So many anniversaries!

The true biggie has been the 500 years since upstart priest Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to a church door, an event that truly changed Europe and the world. See the rather irreverent post Seven reasons Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation still matter today.

On a lesser scale, but very significant in Australia and the Pacific, we have coming up in a few days the 75th anniversary of the Kokoda Track campaign.

But the one that has grabbed attention lately has been the centenary of the Battle of Beersheba. Quite a story, that. I have among my eBooks this — and am about to read it.
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It was first published in 1921, with an introduction by Sir Harry Chauvel.

It gives me great pleasure to write a few words of introduction to Lieut.-Col. Preston’s History of the Desert Mounted Corps, which I had the honour to command. In writing this History Lieut.-Col. Preston has done a service to his country which I am sure will be fully appreciated, particularly, perhaps, by those who served in the Corps, and who feel that the part they played in the Great War is but little known to the general public….

Lieut.-Col. Preston is well qualified to undertake the work. First of all in command of one of my finest Horse Batteries, and subsequently as C.R.A. of the Australian Mounted Division, he was often in touch with my Staff, being constantly employed on reconnaissance duties, in which he was peculiarly expert. He served throughout the whole of the operations of which he writes….

The Desert Mounted Corps was composed of Australians, New Zealanders, British Yeomanry, and Territorial Horse Artillery and Indian Cavalry, with French Cavalry added for the last operations; and it says much for the loyalty of all, and the mutual confidence in each other, that the whole worked so harmoniously and efficiently to one end….

In yesterday’s commemoration in Israel our PM gave a rather peculiar speech, I thought,  rather all over the place when compared with the speech of the New Zealand Governor-General. Israel’s PM Netanyahu spoke forcefully — have to award him a tick for oratory — but also delivered propaganda by the bucket load. In the course of his speech he mentioned that 4,000 years ago Abraham had been at that very spot — Beersheba. What he didn’t mention is that this hardly counts as an actual historical event, but oh the rather troubling weight that Jews, Christians and Muslims load onto this legendary figure!

Ironic too. I suggest you go to my post Before Abraham was, we are…

And the semi-mythical Abraham? Well, “according to Jewish tradition, Abraham was born under the name Abram in the city of Ur in Babylonia in the year 1948 from Creation (circa 1800 BCE).”

Way more impressive than that Australian Museum Timeline, impressive as it is, has been the ABC’s First Footprints series, which ended last Sunday night. It took three episodes before we got even close to the recent history – when Abraham, Moses and all that lot were swanning around one patch of the planet far away from here. That fourth episode punctured quite a few of our cherished beliefs about agriculture, hunter-gatherers, and civilisation.  It also included Papua New Guinea in the Greater Australia which once existed before sea levels rose around 7,000 years before Abraham. There was much reference to Bill Gammage’s seminal The Biggest Estate on Earth (2011).

The irony, if you like, is that among those brave Light Horsemen in 1917 were several descended from those people whose roots go back tens of thousands of years prior to the incursion of whatever individuals or groups might correspond to the story of Abraham in Beersheba. See ‘Not even classed as citizens’: Remembering the Indigenous soldiers at Beersheba.

Rather puts into some perspective the whole Abrahamic saga, very significant as it of course is given the good and ill it has contributed to this present world.

Finally, another picture relating to my last two posts. This is from Sydney High in 2014, a Remembrance Day ceremony with the school assembled in Moore Park. Quite an impressive photograph.Screenshot (125)

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Ypres 1917: from my e-Books

I have been reading many e-Books lately. More on that later. Today I focus on one: Thomas Hope Floyd, At Ypres with Best-Dunkley .

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Lieutenant Colonel Bertram Best-Dunkley VC (3 August 1890 – 5 August 1917) was an English recipient of the Victoria Cross. I note he was before the war a teacher at Tientsin (Tianjin) Grammar School in China. At the time of his death he was with 2nd/5th Bn XX Lancashire Fusiliers.

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I found this from Thomas Floyd’s book quite memorable:

We were joined by more prisoners as we went down. German prisoners have only to be told which way to go and they go. They are quite sociable people too—many of them bright-eyed boys of seventeen and eighteen. They are only too glad to carry our wounded men back; they need no escort. We got on very well indeed with them. I suppose that in a sense we were comrades in distress, or, rather comrades in good fortune, in that we were all leaving the field of horrors behind us! Yet they were the very Boches who, an hour before, had been peppering us with those bullets. One would never have imagined that we had so recently been enemies. One of them asked for water to ‘drinken;’ so I let him have a drink from my water-bottle. About half a dozen of them drank, and they appeared very grateful.

“Germans are not half so vile as they are painted…. They are only doing their bit for their Empire as we are for ours. The pity of it is that destiny should have thrown us into conflict. It is a great pity. How fine it would be if we could let bygones be bygones, shake hands, and lead the world in peace and civilization side by side! If we can fraternize so speedily on the battlefield, why cannot those who are not shooting each other also fraternize? It is a cruel insult to humanity that this thing should go on. War is hell, and the sooner some one arises who has the courage to stop it the better. Somebody will have to take the lead some time. I myself believe in peace after victory—but we are not yet going the right way about achieving victory; and, unless Sir William Robertson speedily changes his plans, we might as well make peace. This killing business is horrible. The present policy of the General Staff is: see which side can do the most killing. A far wiser, and far more humane, policy would be to win it by strategy. I believe in out-man[oe]uvring the enemy and taking as many prisoners as possible; make him evacuate territory or surrender by corps and armies; it can be done if we go the right way about it, but this bloodshed is barbarous.

One hundred years ago in Belgium: Dad’s cousin

It is rather appropriate that I am posting this on 29th September 2017 at City Diggers in Wollongong. Norman Harold Whitfield was my father’s cousin.

On 1st February 1917 Norman was awarded the Military Cross. The citation reads: ‘For conspicuous gallantry in action. He displayed great courage and skill in siting a communication trench under heavy fire. Later, he carried out a dangerous daylight reconnaissance. He has at all times set a fine example.’
Source: ‘Commonwealth Gazette’ No. 116; Date: 25 July 1917.

On 29th September 1917 he was wounded in action but remained on duty.

On 17th June 1919 he was awarded a bar to his Military Cross for action on 29th September 1918.

The citation reads: ‘Near Bellicourt, on 29th September, 1918, he led his company through a heavy covering barrage to their allotted work, and was responsible for the initial success of the day’s operations. Later, when the enemy held part of Bellicourt, he took forward a portion of his platoon, under heavy machine gun fire, and drove the enemy out, thereby enabling the road to be got through. Later again, in the absence of infantry, he organized a party and silenced a machine gun, and also dispersed the crew of an anti-tank gun. His marked courage and devotion to duty were an inspiration to his men.’

See also my posts One hundred years ago or thereabouts…, 22 – Whitfields 1915 and 25 – more on WW1 soldier Norman Whitfield.

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Norman Harold Whitfield

And adding to the appropriateness of where I am posting this: see Trove. It describes Norman Whitfield’s welcome home by the members of the Wollongong Returned Soldiers’ Association.

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A hundred years ago in Belgium

There was a special commemoration in Belgium yesterday.

ALMOST 1000 people have made an emotional journey to Polygon Wood in Belgium to honour the 5700 young Australian soldiers killed in battle there 100 years ago.

Descendants and friends of the fallen gathered among the headstones at the Buttes New British Cemetery outside the township of Zonnebeke for a dawn service, honouring the sacrifice of the young soldiers killed a century ago on September 26, 1917.

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I thought of two of my family, an uncle I knew and an uncle I never knew.

This man was for sure my favourite Whitfield uncle – well, the only one I ever met in fact. [There was Uncle George of course, but he was “by marriage”.] But he was a really good man, as I recall, with snowy white hair and a crack shot with a rifle – he had competed in that sport. See my April 2014 post Shellharbour.

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Kenneth Ross WHITFIELD (b.1897  d. 1967) m 1920 Esma H. EAST (b. 1895 d. 24 Mar. 1971)

The other uncle — great-uncle actually — was David Belford Christison.

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His life was short. He married Flora Fletcher in 1907 and had three children, all daughters as far as I have been able to find out. According to one source Flora died as recently as 1971. I never met her. David died four years after returning from World War 1.

His military record is available. He was a sapper.

Engineers, also known as sappers, were essential to the running of the war. Without them, other branches of the Allied Forces would have found it difficult to cross the muddy and shell-ravaged ground of the Western Front. Their responsibilities included constructing the lines of defence, temporary bridges, tunnels and trenches, observation posts, roads, railways, communication lines, buildings of all kinds, showers and bathing facilities, and other material and mechanical solutions to the problems associated with fighting in all theatres.

In civilian life he had been a postman.  He managed to get himself blown up by an exploding shell in 1918 leaving a permanent knee injury.

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David Christison was in 14th Field Company Engineers, attached to the 5th Division AIF which did indeed take part in Polygon Wood in 1917. His injury came in April 1918.

Initially, the division was stationed on the Suez Canal. In June 1916 it moved to France, taking over part of the “nursery” sector near Armentieres. There it became involved in the disastrous attack at Fromelles in July. In October it joined the First, Second and Fourth Divisions on the Somme around Flers.

In March 1917 a flying column of the Fifth Division pursued of the Germans to the Hindenburg Line, capturing Bapaume. In May the Division relieved the First Division in the Second Battle of Bullecourt, holding the breach thus gained against furious counterattacks. In September it managed to turn an allied defeat into a major victory at the Battle of Polygon Wood.

In March 1918 the Fifth Division was rushed to the Somme region to help stem the German Offensive. There it guarded the vital Somme River bridges. In April it counterattacked at Villers Bretonneux, recovering the town.  

The Fifth Division fought in the Battles of Hamel in July and Amiens in August. In September it forced the Somme River at Peronne and fought on to the Hindenburg Line.

Ken Whitfield arrived in England in December 1917. He has part of a reinforcement for the 3rd Battalion AIF. However, his service with the 3rd Battalion was cut short somewhat by illness. He returned to Australia invalided quite late in 1919.

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George Hubert Wilkins (1888-1958)

ABC News Breakfast this morning featured an interview with Jeff Maynard, author of The Unseen Anzac (2015) — certainly one to look for in the Library.

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See The Saturday Paper:

George Hubert Wilkins (1888-1958) – polar explorer, air-racing pilot, cinematographer, war photographer, showman, mystic and fabulist – lived more than enough lives for an ordinary mortal. Showered in honours (he was awarded the Military Cross and knighted in 1928), Wilkins is “largely responsible” for taking and documenting Australia’s official collection of World War I photographs. Although Maynard tells the story of Wilkins’ childhood and his years as a polar explorer both before and after the war (Wilkins accompanied Shackleton on his final expedition to Antarctica in 1921), the bulk of the biography is devoted to Wilkins’ time on the Western Front. Charles Bean’s determination to document the Australian experience of war led to Wilkins and Frank Hurley being appointed as official war photographers in August 1917. While Hurley quickly became frustrated with the restrictions placed on his work and soon left for Palestine, Wilkins remained.

He should have died several times. A fearless “wielder of the mechanism”, he was determined to capture images of the fighting. Wounded frequently, he accompanied the soldiers into the front line, sometimes going ahead of them. He refused to carry a gun, and as Bean acknowledged, continually showed “disregard of personal danger” and was probably “in the fighting more constantly than any other officer in the corps”.

Maynard, who began his research in 1998, has scoured the globe in search of archival material, even speaking to the owner of the unassuming hotel in Massachusetts where Wilkins died in 1958. He has tracked down wads of previously unseen correspondence and authenticated 178 photographs in the Australian War Memorial’s collection as having been taken by Wilkins. His understated, well-honed biography reveals the maverick, eternally restless Wilkins as a man who refused to define his life through war alone.

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That’s Wilkins on the right.