To commemorate 100 years today since the start of World War 1, here’s a section from my unpublished novel Shot: a great war story.
This section is based on the actual enlistment records of my great uncle, Roy Frederick Hallett, including the date and the recorded outcome of his medical. For a man who died nearly a hundred years ago, it is amazing how much can be gleaned of his existence from the service records contained in Australia’s national archives.
Of course, there is an imaginative element as well, the main one being that in my story, Roy is accompanied by an Aboriginal friend who was also seeking to enlist and together they needed to rely on some trickery for this to occur. Aboriginals were not allowed to enlist or leave Australia without Federal Government permission and so were often knocked back early in the war. But as the war outlasted most expectations, and with casualties mounting, it seemed to become easier for Indigenous men to join their white compatriots in the army.
A famous example of this is Douglas Grant on which I have based some of my character’s experiences, as a way of honouring his remarkable contribution.
During this commemorative year, Roy’s name will be projected onto the exterior of the Hall of Memory on:
- Sat 30 August, 2014 at 1:52 am
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- Wed 6 May, 2015 at 11:32 pm
- Tue 16 June, 2015 at 1:18 am
- Thu 23 July, 2015 at 6:15 pm
Please enjoy this imaginative reflection on what it might have been like to come in from the outback to join the army.
Roy and Yirra, Singleton, October 25, 1916
‘I know ye father and mother, and I know ye brothers and sisters, and with a wee bit of imagination, I may even recognise you in there somewhere Roy, but ne’er in me life have I met this fella ye be calling Arnold.’
Roy smiled as he stood across the counter from the local Singleton recruitment officer, Corporal Jock McIntyre, an old Scotsman who he hoped would help Yirra to enlist.
‘Well the point is Jock, sorry, sir, as you don’t know him then perhaps you’ll be kind enough to quietly accept my word that he is the adopted son of Addie’s second cousin twice removed, who has been frustratingly separated by flood and fire from all forms of identification but is awfully keen to enlist with myself. Surely you would not stand in the way of a proud Australian enlisting, given the trouble our boys are having over there,’ Roy said, while Yirra nodded enthusiastically.
It was a long shot, but with the recruiting drives such as Carmichael’s Thousand now in the past and conscription being hotly contested, he was banking on the pressing need for reinforcements to overcome the administrative challenges of Aboriginal men enlisting. They had filled out the form for Yirra under the name Arnold Trang, writing the date October 25, 1916 at the top, as well as presenting the letter of introduction from Mr Trang which fortunately was general enough to fit with their concocted story.
Corporal McIntyre had shown admirable formality when they first presented their papers, but Roy soon got Jock discussing local gossip, and more importantly, with a little prompting, had the old soldier regaling them with tales of his own military exploits. It was in the glow of this reflected glory that Jock quietly signed Yirra’s form, mumbling something about not wanting to prevent two fine sons of the Commonwealth from serving King and country.
‘There you are lads… if ye think that was hard work, wait until you have your medical with Dr Lloyd Parry! Ah but I be only joking, fit looking young lads like yourselves will have no trouble at all.’
Leaving the cool of the high-ceilinged office, in the ground floor of one of Singleton’s fine sandstone buildings, Roy was already beginning to wonder if he would cope with the intrusiveness of army life. But he knew this was just the beginning and he had better get used to it. They walked around the corner to the doctor’s surgery and presented themselves to the nurse. She asked them to wait, and Roy couldn’t help notice Yirra’s face, continually bent into a smile.
‘What’s your problem? Roy asked.
‘No problem, my first time in a doctor’s place.’
‘Well, I keep well clear of them too and I’m not smiling about having to see one now, believe me.’
‘After the war, maybe become a doctor, follow in Yaambu’s path.’
Roy was wondering about this when his name was called, and he presented himself to Dr Edward Devenport Lloyd Parry.
‘Wish me luck, Yi… Arnold, hopefully, I’ll make it out alive.’
He had to laugh when he saw the look of terror that came to Yirra’s face, and regretted leaving the poor fellow in the waiting room, wondering what fate was to befall him. Roy opened the door to find the doctor, head down over his desk, hurriedly filling in paperwork.
‘Just pop in behind the curtains there and undress for me, would you, and I’ll be with you in a minute,’ Dr Parry said without even looking up.
Roy did as he was told without a word, trying to manage his nerves. He didn’t like doctors, wasn’t much good with authority and was as private as a man could be. He sat on the edge of a bed, pulled off his boots and socks before fumbling nervously with the buttons of his leather riding vest. The determination that had brought him out of the cloistering bush was leaching away with each item of clothing he removed.
With a nervous glance through a gap in the curtains, noting the doctor was still busy, Roy pulled off his riding pants and long-johns. Just as he was looking himself up and down, the tall doctor suddenly flung open the curtain like opening night at the theatre. He gave a wry smile as the slightly built stockman jumped, grabbing his dusty pile of clothes to hold protectively in front of himself.
‘You can put those on the bed and would you mind removing your hat, I’ve got to see every inch of you I’m afraid,’ the doctor said with a dismissive wave at Roy’s hat, still perched on his head. Roy quickly doffed his hat, placing it on his pile of clothes, before clasping his hands prayerfully at his groin. He let out a long breath, allowed his arms to swing to his sides, trying to let go of embarrassment. He resigned himself to the now infamous indignity of an army medical.
‘Don’t look so forlorn,’ the doctor said, listening to Roy’s heart and checking his eyes and teeth. ‘The army will do a lot worse to you than this before your time’s up. Nurse!’
Roy’s hands snapped protectively to his groin and he looked with alarm at the doctor.
‘She’s… she’s not coming in here is she?!’
‘Good Lord no,’ said Dr Lloyd Parry. ‘She’s a single woman, we can’t allow her to see a male patient in your… condition.’ Roy thought he saw a smile flicker on the good doctor’s face.
‘Relax,’ he said as the nurse came into the room and stood on the other side of the curtains. ‘She’s just going to take down some notes for me so we can complete your medical.’
‘Can’t really see why all this is necessary though Doc,’ Roy said as his chest, back, arms and legs were prodded and pulled. ‘I’m as fit as they come, spend all my time outdoors, tailor made for a life in the army I reckon.’ There wasn’t anything worse than stripping off for the shy, solitary Roy who was barely used to human company let alone standing naked, with people wandering about.
‘You’re all the same you bushies, but get used to it, your body now belongs to the King and a medical is the least of your worries. We don’t want you over there with a weak ticker or congested lungs; it’s hard enough for the fit and healthy. Now, what are these scars? Here… and here?’ the doctor asked, tracing a long, puckered tussle of skin down Roy’s right thigh and pointing down to a round, concave scar on the top of his right foot.
‘Looks like you’ve had a close call even before signing up.’
‘They’re nothing’, said Roy. ‘I’d all but forgotten them. Shooting accident when I was a kid’. Roy stared off into the distance, refusing to meet a questioning gaze. The doctor continued his examination and Roy absently fingered the scar on his thigh, lost in recollection.
‘We need to know every mark and scar to have a hope of identifying you, if the worst happens,’ the doctor said. Roy tightened his face against the implication.
‘Bullet scar, front right thigh and dorsum of right foot,’ the doctor said in a chant, for the nurses benefit.
Taking out a measuring tape and pushing him onto some scales, he began summing up Roy like a sentencing judge: ‘Chest 36 inches; height 5 foot 7 inches; weight 10 stone 7 pounds… wiry fellow aren’t you?’
‘Always been a bit on the small side,’ said Roy, his mind elsewhere.
‘Well, just might be an advantage on the Western front, no doubt that’s where they’ll be sending you. Just don’t go shooting yourself again before you get there,’ the doctor said, trying to bait Roy for more information.
‘I can handle a gun alright.’ Roy wasn’t smiling and his steely gaze stifled the doctor’s smile.
‘No doubt, no doubt. You can put your gear back on. You’ll do us fine. You’re small but healthy. Sign here and you’re on your way into His Majesty’s army.’
Roy signed his name slowly and deliberately in lopsided cursive, and then Dr Lloyd Parry scrawled his own.
‘Look, sorry if I came across as rude. Mostly I’m trying to settle men down and give them a realistic outlook. No offense meant. If it’s any consolation, I’m already registered with the medical service and expect to be over somewhere near the Western Front by next year. I might have gone sooner but only married a year or so ago. Good day, and hopefully you will have no need to see me on the other side.’
Roy nodded, shaking hands with the doctor who seemed a decent bloke. But in reality, his mind was elsewhere. The feel of his scar and talk of guns had taken him back to the events of his childhood and a conversation he would soon have with his father.
Clothed, he returned to the waiting room, with an embarrassed glance at the nurse, and exchanged places with Yirra when the name Arnold was called. He sat fidgeting with his hat, wondering if Yirra had any health issues of which he was unaware or whether the doctor might raise questions about the authenticity of his enlistment. But a few moments later, Yirra returned, still smiling and the doctor following him out.
‘Good to see two healthy men with plenty of life experience signing up, I expect you’ll provide good support to some of the young men who are enlisting,’ the doctor said.
‘Both of you have a clean bill of health but I suggest that you, ah, Arnold, get some shoes so your feet are somewhat used to them, otherwise you will have a hell of time when they put you in army boots.’
He presented them with their signed forms, and Roy noticed Yirra’s signature was a good sight better than his own, and that with a name he was barely used to. They shook hands again with the doctor and smiled at the nurse before heading out the door.
‘Thanks again doctor, and you too sister,’ Roy said, standing in the doorway. ‘Doc, I hope we don’t have cause to see you over there, you know what I mean, but it’s a comfort to know that good men like you are backing us up.’
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