Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Armistice at the end of World War I. It was supposed to be the war that ended all wars. But there have been conflicts rumbling on around the world nearly continuously ever since. I attended the commemoration at the Australian War Memorial this morning and as always came home with a million thoughts whirling around. I’d like to share some with you and introduce you to my great grandfather – William St John Collier.
William St John Collier
My great grandfather signed on to join the 60th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force in July 1915. Will Collier, as he was known, was 22 and freshly engaged to the beautiful Hazel Whitburn. He spent some time training in Australia before boarding a boat bound for Egypt in late December 1915, and by the end of January 1916 he was stepping off the boat at Port Suez. His war diary tells of explorations around the town and then being moved closer to Cairo where he and his battalion underwent more training. He spoke of doing picket duty and spending time with his mates, and raved about an electric tram ride to Cairo to visit the zoo and later, on another jaunt, the pyramids. He wrote of many new experiences while he and his battalion waited to be sent to France.
Initial training in Australia – lower right
Unfortunately on Saturday 4th March 1916 Will found himself in hospital with bronchitis. Right through March his diary entries consist of a very terse and frustrated “still here” each day, and finally on the 25th he was diagnosed with heart problems and advised that he would probably be going home. April was spent in a number of hospitals around the area. In early May he comments about how quiet the camp at Heliopolis had become when he was allowed out for a visit, noting that the former inhabitants had probably been shipped out to France. On the 9th of June Will was loaded onto the hospital ship Itonus, and after a rough few weeks at sea arrived back in Melbourne on July 18, 1916. He married his beloved Hazel not long after, had two children and lived quietly in Victoria until the age of 57 when his heart problems took him far too early.
Will and Hazel’s wedding party
I found Papa Will’s war diary fascinating to read, but entirely selfishly, I was a little disappointed when I read that he had not seen battle due to his illness. He was not the war hero that I had imagined. It was a bit of an anticlimax. I am embarrassed to admit that I glorified war in such a way — did I really think that only those that saw the thick of battle that deserved to be called brave or heroic? Ugh.
I was reminded by someone who knows better, that in those days there was no conscription in Australia — by the time Will had joined up, Gallipoli had already taken place and the folks back home had heard the news of the carnage. When Will volunteered for service, he knew in all likelihood he would not be coming home. He knew that he would possibly never get to marry the beautiful woman he kissed farewell. Yet he volunteered anyway. I have no idea why he did, and it doesn’t really matter. It matters that he did. That is bravery.
Anyone that signs up voluntarily in times of active conflict is brave, regardless of whether or not they find themselves in a trench with bullets buzzing overhead. Bravery is not the absence of fear, it is committing to doing something beyond oneself, in this case stepping up to defend the values of democracy. I wonder if Papa Will knew that he had heart problems before he signed up — by age 22 one would imagine that there would be some sign of congenital heart problems?
Had Papa Will died alongside his mates in the fields of France, I would not be here…or perhaps I would be the same soul in a different body. It’s a weird thought…shall not go down that rabbit hole today!
artwork by me
So today, as I sat with the thousands of others at the War Memorial for the Remembrance Day service, my thoughts ran amok. I remembered Papa Will’s bravery. I remembered my former father-in-law’s service with the British Royal Airforce (he flew in bombing raids over Germany at the end of WWII). I remembered my brother’s service in Afghanistan. I remembered the families that supported them all. I remembered my uncles that served in the Army. I remembered my ancestors that fought in England in the late 1700s. I considered those serving now. I cried for the wives who never got to welcome their husbands home, or the mothers their sons. I considered the service men and women who have lost mates and yet continue to fight day after day in gruelling conditions. I thought about the medics that face the aftermath in field and out. I thought about the officers that have to write letters or visit homes to tell families that their loved one has died and assure them that their death was not in vain, even as they too grieve. I thought about those who have returned broken, and those that support them. And I was deeply grateful. I raise my glass of gin in salute to you all as I sit here in my safe house in a safe country enjoying freedom that came at great cost.
There is nothing clean and tidy about war. It cannot and should not be sanitised and nor should it be glorified. It is messy and it is awful, but it is necessary in a world where those with power want to subjugate and exploit the weak. I am grateful for those who step in to protect the powerless and downtrodden.
To finish I’d like to share a poem written by a dear friend of mine:
That any soul dies in war is a sadness
Should they die for politicians,
then a sin is corrupted on the world.
MOST DO NOT.
Should they die for nationalism,
then they die proud but hollow.
MOST DO NOT.
Should they die seeking glory,
then they have found what they sought.
MOST DO NOT.
Should they die in the name of freedom,
then they die free themselves.
MOST DO NOT.
Should they die in sacrifice for the protection of their brothers and sisters,
then do not mourn them but rather exalt their souls as the brightest we shall see.
We will remember you