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 It’s from my yet-unpublished novel, Shot.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.

‘She was the most wonderful woman that I ever come across’ – farewell Margaret Somerville

Many people have treasured memories of Australian missionary Margaret Somerville, none more so than the Aboriginal children she guided across the continent to safety during World War 2.

Connie Cole, one of the last survivors of this epic journey, said of Margaret:

‘She was the most wonderful woman that I ever come across.’

Margaret died last week aged 101 at a nursing home on the Central Coast.

A Memorial Service for her will be held at Rockdale Uniting Church on Friday, August 8 at 2pm.

My memories of Margaret go back to the early 1980s when I was a journalism student at the Institute of Technolgy (now UTS ) and we both attended Newtown Mission.

She seemed old to me then but in a sprightly, energetic way. Then again I was still in my teens so most people seemed old.

In preparing a radio documentary on the history of Christian mission among Aboriginal people, I interviewed Margaret at her home about her experiences. Her remarkable journey with a group of young Aboriginal children clear across the continent was, it seemed, just a small part of a long life of caring for others.

She understood that missionary endeavour among first Australians was criticised by many at the time but I remember, even in those early days of land rights protests, she was a compelling defender of Christian mission.

To see why, watch this trailer for Croaker Island Exodus:

Read more about Margaret Somerville’s life and legacy here

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
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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 »

Outrage of public ‘marking’ of athlete contrasts with deathly ‘marking’ of Mosul Christians

A highly-paid athletics coach publicly criticises a highly paid athlete, in the midst of our wealthy country’s medal spree at the Commonwealth Game.
Mosul, Christians, Nasrani, Isis, Iraq, Syria
Sally-Pearson-Eric-Hollingsworth-Commonwealth-GamesMassive media space is devoted to expressions of outrage and an attempt to understand how this could happen.

The coach, Eric Hollingsworth, is ‘stripped’ of his Commonwealth Games credentials and stood down from his role which is now described as untenable. The athlete, champion hurdler Sally Pearson, has received widespread support and will continue to compete at the Games.

No one was oppressed, no one lost their home, no one was killed, although Hollingsworth is being sent home in disgrace so must be feeling life is pretty bleak.

At the end of the day, it is a sporting drama which serves to distract us from the more chilling public shaming and marking occurring in the Middle East, in particular in the major Iraqi city of Mosul.

‘N’ for Nasrani

Some may think it is outrageous to link these seemingly unrelated events – Commonwealth Games spat and terrorist genocide – and yet the issues have jostled with each other for public attention, sharing page space and news feeds and pubic interest. They share the common theme, although of different scale, of those in power publicly ‘marking’ others in their charge and this is enough of a parallel for me.
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 »

Good Anzac

While leaders erred their courage held
Bloodied birth waters for a young nation
Anzac Day.
Not so far from there a crowd yelled
Bloody minded in their mob betrayal
Good Friday.

Quiet days that soar still on our modern calendars
Far places weighing on our clever consciences
Calvary and Anzac Cove say, ‘Not my will, lest we forget’.
Great defeats born with blood, borne by love
Teaching us still decades, centuries, eternally
That winning is not always won in victory
But sometimes by the brave, in loss.

The good die young, die in sand and mud, die in their thousands
And we remember them, more than ever, more than mostMoved and strangely weeping.
But listen, echoing along with shuffling feet on dawn’s street
The sound of metal striking metal
Wood giving way, and flesh
And the cry of an only Son
Who dies on a tree, dies with scorn, dies alone
Not my will, lest we forget.

Peter Hallett

This Anzac Day, we have 23 million redemptive opportunities

Anzac Day 2013, Anzacs, redemption, Australia, Australian, 23 millionIn discussing the amazing opportunity that lies before the 23rd million Australian who joined us last night, Michael Pascoe says that perhaps the most significant thing about being Australian is redemption.

‘…it came down to redemption, to giving people a second chance.’

Pascoe says that while he hoped baby 23 million would make the most of its first chance at a lucky life, he agreed with John Menadue that being Australian is all about the great second chance. Here’s some of what Menadue wrote at Australia Day:

‘…whether Australian born, migrants or refugees an equal opportunity in life, a second chance. That ethos of redemption is a core part of our history…. A friend of mine, Ian McAuley, said that whilst the British sent the puritans to America, they sent convicts to Australia and that we got the better of the deal. The underprivileged and the outcasts in Australia got a second chance.’

We see redemption also in Anzac Day and perhaps this is why it has become such a powerful national symbol. Young Australians caught up in a military mistake, a tactical disaster and a human tragedy find a way to redeem this hopelessness through courage, self-sacrifice, comradery and humour. We may have lost the battle and many thousands of sons, but we bought at great price a sense of national identity and pride.

If that is true, if as Pascoe, Menadue and McAuley seem to agree – redemption is at the core of who we are – then there is great hope because national redemption is still needed.Read More »

Caravaggio’s Resurrection of Lazarus restored

“Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend
And then he raised him up again.”

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (September 29, 1571 – July 18, 1610) painted Resurrection of Lazarus in 1609, not long before his death, and while on the run for various crimes committed in his often wild and tumultuous life. He was on his way to Rome hopeful of pardon when it appears he died on fever.

His painting has received the restoration he longed for and has also found its way to Rome where it is currently on display. Read the BBC’s report.

Lazarus, we can presume, lived to die and live again and is now with his great Friend forever… perhaps Caravaggio is with them, pardoned at last. Read the Bible’s report

If remembrance reflects identity, let’s beware what we forget

Remembrance Day last week was highlighted by a preponderance of 11s – 11/11/11 at 11am – and reminds us that the events of time and space are not only measured by dates and location but by our less exacting recollections.

Memory and identity are in many ways at the heart of Julian Barne’s 2011 Booker Prize winning novel, The Sense of an Ending, which includes character Adrian quoting, ‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacy of documentation.’

If that is true, even in part, then all the more reason to have rituals of remembrance so that some things are not lost. Many of the world’s most memorised sayings or occurrences, such as those of the Christian faith, were passed down through oral traditions that perfected remembrance in a way we rarely do today.

Roy Frederick Hallett

One such ritual is Remembrance Day which recalls for us Armistice Day, November 11, 1918 when hostilities ceased on the western front, virtually bringing to and end The Great War. It came too late for my great-uncle Roy who was killed in action on April 4, 1918 at Villers Bretonneax. He was one of 60,000 Australians who died in WWI and one of 11,000 or more whose bodies were never recovered.

The day before Remembrance Day I visited my sister’s grave because even though 17 years have passed since she was killed, we still remember and are still affected by her loss. We have a body, but no explanation as to who killed her and why, and so our remembrance is unsettled to this day.

It made me realise that as a nation, we must have been powerfully affected by 60,000 families all caught in a remembrance of loved ones lost. Even those who had graves to attend and accounts to read, would still have found the deaths of their loved ones hard to reconcile. Maybe our very identity as a people shifted through this mass remembering of those who would not return.

The only known image of Pemulwuy, one of the first Aboriginal leaders to resist white settlement.

And so we remember, through to World War 2 and it’s 40,000 slain Australians and onwards to today, including three more Diggers dying in Afghanistan. And while the casualties of war-time are just a part of the never-ceasing tide of life and death and birth and ageing that we are all part of, it is the sheer enormity of loss of life that these wars brought that stir us to find ways to remember, to acknowledge, to incorporate a sense of who we are through what has occurred.

But I fear that our remembering in this sphere is too often marked by what is forgotten or ignored as by what is recalled. The only number that comes close to the casualties of the two world wars, was that of Aboriginal deaths during frontier conflict across Australia.

While estimates by some writers of up to 100,000 Aboriginal deaths due to conflict with settlers is regarded as too high, many historians agree on a figure of about 20,000 Aboriginal people killed during a relatively short period as British colonisation of this land occurred. Perhaps 1-2000 white people were killed in these same conflicts which were, on more than on occasion, referred to at the time as the Black War or similar.

A mature nation, I believe, would realise that if white remembrance of the losses of war are vital to our sense of identity, healing and balance, then so too, or even more so, that of Aboriginal people. We cannot go back and undo these horrific losses for the first Australians, any more than I can go back and undo the death of great-uncle Roy. We can’t set aside the tide of history that produced colonial powers sweeping the globe any more than we can for the not dissimilar causes of World War 1 and 2.

But we can acknowledge that it happened – that many thousands of Aboriginal people died in attempts to defend their homes and their families and many more were killed in acts of revenge, extermination and ethnic cleansing so that white people would feel safe. We can acknowledge that this was and is brutally hurtful to those left behind and those that followed, and that it had far-reaching consequences then and now.

Are we ready as a modern Australian society to include in Remembrance Day or Anzac Day or Australia Day the idea that there is another great conflict at the heart of Australian identity and it is the one between Aboriginal and European?

It doesn’t mean that conflict need remain. Australia has rebuilt excellent relationships with many previous enemies – not by forgetting, but by remembering and at the same time, choosing to move forward. As to whether, when and how Aboriginal people may want to do this is another matter.

I fear our (white Australian) refusal to acknowledge this war in our past makes it harder for all of us, black and white, to enter into a peace that is authentic, just and durable. We can ignore it, but an unsettled loss rarely goes away on its own. That’s why we stop to remember year by year, so that in time the remembering hurts less and we are able to reflect and learn from our past.

Lest we forget.

Aboriginal standing stones could pre-date Stonehenge

The cultures of Aboriginal Australia have not been well respected or understood by those of us who have arrived in this great land more recently. So many opportunities to learn, understand and work together were missed, and continue to be.

Little by little this is changing, in part to the gradual emergence of research and discovery that is filling in some of the many gaps. One example is research into a standing-stone arrangement in Victoria that may even date Stonehenge. The BBC report begins:

“An egg-shaped ring of standing stones in Australia could prove to be older than Britain’s Stonehenge – and it may show that ancient Aboriginal cultures had a deep understanding of the movements of the stars.

Fifty metres wide and containing more than 100 basalt boulders, the site of Wurdi Youang in Victoria was noted by European settlers two centuries ago, and charted by archaeologists in 1977, but only now is its purpose being rediscovered.

It is thought the site was built by the Wadda Wurrung people – the traditional inhabitants of the area. All understanding of the rocks’ significance was lost, however, when traditional language and practices were banned at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Now a team of archaeologists, astronomers and Aboriginal advisers is reclaiming that knowledge.”

Read more.