagging brim with his hands, but was forced to concede defeat. Placing it over his crop of dark shaggy hair, he swapped the shade of his tent for the blistering outdoors.

William’s jaded appearance was soon overshadowed by his taut straight carriage. With firm deliberate strides he joined the procession of troopers who trudged along deep sandy grooves to the parade ground. Through squinting eyes, he surveyed the lifeless landscape with its sparse scattering of small timber outbuildings, endless fence-lines of stables and mappings of telegraph lines. He felt dwarfed by the massive expanse of white glowing sand that appeared to swallow all forms of life. It was a hostile world in which people could survive, but it had proven time and again to be cruel and unforgiving. He closed his eyes at intervals to ease the sharp stabbings of bright light, whilst his feet kept ploughing the sand in automation.

By the time William reached the parade ground, it was already a teeming mass of khaki. Five hundred men were being organized on either side of a path wide enough to accommodate the arrival of the General and his entourage on horseback. William stood on the outer edge of the crowd, preferring not to be hemmed in by the heat of so many bodies packed together beneath the sun. Feeling his back burn through his shirt, he hoped they would not have to stand too long.

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General Chauvel addressing troops near Romani, 1916.  Photo: Australian War Memorial

General Chauvel’s appearance on his dark shiny steed, was met by a hushed crowd. He sat straight in his clean khaki tunic, neatly strapped with leather belting and a plumed slouch hat appointed jauntily on his cropped grey hair. Even his boots tucked into the stirrups were brushed to shining perfection. He was the antithesis of the ragged men he was about to address. Many were unshaven, some wore shorts, others leggings or puttees. Most men, including officers, no longer possessed tunics, instead wore sleeveless flannels, shirts or singlets. All wore hats that had been shaped into dilapidation by heat, sand and war. Some were ventilated by bullet holes. [1] All eyes followed the General, as he deftly urged his horse through the centre of the regiment. They were men yearning for hope, words of reassurance.

The General’s horse obediently turned so his master could face his subjects. The five officers who accompanied him, positioned their horses in the same manner, to his right.

“Good morning men!” General Chauvel bellowed . “ I hope you all managed to get some rest last night.”

“First, a word on a serious subject that has been brought to my attention,” he continued.

Pausing for a brief moment, he eyed the curious crowd before announcing, “Women!”

As you are aware, familiarity with native women is not advised.” He stressed. “If they are respectable, they will get into trouble. And if they are not, then you will more than likely contract venereal disease.”

Laughter rippled down the lines of men and even William couldn’t control the lines that softened his sun-baked face.

“You may laugh now,” General Chauvel interjected looking out at his amused audience. “but you won’t be amused if you fall prey to the disease. Cairo, has been a hotbed for gonorrhoea and syphilis since the Roman times. So, please, if you cannot exercise some restraint, then I suggest you provide yourself with certain prophylactics beforehand.” [2]

Conversations broke out between men, accompanied by laughter, nudging of elbows, the rolling of eyes. William shook his head at the reactions, enjoying the light-hearted mood. The subject of the General’s talk was nothing new, moreover, it was a good note on which to end the past months of hardship and heavy losses.

“Qui-et!” the General bellowed, raising his right hand to subdue the noisy crowd.

“Now, on the subject of saluting,” he continued in a tone that immediately grabbed the attention of everyone before him.

The General voiced the complaint of The British Command who objected to “those unruly Anzacs” due to the easing of formalities in the field. His words fell like lead bullets, silencing the throng of men.

William suspected that this lecture was coming as he had heard rumbles, the odd word in passing, sly remarks by British officers. He sympathized with men who were not accustomed to the discipline of military life, despite acknowledging that discipline was imperative in times of conflict.

To the relief of the audience, General Chauvel did not dwell on the subject for long before offering words that the men sorely craved.

“Men, I would like to congratulate you all for your tremendous effort. We, and I say We, have successfully pushed the enemy from the Suez. For now, at least.”

The mood of the crowd lightened once again and General Chauvel went on advise, “Lastly men, you will all be sent, in small batches, to Alexandria and Port Said, on short leave.” [3]

William sensed the relief that swept throughout the regiment like a gust of cool sea breeze. Since leaving Katia on August 6th, the Regiment had followed a treacherous route. He glanced around at faces, baked brown and carved beyond recognition by deep lines of adversity. They were old men who had prematurely lost their youth. Despite the current mood of jubilation, he knew that their staring eyes belied a terrible truth. They’ve seen too much. Way too much! He knew that many of them would frequent the bars and brothels whilst on leave, despite the General’s advice. How could he blame them? They were no longer young men looking to a bright future. They have all seen futures cut down in a flash. He knew for certain that ‘now’ was all they had. For many of them, there would be no tomorrows.

The dispersing congregation of troopers forced William to break away from his maudlin thoughts with a determination to enjoy his day of rest. Hearing the distant whinnying of horses, he thought aloud, “But first, there are horses to feed!” and marched off with his usual long straight strides in the direction of the stable lines that marked the outer boundary of the camp.

REFERENCES:

[1]          The Desert Column by Ion Idriess

[2]          Guide to Australiasian Soldiers to Cairo – C. Beane

[3]          The Desert Column by Ion Idriess – Pg. 207

 

REMEMBERING BEERSHEBA

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There always seems to be a sense of romance attached to the Australian Light Horse.  Last Tuesday, which marked the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba, was no different.  As we watched reenactments of that cavalry charge on our television sets, our hearts were pumping with the adrenalin of those 800 men who gallantly rode off into our history books as heroes. We were overcome by that warm feeling of nostalgia.  However, if we were afforded the opportunity to sit and talk with those men who were there on 31st October 1917, the word romance would not enter the conversation.  There was nothing romantic about losing 31 troopers and 70 horses to Turkish bullets.  In fact, desperation for that precious commodity of water was the driving force on that victorious day.

It has been cited as being the last great cavalry charge in history.  In trying to ascertain the exact details of the actions leading up to the charge and those of the charge itself, I was overwhelmed by the intricacy of the battle plan.  The briefest description I could find was the following account on the website

The charge of the 4th Australian Light Horse at Beersheba late in the afternoon of 31 October 1917, is remembered as the last great cavalry charge. The assault on Beersheba began at dawn with the infantry divisions of the British XX Corps attacking from the south and south-west. Despite artillery and air support, neither the infantry attacks from the south, or the Anzac Mounted Division’s attack from the east had succeeded in capturing Beersheba by mid-afternoon.

With time running out for the Australians to capture Beersheba and its wells before dark, Lieutenant General Harry Chauvel, the Australian commander of the Desert Mounted Corps, ordered Brigadier General William Grant, commanding the 4th Light Horse Brigade, to make a mounted attack directly towards the town. Chauvel knew, from aerial photographs, that the Turkish trenches in front of the town were not protected by barbed wire. However, German bombing had forced the 4th Brigade into a scattered formation and it was not until 4.50 pm that they were in position. The Brigade assembled behind rising ground 6 kilometres south-east of Beersheba with the 4th Light Horse Regiment on the right, the 12th Light Horse Regiment on the left and the 11th Light Horse Regiment in reserve.

The Australian Light Horse was to be used purely as cavalry for the first time. Although they were not equipped with cavalry sabres, the Turks who faced the long bayonets held by the Australians did not consider there was much difference between a charge by cavalry and a charge by mounted infantry. The Light Horse moved off at the trot, and almost at once quickened to a gallop. As they came over the top of the ridge and looked down the long, gentle open slope to Beersheba, they were seen by the Turkish gunners, who opened fire with shrapnel. But the pace was too fast for the gunners. After three kilometres Turkish machine-guns opened fire from the flank, but they were detected and silenced by British artillery. The rifle fire from the Turkish trenches was wild and high as the Light Horse approached. The front trench and the main trench were jumped and some men dismounted and then attacked the Turks with rifle and bayonet from the rear. Some galloped ahead to seize the rear trenches, while other squadrons galloped straight into Beersheba.

Nearly all the wells of Beersheba were intact and further water was available from a storm that had filled the pools. The 4th and 12th Light Horse casualties were thirty-one killed and thirty-six wounded; they captured over 700 men. The capture of Beersheba meant that the Gaza-Beersheba line was turned. Gaza fell a week later and on 9 December 1917, the British troops entered Jerusalem.

 

William Lyons did not take part in that charge as the 5th Light Horse Regiment were not involved.  However, he did mention Beersheba in his diary.

On August 3rd 1917 he wrote:

“Bde (brigade) went out on a stunt to scupper Bedouins outpost, within 5 miles of Beersheba. Mafeesh Bedouins.  Fired on by Turkish outpost.

On August 4th, he continued:

“Returned to camp without casualties”

Then on 4th November 1917, whilst hospitalized in Cairo due to illness, he wrote:

“The wounded are coming in from Beersheba fight.”

He would have been kept up to speed on what actually transpired at Beersheba on October 31st.  No doubt he would have spoken to the wounded, curious for details. According to his diary, Colonel Lachlan Wilson, who participated in the charge,  visited him several times during his stay in hospital. If only I could be privy to their conversations.  I am sure they were laced with both the excitement of the successful outcome and of course reflection of the losses.

The attack on Beersheba was a case of “do or die”.  Failure meant either perishing by the hand of the Turks or of thirst.  From what I have recently learnt about General Chauvel, he had studied the possible outcomes.  He only took calculated risks and his men knew that. They trusted his instincts. Yes, they might have been touched by a tinge of madness, but also words like “daring” and “gallant” come to mind.  They had nothing to lose as their luck was evaporating along with the contents of their water bottles. They gave it their all, galloping across the plains on the wings of hope and that glorious victory was the turning point of the war in the middle east.