Some fragments for Anzac Day — in lieu of commentary. For reflection.
THE LANDING By a Man of the Tenth
Come on, lads, have a good, hot supper—there’s business doing.” So spoke No. 10 Platoon Sergeant of the 10th Australian Battalion to his men, lying about in all sorts of odd corners aboard the battleship Prince of Wales, in the first hour of the morning of April 25th, 1915. The ship, or her company, had provided a hot stew of bully beef, and the lads set to and took what proved, alas to many, their last real meal together. They laugh and joke as though picnicking. Then a voice: “Fall in!” comes ringing down the ladderway from the deck above. The boys swing on their heavy equipment, grasp their rifles, silently make their way on deck, and stand in grim black masses. All lights are out….
Kenneth Ross WHITFIELD (b.1897 d. 1967) m 1920 Esma H. EAST (b. 1895 d. 24 Mar. 1971)
That’s my Uncle Ken, whom I remember well.
In 2023 the start of the Shellharbour Dawn Service is a sign of an Australia that is coming to terms with all its histories — of our wars including those at home, of all our peoples, and of our personal stories. See this symbolised so beautifully here!
Reviewing this, I see an error! In fact Mumbles was my 1957 French teacher, in 3B. My 2B French teacher was the memorable also Mr Bonanno — always said when asked “I am Breetish!” He was in fact a veteran of the Maquis from France, I believe. What the war failed to do, I fear 2B did. He vanished, never to be seen again — and so we got Mumbles!
5 August: Dear me, my memory is playing tricks! Fortunately I still had my 1956 copy of The Record to check from, and I see Mumbles was my French teacher in 56 and 57. Mr Bonanno must have been a casual or a trainee teacher.
Back in time, people, to 1956—and here are my teachers at Sydney Boys High.
Can you make out the signature on the right? I didn’t ask for it, by the way. He just grabbed the book and signed! Silly old bugger!
M C I Levy, that’s who. Our French teacher in Year 8, as we would call it now. 2B French, that is. We called him “Mumbles” because he always spoke not much above a whisper, and compared with the other French teachers he had an atrocious accent. His lessons, for want of a better word, consisted largely of reminiscences of Paris some time in the Neolithic – or so it seemed to us. And the unfunniest funny stories we had ever heard. I seem to recall him reading a “Father Brown” story to us as well. Much of the lesson was occupied by him sending talkers – whether or not they were actually talking – to the Deputy Head to get caned; apparently – hearsay because I avoided this by sitting in front and, probably, talking to my neighbour – the Deputy would send them straight back uncaned when he heard Mr Levy had sent them. So we thought him a fossil and a fool, and we learned, I suspect, very little French that year.
And yet, if you go into the Great Hall these days, you will find on the World War One honour roll a name clearly added fairly recently: M C I Levy. I am not sure why he was omitted at the time. You can find him too in Parramatta:
He was an ex-student of Sydney High, and already a teacher aged 25 in 1914. Michael Charles Ivan Levy:
Bit of a poet too. The poem is called “The Men of a Thousand Days.”
Given he was a boy from Balmain, the bushman image is a bit naff really – but a sign of the times. Mr Levy clearly was intervening on behalf of the YES vote in the Conscription Referendum of 1917.
In 1917 Britain sought a sixth Australian division for active service. Australia had to provide 7000 men per month to meet this request. Volunteer recruitment continued to lag and on 20 December 1917 Prime Minister Hughes put a second referendum to the Australian people. The referendum asked:
Are you in favour of the proposal of the Commonwealth Government for reinforcing the Commonwealth Forces overseas?’
Hughes’ proposal was that voluntary enlistment should continue, but that any shortfall would be met by compulsory reinforcements of single men, widowers, and divorcees without dependents between 20 and 44 years, who would be called up by ballot. The referendum was defeated with 1,015,159 in favour and 1,181,747 against.
The conscription referenda were divisive politically, socially and within religious circles. Newspapers and magazines of the time demonstrate the concerns, arguments, and the passion of Australians in debating this issue. The decisive defeat of the second referendum closed the issue of conscription for the remainder of the war.
The names that come to mind when English-language poets of World War 1 are mentioned include Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves…. I knew of Isaac Rosenberg, but less of him. I had read poems such as “Dead Man’s Dump” and this –very famous:
I think of him because an edition of his poems has just appeared on Project Gutenberg,
He loathed war and hated the idea of killing, but he was now unemployed and, hearing that his mother would be able to claim a separation allowance, in late October he enlisted. He was initially assigned to the 12th Suffolk Regiment, a Bantam Battalion formed of men less than 5’3″ in height, but in the spring of 1916 he was transferred to the 11th Battalion, the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment (KORL). In June that year he was sent to France. Shortly before leaving he published his third and final collection of poems, Moses.
Throughout his twenty-one months in the trenches he maintained a correspondence with Edward Marsh, Gordon Bottomley, and Laurence Binyon, all of whom took an interest in his poetry. His trench poems, written on whatever scraps of paper he could find, went through many drafts which he sent home to his sister Annie to be typed and then forwarded to his friends. Despite the difficult conditions under which he worked, he produced remarkable and powerful work, including August 1914, Louse Hunting, Returning, we hear the larks, Dead Man’s Dump and Break of Day in the Trenches. These poems were not published in a single volume until 1922.
Rosenberg was killed early on the morning of 1st April 1918 during the German spring offensive.
One that has struck me from the 1922 edition Project Gutenberg gives us is “Louse Hunting”.
Nudes, stark and glistening, Yelling in lurid glee. Grinning faces And raging limbs Whirl over the floor one fire; For a shirt verminously busy Yon soldier tore from his throat With oaths Godhead might shrink at, but not the lice, And soon the shirt was aflare Over the candle he’d lit while we lay.
Then we all sprang up and stript To hunt the verminous brood. Soon like a demons’ pantomime This plunge was raging. See the silhouettes agape, See the gibbering shadows Mixed with the baffled arms on the wall. See Gargantuan hooked fingers Pluck in supreme flesh To smutch supreme littleness. See the merry limbs in that Highland fling Because some wizard vermin willed To charm from the quiet this revel When our ears were half lulled By the dark music Blown from Sleep’s trumpet.
Gordon Bottomley quotes a letter from Rosenberg:
To Gordon Bottomley (February, 1917).
“Your letters always give me a strange and large pleasure; and I shall never think I have written poetry in vain, since it has brought your friendliness in my way. Now, feeling as I am, cast away and used up, you don’t know what a letter like yours is to me. Ever since November, when we first started on our long marches, I have felt weak; but it seems to be some inscrutable mysterious quality of weakness that defies all doctors. I have been examined most thoroughly several times by our doctor, and there seems to be nothing at all wrong with my lungs. I believe I have strained my abdomen in some way, and I shall know of it later on. We have had desperate weather, but the poor fellows in the trenches where there are no dug-outs are the chaps to pity. I am sending a very slight sketch of a louse-hunt. It may be a bit vague, as I could not work it out here, but if you can keep it till I get back I can 40work on it then. I do believe I could make a fine thing of Judas. Judas as a character is more magnanimous than Moses, and I believe I could make it very intense and write a lot from material out here. Thanks very much for your joining in with me to rout the pest out, but I have tried all kinds of stuff; if you can think of any preparation you believe effective I’d be most grateful for it.”
The “louse-hunt” refers to a night scene in which Rosenberg took part, and which forcibly struck his imagination as a subject for a Goya picture or for a poem like the “Jolly Beggars”: a barn full of naked soldiers—Scottish and others—singing, swearing, and laughing, in mad antics as they pursued the chase.
He was also an artist. This 1914-15 self-portrait is the London National Portrait Gallery.
#Strongwomen. "I write about the power of trying, because I want to be okay with failing. I write about generosity because I battle selfishness. I write about joy because I know sorrow. I write about faith because I almost lost mine, and I know what it is to be broken and in need of redemption. I write about gratitude because I am thankful - for all of it." Kristin Armstrong