“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
Writers of historical fiction will appreciate the gruelling roller-coaster ride I’m on. Indeed, as I pursue this exceptionally gripping story, I’ve become a crazed addict. I’m hooked. I might be parked in the lounge room on my laptop, but the adrenalin’s pumping. It’s so exhilarating, and I have to remind myself I’m running a marathon, not a sprint. While there’s a huge whopper of a fish on the end of my line, I still need to reel it in. Catch the darn thing. So, it’s very important that I don’t get ahead of myself. I need to get my facts straight, even though the bright lights are all but blinding me.
However, although these seemingly random pieces were starting to come together, there was still this awful, niggling feeling that Jack and Maud weren’t on the same ship after all. That the dates which were ever so close, weren’t quite lining up and I couldn’t quite make them fit. Had I been a writing fiction, of course, it wouldn’t matter. I could’ve bent or even manufactured the truth and kept my story alive. However, the historian in me couldn’t do that. She insisted on the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. According to her, there’s nothing worse than red pen in the margin which isn’t your own.
Yet, while it was starting to look like Jack and Maud were on separate ships which didn’t even pass during the night, I didn’t know for sure and wasn’t quite willing to give up on the story yet.
Above: Left photo of Maud Butler on board the Suevic taken by Robert Fletcher owned by the Australian War Memorial. Right photo of Private Jack Quealy, my Great Great Uncle.
The story of Jack and Maud isn’t one of romance. Rather, it’s one of war. On 9th August, 1915 my Great Great Uncle, Jack Quealy, enlisted in the Australian Infantry Force (AIF) at Holsworthy and joined the 13th Reinforcements of the 13th Battalion. At the time, he was 27 years old. He was working as a Letterpress Printer for Cunningham & Co in Pitt Street Sydney and was married to Maggie known as “Scotty”. They had two young children… Jack Jnr three and Eddie two. His service records state that he embarked on the 20th December, 1915 although the name of the ship was conspicuously absent. If it wasn’t for Maud, the exact name of the ship wouldn’t have mattered quite so much, but now it did and I dearly wanted Jack to be on the Suevic. However, it was looking like the Suevic didn’t leave until the 22nd. So near, and yet so far.
Yet, why does Maud matter? Who on earth was she and what, if anything, did she have to do with our Jack? Why all the excitement?
Perhaps, the best place to start is via a message in a bottle which was found washed up on a beach at Portland Bay, Victoria on New Year’s Day, 1916. It read:
“At sea, Saturday, December 25, 1915, 4 p.m. My dear Mum,—I am sending this note by bottle from the Victorian coast. I hope you will get this O.K. We have just finished our Christmas dinner—turkey and pork. Everyone on board is O.K. A girl was found on board dressed as a soldier; she was going to fight with her brother at Gallipoli. Oh, well, good-bye for the present.
—I am, your loving son, Ted.” 1.
That girl was Maud Butler, the 17 year old daughter of a Cessnock coal miner who’d disguised herself as a soldier to get away to the front to serve as a nurse. However, she’d applied both at the Red Cross and at Victoria Barracks and was knocked back due to age and inexperience. Not easily deterred, Maud hatched a plan which is best expressed in her own words…
“I wanted to help at the war, and I still want to do something. It is not true that I stowed away on a troopship just to see my soldier brother in Egypt. I would have gone just the same, because I really do want to be a Red Cross nurse and help the wounded boys.’ This is the response Miss Butler made when questioned by the women of the Y.W.C.A. in Melbourne, in whose care she was placed until she could be clothed in feminine attire and returned to her people in Kurri Kurri, N.S.W…. ‘Soon after the war started,’ the girl continued, ‘I had a terrible desire to help in some way, but I was only a girl, and I soon found that there were difficulties to overcome. I knew it was no use to stay at Kurri Kurri, because I could never learn to be a nurse there. My brother had gone to the war, and I decided to do something for myself. I took a situation in Pyrmont, as a waitress, and while there put in my time off trying to get in as a nurse. I went to the Red Cross in George-street, and then to Victoria Barracks, but there was no luck at either place. I was only seventeen and I was without training. I could see that I looked too young to enlist as a boy, so I decided to get on board a transport as an ordinary soldier and try my luck that way. I bought uniform bit by bit, all except the regulation tan boots. Then I went to a barber and had my hair cut oft, pretending that I had a fever. He said ‘You don’t look it,’ but he did what I asked him. Climbed a Hawser. ‘I walked from Pyrmont to the city and through the Domain to where a transport was lying at No. 1 wharf. I saw a sentry there, so knew it was no good trying to get past him. ‘Well,’ I said to myself. ‘here goes for up the line.’ It was a hand-over-hand job, and I didn’t think the boats were so tall. I got up after a struggle and crawled to a life boat. The only provisions I had brought with me were some lollies, and I had not had anything to eat from that Wednesday night until Friday, when I was ‘howled out.’ On Thursday, when soldiers were about the deck, I got out of my hiding place and walked round with them. Some asked me for a cigarette, others offered them to me, but no one seemed to suspect me. At sea everything went well except that I was hungry. That night I got back to my hiding-place, and next morning about 10.30 an officer came up to me on deck and asked me what I belonged to. I said, ‘The seventh of the nineteenth.” I went on watching the boys play cards, and gave them advice. Then the officer came back and said, ‘Show me your identification medal. That was the finish of me. I had forgotten that, he said he was going to get a doctor to examine me, so I knew it was all over and I then told him I was a girl. If I had been a boy it would have been all right. I could have gone on. They took me to the captain, and he was very nice —in fact, they all were. The captain gave me a good breakfast, and it was great, but the news was all over the ship in three minutes, and 500 of them had snapped me with cameras. The captain said that he was going to tranship me. Then I cried for the first time; it was hard luck, wasn’t it. now?. The captain was a jolly fellow. He asked me why I didn’t get tan boots, and that made me cry more. ‘Miss Butler asserts that if she had been a boy she would have been in the firing line before this. She is convinced that there is something she can do, and intends to try the Red Cross again.”
It would’ve made a great story if Jack and Maud had been on the same ship and something to share with the family. Moreover, thanks to Maud, the Suevic’s journey to the front attracted more media attention and provides some valuable insights into life on board.
As it turned out, Jack Quealy embarked on the Aeneas and so far, I’ve unearthed nothing about that voyage at all. Anyway, it’s quite probably that these details about the Suevic provide some insight into Jack’s trip to the front as well. I’ll elaborate on these in my next post.
- Koroit Sentinel and Tower Hill Advocate (Vic. : 1914 – 1918), Saturday 22 January 1916, page 2
 Farmer and Settler (Sydney, NSW : 1906 – 1955), Friday 31 December 1915, page 8