Yesterday, we commemorated ANZAC Day. While there were public commemorations right around the country, we went on more of a personal journey.
Unfortunately, our journey didn’t take us back to ANZAC Cove in any literal sense. I wasn’t in modern day Gallipoli to attend the Dawn Service and we didn’t even make it to our local Dawn Service.
In fact, I spent the entire day in my pyjamas and didn’t even leave the house. Yet, contrary to appearances, this wasn’t a sign of disrespect. I was simply following the road less travelled.
This ANZAC Day began pretty much like most ANZAC Days in our house, watching the March on TV. However, baking the ANZAC Biscuits had to wait until dinner time because I was on the Internet researching, or should I say, connecting with our past finding out about our family’s war service history.
This was an interesting journey where I was exploring and getting to know Geoff’s family who all come from rural Tasmania.
I don’t know when you can claim someone as family. There’s blood but there is also connection, spending time together, anecdotes, memories, a sense of shared history.
Unfortunately when it comes to experiencing much of Geoff’s extended family, we sadly missed out. Geoff’s Dad passed away when he was in high school and his father’s mother died when his Dad was only 9 years old…a young boy. Anyway, this has understandably left some gaps. There are people we are closely related to but we simply don’t know them.
That doesn’t mean, however, that their stories aren’t our stories.
We just haven’t found out about them yet.
Like most journeys, ours began with the familiar and then branched out and literally galloped off into the great unknown.
Last year, we visited the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and paid our respects to Geoff’s Great Uncle Robert Ralph French, known as Uncle Ralph. Uncle Ralph was on Geoff’s Mum’s side of the family so Geoff grew up hearing bits of his story. Uncle Ralph, who had been a school teacher in Zeehan in Tasmania, was Killed in Action on the 4 September 1918 at Mont St Quentin, France and was buried in the Military Cemertery, Feuilleres. He was just an average, ordinary bloke who went to serve his country and didn’t come home. The kids had found some acorns in the grounds of the War Memorial and they actually left an acorn behind for Uncle Ralph as well as the more conventional red poppy. I thought that was quite appropriate because Uncle Ralph was a bit like the acorn. He died before he was able to reach his potential. We are lucky that we have some insight into Uncle Ralph’s experiences because we have a scanned copy of a photocopy of his journal. I have read a few pages and must get back to it. I have been meaning to type it up sometime.
Uncle Ralph didn’t have any children but Geoff’s Nanna certainly never forgot her much-loved brother and she also went on to have two sons serving in World War II. They both returned home but she also had two nephews who served and at least one of them was Killed in Action. Geoff said: “The fear in her heart must have been enormous having already lost a brother and a nephew and then to have her two sons heading into battle.”
I never met Nanna but she was pretty resilient. I don’t know whether she saw herself as “lucky” after the war because many mothers did indeed lose a son or even sons but she was certainly one who carried on. She had carried on through two world wars and the Great Depression where she’d supported six children on rabbits and the butter sold from their precious cow, which supplemented her husband’s wages as a builder. I can’t imagine a lot of building going on during the Depression. Times were very hard.
Nanna didn’t know that he two precious sons would eventually come home and that she would actually be among the “lucky ones”. That’s the great power of hindsight.
Anyway, as I filled Geoff in about Uncle Ralph, he asked me about his other grandmother’s family. Molly was one of 13 children and living in rural Tasmania, Geoff was pretty sure someone would have served.
It was then that I found Geoff’s Great Uncle Jim. It turned out that I’d already noted Uncle Jim’s war service but I think I’d looked into all of this before we were married and certainly before the kids came along. Also, I don’t think all this information was available online before. I’m pretty sure you had to go to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra to look things up and that was just too difficult. We often forget how difficult research was before the Internet.
I now feel a bit funny bowling up to Uncle Jim and claiming him as family when we’ve never met but he was Geoff’s grandmother’s brother. That’s a close family connection. We just never had the chance to meet. Well, Geoff thinks he might have met Uncle Jim. He certainly knew some of the other Griffins.
Anyway, yesterday…our ANZAC Day…ended up on a totally different tangent.
We introduced ourselves to Great Uncle Jim.
Our search for Uncle Jim began with a Google search for the Griffin surname. This brought me to a fantastic website which shows photographs of Tasmanian service personnel and along with a brief bio. This is where I found Uncle Jim. In fact, I didn’t even know that he was family when I found him. He was a Major and he received a Bronze Cross. This was interesting.
This is when I put on my detective hat and the search really accelerated.
As I said before, searching these days is so much easier than it used to be. You can access records with a couple of simple clicks.
I found out that he served with the 3rd Australian Light Horse Regiment and within seconds, I was reading the text from his medal commendation:
For conspicuous gallantry and skill in leading his troops during the action in front of Beersheba on the 31st Oct 1917. He repeatedly led his troops forward under heavy machine gun and rifle fire and gave covering first which enabled his squadron to advance across exposed ground. His personal courage was a fine example to his men and his skill in choosing best positions for covering first was largely responsible for the squadron’s process during action.
Outside the Bible, Beersheba meant nothing to me but when I showed Geoff, he became quite emotional. Uncle Jack had been part of the Battle of Beersheba, which was apparently the last successful cavalry charge in history. Australian wartime history is dominated by Gallipoli and yet the Battle of Beersheba is an almost forgotten tale of Australian heroism and success. It was a turning point. Uncle Jim, it seems, made a significant contribution to the success. I was so proud.
We also found out that Uncle Jim served in Gallipoli but haven’t had time to explore that further. I spent hours researching Uncle Jim yesterday and realise that it’s going to be a long process. He also served in World War II.
Uncle Jim’s brother, Daniel, also served but I haven’t had a chance to get to him yet. Even online, research takes time especially if you’re like me and really want to walk in their shoes. You need to find out exactly where those shoes have been. What those eyes have seen and that takes along of work.
Ultimately, I would like to put some kind of book together for our kids about members of our family who served in the wars. I want them to pay their respects. Know their own history.
I would also like the kids to know something about how these men fared when they returned home. That the war didn’t just end with the armistice. In some, perhaps, many cases the war raged on long after men returned home both in terms of permanent physical injury but also in terms of the psychological effects. War Veteran and Actor Bud Tingle touched on this when we said: “we found ourselves changed forever.” I am quite conscious that some wives and children lived what you could call a domestic war or battle as these husbands and fathers struggled to adjust to the home front. I don’t know how anyone survives the horrors of war and then goes home and supposedly leads a normal life. I have heard the story of a woman married to a returned serviceman who said it was the wife’s job to help the men settle back into home life but in her case, her husband had seen too much and I’m not really sure what, if any, treatment her husband received. Psychologists weren’t on every street corner back in 1945.
But there was the pub…
It seems to me that at least in terms of the public arena, these family matters have been hushed and silenced. We value and appreciate the sacrifices our war heroes have made. The sacrifices they made for our country and for global freedom. We don’t want to tarnish their memories by raising the negatives but at the same time, these wives and children are survivors and casualties of war and their stories deserve to be told and understood. Their wounds need to be loved and treated so they can become whole. Sure, not all families went through this and perhaps those who did have moved on but there is always a but… a small, quiet voice which longs to be heard and just acknowledged. To that small voice and to the women and children who have paid an ongoing price for our global wars, I say sorry and I also thank you for your sacrifice. I haven’t shared your experience but I’ve tried to understand.
Lest we forget.