Anzac revelations


Landing at BorneoThe Bombardier was always there. I looked at the photograph on the wall as I lay between my grandparents while they luxuriated in the hip-hooray-it's-Saturday morning lie-in. 'There he is,' one or the other would say, with a sigh lurking behind rueful laughter. 'The Bombardier.'

My grandfather, a serious lad of 23 dressed in the uniform of the Australian artillery, gazed into the room: the photograph had been taken before he left for France and Belgium in 1915. He'd thought himself bound for Gallipoli, but military and political plans changed while he was still at sea.

To the end of his life he regretted that he had missed out on Gallipoli, despite the fact that he must soon have learned the details of that hell on earth. 

As a child of six I capered along the passage of my grandfather's house, chanting bomb-bomb-bombardier. I had no clue as to what the noun meant, just that it was a wonderful word to say aloud. In between times I registered the fact that Billy-Next-Door had made it safely back from a mysterious place called Korea, and that everybody of course was glad.

For children of my generation the word war was a part of life. Not that we understood what it meant. To me it meant a very little information from Grandfather, and the knowledge that my father, a veteran of the Second World War, had a Japanese sword stashed in the hall cupboard and his Glengarry cap wrapped in mothballs in a certain drawer.

Like most ex-servicemen, father and son never talked much about their experiences. I suppose such people realise nobody can enter, let alone share, such a fractured world, even via the imagination.

My imagination certainly failed when I was 15. An old teacher at my school, unwell and deaf, was another First World War veteran. The smart alecks gave him hell. But when the teachers brought along their early photos for a guessing competition, his showed him mounted on a camel. The Pyramids were in the background, and the face under the slouch hat was young, eager and alive.

'Hard to believe, eh?' he commented. And grinned.

That same year I saw him on television during the Anzac Day parade, marching at the head of a straggly line of similarly old men. 'He's MC and MID, you know,' said my father. I didn't, and when he died not long afterwards I felt deeply ashamed that my schoolmates and I had not been kinder.

My father was also just 23 when he saw action, although he had been present during the attacks on Darwin. He is now nearly 90, and his very recent description of the Borneo beach landing, which he had never mentioned to his offspring before, made my brother's blood run cold. He told Dad that he would have been trying to hide somewhere, anywhere, on the landing craft.

'We all felt like that,' said Dad. 'Many of the lads were crying like babies.' (Grandfather admitted that he had screamed for his mother during the first shell attack to which he was exposed.) 'I just kept my head down and kept on going.'

Now we can see how young men, especially those of the first global conflict, were misled, manipulated and duped by politicians and governments, as men always have been and perhaps always will be.

On Anzac Day we should remember the sheer waste and perversity of war. But apart from war itself, we should remember people, and try to understand what it was to be human in 1914 and 1915, when young men often volunteered out of a sense of duty and a feeling for others. They believed they could fight for an ideal, win, and never have to fight again.

If we cannot understand, the least we can do is remember.

In 1915 the young woman who became my grandmother received a letter in which a couple of lines read: 'I know you think I have done right; I enlisted because I could not bear to think that you might consider me a shirker.'

For this reason, among many others, I cannot let the Bombardier fade away: he will always be with me.

Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 30 years. She has had nine books published. Her most recent is No Time For Dances. Her latest, Seeing and Believing, is appearing in instalments on her website.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Anzac Day, Borneo beach landing, war, soldiers, lest we forget



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Existing comments

An excellent article Gillian, and your heart felt memories of the Bombardier, as we approach Anzac Day again.

John Whitehead | 20 April 2011  

Brian is so right. Kids are joys filled with gems. And "circling the holy parts"! just fabulous.

anne foale | 20 April 2011  

My father was killed in World War Two. He died a most miserable death. Even so, I would prefer to celebrate annually a peace treaty that was signed rather than commemorating the hapless soldier who was sent, from both sides of the divide, by manipulative governments.

Joyce | 20 April 2011  

Gillian, you refer to an axiom about 'the Diggers,' they rarely if ever talked about their War experiences. Whole it is understandable for many reasons they spared us the pain of it all, nevertheless an important part of the national Memory and Psyche has been lost or not enough preserved.

My own family on both maternal and paternal sides had many serve in War. The last of the WWII veterans, Kevin Timbs, my uncle, died early last year. He was in the captured 8th Division and, along with a couple of hundred soldiers of the 2/20, was shipped off to Japan.

Thise men spent 3.5 years in the hell hole POW slave labour camp called 4-B, Naoetsu. More POWs died there than, by ratio, any other place and after the War more prison guards were executed than in any other Axis camp. Kevin and the few remaining men started talking and couldn't be stopped largely due to the skill and attentive compassion of Roger Maynard. He has preserved a very important part of the national Memory - not about war but about the human spirit and the will to live for something else. Maynard's book is, Hell's Heroes - The Forgotten Story of the Worst POW Camp in Japan, Harper Collins, 2009. Lest we Forget-the Memory.

David Timbs | 20 April 2011  

My father was in Kokoda, Gona and Balakpapan. Other members of his family were in both wars. Like others, he rarely spoke of war till he got demenita in later years. What he did instill in us was love of country and the importance of making a contribution to Australia, to be givers not takers because that was the legacy of generations of people who call Australia home. His key messages were "have a go", "give others a fair go and expect the same", "there is a time in your life when you know you are a man/women" (i.e grown up), "forgive others"; "do not hold anger or fear in your heart"; "loyalty and mates matter" (Mum was his best mate, and importantly he showed us how to love unconditionally, he was a man of peace, humility, intelligence, curiosity and dignity with the Australian ability to laugh often. He called himself an ordinary man.

In these turbulent times Easter and ANZAC Day together are a time for reflection on what we have inherited from those wonderful men and women who defended us and Chirst's message of love.

Lynne Duncan | 20 April 2011  

I am always grateful when people take the time and trouble to make a comment. David, I think the POW experience is a separate one, with its own agonies and deep frustrations. I found your remarks about memory very significant; thank you for the book reference.

Gillian Bouras | 21 April 2011  

Unlike you Gillian, I had no-one in my family who fought in a war, for which I am very thankful. I don't think I really knew what the word meant when I was little - I remember skipping to school singing "We won the war, in 1944!" and my mother told me it was very hard to find toys, dolls in particular, for me (I was born in 1940). Otherwise, we did not seem to be affected.

As an adult, I still have not been personally involved in any war but of course now appreciate exactly what it means. I agree with Joyce. I have witnessed the devastation in the former Yugoslavie and wished, as have so many others, that it never happened. Surely most wars could be avoided. If only everyone would refuse to fight....

Coral Petkovich | 22 April 2011  

Despite being the first to comment, it was only this morning in bed (Good Friday) that I mentioned your article to my wife, who manages a 55 bed hostel owned by the RSL, and has long had an interest in Anzac culture.

She is averse to reading from VDU, so demanded a "print out" with a cup of coffee.

Like yourself as a girl, she recalls an old man, who lived insignificantly on the edge of town in a tin shed in a paddock, but was surprised to see him taking a leading role in the local Anzac Day marches and to discover that he was a veteran from the first world war.

It is interesting that your grandfather supported the Gallipoli legend at that time, even though minor compared with the campaigns in France and Belgium.
Your father and grandfather's aversity to talking about their experiences, until older applies equally at RSL Villas, where veterans who may have previously buried their thoughts in their work, now confront them in a safe environment. It can occur that a hardened old digger is seen, in tears outside under the flagpole.
Your article will go to RSL Villas next week, and then to the RSL, as one of special interest.

John Whitehead | 22 April 2011  

Both my maternal English-born grand-father and my paternal Australian-born grand-father served with with AIF in World War I - at the Somme. Both wounded - GSW. I have stories from my father's siblings that their Dad had continuing nightmares - having killed a young German lad near the end of the conflict who had pleaded for his life. My mother's father accepted a change to his sleeping arrangements and the person who had his regular spot was blown up in a shell attack. Then back to regular lives? About 13, 14 years ago I visited the Memorial site of the Naoetsu PoW site (about which David TIMBS writes) which saw more than 60 Australians die. So very moving. Now with the spirit of reconciliation present. Roger MAYNARD telling of that dreadful time merits true gratitude. As, too, the reconciliation efforts of NSW Marist priests (and brothers) Tony GLYNN (died 1994) and Paul GLYNN (now towards his mid-80s- in returning Japanese swords souvenired by Aussie service men from the South Pacific theatre. Gillian, you raise the standard of conversation - of thought and reflection - always. Thank-you!

Jim KABLE | 09 November 2011  

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