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Think Piece – Can you give me any information concerning my son?

Thursday 28 January, 2016

Andrew PiperSo wrote Mrs Emily Eliza Hanrahan from Port Augusta, to the South Australian Red Cross Information Bureau in October, 1918. She was seeking information about her son, Edward Hanrahan of the 9th Light Horse, whom she would learn (another eleven months later) had been killed in action on the 9 October, 1918 in a battle fought by the Allies against the Ottoman Empire in what was then part of Palestine in the Middle East.

Edward died just a few weeks short of the Armistice of Mudros, which brought an end to the hostilities between the Ottoman Empire and the Allies of World War 1. He was buried in the Damascus Military Cemetery located in the grounds of the English Hospital in Syria. He went missing in Palestine on 29 September, 1918 and was believed to be a Turkish Prisoner of War who was recaptured from the enemy only to then die of wounds in the Damascus Hospital approximately 10 days later. He was just 22 years of age.

Eliza was not alone in seeking information about her son. She was one of more than 8,000 South Australian families who contacted the South Australian Red Cross Tracing Bureau between 1916 and 1919 to find out news of their loved one. Though the outcomes may be different, the question was always the same.

Particular to what the Red Cross Bureau endeavoured to do was address the pain the families were experiencing in not knowing what the fate of their loved one was. Were they still alive somewhere, or if dead how had they died? Or at the very least where were they buried? This is the state of anguish in which the Red Cross Tracing Bureau was established.

All the enquiries lodged had an envelope made-up for each. These held ‘packets’ of information about the results of enquiry into each soldier – letters family members had sent seeking news of their whereabouts; frank eyewitness statements which takes the reader straight to the event which in most cases the correspondence with the family about the final fate of their loved one, when this information was able to be uncovered.

When I first conceived this project in February 2012, as part of the State Library’s Centenary of Anzac program, I knew we were taking on a vast project. But it was the volume of  information about everyday ordinary South Australians that really struck me as time went on and I delved further into the project contents. I began to really understand how the growing absences of loved ones and the news of death was quietly reaching into every corner of our community at this time. It was happening in every street, in neighbourhoods we now occupy; and in some cases the losses per family were greater than one.

Over time I found myself noticing honour boards and focussing in on names. One in particular I continued to think of is that of 27 year old Brunel John Nash. Brunel perished in the first few days at Gallipoli but his mother would not know officially of her son’s fate until 1917 – a year after her enquiry and nearly two years since he had been killed in the vicinity of Pope’s Hill as determined by the Court of Enquiry on June 5, 1916.

I went around to the house where Brunel’s mother lived – 15 Charles Street, Norwood. I went to take a photograph that I could add to the database the Library has created for his packet. Unfortunately the house was no longer there. I learned through other information held at the State Library that Brunel had played for Norwood Football Club and signed up with Phil Robin, the renowned state and Norwood footballer and who along with Arthur Blackburn, penetrated further inland at Gallipoli than anyone else. As a lifelong Redlegs member, I’m sure this helped me to connect more deeply with his story. It validated for me that these were real people who had lived like us; not just remote stories.

What the stories of Brunel, Nash and Edward Hanrahan reveal so clearly is just how easily we lose our connection with the humanity of their stories because of the distance over time that has now elapsed. Most of us don’t consider that it was the person next door, the work colleague, the footy team captain, student, or train conductor who left us.

The 5th January 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of the opening of the South Australian Red Cross Information Bureau, and completion of a website that allows worldwide access for all to research, read and understand the conflict in more detail. In particular, the frank eyewitness statements that leave the reader with no misunderstanding of what those who served experienced.

The family letters are what distinguishes South Australia’s collection from the copies which came from the London office now held at the Australian War Memorial. The emotion, though restrained, is palpable. It’s easy to forget the length of time between families receiving information. What we can read in minutes could span years.

One hundred years or more later, it is easy to reduce those involved into a myriad of epithets. This project and the Library’s other projects attempt to humanise those involved. By transcribing and releasing diaries and letters or personal notices in newspapers; putting names to our photos on Flickr sites; uploading their own images (not just as soldier/nurse portraits) and memories the people who experienced that time, we can remember that they were people who had lives interrupted or ended by the events of the time.

Because the Bureau answered questions from kin, it becomes clear from the letters of enquiry that we are reading about families whose very fabric is unravelling – fathers, mothers, wives, sisters, brothers, extended family and the betrothed all have a voice.

Today, we can all posit reasons for their joining as patriotism, social pressure, adventure, unemployment, and sever droubt and we can develop events, productions and projects to commemorate the time. We can argue what the legacy is. What we must not do is forget the humanity of these people – our neighbours, colleagues, friends and family.

Lest we forget.

Relevant sites:

South Australian Red Cross Information Bureau

South Australians of World War 1: Share their story

Coo-ee! South Australia: Become a digital volunteer

A world away: South Australia’s war

Andrew Piper is Manager Online Services for the State Library of South Australia and is responsible for the development and delivery of the Library’s online services to customers. With a background in history and exhibitions, he has been Project Manager for the State Library’s extensive Centenary of Anzac commemoration program (1914 – 1918). One of the key projects in the program is the South Australian Red Cross Tracing Bureau. Prior to this role, Andrew was responsible for the Library’s exhibition program which included bringing to Adelaide the Australian War Memorial’s Captured in Colour: Rare Photographs from the First World War and the national tour of the National Treasures from Australia’s Great Libraries exhibition.

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