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 It’s from my yet-unpublished novel, Shot.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

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.