Researching our family history can be a long and tedious process. We read through documents and texts in search of clues. Our search can be likened to panning for gold. Often our work is rewarded with nothing more than a pan of sand, however, when we happen upon the most minute detail about an ancestor’s life, it shines brightly like a speck of gold. That small golden speck makes the search worthwhile.
I am fortunate that my research has uncovered many specks and the odd nugget of gold. Armed with few details of my Great Grandfather’s military life at the beginning of this journey, I have stumbled across a few treasures along the way. Today, I would like to pay tribute to one such treasure; a man who lived and breathed more than a century ago. He laboured alongside William Lyons in the trenches of Gallipoli and he endured the hardships of the battlefields of the Middle East. His words survived those hard times and are still as vivid today as they were on the day he penned them.
Ion Idriess wrote diaries throughout his wartime service. Putting pen to paper became a manic means of coping with the action transpiring around him. One notebook led to another and eventually they filled a rucksack. His colourful and lively descriptions place the reader right in the centre of chaos, dodging whizzing bullets and ducking beneath flying pieces of shrapnel. He forces the reader to see through his battle weary eyes, to face the reality of that horrific world that imprisoned our men.
“The Desert Column” is the sum of those diaries. According to General Sir Harry Chauvel, who wrote the forward, “Several books have been written in by officers and war correspondents but in this the campaign is viewed entirely from the private soldier’s point of view”. He also said, “there is an accuracy in the descriptions of operations which could only be provided by a singularly observant man. Idriess was, I think, above the average in this respect though I must say that the Australian Light Horseman was generally very quick in summing up a situation for himself”.
For me, those qualities of self-reliance, individuality and power of observation that Ion Idriess demonstrated in his writings, personified William Lyons. Reading from line to line, I was seeing the battlefield demise through his eyes and hearing the whooshing bullets and whizzing shrapnel with his ears. I was standing in the muddy trenches of Gallipoli or galloping across the desert with my Great Grandfather. I was listening to the inner workings of his mind and could feel the rumbling of his inner fears. In my mind, Ion Idriess’ experiences became his. The war became so real that I felt I was there as well.
In my attempts to write a realistic account of William Lyons’ experiences, I have relied on Mr Idriess to fill in the gaps. I know I cannot write about what happened with absolute accuracy, however, I do know that the two men fought side by side on many occasions. Although they were in different squadrons, I can piece together from both Mr Idriess’ writings and the “Diaries of The Fifth Light Horse Regiment”, a reasonably accurate account of real events. As for William Lyons’ actual thoughts, fears and actions, I have had to exercise some creative license, for which I hope he can forgive me.