It seems very fitting that ‘An Australian War Requiem’ premiered at the Sydney Town Hall. One hundred years ago, the Town Hall hosted company of a different kind in its role as a recruitment depot for hopeful servicemen. In March 1916 one of those young men, William Wright, walked through the Town Hall doors to enlist, before donning uniform, undertaking training and embarking overseas in July of that year. As we walked through the halls and corridors on 10 August 2014, paused to watch the images projected of soldiers like William, as we sang of the yearning and grief of those young men and their mothers, we truly were walking in their footsteps.
The lucky ones, the ones that lived, came home.
They lived, but they weren’t necessarily ‘whole’. Over the duration of the war a number of soldiers were repatriated on medical grounds, and discharged as medically unfit.
Garibaldi Bitossi came home from Gallipoli with eyesight problems. Alfred Hyde’s gunshot wounds were also of such severity that he was repatriated from the peninsula in 1915.
Aged just 18, Charles Schulz had enlisted in April 1916, and embarked overseas with the 3rd (later 9th) Light Horse Brigade four months later. The Light Horse were tasked with pushing the Turks back through Palestine, with major battles at Maghdaba (in December 1916) and Gaza in March 1917 and April 1917. It was in the latter confrontation that Charles was severely wounded, shot in the abdomen. He was shipped home in November 1917. His war was done.From the Western Front, Walter Brewster arrived home in August 1917, William Wright left England just before Christmas in 1917 and George Chesney was repatriated in January 1918.
Following the Armistice it took almost a full twelve months to bring the remaining boys back home again. The logistics of repatriating so many thousands from the various theatres of war were staggering. However, shipload by shipload, and, for some, after an absence of almost the full four years, they glimpsed familiar shores again.
First home were Harold Bartrop, leaving England on 12 May 1919, and Sister Dorothy Cawood. Milne Barry Gow and Wiliam Bartrop travelled home on the same ship—the Konig Friederich August—in June 1919. It would be interesting to know if they met, chatted, little dreaming, of course, that future generations from their extended families would meet and sing together.
Walter Eastment came home in July 1919, eventually to be reunited with his wife and young child, and Fred Weir left Egypt, arriving home in August 1919. Fred’s war had also been spent in the Middle East with the 2nd Light Horse Machine Gun Squadron, fighting the war against the Ottoman Empire. He participated in fighting in Palestine, in Gaza and Jerusalem, enduring extreme heat and arid conditions and only just surviving a bout of illness that left him incapacitated for more than four months of his service overseas. Like all returning soldiers from the Kiama district, he was met at the station with much celebration:
Pre ‘Flu’ conditions ruled on Monday night when a big crowd gathered to Welcome Home Trooper Fred Weir on his arrival at the station, which was decorated with flags and welcome messages for the occasion. The Band was in attendance and as the train drew in, the old familiar strains of ‘Home, Sweet, Home’ rang out and as the soldier who had been over three years away in the defence of the country stepped out, accompanied by his mother and father, Ald D. E Weir and Mrs Weir, he was showered with confetti and with greetings of a very affectionate nature, not only from his own sisters, but from other fellows’ sisters as well, with hearty good will…
…it took some time to make his way to where, in the absence of the Mayor, Mr Nicholson, President of the Repatriation Committee waited to extend a hearty welcome on behalf of the citizens of Kiama…
…Trooper Weir was greeted with hearty cheers as he rose to respond. The hearty welcome accorded him, he said, was quite beyond what he expected to see so many faces about him was a very big surprise and a great pleasure. He was truly glad to be home again, the only regret in that evening’s happiness was that his brother George was not spared to return and share it with him. It had been God’s will he should be taken, and they had to accept it, but in the home-coming they felt more deeply the loss of those who had ‘gone west’. The Kiama Independent and Shoalhaven Advertiser 6 August 1919.
Safe at last. And indeed they may have been safe from the immediate threats of shellfire and gas. But for many the war was not over. For many it never would be.
When reduced to dry statistics we are told that around 60,000 of those who went overseas died on active service, and about 150,000 were wounded. However, many continued to suffer, and many later died from the effects of wounds received in that war to end wars.
William Bartrop came home, health greatly weakened by his time at the front. He died in 1922, aged 32, from complications arising from TB, reasonably assumed to have been triggered by his time in the trenches.
Some suffered for the rest of their lives from the after-effects of being gassed, and from disease. Others struggled with the damage caused to muscle and bone by gunshot wounds and shrapnel. And for others the damage was not visibly apparent. It manifested in difficulties ‘settling down’, in changes from pre-war personality, shortness of temper, the ongoing nightmare of trying to deal with the stress of what had been seen, what had been experienced.
Many would not talk about it, not wishing to burden their loved ones with such things. Lives went on. They married (where there were partners available to marry), had families (or not), resumed (where possible) their place in the workforce. There were post-war assistance schemes available—education schemes, soldier-settlement loans—to give them a hand up where needed.
Some joined the newly established Returned Services League, and found there an outlet for shared memories. And for those families bereft by the loss of a husband or father Legacy stepped into the breach…as it continues to do to the present day.
For the most part they, and the world, slowly adjusted to the new order of things. From 1916 onwards, returned servicemen marched on Anzac Day. Subscriptions were raised and War Memorials built—arches, rolls of honour, avenues of trees, and the still, stone figure of the young digger standing watch from his pedestal. Each suburb and country town has its memorial, most schools, churches and workplaces also, marking the service of those who left, and commemorating those who never came home. All of these elements, which seem to us to be a normal part of our landscape, were then new and raw.
They built these memorials as a focus for a nation’s grief, and also as markers that this would, indeed, be the ‘war to end all wars’. Without doubt, the distress reportedly suffered by William Wright at the outbreak of the Second World War was shared by many, many others. What had it all been for? Why were they, who had answered their country’s call just over twenty years before, again being asked to sacrifice their hearts blood, this time in sending their own sons off to fight?
These questions reverberate still. The analysis of causes and effects, and of the impacts at an individual and societal level on all who fought, has occupied much print space and airtime in this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War.
The wider discussion has formed the backdrop for our preparation and performance of ‘An Australian War Requiem’, and has helped us to understand the world of the soldiers and mothers whose words we sing. It has also given context to the stories of our own family members whose lives were irrevocably shaped by the war of 1914-1918.
William Wright – Deb (alto)
Garibaldi Bitossi – Andrew (tenor)
Alfred Hyde – John (bass)
Charles Schulz – Prue (soprano)
Walter Brewster – Annette (soprano)
George Chesney – Deb (alto)
Harold Bartrop – Roger (bass)
Milne Barry Gow – Barry (bass)
William Bartrop – Roger (bass)
Walter Eastment – Catherine (alto)
Dorothy Cawood – Marilyn (soprano)
Fred Weir – Rosalie (alto)