War is the very antithesis of poetry, and yet it is often in our darkest and most torturous moments that our thoughts turn inward and flow out through the pen. Indeed, I don’t even need Google. Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier immediately comes to mind:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England…
There’s also Hugh McCrae’s: In Flander’s Field:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below…
George Aldworth, a young English Private serving with the AIF, wrote a poem as he embarked onboard HMAT A26 Suevic, the very same ship as Maud Butler, which departed Sydney on the 22nd December, 1915 bound for Egypt. It’s quite possible that he wrote these lines as they sailed through Sydney Harbour at sunset, as he pictured a little yacht silhouetted by the setting sun. Naturally, it’s hard for me to picture this very different Sydney Harbour without the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. It was such a different place.
At Sunset was published in the Suevic’s onboard newspaper The Sports Company’s Gazette.and reprinted in The Sun newspaper on the 22nd March, 1916 three months later.
Along with a brief introduction, it reads:
“A pretty picture Is suggested In the lines: At Sunset, by George A. Aldworth, of the 20th Battalion. These were the verses:—
Far down the bay
A barque with sails of white
Fades at the close of day
Into the far away
Beyond the light.
The sunset glow
Spreads out across the deep
To the isles a long ago
Where the evening zephyrs blow —
Where seabirds sleep.
Oh! barque so free
Sailing Into the west.
Would I could follow thee,
Lull’d by the moaning sea
To share thy rest!
George Alexander Aldworth was born around 1883 in the village of East Hanney, near Wantage, Oxfordshire (then Berkshire). He was one of six known children born to Alfred Aldworth, a carpenter and joiner and Mary Ann. He arrived in Australia in 1911 and settled in Rockdale. George was a keen soccer player and finding it wasn’t a popular sport in Australia, founded the first local club at Rockdale, the St John Soccer Club, and was their first captain. He was also a popular member of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Kogarah and was a great favourite of the children and choir –boys and had composed a children’s hymn.
I did a Google search to find out if George had sent any more letters home. Or, fingers crossed, even more poems. However, my joy at finding this extremely well-written and moving account of travelling through France to the front, was very short-lived when I found out that George was Killed in Action in France before it had even gone to print. Unfortunately, as it seems, while we writers staunchly believe the pen is mightier than the sword, it is no match for a bullet.
This doesn’t get any easier. I know in my head that so many of these beautiful young men didn’t make it home. Moreover, this isn’t the only letter I’ve read where I’ve been drawn so deeply into the writer’s orbit, only to have my hopes dashed. He didn’t make it home. It’s so easy to forget they’re mortal.
Naturally, it is my intention to get to know these men as individuals and not only absorb their stories, but also to slip inside their skin and disappear. See what they see through their eyes, their minds, their hearts while working to remove any sense of myself at all. After all, this is the ultimate goal of the writer, the actor who doesn’t just play a character, but all but becomes one with them. I might have as much chance as Maud Butler of being able to pull it off, but I still have to try.
That said, it’s obviously not the safest ground psychologically speaking and at times I do find myself shuddering as conditions get tough. I’ve also been a bit “emotional” and I do wonder if I can handle it. Should I be so immersed in the horrors of this war, which wasn’t to end all wars? Wouldn’t I be better writing about rainbows, unicorns and fairies in castles? Isn’t there enough darkness and despair all around me, without needing to go back to the past and take onboard some of the very worst of it? My grandmother who did admire my writing, was concerned about my pull towards the darkside and suggested more than once I should take up floral arranging, very much in the same vein as Keats who advised us to “glut our sorrows on a morning rose.”
These concerns are justified. However, for me there is no doubt that I’m meant to be doing this. That someone has to keep these young men alive in the only way we can…through the pen. Moreover, through capturing and retelling their stories, I’m also acknowledging my gratitude too. I might not understand why they went to fight, but I appreciate their sacrifice and their belief in something ultimately good which was worth fighting for. That despite absolute horrors on all fronts, they believed there was something worth fighting for. Had a faith in a better world. Moreover, I came to admire and be quite touched by their capacity to notice something incredibly beautiful in the midst of it all…such as a bird singing in the middle of no man’s land. This is such an important lesson for us too.
Anyway, as usual, I’ve digressed.
I wanted to share with you this letter George sent home about his trip through France on the way to the front. It appeared in the St George Call Saturday 16 September 1916:
FROM THE FRONT.
Private George A. Aldworth, of the 56th Battalion in journeying through France on his way to the front, gives the following description of the delightful country. We regret to announce that since sending this letter for publication, Pte. Aldworth has been killed in action, and is now at rest in the country of which he so favourably writes : —
“Thy cornfields green, and sunny vines. O pleasant land of France.” We repeated the lines automatically and often, in the old schoolroom, in the old days. They meant nothing to us then. It is otherwise now. We have had many experiences, and have seen much since the day we left the sunny home shores to aid the mother land. After a day’s wait outside we entered the harbour and soon the work of disembarkation began. We entrained immediately and moved off without visiting the city. Very soon the train was plunging through a series of tunnels, which lead through the rocky hills to the country beyond. Looking back, as we occasionally emerged from the pitchy black underground, we got wonderful pictures of the city, the Mediterranean, and the fine rugged coast scenery. A slight haze softened the outlines of the mountains behind the town, and the boys were loud in praise of the glorious view. Again the deafening roar of the train in the darkness and when we again saw the sun Marseilles had passed from view. For about eight hours we made good progress, stopping for tea at a place which strangely enough was called Orange. The train had taken us through the most fertile, picturesque country we had ever seen. A country indeed worth fighting for— either to possess or, to retain. So far as the eye could reach, the vineyards and wheat fields spread. Hardly a yard of ground which was not under cultivation. The entire land was, like a vast garden, so thorough, are the French peasants in their work. And the love of the beautiful which is natural to our Ally, finds expression in the way they lay out their fields and road ways. The vines, and the corn, the carefully tended vegetable gardens, mingle beautifully with the long avenues of poplar and lime trees, which shade the white neatly trimmed roads. Scores of villages and small towns were passed, so dainty looking were the little red and white homes which, like newly born chicks, cluster closely round the grey old churches. What a warm reception from the inhabitants too, as we continued our journey. Scarcely a man, woman or child but waved a hand or if the train stopped, came with haste to wish us good luck. Many women were in black and there was a wistful look and a tear occasionally, mingled with the good wish. One old lady of very great age, we saw, who was feebly shaking one hand to us while she supported it with the other. The men generally were in uniform— they had probably been sent from the firing line to aid the harvesters,— the reaping season having just commenced. A very delightful time could be spent visiting the many churches we saw. Some were very fine edifices — others interesting because of their quaintness. Especially so, in the latter sense, was the Church of Arles, where also is a railway works. The town of Farascon possesses a couple of very fine castles, one of which might almost be a .replica of the famous Bastille. The women seem to have taken up their tasks splendidly, which are, for a time, left them, to perform. We saw them everywhere, in the fields, even using the scythe, also riding upon the horse rake and reaping machine. We passed Lyons in the early dawn of’ the next day, obtaining a confused picture of fog on a river, a couple of imposing bridges, and some fine streets. The, second day was like the first, mile after mile of vineyards, more villages, more “bon voyage” from the people, pretty winding lanes, leafy fairy lands, busy scenes in the fields. Here a sturdy blooming lass, deftly using a hoe, thinking no doubt of her Denis away up north. There a sad-eyed dame, pushing to market a heavy load of cherries, strawberries, currants, carrots, and cauliflowers, together with the choicest roses and dahlias, etc. She paused awhile near us, to have a ‘ blow,’ brush back a few strands of grey hair, and to wave her hand to the “Howstraityong!” Then on again with her load of produce and perhaps her load of sorrow. Unfortunately, we did not see Paris, having left it on one side in the early hours of next morning. The vineyards also had not been able to keep up with us, and we now looked out upon country almost entirely ‘devoted to agriculture and dairy farming. Naturally enough, we now looked out for signs of warfare. Slowing down into the station of Criel, we stopped alongside a hospital train which had just come in from the firing line. We gave a very hearty cheer for the plucky Frenchmen and those who could, thanked us, either in mixed language, or by eloquent looks and shoulder shrugs. We also struck against a train load of men bound for the front, and they greeted us like brothers. After our great experience of the beauteous country, it was with emotions of pride and brotherliness that we responded, showering upon them all our cigarettes, matches, etc., things we had eagerly rushed to procure an hour previously. Upon this day we saw many families on the way to Church, the cows were idly lying in the meadows. There was the song of the lark, the blackbird, and the thrush. The swallow skimmed the mirror-like surface of the river, while here and there in the shade of the willows, sat ancient disciples. Very little, after all, to point to the fact, that away behind the river, the willows and the meadows, Earth’s sublimest tragedy was being enacted. Towards evening of the second day we once more came in sight of the ocean. We had passed one or two camps, where troops were resting. Like the people to whom we had spoken en route, we found the soldiers cheerful and, confident of ultimate success. Just before dawn on the following day we arrived at our journey’s end. Sixty two hours in the train.
The behaviour of the men was first class; everybody, especially the women folk, being treated with a courtesy that was good to see. We are now scattered through a very quaint old village — in nearly every respect like an English one— living in the barns attaching to tumble-down farm houses. I write this in an old stable. It is wonderfully peaceful. From the meadows comes the not unmusical rattle of the reaping machine. There is a cackle of hens outside. A pair of swallows comes in with fluttering wings and chirpings, ‘ to work upon a mud nest on a beam two feet above my head. Only now and then away eastward, there is the long dull roll of artillery, the roar of a heavy gun, and the sound of tramping men as they make their way through the leafy winding lanes. Above all, and better than all, are the outpourings of a lark. From out the blue sky comes the song to break in golden rain upon the earth. Foolishly, perhaps, I allow myself to dream. A dream of warfare ended—of a humanity made regenerate through war— gone forever the hypocrasy, the lust, the selfishness. Only a desire, lark like, to soar high in thankfulness to the Benign Influence which gives to all the chance to live in peace and good will in a paradise of which beautiful France is only a part. A foolish dream ? Perhaps ! “Fall in, with gas helmets on!” rings out the order, and so I go away to be “gassed.” The lark sings to deaf ears now, and the swallows have the stables to themselves.
George’s death is a tragedy. There are no other words for it. No redemption, until we consider what would have been if one good man many times over, didn’t stand up to fight against tyranny. Germany, after all, had invaded neutral Belgium and Britain had signed a treaty to defend her neutrality. Were we as nations going to be shirkers, or would we stand up a fight to defend the innocent? I don’t believe in war, but we do need to defend our turf and help our friends. These are values most of us hold dear as individuals, and it’s only natural that they would apply to us collectively as nations.
After leaving Australia, 16th February, 1916 George was transferred to the 56th Battalion of the 5th Division, which had just been formed following the reorganisation and expansion of the First Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in Egypt following the Gallipoli campaign. The 56th Battalion arrived in Marseilles 20th June and was immediately entrained to northern France, a journey which took 62 hours. Within a fortnight, they fought in the Battle of Fromelles 19–20 July 1916, where the 5th Division undertook a disastrous attack that was later described as “the worst 24 hours in Australia’s entire history”.
It appears George survived the Battle of Fromelles. However, he was killed in action on the 26th July only a month later. He was buried by Rev W.M. Holliday from the 56th Infantry Battalion at Cemetery Suilly-au la Lys 5 miles South-West of Armentieres.
A memorial service was held at St. Paul’s Church of England, Kogarah on Sunday 8th October, 1916 in honor of George and two other men who’d been “killed at the front in France in the Empire’s cause”. At the service, it was explained George was working as a stretcher bearer and met his death from a high explosive shell while in a dug out. One shell had wounded a couple of soldiers, and George and some others, had immediately rushed to their assistance, when another shell burst over the same spot, killing them all. It seems a cruel twist of fate that George died helping someone else. However, being a stretcher bearer was dangerous, and many lost their lives.
On the other side of the world in Swindon, Wiltshire, George’s family was also grieving. George had only been living in Australia for five years when he left for the front, yet he was very much loved and part of the community here. However, for George there was also “an over there”. His father was listed as his Next of Kin living at 72 Graham Street, Swindon, Wiltshire. That was where his effects were sent home…a balaclava cap, two kit bag handles and a lock (broken).
Lastly, on 10th December, 1916 a memorial tablet was unveiled at St Paul’s Anglican Church in honor of the memory of the late Private George Alexander Aldworth. The Rector, Rev. H. R. A. Wilson officiated. The tablet was placed in the north portion of the chancel, the position for tenors belonging to the choir, and exactly at the spot where our departed hero could be seen at almost any service on the Sunday. The memorial was subscribed by the choir alone, and bears the inscription ‘ Peace, perfect peace.’ A large congregation was present.
Peace, perfect peace…was that what George was fighting for?
I guess we’ll never know.
 George’s poem At Sunset appeared in the Suevic’s onboard newspaper, The Sports Company’s Gazette, which was reprinted in The Sun newspaper Thursday 2 March 1916, page 10
 Quoted from Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay, The Battle of Ivry.
 St George Call (Kogarah, NSW : 1904 – 1957), Saturday 16 September 1916, page 8
 St George Call (Kogarah, NSW : 1904 – 1957), Saturday 16 December 1916, page 6