Time’s script has tried to heal the wounded earth, The arithmetic of the tides is in the bones, Crafted with care into the sands between our toes. The khaki jacket is rusted now, blood-rusted, Bullet-rusted, but somehow the letters kept counsel, All through the rat-atat-tat, close to the heart. And now the battlefield is a tourist haven, The spruikers and the conscripts to cupidity Follow the pallor and the pall of someone else’s storytime In a memo from the War Office, ‘Your country needs you.’ The square finger points. Yes, needs you, to remember the bodies in bags.
My grandfather, Edmund Alfred Drake-Brockman, was shot in the chest at Gallipoli. When my mother died, she left me a small wooden box that contained some letters. They were letters sent to my grandmother, ‘Dearest mine’, from Anzac Cove and beyond. My mother featured as ‘The kidlet’ or ‘Ginger’.
These are some extracts from a letter written from St Andrew’s Hospital, Malta, on 2 August 1915:
I have two of your letters that I haven’t yet replied to. And orderly is at present ransacking my pack from them. If he can only find them I will reply now. He’s got them at last. Old Gosling had got them carefully wrapped up in a piece of khaki cloth and stowed away in my greatcoat pocket. I had them in my own tunic pocket at the time that I was hit, but as this garment had to be cut off me and as I wasn’t in a condition to take much interest in things at the moment I had no idea what had become of them. Since I only knew that I still had them because Gosling was on the scene almost as soon as I was hit and anything belonging to me and particularly anything appertaining to you is in Gosling’s eyes sacred. Your letters that I refer to are dated 7/6/15 and 12/6/15. The first is number 4 but the other one hasn’t got a number, your number three hasn’t turned up yet.
Fancy the kidlet kicking up a fuss because you had taken my photograph away from over her bed. Isn’t it great, it makes me feel most awfully bucked. It may be as you suspect that instinct tells her that I am more to her than other men, but I think sweetheart mine that it is due more to the teaching of her most adorable little mother. She seems to be quite clever and altogether charming in all she does. I am looking forward to getting her photographs. They ought to be at Anzac by now and as I have written to let them know where I am, I ought to have my mails sent on pretty soon. The snaps of Mary which you enclosed were as you say adorable but they were not fixed or toned or whatever photographers call it. While I was reading your letter I put them down beside me and when I had finished and went to have another look they had turned black you can imagine how sick I felt.
I continue to be a surgical curiosity – two more of the big surgical guns came to have a look at me yesterday. One of them was the head Professor Man at Edinburgh. They said the same as the others. The Prof. said that I should not have lived for more than two minutes after I was hit. I won’t have much to show for my chest wound, just two very small spots, one in front and one behind. The holes already healed up on the outside but on the inside they are still troublesome. The thigh wound is getting on well. It is now being allowed to heal up as it as almost finished discharging.
The worst thing about this island is the sand flies. My feet, legs and arms are an awful mess from their bites.
This letter has been written in scraps that I’m not sure what I have said. Have I said that I am beginning to feel quite fit again? I am to be put into a sort of bath chair and taken out on the balcony this afternoon which is the first step in the direction of getting up. I must begin to think about some clothes. My entire wardrobe (almost), which was on me when I was hit was cut off me and so destroyed and in any event it wasn’t fit for anywhere but Anzac.
One explanation offered for Edmund’s miraculous survival is that the fibrillation of the bullet as it entered his chest caused the heart to move downwards sufficiently to evade the bullet. Survive he did. Upon discharge in Australia he re-enlisted (with the help of General Bridges) and returned to the Western Front in Europe – Amiens Villers-Bretronneux, Yrpres.
I loved and admired my grandfather. He taught me to put chewing-gum behind my ear so it could be recycled! Needless to say ‘the kidlet’ was not amused.
In his public life he became, after the war, a National Party Senator in Western Australia, represented Australia at the League of Nations, was appointed to the Arbitration Court in the 1920s and commanded, as Major-General, the Third Division between the Wars.
In his private life he was a chain-smoker of Garrick or du Maurier cigarettes. Upon his death I was offered his pyjamas. They were riddled with holes because he smoked in bed.
He received a Montenegrin order, the Order of St Danilo, Protector of Virgins, third class. We mused much on third class virgins!
Finally, after his wife died, he would go to stay with his son at Baddaginnie, near Benalla. On one occasion he was summoned by Prime Minister Ben Chifley, with whom he got on well, to come to Melbourne with respect to a major strike! (I think, in South Australia). Chifley would have the Spirit of Progress train stopped at Benalla to pick up Edmund. Chifley had considerable influence in the railway world, having been, of course, a train-driver. When Edmund got to the Benalla station there was the press. His son’s phone was a ‘party line’. The news had been circulated, as it often was on ‘party lines’. The following day the Postmaster-General arranged for a single line ’phone. Edmund was, at this point, Chief Judge of the Arbitration Court.
I don’t think my grandfather would like the idolatry and the inflated patriotism, the xenophobic jingoism and the sanctimonious sentimentality that now envelopes Anzac Day. Governments, media and self-interested organisations have produced a celebration of militarism rather than an occasion to recognise and to understand the folly and consequences of war, to consider what war does to individual lives, and to remember those who never returned home after fighting in wars which were someone else’s. Australians seemed to have done a lot of that. I wonder why?
War is vile. We must remember that. That great English war poet, Wilfred Owen, in a letter home (4 February 1917) discussed
… the universal pervasion of Ugliness, vile noises, foul language … everything unnatural, broken, blasted; the distortion of the dead, whose unburiable bodies sit outside dug-outs all day, all night, the most execrable sights on earth.
In poetry we call them the most glorious.
Recently published is 1914: Poetry Remembers, an anthology of war poetry with poems by modern poets in reflection on First World War poems. It’s edited by Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate. I commend it to readers and their families.
Dulce Et Decorum Est
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
(Wilfred Owen, who won a Military Cross and then was killed a month later).