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Thursday 25 February, 2016
My grandmother, Alice Maud Marshall, nee Mills, died in 1969, just a few weeks short of her 80th birthday. I did not know her especially well – she lived in a country town some distance from me – and I was just one of her 19 grandchildren, placed in the middle of that lively and rambunctious bunch. I remember her well, though, a small and somewhat intense woman, who kept to herself and seemed to find little humour in the world.
She had outlived her husband by almost a decade, and in the years I knew her, had moved from the family farm to a farmlet and finally into town when my grandfather died. I saw her most Christmases when the extended family came together, and usually one or two other times at family occasions during the year. I knew some of her story; her grandfather moving from England to Adelaide in the early days of the settlement there, and her own father’s birth in the little South Australian settlement in 1841. That grandfather may or may not have been one of the colony’s earliest policemen, and her father may have followed in his footsteps. Her parents married in Adelaide in 1871, and subsequently moved to the north-east of Victoria before settling in the small hamlet of Bruthen on the Tambo River in East Gippsland. She would remain in East Gippsland until her final illness many, many years later.
I knew, too, that the Great War had affected her family; there was talk of at least one brother, and possibly more, leaving the small town to fight and never coming back. I knew that the small war memorial in Bruthen’s main street had three Mills’ names engraved into it. I cannot recall my grandmother ever speaking of the war or of those Mills on the memorial.
Half a lifetime later, I began researching my family history to complement an article I was planning. Alice Marshall – she married my grandfather in 1913 – did lose family in the war. Three of her brothers, one her favourite younger brother, one nephew and two cousins, were killed in the four years of the war. As I learned of these tragedies, piled one upon the other, I thought that I would try to understand what such losses could do to a person.
The nephew was the oldest son of Alice’s oldest brother. A second son at 16 was too young to enlist when the war ended. By then an old man, he was still alive and in fact lived in an old house in Bruthen. The next school holidays I took my two sons, then aged ten and eight, and visited my relative at his home. His son, a middle aged man, was there when we called in and was able to provide something of a bridge between the various generations. Towards the end of the visit, when we had exhausted family tales, I asked the old man what the war had been like, and how they coped with the loss of brothers, nephews, cousins.
“I didn’t talk about it then,” he said in a firm voice, “and I’m certainly not going to talk about it now.”
With that one statement, I began to understand what the world looked like after the war and through my Grandmother’s eyes.