Tag Archives: Suevic

George A. Aldworth…A Poem Written on The Way to War.

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.

Clip Showing Troops Embarking 1915

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.

Margaret Preston

Margaret Preston, Sydney Heads, Art Gallery of NSW 1925

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![1]

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.

Tyne-Cot-Cemetery-in-Flanders-Fields-Belgium

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.[2]” 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[3].

….

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”.[6]

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[4].

Peace, perfect peace…was that what George was fighting for?

I guess we’ll never know.

Best wishes,

Rowena

References

[1] 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

[2] Quoted from Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay, The Battle of Ivry.

[3] St George Call (Kogarah, NSW : 1904 – 1957), Saturday 16 September 1916, page 8

[4][4][4] St George Call (Kogarah, NSW : 1904 – 1957), Saturday 16 December 1916, page 6

 

WWI…Maud Butler & the Troopship Suevic (Continued)

Continuing on from yesterday’s post, the saga of Maud Butler continues.

It’s hardly surprising that the discovery of Maud Butler, a young woman masquerading as a soldier on board the troopship Suevic, attracted a lot of attention. As soon as the troops on board got wind of it, she was snapped by the likes of 500 cameras and also they passed around the hat raising £600 as a “dowry” to get her home. She was mentioned in soldiers’ diaries and a couple even messages in bottles, which were hoisted overboard before they left Australian waters. Newspapers all round the country shared her story and also used her determination to get to the front, to rally men to enlist. Shame those wretched shirkers into enlisting and doing their bit. Not unsurprisingly, Maud Butler’s appearance in a man’s uniform, also raised questions about the role of women and affronted conventions of the time. However, while her actions were unconventional, to many Maud became a sort of hero.

As I said, Maud’s presence on board the Suevic attracted additional media attention to that particular voyage and details about conditions on board were captured, which (from what I can glean) often went unreported. These everyday details don’t matter much when you have thousands of men to tell the story. However, over 100 years later, their voices have fallen silent. Perhaps, it’s particularly important for those of us who had family who served to know their journey from start to finish, and to not just read the headlines. Know about the battlefield. I, for one, needed to have some understanding of what they went through. After all, I’ve always taken this quote from Harper Lee in To Kill A Mockingbird  to heart, adapting it to my own sense of walking in someone’s shoes:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Harper Lee.

As it turns out, the troops on board the Suevic produced their own on board newspaper called The Sports Company’s Gazette. It was edited by Lieutenant Webbe, a Hansard Reporter and  Lieutenant Wells and Private Tom Dawson were associate-editors. The Art Editor was Private C. V. Walters, who’d worked as a process engraver for The Sun newspaper before going into camp[1].

According to Elise Edmonds, Senior Curator, Research and Discovery at the Mitchell Library, such newspapers weren’t uncommon.:

“Articles published highlight the day to day cares and routines of the ordinary serviceman. There is much poetry – sentimental verse, along with examples of black humour, prose, photographs and drawings. Soldier illustrations often consisted of caricatures of military culture, enemy forces, or the political situation. All the articles and artwork were created whilst in trenches, at military bases and on the troopships – either heading to war, or on the way home in 1918 and 1919. Writing, illustrating and editing these publications was a good way to reduce boredom or the tension of military life.[2]

Of course, Maud Butler rated more than a passing mention in The Sports Company’s Gazette. It reads:

‘Knowing what we do, we should all be proud that Australia can breed girls heroic enough to brave the dangers of a troopship, and the terrors of war for their country’s weal. There should still be plenty of men, however, and Miss ___ goes back to Sydney with our best wishes. May she marry a man worthy of her. We give her the following as our dowry: —

A plucky young lady named Maud.

Who wished to go fighting abroad:

One day sailed away In Khaki array

And said ‘Who will think me a fraud ?’

An eagle-eyed captain we had

Who soon made poor Maudie feel sad.

He made her blush red

When next day he said

‘I think you’re a lady, me lad.’

And Maudie’s adventure was o’er;

She’s way back in Sydney once more;

She shed a few tears;

We gave her three cheers.

And wished her good things in galore[3].

The following appeared in The Sun:

GIRL ON THE TRANSPORT HUMOR AND GOOD VERSE

The newspaper Industry flourishes at sea these days. Every troopship that rides the waves produces a sheet which contains more or less newsy stuff, and it is extraordinary how the man with the touch of humor is discovered. The last paper to see the light has just come to hand. It was well edited, and handled a variety of copy capably. It recorded in quite a dignified manner the disappearance of Private H. H. Brown, of the 18th Battalion, who, it was supposed had fallen overboard at night….

The humorist showed up in a report of a concert at which he said the absence of ladies in the audience was greatly deplored, the only lady passenger having found it necessary to disembark before they said good-bye to Australia. The reference, of course, was to the adventure of Maud Butler, the little Kurri Kurri girl. How Maud was discovered is thus expressed:— A muster parade had been called, and the adjutant was gently floating round the ship looking for shirkers. Presently his eagle eye glared on a young private, and he asked, “Well, my lad, why aren’t you parading with your unit?” The lad stammered, and replied, “Sir, I cannot find my unit.” “Probably not,” said the adjutant, whose searching glare had disclosed the fact that the offender’s trilbies were not encased in service boots, while the jacket was minus battalion numbers. After a back view he said in his dry and official manner, “You are a stowaway, and it will be necessary for you to be examined by the medical officer.” Exit soldier and adjutant. It was afterwards announced that the soldier was a dear little girl. The wireless got to work, and Maud was sent by to Melbourne. She was still dressed in khaki, but carried in addition a cash belt containing £23, generously sub scribed by all on board, so that on her arrival in Melbourne she could secure the necessary raiment to enable her to resume her proper station in life. What everyone wants to know, the story concludes, Is why the adjutant objects to that delightful song entitled Come Into the Garden, Maud. The theme Is then taken up by the Limerick man, who under the title Maud of the Mercantile Marine writes: —

A certain young lady named Maud

Secreted herself on ship board.

The dear little duck

Had plenty of pluck,

But the venture turned but quite a fraud.

She climbed up a rope in the dark,

The adventurous, giddy, young spark;

But the adjutant wise

Had piercing brown eyes,

And so put an end to her lark.

When discovered she

Shed a small tear,

Which proves she’s a woman, the dear!

Then the ____came

Her person to claim,

So exit sweet Boadicea.

The sheet had its sporting page conducted by “Bill” Corbett’s understudy, and it also dealt with the ceremony associated with crossing the line, as well as getting off a great many good-natured hits at the expense of officers and men alike. The sheet was edited by Lieutenant Webbe. Lieutenant Wells and Private Tom Dawson were associate-editors, and Private C. V. Walters, who before he went into camp was a member of the Sun process engraving staff was the art editor. ‘

A touching poem  At Sunset by George A. Aldworth, of the 20th Battalion. Also appeared in the Suevic’s  Sports Company’s Gazette. However, I felt George warranted his own post so stay tuned.

Do you have any connection to Maud Butler or someone who served onboard the Suevic? Or, perhaps your loved one also served in WWI? If so, please leave details and links in the comments below.  

If you are interested in Maud Butler’s story, here’s a couple of posts of interest.

There’s  Maud Butler: Teenage Stowaway – Victoria Haskins a history professor at the University of Newcastle.

Message In A Bottle Hunter- Maud Butler

A children’s book https://www.cessnockadvertiser.com.au/story/5014176/book-pays-tribute-to-mauds-fighting-spirit/ has also been written and I’m about to place my order. Hunter historians John Gillam and Yvonne Fletcher and illustrator Paul Durell have brought Maud’s extraordinary story to life in the new book “You Can’t Fight, You’re a Girl!”

As I mentioned in my previous post, my Great Great Uncle Jack Quealy served in France, but my husband Geoff’s Great Uncle Ralph French was Killed in Action in France. We also have quite a few other family members who have served. Our son will be visiting the battlefields of France as part of a history tour with his school next year and will be spending ANZAC Day at Villers-Bretonneux and I wanted him to have some idea of what happened before he left.

After all, we talk about “Lest we forget”, but a hundred years later, we don’t remember. We don’t know. Of course, we can’t know everything about the past, but for me it’s not only important from a point of respect and gratitude. It’s also helpful to know what these people went through and how they handled this dreadful period in history provides valuable life lessons, which are just as relevant and needed today.

I also needed to know what it was really like for them to be there. Not from us imposing our own interpretations over the top. Rather, I needed to hear their stories directly through their own voices. Despite studying Australian History at Honours level at university and being gripped by Australian and family history most of my life, what they told me was quite different and much more complex than I expected. They needed to be heard.

Stay tuned.

Best wishes,

Rowena

References

[1] Arrow (Sydney, NSW : 1916 – 1933), Saturday 22 July 1916, page 1

 

[2] https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/blogs/first-world-war-troopship-and-unit-newspapers

[3] Arrow (Sydney, NSW : 1916 – 1933), Saturday 22 July 1916, page 1