Dr Peter Stanley, National Museum of Australia, 31 August 2008
GABRIELLE HYSLOP: Welcome everybody. Thank you very much for coming to the National Museum this afternoon. My name is Gabrielle Hyslop, and I am the Director of Audience Development and Public Programs here at the Museum. First, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land where we are gathering, the Ngunnawal people.
This is a very special program today, and really you are here to contribute to Peter’s next book, not just to hear about his latest research. Of course, today is a key date. Ninety years ago on a French hillside, it was the end of summer and for us it is the end of winter, part of the process of us starting to look at this event from perhaps a different perspective. We probably should be saying ‘bonne anniversaire Mont St Quentin’ too. I’m not quite sure about that.
For those of you who don’t know, Dr Peter Stanley is the Director for the Centre for Historical Research here at the National Museum, and this particular book is his twentieth book. The nineteenth was published in July, and some of you may have noticed in The Australian yesterday there was rather a large spread relating to Peter’s research on the whole issue of whether the Japanese did or did not plan to invade Australia. As Sandy Forbes, who is here in the audience was saying, it is very good in Australia that we have people slugging it out in the pages of the press about history. Here at the Museum we are used to have people slugging it out about history, and we think it is great.
I just thought I would read to you, if you haven’t read it already, a couple of comments that Peter made in his response to Bob Wurth’s article, where what Peter is saying is that the issue that they are arguing about is really about what we can and can’t believe about Australian history and the basis on which we believe it.
I used to work at the National Archives so I should make it very clear that I am firmly on the side of using evidence, and Peter concludes his piece by saying, ‘History is contentious because it matters. It matters that Australians understand their history based on evidence rather than on assumptions, myths and the flowery blandishments of MacArthur’. You can see quite clearly what side Peter is taking in this debate and the quote, ‘Australia’s greatest peril isn’t what the Japanese might have done in 1942. It is what ill-informed writers are doing to our history today’.
Well, of course, historians always argue about the right and wrong use of evidence, the nature of evidence and what counts as evidence. I think that you are in for an absolutely fascinating story today about some very special evidence.
The format will be that Peter is going to talk to us about the book, and then I’ll read some extracts from the book. He is very keen for you to comment on what you hear, whether your comments are: ‘I didn’t find that interesting’ or ‘why haven’t you got my family in there’ or a comment about the style, a comment about what you would like to hear more about. He really sees this session as more of a workshop than a talk. Please feel ready to contribute, and don’t feel shy about saying what you think because every reader has their own response which is theirs and equally valid.
Without more ado, let’s get on with the session. Peter will start. Thank you for your time.
Dr PETER STANLEY: Thank you, Gabrielle. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thanks very much for coming, especially on such a day. What’s this stuff called? It’s wet stuff. Rain.
I hope the story we’re telling this afternoon is interesting. If you do have family connections with Mont St Quentin, please feel free to say so or indeed, as Gabrielle said, to contribute in any way you like. I do like a bit of historical biffo as she suggested, but I think today’s discussion might be a little more gentle than the exchanges I have been having with Bob Wurth.
The reason we’re gathering today is that because, as Gabrielle said, 90 years ago today more or less to this very minute, if you take into account the time difference, Australian soldiers began the first of three attacks that over the next two days resulted in the capture of Mont St Quentin. I say Mont St. Quentin because that’s what they said.
Mont St Quentin was and still is a hill overlooking the River Somme in France, but in 1918 it was crucial to continuing the offensive that would result in Allied victory later that year. The men I will be talking about today actually joined in the final attack on the Mont, which began at exactly 1.30 on the afternoon of the first of September.
What I’ll be talking about today and what I’ll be talking about in the book is the experience of just a dozen men involved in that big battle. The capture of the Mont has been hailed as the greatest Australian feat of arms. Actually, it was touted as a great success even before the battle ended. That was all part of General John Monash’s unremitting publicity drive, which I think has dominated the writing about the battle until now.
This afternoon, I don’t particularly want to talk about the battle itself or to analyse the tactics or to discuss how it fitted into the operations of the autumn and the summer of 1918. I might have done that if I still worked at the Australian War Memorial, which is where I was when I began this book, but I’m not. I now work for the National Museum of Australia, and the National Museum is an institution with a much broader interest in Australia’s history.
The story I tell in this book isn’t limited to the afternoon of the 1st of September or, indeed, to the war itself. What I am attempting to do is to trace the effects on the families of four men who died because of the battle and to follow the survivors into the rest of their lives through 20th century Australia. As you can see, that intention fits very comfortably into the National Museum’s interest in the social history of Australia. It is more than coincidental that my interest in the men of Mont St Quentin has also broadened or perhaps lengthened.
To introduce you to this story, I have asked Gabrielle to read several extracts from the book beginning with the prologue to this book that I’ve almost finished called ‘Between Victory and Death: Men of Mont St Quentin’. So, I’ll ask Gabrielle to come back and read the first of those three extracts. Thanks.
GABRIELLE HYSLOP: Prologue: ‘The most awful day in our lives’:
Melbourne, Friday the 13th of September, 1918.
On the morning of Friday, the 13th of September, Garry Roberts rose early. During the week the Robertses lived at ‘Eumana’, a small villa in what was then called Upper Hawthorn in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.
Garry ate breakfast with his 20-year-old daughter Gwen and read the papers: he took both the Age and the Argus. His wife, Roberta - called Berta - was at their weekender, ‘Sunnyside’, at South Sassafras - 30 kilometres up the Belgrave line in the Dandenongs - with their youngest child, 15-year-old, Bert, who liked to get into the bush and shoot things. Garry and Berta’s eldest son, Frank, was away at the war in France, a fact that the Robertses bore with the mixture of pride and fear shared by millions of their fellow Australians in the fourth year of the most terrible war humanity had ever known.
The Robertses were a close family, with many friends in Melbourne’s literary and artistic circles. Though his job entailed figures - he was the accountant for the Melbourne Municipal Tramways Trust - Garry dabbled in history as a hobby. He had been a founding member of the Victorian Historical Society, and the family tolerated his diligent, not to say obsessive, desire to document many aspects of their life in the dozens of huge scrapbooks he filled most evenings. Garry’s scrapbooks - he called them ‘Record Books’ - have made it possible to tell this story.
At breakfast the postman delivered a letter to Frank, written in France nearly two months before, in July. Garry shared the letter with Gwen, but then had to leave for the office in the Tramways Building at the west end of Bourke Street. Gathering a bundle of newspapers to post to Frank, he stepped out of Eumana’s white picket gate and turned right to walk a couple of hundred yards down-hill towards the tram stop on Riversdale Road. There had been a heavy dew that morning, but the early spring day was dry, warm and mostly sunny.
Garry strode out, secure in the knowledge that two months before Frank had been well. Perhaps, as he walked down Hastings Road, a familiar thought struck him: that he did not know what had happened since Frank had written, and perhaps, the dread surely shared by the loved ones of those in peril rose in his stomach. He caught his usual Hawthorn Tramway Trust electric tram into the city. He probably arrived with seconds to spare knowing the timetables backwards and travelled free, probably greeting the driver and conductor by name as he climbed aboard the French grey-painted car.
Aboard the tram, he saw WC Hart - the treasurer of the Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Fathers Association, which he’d joined a year before - and another friend, Guy Innes, the editor of the Herald. A great mixer, Garry introduced the two to each other.
Their journey through Hawthorne and Richmond would have pointed to a country and community at war. Many passengers would have worn badges testifying to the way the war had impinged on their lives. Many women wore ‘sweetheart’ brooches, in the form of miniature colour patches of their loved one’s unit. Others might have ‘female relative’ badges. Some women would be dressed in black; some men would be wearing black armbands. On the roadside, patriotic posters vide with equally lurid hoardings advertising boot blacking, gravy and soap powder. After a 20-minute journey and a change on to the cable tram at Princes Bridge, Garry’s tram clattered to a halt at the terminus outside the red-brick Victorian Italianate Tramways Building shortly before ten. Garry went, as usual, to his office. He chatted to one of his staff for a while before noticing a buff telegram envelope on his desk. He opened the envelope and read:I regret to inform you that London advises your cablegram of the 14th August, addressed to 6874 Roberts, as being undeliverable, owing to the addressee being killed in action.Garry Roberts had learned from this banal and routine message that his son was dead. Soon, he pasted the telegram into one of the Record Books that became Frank’s memorial.
We know what Garry did and thought from his own account of that day, preserved in distracted scrawl in his bulky ‘Australia’ 1918 diary. He immediately left work and made his way to the Red Cross Enquiry Office, a couple of corners away in Market Street. (He knew what to do from talks with other brave members of the Fathers Association: he had probably foreseen this moment.)
The Red Cross’s office knew nothing. Base Records at Victoria Barracks only sent lists of casualties after informing families, but Garry filled out a form asking the Red Cross to enquire about and report on Frank. Then he went to Victoria Barracks at Saint Kilda Road, where, he wrote, he ‘had my fears confirmed’. Frank had been reported as ‘killed’ in the latest casualty list transmitted from London.
He returned to the Red Cross inquiry office where he gave the sizeable donation of a guinea to have them cable the AIF records office in London for further ‘particulars’, a word that recurs throughout Garry’s long search for more and more detail of Frank’s death. (Did he distractedly pull a pound note and a shilling from his wallet, or regard the considerable donation as somehow proportional to the urgency of his need? Later, he pasted the receipt in the record book, too.)
Back at the office, he met his brother Will, who had lost his own son, Leonard, on Gallipoli three years before. Will had heard the news from Gwen, who had opened the door at ‘Eumana’ to the dread of every civilian with a loved one at the war, a clergyman on the doorstep. Fortunately, a friend was visiting - Edie Eastaugh, a teacher on holiday. (Edie had taught Frank at the South Melbourne College a decade before, and had become a friend of the family.) Edie stayed with Gwen and, later that morning, saw her onto the train for the Dandenongs to join her mother.
Garry thought of Frank’s wife, Ruby, and he telephoned Ruby’s father, George, at Warwick Farm, also in the Dandenongs. It was George who told Ruby that she was now a widow. Soon after, Berta happened to walk over to Warwick Farm, and she learned from Ruby that her son had been killed. When she returned to Sunnyside (probably on the Warwick Farm cart) Berta told Bert that his elder brother had been killed.
Garry caught a tram back to Eumana soon after noon. In his diary, he recorded that he felt ‘sick with grief’. He then noted that he took the 6.58 train from Hawthorne to the Dandenongs. What did he do in that empty house between, say, 12.30 and about 6.30? He doesn’t say, though he did describe feeling ‘sick with grief’ and it’s likely that, for Garry, these were the blackest hours of his life. With the realisation of Frank’s death sinking in, perhaps he simply gave in to weeping for those solitary hours.
Later that afternoon, he regained his customary self-discipline and set out for Camberwell Station. He needed to reach ‘Sunnyside’ to be with Berta and his family. His tread down the street was surely less jaunty than it had been that morning.
Alighting from the train at Belgrave, Garry took the familiar route up the long, steady slope toward South Sassafras. The road ran through a tall forest echoing with birdcalls, the white gravel illuminating his path in the gathering dusk.
Half an hour later, Berta met him on the steps of Sunnyside. She had been hoping that the news was mistaken, but Garry had to confirm its truth. Frank had to tell ‘my brave son’s brave mother that our firstborn had died a hero’s death’. The only consolation that Garry could offer was that Frank had died ‘to help to save mankind’. ‘She was distressed’, he began, then crossed it out and wrote, ‘We were both distressed’. Dinner must have been a strained, silent, and sad affair. After Gwen and Bert had gone tearfully to bed, Garry and Berta sat and talked about Frank - how proud they were of him, and ‘what a fine, dear son he had been’.
Not for another six days was Garry able to take out his diary and write a long account of what he called ‘the most awful day in our lives’. On that day, Garry began the search for an understanding of what happened to Frank that made this book possible.
Dr PETER STANLEY: Thank you Gabrielle. Why am I telling you this story? About three years ago, early in 2005, I was just about to publish a book called Quinn’s Post: ANZAC Gallipoli. In that book, I tried to tell the story of one tiny part of the Gallipoli Peninsula. In doing so, I was trying to understand the first of the volunteers who enlisted for the Great War, but in both Australia and New Zealand - that’s why it’s subtitled ‘ANZAC Gallipoli. It’s as much a New Zealand story as it is an Australian story.
I wrote about those volunteers, about their idealism and their naivety, the way they suffered and were sacrificed, and the disillusionment that set in during the first of the great battles that Australia fought in the Great War. I should explain that I’ve always seen myself as a writer of military social history, rather than just military operations. I’m as interested, possibly more interested in the people than I am in the military operations.
Having written about those volunteers of 1914, I found that I wanted to write a companion book which looked at what happened to Australians in the course of that war, and conceived the idea of writing about those who fought in one of the war’s last battles. I settled quite impulsively on Mont St Quentin, and within a few weeks - really, with a one-page letter, it can be done - I had a publisher and a contract, but what I didn’t have was a clear idea of the book I really wanted to write. We both agreed it was a good idea, but I had no idea how I was going to make this book happen.
To be honest, in the first year or so - the first eighteen months of this project - I had reasons to regret my impetuosity. I thought I’d gone and committed myself to writing a book about a large, swift-moving, and rather confusing battle which involved about 20,000 Australians in two and a half divisions over a week of very active battle. I thought I’d really foolishly lumbered myself with a battle book, and I tackled it very halfheartedly until I discovered the accounts of seven men of Nine Platoon, C Company, of the 21st Battalion. I discovered those accounts about November 2006 in the Charles Bean papers over at the [Australian War] Memorial.
Those accounts are virtually unique in Australian military history, because the descriptions of seven of the eight survivors of that 12-man platoon, of a short but very costly battle - they exist because of Garry Roberts, the man Gabrielle’s just told us about, a man who was consumed by grief. As the survivors came back to Australia, back to Melbourne, Garry Roberts sought them out and asked each of them to write about what had happened on the day of the battle in which Frank was killed. Several described Frank’s death, although all of them gave slightly different versions of the circumstances of his death.
Well, when I read those accounts, I realised that I had found the key to dealing with Mont St Quentin, and that in fact I wasn’t writing a book about a battle, I was writing a book about a small group of individuals. It’s about the lives and the deaths of a dozen men, members of this one platoon, and it deals with their experience in detail. And, for the first time in Australian military history, I think, it follows them out of the war and into the rest of their lives.
And I can do that, providentially, because at the very moment that I discovered those accounts, the National Archives released the Repat medical files, opened them to researchers, which meant that I could follow those people into, literally, their old age and into their deaths. Also, thanks to a lot of legwork and some good fortune and, I have to say, some very generous responses from families, I was able to trace members of the families of about eight of the twelve men, and I’m able to write about them from their memories and family papers, too. So, from having gone into this project really without knowing how I was going to do it, I now realise that not only is this book a goer, but in a manuscript it exists.
Now, let me show you some pictures so you can see. [Shows image] The people we’re talking about here, of course, are the Robertses. You have worked out who they are: Frank at the top right, Bert, Gwen, Garry, and Berta. That’s Eumana today, it still has a white picket fence in front of it, and it’s still on Hastings Road, of course, and leads down to the trams off of Riversdale Road. It is all still there.
[Shows image] And that is the tramways building, still at the west end of Bourke Street, and it’s still a town. It has, sadly, fallen on hard times in that it is being rented out, and I think it is mostly empty, but thank goodness it still exists. And I don’t know where Garry was when he received the telegram, but he must have been in an office in there somewhere. [Shows image] And that is the telegram itself. The telegram is still in the record books, the record books are enormous as you’ll see again later on, but you can read this man’s life and death in enormous detail.
[Shows image] And that is the page of the diary, he couldn’t bring himself to begin to describe what was happening for six days after the 13th of September, but he describes that day in agonising detail, agonising for him and even agonising for us to read it.
So, let me tell you something about the people that we are talking about here, to give you an idea of who they are. [Shows image] There is Frank and Ruby on their wedding day in 1916. Frank was a sergeant then, sorry, he was a corporal then, he became a sergeant. He thought he was going to be commissioned, but it turned out that he wasn’t, and he died as a private, for reasons I won’t talk about now.
[Shows image] That is Ruby holding her baby, Nancy, who was born in November, 1917, which was six months after Frank got to the war, so Frank never saw his daughter. There is a whole story in the book about that.
[Shows image] This is an Australian platoon on the slopes of Mont St Quentin, on the afternoon of the 1st September, 1918. There is the same number of men in the platoon, but it is not Frank’s platoon. It is the neighboring battalion. But one of the many coincidences in this project, and I’ll talk about some in a second, the photographer, Hubert Wilkins, was on the Mont and took photographs of various platoons and of the action, and this is pretty much what Frank’s men would have looked like, Frank and his comrades, but it isn’t Frank.
[Shows image] That’s a picture that Wilkins took of the summit of the Mont from Elsa Trench, the trench that Frank and his comrades left from, at exactly 1.30 in the afternoon on the 1st of September. This is extraordinarily well-documented, this action. So, you can follow it foot by foot, and literally minute by minute. [Shows image] And that is what the same scene looks like today, from more-or-less the site of Elsa Trench, with the Bois de Mont St Quentin at the top of the hill, still woody, with the church in the middle, and you can follow Frank’s place of death, which I have done.
[Shows image] This is more or less where Frank died at about 2.30 or 2.45 on that afternoon. No other man had watches, or none of them referred to times, rather, but if you compare their various accounts you can pretty much plot exactly what happened and more or less when. So, you can go to the exact spot where Frank died. This is also, by amazing coincidence, more or less the same spot where Charles Bean, the official historian, the correspondent and then historian, watched the battle from. And it is the site that he sent artists to depict the battle. [Shows image] So, if you go to Streeton’s works, there is Sir Arthur Streeton’s account, Arthur Streeton’s version, of the battle of Mont St Quentin.
Of course, the extraordinary thing is, Streeton turns it into a Mont, it looks like a steep conical hill. And of course, the reality, as depicted in my photographs taken last year and this year, is nothing like that. So, the mystique of Mont St Quentin can be seen in the art as well as in the writing.
Some of the men that we will be talking about - and I have photographs of all but one man of the platoon. All but two men. [Shows image] But here are three of them, and I’ll talk about two of them later. Alf Baker on the left, Norrie Norwood in the middle, and Godfrey Dobson on the right. And you can see that Godfrey Dobson is a veteran of Gallipoli as well, he has the ‘A’ letter on his collar patch.
The book is about these men, as you will see presently. [Shows image] That is Frank himself on the right. And, throughout the scrapbook, [Shows image] and here is a page from one of Garry’s many scrapbooks, you can see that there are photographs of the grave. And it’s not the only page that is full of pictures of the grave. Every single scrapbook begins with these sort of photographs. The scrapbooks are paper memorials to the life of Frank Roberts, and Garry’s grief comes through every page of it.
And again, more coincidences. In 1919, Monash himself, with his daughter Bertha, went to France for a five-day visit. In the course of that trip, they visited two soldiers’ graves. One of those soldiers’ graves was Frank Roberts’. I won’t go into it now, but there are an extraordinary number of connections between Frank Roberts and bigger themes, bigger events.
[Shows image] And there on the right, some of you may recognise the old Mont St Quentin memorial. It depicts an Australian soldier bayoneting a Prussian eagle, the eagle lies outstretched on the plinth of the divisional memorial, which is on the summit of Mont St Quentin. [Shows image] That sculpture ... sorry, because I took it straight from the scrapbook it has lots of reflections on it anyway, so it may not make it much easier. But, there is the sculpture on the right. The sculpture was executed by Charles Webb Gilbert, who was a great friend of the Roberts’ and in fact had sketched Frank’s face in London late in 1917. And, he told Garry Roberts that he had put his son’s face on the figure on the plinth. It’s impossible to check that now because in 1940 the Germans overran France and they destroyed this symbol, this insult to German militarism, and so the old Mont St Quentin memorial is completely gone. But the fact is, or rather it is said, and I am now dubious, that Frank’s face was on the figure on the memorial.
Other connections - I said that the Roberts’s were an artistic and cultured family, and here is one aspect of the proof. [Shows image] The top photograph there, the man with the banjo is CJ Dennis. CJ Dennis was in fact a great friend of the Roberts’. They, in fact, kept him alive just before the war, when he was writing The Sentimental Bloke, and The Sentimental Bloke is dedicated to the Robertses, and Dennis drew on some of the Roberts’ stories in making the story of the sentimental bloke. CJ Dennis describes the bloke as ‘a flamin’ berry farmer, full of toil’, and in fact Frank Roberts, before he enlisted, was a berry farmer. So there is an intimate connection between these people.
Other connections, you may recognise the Mont St Quentin diorama from the Australian War Memorial, and it depicts the moment at which Frank’s platoon went over the top, from Elsa Trench, looking up the hill towards the wood on the summit of Mont St Quentin. There are many stories within the story of the diorama that have connections back to the platoon, including the fact that members of the platoon came to the museum in Melbourne and looked at the diorama, and commented on how accurate it was in reflecting their experience.
[Shows image] That is one of the soldiers’ accounts, that is Jack Castle’s long typescript account of the experiences on 1 September. Just to give you a flavour, Garry Roberts used the Tramway Trust’s typists to type it up and then went and corrected it and added to it himself, so there is a whole story about the creation of these accounts.
[Shows image] There are some of the record books themselves. That is just one of the 27 books that document Frank’s life and the family’s history, and each of them has 500 pages, and on many of those pages there are a dozen or more sheets glued so you can read them one after another. It is a massive amount of material, and you get all sorts of things from the books. It is not just family history, it’s local history, and it’s national history. There is a whole volume devoted purely to Gallipoli, because Garry’s nephew, Lennard, was killed on Gallipoli. And they are a great reservoir for Australian history.
This afternoon what I want to do is give you a flavour of what this book tries to do in tracing the lives of some of the survivors across the 20th century. And it’s really hard to pick out extracts from the story, because you don’t get the change to have things explained to you because you’re just listening to the extract.
But, I’d like Gabrielle, now, to read out two extracts that I think will give an idea of what I have tried to do. The first deals with Les Baker, and the second deals with Norrie Norwood. Les was wounded in the very beginning of the battle. He actually didn’t see Mont St Quentin because he was wounded in the dark the night before, but he was a member of the platoon and his story is also part of the saga of these men’s lives from 1918 onwards.
GABRIELLE HYSLOP: ‘Honest and Trying’: Les Baker.
Les Baker returned to his five children and almost immediately fathered a sixth, Beryl. He returned to Ringwood and began looking for work. He wrote to Garry to seek employment - repairs, painting, building - he was a handyman and would do anything. He used his War Gratuity, (about £109) to build his own weatherboard house just by the railway line - Garry and Berta passed within 50 yards of it when they travelled between Hawthorn and Belgrave.
The shell that exploded in the 21st Battalion’s bivouac on the banks of the Somme on the day before the battle left Les with shrapnel scars above and below his right knee. His fortnightly pension was the same as Jack Castle’s, plus amounts of between 2/6s and 7/6s for the children. This was about a quarter of the maximum rate, but the total, £2/8/6, was far less than the basic unskilled wage of about £4 a week. Les still had to seek work to support his family and to re-establish their home. While he was away, Agnes had been forced to sell their furniture (because she couldn’t store it, and to meet debts) so late in 1919, Les applied for a loan from the Repatriation Commission of £34/18/2 to buy furniture, repayable at 10/- a month.
By April 1921, he was ‘considerably overdue’, unresponsive to reminder letters from the local Repatriation Committee, whose voluntary members oversaw its work. Its secretary reported that Les was out of work and had promised to make a payment within a month. He recommended ‘lenient treatment’.
By December 1922, though, Les was 25 installments in arrears. The committee organised a local whip round and repaid £10, explaining to the Deputy Commissioner in Melbourne that ‘he has a large family, and he is still trying to pay off the timber for the large house which he has built’. They again asked for lenience. By this time, Les owed £6 in interest on top of the original loan, and early in 1922 the Commission warned that it might have to repossess the furniture.
In the winter of 1922, a ‘Senior Business Inspector’ visited Les and Agnes’s house to assess their assets. He found they had a boiler and two saucepans, a table, eight blankets, and a quilt (but only three mattresses and one pillow), a dinner service with only six table knives, and 17 yards of lino. He asked around Ringwood, and learned that Les was regarded as ‘a hard-working and honest man’.
Six months later, and after Les defaulted again, the inspector recommended another reprieve. The Baker’s assets were, he reported, ‘worthless’. He called repeatedly, in July 1924 finding that the dinner service was smaller than before. Les was ‘honest and trying’. Agnes said he was ‘quite strict, and a good father’, but he was in and out of work, had six children under 14, and was ‘not getting enough to pay for sufficient food for my family’. He confessed that he couldn’t pay anything off the loan. The Repat inspectors took pity on Les, and simply wrote off the loan.
There the report ends, but as we’ll see, life never got much easier for Les and Agnes and their six children.
Dr PETER STANLEY: Oh, no, you go on.
GABRIELLE HYSLOP: The next extract comes from a later part of the book, one dealing with the survivors’ lives in the 1950s.
‘A wasted man’: Les Baker.
Les and Agnes Baker and their six children lived in poverty through the Great Depression and the Second World War. By the late 1940s, Les, who had just applied for the aged pension, found that a persistent cough worsened. His doctor referred him to the Repatriation General Hospital in Caulfield, and there a specialist found that he had more than just a troublesome cough. His sputum was, in fact, mostly pus - he had advanced pulmonary tuberculosis (TB). He stayed in hospital, where further examination found a duodenal ulcer. No wonder he presented as a ‘thin, small man’.
Les’s nurses reported that he had ‘shocking bad breath,’ and the hospital’s dentist found his mouth ‘in deplorable condition’. His molars were worn down to the gums, which exuded pus when pressed. The dentist extracted all of his teeth. By the time he received dentures, several months later, Les’ doctors and nurses thought he ‘understands personal hygiene fairly well’. They found Les a sober, cheerful patient, stoic in the face of the poor hand life had dealt him.
Although Les’ tuberculosis wasn’t improving, he wanted to go home to the weatherboard house in Ringwood. Les and Agnes shared the weatherboard house he had built 30 years before with one of his sons, his wife, and their two daughters, aged seven and nine. Neither Agnes nor the family wanted Les back while he was infectious, and on weekend visits Agnes told the medical social worker that Les became ‘irritable and difficult’, and he was ‘careless with cutlery and scornful of supervision’. Agnes, who ‘seemed fairly sensible’, had an extension built so he could live separately, even though they had to share a kitchen. Les didn’t accept that he was ‘a potential menace’. ‘He has taken a lot of convincing that his sputum contains tubercle bacilli’ [tuberculosis germs] the social worker noted. Eventually, his son’s family moved out to eliminate the danger of infection.
The in January 1951 Agnes, a stout middle-aged woman who herself suffered from high blood pressure, had a heart attack. She could no longer care for Les and he returned to Caulfield, where he died of TB a fortnight later, on 16th of January 1951, aged 67. It was the first member of Nine Platoon to die after 1918. Agnes died in 1963, aged 76.
In a life dogged by unemployment and poverty, and ended by wasting disease, Les Baker’s war wounds - a bout of shell shock on the Somme in 1916, a gunshot wound at Ypres, and a shrapnel wound at Mont St Quentin - seemed to be not the worst thing that happened to him. Les was, as the Repat doctors noted, ‘a wasted man’, wasted by poverty and its accompaniments.
Dr PETER STANLEY: Thank you. I want to now turn to a very different life experience, that of Noble Norwood, who was Frank Roberts’ best friend in the platoon. Noble and Frank had shared leave to Paris in 1918, where they had met a Miss Edith Alston, who was an Australian lady living in France. Noble had been wounded shortly before Frank was killed on Mont St Quentin on the afternoon of the 1st of September, and he heard of his death in hospital in Britain, but the extract that I’ll ask Gabrielle to read relates to Noble in the years following the First World War, and then a short piece relating to his eventual death.
GABRIELLE HYSLOP: It reads:
Noble Norwood returned briefly to Melbourne, where he offered his commiserations to Garry and Berta. The Book Department of Boan’s department store in Perth gave him his old job back, and he obtained a railway warrant to return to the west by the new Trans-Continental Railway. Back in Perth, he felt restless. The Repatriation Department agreed to fund courses in book and magazine illustrating through the Perth branch of the ‘International Correspondence School’ of London, but Noble confessed that he didn’t think he could settle down until he had seen more of the world: Sydney, New Zealand, even South America. ‘Do you think I’m selfish?’ he asked Garry. His mentor evidently pressed Noble to think of settling down, but he remained wary.
He had a misunderstanding with a girl in Melbourne soon after returning, and he defaulted on his obligations to both the Correspondence School and to Repat, whose local commissioner, a Gallipoli veteran, remained patient in granting extensions and exceptions. When he submitted work, the college gave him high marks, 94 or 96 per cent, but he finished few courses. Not until December 1922 did the Department consider his files closed.
Noble decided to go into business on his own account, setting up a music and book shop in Baird’s Arcade in Perth. Within months, he had employed a young lady pianist to promote his sheet music, and before Christmas sold a hundred copies of the music to Valentine’s The Sheikh, then playing in Perth. He continued to correspond with Garry, possibly because he confessed that he felt lonely so far away, ‘Not knowing any of the men who I met in France’.
He owned up to some of the symptoms of what today we would call post-traumatic stress. When Garry pressed him for further details of Frank and Mont St Quentin, Noble wrote that, ‘There are some things I want to forget’. But, he also describes seeing visions of France and of dead comrades.Curiously enough, quite often during my daily work, there comes before my eyes a scene in France - as plainly as the real thing - and such things depress me. I wish that I could forget. I cannot exactly explain these visions - for visions they are - but they are most real, and several times Frank has figured in them.’
Noble reassured Garry that, ‘there are many things that I do not want to forget, including Frank’s comradeship’.
Edith Alston, who returned to Melbourne early in 1920, at last met the Robertses. Norrie described Miss Alston and her sister as ‘congenial, broad-minded and intelligent women’, and they shared everyone’s affection for Frank. Garry and Berta were able to hear from Miss Alston her memories of her guest in Paris in March, 1918. Garry passed the various accounts he had collected from the men of Frank’s platoon, and like Guy Innis, she was struck by Jack Castle’s account. Horrified by his matter-of-fact description of the fight for the Mont, she asked Garry, ‘How can these men settle down again?’
And then, this is from the part of the book that describes the survivors in old age:
‘An Intelligent Elderly Man’: Noble Norwood
Noble Norwood’s case is one of the saddest. Like Charlie Tognella, Noble never married but lived with his brother in a house in Como, by the swamp. He had been active in amateur theater in Perth and had painted. In Miss Alston’s flat in the Latin Quarter, Frank had teased Norrie that, ‘he kids himself he’s an artist’. But a friend, Anneil Perette, still has a painting he did of a sea scene reminiscent of the Dutch school.
From his courtly, whimsical, and somewhat effeminate manner, even as an unworldly young woman she suspected that he was gay, but the subject was never discussed. He was a gentleman, his niece Joyce recalled. Late in 1959, he saw his doctor, complaining of a nervous condition and pain from the left shoulder, where he had been wounded on the 1st of September in 1918. Repat easily accepted his claim for ‘incapacity due to war service’. A regular reader - he had been a bookseller for 40 years - he now feared that his eyesight was deteriorating.
A doctor found him ‘restless and pensive, very nervy and introspective’. So depressed did Noble seem that the doctor advised him to enter hospital immediately. Noble ‘presented’, as doctors say, as ‘an intelligent, elderly man’, but also as ‘a severely depressed insomniac’. An operation for glaucoma had failed and now Noble - formerly a reader and an artist - saw the world through a grey mist. Though bearing the physical scar of his war wound, it seemed that his failing eyesight caused his depression.
In his last years, Norrie enjoyed visits and conversations with his niece, Joyce Wilson, and Anneil Perette, who remembered him fondly as ‘a courteous, gentle man’. Noble moved to a Salvation Army hostel, where he died in May 1973, of bowel cancer. He donated his body to the Department of Anatomy at the University of Western Australia, and was finally buried in June 1974.
Dr PETER STANLEY: Thanks very much, Gabrielle. Well, there you have the extracts, which give you just a flavour of the type of book that this is. The huge bits that Gabrielle hasn’t read out, of course, deal with the events of the 1st of September 1918, which has possibly lured you all here in the first place. But I didn’t want to mislead you, that this book isn’t a book about a battle: it is, in fact, a book about people. People like Norrie Norwood and Alf Baker and another ten men like them. Although, they are very dissimilar men, of course.
That is what I wanted to give you. What I would very much appreciate hearing back from you is your questions and your comments, your own family experiences, perhaps, that relate to Mont St Quentin, and generally to talk about the extraordinary way in which the events of 1918, 90 years ago, still have a part in the way we think about the world and the way we think about Australian history, even today.
GABRIELLE HYSLOP: We’re recording the session for our audio-on-demand program. Quite a lot of the programs that we have at the museum, we now record them, and we provide both an audio and also a transcript version of the programs on the website. Growing numbers of people are looking at them from all over the world, which is a really good way of us talking to not just Canberra audiences, but also national audiences. So if you’re asking a question, I wonder if you would mind using the microphone, identifying yourself, and then also you need to give us your name and contact details so that we can tell you about the audio on demand program. Now over to you.
QUESTION: Good afternoon, my name is Anthony and I have just recently graduated from ANU. I have got two questions. One, the first, concerns the father and the books. I have studied a fair bit of this history as well, and the question is do you think that with the absence of the body, and there is no actual shrine or gravesite to worship at, do you think those books, in a way, became like a surrogate body that the father could worship and grieve for his lost son?
Dr PETER STANLEY: I would say yes, absolutely. The scrapbooks, when you look through them you get a sense of how they were created. Indeed, Garry describes how he created them in various letters that he writes, and it is clear that he basically sat over them night after night. Berta and Gwen would go off and play canasta or whatever they would play, and you get a sense that in the dining room, there is Garry sitting at a table with a pot of glue and a pen, sticking more pictures of the graves into the books and then writing next to them.
Each time he does so, he doesn’t just write ‘Frank’s Grave.’ He writes, ‘Dear Frank, killed at Mont St Quentin, 1st of September, 1918’, time and time again. And you get a sense in which that is exactly what he is doing; he is grieving over the books, because that is the object that he has. As you say, he doesn’t have the grave. They never go to visit the grave. They are not poor people, by any means, but they can’t afford to go to France.
At one page, there is a poppy pasted into the book that has been brought back by the father of one of the men, Dutton, in another platoon of the battalion who did visit France. And so, yeah, this book is very much Frank’s grave. What is your second question?
QUESTION: Just to relate to that, is he listed on a memorial in Melbourne?
Dr PETER STANLEY: Yes, he is, and no he isn’t. I spent a day driving around Melbourne looking for old houses, and finding many of them, and looking for war memorials, and I have to say, I couldn’t find the Hawthorn memorial. I’m sure there is one, but I couldn’t find it.
So, I’m not sure that Garry ever saw Frank’s name on a war memorial. In a sense, it didn’t really matter ... oh, sorry, all right, the Camberwell School, Public School #888, which is just down the road from Hastings Road, it did have a Roll of Honor, and curiously enough, Frank’s name is not on it. And I can’t explain why, because you know that Frank went to Camberwell School, because it’s all over the scrapbook. There is a whole scrapbook devoted to Frank’s schooling. But somehow, he isn’t.
There are a couple of these weird omissions. Like, Arthur Streeton lived in the same town in the Dandenongs, and he painted Mont St Quentin, donated it and hung it in the National Gallery, and Frank and Berta were still alive and they didn’t seem to know about it. So, there are few really sad omissions, and the war memorials, the lack of a visible name on a memorial, that you would think everybody’s name would be on and every parent would be able to go and meditate upon their son’s name on the local war memorial - it doesn’t seem to have occurred in this case. It’s quite inexplicable.
QUESTION: The second part concerns the 1920s, leading into the 1930s and the Depression. How much of an impact did that have upon their lives in the aftermath? Because, both of my parents were born and grew up in the Depression, and oral history was big in my family, so I know the stories of the poverty quite well, and I was just wondering, like, Les seemed to have a hard time, and the others. How did they fare?
Dr PETER STANLEY: Les had the hardest time, there’s no doubt, because he was only a casual worker. Several of the others - I’ll fill it out later, otherwise you’re going to miss the answer to the question you just asked ...
But, several of the others got work on the tramways because of Garry, because the aim was to get a secure job, a job that wasn’t going to finish next week or next month. Poor Les never managed that because he was a casual painter. But, several of the others, at least three other members, three other survivors, got jobs on the tramways because Garry had put in a word for them.
And, of the families I have talked to, they all have generalised memories of the Depression, nothing very specific. But, the Depression is a period in all their family histories, that’s true. And of course, it dominated, because without a secure job, all the other things that they had hoped for, the homes and secure futures, wouldn’t have happened, and they certainly didn’t happen in the case of the Bakers.
QUESTION by Ros Jackson: My question relates to whether you know anything about whether Anzac Day was meaningful to these men, and whether they, having lost so many of their comrades, even bothered to be involved. Do you know anything about that at all?
Dr PETER STANLEY: I have glimmers. That is a really important question, because of course attendance on Anzac day and, say, membership of the RSL [Returned Servicemen’s League], for most of us becomes the representative ways in which Australians remember that war. And, the peculiar thing is, Anzac day doesn’t seem to have been particularly important.
I’m reflecting now what the sons and daughters or the nephews and nieces are telling me about people who have been dead for at least 30 years and in some cases 50 years. So, there is no direct memory, in some cases. But I gather that most of them weren’t members of the RSL, and many of them, when they had the chance ... because I asked the families, I asked the daughters and sons, especially, whether they went to Anzac Day, and they usually said they didn’t.
I think that’s a signal to us that if Anzac Day is an expression of grief, and in the 1920s and 1930s it certainly was, it wasn’t necessarily a grief that people wanted to acknowledge or show, or display publicly. So that some of them - Tom Rabling, whom I haven’t talked about at all, but he was also on the trams, he was an inspector, and I asked his daughter, ‘Did your father go to the Anzac Day services or the march?’ And, she said, ‘Oh, no, he was usually at work’. I got the feeling that Tom made sure he was on a shift that day so that he didn’t have to.
It’s surprising: I looked in the Battalion Journal that the 21st Battalion published, a newsletter every quarter, then every half-year, then every year, then only occasionally, from 1934 up to 1982. And, of the eight survivors, only three of them got involved in Battalion reunions at all, and only one of them became noticeably involved in the Battalion reunion, even though most of them worked in Melbourne.
So, I am getting the view that actually Anzac Day expressed a need for some men, and that for other men, they didn’t ... I’m not saying they didn’t remember, I’m sure they did, but they didn’t want to remember in that way. And, what we suggest is that, we need to be conscious that there is a range of ways in which Australians expressed and felt memory of war, and not just in the visible public ways. Does that make sense?
Dr PETER STANLEY: Anyone else?
QUESTION by Isabel McBryde: Just following on from Ros’ question, I was wondering if there was a difference for, say Garry? The parents of those who died in the War, did they honor Anzac Day? Or, did they have the same feeling that the survivors did?
Dr PETER STANLEY: That’s another good question. I have a very strong feeling, for Garry, that every day was Anzac Day. There wasn’t a day that went by that Garry didn’t ... obviously, he thought about Frank, but he wrote about Frank. He wrote obsessively in his scrapbook, he collected things, he would then annotate what he collected, he would correspond with people.
It wasn’t so much Anzac Day that was important to Garry, the 1st of September was important. And in fact, Garry’s diary for the years after Frank’s death, every time it comes around to the first of any month, that is a memorial day for Frank. ‘This day 18 months ago, this day 21 months ago, Frank died’. Every time you get to the 13th, that’s important because, ‘That is the anniversary of the day we heard about Frank’s death’.
And, on the 1st of September, or for the 1st of September, Garry posts out some memorial cards - I wish I had used a picture of a memorial card - a little card with Frank’s picture on it and the Battalion colour patch, and the details of his death. Garry had hundreds of copies of these printed, and he would post them out to people at the drop of a hat. And, he would always send them, not just the three other families of the platoon, the platoon’s dead, but to the 12 or 13 men of the 21st Battalion who died on the same day. He would send them to their families, and then they would write back to him. So, there is this small group of people who maintained a relationship based on shared grief.
For some of them, it goes for longer than others. The really interesting thing about Garry is that, you might think that this is hopeless grief, that it never produces anything. But actually, I think it does. Because, of course they put a memorial notice in The Argus and The Age on the 1st of September every year, but in 1926 it doesn’t appear, and then it doesn’t appear at all. And, Garry dies in 1933, and he is not infirm. He is very active in the late 1920s in community affairs. And, I have a feeling - and you get this feeling from the scrapbooks - that what has happened is that Garry has come to terms with Frank’s loss, and that all of that grieving has actually worked.
You know, I mean, I don’t want to go into the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, but Garry didn’t just stay with hopeless, inchoate grief in 1918. I mean, it was awful for him in 1918, but by 1925, it seems that he had finally come to accept Frank’s loss. The really sad thing is that, why did he do it this way? Why did he put it on paper? The answer is that Garry was quite an accomplished amateur author, and he was certainly planning to write a memorial book about Frank, and he never did.
One reason he never did was because of the sheer size, the sheer quantity of the material that he had collected. Then, there are so many books that he has ... so that this became the memorial and not the publication that he had planned to produce. So, that was a very long-winded way of putting it but it’s the 1st of September for Garry, and Anzac Day is really quite subsidiary.
QUESTION by David Goyne: You have a really rich source here, and I wonder how you separate the, sort of, hagiography of a loving father recalling a lost son - and also, soldiers telling you a story are obviously going to tell him a story which was favourable to the son - from some objective truth.
Dr PETER STANLEY: Yes. That’s a really important question, and I would say it ran through my mind many times when I was looking through these books. Because yes, it’s unlikely that this doting and grieving father is going to write anything unfavourable about his son, and it’s unlikely that his son’s comrades are going to tell the father anything that reflected badly on him. Absolutely.
There are a couple of safeguards there. One is that there are independent records. And that is that every man, of course, has an AIF [Australian Imperial Force] file. And the AIF files are very detailed in terms of their postings and their medical history, so you get a sense. There’s almost a test on that.
The other thing is the sheer quantity of the soldiers’ accounts. Those accounts by members of the platoon, the seven survivors, there are at least 10,000 words, because I took 10,000 words of notes - which includes transcribing, so there must have been many more thousands of words than that.
And the other thing is that the soldiers turned up ... First of all, Garry took them to lunch. He’d take them to Carlyon’s Hotel and he’d shout them lunch. And at lunch he’d ask them questions, and they’d obviously give him answers, which he never wrote down, and then he got them to write down their accounts. So the accounts of the day - if you like, each account helps you to test the other accounts. And they’re likely consistent. Or when they’re not consistent, you have to reconcile the differences, like in the accounts of Garry’s death.
I suppose, at the bottom, if Frank had gone up to things that he didn’t want people to know, I would find that out - unless he got VD [venereal disease] which he didn’t, because that’d be in his file.
But I have to say that this man’s life is more abundantly documented than most Australians. I mean, I can tell you what scores he got in lacrosse championships in 1912. I can show you his first essays from school. Just everything.
And you feel you know him. And he really was a nice guy. I don’t think there are any dark secrets; put it that way.
There were dark secrets. One of the men who turned up in 1919 to tell Garry all about Frank was a fellow called Henry Bevern, who was early platoon sergeant. And Henry was telling Garry stories about Frank, and Garry was lapping it up. And then a couple of the other men lobbed in - and especially Vic Edwards, who was a Tasmanian in the platoon, who was a very outspoken man.
And Vic basically told Henry Bevern to bugger off, because he wasn’t Frank’s friend at all. He’d bullied Frank, and Frank had told his father that he’d been bullied, and it all fell into place. So his friends also rallied around to tell the correct story. But at the same time, perhaps there’s stuff that I’ll never know, we’ll never know, but I’ve had a bloody good try at finding out.
QUESTION: My name is Lyn and I just wanted to ask you whether you had any information about whether Garry, the father, gained any comfort from keeping in touch with the widow and the offspring, and what their grief was like and whether that was documented in his diaries and so on.
Dr PETER STANLEY: Yes, indeed. There are so many loose ends I’ve left for this afternoon, just to make sure you eventually read the book. And that’s one of them. Because Ruby, whom you saw there - and I won’t try to find it. But poor Ruby was left a widow with a one-year-old baby, Nancy. And she does figure into the scrapbooks.
And then, in about 1921, she just disappears. And you think, what’s going on here? And then she reappears about 1925, and she’s remarried. She married a fellow called Percy, who had been a Gallipoli artilleryman. And then, through the scrapbook, there are letters from both Ruby and from Nancy as she grows up, so the handwriting changes and she writes to grandma and grandfather. And then there are photographs of her with grandma and grandpa.
And then Percy and Ruby would take Garry and Berta for a drive around Western Victoria. And you realise that there had been a coolness in the family, because they had depended upon each other in their grief, in 1918 and 1919. And then Ruby clearly decided that she had to get on with life, and she needed security. She didn’t work, as most women didn’t. She needed a father for her daughter, Nancy, and so she remarried.
But here, I think David’s question was how do you get to the real story? I was very fortunate to be able to talk to Jilba, who is Ruby’s granddaughter and Nancy’s daughter, and it became clear that there was an emotional story in those three generations of women that wasn’t as straightforward as it might look.
I mean, one of the temptations here is to portray it as a story of grief and hardship and loneliness and reconciliation and acceptance. And it really wasn’t like that, I don’t think, because - without going too far into the details, but part four is really all about this - Ruby, although she remarried, Jilba thought that Ruby never stopped thinking about Frank, that she really loved Frank and she was devastated. That was the man she loved, and she was devastated by his loss. But she had to get on with life.
And Percy and Ruby didn’t have the easiest of marriages - I think because Percy knew that he wasn’t the one; he was just the survivor, if you like. But Nancy’s life was, if not ruined, at least massively influenced by the loss of her father, and the sort of family she came from. She adored her father, in that, in later life, she fancied herself as a writer. But what this really amounted to was - there’s a very romantic family history that she wrote, she self-published. And then she transcribed all of her father’s letters from France.
That was all she had of her father. Until I went down to see Jilba. And Jilba has, in a shoe box - I mean, really, this could have been scripted - all of the knick knacks and the photos. I mean, the most powerful thing - I’ll tell you the story because it came to me to symbolise the whole book.
Jilba said she had these knick knacks in the box. We went through them, and she talked about what was there. There was Frank’s medals, for example, and the badge that Garry had worn as a member of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Fathers Association, and the widows’ badges, or the female-relative badges, that both Berta had got and Ruby had got because they’d lost Frank.
And then there’s a linen bag with Frank’s address on it - that is to say, ‘FW Roberts, 6874, 21st Battalion’, blah blah blah, ‘AIF, abroad’. And when you opened the bag, the first thing you’d find is a lock of Frank’s hair from when he was a baby, because the Robertses documented everything. You can imagine, sometime in 1888, Garry snipped a bit of Garry’s hair off - fine, blond hair - put it in a packet, and he kept it.
But what’s also in the bag was a pair of booties, baby shoes - and I should have put an image of them on the screen, but two baby booties. And when you read the note in them, it says that on the 11th of September 1918, because Nancy was growing, Ruby took her booties, she posted one to Frank and she kept the other, and she said, ‘When you come home, Frank, we’ll put them together again’.
Well, he didn’t come home, but the bootie was posted back. And there’s the envelope that it was packed in. And of course, Ruby had kept that, Nancy had kept it, and now Jilba keeps it. And it’s the object that symbolises the loss that that family suffered on that French hillside 90 years ago today. It’s awful. And that’s what it’s about. So thank you for asking that question. Others?
QUESTION: Could I ask a question about Berta and Gwen and Bert, then, because they’re strangely - well, they’re obviously very affected by what their father, what Garry is doing ...
Dr PETER STANLEY: Yes. Now this is another - dark family secrets there, you’ve exposed them. Because the one thing that you don’t find in those scrapbooks ... There are 27 of them. They’re like that. Frank is documented to the nth degree. But the people who are absent from that scrapbook are, to a large extent, Gwen and Bert and, to an extent, Berta. Frank had a very close relationship with his father, and so most of Frank’s letters are for Garry. But there are letters to Berta as well.
But what you don’t find in the scrapbooks is the same degree of documentation of Bert’s life and Gwen’s life as you do of her eldest son, Frank. And for a while I thought this was really quite a cruel thing to do, and that this was because Garry doted on Frank and kind of neglected the other two. And then I realised that, actually, the scrapbooks there aren’t all the scrapbooks that were created. There were many, many more scrapbooks created.
Garry was in the papers in the 1920s as having created his own encyclopedia. I mean, this man was a maniac for cutting things out and sticking things in. And I reckon he did keep scrapbooks on Gwen and Bert, and that Gwen and Bert had them, and they either passed them onto their children and they lost them or they got lost in a move or something. So, I think that he did document the other two children’s lives, but even if he did, their lives were also changed by the trauma that that family suffered in 1918.
Gwen, not so much, although she was the first member of the family to learn directly had Frank had been killed, she answered the door to the clergyman. She had a very long engagement, as they say, and eventually married, and had a not very happy life as the wife of a farmer, a dairy farmer in the Dandenongs. And you get the sense that life never really measured up to what Gwen really expected. You know, this is a cultured, quite well-off family, and life didn’t go well for Gwen. I don’t think she was very happy.
Bert’s life, though, was tinged by appalling tragedy. In January 1918, Bert - who, as I say, liked to go out and shoot things - in January 1918, the thing he shot in the paddock was himself, in that he was climbing under a fence, the gun went off, and three of his fingers were blown off. And quite touchingly, just before he went under the anesthetic the next day to have the stumps removed, he said to his father, ‘I hope I’ll get thanks enough for it’, meaning that, you know, ‘if one of us is going to get wounded or killed, maybe I’ll draw the lightning’. But he didn’t, because Frank was killed.
But Bert grew up and became a teacher and a commercial artist, and a compulsive gambler, and his marriage broke up. They had one child, and that is why I think his scrapbook was lost. And I think that in order to raise money for more gambling, Bert sold the diaries to the State Library of Victoria in 1940. And, that is how come what he had was saved, and what he had was what he inherited from his father, which was all of the scrapbooks dealing with Frank, all of the scrapbooks dealing with local Victorian history which the State Library would want.
But, the State Library either didn’t want or he didn’t offer them bits about his own life. Why would he be ... you know, the state might not be interested in you, you haven’t died, you haven’t ... you know. So, some of the Robertses material has been donated, but from that story you get the idea that this tragedy rebounds down the generations. I’m in contact with nieces and grandchildren now, and they’re all, I think, a bit conscious that this family has been knocked about a bit by ... who knows. But this is part of the knocking about. And that is also what the rest of the book is about.
QUESTION by Dennis McNeil: Dr Stanley or Peter, from one of the readings we got the impression that the family believed that Frank had died for humanity. How important was this belief that he died for humanity, important in helping them to cope with their grief?
Dr PETER STANLEY: That’s a really good question, Dennis. That’s ... I think it was very important. I think it was particularly important to Garry. One of the things that we have to struggle with is the idea that we think the Great War was futile. If we had a poll at the moment, ‘Hands up if you think the Great War was worth it’, most of us would probably say, ‘It’s not worth 60,000 Australians, it’s not worth one million British Empire people, it’s not worth the 12 million people who died in only the fighting’.
But that is not the way they felt. Some of them, of course, became disillusioned, realising the terrible discrepancy between ... was the defeat of Prussian militarism worth the lives and all that suffering that they knew because they were going through it? But, all through the war - and the propaganda helped them to believe this - they believed that it was worthwhile.
I think Garry, especially, believed that there was a point to Frank’s death. Remember that almost exactly two months of them receiving the news, they also learned that the war was over, and guess what, we won. So, their personal grief is tinged with at least the awareness that it produced something. And remember, Frank was killed in a battle that the Allies won. So, there was a great deal of consolation to the family that that cause was a noble one, and that it was worthwhile.
However, one of the other things that is apparent from these books is that Garry reads everything he can about the battle, about the war, about the area of France in which Frank served and died, and you can see that he starts to form his own judgments. So I mentioned, early on, the way in which Monash’s The Australian Victories in France has dominated the historiography of Australia in the Great War in 1918, and he dominated the view that Australians had of Mont St Quentin.
So, Mont St Quentin was a great victory because Monash told everybody it was a great victory. And Garry, who was no mean local historian, I mean he was no fool, he was grieving but he wasn’t stupid, he started to read Monash’s book, and he started to notice discrepancies - he started to ask questions - and eventually about 1924 he writes, ‘I don’t think that John Monash is telling us the truth’. He didn’t say those words, he said, ‘I don’t think John Monash is dealing fairly with the events,’ or something. But, Garry started to have doubts.
But ultimately, the only bit of that massive amount of words that was ever published in Garry’s lifetime was in 1929, on Anzac Day, when Robert Kroll, who was another author, published what would have been a foreword to the book about Frank if ever it had been published. And what Robert Kroll said was that he hated war, but wasn’t afraid to die, and he talked about Frank’s sacrifice, and the sacrifice of that whole generation if you like, as being something that was noble and worthwhile.
So, I don’t think that they thought that the Great War, despite the cost of it, I don’t think that they thought it was futile or pointless. And they always hung onto that idea, that it was a grievous but a worthwhile sacrifice. I think it was very much part of that consolation that they needed.
QUESTION: My name is Christine and I’d like to ask a question and to make a comment on a different matter as well. The question is, with the returned soldiers, did they have any social security? Did the government pay them any money to live on?
Dr PETER STANLEY: That is a very simple question, I’ll answer it very quickly. The wounded soldiers had a pension, and it was calculated on what percentage of disability they had suffered and therefore how much it could be costed at, and how much they got each fortnight or whatever. And it certainly wasn’t very much, I can’t remember any of the amounts, but it wasn’t very much. And guess what? It stopped in the early 1920s. So, it was seen as sort of a transitional allowance to help them become established at whatever trade they could follow.
And for some of them it was pathetically inadequate. We just mentioned, along the way, Charlie Tognella. Charlie Tognella was a woodcutter from Northern Victoria, the Gandy, and he was wounded on Mont St Quentin, and he got a bullet in the shoulder. And you know, in Hollywood a bullet in the shoulder is one of those convenient wounds that aren’t really that disabling. Well, unfortunately the bullet comes out the other side. It wrecked his shoulder blade.
Now, Charlie was a woodcutter, so when you go like that [demonstrates action] ‘Oh’, and Charlie couldn’t be a woodcutter anymore. But Charlie got a pension of eight shillings a week or something, that was supposed to tide him over until he found something else. But Charlie was an illiterate woodcutter from the Gandy, and there wasn’t any other work for him to do, and he couldn’t think of any other work, and he couldn’t do any other work. So he basically, the pension stopped and Charlie was a woodcutter with a shattered shoulder. And Charlie was illiterate; he is the only member of the platoon who doesn’t write or count.
So, the fact is that there was an attempt to recognise that they’d been disabled and they needed assistance, but there wasn’t a lot of a social security system either. The Susso that many then went onto in the Depression if they were unemployed, was a state sustenance award that certainly didn’t pay them anything remotely resembling a living wage. So, no.
But having said that, many of the people in the Repat system tried to bend over backwards to help people, but they all believed the Repat system was against them, and much of part three is about the struggles of Godfrey Dobson, the fellow with the ache on his shoulder, the struggles he had with Repat to get them to recognise his disabilities. So, no, there wasn’t a very, really, social safety net in place. What is the comment?
QUESTION: I had a comment on whether people had correct information about whether one of the relatives had died, when the father got the telegram.
I was just thinking about the Second World War, when my father was in the Army during the Second World War, and his mother received two telegrams saying he was missing, presumed dead, in action. Each one was false but even people who knew my father, some of them thought he’d died. And even until about 15 years ago when I heard through somebody who knew some relative of mine, who said, ‘Oh yes, I knew him and he died’. It was my father and he hadn’t died.
Dr PETER STANLEY: Right, and you’re the proof.
QUESTION: So, there seems to be a lot of misinformation.
Dr PETER STANLEY: Indeed. Absolutely because remember they’re living in a time when telegrams are the fastest way to get communication across the world, and letters and personal contact are still enormously important. That’s good though because it means, at least the letters, in this case are preserved.
But yes, there are lots of examples like that in the Great War. Robert Graves, the author from Britain, had to put a notice in the paper saying that reports of his death, ‘were greatly exaggerated’. So, it’s a flaw in the system - of course you can justify it with, ‘well you can’t get it right all the time’, but any time it goes wrong it has an impact on the people who are the subject of the mistake. Thank you.
Do you want to tell us of your Mont St Quentin connection or may I? I think it’s important not to disregard these chaps as the only people who suffered as a result of Mont St Quentin. And noticing Isabel McBryde in the audience - really, if you’d care to tell us your story I’d be really grateful.
ISABEL McBRYDE: Very briefly. My story’s just related to my mother’s family. My mother was one of quite a large family with elder brothers and she was the youngest.
Three of the brothers were in the army in the 28th Battalion from Western Australia and one of them, Edwin, died at Mont St Quentin. I think the most moving part of the story - and I found the session today very moving and it’s helped me understand a lot of things that I’m only just now beginning to be interested in and to understand - that feeling when you were discussing the question of it being a war about humanity. And certainly my mother always said that her mother said that there was nothing else you could do but send your sons, as it were, and so the three elder brothers were in the army.
Edwin died at Mont St Quentin and the parents, my grandfather, had retired in that same year and they’d moved from being in the towns in the eastern goldfields to take up a small little farmlet at Palmira, and they named that little farm St Quentin. As far as I can see, they went into mourning for that son for the rest of their lives.
What I’ve also found very moving was the documents which Peter provided to me that showed the feeling of his widow when she filled in the form for the names that went on the War Memorial’s Roll of Honor. There’s one part on that form that says, ‘Is there anyone else who can provide information?’ She answered that by saying, ‘No’. And she said, ‘I am his wife. I’m the one. I am his wife’. She doesn’t say, ‘I was his wife’. I found that that would seem to me like a great call of pain.
When you photographed the grave and provided me with that, I found there was a very moving message from her on the grave. I’m not sure what date that the headstone there was made ...
Dr PETER STANLEY: About 1922, I believe.
ISABEL McBRYDE: ...but it was still a very heartfelt and great cry of pain. And like your Ruby and Nancy, there was a son that he would probably never have seen. And Marjorie, his wife, never remarried. So there is that continuing similarity in the stories and the responses across the generations which I find quite fascinating and very moving.
Dr PETER STANLEY: Thank you. I’m hoping that even though this is the story of just one platoon and they were only 12 of 20,000 Australians involved in the battle, that they are somehow representative because of the range of their experiences. I hope so, anyway.
ISABEL McBRYDE: Well that was the message that I was getting that I found very moving.
QUESTION: Just an observation. My name is Graham Bigg and I had an uncle, my father’s older brother, who was killed on the Somme in 1917, and his body never recovered. He was English but we’ve done the research at the Public Records Library in Kew, and like you can here, we pulled his file and his full war record is there, including the telegram advising his parents of his death. But his body was never recovered and we got some glimpse of the grief and heartache that caused. We’ve seen his name on the Menin Gate.
But the observation was that I think for a generation of Australians, even the youngsters growing up now, Anzac Day symbolises the Australians on Gallipoli, which was only a tiny proportion of our casualties. And when you go to the Western Front and see those tens of thousands of graves and those names on walls for bodies never recovered you realise that we’ve probably got the wrong emphasis on the First World War and it’s important that the work you’re doing and other historians are doing to bring home to Australians as to where our men did fall and the way they did suffer.
Dr PETER STANLEY: And the recent publicity on Fromelles, where they’ve now unearthed that grave - there were more killed there in one night than in any other battle and yet no-one’s ever heard of it really until this has come to light now.
QUESTION: This might be a bit of a personal question. It might be a bit difficult to answer. I think the lost story I’m probably most familiar with from literature is, say, Rudyard Kipling with his son. Here’s obviously another father deeply affected by this. You’ve now been researching this for a fairly long time. How typical do you find this story and how do you deal with it yourself - dealing with this sort of laying down of grief on the page?
Dr PETER STANLEY: That’s not a personal question but it is a difficult question though. One of the reasons why it’s a difficult question is that I think that, historians anyway, and I know I am, are attracted towards the dramatic, the significant, the emblematic episodes. So that means that no one is ever going to write a book, I don’t think, about a man who goes away, doesn’t get wounded, comes home, adjusts perfectly. That’s not really going to travel very well on the book shelves, in book shops. So I think we’re inclined to, you know, in the best book in the world, we’re inclined to dramatise.
Just last week I was in Hobart for the conference where Bruce Scates spoke. Bruce wrote a brilliant book called Return to Gallipoli about the way in which Australians are drawn to Gallipoli from the early 1920s to the present, and they are absorbed by the dramatic and powerful stories that it tells.
And, while he was speaking - and he speaks really well about it, and he speaks very movingly about it, and he speaks about the depth of emotion - that same question actually popped into my mind. Are we getting the emphasis wrong? Am I getting the emphasis wrong in talking about this story?
Really, I’m not the first person to use these records. At least four other historians have, but they have looked at it from different angles. None of them have been interested in the platoon. They have been interested in the family. So, it could well be that actually, we are heightening the emotion, and maybe to a point where it is not really representative anymore. I don’t think we’re making that error, but it’s a possibility.
Now, so I don’t know how typical it is, but addressing a group of men - and remember, there are three families that I haven’t talked about who also lost men on Mont St Quentin, three other graves; I just didn’t have time to do that today - but there were different ways in which grief affects families, different experiences. So, I’m hoping to provide a representative by using the group.
How does it affect me? I have got to say, I get really bound up with the stories that I tell. I get really excited by them, and I get moved by them. So, when I saw those booties that Jilpa showed me in Melbourne back in April, I had two reactions. And the first was the same reaction that you had, which was, ‘Oh, isn’t this awful?’ But, I have got to say, the other reaction was, ‘Wee! I have got a great story to tell!’
So, I think any writer would be lying if they didn’t say that they actually looked for drama and depth in what they are talking about. Even having said that, though, I do think it affects you. I have written at least two books that come out of either personal ... I wrote a book about painful surgery because I used to have nightmares about it, and I wrote the book and now I don’t have nightmares, so it worked.
I wrote Quinn’s Post because I had a really powerful ... I went to Quinn’s Post without really thinking that I was going to go there. I got there, and something said, ‘You should write a book about this’. And, I did. I mean, I had this very strong desire, belief that, ‘I really need to write this book’, and I did. I think one of the dangers of working with this sort of material is that you get a bit immune to it, and the challenge is to keep it authentic and keep your reactions authentic, and to not try to over-dramatise it. And, I could point to examples of that but I’m too gentleman to do that today.
And equally, not become blasé, and finding that authentic response is probably the most important thing for people that write about profound human trauma, whether it’s war or whether it’s industrial accidents, or road accidents, or industrial unrest; it doesn’t matter what it is. There is usually a dramatic story, and the trick is to keep it authentic, I think. But thank you for that. That is a bit of a cautionary question. That is two cautionary questions you have asked today.
QUESTION: Just on that point, I have had some fiction published dealing with the trauma of the First War, and one actually dealt with Fomelles, and it is an interesting side of the story that I have been trying to sell some documentaries over the years to the ABC. The person that actually organised, the amateur historian, read this story of mine on his website, contacted me thinking it was a factual account. The ABC then contacted me, boom. Hit the rails running, ‘What a great story’. And then I said to him, ‘It’s faction’. Big pause, silence, dead in the water, and he didn’t want to know any more.
But, what I did was take a pile of books at least two metres or more high, and I remember one day while writing that all of a sudden - and I was writing about Ypres - that the sheer weight of numbers was so overwhelming that I had to stop. I couldn’t work, because I thought of the distance - in the town I was living in at the time, in Wagga Wagga, the distance from the Wagga station to the other end of town was the length - probably a bit shorter or longer - of the line that these... and over three million men died. And, just the enormity of that was this massive slap.
I think as a historian, and also looking at it from a cultural perspective, there is that distance that you can attain from it. But, if you are trying to immerse yourself and write from a fictionalised ... have characters, and if you can bring your characters to live and they are responding to you in your writing, it just comes to that time where that sort of ... and reading incidents about how, when they unveiled the memorial at Wagga, there was a real cathartic experience for people. People were openly weeping, that they could actually touch an inscription in sandstone, and that goes back to that initial question about the absence of the body.
Dr PETER STANLEY: Yeah. I was talking to a group of Melbourne schoolboys last Tuesday. They had come to Canberra for a writer’s tour, and they were all supposed to write fiction. And don’t ask why they would get me to talk to them, because I don’t publish fiction, I publish stuff that is true. But I think, I was talking about the fact that it is the same impulses, the desire to understand, the desire to imagine. Because you can’t help but imagine. You know, when I showed you pictures of those people, you saw them and you imagined what they might have been life. You heard about them, you imagined the Baker’s life, even the bits that Gabrielle didn’t read out.
So, I think there is a strong affinity to fiction, in fact, and the thing that unites mine, you could say, is a desire to ring true. That, history can be factual but not true, and fiction can be made-up but also true, and where the truth converges is the human truth, where the experience rings true. All I’m saying is I think we’re in the same business. The roots to get to that understanding may be different. Mine, clearly, is based on evidence, and yours is based on imagination informed by experience, and I’m happy to acknowledge you because you have the same desire to understand the human condition. Sorry, that was a bit of a wrap, but it seemed important to me to make it.
QUESTION: No, it’s like the evidence, and it was something that was there and palpable when you were handling documents, and you’re dealing with historical fact, and the little side-stories that appear along the way that relate to what you are doing. It’s quite a remarkable process, actually dealing with those records, and knowing those records, somebody would have had to sit and write them, particularly the Red Cross stories, all of those about what happened, people that talk about memories. So, it is more of a process that the past comes to life through language.
Dr PETER STANLEY: And that is why we are in the same business, yeah. Tom.
QUESTION: My name is Tom Campbell. We’re about to be thrown out of the place, so I’m going to wind up for everybody. I have had the privilege of reading a full draft of this work, and one of the things that Peter did mention, he talked about being, describing his ideas of dioramas over at the War Memorial to portray something of the realities of warfare as a novel and risky form of conveying history, as it has never been done yet.
Peter, I think, has very successfully used an awful lot of primary source material, and he has used this other, very personal material and put it all together, and really has humanised just one sample of it, and brought home very much that war is not something that ended on the 11th of November 1918, it went right through to 1973 or whenever the last man died. So, my only comment is, ‘Well, well done, and all power to you’.
Dr PETER STANLEY: Thank you, Tom. Thanks for the comments on the book, and thank you all for your comments. They will go on the website, and I will go back and read them and reflect on them more deeply than I have today. Thank you very much.
GABRIELLE HYSLOP: And you can all read the book when it comes out next year.
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Date published: 29 October 2008