On ANZAC Day the nation stops to remember those servicemen and women who fought for the land and people they loved. Their services are honoured in history by all who appreciate what they fought for.
As time has gone by, the ANZAC story has been remembered in many ways. How often we hear talk of the ANZAC “legend”, and the “spirit of the ANZAC”, and the “ultimate sacrifice”. It is easy for these words to roll off the tongue, as they do so repeatedly over the ANZAC day weekend. Yet, for those who experienced war first-hand, ANZAC day is so much more than just a “legend”. It is the story of our own grandparents, parents, husbands, brothers and sisters- people held so dear to us. Beyond the stories of heroism are, the stories of ordinary Australians who endured experiences no man or woman should ever have to endure.
As the grandchild of World War 1 veterans, I come from the last generation of Australians who had the chance to really know the soldiers who returned from the battlefields of Europe. The fathers of both my father and mother served in the 16th battalion during the Great War. These are their true stories, as I remember them.
I never knew my paternal grandfather, who passed away before I was born. He was a labourer from Busselton, a small seaside town in the South-West of Western Australia. The first time he tried to enlist in the army he was refused entry on medical grounds. As the war progressed however, the need for Australian soldiers increased, and on the 25th of July, 1917, at the age of 22, he was finally enlisted.
Harry left Fremantle on the 14th of November 1917 and spent time in Suez and England before being sent to France. On the 27th of April 1918, 4 years and two days after the Gallipoli landings, Harry was sent to the front. On the 27th of June 1918, he wrote in a letter to his brother “The boys all say I am looking well and I feel so. I have never had a headache since I left Australia so it must be agreeing with me over here but I cannot agree with it especially when big shells are flying. They make you bob your head.”
This short account is one of the very few records we have of Harry’s experiences in France. He became sick in the trenches and was hospitalised for several months before being returned to the front, still sick. When he was finally sent home in May 1919, the war had been over for nearly 6 months. His was the fate of many soldiers like him, yet the experience stayed with him for his whole life.
I had the fortune of spending significant quality time with my maternal Grandfather, Charles Edmund Mumme. Even now, 25 years since his death, I sometimes wish I could talk with him and experience the bond we had again.
Charles enlisted just after he turned 17. The story goes that on the 21st of August 1916 he tried to enlist at a recruitment centre near his home, but was rejected when recognised by the locals who knew he was underage. Rather than going home, he simply walked a bit further “down the hill” towards Perth and enlisted at the Blackboy Hill camp. His enlistment records say that he was 18 years and one month old.
On the 9th of September 1916 Charles left Fremantle for “Old Blighty” (England), arriving on the 17th of January 1917. He was diagnosed with Mumps and didn’t leave for France until the 7th of July 1917. He joined his battalion on the 21st of July just before his 18th birthday. While on the front, he obtained the rank of Corporal and was mentioned in despatches. He declined an offer of an extended post-war role in Europe, and returned to Australia in June 1919 after he had received word that other men had expressed interest in dating my grandmother. He returned home to WA, married my grandmother, and had six children with her, one of them my mother.
Grandfather Charles spoke very little of the war. The very few stories that he did share spoke of terrible hardships, and the devastating loss of fellow soldiers, all of whom he considered no less valuable or worthy of life than himself. I distinctly remember when I was only 13, my grandfather told me that he had seen and done things that could never be forgiven. At the time, I could not begin to comprehend these words.
My memories of the ANZACS and Australian servicemen are not just legend, they come from the experience of loved ones, through stories that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Even my father, at the age of 90, still wells up with tears as he is haunted by the most horrible stories of human tragedy during his service in the second world war. These are the stories that stick with us all, as we imagine the suffering experienced by our own and others’ loved ones.
ANZAC day in 2015, and the talk of the “ANZAC legend” seem a long way from the European battlefields experienced by my Grandfathers. Nowadays we reflect on the birth of the nation, our pride in our soldiers, and the freedoms we enjoy as a result. It is easy to lose sight of the personal side- the stories of real people, who will forever be treasured in our hearts.
Lest we forget.