Saturday, November 10, 2012

A bucketful of water poured into a river

Today marks 94 years since the end of the First World War, and all around the world people will pause to think about those who have served in conflicts past and present, and those who never came home.

In honour of Remembrance Day, I wanted to share with you a news article I came cross while researching my WWI novel Between the Lines. In October 1914, Australian troops were massing around the country, preparing to march out to war in Europe.

The 16th Battalion (WA and SA) marching through Melbourne in 1914

After weeks of training at the Blackboy Hill camp in Perth's hills, the Western Australian 11th Battalion was transported into the city centre for a military parade to show off their strength and good order. Military parades were a long-standing tradition, but since the Boer War over a decade before, in which over 600 Australians died, the sense of celebration surrounding war had dimmed somewhat. This parade, coming on the heels of two months of news from the raging and deadly conflict in their eventual destination, Europe, was a sombre affair.

The report itself, viewed through the lens of history, is sadly prophetic. The flower of this state's manhood did indeed suffer heavily, first at Gallipoli, and then for years on the Western Front, exactly as it was feared they would- and yet they marched out anyway, and their families waved them farewell, knowing full well that they would be, as predicted, no more than a bucketful of water poured into a river. Those knowing sacrifices are the reason we still grieve so keenly so many years down the line.

Read on for the transcribed article below.

The Western Mail
Friday 2nd October 1914 






The life of a city is as the life of a man; it passes through many strange phases, through many stirring emotions. Its streets, day and night, resound to the tread of thousands who walk in spirit care-free, or broken. But it is given to few cities often to hear the relentless, purposeful tread of companies of men drilled, organised, and disciplined to kill, and when the hour does come, when that sound must in the name of national honour and courage be heard, the heart of every British city is nobly steeled to the natural grain of the thing.

The thought evoked by a contemplation of the fact of such a march can in its final analysis be nothing less than horrifying, but the innate courage of man or woman ever meets the call. Still a military procession is not as once it was, and when from Blackboy Hill on Saturday there descended upon Perth an army of battle-equipped soldiery, who with significant earnestness, ease, and swiftness swept through the city for an hour and then disappeared as suddenly as they had come, the impression was fostered that military parades nowadays are viewed by soldiers and populace alike in manner far different to that of the days gone past.

The years pass and the people grow in understanding; their imagination quickens and their conceptions are saner, sobered by the facts of knowledge. Time was when the mention of a military parade conjured up by its associations the spectacle of brilliant uniforms and the blare of music; when the martial ardour was violently stimulated into a passion that divorced reason but made the task of the recruiting sergeant the easier. On battle eve or in pacific hour it excited a cheering multitude; it turned a city of earnest men and women into cheering jingoists.

Today the colour, the brilliancy, and the playing of martial bands are becoming memories, as was brought home forcibly on Saturday. Then our soldiers, clad in earth-soiled khaki, with arms bared and brown, marched in a grim procession, resolute of purpose, through crowding rows of an almost silent people. The appanage and paraphernalia of the "death or glory" days was not there, but the nerves of the soldiers were at as healthy a tension as ever, and the hearts of no thronging crowd that ever was could have throbbed with truer or deeper emotion.

Outward manifestation was checked- restrained by the depth of feeling and the touch of understanding. The atmosphere was surcharged with the intangible quality of intelligence. Both those in the ranks and those who looked on knew of the goal whither the marching trended, and the spirit that permeated the sidewalks told its own eloquent story, that when the hour called each, now held back by some circumstance, would be ready to don the khaki.

For those who so soldierly marched the streets the call had come, and, they being ready and able, had responded at the bound. The circumstances of their lives had plainly been, largely, a preparation for the sudden emergency of war, and physically they represented the flower of the State's manhood. Folk of every calling, of every estate in life, looked down from crowded balcony upon the brown amorphous stream of men, who, whether born to wealth or poverty, had now but one common calling- that of risking and that of meting out death, and to do so unflinchingly with the carnage of warfare; to do so, not as they would, will, but in the way they were told and on a battlefield where they and their strength would be but as a bucketful of water poured into a river.

In the embarkation and disembarkation lay a revelation of the effectiveness of military operations. At the head of his command- a field battery of artillery equipped and ready for instant battle- Major Bessell Browne reached the capital by road, and, with the Army Service Corps and the Army Medical Corps, took up a position at the due time in the barrier-enclosed space before the railway station. The march was timed to leave that point at 3 p.m. To the hour, in fact a minute or so before, the infantry commenced to pour into the city in train loads.

Along the route of the march at that moment surged a silent, expectant crowd. As the first train ran swiftly beneath Beaufort-street Bridge those posted there raised a cry of welcome which pursued a quivering course right through the city as one whispered it to another.

The train drew up at the far platform. Quietly, swiftly, the men stepped forth, fell into line, uttering the while scarcely a word, and as, on the word of command they formed fours and wheeled to-the left over the spanning bridges, the train drew out and another ran into its place without a minute's delay. So it went on until the last company to disembark fell into the rear of a continuous stream that stretched far up Wellington-street.

Then began the march to the step of the kettledrum and the rally of an occasional bugle. From a window or shop front here and there fluttered a patriotic banner. With an athletic swing and to the rythmic swish of a thousand feet marching in step the men passed, swiftly through the city and back to the station where the entraining was just as noiseless and speedy as had been the disembarkation.

Now and again a cheer, deep-throated and emotional, would burst forth, more often a sentiment-inspired cooee would pass along the route, but, in the main, the people watched in understanding silence.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Vernon C. King

Pte Vernon Charles King

Enlisted: Boulder, Western Australia- August 1914
Age at enlistment: 26
Occupation: Miner
Unit: 11th Battalion (WA), "F" Company

Vernon King began the First World War like many other Western Australian men. As a fit and healthy miner on the WA goldfields, he signed up to join the first Western Australian battalion, the 11th, within a couple of weeks of the declaration of war by Britain on August 4th, 1914.

But Vernon's war was short-lived. He shipped out with his battalion and landed on the beaches of Gallipoli on the 25th April, 1915- the day that became known as ANZAC Day, Australia's first true taste of war as a nation. Vernon was physically injured immediately, but it was his mental injuries that defined the rest of the war for him, and ultimately occasioned his early return home.

In his absence, life on the home front was anything but easy for his wife and mother, and by the time he returned, things had changed significantly not only in himself, but in the world he left behind.

Before the war

Vernon was born to parents Lillian and James King in the Melbourne suburb of Windsor, Victoria. His father had several other children by a previous marriage. At some point in the early 1900s, the family moved west to settle in the gold rush mining town of Kalgoorlie- a town that even today is know for its duality of good times and hard luck, as well as for having one pub for every 1200 people in town. Yes, that's 25 pubs for around 30,000 inhabitants, which pales a little in comparison to the number of drinking holes available for around the same level of population in the early 1900s- over 90 hotels and 8 breweries, or one hotel for every 300 people. The number of brothels was probably not far behind.

Vernon probably did his share of carousing as a young man. In 1907 at the age of 19, he was arrested with several others at the goldfields mining town of Gwalia for playing the illegal gambling game Two-Up, in which punters bet on the outcome of a coin toss. Though he was charged, there was not enough evidence to convict, and so Vernon was allowed to go free. He stayed out of publically-visible trouble after that, working on the mines and making no further appearances in the crime reports, and married Louisa Johnson in 1910. Their only child Ethel was born in 1911.

During the war

When war was declared on August 4th, 1914, there was great enthusiasm in Western Australia. Australia had only been a federated nation since 1901, and since 1911 under the Universal Service Scheme, the young men of the state had been enlisted in compulsory military training. As a man aged between 18 and 26, Vernon would have been required to serve in a militia or military unit, and his enlistment record shows that he had been part of one of the Army's Infantry Regiments for five years.

No surprise, then, that Vernon signed his official papers almost as early as possible at Boulder on August 18th 1914, declaring his intent to fight in the war. He was placed into F Company, which was comprised mostly of men from the same area. By September, he was at the central training camp of Blackboy Hill in Perth, and on November 2nd he departed on the HMAT Ascanius with the rest of the 11th Battalion, bound for further training in Egypt, and from there, the real show in Turkey.

The men of Vernon's battalion were amongst the first to land on the beaches beneath Ari Burnu Point at 4:30am on April 25th, and were immediately met by heavy fire from Turkish troops. Around 20000 Australian soldiers landed on the beaches that day, and by the time the sun set again that evening, over 2000 men- or 10% of the total force- had already been killed. From that point onward, the Australian troops faced relentless and chaotic battle that would last for eight months, resulting in the deaths of over 10,000 Australian men, and injuries to a further 20,000. With a national population of just over 3 million people at the time, it's easy to understand why Gallipoli is a campaign remembered every year on ANZAC Day.

Vernon King didn't last long on the battlefront. On the very first day of fighting, he was removed to the hospital ships with a serious injury to his back. He was transferred to hospital in Malta to convalesce, and it took nearly two full months before he was healthy enough to return to war in June.

But Vernon fought for only eight more days before a new injury sent him back to hospital- this time, one that was to become the silent suffering of many: neurasthenia, also described as nervous debility, or, as it was more commonly known at the time, shell-shock.

Each of these terms had a subtly different definition. Neurasthenia and nervous debility were terms essentially used to describe a nervous breakdown, characterised by any or all of fatigue, agitation, anxiety, fear, insomnia, nightmares and hallucinations, shaking, and numerous other mental and physical symptoms such as headaches and phantom pains. Shell-shock was the same, but while the other conditions were considered to originate from within the sufferer, shell-shock was considered to originate from the physical effect of sound waves on the body, as encountered on the war front under the never-ending barrage of detonating shells.

Collectively, the symptoms describing these illnesses are today known as Combat Stress Reaction. The rapid increase in cases during the First World War initially took the Armies by surprise, and it wasn't long before neurological conditions began to get a lot of attention, if not a lot of sympathy. This somewhat disturbing film from 1918 shows the very wide range of war neuroses of a number of soldiers, and is a good indicator of why the problem could not be ignored.

However, in the earliest days of the war, shell-shock was not always given a great deal of credibility, and Vernon King was returned to the front after just one day of respite. This time, he lasted six days before he was removed again to hospital suffering nervous debility. From that point on, Vernon never set foot again on the battlefield.

He was transferred from hospital to hospital before finally being sent across to England to the 5th London General Hospital at St. Thomas, where he would remain a neurological patient for almost a full year.

It appears that removal to a hospital in the United Kingdom was considered something of a last resort in the treatment of shell-shock cases, reserved only for those who were given little hope of recovery in the short to middle term. Vernon's removal to London, his year in hospital there, and his discharge from the Army as unfit for further service, suggest that his case was of the most serious kind; however, despite repeated requests from family, the Army provided no further details of his symptoms or treatment.

He was discharged from hospital in London in May 1916, and arrived back in Western Australia in June of the same year, discharged from the Army in October to face life forever changed.

For a further look at neurasthenia and shell-shock in World War I, by the way, I highly recommend Pat Barker's mostly-fictional Regeneration trilogy, which follows a number of mental patients recovering under the care of the psychologist W. H. Rivers, who became something of a world expert on the condition through his wartime work.

On the home front

While Vernon was away at war, life on the home front appeared to be unravelling a little. His wife Louisa was listed as his next of kin, but in June of 1915, his mother Lillian sent a letter to the Minister of Defense complaining that she had only learned of his April injury upon receiving a letter from him, sent from the hospital in Malta. She was very unhappy that she had received no previous word from the Army.

The person who replied was surprised, because a telegram had indeed been sent advising Vernon's next of kin, L. King, that he was injured. And here was L. King telling them she hadn't received the telegram. It took a couple of back and forth pieces of correspondence before Lillian admitted that she was not actually Louisa, and therefore not actually entitled to receive the telegrams that should have been reaching her son's wife.

Her reply was interesting, and says a lot about the stresses the family were facing. She detailed a story of considerable woe, in which Louisa had not been seen or heard from in a long while, and seemed to have left Vernon while he was away. The relationship with her daughter-in-law seemed full of animosity on both sides, so whether this was true or not isn't clear. But as a result of the breakdown in communication between the women, his family were not aware of what was happening to him overseas, and it concerned his mother greatly that she should know if any further harm befell him.

After further correspondence, the Army agreed to include both Louisa and Lillian in all future correspondence regarding Vernon. But Lillian never had her greatest concern answered before Vernon arrived home- she was desperate to know what injury he had suffered, to prepare herself for looking after him upon his return.

After the war

Vernon arrived home in June 1916, to a home situation that isn't fully clear from the records. His wife may have been absent, and his mother was preparing for the worst. From the available records, she seemed concerned that Vernon would come home disfigured and broken physically. I'm not sure what she would have expected, or for that matter what she got, when he arrived back physically unharmed, but seriously mentally damaged.

Once Vernon arrived home, he didn't appear often in the records. But contrary to what his medical assessments might have suggested, what does appear in the newspapers seems to show that he lived a life far more productive and, in a sense, normal, than his injuries otherwise have allowed. Time, it seems, was a healer.

How much his shell shock continued to affect him is something we can't know from what appears in the public eye- the struggle he may have had behind closed doors will remain private.

But I do think it's really interesting that one of the places he's listed is in records for shooting competitions. So many of those affected by shell shock were unable to handle the sounds and sights that had been associated with war, and yet it seems that Vernon became quite a champion shooter for the Albany district, where he moved in the mid-1920s to become a shopkeeper.

Vernon lived until 1964, and died at the age of 76. His wife Louisa had been buried in the same area at Albany Cemetery upon her death in 1962.

Edited to add (9/1/16): Vernon's grand-daughter Beryl recently contacted me to chat about her grandfather, his war history and his life both before and after the war. She holds a great amount of additional detail about his life that is quite fascinating, from sources including letters and a diary. She tells me that Dylan's restaurant in Albany, one of my favourite eateries anywhere, was owned by Vernon for many years, and that they have a memorial to him there. I much appreciate Beryl taking the time to get in touch to confirm many of the details above, and correct some minor errors.

Monday, May 7, 2012

James Dreghorn

Pte James Dreghorn

SERN: 7221
Enlisted: Blackboy Hill, Perth- 17th November 1916
Age at enlistment: 21
Occupation: Farmer
Unit: 11th Battalion, 24th reinforcements

On ANZAC Day this year, by complete coincidence, I found myself in the rural region of Western Australia where my war novel Between the Lines is set.

I first travelled through the Midwest between Mingenew and Morawa while working as an archaeologist back in 2004, and over the course of many months spent walking the land there on surveys, it developed a grip on me that would not let go, and quickly became the setting of the novel, which is about a farming family torn apart and put back together by war. Besides the innate connection I felt to the place, it was a very appropriate setting for a war story- the area, which was mostly farmed for sheep and wheat from the turn of the 20th century, saw disproportionately high enlistment from local men in the war, and the pride remains.

Farming country near Mingenew

With my family, I visited the Mingenew War Memorial on April 25th to pay my respects to those who served and fell in the Great War, and to continue my annual tradition of researching a fallen soldier each ANZAC Day. I chose a name at random to investigate further, and that name was James Dreghorn.

Mingenew War Memorial

Before the war

James Dreghorn moved from Perth out to the Merkanooka area, between Mingenew and Morawa, in 1911 with his parents James and Jessie, his younger brother Gordon, and his sister Christina. He was 16 years old at the time. His father James Snr was a well-regarded architect in the Public Works division of the State government, and the family were part of the social set in the suburb of Subiaco. They were especially well-known for James Snr’s skill on the bowling green, and he assisted in many victories for the Subiaco bowls club. Newspaper reports of their departure mention that the elder James was going on the land for his sons- establishing a place for them in the growing agricultural area of the Midwest, where the future seemed full of unlimited promise.

In the Merkanooka/ Morawa area, the family also became well-regarded. They entered the sheep farming arena as Dreghorn and Sons; James Snr sat on local committees and became a Justice of the Peace, while Gordon became involved with the cricket club. Christina married a local farmer. Even today, there’s a road named after the family.

Away to war

James Jnr, or Jimmy as he was known to the family, has a fairly short war story in the end- but one that reflects the experience of many thousands of Australian families.

When the war began in 1914, the call was put out for fit men between the ages of 18 and 35, who were above 5’6” in height. At 5’5”, Jimmy was on the smaller side and didn’t quite qualify. He had also previously been ruled out of service for a medical condition called varicocele.

But after the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in 1915, the numbers of men enlisting declined to the point where the Army chose to relax the physical requirements. Jimmy finally became eligible to enrol, and did so at Blackboy Hill camp in Perth in November 1916, becoming part of the 24th reinforcements of the 11th Battalion.

He departed for the battlefields of the Western Front on the troop transport ship HMAT Miltiades early in 1917, and arrived in England in March, though he didn’t join his unit in France until September. The 11th were in the midst of intense training for an upcoming top secret advance in which Jimmy would take part.

On the Western Front

Jimmy and the 11th departed for the front on September 13th 1917, headed for military history in the Battle of Passchendaele.

The Battle of Passchendaele, or the Third Battle of Ypres, took place in Belgium between July and November 1917. The campaign aimed to take control of the ridge and village of Passchendaele near the town of Ypres as part of a drive toward the Belgian coast, with the intent of pushing the German Army into retreat and regaining territory. Many of the most famous battles of the entire war were fought in the campaign, and the names of many of the contested places are now legend- Flanders, Messines Ridge, Verdun, and the three locations Jimmy Dreghorn would have known all about- Menin Road Ridge, Polygon Wood, and Broodseinde.

The 11th Battalion launched into the Battle of Menin Road Ridge on September 20th, and the battalion diary is written with unusual feeling, perhaps reflecting the emotions that resulted from an overall 5000 Australians killed or wounded on that single day:

The day of days- our boys got out to the forming up position like the disciplined soldiers they are and formed up without a hitch. At a few minutes before zero Fritz noticed them and put down a barrage, but our barrage came down right on the tick and our boys did their job. Considering the operation our losses were remarkably light.

The battle had been a success, despite the high cost. The British commanders who engineered the assault had tried a new tactic that would become known as "bite and hold", in which a charge was made on a small section of the German line, "biting" a chunk out of it that would then become Allied-held territory. This then weakened the German position on either side, allowing for further attacks to take place.

Three bites were made in the initial phase of fighting, but the 11th Battalion retired to Steenvorde and didn't participate in the second at Polygon Wood. They returned to the front on October 5th, just in time for the Battle of Broodseinde. Another success for the Allied troops, but during those weeks the fighting took place in on-and-off pouring rain that flooded trenches and brought new waves of disease to those fighting on the front line.

Jimmy was probably already sick by the time the 11th returned to Devonshire Camp for a rest on the 10th of October. Three days later, he was admitted to hospital with debility and PUO, or pyrexia (fever) of unknown origin. He was diagnosed with trench fever and transferred to the larger 57th General Hospital. Trench fever was an illness borne by lice that normally ran its course in five days, and had relatively non-severe symptoms, such as headaches, leg pain and skin rashes.

But Jimmy’s trench fever quickly became something far more deadly- tuberculous meningitis, an infection of the lining of the brain and spinal column. Before the days of modern treatment, he stood little chance.

Just over a month after arriving on the frontlines, after fighting in and surviving two of the most vicious and deadliest battles faced by Australian troops in the First World War, Jimmy passed away of illness in hospital.

The aftermath

The Red Cross was asked to investigate his death on behalf of his family, and returned the following account from the 57th General Hospital:

He was admitted to this hospital on October 15th 1917 suffering from tuberculous meningitis, he was very ill and delirious most of the time until his death. He was interred at the Eastern Cemetery Boulougne.

There was nothing more to say. His family placed a sad memorial notice in the newspaper, and there is no further mention of James again in the public record.

The Dreghorn family carried on farming, and James Snr passed away in 1943. Dreghorn and Sons, still named after James, James and Gordon, were still selling sheep from Morawa up to the limit of newspaper archive dates in 1954.

And so life went on without a much beloved son, as it did for so many other families around the country.