As we work through our rehearsals for An Australian War Requiem, it’s not surprising that our thoughts turn to members of our own families who went off to war to ‘do their bit’, that we wonder about their lives here at home before war broke out, and their experiences ‘over there’ at the Front.
One hundred years ago, in mid 1914, as the lamps were going out all over Europe, Australia was settling itself into winter. Life for the young men of that time seemed set to continue on its expected patterns—the cycle of church, work and social activities that had defined their parents’ lives. There was little hint of the upheaval ahead.
That’s not to say the world wasn’t changing—there were new and very exciting developments in technology and communication in the wind. The first airmail delivery was made in July 1914, picture theatres were becoming commonplace…even in country towns. But change was not occurring at the speed that we take for granted today. The national focus was largely inwards—a glance at the Australian papers of the time show that while there was interest in the European situation, much more attention was being paid to the upcoming Federal election (called following a double dissolution of Parliament, and due for September that year). From the farmers’ perspective, the worsening drought over the autumn and winter period was a more immediate, and very pressing, concern.
George and Fred Weir were working with their father on the family’s dairy farm, just outside Kiama on the South Coast of NSW. They’d grown up on the steep, but lush pastureland between Saddleback Mountain and Loves Bay which so strongly resembled the Ireland their grandfathers had left some 60 years before. Each morning of their lives the boys had woken to the sound of the sea, they had grown into adulthood surrounded by a close-knit community of large families, many of whom were more, or less, family to them. Both Fred and George had strong ties to their place in the world, and the earth under their feet.
In northern NSW their cousin, James Alexander Weir (called Alex so as not to confuse him with his father, also James) had left the family farm at Clunes, near Lismore, and gone to work in Brisbane as a storeman. It was steady work, and Alex was looking forward to a bright and solid future. Predictable. A chance to get ahead.
Also on the land, Lisle Lane—a popular young man in his local district and keen footballer— had been articled to a land surveyor in Orange, and was working on his brother’s property in Cudal some 25 miles away.
In Sydney, Milne Barry Gow, the motor mechanic, lived slightly further afield (but still ‘Inner West’) in Strathfield. the three Bartrop brothers (also in Sydney) were following quite individual career paths: Henry Herbert (Bert) Bartrop was working as a clerk at Caxtons, the timber merchants, William Bartrop was at Sydney University and Sydney Teachers College where he was combining his studies to obtain a Bachelor of Arts and teaching qualifications, and where he met his future wife, Ethel. (They married in 1915).
Harold Bartrop, the youngest brother, was a bricklayer, working in the family building business. He was also an apprentice at Sydney Technical College, Ultimo, and it is quite conceivable that, as he travelled to classes, he crossed paths with John ‘Bede’ Avery, who lived in Camperdown and worked on the trams as a conductor.
Over in South Australia, Charles Schulz was only 16 in 1914, but he was clearly keen to enlist at the earliest opportunity…an opportunity he took as soon as he turned 18 in 1916. In the interim he became a painter, and lived with his mother, brothers and sisters in North Adelaide.
Across the ditch in New Zealand, Jo Hardy was living and working in Wellington, and just recently married to his sweetheart Emily. Also in the North Island, Garibaldi Bitossi was living in Marton, a farming and timber district north of Wellington.
And on the other side of the world, Ernst Moser acted as legal counsel at the Schultheiss Brewery in Berlin, while Leslie Dixon set off to work each day as an office junior in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England.
From 4 August 1914 the focus moved sharply outwards, to the world far beyond Australia’s shores. Young men confronted a decision which would dictate the shape of the rest of their lives, quite literally. Some approached the choice as a duty, some as an adventure; some tried to find a way to contribute but without comprising principles of non-violence. Suddenly new patterns evolved—once the hard decision was made there were agreements reached with employers, the round of farewells, including ‘tokens of regard’ from family, church or social group, a photograph taken for remembrance sake, affairs put in order…and weddings held with much shorter engagement periods, and considerably less ‘fuss’ than was usual prior to the War. Saying Goodbye and God speed became the norm.
Each of these young men, from diverse backgrounds, home towns and family situations, voluntarily set their feet on a path leading them to a common destination. Whether it was Gallipoli, the Western Front or Palestine, the end of the line was War.
(To be continued)
With thanks to
Roger (bass) – Bert, William, Harold Bartrop
Andrew (tenor) – Lisle Lane, Garibaldi Bartossi
Prue (soprano) – Charles Schulz
Martin (tenor) – Jo Hardy
Barry (bass) – Milne Barry Gow
David (bass) – Leslie Dixon, Ernst Moser
Rosalie (alto) – George, Fred and Alex Weir
Cath (alto) – Bede Avery