Skip to main content

Think Piece: Making the choice to stay home

Thursday 2 June, 2016

Kevin Jones_edited_2The Battle of Jutland was fought one hundred years ago from 31 May to 1 June, 1916. It took place in the North Sea near Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula and was the largest naval engagement of the First World War. It was also the only full scale engagement of battleships that took place. There were no Australian vessels at Jutland, but as our navy was closely tied with that of Britain’s, many Australian sailors served on British ships.

Germany’s goal at Jutland was to break Britain’s blockade and enable its ships to enter the Atlantic Ocean. With 99 ships, the German High Seas fleet was two-thirds the size of Britain’s Grand Fleet. The fleets battled twice; both times the British ‘crossed the T’ – brought their broadside across the end of the German line and unleashed devastating firepower. But the British were thwarted by faulty shells that failed to pierce the German ships. Overall Britain lost 14 ships and 6,784 men while Germany lost 11 ships and 3,209 men.

Germany claimed Jutland as a tactical win because it sank more ships. But strategically it proved to be a British victory. After Jutland, the German fleet sortied into the North Sea only two more times and each time they avoided direct action, anxious that their small fleet could not afford further losses. German tactics turned to unrestricted submarine warfare; an approach that ultimately failed.



Recalling this significant naval battle where so many lost their lives over just three days lead me to reflect on what the Anzac Centenary means to me. An Anzac memorial held pride of place in my primary school and like most Australians it has always been part of my calendar. But as I have grown, and Australia has changed, the meaning of Anzac changes for me. Last year for the Anzac Centenary, I went to the dawn service at Semaphore. It was my first dawn service and it was deeply moving. Car lights converged from the darkness, and crowds grew as I came closer to Semaphore’s war memorial. There must have been five thousand gathered.

Eileen Darley sang Eric Bogle’s The Band Played Waltzing Matilda and school children read letters written from soldiers at the front. Speakers condemned the wanton waste of lives and the failure of diplomacy as they marked respect for the soldiers, sailors and airmen who served in the worst of wars. The Last Post has a special power at first light. I attended the dawn service again this year, and I am glad to have a way to mark each Anzac Day.

I discussed the dawn service with my Father who was in New Guinea in World War II and he told me about his aunt who served in a hospital ship off Gallipoli, and about his father – my Grandfather. My Grandfather never spoke about the war and apparently used to stay around the house, keeping to himself each Anzac Day. I learned from my Father that this was because he did not volunteer in World War I. He was one of the many who stayed home. By October 1917 the number of men volunteering had fallen to 2,761 for the month. At that time there were 140,000 single men and 280,000 married men aged between 18 and 40 outside the forces.

I do not know why my Grandfather did not volunteer. He may have been opposed to the war; he may have met my Grandmother, or he may have been afraid. We do know that the number of men volunteering peaked in 1915 following the Gallipoli campaign, and fell following the horrors of trench warfare in France, and as the war dragged on. The conscription debates were among the most divisive political debates in Australia’s history as politics mixed with grief for lost servicemen and women. That may explain why my grandfather stayed home. I’m sorry that I cannot ask him about it.

No doubt some people will think my Grandfather’s shame each Anzac Day is a small sorrow compared to the tragedy of those who lost their lives in a senseless war, or who were wounded or shocked, or who experienced the horrors of losing comrades and seeing the worst of men. With this I agree. The horrors they suffered and the waste of war are what I think about on Anzac Day. In all that was so bad, in all they went through, I want to see something positive; that those who fought preserved parts of the human spirit to care for friends, to show courage and to remember loved ones at home. But I also save a space in my thoughts for my Grandfather who chose not to go. I wonder if descendants of other grandfathers who decided to stay home, do the same.

Lest we forget.

Kevin has worked in state and national museums for over twenty years. He is currently Director of the South Australian Maritime Museum. Prior to this Kevin worked at the Australian National Maritime Museum where he filled several curatorial roles including producing opening exhibitions. Kevin studied history at the Australian National University and museum studies at the University of Sydney. He is a past President of the Australian Maritime Museum’s Council and has served on committees for the Australian Association for Maritime History and the Australian Register of Historic Vessels. He is also an honorary member of the Merchant Navy Association of South Australia.

WordPress Lightbox Plugin