Anzac Day is one of those days on the calendar that sparks the strongest emotions, memories, and reflections. This is particularly so for those of us whose family members have served in our armed forces. The Ode, that we recite on Anzac Day, encapsulates my feelings about this day. It commemorates brave and terrible deeds, but it is the response that prompts me to write.
“We will remember them. Lest we forget.”
Early Memories of Anzac Day
My earliest memory of Anzac Day is of the Dawn Service with my grandfather in Kings Park, Perth, Western Australia.
Albert Edward Shelley was a veteran of the Mesopotamia (now Iraq) conflict in World War I. Signing up in September 1915, he served in D Company 3 Battalion, and then with the Artillery as a gunner.
In November 1915, Albert served with the 1st Australian Pack Wireless Signal Troop. The Troop left Melbourne for Basra, via Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Bombay (now Mumbai) in March 1916. He was 25, the age my own daughter will be this year.
The Troop was sent to the British forces, which were under siege at Kut-el-Amara for five months. When the garrison fell on 29 February 1916, the losses for the British and Indian troops were 23,000 men. It was a greater defeat than Gallipoli. Some 13,000 men were taken prisoner, despite the efforts of Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence negotiated with the Turks, hoping to have the troops to be set free. Many of those men were to die while they were in captivity.
When the British recaptured Kut, it was into this conflict that the fledgling Wireless troop was dispatched. My grandfather had only been an ‘Australian’ for three years after migrating from the United Kingdom in 1912.
Bearing Their Trials Like ‘Good Australians’
My Pop’s commanding officer, Captain Charles Marr, had a letter published in The Daily Telegraph on 11 September 1916. The original is in the Australian National Archives.
“The work performed here so far by the nation is wonderful when one considers the hardships to be overcome – railways built, roads formed, hundreds of motor lorries and thousands of mules transport(ed), (plus) camel teams, bullock teams, and donkeys; to say nothing of the good old horse.
“Since our arrival we have averaged 110 deg in the shade with 117 on two days, and 106 being the lowest but they average 3 deg hotter farther up from the river. The evenings are very hot as well, and we average between 85 and 90 deg all night; two nights at 11pm it was 96 deg.
“No work is allowed between 9am and 5pm and one generally lies on the ground in the tent, gasping for breath and keeping a fan going hard, while flies by the thousands try to make friends.
“One cannot tell of the hardships suffered by the troops of our Empire in this part of the world, but if the Kaiser were running the show, we would all get Iron Crosses of the first class.
“…Our men bear their trials like good Australians.”
During 1916, the signal troop was reinforced with other Australian and New Zealand service personnel. It became the 1st Anzac Wireless Signal Squadron.
My grandfather experienced gruelling conditions in the war and became sick with enteritis in Basra on 6 May 1916. On 15 May, he went to hospital in Bombay India, along with other seriously ill and wounded Anzacs. The medical care in Basra was insufficient to treat the very sick or badly injured.
Pop was so ill that he remained in India until March 1917. When he returned to Basra and to his unit, he was there for another two years.
Albert was a driver, and it was his job to take signalling equipment to advance brigades. He also dispatched messages when there wasn’t time to establish a telephone network. He also ran or had to ride with messages, which meant that he was frequently facing enemy fire.
It wasn’t enough for Pop that he served in World War I. He signed up again (putting his age down by four years) for World War II. Pop didn’t talk much about the war. He had an amazing collection of buttons from all the uniforms of people that he’d met during his service. While overseas, he sewed them onto a battle-dress belt that my younger brother still owns.
Pop also had a disturbing collection of curved blades and weapons that he collected throughout his service. He was to serve at Gallipoli, the Somme, defending the Suez Canal, as well as his years in Mesopotamia.
There was no doubt that my Pop was a patriot. Despite serving in two world wars 20 years apart, he lived a peaceful life. My grandmother, Elvira, who was a widow with two young children, was to marry Pop. Her first husband lost his life during the battle of the Somme. Ben Roberts lies at Veillers-Bretonneux. They lived in Busselton, WA with their six children – Alan and Maisie, plus Robert (Bob), Thomas (my Dad), Brian (Tim) and Joan. Pop had married before the First World War and had a daughter, Dorothy, from that union.
Eventually, Pop and Grandma’s children had children of their own (I’m the youngest of six) and so his legacy lives on in a large and diverse family. Pop was a smoker until his death at 88, despite his gassing in WWI. I remember him with great fondness every Anzac Day, especially when I attend the Dawn Service.
Signaller Ellis Silas
Another signaller became famous – particularly one, Ellis Silas. Ellis was also from Perth and who had also been born in London, just like Pop. He kept a diary at Gallipoli and illustrated it with sketches. Ellis wrote about his experiences as a signaller, including the landing at Gallipoli on 25 April, the day we commemorate as Anzac Day. He, too, was sick and wounded and endured a journey on a hospital ship, where he witnessed his comrades dying.
“Here as elsewhere Death stalked – four of my comrades passed out within a few hours of each other – an inert mass covered with the Union Jack is borne away – thus, one by one, they passed into the infinite, leaving behind a name that shall ring gloriously.
“As I look into the distant future when the sound of guns is but an echo of the past, in grand array shall I see the spirits of these my comrades marching past, who in the greatness of their souls have handed to future generations a fuller, deeper meaning of the word Patriotism.”