GUARDIANS 15 & 16
Donna Einam & Frank Watson
Just as a phone call from the Pozières schoolteacher in France had ushered me into their small community, a drop-by at the Stanthorpe RSL brought me onto the radar of locals equally dedicated to commemorating World War I. When I asked around at the sub-branch about the links to World War I and the Pikedale Soldier Settlement, people came from the fringes with an enthusiasm equal to that of the Pozières welcoming committee. Word started to get out on the streets of Stanthorpe that I was regularly in town, sniffing out stories and links to World War I.
Soon I was contacted by Margaret and John Osborne, who had been contacted by the RSL, who in turn had contacted various people in town with stories to tell about their family’s involvement in World War I. I was invited over so they could help.
After parking outside their home, I was quickly ushered in with the same warm smiles I found myself basking in whenever I met people in Stanthorpe. Margaret and John explained that we did not have a lot of time to stop for a chat, as they had lined up lots of local people for me to meet. They told me to follow them in my car; they would wait outside each house for me to conduct my interview so they did not interfere, and then take me to the next place, and the next.
Scattered in and around Stanthorpe was a group of people sharing a different kind of ritual: they were working to ensure the memories of their families’ involvement in World War I are not forgotten. It was not for a large international audience, just quiet family-tree research to ensure the next generation never forget how World War I impacted their families.
They told me that official commemorative events, such as Anzac Day, had not always been an acceptable part of those family histories.
Donna Einam has just come home from night shift but willingly sits in her lounge to explain that two of her great-uncles served in France, but neither came home.
‘They’re buried over in France somewhere, but they never found their bodies,’ she says with an edge of sadness. ‘My nanny used to talk about them all the time – they were her brothers. But her mother would never talk about them. She wouldn’t go to Anzac Day, because to her, it was a memory of losing her brothers. Grandma used to say, her mum didn’t want the boys to go to war. They were only 18 and 20 at the time. Well, actually one was only 17 at the time. She lost one in 1916 and one in 1917.
‘They never knew too much because for all those years they never heard from them. Maybe an occasional letter, but nothing much. They actually didn’t know they had passed on for about three months – that’s how long it was before the army had got in contact with them. They just told my great-grandmother that both were killed in action. Where, they were never privy to know.
‘Nanny didn’t say too much because, I guess, it was quite close to the heart that she’d just lost not one but two. It was that generation. They were very proud, and they just didn’t talk about things like that.
‘My nanny passed away, and no one wanted her photos. I love history, so I was determined that these weren’t going to get thrown out.‘We’ve started to do the family tree. You like to know where you’ve come from and where your roots are. I want to hand it on now, to my next generation, my children. We were proud of it, but, in our time, even when I was at school, the war wasn’t talked about. It’s just now that people have realised how important it was that these men went away and fought.’
A slightly different story is told by Frank Watson, the next on the Osborne’s list.
His father, Bob Watson, was in action on the Western Front from 1916 to 1918.
Anzac Day was an annual event for their family, and his father was always an active member of the RSL.
As a young boy, Frank remembers his father’s wartime friends being regular visitors.
‘They used to come up and stay with us on the farm,’ Frank says. ‘Aw, they’d be sitting round the table, or sitting on some easy chairs around the verandah. They’d be sitting there talking, usually having a rum. That’s the time I got any idea of what happened. They’d be talking about some of their so-called stunts. I’d be listening. Then, away they’d go and [after a while] suddenly they’d turn up again.
‘He very rarely spoke about it to me, though,’ says Frank. ‘And unfortunately I didn’t ask. The only time I would learn anything is when his mates came along and they’d stay at home. But I’m sure if I’d have asked, like towards the end of his life, he’d have told me.
‘It is important, you know, the sacrifices they made. There was a friend here yesterday. He knew nothing of [the] First World War at all, and there he is in his middle 50s at least, close to 60. He was completely ignorant. I thought, what’s he missing out on? So, I got a lot [of my war memorabilia] out and talked to him about it. Other stuff doesn’t matter much. I think this is important.‘It’s funny, isn’t it, why I should attach importance to it, just to that? But there it is.’
I parted company with the Osbornes, having learnt of another commemoration ritual happening in and around the suburbs of Stanthorpe. As older Australians pass on, it appeared a freedom had enveloped later generations, enabling them to go searching for their family histories. Years had created a buffer to the heartbreak. Heart rendering though their searches were, they were not as closely poignant as for those directly involved. Their ritual was trying to unearth what happened during those war and post-war years that their ancestors did not talk about.
Concurrent with this new freedom to undertake ancestry searches was the desire to participate in the formal commemorations on Anzac Day. Although many had chosen not to attend a generation or so ago, it attracted a solid number of attendees these days. In Stanthorpe, crowds did not mill around monuments daily. It was saved for the formality of events like Anzac Day, which drew the locals into town for the dawn service, huddled in the often near zero-degree conditions. During my journey spanning the World War I centenary years, I often drove out to witness the proceedings.
The dark sat heavily over Stanthorpe’s main street as the chill bit into my heels. Shadows slowly emerged from cars and side streets under the watery-orange glow from street lights the closer I drew to the Wall of Remembrance. Soft voices could be heard in the cold morning air as still more shadows joined the walk towards the crowd beginning to build near the Wall of Remembrance in Weeroona Park. A light sprinkling of rain brought with it the popping of umbrellas, and children wrapped in blankets were hoisted higher on hips as we all trudged along together. The welcomes between people were muted; the usual enthusiastic country greetings were absent, in their stead only hushed acknowledgements.
RSL representatives scuttled about setting up microphones, and the local band wandered across the street to take their position. The sound of feet stomping and hands being rubbed together were the overture to the formal musicians preparing their instruments.
Then, the ritual began.
The bugle wailed into the stillness of the icy morning as the annual ritual played out before generations of locals huddled into their woollen hats. The flag was raised. Children began fidgeting and babies began to worry in push chairs. Older people’s shoulders fell a little as they remembered. For them it is often a dark presence in their family, not really understood. War hovered on the peripheries; it was not something that happened on their farms and in their towns. It was a different perspective – one of servicemen and women returning haunted forever.
A local journalist quietly wandered about snapping photos, glancing a curious eye in my direction as I discretely did the same.
The Aussie sun slowly replaced the moon and, at the last wailing of the bugle, shoulders relaxed. The crowd seemed to take a collective deep breath and released it along with the sadness of the moment. Then, little by little, people emerged from their slightly trance-like state to look around and take stock of where they were and who else was around. Voices slowly started to rise again as the light strengthened and the streets lights popped off, unnecessary under the strengthening sun.
We had ensured we had not forgotten another year. People milled about quietly talking among themselves, while others hurried to join the queue at the RSL down the street for the free brekky, a warming rum and a game of two-up.
As the morning progressed, the tone of the day harked back a little to those back rows of the evening Last Post ceremony in Ypres. While the dawn service reflected the quiet, intimate rituals in and around that Ypres monument before and after the ceremonial event, the Anzac Day march was a less-sombre reflection and more an inclusive commemoration of the bravery of war and victory.
Schoolchildren mingled with older Australians on various mobility machines, all laden with family medals. Parents lined the streets, mobile phones snapping the proud moment. Children sat high on the shoulders of those lined up in front of pubs and shops down the main road, clapping along to the sprightly beat of the parading drums.
Motorised scooters and wheelchairs carried past a faint whiff of mothballs in the midday sun. The festive atmosphere climaxed at the park, where parents rushed to photograph their precious young ones, all decked out in their crisp school uniforms, before quickly returning home to ensure they were not dirtied for the school week ahead.
Witnessing the high attendance at commemorations to mark the centenary from 1914 to 1918, it’s clear that World War I retains a lingering and vivid presence in the countries that fought in it. In Australia, France and Belgium there was a sense of unquestioning reverence for those who served; however, blending with this respect was an emerging subtle shift in tone to the language of commemoration.
Customs at memorial rituals remained. There was the reading of The Ode and a minute’s silence to reflect and honour the sacrifice of those who had died. The tradition of ‘reversing and resting on arms’ remained as a mark of respect for the dead. These traditions were still front and centre at commemorative events, but they joined an emerging tone of inclusion.
The World War I Digger legend had survived decades of neglect to raise its head again, to face the scrutiny of a modern world seeking an all-encompassing history – one that included stories of those left on the home front, Indigenous fighters, and the role of women in and around the battlefields. That one event was not conclusive in the building of an entire heritage; it was one part of a much larger scope in Australia’s history.
As the Honourable Kim Beazley stated during his 2018 Anzac Day National Ceremony commemorative address, ‘An Australian image was created by the soldiers. A masculine image of manly virtues – mateship, courage, initiative, stoicism, inventiveness, skill. In gender terms, that was a narrowly based perspective.’ He continued that ‘the legend and example of the veterans of the first war was a rallying point. That rallying point was extended to be societally all encompassing.’ He went on to explain that, into the future, ‘we were all in – men, women, our immigrant and indigenous populations.’
It appeared the dialogue at memorial rituals was adapting to new thinking and ideas to create a broader dialogue that would continue to join our communities.
Equally, across the Western Front, people were seeking different ways of undertaking their pilgrimages. It was always a personal journey – an intimate business between a person and their particular ancestor – and inventive ways of conducting it were emerging. They travelled alongside the battlefields on bikes, foot or motorbikes, while eagerly blogging every step of their way.
All these rituals helped one key element in all this: to ensure we did not forget; to ensure the Anzac legends did not fall victim to the erosion of time, nature and commercialisation.