Lest we forget

I don’t know how Great Uncle Roy died, only that he was lost on April 4, 1918, as the Australian Army scrambled to resist the final German offensive which included attempting to capture Villers-Bretonneux. And that his body was never found.

So I’ve imagined what might have happened, and I’m sharing it with you to mark Remembrance Day 2019. It’s from my yet-unpublished novel, Shot. Was it his final moment in my fictionalised story? You’ll have to read it to discover.

Lest we forget.

101 years, World War One, WW1, Remebrance Day
Roy

Waiting until he heard a heavy burst of fire, probably directed at Dickson and Tuite, Roy clambered out of the drainage pit that was their temporary refuge and threw himself down onto the sharp rocks of the railway siding. Taking a couple of deeps breaths he then crawled over the tracks as fast as he had ever moved, banging knees and elbows on the steel and wood, the smell of coal and diesel filling his nostrils. All of this failed to register in his conscious mind with his awareness instead focused on the shrill fact that, for a few seconds, he was visible to the enemy, if they should look his way. But these men who someone had decided should kill him and his, were preoccupied with keeping other parts of the Australian line pinned down, and so his almost comical scramble across the tracks went unnoticed and he rolled down into the ditch he had hoped would be there, with its promise of life-giving cover.

There was no time to rest and he crawled on his belly along the ditch, panting from the exertion, until he found the spot about 60 yards along where the lower corner of a paddock dipped towards the drain. He could see now the soil was black and damp and obviously a low spot where water gathered and the grass grew more thickly. He remembered the fields at home and the undulations – gilgai – that defied farmers’ efforts to sow them which meant they survived like little oases of ancient Australia surrounded by the grainy signs of progress.

Drawing on all his bushman’s skills he chose a path up into the paddock and the longish grass, trying to avoid disturbing it and alerting the Germans to his presence. Still on his belly, he made his way to the thickest part until the smell of crushed grass and clay soil enveloped him. As he rolled onto his back to rest, for a moment he could almost have been a boy again on the banks of the Hunter, contemplating a swim, a speckled sky above.

He wondered at how he had got here, how life had conspired somehow to bring him so close to death and with not one person at his side. What had driven him to this place? What had driven him always to the hopeless cause? He suddenly had a piercing memory of himself as a young boy reaching for the barrel of a gun and saying no. No to the unruly, stubborn brokenness of the world. And here he was, again grabbing at the barrel of a gun, mercy thick in his throat, and tears forming in his eyes. The scar on his foot seemed to throb in remembrance.

But the battle alertness that had carried him this far re-asserted itself and he knew there could only be a few moments before the counter fire of his mates would light up and his chance would come to make a run at the machine gun post. In fading light, he made sure of his gear, circling his fingers around one of his grenades, hoping he would have the presence of mind to deliver it with devastating effect against the Bosch who were targeting his friends. Lifting his head slightly to look back at the Australian line, he could just see Dickson and Tuite, still behind the excuse for a mound, holding each other now to make the most of their cover. There was little movement from them and he hoped he wasn’t too late. He could not see Ewings and the others from this position but then a racket started up from their way and he knew the time had come.

With his mates firing and yelling and carrying on as if they were launching a major attack, Roy got onto all fours, steeling himself for the run and then, the whole world seemed to move into that place between times. As Roy leapt up and made his run towards the machine gun pit, he felt the grimace on his face and the roar of his voice as if it was someone else. He saw the flash of fire from his enemy with perfect clarity, directed to his left, intended for the men he had left behind.

He made out four German soldiers who as yet had not seen him, busy feeding and firing their weapon against the noisy Australians who were apparently attacking from near the railway line. And then one of them turned and his eyes locked for a moment with Roy’s  in mutual understanding. It seemed to Roy that in some kind of frozen motion, the man’s arm then flung out in his direction, pointing, his face contorting with a fearful scream and then all heads snapping towards this slicing silhouette that bore down on them.

Still moving fast, Roy drew back his arm and threw the grenade with all his strength. Even as he was doing this, the machine gun was whipping around towards him, shooting without break, delivering a curling arc of fire. Roy was now desperately seeking the ground but felt a tearing across his body just before he landed heavily. The explosion of the grenade ripped across his ears, a shock wave buffeting him. He held his breath and waited but the dreaded gun was quiet and had been replaced by the dying groans of men.

Only then did Roy begin to wonder if he had been hit but the chaos of war was not finished with him. A large explosion rumbled through the ground on which he was pressed and he propped himself up on an elbow in time to see brown dirt and dust resettling in massive proportion where Ewing and the others had been. He turned further left just in time to notice Dickson hoisting Tuite on his shoulder and making a run for it, no doubt oblivious as to what had been done to save their lives.

He lay back down and realised that two men would live at least a few moments more but a dozen had just perished and the sense of it was momentarily lost to him. Sliding his fingers down his side he felt the warm gush of his own blood, and a spasm of shock went through him.

‘It’s all right Roy, just a flesh wound,’ he told himself out loud and then curled up and covered his ears as more explosions filled the air. It occurred to him that there was no one left who knew where he was. How long could he lie here losing blood? Could he move himself back towards the Australian line?

The moaning from the German machine gun pit had stopped and he decided that he might still have a chance to make his return, but his legs stubbornly refused to respond. He lay there, trying to calm his breathing, wishing that Yirra was with him, knowing his friend would have seen him home safely. Soon enough they’d come back, he thought, remembering the determination of the Australian forces not to lose Villers-Bretennoux.

Then the whistle that was so familiar came louder than ever and it was if a hand  reached down and picked him up, flinging him around like some plaything until he could not tell where he was, and it was silent. He lay still waiting, then opened his eyes and noticed a droplet on the lashes of his left eye, no doubt dew from the grass in which he had been lying, except he could no longer feel any comforting grass.

The faces of loved ones moved before him, Faith lying quietly in a hospital bed, a faint smile on cracked lips. Yirra prone in the back of a lorry, his hand moving to hold his side as the vehicle bumped its way into a prison camp, a nervous soldier guarding him with care. His father bending low over the hoof of a horse he was shoeing, frowning with concentration as he whispered quietly to calm the beast. His mother staring, sadly, through a kitchen window he did not recognise, the bustle of family behind her. Finally on older, quieter Wal, walking hand in hand with a young woman, down a familiar Singleton street, under a golden sun. And he knew somehow that he had done his job. Then there was a boy’s feet, toes wiggling, both scar free and pink with life.

© Peter Hallett 2019. All rights reserved.

100 years on, enlisting for World War 1: the army medical

100 years, World War One, WW1, enlistment, Aboriginal diggers,
Roy Frederick Hallett

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
  • Wed 15 October, 2014 at 11:40 pm
  • Mon 8 December, 2014 at 8:59 pm
  • Mon 2 February, 2015 at 12:22 am
  • Tue 24 March, 2015 at 10:58 pm
  • 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.

Read More »

No easy hope in The Narrow Road to the Deep North

‘But an easy hope is a fake one and that is far away from what Flanagan seeks to achieve in The Narrow Road to the Deep North. There are no living gods in Flanagan’s war and post-war and that must have been the feeling of many, but not all, who lived and died or lived and lived.’

Read my review of the only Australian novel to be long-listed for the Man Booker Prize at cread: reading is believing.

‘It is nothing’ – the assassination of Franz Ferdinand

To mark 100 years today since the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinaz of Austria and his wife Sophie, here’s a chapter from my unpublished WW1 novel, Shot: a great war story, that among other things retells the events of that day.

 

June 28, 1914

‘One comes here for a visit and is received with bombs…. It is outrageous!’

Franz had never felt so furious. How could this be, how could they let this happen? To think that his life and that of his Sophie had been in mortal danger from the actions of some fool in the crowd.

He saw again the slow loop of the explosive as it headed towards them, first bouncing off the bonnet of the car, before he had instinctively swatted at it, knocking it away. Then only to learn that Eric and the Count had been badly wounded in the car behind. And now this simpleton of a mayor is intent on giving a welcoming as if nothing has happened.

The scorn of his uncle and the Imperial court over this debacle would be insufferable, Franz thought, when he felt Sophie take his hand. She was standing by his side at the top of the town hall steps, where they were supposed to be basking in the warmth of an official welcome and the appreciation of the people, and where a stunned mayor stood fingering his notes.

What point is there after what has happened? Franz thought. Someone has tried to kill us! The realisation of how naïve he had been, how unrealistic, began to dawn on him. He turned to Sophie, feeling her trembling, seeing her lip quiver, and reached to wipe a tear, then noticing a slight graze on her cheek.

‘Sophel, oh my dear wife, I see you have been injured in the blast. My God, how close we have come to tragedy!’

She flinched from his touch, produced a handkerchief from her sleeve and dabbed at the graze.

‘I am all right, Franz, do not fuss. We must not be overcome by this. Look, the people do really love you,’ Sophie said,  whispering in his ear.Read More »

33 years

Short fiction

‘January 2044.’

The date was clear in Damien’s mind. It had started in the voice of a dream and stayed with him into wakefulness. He lay still, holding the thought, pushing back sleep.

January 2044… it’s 2011 now so that’s about 33 years from now, Damien thought.

‘Yes’.

Ah, okay, am I talking with someone here?

‘Yes’

Damien felt a line between his own thoughts and others that seemed to come from a consciousness bumping against his. He’d experienced this once or twice before and was unperturbed. He was now fully awake, lying quietly in the semi-dark room, his wife Melanie breathing deeply beside him

In January 2044 I will be about 84. It seems strange thinking about a date so far in the future. I rarely seem to think in concrete terms beyond next week.

‘Yes’.

Oh, you’re back. Alright, I take your point.

Silence.

Damien searched for the voice but it was quiet and he returned to the date.

January 2044, that’s 33 years from now, but what does that mean, if anything?

A realisation came to him.

Is that the date of my death?

‘Yes’.

Damien allowed the weight of the voice’s affirmation to settle into his awareness. He turned the idea over and realised he felt no fear or surprise.

I guess we do this all the time, live with this finiteness we call human life expectancy and push it off into the distance as if nothing will ever happen. But it is a bit unusual to know the month and the year that you will die.

Silence.

Why are you telling me?

Silence.

Another realisation came to Damien.

33 years, the life of Christ.

‘Yes’.

He knew enough of Christian teaching to be aware that it was generally accepted that Jesus Christ, the carpenter from Nazareth who claimed to be the Son of God, had walked the earth for about 33 years.

Well, this is not a bad message for a middle-aged bloke I guess, Damien thought. I’ve got 33 years of life left and look how much Jesus accomplished in his 33 years. But hey, I thought I might live a bit longer than that, you know, and get up to 100?

Silence.

Doesn’t everyone think like that? But here’s what I don’t get. What started the clock? I don’t feel like I’ve been reborn recently or anything, so why 33 years from now.

‘It started with a death and resurrection.’

Damien felt confused. Maybe this is just my imagination after all, he thought.

‘Have you forgotten your illness?’

Damien jumped slightly like a force had gone through him. His eyes were wide open and the vague assembly of thoughts he’d been having were crystalising into something much more certain than sleepy Saturday morning time-wasting.

‘The sudden attack you had, all the tests, the scans. Taking medications, seeking doctor’s advice, trying to work out what was wrong, finding one thing after another as if your body was breaking down.’

Damien’s heart began to thump and his mind was keenly focused. He recalled the health scare he’d been through, how it seemed to go from bad to worse then, suddenly, everything seemed to right itself.

‘You were to die. We intervened.’

The words pierced like a nail through flesh and he sat upright, staring at his own harrowed expression in the bedroom mirror. Melanie stirred and so he got up and walked to the living room, with every sense on edge.

He remembered the relief he had felt as all the bad news seem to drop away, with good tests results replacing bad and most of all, a feeling of health and wellness returning. At the time he’d been so thankful, so relieved, savouring each moment of strength with delight. Now, a few weeks on, he’d almost forgotten, taking it for granted.

I’m afraid I’ve not shown a great deal of respect for what happened, Damien thought. But why did you intervene?

‘Prayer.’

Damien went over those days in his mind. The shock of the first symptoms, the rush to hospital. One bit of bad news after another. The news spreading through family and friends. He knew he had mouthed a few desperate prayers. He vaguely remembered being told others were praying. But he’d forgotten all of this in the wonder of feeling better.

‘Many people prayed. Your parents prayed. Your wife prayed. Your children prayed. Many of your friends prayed.’

Damien did a mental inventory of the people of faith in his life. He also became painfully aware of his own lack of prayer. When had it occurred in his life that he had quietly filed prayer away as nothing more than a nice notion. His eyes began to water and put his head in his hands.

‘People in India prayed,’ the voice continued. ‘People in Indonesia prayed. People in Africa prayed. The deep prayers of loved ones were joined by the mighty prayers of many with intense faith. Our hand was moved in the purpose we already had.’

There was too much to take in. Damien traced a net of relationship to believers in India, Indonesia, Africa. He pictured them in their homes, their churches. He could feel the challenge of life they faced each day. He remembered the intensity of faith and conviction, the challenging sacrificial service. He realised that much had occurred that was far beyond what he deserved.

‘You have begun this new life with death and resurrection. You will end it in the wonder of childhood. Now go and live.’

Damien was stunned. He tried to make sense of all he’d heard.

I’ve come through a kind of death. I’m on the other side and I have a kind of life of Christ ahead of me… A childhood, my last years will be…

As realisation dawned, Damien felt the awareness of the other consciousness retreat. He had many questions but was already overwhelmed by what he had learned.

What can I do with the life span of Christ ahead of me?

‘Damo?’ Melanie called from the bedroom.

‘Yes love, out here’.

‘You’re up early for a Saturday… Any chance of a coffee,’ she said, her voice thick with sleep.

‘Of course, give me a minute,’ Damien replied. He could not shake the otherworldly feeling that lingered and he realised he needed to respond.

‘Dear God, I could be crazy, but I think you’ve just given me a reprieve, not just from an early death, but from a wasted life. Help me to make the most of it. I don’t know if that date is literal, but either way, give me a life worthy of Christ for at least the next 33 years. Amen’.

‘Who are you talking too?’ Melanie said as she made her way into the living room, pulling on a dressing gown, blonde hair askew.

‘Um, just a quick prayer love, not a bad idea sometimes is it?’ Damien replied.

She looked at him silently for a while, and nodded.

He was still seated on the lounge, hands clasped before his face like a child praying. She moved closer and put a hand on his shoulder.

‘I like it when you pray,’ she said. ‘By the way, I just had the strangest dream. Does the date January 2044 mean anything to you?’

The end