In preparing Richlands for its 10th open day I am mindful of it happening to fall on the centenary of Armistice Day now tricked up as Remembrance Day, remembering the sacrifices in war etc. celebrated officially with much patriotic effusiveness, in marked contrast with the neglect of R Days in the immediate past.
It has been appropriated, reconfigured, re-burnished, or turned inside out by each of the belligerants to the original conflagration. In Australia we have transferred allegiance to such marks of collective reflection entirely to our own day – the One Day of the Year – in April.
But never let an opportunity pass us by. The guns fall silent and the commemorations recommence. Blasted into our living rooms, mystifying yet again our young population, whose experience of war is much fresher, much less to be celebrated, more a lurid perpetual image on screen, the line of endless doco-esque dramas or a ghastly gap in parents accounts of their former lives, instrumental in some unspoken way in bringing them to this country, whose primary quality was that here there was no war to speak of.
Now guns falling silent is an anachronism, for the Western World for ever looking for somewhere to deploy more of them, and another excuse for their exercise.
We had our freshly former prime minister yesterday on live television saying in a bunch of different tones and ways, that the only explanation for why his colleagues sacked him was that they had gone mad. I feel that this apothegm is equally appropriate for nations whose only way of acting normally is to build and promote ever more sophisticated methods of subduing others to their idea of civilisation, bringing ultimately all civilisations down.
With that off my chest, I will return to thinking about the part our family played in the War, what that did to them; and what they sacrificed on behalf of an impulse to empire. The soldiering profession was an outlet for people like my forebears where they had a chance of achieving status in a changing modernising world; of exercising the opportunities of new freedoms – of education, for men and women, of movement, and from early death.
There are studio photos of men in uniform – typically career officers; in the case of one branch combining civilian professions with military – as engineers, or medicos. Wars came and went, yet these people served wherever they happened to be sent – for the nineteenth century this meant mostly the subcontinent, but towards the end it also meant South Africa and the West Indies.
This is the opposite of madness. It was a natural duty of provincials not locked into political careers, but otherwise contained within a caste system that required connections and standing. Assortative mating was unheard of – you married who best served in the game of title inheritance. Yes, for our vigorous, adventurous, sober, level headed, quietly proud, forbears, a uniform counted as currency, as much as a plate on the door or rooms in Lincoln Inns Fields; or title to parcels of land in the centuries preceding.
They played honourable but not very colourful roles in wars; mostly they came back, and resumed peaceful lives in the counties, with whatever the army or navy could afford in the way of pension. If they had not already chosen marriage partners from the cultural or economic circles of their familiars, if not by preference suitably distant cousins, then from what passed as such in the outposts to which they were sent.
Their military exploits seem incidental. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that wherever they were in the world, their task was to cruel the chances of rival empire building states, notably the French, the Dutch and then the Germans. At one stage the Russians loomed, and before them the Americans; notwithstanding that the ruling circles in each of these aspirant imperial powers were hopelessly interwoven themselves, by marriage or interest, or tradition and history.
This insight came to me in a remarkable way on Monday, reading a self published memoir of the field diary of Captain Robert Parker that is a family relic in my care. Parker at 14 years forewent his further education to join a regiment of foot – swayed as he said by their smart dress while marching through town, and encouraged by the officer in charge. The army in Ireland had not a lot of fighting to do, although Louis 14th’ flowering autocracy, and increasing religious intolerance, was a source of rising anxiety in the Kingdom, acutely so in Ireland with the ascension of James II in 1680.
Married to an Italian, James was to all intents a papist, and his intentions became clear as he purged all high army and church posts of people loyal to the established church. Command of the army In Ireland was James proxy, a single minded man loyal to the one true religion who could rely on imperial French reinforcements.
Robert was inspired by the defiance to Louis’ designs on Europe by William of Orange, and decided to join him in Holland to find if there was not a more congenial career fighting under his flag.
Events however took charge; by the time he reached London, the Revolution was already in train. William arrived as James, his brother-in-law, fled. Young Robert found his way to his old regiment, and commander who was in process of loudly pledging allegiance to the new protestant King. The Irish army however as reconstituted under James held out against William. James was by then living under the protection of Louis in Paris.
So Robert Parker’s first active duty was fighting for William against the army of James in his own country, events now ossified in the rituals of the Orange order. Robert’s account though is clear eyed, noting the details of action, the long periods of ennuie endured by soldiers everywhere; the brief moments of high drama and chaos, and the adventitious nature of outcomes.
In the course of these battles both the great Huguenot General Schomberg, and the Irish Army commander were killed; William, only months from seizing power, leading his army into battle was hit in the shoulder by musket ball but treated in the field. That French soldiers were fighting on each side, allowed for infiltration and treachery. The Irish in James army scattered with the loss of their commander. Evidently they had little appetite for the raging battles between Protestant and Catholic Europe fought over their country.
Robert’s first hand accounts were published some 50 years or more after the events they describe by his son somewhat apologetically on account of Robert’s English lacking the flourish regarded as a mark of a properly educated man of the time.
In generations that followed Parkers and D’Esterres intermarried; the latter arriving in the south of Ireland in the 17th century fleeing religious persecution. Their status as minor aristocracy meant it was an easy fit into the protestant landholder class of southern Ireland.
A hundred years on another Parker commanding a naval vessel, in a squadron stationed off Irish waters chasing French ships, drowned with the rest of the crew as a result of a storm, perhaps Louis’ revenge. A cousin, John Parker, a General in one of the armies of the British East India Company, in a footnote to this thesis, had lost his life a few years earlier in the 2nd Rohinya war being fought between rival princes in the northwest of India.
Add a further hundred years or so and more descendants were answering the call to the flag: of my grandmother’s three brothers one was a professional soldier serving in Africa; a second a Medico trained in England joining the Australian Ambulance Corps on the Gallipoli peninsular, a third served as Surgeon Commander in the Royal Navy. The very flag to which they were called has turned up among family things in a suitcase.
Military life was likewise not foreign on the other, English county, side of my mother’s family, although in their case at more obvious cost in time of war. One branch lost five sons on the western Front; another who had over generations been in colonial service in the subcontinent, conspicuously in the army. In our time a great uncle, Edward (Ned) Twynam started life as a professional soldier in the nascent Australian army before the war broke out, served as a major in mounted infantry in Egypt, Gallipoli and France. Ned’s younger sister Joan was among the first group of army nurses to reach the Middle East, and nursed with distinction there and over four of what must have been gruelling years in the 2nd Australian General Hospital in the north of France.
The family of their elder sister Mary grew up in the shadow of Duntroon; furnishing brides for three officers in training (two marrying in haste in Egypt), a son, Andy, who was shot narrowly escaping death on Gallipoli, received the military medal for exploits in the Palestine campaign and was court martialled for reckless behaviour while on leave in Cairo.
The youngest son of this large family was called Alexander, but universally known as Pax as born at the cessation of the Boer Wars. Mary herself, conscious of the increasing likelihood that her eldest son, and heir to her father-in-law’s pastoral empire, whose appetite for fighting seemed to know no bounds, would not survive the war unless overstretched volunteers were relieved, campaigned publicly, and conspicuously for the introduction of conscription. Her sister Phoebe, married to the chief executive of the P&O line in Australia, threw her grand society self into the tasks of organising civilian support – the VAD in Sydney and later working with Red Cross in London.
The shadow of the war did not leave the family at the Armistice: Andy drove trucks in highly risky and adventurous circumstances between Burma and China in the second war. Ned reapplied for service, after commanding the 7th Light Horse militia through the interim peace, was knocked back on age, and died soon after on his rough scrabble soldier settler block, and by his own hand (although his intention was not clear). Joan applied for matronships in veteran rehab hospitals, was unsuccessful and left to work in hospitals in the Northern Territory, before returning to genteel poverty, taking in shell shocked veterans in a boarding arrangement for which she may have received some income (or not).
And then it all started again a generation later. My uncle Ted Twynam and his cousin Jim Nimmo both joined the airforce after the outbreak of war but at different times, and both were killed in action: shot down, Jim over Denmark early in the war; Ted towards its end in a mass raid on the Ruhr.
Jim’s sister Anne was contacted by a representative of a small country museum near the crash site that housed relics from the young allied servicemen who had defended their country. In a moving gesture Jim’s watch, recovered from the wreckage 50 years before, was returned to Anne in person by one of its local guardians. Their father, however pursued a military career in a new direction, arguably away from war: as General Nimmo he was the longest serving chief of UN Peacekeeping forces, serving for 17 years in Kashmir, and dying ‘in harness’ respected by all sides.
Ted’s sister, Dorcas, like other cousins inspired by their aunt Joan, had trained as a nurse, and enlisted early in the second war; serving in the Middle East before being recalled, along with Australian army units that had been sent to support the British in North Africa, but now left Australia’s defence dangerously exposed, in a dash to bolster thin defence of New Guinea against the rapidly advancing the Japanese imperial army. For this Curtin brought down the wrath of Churchill, and established for the first time a clear break from past subservience to the empirial interest. An attitude incidentally that was shared by the Japanese themselves. Dorcas was to spend the rest of the war in field stations in New Guinea, demobbed only in 1946.
Ted and Dorcas were to meet, in uniform, by hazard in transit in Brisbane – we have a photo of this occasion. Ted was heading for the Empire Air Training School in Canada and thence to Kestern in Lincolnshire and Bomber Command; Dorcas entrained to Port Moresby, and later forward hospitals. Ted was piloting a Lancaster heavy bomber in a mass bombing raid on the Ruhr in the German industrial heartland, at the nd of his tour, 5 months before German surrender, and well after the end of land hostilities in Europe, when the plane was destroyed by defending fighter aircraft.
My mother called on her brother’s grave in the imperial, now Commonwealth war cemetery at Kleve, close to the border with Holland while visiting Europe in 1953 to meet my father’s family for the first time. My father grew up in Cologne in a villa by the Rhine that had been sequestered as quarters for British officers after the first war, and was completely destroyed by British bombs early in the next war.
The family however were forced out of Germany by the race laws just prior to its commencement, My father, Robert Victor Horn, born on the 1st of August 1914. the day the war commenced, christened with the expressed desire by his parents in an (early) German victory – on completing university studies made his way in Australia, at first as ‘stateless’ gaining citizenship and joining the Australian army at the first opportunity.
RVs call up for overseas posting came a week after his marriage to my mother – in fact via telegram at the Streampacket Hotel on the Clyde during their bicycle honeymoon trip down the highway from Goulburn to Nowra, and a month after her brother had been notified as missing in action. Robert (RV) was to spend 12 months on Bougainville in a back water of the war; my mother’s family receiving confirmation through the Red Cross of Ted’s death in the meantime.
In this time and across this war torn space my two grandmothers exchanged cordial greetings, and homely parcels; my mother was received warmly from the beginning; as was my father despite the family having lost their only son in hostilities.
My father would brush off the everyday hostility he, and other ‘new citizens’, experienced. He like most migrants, not from ‘home’ could hardly attach themselves to empire and race loyalties; but he did have an immediate identification with Australia as a new country, building new traditions and capable of thinking for itself.
In his career interest in the denominators of wellbeing in his various roles as banker, economist, statistician, he explored the everyday dignities and diversities of people, not only in our world but all over the world where we can exchange fellow feeling.
His insights are not unusual, in fact are those of ordinary soldiers in war although in that case in heightened form, able to sense and mock absurdities of the powerful. A good general is one who cares that that his decisions are biased to the fighting performance, and survival, of his troups. His loyalties lie there.
My father’s start in the army, in an employment company mixing with a motley of aliens and refugees, left him with permanent disc injury, and empathy for assimilation efforts of others into Australian life and aspiration.
We treasure the issues of Tropic Spread, he edited while passing the time in an army barracks in Rabaul, and in particular the remarkably identifiable ink caricature of ‘the Ed’ by the resident cartoonist in the unit. Not being trusted with a gun, he could nevertheless wield a pen, or rather the keys of a hard worked remington portable, that continued to see service well into our growing up years.
Of the few souvenirs he brought back from New Britain, the most important, apart from an anguished samurai print, were artefacts of village life, a core of his subsequent collecting. In this is an echo of Ned’s first experience of action in the First War, sailing on a schooner up the Fly River to take surrender of the small German planter colony. His prize souvenir was a horn German drinking cup.
The courage to fight on, so apotheosised in our representation of wars, comes with the reserve that war is in itself an anathema. We need the courage to stop wars, to build peace. The two minutes on the 11th of the 11th will be (for me) dedicated to this thought and these people. You will have your own thoughts.