On Friday 11 November, we gathered quietly in mild Spring sunshine around the Glebe Diggers Memorial. We had a very large agenda:
- To commemorate the 98th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice which ended WW1.
- To recognise the centenary year of some of the most significant and bloody battles of the Western Front in WWI.
- To remember the sacrifice of those who fought and fell in all conflicts in which Australia has been involved.
- To reflect on those deaths and the lives of repatriated injured veterans and the ripple effects on families and succeeding generations.
Glebe Society President Allan Hogan reflected, not only on the above, but also the unique conditions which led to the building of local war memorials around Australia following WW1. Australia’s losses in subsequent wars have been honoured in less visible, but hopefully no less meaningful, ways.
Sydney University’s Contribution to the WWI Effort (speech by Liz Gillroy)
The predominant image of Australia’s involvement in WW1 is troops gallantly struggling, being wounded and dying at Gallipoli. But if we turn our eyes to universities we start to see another picture emerge, one that had governments realise that troops in trenches were unlikely to succeed without the aid of new technologies and expert knowledge. And universities were the place for such endeavours.
Clues to the nature of this involvement are contained in the letters, journals, manuscripts and photographs of the university men and women who contributed to the war. These records form part of a distinctive WWW1 collection held by the University of Sydney Archives.
The University published a Book of Remembrance in 1939, which for each entry provides a brief potted biography, featuring schooling, university career and details of war postings in Europe and the Middle East. This type of information in itself is unusual for books of remembrance.
It also reveals that a number served with units other than the AIF, mostly British; complicating the Anzac narrative of Aussie soldiers in slouch hats.
But most interestingly the Book of Remembrance honours not only the 230 men who died, but also the more than 1800 men and women who survived. Rather than simply being an ‘honour roll’, the Book is something more; it is also a record of survivors.
Based on this Book of Remembrance, the University has established an online database and website called: Beyond 1914 —The University of Sydney and the Great War.
It holds the complete WWI university archive as digitised records, comprising photographs, letters and diaries, plus biographical information of over 2,500 men and women, all graduates, students and staff of the University of Sydney who served in WW1.
Inspired by Beyond 1914, a related national project was launched earlier this year; Expert Nation: Universities, War and 1920s & 1930s Australia is an ARC funded project. This project places war, knowledge and expertise at the heart of the national story in the interwar years.
Since its commencement, Expert Nation has established a national database of over 5,500 men and women, graduates and students, from all Australian universities who served on foreign soil.
Today we remember a local man with ties to both Glebe and the university. Private Wilfred William Barber was born in Camperdown in 1893 and attended Glebe Public School. In 1911 he was attending Sydney Technical College studying Mechanical Engineering and he was the first apprentice in the School of Engineering at the University of Sydney.
His father William Barber was employed by the university from 1893; in 1914 he was listed as the Superintendent of Gas and Water fittings and Caretaker of Science buildings. From 1919 to 1939 he was the Yeoman Bedell; a staff member of the university for 56 years.
Wilfred was initially rejected for active service in 1915, and so took himself off to England to serve for twelve months at the Vickers-Maxim’s dockyards, which built warships, submarines and armaments.
Returning to Australia 18 months later, he enlisted with the Light Trench Mortar reinforcements and was sent to France early in 1917.
On 4 October during the Battle of Broodseinde, he was buried by shell-fire and was hospitalised for a few days with (according to his war service record) ‘dermatitis’. He re-joined his battalion and was seriously wounded at Passchendaele on the 18th October suffering concussion and multiple shell wounds to his legs and abdomen.
An eye witness states that ‘both he and Barber were runners and at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon were together in a pill box when it was hit by a shell, at the time they were eating toast and jam’. Wilfred died of his wounds on 23 October 1917, and was buried at Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery in Belgium.
Wilfred is commemorated on this War Memorial in Glebe and also the University’s War Memorial panels located in the entrance to the Quadrangle and the carillon.
The university’s famous War Memorial Carillon was dedicated on Anzac Day 1928 comprising 54 bells. Bell number 43 is dedicated to Wilfred William Barber, donated by subscribers to the memory of the Yeoman Bedell’s son.
WWI Project Officer, University of Sydney
Max Solling Shares Some Thoughts on Remembrance Day in an Australian Context
This morning I’d like to share with you some thoughts about Remembrance Day. Remembrance or Armistice Day is a solemn acknowledgement of the tragic loss of life in WW1, observed throughout the Commonwealth as well as in France, Belgium, the United States, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland. But Australia and New Zealand stand alone in commemorating WW1 on a second – and for these two nations more important, occasion – Anzac Day.
The dismissal of the Whitlam Federal Government joined Remembrance Day and Ned Kelly’s hanging as memorable events on this date on the Australian calendar.
We who came after were to give remembrance to all who had exhibited that fortitude and sacriﬁce of the men who returned as well as those who lay buried in foreign battleﬁelds. The post-World-War-Two generation learned with wonder that on Armistice Day every year, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month the nation would pause to remember the end of the war in Europe in 1918. Across the fronts, the guns stopped ﬁring and silence fell. At public school we were told about Private Simpson, the Man with the Donkey, saviour of comrades at Gallipoli. It was one story all our mentors could agree was entirely edifying. The Fourth Grade Reader at Glebe public school directed pupils to ﬁnd Gallipoli on the map. As for Simpson’s donkeys – there were actually many – they resonated effortlessly with the Christian narratives embedded deep in the Anglo-Australian culture: Jesus riding triumphantly into Jerusalem, the animals around the Bethlehem manger, and the parable of the Good Samaritan.
At another forum, a map tacked on the back of our dunny door, coloured in red were nations that were part of the British Empire on which, it was said, the sun never set. But it did.
The time for an assignment on Simpson at school was around Anzac Day which to the boys at Albury Primary meant more than Armistice Day. 25 April was a state school and public holiday. 11 November was not. On the last day before 25 April we gathered in the quadrangle to be addressed by teachers and returned soldiers on the meaning of Anzac. Birth and/or baptism of the nation; sacriﬁce; rallying to the empire; holding on against impossible odds; ﬁghting to defend the right and being prepared to do it again.
Simpson, Menin Gate, the old soldiers’ sermons, the honour board. These were the sort of values we were thoroughly schooled in. On Armistice Day classes were suspended between morning playtime and lunch while we stood in line, heard addresses like those on Anzac eve but dwelling more on death than birth and on the world rather than the nation; and we bowed our heads in silence.
The central elements in celebration of Armistice Day were the two minutes silence at 11 o’clock, ﬁrst observed around the British Empire in 1919 and the wearing of artiﬁcial poppies, a custom (inspired by John McCrae’s poem of 1915 ‘In Flanders Fields’) which reached Australia in 1921. ‘Poppy Day’ was taken up by ex-service organisations in many countries, and most of the takings from the sale of red silk ﬂowers worn by Australians on 11 November went to the RSL.
The Anzac tradition has been discovered and re-interpreted by scholars, ﬁlm makers and poets two generations removed from WW1. Bill Gammage composed extracts from letters and diaries in The Broken Years – Australian Soldiers in the Great War (1974) re-creating the experience of men from their enlistment to their death or return. This scholarly work became inspiration and guide for Peter Weir and David Williamson when they made the ﬁlm Gallipoli (1981). Gammage’s theme was tragic and saw the war as ‘destroying an age and generation to no purpose’ and, in that spirit, the ﬁlm focussed not on the heroic landing on 25 April but on the massacre of 7 August 1915. The ﬁlm’s Anzacs are victims, not victors. Gallipoli is a tragedy. Peter Weir called it ‘a war memorial on celluloid’ and to look at traditional war memorials through his eyes is to experience pity and terror.
We know our war dead were almost 60,000. British dead in WW1 amounted to almost a million. What did the war feel like to those whose world was the trenches? How did they get through this bizarre experience? How could language be invoked to derive some order and meaning from the chaos, and how did soldiers transform their feelings into language and literary form?
Edmund Blunden, an English poet and infantry lieutenant, attempted to answer these sorts of questions in Undertones of War. He synthesised searing experiences of outrage, fear, pain and comedy on the Western Front, and at the close of his memoir calls himself ‘a harmless young shepherd in a soldier’s coat’. The effect of war in Britain was catastrophic. Along with Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and other literary soldiers of the war‘s new literature that emerged broke with the ideas and assumptions of the nineteenth century and heralded the ironic and unsettling expression of the twentieth.
In his compassionate yet unsentimental prose, Blunden tells of the endurance, heroism and despair of the men of the 11th Royal Sussex. After two years at the front Blunden, an asthmatic, was gassed and won the Military Cross. Typically he withholds mention of either event in Undertones of War, published in 1928. Unquestionably one of the classics to emerge from WW1, the ﬁrst edition sold out in one day. Today it is still in print in the Penguin Classics.
Professor of English Literature at Hong Kong University and Professor of Poetry at Oxford, Blunden revelled in the delights of cricket and country life and landscape. He bore mental scars from the war, and attributed his survival to his diminutive size; he made an ‘inconspicuous target’. ‘My experiences in the First World War have haunted me all my life’, he wrote, ‘and for many days I have, it seemed, lived in that world rather than this’. The prophecy which he had uttered by choosing as an epigraph for his memoir Bunyan’s couplet:
Yea, how they set themselves in battle-array
I shall remember to my dying day
This harmless young shepherd never stopped writing for the Times Literary Supplement to the very end, which came on 20 January 1974 when he was aged 77. His runner at Ypres, A.E. Beeney, placed a wreath of Flanders poppies on his cofﬁn.
A First Person Account – the Letters of Major Hugh Vernon (extracts read by Lyn Collingwood)
Today I am reading short excerpts from letters written by Major Hugh Vernon to Mary his ‘dear little missus’ in Warrawee. Vernon served as the Commanding Officer of the 1st Light Horse Regiment at Gallipoli. In his ranks was machine gunner Trooper Fred Wood whose home was Margaretta Cottage in Leichhardt St.
The 1st Light Horse landed at Gallipoli in May 1915, their task to defend the front-line trenches at the head of Monash Valley. Their basic diet was bully beef, hard biscuits and a daily water ration of 1½ bottles. Like his men, Vernon suffered from gastroenteritis, fever, dysentery and mouth ulcers, and endured other discomforts: the gas masks, and the flies which swarmed among the dead in no man’s land and among the living soldiers at meal time. After 2½ months Major Vernon was evacuated to a hospital ship off Anzac Cove from where he witnessed the beginning of ‘a big fight’ – the August Offensive: the battle of Lone Pine and the futile Battle of the Nek (the subject of the 1981 film Gallipoli).
Major Vernon takes up his pencil:
Must have been getting sick for a week or more before I had to go down to it. During the week before the end of Ramadan – which was the festival weeks when we expected the Turks to attack us – we made all sorts of preparations and I daresay I told you how I had to make the gully below Popes Hill secure in case of attack. This entailed digging, barbed wire and organising the various troops into defence positions into which they would rush automatically on The Alarm. During this time we, several times, wore our gas helmets for practice in putting them on in a hurry and they made some of us very sick; in fact the thought of the thing strapped onto my braces – they had to be worn by everyone as part of ‘dress’ equipment – occasionally was responsible for inability to eat food – these ‘peggy bags’ so often treated with chemical and glycerine.
By the 23rd July I couldn’t keep warm. Next day I realised I had a chill & went in the legs again. By Monday 26th July I developed what I think was influenza or fever – & during the morning found it wiser to hand the regiment over to the next senior. For next few days I didn’t care much what happened – I was given a stretcher as a bunk instead of lying on the hard stony floor of the dugout & I lived on condensed milk & water.
I said goodbye to Dudley Holman & a few others & when they carried me off I must own to having to cover my face for I couldn’t stand being taken away from my men. The jolting however stopped all that – & I never want to be carried in a stretcher again – very fine men the stretcher bearers, carrying heavy men so many times: it was about ¾ mile to the clearing hospital on the beach.
Eventually I was taken off to the Rewa hospital ship. There I laid a few days in a sort of fever – they gave me a dose of oil for the gastroenteritis I had had badly for some days & after much pressure I was vouchsafed 5 grams of aspirin – & later a few doses of an anti-diarrheal medicine. But sick men don’t get attention; the wounded claim, & rightly too, all their time. General Birdwood came on board & recognised me & I begged him to ask if they would kindly transfer me to the next hospital ship when the Rewa went & that I need not leave Anzac for I always hoped to get right in a day or two.
These hospital ships are not pleasant places though full of comfort & good food, for the whole decks & wards are full of wounded & blood everywhere. To one like ourselves who had seen little else but men in halves, arms off & continual streams of wounded going down to the beach on soaking stretchers, their clothes all red – who had seen so much of this it was not so awful: but the cries during the night of men under operation or extreme pain or calling out in their sleep & the sight & smell of blood everywhere, can only drop one down into the dumps when they were ill & so I could not write.
I am indebted to Major Vernon’s granddaughter for providing me with this material. Katharine, who lives in Glebe, is preparing a book based on her grandfather’s writings during the Great War.
Lyn Collingwood, Historian