I wanted to post something for Remembrance Day, and found the whole process to be far more upsetting than I anticipated – but I suppose that is the point.
About a decade ago I was caught up in researching family history and filling in a few gaps in the family tree. It was a well known story in my family that my grandfather’s brothers – William and Joseph – left England in 1912 to seek their fortunes as opal miners in Australia. The family had a mining history, and the boom in opal mining in Australia seemed a golden opportunity for the boys.
It was, and they did find opals and wrote home excitedly about them, and how they would be home soon. Sadly it was easier to get to Australia, than it was to get back and the boys struggled to find passage. They decided that their best way of finding a way home was to join up and serve in the army – they became ANZACs and wrote home about how they would fight for their country and then come home with the opals. They were keen to due their duty and their letters home told their family all about how they would soon be home.
War broke out in 1914 and the boys found themselves posted together and shipped out – to Africa. Not quite home yet but they were together and stayed together as they completed their training. Three years later and they were still together and on another troop ship, this time heading for France.
I can’t help but think how excited they must have felt in that cramped troop ship as they discovered they were heading to France – almost home, just a short sail across the water….
They never made it home.
Both boys were killed on the Somme. Joseph suffered horrendous injuries that forced the field surgeons to remove his legs. William’s trench was hit with massive shelling, and he died instantly. Joseph died a few days later at the Front of infection and blood loss. The opals were never found.
I discovered most of this information from the records held by the National Archive Office of Australia. My grandfather gave me permission to search and the NAA respectfully warned me that the information I found might be distressing.
They were not wrong.
Their records are extensive and detailed and I found not only the hand-written reports of the field doctors and the Australian Red Cross, but scans of the bloodstained tags from their bodies.
It was during this research that I accidentally stumbled upon the fact that the boys had been misidentified as each other. Somehow their field identification had been mixed up, one brother was taller than the other, and by that time in a different battalion. They were still close, but briefly separated on the Front. Up to that point they had always been together and so eye witnesses had mixed them up. Their injuries meant that identification became confused.
This meant that the boys were buried under the wrong stones in the Somme cemetery, and I was contacted by the War Graves Commission to ask if the family would like this corrected. I thought about this for a long time, and decided not to tell my grandfather. It would have meant a lot of form-filling and re-dedication of the stones and I didn’t want to put him through that. Instead I kept it to myself.
My grandfather loved his big brothers to the end and remembered them as brave boys who fought and died for their family. It was enough to remember them, and to know that they were still together. I never told him about all this, and I don’t regret that decision. I wanted to leave his memories as they were.
This is what Remembrance Day is about. It should not be about glorifying war, and never about an enforced public statement via poppy display, it’s about taking the time to remember. For me it’s about knowing that a great sadness still sits in my family’s past, and the past of all of us, and that it’s important to take some time to remember. It should always be about remembering that in cold, silent earth lie thousands upon thousands of young men who died for what they believed in. They died for their families, and we should not demean that or sully it with political statements or warmongering bias or by hurling statements around about it being meaningless. It wasn’t meaningless to them and their families. Two boys, trying to get home.
My grandfather’s brothers lie side by side, as close in death as they were in life, forever intertwined in earth, bone and name. Gone, but not forgotten.