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Thursday 21 January, 2016
In my family the Anzac Centenary is a poignant reminder of my Great Uncle Walter Leonard East’s involvement at the Gallipoli landings. He was one of the first to enlist with the ‘Fighting Tenth” Battalion out of Unley.
On 15th May 1915, fighting at Second Ridge alongside Arthur Blackburn and the other men of the 10th battalion, Walter was killed. He was buried towards the head of the gulley near Anzac Cove. His mate, Leon Gellert, who survived to become arguably South Australia’s greatest WWI poet, was by his side when he fell. Leon wrote a poem about him the following day, which he called ‘The Burial’.
Patriotism was instilled in me from an early age. My grandfathers, father and uncles were all Returned Servicemen from WWI and WWII. As school children we sang our National Anthem every day, and raised the Australian flag at assembly. Most of my school mates had been touched by their parents’ and family’s personal sacrifice and hardship from those war years.
During our commemoration of the Anzac Centenary we could all look harder into our own family’s history. We could ask questions and spend time researching our National Archives going on an exploration of deeper discovery about our personal connections with Australia’s military history. I feel this is a powerful way to keep the Spirit of Anzac alive in Australia.
If we look at our military history, a larger percentage of us have had a connection with some, or many conflicts of war throughout our lives. This is one of the powerful bonds that bind us together as Australians – this bond of sacrifice and mateship has united us over the last century. It has contributed to making us a proud nation that believes in freedom, family, peace, and perhaps to the development of one our most endearing qualities, of giving a bloke a fair go.
Nineteen of my family have served in a diverse range of theatres of war during WWI, WWII and the Vietnam War. Some paid the ultimate sacrifice. As each of the commemorative events unfolds during this Centenary, many peoples’ family members will be remembered for their valiant sacrifice and commitment to answering a call to national duty.
From a personal perspective and as a poet, the unearthing of my Grandfather’s lost war diary, together with the war experiences told to me by my father, gave me the inspiration and a passion for writing my book Slouch Hat Soldiers – Generations at War. Additional research uncovered a plethora of facts and great stories of courage, tragedy, endurance and resilience in everyday ordinary lives.
With research I soon elaborated on the meagre information I had about other members of my family, and discovered that, in the words of my father:
“These stories pertain to all Australians and need to be told; otherwise they will eventually be lost forever.”
With the 74th anniversary of the fall of Singapore approaching on 15 February, I pause and reflect on the suffering of 22,376 Australian prisoners and the 8,031 prisoners who died in captivity. This is a period when our family remembers the hardships endured by my uncle Eric Ball and his comrades in Changi Prison and on the Thai-Burma railroad. Despite the adversity, in situations like this, the strength of the Australian identity shone through. It brought out resourcefulness, fusing these servicemen together as Australians who would never lose hope, not even under the most inhumane conditions. Even with the torture and deterioration of physical health, it was this Australian mateship that endured.
So often our commemoration focuses on men, while the contribution made by our servicewomen, including medical professionals, and their significant home front effort that was made, is forgotten. Of course, now women often serve in conflict zones and are placed as much in harm’s way as our men. Their contribution is immeasurable.
For example on the home front in my family, there was the Cheer-Up Hut, staffed largely by volunteers who cooked, served meals, organised entertainments, provided formal farewells and ‘Welcome Home’ gatherings throughout the duration of the war. Revived on a much larger scale in 1939 for the Second World War, my Aunt Elsie von Stanke happily volunteered there on her Saturdays, serving teas and dancing with the soldiers to the ivory tunes echoed from the Cheer-Up Hut piano. For a shilling you could choose a song and have your name scratched onto that piano, with every spare centimetre of wood emblazoned with returned servicemen’s names.
I ask you to take this opportunity to research your family’s involvement in World War 1 and this country’s involvement in other conflicts over the last 100 years. There are numerous valuable resources at your fingertips, including some excellent South Australian examples such as the RSL’s Virtual War Memorial where you can add the story of your relative’s service and the dedicated Anzac Centenary South Australia website where you can add your reflections about what the Anzac Centenary means to you. That’s where I intend to add my stories. I hope to read some of yours there too.
I wish you well on your journey.
Lest we forget.
 Australian War Memorial
For more information about Slouch Hat Soldiers see: http://www.slouchhatsoldiers.com.au
Looking through a window to wars fought by our fathers, brothers, uncles and sons, Slouch Hat Soldiers takes readers on a journey of family reflection. Part proceeds from all book sales are donated to Legacy.
Discovering Anzacs created by the National Archives of Australia can be reached on http://www.naa.gov.au/collection/explore/defence/service-records/
On Sundays between 2pm and 4pm every week, you can visit the Army Museum of South Australia (AMOSA) at Keswick Barracks off Anzac Highway. The museum promotes and displays South Australia’s military heritage including a Cheer-Up Hut piano and memorabilia from Adelaide ‘Burra’ Hut Cheer-Up Society Honour Roll, which is a prized possession.