As a kid growing up in Australia, I was surrounded by the reminders of wars stretching back to the Boer War at the turn of the 20th century. Our town, like many in the bush had quite a few ex-servicemen, there was one quite elderly soldier from the Boer War, a handful from the Great War (1914-1918), and many from WWII and a sprinkling from Korea.
Almost every country town in Australia has a war memorial, each lined with the names of all those that paid the ultimate sacrifice during the respective conflicts. However, what it doesn’t portray is the impact on those who served but came home. There were a few men from my town who in retrospect were broken by their experiences, old before their time, angry at the world but unable to get the help that they needed to heal emotionally.
For the vast majority alcohol became their constant companion, and during my formative years I observed many a violent outburst or the ravings of a drunk while waiting for my mum and dad at the local pub. Frightening to a small child, but as I aged I began to see these men for what they were…broken by their experience.
Broken in mind and more importantly spirit. Many drifting, unable to hold down a job sometimes due to their quick temper, inability to settle down or the alcohol induced haze that seemed to settled over many of them…
My personal family experience and exposure was via a couple of stories that my mum used to tell me about her father (Grandfather Conolly) from his service during WWI, but mostly from the Australian War Memorial and their detailed archives. Yes, I’ve done a lot of research to fill in the gaps…of which there were many!
Remembrance day has a special significance in that he actually enlisted on 11th November, 1916, clearly not knowing the importance of what this date would hold for generations to come…
Grandfather Conolly fought in France on the Western Front from 1917-1918. Originally part of the 13th reinforcements when sent to England for his trench warfare training and then subsequent assignment to an AIF (Australian Imperial Force) unit in France.
His newly assigned battalion had only been recently formed as part of the creation of Australia’s Fourth Division. When creating a new division structure they seeded reinforcements and existing members from the initial divisions and battalions to form its core. This included a strong contingent of Gallipoli veterans who they added to provide depth and experience to the newly formed units.
Initially when he was shipped across the channel and found himself assigned to the 52nd Battalion, but was then transferred to the 49th Battalion which was another that had been formed in his home state of Queensland.
How he survived those two years, albeit wounded and gassed in one of the most horrific wars of our time…is a mystery. Fortunately for me he did otherwise there would be no TW. 🙂
Unfortunately he died the year before I was born and so never got the chance to meet him or get to know him and ask him all the questions I still have for him. My mum would sometime regale me with stories, although now that I reflect back on those conversations it was never about his First World War service. It was as if those years had been stricken from his memory.
I can’t even imagine the feelings of utter terror and frenzied chaos that he and his mates must have felt and endured leading up to being ordered, “to go over the top” and into, what for many…was oblivion.
How do you make sense of one minute shaking hands with your mate next to you, hearing the shrill sound of the whistle and then clambering up and over the sandbag parapets into what surely must be certain death as you cross a boggy, churned up battlefield – and for what? A few yards of mud… Can you imagine losing your best friends day in, day out until there was no one left? How do you get up and over that bloody parapet just one more time knowing that perhaps this time it’s you who won’t be coming back? The futility of the situation must have been almost too much to bear.
I always wondered how he kept his nerve under such impossibly trying conditions; did he just keep his head down and steel himself to the daily task at hand? Or had he made peace and accepted his fate come what may?
How many thousands of families, the world over, lost generations to come from being either one-inch too far left or right… Why did he survive while others didn’t? These questions and a hundred more I’ll never be able to ask, but they still play on my mind and particularly on days like today.
Remembrance day is the day that I think about Grandfather most, and how surprised he must have felt having survived the war. What must have gone through his mind on November 11th, 1918 when the firing finally stopped at 11:00am?
I guess no one will ever know for sure but he and every other soldier irrespective of side during the conflict became a casualty of war, with the wounds being both physical and mental in almost every combatant and non combatant alike.
So to you Grandfather, as the 11th hour of the 11th day chimes I remember you and all of your mates who didn’t make it home – thank you for your service, courage and sacrifice.
Lest we forget!