Dr Shirley Walker
Dr Shirley Walker taught Australian Literature for over thirty years in Australian and overseas universities.
On retirement she published her autobiography Roundabout at Bangalow (UQP, 2001), followed by The Ghost at the Wedding (Penguin, 2009).
The Ghost at the Wedding is a family story of Australian soldiers in the First and the Second AIF. It won the Penguin/Varuna Scholarship, the Asher Award (University of Melbourne) and the Nita B. Kibble Literary Award for Women Writers (2010).
Private Eugene Sullivan, from Lismore NSW, wrote a continuous series of letters home to his family. They date from his enlistment in October 1915 until his death in October 1917.
The 300 pages of Eugene’s letters were donated to the State Library of NSW by his mother in 1920.
In the following nine letters I attempt to imagine the variety of letters that might have been written to Eugene in response. They are supposedly written by the following three members of his family:
- Eugene’s father, Alexander Maurice Sullivan, was a well-known and prosperous Lismore solicitor. He was the son of a famous Dublin identity, Timothy Daniel Sullivan. Timothy Sullivan had been a member of the House of Commons, had been the Mayor of Dublin, and was the writer of the song ‘God Save Ireland’. This explains the interest in Irish affairs of Eugene’s father.
- Eugene’s mother, Margaret Sullivan (nee O’Sullivan), was devoted to her family and the Catholic Church and was very active in the war effort in Lismore. She also had family in Ireland.
- A younger brother Douglas also writes to Eugene. It had been decided by the family that Douglas Sullivan should stay home and enter the family firm.
Meanwhile an older brother Kevin is a source of anxiety for the family. He went to war twice (once to Egypt and Gallipoli then, after a time at home unfit, he re-enlisted and went to England and finally France). Kevin seldom wrote home. There is a younger sister Catherine, known as Kit. I imagine her as the typical late teenager, although neither the term nor the concept would have been available in 1915.
It must be emphasised that the following nine letters are completely fictional; the sort of letters that might have been written by such a family as the Sullivans.
(Dr) Shirley Walker.
1. Eugene Sullivan’s father, a Lismore solicitor, replies to the letter dated 27/10/1915 in which Eugene tells of his enlistment. The family has not heard from an older brother Kevin, who is on Gallipoli.
30th October 1915
Your mother and I were certainly surprised at your sudden enlistment. I feel that you might have consulted us about the timing, and your mother was hoping against hope that you would fail the medical, but apparently your health is superb. We have not heard from Kevin for two months and fear the worst. We have checked with the Savings Bank in Lismore, and his military gratuity is still being paid into it, so there’s still hope. Perhaps he is wounded and in hospital somewhere. If we don’t hear something soon I fear your mother will decline into a permanent melancholia. She tries to stay brave, but cries a lot.
It seems very strange that Kevin went to Gallipoli at all. He was trained as a Trooper in the Light Horse yet he ended up in the trenches, fighting as an infantryman against the Turks. As well as the danger of shot and shell, he has suffered all sorts of privations and, no doubt, disgusting illnesses. So many boys from the Richmond River have lost their lives there, from the Landing five months ago to the Battle of Lone Pine in August. There is sadness everywhere and your mother almost faints with fear if she sees the telegram boy, or worse still the priest, approaching down Wyrallah Road.
One hopes that, with winter closing down in the Dardanelles, the British will see some sense and withdraw. If Kevin is really gone, we will have to face it with courage as so many of our friends have done. At the same time we should be very proud. I’m sure you will remember from your Latin at Riverview: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Or, in our terms, ‘it’s a fine and noble thing to lay down one’s life for one’s native land’.
I’m afraid your mother would not see it that way, so we entreat you to take advantage of your ambulance training and get straight into a medical corps. It would be just as noble to comfort the wounded and dying behind the lines, where you would be out of personal danger.
Meanwhile, as a solicitor, it is my sad duty to administer the wills of the fallen. Each of our young soldiers, before he goes into battle, must complete his will, and more and more of these are coming across my desk following the heavy casualties on Gallipoli, or in military hospitals on Lemnos, in Egypt, or even in Malta. It’s heart-rending to witness young wives or elderly mothers weeping on the other side of my desk. One poor widow, lacking any other form of transport, came in from Keerong with her children on the cream lorry and broke down in my office. Without a breadwinner her future is dismal. The most she can hope for is some deferred pay from her husband’s account. I don’t know what will become of her children.
Now, dear Eugene, you must hasten to transfer into an ambulance unit, not just for your own sake but for your mother’s. To that end I have enclosed a letter to Major Lawes, and another addressed to him from our friend Mrs Ord, who is a Patron of the Red Cross in Lismore. Please find the Major and present these two letters to him in person. When he sees what a fine young man you are, and reads these letters of recommendation, he will surely find you a place in the Medical Corps. We will not rest until we know that you have made the shift.
You must also be careful of your money and possessions while you are in camp. Your tent mates may seem pleasant enough but who knows? We can only guess what their backgrounds are. Leave your valuables with your Sydney relatives and lock up your other things in your bag. You can’t be too careful. Also I don’t need to warn you of the dangers of the night in Sydney. There are many lovely young Catholic girls in Lismore who will eagerly welcome you when you come home from the war.
I’m sending several Northern Stars from last week. I was disgusted to read of two strikes, one in the woollen mills at Marrickville, the other among carpenters and bricklayers working on the new army camp at Casula. You wouldn’t believe it; they demand their return fares from Sydney each day and that their travelling time be paid for! These strikes will seriously harm the war effort. The camp is urgently needed; it will house 6,000 members of the AIF in training, and the cloth from the woollen mills is needed, not only for our own army uniforms, but also for the British Army fighting the Huns in Belgium and France. Traitors all of them; the Trade Unionists should be thrown into the nearest prison and left there to rot for the duration.
During Mass in the Cathedral on Sunday Father Scott prayed individually for all the boys from the Diocese away at the war, including Kevin and now yourself. That gave great pleasure to your mother. She will drop you a line in a couple of days, when she gets over the shock of your enlistment. I don’t need to tell you that she is just a little bit angry.
Until next time. Your proud Father.
2. Eugene Sullivan’s younger brother Douglas replies to a letter dated 28/11/1915 in which Eugene describes a riot at Liverpool Camp, put down by a mounted troop from the Light Horse.
3rd December 1915.
So you beat me to it. You knew I intended to go as soon as I turned 21. I certainly wouldn’t have got permission from the old ones before then, in view of their hysteria over Kevin. I’m sure he’s alright, you know how he always hated writing letters and his money is still coming into his Savings Account. Still, you know what Mum’s like, always thinking the worst. She cries a lot and I hear her saying the rosary over and over again at night. I wish she wouldn’t. It’s a bit hard to get to sleep with all that going on just through the wall.
That was all baloney, what you said in your earlier letter about me being the one to stay home as I was the one ‘most likely to succeed in civilian life’. You mean you’ll have all the fun while I make do with dreary law exams and the not so exciting life in this backwater.
Your account of the riot in camp was hysterical; how I wish I had been there. I’d love to give those Military Police a good thumping. As you say, they are the lowest of the low, preying on their mates, betraying them, little better than the shirkers who infest the streets around here. I hope you got right into it Eugene, no good being a pussycat.
It was great the way the Light Horse did their bit in the ‘battle’. It must have been a glorious sight to see them thundering down the road, right into the middle of the riot. Many of them, and their horses, would have come from the Richmond River. Perhaps you were a bit sad that you hadn’t stuck with the Light Horse. There’s not much fun in binding up the bloodied skulls and broken bones way back behind all the action.
Speaking of the Light Horse, a detachment has been doing final training in the showground and they paraded through the city yesterday – up Woodlark Street, past the monument (the statue of the Northern Rivers Lancer from the Boer War), then along Molesworth Street into Spinks Park. They are about to embark for Sydney, then Egypt.
Most of them are bush lads, straight off the dairy farms, glad to get away from the cow manure and the bails, but they scrubbed up well. They looked wonderful in their new uniforms, the emu feathers in their hats fluttering in the wind. The horses were great too, high stepping and beautifully groomed, although one or two disgraced themselves.
It was a jolly good show and the whole town turned out. The young girls certainly loved it and your sister Kit was beside herself, fluttering her hanky and crying with the wonder of it all. I don’t know whether she had any particular bloke in mind but Mum and Dad will certainly have to watch her. She was out gallivanting and dancing with the troopers until midnight last Saturday, then was too tired to get up for Mass the next morning.
I’m enclosing a couple of cuttings from today’s Northern Star. One tells of the riots in Sydney streets that you speak of – soldiers and civilians attacking the German Club and the Frankfurt Sausage Company. I believe there’s a Concentration Camp, as they call it, for German internees close to Holesworthy. All those Krauts should be shoved into it. Who knows what sneaky messages they’re getting through to the enemy. And we can do without their frankfurts.
The other article tells of imposters in the uniforms of the AIF, begging in the streets of Sydney, pretending to have been wounded on Gallipoli. One even pretended to be blind. How low can you get? It’s to be hoped that they’ll be suitably punished. Stringing up would be too good for them.
I’m also sending a few magazines, The Lone Hand and the Bulletin. I’m sure you’ll enjoy their stories more than the improving books Mum is sending At least they are Australian. I can’t imagine that The Vicar of Wakefield was much fun. Goldsmith was never my cup of tea.
Speaking of fun, we’ve had a great time shooting the flying foxes in the colony down on the river, perfecting our marksmanship. With a couple of mates we hide in the vine scrub until they begin to take flight at dusk and shoot them down in their hundreds. It’s great practice, and I haven’t given up the idea of enlisting as soon as I turn 21. It also saves the fruit trees in the back yard.
And, speaking of the back yard, father is digging up yet another big garden bed. More and more roses! Not to mention dahlias! It’s like a mania with him. I can’t help thinking that he does it to settle his nerves. He’s very upset by the will-waving wives and mothers of those who didn’t return, and I don’t blame him. As for Mother, apart from worrying herself sick over Kevin, she’s working big time for the Red Cross, doing up parcels for the Comforts Fund and singing patriotic songs with the Ladies’ Choir.
As for me, I’m studying full time for my exams, getting ready to help Dad in the office and hating every minute of it. Why should I be the one left behind while you have all the fun? Mum is going to add a few lines. I won’t let her see what I’ve written.
Your desperate brother Douglas (Get me out of here!)
I’m so glad that you have been able to transfer to the medical corps. This is great news. And you say you like the life, better still. Tending the sick and wounded is an honourable task, even though your present patients have only measles and mumps and a few scrapes and bruises from rioting in camp.
I think it’s important that you keep up your reading, especially of the great uplifting books in our literature. Perhaps you were not so keen on The Vicar of Wakefield so I’m sending you several Dickens novels and some Conan Doyle with which to while away any idle hours you might have. Improve the shining hour, I always say.
Your father is digging up more of the back yard and planting even more roses. He’s quite disturbed by the number of deaths on Gallipoli and the heart-rending wills that he’s called upon to administer. We pray that Kevin has survived.
Until we see you at Christmas,
Your loving Mother.
3. His mother replies to Eugene’s letter of 2nd March 1916. Eugene is now in camp at Armidale NSW where a large contingent of the AIF are training before being sent overseas. The family learned in January that Kevin had been evacuated from Gallipoli in December, then declared unfit and sent home.
10th March 1916.
What a pity you were not able to get away to see Kevin on his way through Armidale to Brisbane. He is now home after going the long way round (why couldn’t they have put him on the coastal steamer to Byron Bay?). His papers say that he is suffering from ‘enteritis’ and ‘pulmonary phthesis’ whatever that is. I’m sure you’ll know what it means. He’s now under the care of our local doctor, and we hope he will soon be well, although he seems very depressed. He just sits in his chair smoking and brooding all day.
We had hoped that his return to his family and this glorious city would have lifted his spirits. The place is beautiful at the moment. The mangoes in the back yard are dropping ripe from the tree – those the flying foxes don’t get – and your father’s roses and dahlias are a riot.
I thought the pictures might cheer Kevin up. The Hypocrites is on at Molloy’s Theatre. The ad in the Northern Star says that it ‘shines the naked truth’ on Politics, Society, home life and religious hypocrisy. I didn’t think that would be good for Kevin, so I suggested Cinderella with Mary Pickford at the Star Court. Kevin went out for a smoke after about half an hour and didn’t come back. His father hopes to engage him in some useful work – perhaps helping in the garden, or clearing up some of the paperwork in the office - but it’s difficult.
Many in Lismore are worse off than Kevin. There are so many ‘returned’ men (as they are called) that the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the churches can’t keep up with them. Some are on crutches hobbling round the streets; others are blind, being led around, sometimes by a child, and groups of them just sit idly in Spinks Park all day. It’s heart-rending. Your father is on a committee working towards forming a ‘Returned Soldiers Association’ where they will at least have the company of one another, and perhaps a clubhouse where they can meet.
As for me, I’m busy knitting for the soldiers in France as they say it’s bitterly cold over there. The Red Cross supplies the wool, four skeins for a scarf, two for a balaclava and three for warm socks. Some of the ladies can knit a scarf overnight but only the most courageous attempt the socks. Turning the heel of a sock is way too hard for me. I also spend a day a week at the Comforts Fund sewing up parcels of treats for the soldiers – fruit cakes, tinned goods, tobacco and other things. The calico is very stiff and our hands get rough and sore but we do it all with love. And, of course, a prayer for each of our brave young men.
Meanwhile the Ladies’ Choir is rehearsing for a fund-raising concert organised by the Salvation Army. We’re singing ‘Keep the home fires burning, while your hearts are yearning . . . There’s a silver lining, through the dark clouds shining’. This lovely tune should raise the spirits. Then we’re singing ‘There’s a long, long trail a’winding’ which, they say, is now a marching song for the AIF. This concert is just a rehearsal for the ANZAC Day ceremony on the first anniversary of the landing. It will be the biggest occasion Lismore has ever seen. Your father is on the committee, of course.
To get back to your last letter, we were all delighted with your descriptions of Armidale, Tamworth, and your experiences in the field hospital. I understand that the Armidale climate is very bracing and healthy. It will certainly set the men up for their overseas service. I’m glad that you found time to visit the New England Girls’ School and the Armidale Cathedral. Your descriptions of the beautiful carvings on the altar were an inspiration and I showed them to Bishop Carroll after mass on Sunday. I know, Eugene, that wherever you travel on the other side of the world you will seek out such holy sites and nurture your spiritual beliefs.
We are now at ease about your overseas departure. We know that you are on a healing mission and out of danger, we hope, behind the lines. I’m looking up some reading matter for you on the voyage. Thomas Hardy is all the rage in Lismore. The Mayor of Casterbridge is interesting but Tess of the d’Urbervilles is better. Tess does meet a sad fate in the end (at Stonehenge of all places) but you will certainly enjoy the lush dairy farming scenes; they will take you right back to your childhood in the Richmond River Valley.
We can’t wait for your final leave, not far off now. While you’re here I’ll give you details of your father’s relatives in Ireland and Somerset (not far from Stonehenge, as it turns out) and of my own cousin, Mrs Healey in Dublin. I know she is looking forward to meeting a young man from the colonies. You must put your best foot forward there Eugene!
Your loving Mother.
4. Eugene’s father is eager to tell him about Lismore’s first ANZAC Day, but knows that, with Eugene now on the high seas, the letter might take months to get to him.
15th May, 1916.
By now you will be well and truly on your way. We received one letter, probably posted before you left Australian waters. How exciting for you, first the ceremonial review in Hyde Park, then boarding your transport and sailing away on the glorious enterprise. How we wish we had been able to watch the Marathon sail proudly out through the Heads carrying the most precious cargo of all, our brave young men, hearts full of valour, leaving their native land to fight for the Empire. Our thoughts and prayers are with you and your brothers-in-arms, every day, in every way.
I’m so sorry that you missed the very first ANZAC Day commemoration in Lismore. It was an amazing ceremony, the most important ever to have been held in the city. Empire Day will surely pale into insignificance and ANZAC Day will become, forever, the most important day of the year.
It began in the morning with very solemn church services. Your mother went to High Mass in St Carthage’s Cathedral, presided over by His Lordship Bishop Carroll. She sang in the choir, which always gives her great spiritual comfort. You’ll find a full account of the service in the Northern Star which I’ve posted separately, but I must tell you about Mgr. McGuire’s heart-rending speech, just in case the paper’s lost in the mail.
He spoke with great feeling of the horrors of the Landing - ‘The breakers on the Mediterranean frothed white beneath the hailing bullets and soon frothed red with the heart’s blood of our Australians’. Then he spoke of the superb victory our valiant young soldiers achieved. This was very moving, especially for the mothers of the fallen, some of them in the congregation. There were also words of high praise for the fighting spirit of our soldiers: ‘They trained beneath the old Pyramids of Egypt, they sailed historic seas to meet their foes, they fought the fiercest and, we think, the bravest fight . . . the beach and the hill were taken, and with their blood our soldiers baptised them Anzac’.
What an eloquent preparation for the day’s ceremonies! And what a pity Kevin, Douglas and Kit didn’t see fit to attend with their mother, though they did make up for it later in the day. The Anglicans and the Methodists had their own services, of course.
As for the ceremony at noon, you will read the full account in the Star (if you get it). The procession was headed by the mounted police and the Salvation Army Band. It was wonderful to see Kevin marching with the returned men. One of them, a pitiful case, hobbled along on crutches, but still he marched. The Mayor spoke movingly of the cause of humanity and civilization and expressed the wish that the returned men would soon recover their health and return to the battle-field, and also that every able-bodied man in this wealthy district would now hasten to enlist. The recruiting officer backed this up. He spoke of the many shirkers in the town, some of whom had told him absolute lies. He refused to believe, for instance, that a man who could go to the picture show every night was staying home to look after his poor old mother.
A tremendous amount of money, over £200 in fact, was raised for comforts for the soldiers. It was wonderful to see Kit dressed up as a Red Cross nurse collecting on Ware’s corner with Miss Browne from the local school. They raised £6.5.10 between them. Money poured in from all directions: school collections, coins thrown on the flags in front of the monument, and large cheques written by local businessmen. This will go a long way towards food parcels and other comforts. So you can see that the folk at home are doing everything they can to support the fighting men.
But all is not as it should be in the Mother Country. As you are at sea, you will probably not have heard much about this. Apparently there was great trouble in Dublin on Easter Monday, the day before our ANZAC Commemoration. The Republicans launched an insurrection in an attempt to take over the city and then the country. This was, of course, put down by the British Army, with great loss of Irish lives, and the leaders were executed in the weeks following.
Our family and many others in Lismore are very proud of our Irish heritage. We are profoundly shocked that such a terrible uprising could take place while Britain and the Empire have their backs to the wall, struggling to protect our civilization. We all want self-rule for Ireland, but not like this, not until the war is over. Your mother is very keen for you to visit our families in Dublin when you get leave, but perhaps it might not be safe for a while.
As you are ‘at sea’, you probably won’t get this letter for some time but, believe me, we are all thinking of you and praying for your safety.
Your loving father.
5. Eugene has now landed in England and is in camp on Salisbury Plain. The voyage took from 3rd May to 10th July 1916. His young brother Douglas replies to the letters, photos and travel booklets which Eugene has posted along the way.
30th July 1916.
We have waited anxiously for months for some word from you, and this week everything you posted along the way arrived in a great rush. Total excitement in the house as Mum sorted letters, photos and those marvellous travel booklets from Durban and Capetown. She was especially impressed with the South African Annual with its views of the Cape, Table Mountain and the Veldt.
And over two months to get to Portsmouth, the long way round! It must have been quite a disappointment to turn back to Fremantle but there must have been a good reason if the warning came from the Cocos Islands. Everyone remembers the big naval battle near Cocos last year when the Sydney sank the Emden. Anyway it gave you the chance to see Perth, for what that was worth. Sorry you were so disappointed.
I can’t believe what a great time you’ve had, just like a tourist on the high seas, steaming along in a big convoy, watching the destroyers circling and the troop ships in the convoy strung out in a line. The adventure of a lifetime! Make the most of it old boy! How I wish I was there with you.
The photos you sent came out very well, especially those taken in Durban of the rickshaw boys. What big blokes (I wouldn’t like to wrestle with one) and what fantastic costumes. I laughed at your story of the three of you, total weight 33 stone, making the ‘boy’ pull you up a that steep slope to see just how much he could take. As you say, the Zulus are certainly superior to our own natives. Not many round Lismore any more, just a few poor old Hindoos selling veggies in the street.
I printed the negatives you sent and they came out very well – especially those of the tiger, polar bear and zebra in the Durban Zoo. I’ll be able to do multiple prints now for the relatives and the folk next door. Keep up the camera work Eugene, the family will soon have a complete record of your adventures. Mother is filling up whole albums already and showing them off to anyone she can nail down.
I can imagine how annoyed you must all have been with the malingerer, the one so desperate to get out of it that he pretended to be coughing up blood. What despicable behaviour, and how you all showed him up! There’s no excuse for cowardice, I say, and he probably should have been made to walk the jolly old plank. I’d have certainly given him a shove if I’d been there.
Now you are in camp in Salisbury Plain you’ll be able to nick up to London any time you feel like it and see the sights, Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral, the lot. They say the music halls are wonderful and, who knows, you might meet someone. I don’t suppose all the lovely young ladies are ‘taken’. Shake yourself up, Eugene. Get some romance in the old life. You’re only young once!
Mother will be writing to you soon, full of good advice and particulars of the families on Salisbury Plain and in Dublin. She’s longing for you to go to Ireland to meet the flash relatives. It’s probably not a good idea while there’s so much trouble there. Sometimes they call it the Easter Rebellion; sometimes the Post Office Rebellion, because that’s where the rebels made their last stand. Crazy Idiots! Don’t they know there’s a war on?
All the best,
Your (left behind) brother Douglas.
6. Eugene’s mother replies to a series of letters written by him from Larkhill Camp on Salisbury Plain.
10th September 1916.
It’s wonderful to hear that you are at last in a comfortable camp in the beautiful English countryside and that you hope to be there until Christmas, so perhaps we can relax for a while.
We have some startling news from here. You know how Kevin has been since his return from Gallipoli: low in health, in poor spirits and just plain difficult. He has refused to do anything useful, like helping his father with the paperwork in the office. Then suddenly, without any warning, he went off to Sydney and re-enlisted, this time in the 26th Battalion. He is now in training in Liverpool Camp and will probably be over there with you in the new year. I can’t imagine how he passed the medical examination. They must be absolutely desperate for more men.
We are all getting ready to vote next month in the Conscription Referendum, and the debate is raging, and not just in the newspapers. Arguments are breaking out in the street, in the public houses, and even between neighbours. Your father feels very strongly about it. He has given two of his three sons to the war and he doesn’t see why the slackers, the single men with no ties, or widowers and divorcees without children, should be allowed to languish at home in the hour of the Empire’s greatest need. I’m afraid that he becomes very agitated about it and the home is far from peaceful.
We have heard of the glorious victory of the AIF at Pozières, although they do tell of terrible losses. The lists of the dead and wounded appear almost daily in the Northern Star and the telegram boys are busy. I weep for their mothers, and I weep for the ruin of the beautiful French countryside. I remember it so well from my trip when I was young. Surely such a great victory and so much sacrifice heralds the end of the war. Perhaps by Christmas we will see the end of it all. I pray for this constantly.
The house is very empty with Kevin gone, Douglas in Sydney studying for his law exams, and only Kit for company. I’ll try to persuade her to accompany me to the Star Court Theatre tonight where Aloha Oe, a beautiful picture show set in the South Pacific, is showing. I can but try!
Lismore is experiencing the most glorious spring in memory. The garden is a riot of standard and climbing roses, dahlias, gerberas and all the flowers that flourish here. The grass is knee-high over the hills and valleys, the dairy cattle are fat and happy and the country roads are busy with cream trucks making their way to the butter factories. But, with all the young men gone, there are too few people to do the milking. Children as young as ten have to milk a couple of cows each day before they go to school. But it will be well worth it. The produce of the Richmond Valley – butter, cheese, ham - will go to feed the Home Country. All this bountiful nature - and the beauty that surrounds us - is such a contrast to the slaughter taking place on the other side of the world.
On a happier note, we love the photographs you send of the English countryside, the small shrines and villages, and the splendours of London, so familiar to me from my travels. London is the beating heart of our great Empire. Be sure you see all you can of it. Your father and Douglas are particularly interested in your photographs of the aerodrome and airplanes near your camp, and your accounts of the Zeppelin raids on London. How dare they attack the very heart of the Empire!
Please be sure to visit Salisbury Cathedral; it is very close to your camp. Above all you must see Glastonbury Abbey, the holiest place in all England. It is said that Joseph of Arimathea voyaged to England in ancient times and planted a thorn tree at Glastonbury. It is still growing there. There is a rumour, too, that our Saviour also visited Glastonbury, when he was but a boy. That’s why we sing that lovely song ‘Jerusalem’: ‘And did those feet, in ancient times, walk upon England’s pastures green . . .’
You must take time away from your worldly affairs to visit these holy places. Keep your faith strong Eugene; it will bring you safely home when this dreadful war is over.
Your loving Mother.
7. Eugene has been in France since the last months of 1916 and has provided his family with a running commentary on his circumstances. His father writes:
17th March, 1917.
My Dear Eugene,
At last you are in a place where you can carry out your healing mission and make use of all your medical training. Your other task, checking the water purification, is also extremely important for the safety of the men. We are very proud of the work you are doing. And, as you say, it is unheard of for an A.M.C. man to be wounded. This brings us great comfort.
We realise that you were not allowed to take your camera to France, but your descriptions are so vivid that they surpass any photograph. You are a wonderful writer, Eugene, and your descriptions of the bombardment, with its sound effects and vivid flashes of light and colour, are brilliant, far better than the flatness of a photograph could convey. And, if I might say so, such an event is best seen from a distance!
We have seen a couple of airplanes over Lismore, but it is very hard to imagine half a dozen, high in the sky, swooping and diving, with the guns blazing from beneath and the explosions all around them. Wonderful writing Eugene. Keep it up. Your mother is showing all your letters to the neighbours and friends, and is keeping them so that you can enjoy reading them, and re-living your adventures, when you come home.
We loved your humorous attempts to converse in French. Thank goodness for your three years of French tuition at Riverview (even though you hated it at the time), but nothing compares with speaking the language with the natives, even though they so often get you wrong. Perhaps they don’t want to understand you!
You describe the intense cold. It must be very hard to bear, especially for someone used to our delightful climate, but you seem well supplied with warm clothing on issue, as well as the many parcels you have received from the various comfort funds, not to mention the parcels pouring in from your home. One pities those at the front who do not have such a loving family.
As you will notice from the date above, it is St Patrick’s Day in Lismore, and indeed throughout the world ‘wherever green is worn’. The community at St Carthage’s and in the two Catholic schools celebrated with the usual enthusiasm. There was a procession from the schools, and, of course, Irish dancing in the streets, and the good old songs – ‘Danny Boy’, ‘The Mountains of Mourne’ and ‘The Minstrel Boy’ – were sung around the piano in the many Irish homes in Lismore. I well remember my visit to the ‘Emerald Isle’, the beautiful green fields and the wonderful dancing and singing. And, of course, as you know, I always plant my sweet peas on St Patrick’s Day. After that, even the very next day, it’s too late!
There is, however, some confusion abroad about Catholic loyalty, and this darkened the day. As you may have heard, our Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, the ‘Little Digger’ as he is called (and he’s certainly pint-sized) is disgusted with the rejection of the Conscription Referendum last year. Everyone knows the Empire is desperate for more men and has urgently requested a sixth Australian Division. This can’t be achieved without Conscription and Lismore voted overwhelmingly for it last year, Catholic and Protestant alike.
We now have Archbishop Mannix in Melbourne preaching vociferously against Conscription and, as well, supporting the Trade Unions. We all know what their disruptive strikes do to the war effort. The papers are full of his speeches, and he is certainly a persuasive orator. He and Billy Hughes are going at it hammer and tongs in the papers. The result is that many people now question the loyalty of the Catholic community. This is totally unfair. Our recruitment figures are far higher, in proportion, than the rest of the population.
Your mother and I will vote Yes when the time comes round again (December this year). It’s important that every coward hiding behind his mother’s skirts should be made to confront his duty, as two of my sons have done.
I hear that Ireland is the favourite destination of Australian soldiers on leave. Some of them marry Irish girls (lucky fellows) but some cowards even desert and are, so they say, hidden by the Republicans. I hope that, when you get leave from France, you will at last visit your illustrious Irish family. Don’t forget, Eugene, that your Grandfather was Lord Mayor of Dublin! The family is certainly anxious to see and compare the product of a colonial upbringing.
But above all, keep safe and come home to us.
Your loving Father.
8. In a letter dated April 1917 Eugene writes to his young brother Douglas in an unusually playful mood. He describes taking part in a bloodthirsty raid on the enemy. This is Douglas’s reply.
So good to get a letter just for myself. It’s wonderful the way you write to mother and father almost every week; it’s the one thing that keeps them going. If the mail is delayed as it all too often is, they soon go down. Mother is carefully saving all your letters in sequence; perhaps she intends to publish them after the war.
You certainly took me in with your description of the ferocious raid on the enemy, the blood-lust, the killing, the maiming, the description of yourself as a ‘savage and untamed’ maniac. I thought for once you were really taking part in the action. It took a while for me to get it; that you were actually talking about killing the rats that infest the area around your domicile. Ha Ha Eugene! Very funny, and so realistic! You are a great writer.
Your letter to me (the only one, by the way, since you got to France!) was such a relief after the ponderous epistles that Mother is filing away. You say you look like a ‘mad escapee from a nearby lunatic asylum’. I guess you’ve changed; we probably won’t know you when you come home.
I loved the description of your present abode, far from salubrious, and your detailed description of the aerial skirmish; so sorry that it ended with the fiery death of two of our airmen. Your drawings are wonderful Eugene, first the map of the aerial battle, then your sketch of the old farmhouse where you are staying, now in ruins from the bombardment. What devastation, and how heart-rending for the poor farmers when they return after the war. That is, if they do. It sounds as if the whole of France has been turned into some sort of giant muckheap. Is it worth it, one wonders? Well, surely it is; it has to be. Otherwise what sense in the whole bloody exercise?
I so admire what you are doing and wish, every hour of every day, that I could be there with you: the terrible injuries that you treat as a matter of course, and the bravery of your patients. How laconic they are – I think that’s typically Australian - and what fortitude they display when faced with the loss of a leg, or sometimes even both. I don’t know how they, or you, get through it. You say you treated only four severely wounded patients on that particular night, but surely you are facing similar heart-rending experiences night after night. I so admire your approach to what must be a heart-breaking task. I’ll be enlisting as soon as I turn 21, no more pussy-catting around for me!
Which brings me to the Referendum. It failed last time so Billy Hughes is winding up to repeat the whole exercise later this year. Father and Mother are all for it. Round up the slackers and ship them off. Why should the volunteers do all the heavy lifting? That’s what they say, but I don’t agree. Quite seriously, men should volunteer to go and get smashed up or killed for their country, not be dragged there kicking and screaming. Anyway, what use would they be? When things get really rough you couldn’t rely on someone who’d been frog marched over there.
Meanwhile not everything is serious around the town. The choirs sing and the bands play the same old patriotic songs but it didn’t take long for the yahoos to make up their own words. When the Salvation Army band plays ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’ outside the Winsome Hotel, the drunks come forth with their own version: ‘It’s the wrong way to tickle Mary, it’s the wrong way to go’ and so on. There are alternate words for every single song – not always as harmless as ‘tickle Mary’ and they sing them with great relish. But that’s Lismore.
Before I finish, thank you for the photos, which came in a separate parcel. I know you weren’t able to take your camera to France, hence the sketches, but the posed portraits of you and the group, taken I suppose by a village photographer, are great. You don’t look quite like the ‘escapee from a nearby asylum’ as you put it in your letter, but you’ve certainly aged. Mother has the enlargement framed already.
I don’t suppose you have seen or heard anything of Kevin? We have not. He should be over there by now, as he left Australia in February. He’s not a letter writer but we all anxiously await news of him.
All the best,
Your brother Douglas.
9. His mother is re-reading Eugene’s letters, which she has filed in chronological order. This letter, written just two months before Eugene’s death on 18th October 1917, would surely have reached him just before he was killed at Messines. It probably brought great comfort.
18th August 1917.
We’re so grateful for your letters. I’ve saved and filed all of them so that you can, by re-reading them, re-live your experiences when you come home. I’m so pleased that you are not in the front line, and are doing such wonderful work caring for and healing the wounded. We are so very proud of that.
You are a wonderful writer Eugene. Your letters are so moving and so lyrical, I can just see them being published after the war. I’m sure that they will make a superb book. Perhaps you are destined to be a writer after all rather than a man of the law.
Your experiences are so varied, sometimes as you say, ‘living like rats in dugouts’, at other times living like the aristocracy in lovely (though ruined) country houses. I particularly love your descriptions of nature: the cherry orchard, the hazelnuts along the roadways, the fruit and vegetables in the ruined gardens and, in your letter of 6th May, your description of springtime in the garden. I could almost have been there with you in the sunshine, listening to the ‘musical twittering of the birds’, as you put it, and the ‘peculiar note of the cuckoo’. I can just see you exploring all the gardens behind the ruined terraces and I hope you enjoyed the strawberries and rhubarb. Spring, whether in France or in this remote part of the world, reminds us of the constant renewal of nature and the world. All will flourish again when this is over, and it can’t come soon enough.
It must be comforting that France is such a devout country: the little shrines by the roadside, in alcoves in the streets and in private homes, the ruined churches and cathedrals. You describe them all so wonderfully. All, though ruined now, will surely be rebuilt when the war is over. Perhaps, as you say, it will be over by Christmas, especially as the Americans have now joined in. It seems to us at home that the Australians have been bearing the full brunt of the fighting. Other countries should front up now and give our boys a rest.
We notice from the papers that all five Australian divisions have now been moved to the Belgian front, around Messines and Ypres. I sincerely hope that it is less dangerous than your last posting. It’s very strange that you are not allowed to tell us, in your letters, of your current whereabouts; whereas the Australian papers, The Northern Star and The Sydney Morning Herald, day by day, are very clear about where each division is, just as they are very clear, sometimes too clear, about the casualties. We read each name with great sorrow. Some mother, somewhere, has just had her heart broken.
You need not worry about Douglas’s injury; it probably serves him right for playing football so vigorously. Perhaps, as he is now working as a ‘Judge’s Advocate’, he should concentrate more on his studies. Kit is gainfully employed at last and we have, at last, received a letter from Kevin, the only one since he landed in England. At least he is safe, even though he is slow to communicate. So you need not worry about any family matters. Just look after yourself. Please!
I’m glad that all the books, photos, papers and magazines that we are sending have arrived safely, not to mention all the usual comforts from our home and from the organisations in Lismore. It must be the most generous town in Australia.
I was surprised and pleased that, of all the books I sent, your favourite was Hemingway’s The Scarlet Letter. You have good taste Eugene. Its message - that love is more powerful than all the hypocrisy and judgement of the world - is an inspiring one. There is no such thing as a ‘fallen woman’, despite the labels the world puts on her; in this case the scarlet A for adultery. Hester was just a woman who loved unwisely and too well. I think I should send you more of Hemingway, and less of Conan Doyle!
You write in your last couple of letters of the unfairness of promotion and the fact that, for every soldier who gets a medal, there are dozens more deserving. It is always thus Eugene, please don’t feel resentful about it. They will all get their reward in the hereafter. Remember that God sees all, and all are equal in his eyes.
Yes it must be tiresome when strangers attempt to befriend you just because they too come from the Richmond Valley – the Maltese carter and the man who claimed familiarity with your family and turned out to be the council rat-catcher. I remember him well, and we all had a good laugh when we read about his familiarity. But Eugene, it will be a different world when the war is over. Our society will be completely changed. I know it; I can feel it already. All our soldiers, every one of them, have offered up their lives for their country. After the war, all who served will surely be equal.
I see a new society where all returned men will be honoured. I can see it already: the rows of shining faces marching on ANZAC Day. Each man is wearing a golden badge which says that he is a Returned Soldier, that he has volunteered, has been prepared to sacrifice his life, and has returned to be honoured for it. Yes, even the lowly rat-catcher. May that day come soon.
Please keep yourself safe,
Your loving Mother.