Australian Biography: Jack Hazlitt
Jack Hazlitt (b.1897, Melbourne, Vic) could be described as a 'survivor's survivor'. When war broke out in 1914, Jack lied about his age and enlisted in the Australian Infantry Forces. He survived the war, serving at Gallipoli and in France and Belgium. Jack Hazlitt was a daredevil, the archetypal Australian of a past era. His interview for Australian Biography in 1992 was his last. He died in 1993, aged 96.
Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Yes, yes, I am. Yes, that's right.
In South Yarra in Melbourne. It was a two storey, kind of a ... the way that they built a lot of houses those days: a row of terraces - Milson Street, South Yarra.
He was an actor and stage manager with J.C. Williamson.
Yes, yeah that's where he met my mother.
Well she was, but she was really a pianist and teacher but she did mingle with the theatrical people quite a bit in those days, when that was our only source of entertainment, wasn't it? Theatre and concerts - none of these things [laughs] and that's where they met anyhow. She was only seventeen.
I had two ... one sister. I never knew her cause she was the number one that came and she died when she was quite young - only a child. I had two other brothers and ...
Yes. Gerry he was seven years older than me and then the next one down, Richard, he was three years older than me.
No, no when I was only about two years old ... Because my father was ... in his job [he] could seldom live in the family hearth because when you think of it - [in the] days before movies and those sort of things and he ... and the theatre was the thing and J.C. Williamson had theatres all over Australia and New Zealand, Africa and my father was away all that time, organising the production and when he was back in Australia I was too young then but he and my mother weren't getting on even then and I was only about two and he finally had a blistering row and left the family home and never came back.
I never saw him again - no.
Hmm. He still went on with J.C. Williamson's of course. He finished up ... when they built that big theatre in Sydney which I think was the Theatre Royal in Pitt Street I believe it was the biggest theatre stage they ever had. It is now Woolworths. [laughs] Well he finished up as a manager of that.
Well only ...I think we'd have starved. In those days there was practically no State run dole or anything like that. If you didn't have any money you just ... that was it.
Well he was supposed to send her a money order about every month for, I think, eight pounds. More times it didn't come than it ever came, so what saved the day was she was ... Before she came out from England she had done very well in the musical studies. She had ALC and a couple of other things over there and she was able to teach mainly piano and singing and that's what put butter on the bread.
Yes, well of course I was the youngest. The eldest one was then about twenty-four I think and the other one was twenty or twenty-one.
Yes, well, semi yes.
Well, by teaching music. Where we lived was in a little ramshackle cottage down in Brighton Beach. I remember the rent was twelve shillings a week. I remember that later. And about three quarters of a mile up the main road - it was South Road at Brighton Beach - was a school, which had then been founded about ... it was founded 100 years ago this year. They're having a jubilee. Haileybury College. It was founded by an Englishman, who came out with ... he was teaching at Alwin College in Melbourne University first and then he left there and started Haileybury in 1892. And I think ... You realise that I'm trying to think of something that I was only a two year old kid but I've got to use some imagination in places. But I knew that she was earning just enough teaching piano around private homes and so on, but one time - she must on a whim, walked up South Road and went into the College and asked to see the Headmaster and he ... She interviewed him and when he found out that she was a professional, young professional pianist, he warmed up quite a bit apparently cause he was very fond of music himself. In fact he wrote music in his spare time. At that time Haileybury only had about twenty boys attending. It was a boys' school. And my mother put up the idea to him that would he permit her boys to attend Haileybury College if she gave music lessons and singing lessons, so that's was agreed to and that's how we got there, because it wasn't a free school by any means but this was in lieu of fees you see. She used to teach some of the boys, and this went on for quite a long time. Then occasionally she used to organise concerts and at various suburbs and anyhow, I don't want to stay too long on that except to mention that they're having a tremendous jubilee year down there now. I wish it wasn't so far away - I'd like to go down and attend it. 'Cause I'm the oldest living old boy. I know that.
Continuously. It was desperate.
Oh, well, I suppose the main things were bread. I don't remember ever anything in the way of biscuits. Bread and a very limited amount of butter and a lot of dripping was used in those days. Dreadful stuff. Beef dripping to keep down using too much butter, and I think the food was enough to keep us going but very, very scarce.
Oh yes. And of course what ... In order for her to keep up this income from teaching, she had to go out to private homes and I was nearly finished off there. She used to have a little fifteen-year old girl came in for a few shillings a week to look after me while she was out teaching music, and one day she was heating up some milk for me. We had milk and she - this girl - was pouring it out into some receptacle. I was sitting up in an ordinary chair and she bumped her arm in some way and the scalding milk went all over my front. And that nearly finished me off. And what didn't help was - my mother told me all this later - she lost her head and went screaming outside instead of doing anything to try and get rid of this boiling milk all down my front and that wasn't a happy occasion, but anyhow I survived that. And then she ... I don't know how much you want to go on with those early days. You catch me up if you ...
Well it was a hectic time there, because ah my eldest brother having being accepted into Haileybury for mother teaching lessons and then my second brother, I was too young to go there then so my mother took off and went up to an engagement teaching music in a little town called Tatura. It's up in the Goulburn Valley in Victoria nearly up on the Murray River. A tiny little village it was then and I would have been about three, or perhaps four, and so I was looked after by my mother and the other two older boys were already gone into ... it was a boarding school at Haileybury/ There were no day boys, so they were given board too, so that solved that problem for a while. Let me see now, where are we?
I was just thinking that your mother in this situation: having to look after you, leaving you at times with help that she couldn't have been very happy with - it must have been very difficult for her. What sort of a woman was she? How do you remember her?
Well I ... the older I get, the more I appreciate what a tremendous personality she was. She must have been, not to give up, or lose her reason and so on because I can't emphasise too strongly that in those days, the amount of help from government and so on was always nil in these situations and it was only after many, many years that all sorts of schemes, welfare schemes, well, you know, were introduced - baby bonuses and all these things. There was none of that and I think this thing would have been finished off if she hadn't had this musical ability because she also started to have ... organised concerts with musical plays like Miss Hook of Holland and those little old plays and she ... I'm thinking now where ... I think I'll have to take a long leap forward there because a lot of the intervening years ... I went to Haileybury when I was ... She managed to get me to start there. I started there when I was ... in 1905. It made me just almost eight. Before that - I prefer, I think, not to deal with those intervening years, but they were pretty desperate, starting in that little place at Tatura. Then she finished up in New South Wales in Wagga. Started a musical connection there. So it goes on and then finally my second brother, Richard, he ... when he left Haileybury he went up to Hawkesbury Agricultural College as a student and when he graduated from there his father was still alive - I suppose I could say our father, but I never saw him from the day he walked out you see. And he knew some Minister of Agriculture over in the Western Australia Government and my second brother, Richard, went around by ship and was given a job to start there. My mother was then back in Melbourne with her mother, who was still alive, and who's also a pianist - used to give concerts in the Melbourne Town Hall, and her sister, Gertrude, was a violinist. They were all musical people, which helped to provide a bit of income for them. So I got very restless. I was supposed to stay at Haileybury until I finished my education, what they called was the Leaving Certificate, which is the entrance then to university and the headmaster had practically adopted me - C.H. Randour - and he wanted ... he decided that I'd make a journalist. Apparently I used to write fairly good essays and that sort of thing. So my mother tootled off to Western Australia because she wanted to follow her favourite son, which I think he was anyhow, Richard. And when he had left the Eastern States, my eldest brother was at university, Melbourne University, and I got so noisy and rebellious that I wanted to go over to Western Australia and follow where my brother had gone with my mother, and after a lot of objection to this by the headmaster, who didn't want me to leave, away I went. I was put on a ship and shipped off over to Perth, where my mother had again started up a musical connection. No problem to her - amazing how she got the pupils around her and then concerts. And I joined my brother down in the ... out of Perth in a little place called ... near Bunbury, where the Government had established what they called an experimental irrigation thing. Irrigation then was practically unknown in Australia and that's where my brother was working and I joined him. Now we get into 1914. and the War broke out as we know in August and my brother hopped on the train and went up and enlisted about a month after the War broke out.
Oh I can't think of an adjective strong enough to describe it. It's a ...
Well I didn't take much notice of it. I was then only just barely ... I hadn't turned seventeen I don't think - late sixteen. But when my brother went off up to Perth and enlisted, I wanted to go too. Now there was nothing very brave about either of us. In the early part there, when the War had just started, there had been no casualties. It looked like a wonderful way of getting around the world. That's what got him all excited.
Then of course I followed on. So he got into the army fairly quickly. There was no bother there, but of course I was seventeen and they're not supposed to take them till they're nineteen, so I put me age up, and I was fairly big and fat, strong, so I went in after him. Meantime, he and his unit went off the Egypt, in ... I think it was December 1914. He was in the original 11th Battalion.
Everybody wanted to go. They were very choosy then. They didn't know what this War was going to do to the population you see, and they even chose six footers, when we used to march through Perth you know. They were all big men, but as soon as the casualties started to really rock, that soon changed. But I was just on six feet then, and so I said I was nineteen and they didn't ask for a birth certificate so in I went into the army. But he'd gone to Egypt in the meantime and I went into Blackboy Hill Camp in February. We lived in Bell tents there. I was with the 28th Battalion, which was a unit formed over in Western Australia. I think you made a comment a while ago that what sort of a change did it make to things. Well I think I would have finished up for the rest of my live in Western Australia - I always liked it but I never saw it again until years later. Because when I came back on the hospital ship, it never stopped there, it came right around and dumped me in Sydney.
So when you took off and you went and you joined up and you set off overseas with this feeling that life was a big adventure and you were going to travel and see the world, when did you first realise that it wasn't going to be all fun?
Well, when we ... we did get some news there in Egypt where we were training when the first casualty lists [came on] after the landing. You see I wasn't at the landing. My brother was there at the original landing at Gallipoli and local newspapers started to give increasing lists of 'killed in action', 'died of wounds' and 'wounded' and so on. I think that was when I realised that there was no fun in this, but you couldn't just walk in and say I'm leaving. [Laughs]
In Egypt, out in the desert.
Oh yes, we had ... slept in tents, twelve to a tent. Boer War type of tents they were, with your feet to the pole in the centre and your head out near the flap and if you were the last one to go to bed you'd avoid treading over a lot of recumbent bodies, which were already asleep on an oil sheet on the ground. There were no beds, no such things as mess huts in those days. We just fed in the front of the tent and cook used to bring around the stew and stuff and serve it out to us in our little dixies, just outside our tents.
Well, we didn't know where we were going. There were all sorts of ... When the landing took place there was still a strong expectation we were going to then go across the Mediterranean and into France, where the fighting was, of course, roaring along. Gallipoli hadn't been even heard of. And anyhow, then my brother went off, as I say, in the landing and I got a scribbled note from him, what had happened. Of course it was all very heavily censored and we knew we were bound to go there when our unit moved up - the 28th Battalion, the 7th Brigade. We were taken up to a island called Lemnos, first for more training. That's only about forty miles off the Turkish coast. And we trained there and then I heard that my brother had been wounded. He had been there about a month and a piece of shell hit him in the left leg, so he went off in the hospital ship back to Egypt and I never saw him there at all. My unit got there at the end of July, and I don't know how much you want to discuss that - what happened there. I ...
Well all right. The only way they could land any fresh troops after the original landing had to be done in the dark. The Turks held all the high country. They had it all under observation, except for the little valleys close to where ANZAC Cove is now. So it all had to be done in the dark with all its difficulties. And my unit, the 28th Battalion - I was a Signaller in that, there was twelve of us responsible for the communications side of it. We landed on the beach and tramped up into a little valley. Shrapnel Valley it was named, with good effect too. The Turks had that constantly under shell fire. However, in the dark it was fairly quiet. We could hear a lot of rifle and machine gun fire going off further up the hill, but we just lay back on our packs and our first casualty occurred. It must have been a stray bullet. I don't think it could have been a direct shot from long range but one of the fellows in the next tent to me ... I heard him call out and he'd got hit in the groin and by the time they could stop the flow of blood, he was dead, you see, because one of the main arteries was cut through. So that made us realise then that things were really getting serious. [Laughs]
Oh yes, yes. Oh well, it was ... You had to really get ... making yourself harder and harder in your attitude. You know, it's perfectly natural for any of us males or females, if you see a dead body with blood running out and so on, after these road accidents, it's always a shock, but by goodness I can tell you what we had to see, the survivors, you do become used to it. It seems strange but in the tent ... There is a picture here of me in the tent [that] Lesley [has] got somewhere here in that camp at Blackbore Hill. There was twelve in the tent and most of them never came back out of that twelve. Those earlier battles - the slaughter rate was terrible. And another thing was, of course, the water supply. There was no natural water or rivers on Gallipoli itself. It was all just rocky mountain ranges and so on and they used to bring tanks of water in from the ships moored out in the sea. But it was never enough and we used to try and augment our supplies through ignorance, as we knew later. There were little creeks running down various parts of the ranges there and we used to go and scoop up water there and we didn't always boil it. What we didn't realise was that water was trickling down through thousands of corpses, which were still lying there unburied, and of course it was just a forerunner for dysentery. So a lot of us became casualties but unless we were absolutely in the last stages, there were so many demands for troops there, that we were kept going on our job as long as we could make it.
Well, firstly, there was no radio. It was in its infancy. We never saw any radio. It would have made a big difference to the whole picture if we had. So communication from where our front line was, whichever part of that Gallipoli Peninsula you were behind - it was never more than about a mile to a mile and half in from the landing where the cove is a very narrow strip and [we were] all down in trenches of course. So the only communication was ... We were given field telephones - Stephens phones they were called - and we used to reel off insulated land lines up from the front line: Battalion Headquarters back to Brigade Headquarters, to keep in touch. Well the Turkish shell fire was so terrific that the lines used to get busted up with bursting shells, then the only communication was ... that's where the runner was born. I was a runner. Yeah. You had to take down an urgent thing about demanding some more help or re-enforcements or more ammunition, or come up and bring back some of the wounded. It's all done by ... mostly done by runners. Now the runner's life wasn't a happy one because, you see, you couldn't make time for following down zig zag trenches to protect yourself. You had to hop across the top and you were in full view of the Turkish snipers and the average life of a runner in those days was about twenty-four hours before he was knocked. I got missed so many times I couldn't name it. The noise like ... It sounds like a bee flying past, a whizzing sound you know. Of course the one that hits you, you don't hear. Well, that was the life down there and then I was getting ...
Oh well, I was there from July to ... I think they carted me off in the last stages of dysentery about November, just before the evacuation.
Oh yes, oh yes.
Youth, mainly I suppose. We were all well trained and very strong and well it's a hard question too. Because we didn't even get ... I never saw a loaf of bread all the time I was at Gallipoli. We had tinned beef, very salty, which made you thirstier than you wanted to be, and so called apricot jam, which you didn't even need to open the lid because you punched a hole in it and it would run out like syrup - dreadful stuff from some rascally English contractor no doubt. It gave it a bit of a flavour anyhow and army biscuits, which are just like the biscuits I have here for these dogs. We used to try and vary the thing by getting an empty shell case and putting a number of these hard biscuits in and then pounding them down with a handle out of your trenching tool, break it up and then tip a bit of this so called apricot jam in it and a bit of water and make a sort of a dessert, if you like. Then you ate the beef, Fray Bentos - another rascally contractor from South America - where they took all the goodness out of the beef there and tinned the rest. That's what the army fed us on.
That was it. I remember I was on a mission down on the beach there and there was a sailor off the ships there and he had a tin of condensed milk and I somehow got wind that he had it, poked in his tunic and I gave him ... I was so desperate I think I gave him a pound or two pound notes - I had a bit of money on me - for that tin of Nestles Condensed Milk and that was absolute luxury. But the food there was dreadful.
Never, never once. And another thing is of course we got absolutely lousy because we hardly took our clothes off for weeks and weeks and weeks on end. We slept in the ground on side of the little dug outs we dug, and when we had to go on duty we just got up with the same clothes on.
Well there was nothing to get into. See, we didn't have pyjamas or anything like that, and anyhow there were no barracks there.
You said you survived as a runner for as long as you did because you were young and fit. Did the dysentery have an effect on this? When you got dysentery and you were sick it must have been harder to run so fast.
Well, yes. I think that when people get into desperate situation because it was becoming more and more ... although we didn't admit to this there, as the months went by and the various attempts to overcome the Turkish army were failing - Lone Pine was example there. The slaughter there for our poor old Lighthorse was dreadful and so on. And we began to realise there that we weren't going to overcome them. And I don't think that any of the old veterans that got off there would ever admit to this, but there was a feeling of relief when the British General Staff decided to call it off, evacuate it. Well I was about three weeks before they did that. I was carted off to hospital condition. But when you get into a desperate frame of mind, compared to ordinary living conditions, I think you think differently. As I remarked to you earlier, I ... You asked me a question and I won't repeat the question even if I could think of it now but I now the import of it was ... You get so used to people you train with being blown to bits and hit with shells and goodness knows what that ... as I mentioned to you I was in the signal company and those telephone wires ... We tried to keep up some sort of service between Brigade Headquarters back, and the front line, but I can remember a remarkable scene there. This was in France, not in Gallipoli, where obviously there had been quite a number of dead buried near where a sap as we called it, a trench, had been dug about six foot deep and I was looking for places to hitch on with a clove hitch this telephone wire. And here were the feet of the skeletons, who'd been dead a month or two, sticking out on the edge of the trench and I was looping the telephone cable around their big toes, the bone part of it. Well you wouldn't do that in normal life, would you?
Well, we took advantage. There was so little, with this wire, although it was insulated, it's better not to let it lie down continuously wet and all the trees and shrubs and so on had been shot to blazers by weeks and weeks of shell fire so there was nothing much to put this insulated wire up and I just saw all these bony skeletons there and I tied. I didn't feel any remorse or ...
Oh well, I knew it was human, they were skeletons all right. It doesn't take long there even in that climate for the flesh to all disappear leaving only a bony structure that, of course, lasts for years. And the bony part of the big toe was a very handy peg to put the telephone wire on. It's just an example of the attitudes that one, I suppose, cultivated to avoid going bonkers.
Oh, you couldn't help it. You had to build up. Or you'd ... which I never remember anybody doing in my unit, [but] you feel you want to turn around and run out of it, but there was nowhere to run to anyhow. But you do get horribly stretched nerve-wise.
Well hoping that nothing hit you. Because as I remarked a while ago the ... you couldn't follow down the intricate line of trenches from the front line to the base. That took too long, so you used to short-cut with your message you had to deliver, and it was a case of swerving and running and hoping that nothing hit you, but a lot of the fellows did get hit on that thing. And afterwards, we had the same experience in France you know, down on the Somme. There was still no thought of radio and we were trained as signallers to work morse code with big flags, like the navy uses to some extent, or did, and we found it absolutely absurd to put up a flag on Gallipoli. As soon as you went up above what you were protecting, your mound of dirt of whatever, it would get shot out of your hands. They were marvellous shots. They could ... they could knock anything. A 1,000 yards was nothing, and that's a long way away.
In many cases. Oh of course we had some good shots. They all became snipers on our side but I would say the average Turk, I remember, he was a much more dangerous man on his aiming of his rifle than the average Aussie was.
Well there's a yes and no to that. I think we felt that ... the need ... The casualty rate were mounting at such a rate that reinforcements were badly needed to keep propping up the at least the adequate strength of the front line people. And I do think that more training would have helped. It wouldn't have helped on the health problem but it would have helped on the shooting side of it. An example of this was that rather unhappy Suvla Bay landing, which was the last desperate effort by the General Staff to sort out the Gallipoli position. That was a few miles up the coast. That was largely carried out by the British Army and it was a horrifying part of the whole history, I think, because most of the troops were not professional soldiers. They'd been got together with that Kitchener's army in England - very young in most cases and very quick training. And they were landed off these barges up there against the strongest unit of Kemal's army - professional Turkish soldiers. They didn't have a chance. With the casualties out there they had to give up, you see. That was the last chance to resolve that Gallipoli position. After that it was just a stalemate.
Oh no. The British, the 29th Division, which landed down at Cape Hellas - that was the end of the Gallipoli Peninsula - they were Turkish [who] fought there. They took an awful pasting. I don't remember the figures, but the losses down there were much more than the ANZACS lost. Up at ... You see ANZAC itself was up the coast about twelve miles from ...
Well the only thing was ... You see without any bathing arrangements and all that ... was never available ... when we could get leave from our own job we had to do, we'd try and get down in the night time and have a dip in the sea. That's where we cleaned ourselves up a bit. It's the only time though we had any chance and if it was possible to show pictures ... I've not seen any myself ever, but once our army uniforms ... We became like a lot of ragged tramps in the end because it was hard to get any fresh clothing. And we mostly wore shorts and they were in rags and our khaki shirt were also in rags, and of course we didn't have tin hats then. We didn't get the tin hats 'til we got to France. And the cloth cap didn't last very long. So I think we really were a ragged looking army in the last few months.
Well that has one of the few memories I have which was tragic and yet hilarious. 'Cause you mentioned the APEX a while ago. Where did you get on to that by the way?
All right. Well that ...
Could I ask you that question again and I want a nice sort of total answer, so I'll ask you the question again and you come in as if we hadn't had a conversation about it before. Because they don't know about the conversation, so I'm going to ask you the question again.
You see, it's obviously hopeless to have people relieving themselves in the bottom of the trench where they were holding the position. It would become absolutely ... if it were possible, worse than it was. So just a hundred yards or so behind the front line, mostly, a T Party sunk a very deep trench as near out of any direct aim from the Turks as possible. [They would] find some little place behind a little hill, a bit of a hill and so on. All rocky country there. And they'd go down about ten or twelve feet and then they'd put cross trunks of trees each end and a log, which they'd chop down, or sometime they used a post they'd bought up from the beach. And I remember the run up [to the] APEX. It was about as long as this room - resting on cross beams at the end and that's where the troops ... when the urge became unbearable, they sat on the log. The hilarious part about it, when I think about it today, the Turks were a cunning mob. They got to know about these sort of things and they knew if they could lob a bomb in there, the fellows, by the time they pulled up their pant or whatever they were doing, would be sitting shots for a decent sort of an explosion. So again using my word 'hilarious', I've seen where ... The bomb they used to send over was called a broomstick bomb. It was a big brass case, with a thing like a stick, like a tail, which helped to keep it on course, and it was Howitzer type, but it was shot out of a mortar and aimed to then come down into that trench. Now you could hear this whistling sound for quite a while before it hit, so whatever stage you'd reached on obeying nature, you had to simply rush for your life out of there: fellows dragging up their bit of clothing or with no clothing on - they'd left it behind in the hurry - and you could imagine what the scene was like. The word dignity, of course, was abandoned. So that's the story of relieving in that position and I think probably something like that was used in other parts of the line: a trench and a pole along it.
No you see ... I think although it was worse in France. The roaring of guns, thousands of them on both sides, went on twenty-four hours a day. You never really got used to it. A lot of us were quite deaf when we finally were sent away. This roaring noise: machine guns and artillery, both sides banging at each other, day after day and night after night. It never stopped. So I think that's one of the reasons I'm a bit deaf now. [Laughs]
No, no. It's a ... I can hear you quite well, but I think a bit of ordinary hurried conversation = I sometimes have trouble sorting it out. Lesley gets to work on something - speaks very rapidly and I don't pick it up. I would've, I think, a few years ago. [Laughs]
Well I think at ninety-four you've got a right to have a slight hearing loss even if you hadn't spent your early years in the trenches. Now you were there and you were taken out just before the end, because you were ... because you were so ill. Where were you taken when you were evacuated?
To a so called hospital at Lemnos Island which was about forty miles away from the peninsula, the Gallipoli mainland.
Well, there were no nurses as we know them. Female nurses, trained. There were men, who had I don't think any of them had ever had any medical training and they were the ones that had to look after us. And there were no proper beds. There were beds made of cane, which through constant use, bodies being in them and then removed, the whole wicker work had gone down in the middle and up like that, so your bottom was down near the ground and your head and shoulders were up like that [HOLDS HANDS ABOVE SHOULDERS] so you weren't very comfortable and that's where I was until, I think, more by luck than ... We had very poor food. We never saw any fresh food even there but it was a little better than we had back on the mainland and I gradually recovered and ...
No. We knew the rumours were all strong that because the thing had failed on Gallipoli the War hadn't stopped. It was more fighting than ever in France. The Somme Battle still hadn't started and so after they rushed us back in a Hydra, sufficiently recovered from the dysentery, they whizzed us down, off across the Suez Canal, from where we'd been in camps, about twelve miles in on the Sinai Peninsula, which is just simply a row of sand hills, 100 miles or ... 'cause they thought the Turks were going to come down through Palestine and get into Egypt and knock us out. So we had to dig trenches there. And the heat was ... averaged about 120 degrees Fahrenheit, in the daytime. And we had one army bottle of water issued per day, per man, and you could drink the lot in an hour if you let yourself and if you didn't save a bit for the cook you never got anything from the cookhouse. You had to give a bit of that water for the stew and other stuff that the cooks were making. So we were back to some extent on the old tinned beef and hard biscuit. Again no bread, not much water. And after a few months of that the General Staff must have decided the Turks weren't going to have a go, so they shipped us back across the Canal, via train up to Alexandria, and on to a ship and across the Mediterranean to Marseille. So that was the end of the Gallipoli Peninsula position.
We were taken across from, as I say, right across up to Belgium. I remember a lot of the poor fellows, who didn't survive. As I remember, we were all excited because the train line took us within about sight of Paris. We all thought we were going to get leave in Paris. We'd all read about Paris. [Laughs] The train kept going right up, across the Allontierre [?] and into Belgium, and that's where we were deposited. I don't know how much you want of this detail but I'll go on it you want me to.
Well I think we felt that we had no control of the situation and we just simply tried to be complacent about it, because any news - we used to call them 'furfies' - was usually false, unreliable. When we got to Marseille we had no idea we were getting taken right up to past Paris. We might have been more excited than we were. I suppose some of the senior majors and colonels and so on probably knew what was going on, but any of the lower ranks - we were kept in the dark and ...
Well we ... They didn't have camps. You see, the War had gone on with Germany, of course, and England and so on ... by a year or two then. We didn't get to ... we didn't get into France until 1916. The War started in 1914 and there was a sort of a half stalemate on the whole of the front line, right across France. So we were put up, whether the owners liked it or not, in any village. My unit was near a little village - I just can't remember its name now, it doesn't matter - where they'd simply knock on the door of a little village, simple little home, and say they are army, and of course talk in French or Belgian, find out how many beds were in the house and how many rooms and did you have an outhouse where the ... of course in those days, before the motor age, there was mostly a barn with stuff and the officer in charge of the billeting - it was called billeting - would simply say, 'All right you and you and you, you sleep here'. What happened in one village, a husband and his wife and two sons had to all sleep in the one bed because we'd taken over the other beds. Well that's the way the army dealt with the thing and that type of war.
Well not have to, but we got our regular tinned stuff, you see, and at least there the food was better than Gallipoli. We used to see a loaf of bread now and again and even a pat of butter and a bit of fruit from a nearby orchid. So that's where we were for a few months. In the meantime the War had roared up further down the line - down around Albert, near the Somme and they were having a bad ... The British soldiers there were having a bad time too. So we all whizzed off down there and again on train trip. And it had one advantage over Gallipoli. When you went into the line there, after ten days you were pulled out and replaced with another one and you went back far enough ... You could still hear the guns but you could have a bath, a shower, and get some decent food. But of course after the ten days - in again you went, those of you who survived, but of course the carnage down on the Somme battlefield was infinitely worse than I ever saw on Gallipoli. The casualty rate went up. The Germans had far more machine guns than the Turks and they largely did the damage. When our troops would try and go forward they would mow them down, you know.
Oh well I was ... I hung on when I look back there. As you can understand Robin, it's now a long time ago and I do know I came back in my discharge, bombed out, I think they used the term. My brain was bombed out, and I was ... I didn't last until the Armistice. They shipped me off back to Australia about a year before the War finished.
Can we go back to France and there you were surrounded by people being mowed down by machine guns. The feeling that it might be you next. What did you ... did you think a lot about death and dying there in the trenches?
Well I can only say that I do think you ... you build up after months become years, where you do, quite a degree, of being callous. Just as well, I think, or we would have all had gone bonkers. Just depends upon each individual temperament, I suppose. But you see the climax of my time in France, in that War, was my brother was in a different unit and I hadn't seen him for a month or two, in the movement of troops around, but I was still in the signal business and a runner, a surviving runner, and their Brigade Headquarters had occupied an old German dug out, which the Germans must have built when they thought they were going to be there longer than ... They were overrun by the British Army before we got there and this thing was about forty feet down under. They'd burrowed down into the soft soil of the Somme and that's where we had set up a little switchboard and then these insulated lines going up to various parts of the front line, radiated from that, and that's where - when the lines hadn't been busted - messages used to come and I was on duty on that time, on this board, and I heard heavy boots coming down the stairs they were made of wood, and it's me my brother. I hadn't seen him for months and he was taking a bomb squad up to the front line and it was pitch dark, of course, outside and he just wanted fresh information about finding a way for his squad. Of course, we exchanged greetings and ...
It made us superstitious, the whole thing, because, you know, that's the last time I saw him alive because he went on up the top and I didn't hear anything for nearly a month, but what happened was, when he went into the line with his squad a piece of a shell hit him and wounded him but didn't kill him. They got him onto a stretcher. I heard all this later when I got to England and they got him to England to Cambridge to a Military Hospital in Cambridge and I think he'd have been alive probably today, although he is three years older than me, but the thing they didn't have any treatment for then was antibiotics. They hadn't been invented and this wound went all gangrene and they couldn't stop it and they took his leg off, but three weeks after they got him to the hospital, he died. I didn't know about that until sometime later 'cause he was in a different unit, you see. But he's ... he's buried in Cambridge Public Cemetery. There is a Memorial there. I've got pictures of that and what was hard on my mother, back in Australia, was that my eldest brother, who had moved to New South Wales - he was a Master at the Kings School out at Parramatta, and he was a cricketer too, he played for Australia, Australia 11 - he died a few months from my brother killed, so it left nobody but me.
No, my eldest brother, I don't think he passed the medical to go. I'm not sure about that but he died at The Kings School from pneumonia. Didn't recover. Again, I think he might have recovered if he'd had modern medical aid.
I had ... I didn't know about my eldest brother because he was back here in Australia. But I finally got news that [my other brother] died in Cambridge about three weeks after he died. I knew he'd been wounded. So that was almost the end of the Hazlitts, wasn't it?
Oh well, I suppose I was very saddened about it because he and I, we were very friendly. We'd been a lot together after we'd got into our teens, more than my eldest brother, who was more distant from us at the time. I didn't see much of him but I did of Richard. And ... But of course, what I said to you a while ago, I do think that when you've been in a war like that you've seen so many - I'm repeating myself now I know ... so many mutilated bodies along side of you sometimes. One little fellow, Holmes, he was in a trench next to me in France and suddenly I found he had no head. They'd taken his head clean off - a shell case. Well that's enough to make one go mad if it happens in civil life, but somehow or other you stiffen yourself up. You go to.
Well, strictly speaking it was a technical unit. We ... we didn't ... We had rifles but we didn't carry them. If any man in the front line unit was found without the rifle near him, even when he went to relieve himself, he'd get into trouble. Never let them go, but you see we had to carry equipment: this telephone we used to slung around our knees, the Stephen phones, and we had theodolites and things like that, so we were not expected to carry our rifle but we had Webley revolvers. But we weren't really ... We didn't have a bayonet on the end of the rifle. So I didn't have ... I can't claim any great stories about sticking a bayonet into a man's stomach and trying to pull it out. It didn't want to come once they got in. [Laughs] They used to boot them off with a foot. I've seen it all happen but I wasn't into it myself.
I'll never know. I certainly didn't because our job was communication. And I think we were just like a lot of chooks in a chook yard if we ... If something hit us well that was it, if it didn't hit us we survived.
Well, I have more respect for the average Turk because I had an experience in France, again down ... It was near Possiers, which is one of the fiercest battle there, with the Australian Army, and I was sent [coughs] from Brigade Headquarters because the line again had blown up. They weren't working and I was sent forward in the night time up to this 48th Battalion Headquarters and, anyhow, I ... you carried a mobile phone with you and you used to tap in, every now and again, to make certain the line was still there, and you wound a tape on it and on you went. Well I found that as fast as I mended the line on this night, the shelling from the Germans was so fierce that it was almost impossible to keep the line open, so I decided to take the material I had with me for that Battalion Headquarters and do a running job and a shell just missed me. It must have been a pretty big one I think, because it blew a hole in the earth as deep as ...
Well, I think I may have mentioned to you that I was on a mission where the phone lines were impossible to keep under repair and I was carrying a message up to the front line and this pretty heavy white shell - I'll never know what size it was - it went off practically alongside of me and bombed me right out of where I was but it didn't do any damage to my structure. But it certainly did a lot of damage to my nerve system and I passed out. I never got to the front line. I was very close to it anyhow and next morning I came to and thought well I've got to try and crawl back to my own side of the line. I knew I was near the front line with the Germans and I didn't feel at all well, so I lay there. This hole that this shell must have made was about as big as an average room and I was at the bottom of it. And all of a sudden I heard voices, hoping it was some of my own mob, or even a stretcher bearer or two, but they were German voices and I knew then that this tangle during the night, that somehow I had got pretty close if not on the front line, [which was] just a chain of muddy trench holes. There were not forts there. The shelling was too fierce to ever keep anything like that. And there was a rumour around, which was probably quite unfounded, that the Germans at some parts of the line didn't take prisoners because they were so overloaded with their own problems. Whether that's true or not I'll never know to this day but I know the thought never crossed my mind with the Turks on Gallipoli. If you were captured, you were taken back as a prisoner but I think down on the ... the fierce fighting down on the Somme in France there was a possibility that people who were captured, were captured and that was it. So I decided I've got to lie doggo down there for as long as I could until the next night. I lay in the bottom of that hole there, hoping another shell wouldn't go anywhere near me and I had the usual emergency rations, which you carried in a little pack, which you'd use and a water bottle. So I lay there all that day, and the next night - in the meantime I think I'd recovered some of my damaged senses - I knew which way to go and soon as it got dark, I crawled out of this shell hole and gradually crawled back into the direction of the Brigade Headquarters, where I was on signal staff. And I got back to the top of that thing and the officer in charge of our signal squad, a fellow called Schooler, he looked at me. I remember him saying, 'Good God you've had it. Go on back to the clearing station', and from then on I was ordered back to another place, where I had to look after ... We were a mounted brigade, when there was anything to be mounted about. We had horses and we carried all our phone lines and stuff on horses and they were tethered about a mile back from where this other situation occurred and I lived in a tent there, one tent, and I tried to keep the horses alive because it snowed there every winter and that was a sad situation. There were about sixteen horses there and they were dying one by one from starvation because the food to keep them alive wasn't arriving from base, and no food for me, but there was a mountainous pile of American tinned asparagus made by a big firm over there called Libbys, and they were great big cans and there were stacks of them there been left behind when the troops went forward. They were there for the officers. I don't think the privates ever saw tinned asparagus. I practically lived on that and army biscuits and in the end I recovered enough. I got a message back to Albert, where the Divisional Headquarters were, that I was a bit of a mess and they eventually came and took me back there and then they apparently decided that I was more than half silly. I was sent to a place called Perron Downs under medical supervision. I wasn't in hospital I wasn't in bed, but they decided that I was finished with the war. Apparently my speech and general look of me was not much use on the front line.
Now Jack let me get this straight. You found yourself at the bottom of a crater made by a shell, got yourself back to your Commanding Officer, who sent you off to look after horses without food for them or you, for how long?
Well I was only there for about ten days.
Yes, but there was enough food there to keep me alive.
That was in 1916. Nineteen, yeah.
Well, the need for re-enforcements was desperate because the slaughter going on from both sides, you know, was absolutely ... was beyond description. So every able-bodied man, if he still got some able in his able body, they didn't want to send him away and hoped he'd get better as many of them did. Up to a degree I think that maybe I was being kept there because the casualty rate on the signals was very heavy, as was the running job. Every twenty-four hours, there was another casualty. And they, I suppose ... I don't know to this day, of course, what the attitude was, but ... [they hoped] that I'd recover just looking after a few horses. It didn't work and I think they must have decided that I'd had it anyhow, so they were taking me back to a big military hospital just near Albert and they confirmed that I was a write-off. And away I went to England and I was hospitalised there for a while and they decided ... confirmed the general diagnosis and I was put on another ... See the war was still on and they were still sending troops around the Cape [of] Africa and up to the Middle East - Persia it was then. The Blue Funnel ship, the Nestor, was half a hospital ship and half ammunitions and they put me on board that and [I came] back to Australia. It took thirteen weeks from when we left Plymouth because German raiders were still around - armed gun ships and of course submarines - and when we got off the African coast there I remember a dreadful scare and the course was changed about 180 degrees and we went straight into the African coast we were just opposite what was then a British Colony - Sierra Leone - and they got in there and put a torpedo net across the entrance to it and there we sat for two weeks and weren't allowed to go ashore. The monotony. Then they must have thought it was clearer and away we went down there to Cape Town and I just show the effect on my nerve system: I must have been in a dreadful state I think because, as we left Cape Town to go around to Durban, there was another Blue Funnel ship ahead of us in the convoy going up to Persia and it was a nice sunny morning and all of sudden there was a colossal explosion about four miles ahead of our ship, the Nestor, and we realised later that this Blue Funnel thing had hit a mine. [We] found out later that the mines were laid by ostensibly a Dutch freighter that was dropping mines for the Germans and on its first voyage. Anyhow I heard afterwards. We kept going. The captain steered the ship and managed to keep up the speed because most of the bow had been blown off and managed to beach it at a near little town called Simonstown. He saved the ship. I never saw it again. And from there we went around to Durban. We were there two weeks and then back to Australia.
She was ... She had left Western Australia when my brother got killed and I looked like not coming back and my eldest brother had died in Kings School. And ... She'd gone back to Melbourne. Her mother was still alive then and I think she was pretty well bonkers by then. She ... she lived for a number of years after this, but she was never the same.
Oh, I ... well I think you know, Robin, it was a bit of each of your description because I'm sure that she was never quite the personality she was before that war, otherwise she'd never have been able to run those musical connections the way she did and organising amateur plays and things like that.
Oh, well she was very very distraught, face it all too. See there was no loving father or husband there and she absolutely was devoted to her three kids and two out of three had gone, so I suppose anyone would be getting a bit knocked about mentally.
Oh yes. She had a little house down at Hampton, a little suburb of Melbourne and the returned soldiers then, you know, didn't count for much at that time. The Repatriation Department was still a struggling government thing trying to get going and the first thing they tried to do was establish soldiers on blocks of land, which was a grave error because a lot of them weren't farming material - never been on the land in their lives and was stuck there with a few hundred acres, and a horse and a cow and things and of course a lot of them went broke. What saved my day was the old headmaster at Haileybury. He used to get together any of the former students and get little tea-parties down at where this college was in those days, and I met two men there at one of these tea parties, when I was still trying to get started on something. One of them was an electric scientist who'd been brought out to Australia from England to establish the first radio masts around the Australian coast. You know those masts. The first time they were ever put up out here: one in the Domain, one at Pennant Hills and so on. J. Graham Balsillie. I remember his name and in his spare time he was experimenting ... was trying to produce rainfall, which was badly needed in Australia because I've lived in the bush a lot in the early days and day after day a clear sky but now and again you get a lovely looking black Nimbus cloud drifting along: this is going to break the drought. Well in most cases they don't, [it] drifts on, [and] the next day the same brazen sky. Well that's what he was experimenting with. He found that those big clouds, when they do come over, have got plenty of rain in them but it takes electrical action in the cloud to make the tiny particles group together where they form a raindrop. When they get together enough, gravity takes them down and that's rain. That's how rain comes. I learned all that because he gave me a job to run the station in the Northern part of what was then desert country, near the South Australian border up near Mildura. That was my first job.
Well, I was about twenty miles from the nearest town. I had a horse and a Bell tent, just like the army, and I was on top of a sand hill and a horse drawn wagon used to bring out tinned stuff and water because [there was] absolutely no rivers there running. It was particularly chosen to be a real testing spot for Balsillie's invention. Well, it didn't succeed or I wouldn't be here now. I think if that had been successful I might have been finished up a millionaire.
It worked in the laboratory yeah. I could give you the simple scientific facts now but I don't think I will. It was like sending a boy on a man's errand. When those clouds decide to send a shower of rain down below, it's quite a intricate electrical action takes place between positive and negative up there in that cloud, which had been there since the beginning of time but he had the idea all right, but not the equipment to make it work. So I think I was out there about six months.
Yeah. Oh I used to go into the nearest town occasionally on a horse. There were no picture shows or anything but I got to know a few people, drank a bit of beer and so but it's pretty lonely too. What you had to watch there was where the station had been established with all the instruments that I had to look after - because I had to keep a complete record of wind direction, wind strength, barometers, reading all that sort of thing - it was extremely barren country but it was the home of brown snakes. Big fellows they were too. Where I had my tent they took a bit of getting used to. I found that with snakes too, that if you leave them alone they'll leave you alone, unless you accidentally tread on one, then of course he thinks he's been attacked. But I was very careful about that, particularly at night. I only had a hurricane lamp of course - no electricity. If I had to get out of bed, my little folding bed I had in the tent, I used to have the wick turned down and I'd turn it up a bit and make certain one of those brown fellows wasn't there camped alongside of me.
No. Only tinned ... Well I used to get it brought out from Hopetoun, which was the nearest town there. I used to be very fond of it - it was tinned tongues, sheep's tongues. Used to eat a lot of them, a change from Audrey's tinned beef and tinned vegetables.
No. Do you know, it's funny you should mention that because I ate so much asparagus in that tent over on the Somme that the very smell of asparagus made me almost back up, you know. But it's cured me now. If Lesley opened a can there now, I'd enjoy it, but it took a long time. So anyhow that was the rain making experiment and another of Charles Henry Rendall's, our old head of tea-parties down there, another man was invited as a guest. He was a colonel in the air force in England - Harry Turner Shaw - and he was just starting up a small aviation company in Melbourne and he was at one of these tea parties and we met and I was still trying to get a start and he took a liking to me and found out that I had had a bit of mechanical [experience] but not much but he wanted to get a small staff together because they were going to start a company called the Shawross - a very grandiloquent title: Shawross Engineering and Aviation Company. I got the original prospectus when the company was floated somewhere here now. Of course, like all those early aviation companies it went bust. But it started with Port Melbourne. Built a hangar there and I ... we didn't have to have licenses then, but his partner, a fellow called Ross, who eventually spun into the ground one day and that was the end of Ross. But anyhow before that he used give me Jewel, one of the planes, and I used to ... I learned very rapidly. I think I went solo after about two hours instruction.
[NODS] And when ... after I'd been there a year or two, I'm not too certain of dates now, the partner got killed - Ross. He had some passengers on board and he got into a spin, which is one of the things you had to fear in those days. He was too close to the ground and he couldn't come out of the spin and he spun into it and killed himself and the two passengers. And the ... Shaw wasn't mentally the same material as Ross and the company was still going along doing taxi work and so on, but I'd heard about Qantas just starting with an airmail contract and I got in touch with them and even though I was not very experienced for what they were looking for, apparently I was good enough. So they offered me a job. I went off up to Longreach.
Yeah, it took a week to get there you know. Trains sent from Sydney, from Melbourne to Sydney and then another train from Sydney to Brisbane and another train from Brisbane to Rockhampton and then from there to Longreach is nearly 500 miles inland. Another train there. It took ... with the stops and waiting for the trains it took a long time to get there and now they do it in about two hours. [Laughs] Yeah, anyhow that's where I got to.
Just on three years. I could have stayed with them but I got to bring my mother into this now. Well she was down in Melbourne and quite miserable because her mother had died so she didn't have her comfort and so I found a miserable letters arriving and so I sent her down the money and she came up by train, and we rented a little house in Longreach. And then she was able to rent a piano. I don't know how out there, because it's not a good climate for pianos, but anyhow that kept her happy for a while. But she became upset and changing a bit right from the start, as we've discussed already. You know she was mentally damaged, I think, from the wartime and things like that. No husband. And I thought, well, I know she won't go back to Melbourne. There is nothing for her to go back there now and she wants to stay with me. And I thought, well it's going to be rather miserable for her and for me too because at Qantas in those days, it was long hours and very poor pay and it was hard to think what the prospects were, because I'd been ... although I'd done some flying down Shaw-Ross in Melbourne, when they called me up for a medical, they reckoned I had a heart condition. They wouldn't give me a license.
Well, they ... If you've got a joy stick in your hand and your feet on a rudder and you pass out and faint, there is only one ending.
Oh yes. It wasn't to do ... I think I know why I had it too. It wasn't the usual one with the pumping cut off to the heart, it was a nerve condition. What they call a vaso-motor nerve, which regulates the beat of the heart electrically. And they didn't like the sound of that. Well, I'm not surprised after my wartime. However, it was a bit of a blow and that meant that I still went to Qantas then, but I couldn't fly any aeroplanes up there, I had to mend them. And that's how I got to Qantas and then mum came up to me and it was a case of either sticking it out a bit longer with her getting more and more miserable out there. There was absolutely no ... it was only a village then you know. So I resigned, because I heard there was another aircraft company starting in New South Wales and I thought it would be much more civilised life from Sydney to Adelaide, by a firm called Larkin Aircraft Supply Company and they got the contract from Sydney to Narranderra, Hay, Mildura, Adelaide. And I was with them then about a couple of years. And ...
Oh yes, yes she ... I think it was a good move and that but I think ... I really think about it but Qantas then the staff was eight people you see, and I think at one stage I remember they had about ten dollars in the bank but I had a feeling that they must eventually make it pretty well. Now today, of course, they've got about 15,000 on their staff - enormous reserve. And I think ...
Oh well, I ... their bank account now must be a bit lean looking. [Laughs]
Oh I think it's almost a certainty that see ... A fellow - ground engineers we were called - George Bowen, again he's dead. He and I were great friends out there and shortly [after] I resigned and went back to Melbourne the Qantas management sent him off up to Singapore, to take charge of that branch. And I heard later that they had me lined up for that job and of course I'd resigned. So I might've got somewhere in Qantas if I'd stayed there, because I had a fairly good primary education.
Now tell me, with this business of trying to get yourself established in some sort or career after the War, and a lot of responsibility, as your mother's only son who was left, did you have any time for girls?
Yes, that takes a bit of thinking out. Well the first ... what word shall I use? ... becoming friendly was back in Perth when I was in the Army, training there and I got a family there who became celebrated for making billiard tables. Alcock I think their name was and this was the daughter, Dorothy, and she and I became very friendly and I think if I'd gone back to Western Australia after I came back from the War something might have happened. But I never saw Western Australia see and we wrote a few letters, then the letters fizzled out. That wasn't a very exciting event, was it?
Oh well, only she used to send letters wherever my military address was while I was away, you see. That's about all. No I never saw her again because I never went back to her. No, the general answer to your question was I think I was ... I think I must have been a bit of a neuter then. [Laughs] I wasn't bothered much - all the time trying to get a start in something, and I've got to go back to Melbourne to finish up this career story. The ... I don't think the ... no back ... J.C. Williamson's - cause I told you my father was in that and so on - but the secretary of the company was Major. Ted Major - he was the secretary of the whole show. He lived in Melbourne and I think he was always a bit sympathetic with the marriage bust-up between my mother and my father, because he knew my father very well but he was always very friendly towards me and I had ... couldn't get an aircraft license. I'd come back from Qantas and so on and he ... I went up to visit him one day. He lived in a nice home in St. Kilda Road there and he said, 'Look, a very old friend of mine, who lives in Sydney, heads off one of the big motor companies up there. If you could get yourself to Sydney, you might be able to get a start there', because I wasn't doing much good in Melbourne. So he gave me a letter of introduction and I got myself - without prolonging this story unduly - to Sydney. I had practically no money. Of course, I had no army pay. I was out of that. And I went around - had the appointment with this chap called Carter. Larke Neave and Carter. They were just being founded to handle Chrysler, when it first came to Australia. And I went with this letter of introduction to Hunter Street, where he had his office. And one word led to another and he was looking for somebody to start up their service department and he appointed me, when the company was founded, and I was there until I retired. Nearly forty years.
19 ... I remember it: February 15, 1926.
Yeah, right through. We nearly folded, and I'd produced four kids by then and the only way we kept going was I don't think the unions would stand for it now, but we used to put everybody off for one week, no pay, and they could fiddle around. Nobody could get jobs anyhow and then we'd put them on for another week and they'd get paid. That went on for months and months and months. It just about kept the doors of the company open. They were almost ready to fold up and that was in the depth of the Depression. And then just when that was recovering we went into the Second World War. [Laughs]
Yes. As a matter of fact, the interest started back in that second aircraft company, before we get too confused, after I left Qantas - the other company started up with a contract from Sydney to Adelaide and I was stationed at Hay and that was about the half way point and the rich graziers had started a high school in Hay - a very remote area then - and called it the War Memorial High School in Hay and the French teacher at that school boarded at the Free Masons Hotel, where I put up, when I got there from Melbourne ...
Well, I was in that signal company and their job was to keep up communications from where the actual fighting was going on to people further back, who were directing things. There was a Battalion Headquarters right on the front line, then back a bit was Company Headquarters, all in dug outs of course. And then it went from there back to brigade headquarters and then right back some miles back, [to] divisional headquarters. Well, the signals job was ... theoretically it was done by telephones but they were very unreliable because they were only laid across the dirt and easily broken and constantly being mended. That was our job: to go out and find where they were broken and mend them under fire. And when everything got desperate, at different times, we became the runners. We had to take the messages through by hand from base back to the front line.
Oh, yes and no about that. The ... the nature of the country of Gallipoli was very semi-mountainous and you were able to hurry along, because you couldn't get down into the saps and the communication trenches. That would have taken too long with an urgent message. But there was more natural protection for some of the time, but in France, particularly around the Somme, it's undulating country but you're completely unprotected once you got out of the communicating trenches and the Germans, I always reckoned, kept up much heavy fire. They had more machine guns and there were more guns behind the line, so it was a toss up between one and the other, and which was the more dangerous job, I've never been quite certain of that.
Well hearing was almost at a standstill because, more so in France, the shelling never stopped twenty-four hours a day, from both sides. It was a continuous roaring noise and I suppose one's ears got a bit tuned to that.
Oh you do set me some problems. [Laughs] The best way I can answer that I think is to compare it to Gallipoli in regard to the ... we are all human bodies and so on with wants. In France we were only kept in the front line or near a front line for ten days at a time, and before everybody was starting to get a bit looney we were pulled out, and taken back to behind the support ... In the case of the Somme, we were taken back to near what was left of a quite big town called Albert and there we could get a bath and quite good food. We could get new uniforms because the ones we'd gone in a few days ago, were generally in a filthy condition. I think some of them might have been dry-cleaned but we generally got new ones, and so on and then ... we were never out of the sound of the guns though. We couldn't get relief from that for our ears but it wasn't as heavy as when you are up in line. And then of course we went back and relieved somebody else to do another ten days.
Well you've still got that roaring noise of continuous gun fire and I suppose one of the sounds that was very sharp were the sounds of dozens of machine guns, you know that rat, tat, tat, tat, tat that's very sharp sound from both sides because most of the trench lines were very close. Sometimes the Germans had their trench line only perhaps twenty yards, sometimes fifty yards, from ours. And of course they had their machine guns banging away and our side were banging away at them. It's a bit hard to give you a copy of the sound but it's a wonder that any of us every had any hearing left, I reckon, afterwards. It must have subjected our ears to continuous strain.
Oh well ... [Laughs] I haven't been asked that question for a long long time. It could be, sitting here in this comfortable room, you could only say it was quite ghastly most of the time because there was no chance to bury any of the people who got killed. If they were wounded but not dead, they tried to get them back with stretcher bearers out of the line of fire, but if they were dead, there was no time for burials or funerals or anything. A lot of them simply fell down in the bottom of the trench, where it was full of wet mud and we were forced to carry on our work treading over people, who were alive the day before. That's not very exciting. And, I think I mentioned to you previously, you become very callous. It's just as well or you'd go mad. We used to try and hang our telephone lines - I think I mentioned that to you the other day - because there was a bit of bony leg sticking out from where he'd been buried perhaps a week or two before. We used to loop our lines along their toes. Well I don't think anybody in peace time would want to do that. But that's the way we were. We just simply lived in a, I suppose, false world really.
Oh yes. The need for improving communication was desperate, and all sorts of experiments were being carried out. Radio was starting to show up but extremely unreliable. It was always breaking down. It wouldn't work at a time when an attack was on and then they had to resort to older methods. So very briefly, being in a signal company I took part in experiments to communicate with our planes, going overhead, who were spotting for the position of German guns, very vital information, so our artillery could try and blow them out, before they blew us out. Well, with unreliable radio, which didn't work more often than it did, one of the attempts, which is rather comical now, they produced a large green and white stripe thing like a huge venetian blinds, which used be set up on the ground behind a knoll of a little hill or somewhere where they were not in direct sight from the Germans. And it was so worked that it could send dots and dashes with a lever and that could be read from a plane if it wasn't more than two or 3,000 feet above, directing information, which would be received on the ground and then passed onto the artillery nearby and so on, about how to aim their guns. Well that was, I took part in that. I don't think it was very successful though. And then other times, of course, I went up in the plane as an observer to send the information down to the ground.
Well ... oh I think it about fifty fifty, because planes flying along near a front line, when they're only a couple of thousand feet up there, are very vulnerable from the other side, whereas the fighter planes - they always flew at much greater height and it wasn't as dangerous a job I don't think.
No. Plenty of bullet holes in the planes, though. They were only made of wood and wire then, you know. They weren't metal. Plenty of bullet holes in them. Near misses no doubt.
No I was frightened. In a Blue Funk most of the time, but I kept my head about it, as the others did, but none of us were whistling. [Laughs]
Well, not when you're there. No. No, you're fighting off a feeling of the next lump of shell of the next bullet could be yours. A dismal thought, but you can't get rid of the idea because you can see what's ... some of your mates ... what's happened to them around you.
I'd like you to tell me again because you told it to me the other day, but I like you to tell me as if you haven't told me the story of the encounter with your brother in the dug out. Could you ... could you tell me what happened? Just tell that whole story of what happened the night you saw your brother for the last time?
Yes. He was in a different unit to me and I hadn't seen him for weeks. [INTERRUPTION]
My brother was in a different unit and I hadn't seen him for quite some time, and this was down outside of a position there, just near Possiers in the Somme. Deep ex-German dug out, which our side had captured. It had been turned into a signal station quite deep down, about forty feet dug down into the soft ground that was down there, and we had a switchboard there where we used to connect up the various lines going from Brigade Headquarters into the front line and I happened to be on duty on one of these switchboards one night, and there was a first class battle going on up ahead. You could hear it coming down. And steps came down and it was my brother. I hadn't seen him for many many weeks and he was in charge of a bombing squad and was on his way into the front line to relieve another unit. So we had a few minutes talk. He wanted to get extra directions. It was pitch dark outside and that was it. He went off and as far as I can tell - I didn't know for a long time afterwards - he was hit by a shell in the line and they got him out on a stretcher and then - this will give you an idea of how intense that shell fire can get - the stretcher was hit and one of the stretcher bearers was killed, that was carrying him, and he got another wound then on top of the one he'd had previously. Anyhow, they'd finally got him out and they got him into a casualty clearing station near Albert and then they got him over to England, and he was put into a Military hospital near Cambridge and he died three weeks later because they couldn't deal then, in those days, with gangrene and that's what got him. They couldn't stop it. They took one leg off I believe, but it had gone too far. So he died after three weeks. And then I heard all about this later, because we didn't get much information about what was happening to any of our ...
Oh yes, I was still in the trenches.
Well I ... Well I tried to get leave because he'd been buried by then you see, but it must have been rather a fateful thing I think too. It wasn't long after he must have been killed that I got into that thing on the front line that you already know about, and I went bonkers myself. So I really ... I was taken back to England not too long after he'd died.
Oh yes. I had some of it left then. Yes I did and we would have liked to have been together longer but he was on a very vital mission. He knew he couldn't ... He went down to get directions and he had to go on his way. So we didn't say much but what was there was pretty emotional. That's remarkable that I ever saw him there. See normally he wouldn't have come down and found me and I wouldn't have seen him for months before he got killed. As it was I at least saw him a short time before.
Yes, well we always got on well together and ... it ... I think out of the three boys in the family, I think he was slightly the favourite with my mother.
Oh, I think I came number two. He was the one. Not that that matters but ...
Oh, I don't think, I can't remember. It's too ... We didn't fight. At least we did throw stones at each other once when we were on holidays on Haileybury from school and I had threw a stone at him and it was a bit too big and it hit him on the top of the head and knocked him out. That was about the closest casualty we had to injuring each other.
Oh yes, yes.
No, because she was in Melbourne. She had left Western Australia where I originally joined the army, as I think you know. She'd come back to Melbourne because that's where her mother was still alive and she wanted to be near her and her sister Gertrude too. They all lived in North Brighton, a suburb of Melbourne. Well the ship that I came back on, the Nestor, after it left Durban in South Africa ... See the war was still on. This is only early 1917 and so they, to miss German raiders - submarines, mines and other things, the captain took us right around even below Tasmania. From Durban in South Africa, a tremendous way off the beam and the first we saw of Australia was we sighted land at Green Cape, just on the South Coast. That's the first we saw from leaving Durban in South Africa.
Well my eldest brother - he was married and his wife lived in Sydney. He was a Master at the Kings School and I was unloaded off the Nestor. I wasn't ... I was groggy, but I could walk and I went and stayed with her for a week or two and then ...
In Manly we stayed. And then I got a pass from the army department and went off to Melbourne of the train and that's where I met up with my mother then ... It would have been about two weeks after we landed in Sydney.
Oh that's a bit hard to put into words.
Oh well ... I think she ... She was already, I think, quite knocked about by Richard having being killed, and although I arrived back in rather battered condition she was very glad to see me. And she ... My eldest brother had died then too you see, so she had no children left except me. So that really she was clinging to me. That's why - you can just stop me on this if we get off the beam - but when I went out to Qantas, when it was starting in Longreach, she was still in Melbourne but not happy and she kept putting pressures on and in the end I got her brought up there, which was a mistake for a woman like that, because of the climate out there, and the housing was dreadful. And I'd hoped it would work. We got a little battered old piano that she used to be able to practise on but it was obviously not going to work after a few months. That's when I had to resign from Qantas.
When you got back from the War, seeing your mother like that, how did you feel about it? Had you ... Did you feel very strong emotions at seeing her again, knowing you were the only one of her sons left?
Yes. Your inquiry there has made me think of something. When I left Qantas and went up with another aircraft company ... it was located at Hay in Riverina, I stayed at the hotel there, boarded there, and the school teachers from the War Memorial High School boarded there too. That's where I met one of them afterwards that became my wife. Well, she and my mother never got on. Later, when I went ... left aviation finally in 1926 - I didn't see any future in it frankly then - and I had a house at Lane Cove, a big house, I rented it, and my mother was living in a little bit of a flat down near Dee Why, and I got her back and gave her a big bedroom there, to live in the same house as my wife, and then I had two kids I think. They never got on. They ... I'm certain it was a deep-seated possessiveness on the part of my poor old mother. She wanted just me to be around as long as she lived.
Well, they were never bad but there were squabbles, you know, and in the end I got her another little house down near Curl Curl down on the coast, and transported her down there. She was still able to get around but she wasn't teaching music anymore. She was just living a very quiet life and from there her health failed and she finished up ... I put her in a little nursing home down near Narrabeen.
I didn't respect her or think of her ability anything like in those days that I do now. The burden she carried in a failed married life and very, very limited income and she always was a real mother to us. I find it hard to give a description now. She did have a lot of personality. That's what made her so successful as a music teacher. She used to form these amateur concerts, get all the young people around the neighbourhood and put on these plays and so on. She used to train them. She couldn't have done that, if she hadn't had go in her.
Oh, I think the main ... That kind of education, I reckon, came from the school that I boarded at, not from her.
Well, this was down in Brighton Beach, where we had a little, wooden cottage there near the station. And she was earning a little bit of money, because the income owed to us sent by my father every month, frequently didn't turn up and the house had no money in it and no food. And she, on a whim I suppose, walked up the mile or so of South Road to this school, where it was located then and asked to interview the headmaster. And she put up a proposition to him that she was a pianoforte teacher and had papers to that extent and would he consider three boys to be admitted to the school and she would teach music there and that's what started it off.
Oh well it simply made our lives, see, because without any income or any background there and there was no government help of any kind. You were on your own. And really boarding at that school became like our second home. We ... The discipline was very strict there. It taught me a lot about the need for discipline in life too.
Well, of course, starting with the headmaster, then there were the other masters, they all lived in the school. Then there were the prefects, and the prefects could take ... penalise a boy if he had committed something he shouldn't have. And they could even cane them, but only one ... one cane from ... There were twelve prefects. But if you were going to be caned by the prefects you got twelve stripes on your bottom. But they were never dangerous. They were just little flicks with a thin cane. Then if the offence was more serious than that, I was paraded around to the headmaster and if he thought it needed, he'd give me another go. To this day I haven't got any hatred or any dislike of that - why they did it, because it was only done when it had been a fair trial.
Well, I don't like to open up too much on that because I know the public opinion about this is that in a school the teachers must never lay a finger on their pupils, no matter how they're playing up, how they're mucking up the class, and I do know now that a number of teachers have a very bad time because they've got no control over some of these more rebellious kids.
Well, it established in you a respect for what: if you mucked up again you'd get another lot. That kept you going along the way the teachers wanted you to go. It's as simple as that.
Oh I'd listen. I was at my worst when I was quite a kid. You see I went there when I was about seven or eight. Yes. But by the time I'd got to twelve I had learned how to avoid anything like that.
Well, it sounds funny to say it now. I got it over my brother, the one we talked about a while ago. He was a pretty good footballer too and he ... his team were having a ... playing at another college, Caulfield Grammar School, and I was watching the game at the time and I thought he'd made a great mistake and I yelled out to him, 'Dick, you dammed fool', and that was heard by a master. You couldn't say 'damn' at Haileybury. Oh No. And as far as some of the more trenchant language, one or two were expelled from that school while I was there because they just kept playing up. It was very strict.
Well you had to be careful, because if you were overheard by a prefect or a master you were for it.
Yes, well I think he ... for a start is what helped my mother cause he was a very musical man himself and he, I think, felt some concern knowing the circumstances of how she was battling along trying to raise three kids.
Well nothing was smooth in those days, 'cause the aeroplanes themselves were so crude. They were mostly powered by a very strange type of engine, called a rotary. The ... they were unreliable. They had a nasty habit of apparently when you swung the propeller and got the engine going everything sounded all right and you'd indicate to the pilot or if you were flying the plane yourself you thought that everything sounds okay. The plane would choof off. You see we didn't have any proper airports then. They were just football grounds or open paddocks and so on, usually with power lines or all sorts of obstructions not far beyond the take off point. Well these rotary engines have a nasty habit of taking off all right, and getting up flying speed and all of a sudden start to conk out, so having nasty crashes were quite frequent in those days, naturally, because they didn't fly at the speeds of the modern jets. The damage was mostly to the plane itself and the pilot, and if there was a passenger, would survive.
Over twelve of them dotted around Victoria various places. The worst one was ... This little company that I was working for had got a very lucrative thing from a big insurance company, APA, as it was in those days and it booked to take the plane from Melbourne, landing at various places on the way, Mildura, and then up the Darling River and landing at a lot of the big stations. Some of them are still their homesteads. And we carried with us a very colourful man, who was specialised in writing probate insurances for huge fees, and we used to land at anything that looked like a landing near each of these homesteads and of course, almost invariably nobody there had ever seen a plane, let alone gone up in one and we used to entice the owner of the property, or if it ... some of them were still owned by English people [and] had a manager there, the manager - one or the other - and take him up for a quarter of an hour and let him have a look at his property. This always was very popular and, of course, then this insurance representative - I won't name him, although I'm sure he's no longer alive - but he was a master at this. He used to then go back to the homestead and start talking about ... asking questions about the man's life. That's the owner and so on and then sell him probate insurance, which was enormous sums in those days, and this insurance agent used to get the whole of the first year's premium. That was his commission. Then we'd take off and go up the Darling River and land at another station: Cuthro or one of those big places and anyhow we finally got to Broken Hill and we were given a mayoral reception there because they'd never seen a plane before. Landed on the football ground there and we were there about a couple of days and then after we felt that we're running out of welcome, we thought we'd better take off and then go back the way we came, down the Darling River into Victoria and so on down to Melbourne. Our rotary engine was still motoring very well. It was a Sopworth Camel plane - you know the old aviator. Remember to stop a Camel in World War One. All went well. We crossed down into Victoria and landed for refuelling up near the Murray River at a little place called Chinkapook. I think it's an aboriginal name. We spent the night there, at a little single pub and then took off the next day, making down for south-east towards Melbourne. Anyhow we had to land for fuel then at another town called Cuthro and I wasn't flying the plane because I'd been ... I wasn't given a license because my heart was supposed to be crook, so I was the engineer. Anyhow this was the worst crash I've ever had because I think the pilot, Jack Fullerton, had got a bit tired and the planes in those days - it was absolutely vital, particularly if they had a fair load on, that you kept up flying speed even on turns. All I remember is he was coming into land at this little town and all of a sudden he'd put its nose down into a spin, which they could do in those days. Now the spin doesn't matter if you're up high enough. Any pilot can pull it out of a spin but we weren't high enough and we hit the ground in this little town. Well that finished me off for a year in hospital. The pilot lost most of his ... I think the little windscreen in front of him ... most of his nose and upper lip were removed. He wasn't killed but he took a long time to recover and, as I say, I was in there for about a year so I could go on ...
About a year in hospital.
Well you see my whole left leg was shattered from a piece of the metal undercarriage [which] came up through the floor when we hit the ground. And they had a terrible time getting it all together again. I couldn't walk, you see, for a long time.
Oh mostly, but I was warned that when I got older, it'd probably get arthritis in it. They always do these wounds. Well so far it hasn't but ...
It still carries me around but a half a mile along a beach down here is about as much as I can do and I want to go home. [Laughs] Well that was the worst one but it is so hard these days to realise the difference in aviation because they very rarely have any trouble with their engines. The jet engines have made the thing so reliable. But the old piston engines and the hose rotaries, you never knew when they were going to stop and you only had one engine. You didn't have two or four. If that stopped, you stopped, so it was a risky sort of a life. And that was the first company I worked for down in Melbourne, in a little aerodrome at Port Melbourne, right where General Motors built their big plant. I had a few others but they didn't put me into hospital.
I had finally bowed out from working for an aviation company and through ... The secretary of J.C. Williamson's in those days was Ted Major. His daughter was married to my eldest brother, Audrey. And that little connection was very helpful to me when I was trying to get back into some sort of ... I didn't want to stay in aviation. I couldn't see any future in it for a long time, and he knew one of the directors of one of the big motor companies in Sydney - Carter - and he gave me an introduction to Carter to see whether Carter could help me get started on something to do. And fortunately they had just formed a new company to handle the Chrysler in New South Wales and he interviewed me and eventually started me off there as their first service manager. And that started me then, and I worked on that in Sydney until I retired, nearly forty years later.
1926. Got married three months after I got this job.
Well she was a French teacher out at the War Memorial School at Hay. That's where we met. She was about three years younger than me. Oh, I can't describe her. She's good looking and well educated.
We got married in, I think, it was June in a little church in Manly. The thing was there was nothing wonderful about the wedding because in those days she was a Catholic. I wasn't. And there was always a fuss made over that. So we weren't even married in the little church at North Manly. We were married in the porch of the church. That's as far as I was allowed to go. Anyhow, that was just an interlude.
No, well, when, I think, two people get pretty keen on each other, I don't think anything bothers them. [Laughs] Of course I had to yield to the demands of that day, which have been buried for years now. Any issue of the marriage had to be baptised as Catholics, so all my four kids were baptised in the Catholic religion.
Oh yes. All the lurid stories I'd heard about married to a Catholic: the house is full of nuns and priests could keep call all day, I found that didn't happen. The whole married period, we never even had a decent row and she finished up as a French teacher still at the North Sydney Girls High School. That's where she died. 'Cause on her birthday and she'd gone off to teach at the school from where I lived out at Hunters Hill and I was phoned up at midday to say that she ... it was lunchtime there at the school and she'd fallen on the floor and was dead. And I didn't suspect that there was anything wrong with her. Wonder why I'm telling you all this?
Well you'd better just see that I don't get too much on detail.
Hmm, oh yes, because we got on very well together and with our kids.
Why do you think that was? What do you think ... What was it about it? Because a lot of marriages last a long time but aren't very happy, as you saw with your own parents with a marriage there that wasn't very happy. What was the secret of the happiness of your marriage?
Yes, you almost ask for time to think that one out. [Laughs] We did a lot of travelling around in holiday time. The the four kids, of course, we saw that they all got good educations. She was very keen on that as much as I was. The eldest one, June, she went off to England. She'd got a university degree then in Arts and she got a job with the American air force, running a library in one of their big aerodromes there.
Well I suppose, my feelings on the thing. We never got bored with each other. We were always good mates. We could have a conversation together without getting into an argument. I never once thumped her. [Laughs] Never wanted to. We had the four kids and we didn't have any problem with them except that the eldest one went off and got married in England and went to America so we'd lost her for a long time. We went and visited her years later. And they all ... I only had one son, and this was where, I suppose, the mixed marriage came in he wanted to join the church, the Catholic church. I think he was influenced a fair bit by an aunt, who was a nun, and he finished up becoming a priest and he went over to Rome for four years. Worked under Pope John.
He is back. He's now down the South Coast. I don't see him very often. He doesn't come up to Sydney but we see each other now and again.
Well I believe in the Christian faith. The older I get the more that belief is very strong. I saw samples of that, you know, in ... actually in the front line. Because we had all sorts of fellows you're training with them - real scallywags, many of them. Language worse than a bullocky and they seem to have no beliefs but I've seen them hit and obviously not going to make it. Hit with shell case or machine gun bullets and so often you'd hear them appealing to the Deity, just before they expired. That made me think more than once. Even from those hard bitten blokes, who profess no beliefs.
What period are you speaking of now?
Oh, well, it certainly has but it ... my wife is very, very strong [in her] belief. She's a regular church goer. I think, when we decided to leave Sydney to come and live up here, I know she wouldn't have been happy here if we hadn't found that the Avoca Beach St. David's [had] just got the right kind of people in it, and they share their beliefs and she's very happy over it. So that's been her attitude right through. She ... she is a very strongly motivated Christian. That makes it ... if I had any doubts about it at all, they've been dealt with by marrying her.
Oh, that's a curly one. I know it's very strong in the teachings but I best say, Robin, that my strongest belief is that if people grow up and try their best to practise the teachings of Christ and the Christian religion there's nothing better, or as good, to help them through life and not get in some way torn apart. What happens afterwards is so mysterious. For instance, that question you just asked me, take my brother who's in that cemetery in Cambridge in England, if I was absolutely sure nothing would make me happier than perhaps meet up with him some day in some mystery, but I can't make myself believe that that's 100 per cent sure. In other words, the implication there is that when you go you're gone.
No. I ... See take me at the present moment now I'm hanging on but, you know, without sounding dramatic now I know that I can't expect to go much longer. You read about some of these people up in the Himalayas supposed to live to 130 and 140 but I don't think I'll ever be one of them. But it doesn't impose on me, it doesn't make me feel miserable. The main thing is that I hope when it happens to me that it's quick - not like some of these poor old fellows I know now that are hanging on, very unwell, everything wrong with them. They can't see or they can't hear or they can't sleep and life's just ... They're better off to go. But I ... it doesn't frighten me, not a bit.
Oh well, she might be listening.
Well, where do I start?
Oh well, yes that's easy. Matter of fact I met her up here in this neighbourhood. She had this property up here and I didn't know her then and I had been much longer in holiday time down the hill here about half a mile away. I had two blocks of land down there. And when my first wife was alive and I and the kids we used to go up there for school holidays and that sort of thing. When she - my first wife - died as I mentioned a while ago, suddenly, I was left very lonely and my kids were scattered by then, all over the place, and I used to go across ... That's one of the winds that got me to the Fiji Islands for a while, as I was mentioning to you a few days ago. A little island there and also I used to go on over to California to visit my eldest daughter. They lived in San Diego. They still live there but they're divorced, like so many Americans. And ... separated now. But ...
Well she provides the remedy for loneliness, which I think is a terribly hard thing for anybody to grow old on their own and see most of the old chaps that are still Gallipoli veterans, they're still alive but their wives aren't, and they're either in a nursing home or living on their own, but I don't think they're exactly happy about it. Whereas, if their wife hadn't predeceased them, they'd have been much better off. 'Cause we've been married now twenty years. We only had our anniversary about a week ago and I'm not going to make this statement as a dramatic one - it's not meant to be - but I'm quite certain that when I was in my seventies - that's when I met Lesley - if she hadn't been around ... I met her ... People I used to tenant the property to, had a party there one night. That's where we met for the first time. I don't think I'd have gone on too long because I ... She tells me I'm looking better than when she first met me and I think she meant it. No, she's been a tremendous factor in the last few years that I've been alive.
Yes well she for instance - I know she won't hit me over the head if I tell she was born in 1924, and I was born in 1897 [laughs] so there is a bit of difference.
Very much so, and her children too were a bit perplexed over it too. And, oh, I wondered very much about it because I knew of so many cases where it didn't work. People remarry after years of being on their own. Whoever they marry, at that age, they think differently and they don't get on. Anyhow, that's been a terrific experience for me being married to Lesley. I don't hope it'll last a long time because that ... you say that when you're in your younger years.
But it's probably lasted a bit longer than you expected when you got married. Now let's go back, right back to the beginning again, and start looking at it from the point of view of your feelings and thoughts about what your life has meant because you can look back on a rather longer life than most people. First of all, the fact that your father left in the very early days, what do you think that actually meant to the way you developed as a man?
Well, I think, the only way I can view that as an answer is my mother's initiative in going up the road and meeting the headmaster of Haileybury. That, in one of the journals that that school produces there an illustrated journal there, there is one article there about this, where it give credence to the fact that she went in and asked whether she could teach music there in lieu of fees. If - just iffing now - if that hadn't happened. If she'd gone into that school and no - not interested, that sort of thing - I think it's quite nasty to think what have might happened to us. Because, you see, all her roots and so on were from England. We didn't have any wealthy family and relatives around here. They were an old family from Somerset, Somerhayes by name. They go back for hundreds of years. I've seen all their past records there but they never had any money and without a father to bring in regular income and so on, I think it ... the ... putting us into that school saved the day.
Oh well, I think he was a brutal man. He used to drink a bit. I can just very vaguely remember some of the awful rows. On one occasion in a two storey house in South Yarra, he hurled her down the stairs in a blind rage and so on. I won't go into any more of that.
I never thought out a reason. I just grew up as me. I haven't got any thoughts on that. Sorry.
Well, the nearest approach to that, was my old headmaster. See, for instance ... an instance of ... He was a very keen early day motorist, in the days when you had two cylinder Derdien cars chugging around, and very few people had cards, but he used to import them from England. He had a Humber there and a Derdien at different times. And on Sundays, he used to take me out in the car, choofing around the bush. It was all bush around Brighton then. Well that was really taking the place of a father, wasn't it?
Two: a boy and a girl. The girl, Dorothy, was a very interesting thing because she was the only girl that ever went to Haileybury. It was always a boys' school. And she was about my age and the father insisted that she had be the same. For instance, she practised gymnastics. She had to come up and do all the activities with the right kind of clothes on, of course. And we were very friendly, and when I went back to revisit the school after I got back from the war they had a little party down there. I'd married Lesley then, and we visited there and she was still alive Dorothy, Dorothy Rendore. And ... much ...
Yes I never ... Mind you the discipline there was so tough that I doubt very much ... I never saw any evidence of what I call funny business being tried out - all those boys. No, she was very popular. But tragically, after Lesley and I had visited her where ... near where the old school used to be - she suddenly died.
I was tempted, because they badly needed people with the experience that I had, [to go] back into England and to try and keep up the production of aircraft. The only thing that stopped me was I had four young kids. They were all very young. The oldest was about sixteen and, of course the wife. And so ... I also had a job, which I'd started with that company in 1926 - been with them a long time - and I resisted the temptation.
I didn't feel any great eagerness to go and get into it. I ... I ... If it hadn't been for the kids I think I'd have probably gone back to England but it would have meant, as I've already stated, leaving my wife and kids behind to battle along. Anyhow I didn't go.
In those days, there was no way of getting a trip out of Australia except by ship. There were no planes to take you there in quick time. Many, many weeks on a ship if you had the money to pay the fare. Most of us, spent our lives not giving ... getting involved in an adventure trip to see what the rest of the world was like. By joining the Army, I felt that there was a fair chance that could happen.
Oh, I've always been, inspite of Mr. Keating. I'm always pro-British cause I think although they've done some bad things in world history they've done a lot of good things too. And all my people came from there. I'm only a first generation Australian and ...
Not in the first ... When I enlisted it was a spirit of adventure that took me away, not anything to do with fighting for England. Same with my brother.
Oh we certainly found out that there was no adventure about it. See apart from the risks to your life the liv ... conditions you got into were so dreadful, particularly on Gallipoli. You'd never change your clothes and you'd never have a bath and months went by - very off putting.
Gallipoli is often seen by Australians as the time in a way that the Nation really born because those soldiers there were seen as Australian soldiers for the first time. For you as an ordinary soldier, were you thinking that you were fighting for England or that you were fighting for Australia?
You're speaking of what ... which war?
Well I can't recall any sorts of any great patriotism really. It's no good trying to pretend otherwise. If I hadn't enlisted there ... 'Cause of being seventeen, I say I'd gone up until I was nineteen - two years after the War had gone on - by that time no young Australian had any idea that there was any good in it - going to a war. There had been too many casualty lists. I don't know that ever have I been a flag waver. But I have a tremendous respect for British history and what they've done in the world.
Did you feel then really - when you got there and you realised what a hard time it was and what danger you were in - did you feel any sort of resentment at all that you were faced with this and that you hadn't really ever understood what you were getting yourself into?
No, I never felt that - any resentment. If there was, I don't remember it. I think there is a lot of not resentment but shrugging your shoulders and saying, 'Well I'm in it. I hope I get out of it'. Nothing much else.
Yes. Yes particularly ... we often used to use the expression, 'We wonder when the next bullet or what shell has got our name on it'. We used to make a joke of it.
Oh, it was a weird kind of humour. A lot of our humour was very weird. [Laughs]
Oh, yes, I think that inevitably it brought out the best of any human in regard to relationship. The squabbling, the difference of opinion and so on that goes on in ordinary civil life, I never saw any signs of it in the army. We felt we were in it. You see where it was so different to World War Two was when they had to move troops around the different fronts in World War Two it was all done in huge motor vehicles. Well with the exception of a few Ford Model T ambulances, there was no motor vehicles in World War One. We all had to be marched - with all our packs and ammunition and rifles and everything else - cross-country. That's where so much of the marching songs were developed, to try and keep the spirit up a bit. Some of them wouldn't bear repetition out here now, but they ... they were funny. But in World War Two, as I say, everybody was moved by motor transport. It made a big difference.
Oh yes, there were some mad things and ill advised things done with marching men too far you know. It happened in Egypt when we were at a place Telekevere [?] Camp and we were ordered down to the canal when they thought the Turks were coming. And there is a railway line going down there, and we could have been moved on the railway line but some bright general thought it would be good practice for us to march down there. It's all desert country, and the heat is absolutely blinding and a lot of people died on that march, from Telekevere to Suez Canal. Just through a rotten bit of organisation.
Well, you see in the army you absolutely have to respect commissioned ranks. You've made an oath to that effect and you must not think otherwise or you'll get into trouble, so in the end, we just learned accept bad ... There were so many bad decisions made on Gallipoli. We all know now, but it's long after the damage was done. But it doesn't make ... I don't think anybody I know had a feeling they want to go and hit somebody or shoot somebody because they made a mistake.
Your story from the War, is an extraordinary story of endurance. You endured so much through that. What's been the legacy of that for you? What are the scars you bear physically and psychologically from having being through that experience, do you think?
Hmm. Oh I think that it does ... there is only one word that would really cover it. I think it was sadly lacking in the population today, in its proper sense, and that's the word discipline. I think that ever since my life in the services, it teaches you to ... discipline.
Well if you're working for yourself - all right you're running a little business or a shop where the only discipline that's needed is to discipline yourself: what time you get up in the morning and what you do during the day, but when you work for an employer they have to run the business and they have to have discipline in the way its run, what you do, what instructions you get and at times you may feel the instruction is wrong, a mistake, and other than make a comment like that to your next boss, who could be the foreman or the manager, you just do what you've been told to do. That's discipline.
I got a bit of lead in that hand there, which has been there. It doesn't trouble me. Other than that nothing ever hit me.
No, it was one that has got to be dealt ... Dr. Allen has got to have a go at that in about a week's time.
Hmm. Most of them are not active. But now and again one changes its mind and he thinks there is one there he should ... What they do is they use liquid something. It's like ice when it touches your skin. It's the opposite of burning. That's how they deal with those, as long as they get them in time. Other than that I'm ... I haven't got anything very knocked about. This leg here from that smash. That's about the worst thing I've had happen to me.
Oh, no, no, I haven't, but for many years I used to wake up with a picture in mind of some horrible scene that I'd been mixed up in but they gradually thinned out in time.
You mean [when] one of these takes place?
Oh, I think it happens in seconds. It doesn't go on for hours. Generally, it's very active. It's unpleasant it wakes you up. The problem then of course is to get to sleep again. But that's years ago. Now ... I sleep pretty well now.
Well now, that's a very broad question. You see ...
I suppose life has ... your life has put great demands on you, and another way to ask the question would be: in meeting the demands that life has placed on you what do you think has been the greatest strength that you've acquired that's been useful to you?
Marrying the right woman.
Yep, yes. I think that's ... When you've got a good kind of companionship and when you're differing from your partner's comments in some way, instead of turning it into a snarling match just accept it. You don't need to be a willing slave, but I think life coasts along very pleasantly. You can't get it ... I think any of us must know men or women who never married. I think particularly as they get older, life's not very marvellous for them, without a partner.
You learned, at a fairly early age, not to complain about things. When you were confronted both in your early life and then again in wartime, and to some extent in the jobs you took in the early years after the war, you were confronted with real hardship and suffering. How mentally did you go about dealing with that? You obviously didn't complain.
Well, for instance, I was always so very keen on aircraft and the only reason I left Qantas ... I wasn't sacked or asked to leave in any way. The company then only had employees of eight of us. That was all in the company that now has thousands. I didn't need to leave them but my mother had ... I got her up there because she was on her own and so on. And she got sick of being out there and that unsettled me. And the working hours - there was no such thing as awards. If one of the old crates had to have a ... See, for instance, when they'd take off with the mail from Cloncurry or Winton or Longreach or Barcoo, right down the line to Charleville, if it didn't turn up at a certain time, Longreach would start to phone up all the outstations on the route to find out when did the Qantas plane go over you? If so, at what time? And gradually they'd get enough information if it had gone over righto - all right that far - but when another station on the route said, 'No, we've seen nothing and haven't heard it'. You know he's come down somewhere 'cause they had no radio you see. This is ... comes back to this. I'm always bleating like a duck on this. Radios made such a difference to so many things in life. Certainly out there, as it did in the trenches, radio - when it came later. So what we had in Longreach, was a fully equipped Talbot truck. On that was a new engine - a repaired engine, water, share legs - things that you put up over a plane to lift the busted engine out and to put another engine in. Anyhow we'd set off with that and ...
Jack, can I interrupt a minute. Now I asked you a question about how you endured suffering when you had to face it. And I'm getting the feeling that you find that a hard question to answer, because you're telling me a story rather than answering the question. Is that because you're someone who was brought up at a time when you really didn't actually think very much about your feelings? It was part of the code you were brought up with at school and so on, that you didn't think much about your feelings, that you tried to keep them well under control.
Well I think we all varied in that regard.
I suppose I'm thinking here of a seventeen year old boy going off to war. It must have been a lot of emotion and a lot of suffering and a lot of feeling there. How did you handle that, when you felt that you just wanted to run away, when you felt that you were confronted with things that were really unbearable? How did you deal with those feelings?
I don't know that I ever felt that I wanted to run away.
No. When we were in the line there and so on, and things were ... it looked as though we were on the losing end of it and things were getting worse and worse. I can't ever remember wanting to pack up my little kit and run backwards. And I never saw anybody else, for that matter, in my little unit do that. So you stuck it out there until you either got killed, wounded or relieved.
No. I don't think that's abnormal by any means. You're in the Army and supposed to be doing things, and in case, we used this funny old term 'run away', where do you run? You'd be picked up by the military police pretty quickly and become a deserter.
Yes. There was another young fellow who was about my age I think, in that Bell tent we slept in, at Blackboy Hill. A fellow called - I've forgotten his first name - Holmes. Anyhow he and I were very friendly to each other in all the training. Shared our feelings at times. He got killed in the end. I never had anybody as close as him.
No, he got to France. He got killed up in the Somme. But I never had anybody very close other than that. I had a lot of friends and another thing, I suppose you might be searching for anything odd in me. I wouldn't blame you if you if you do, but you see, in Cairo when we got leave, it was a hot bed of prostitution and every other thing you can name in those days. Probably still is. And we get leave time to go from our training camp and a lot of the fellows were charged down into what they call the wazza, where all the houses of pleasure were and I went with some of them once or twice, but the things I saw, I didn't want to see anymore.
Well in one dreadful kind of a music hall you'd call it, the Eldorado, enormous completely nude coloured women would come on and they'd bring a donkey on. That's ... and you can imagine what else took place. Well that sort of thing revolted me. I'm no purist but I think that's carrying the thing too far, in front of an audience.
Oh yes. I used to ... I used ... when we got leave, I'd go into Cairo. It's the only place to go to, you know - museums there and art galleries and the Shepherd's Hotel, where they would only allow officers in there to start but that broke down, so you could go in there and meet somebody from another unit. Oh, it passed the time, when you had time off.
Oh no. I think that everybody minded their own business. A lot of them used to drink too much. Well all that did was to make me sick and I don't want to be sick, I said to myself. They used to go and drink mostly beer, but they'd over do it. Well it used to make me vomit and I ... it was easy enough for me not to do it anyhow.
No, I don't think I've been very strong on those sort of activities, so it hasn't been any effort on my part to keep clear.
Oh ... [Laughs] Goodness me. Well that's a crook one, isn't it? You see the faults varied according to the age one has reached. What was a fault in one decade, we'll say, is not necessarily a fault in the next one that you're living through.
You've lived through a very long life and you've seen immense changes in that time, You've already mentioned that you think that radio has been an amazing thing that's made a lot of difference to things.
Just looking back over your life, what are some of the other developments that you've seen in ninety-four years, nearly ninety-five years, which have really seemed to you to be remarkable and important?
Oh I think there's one. I'm glad you asked me that because I've got very strong feelings about that. Was ... those great scientists in the past century, who developed electrical energy because if anybody sits down and thinks about, say there was no electrical energy, the whole structure of the world would go upside down, let alone when Hertz invented the vibration of electricity and how much that's meant to what we've got here now. It makes it all work. And I think as far as mankind's concerned, that's been the greatest development in ... right from Roman days was the discovery of harnessing electrical energy. [INTERRUPTION]
Yes, I've got an idea from a hint that I got recently. Before I got so bad with dysentery, I was still battling along the job with the signal company and I had to go down to the beach frequently with messages, and picking up other things, back up to where our line was, and I remember on one occasion it was pitch dark and I was sitting on the beach looking out. The Turks never damaged the ships. The hospital ships used to moor about half a mile out from the beach and they all lit up brilliantly and the Turks never fired at them. This night, I remember, I sat on the beach and I could hear an orchestra playing from the hospital ship coming across the water, and even against the booming of the guns, you know, you could hear the music. And like the rest of the mob, I was unwashed, dirty, lousy and generally physically run down and I ... I can't remember the exact words but I know that I said this to me that - I'll have to think of words that suit it but aren't the exact words - which was, 'If every I get out of this hell hole, I'll never do anything bad again', and I tried to live up to that, but of course I didn't, not for too long. That was a real oath. [Laughs] [INTERRUPTION] 'I'll never complain again', that's right. I've complained at times.
Well it was ... it had no luxury in it. There were no cabins. The ship we went on from Fremantle to Suez was really a cargo ship and Ascadius, and what were originally decks for stowing cargo, they provided hooks, just like the navy, where you slung a hammock and we were packed in. There was some attempt at ventilation down into the hulls but they tried to get canvas shoots up, slung up from the mast, to direct ocean breezes to go down these things but it didn't happen too well. And the air down there, I tell you, was unbelievable and, of course, we each got into a hammock. And hammocks you can't get straight. Each end of you goes up and the middle goes down into a sort of a U-shape, but still when you are very young you put up with that.
Oh, I don't think I could last, and also we had to eat there you see, so, as with the navy when the reveille came on you had to get out and fold up your blanket and so on - you had no sheets - and hook up the hammock and then along underneath were board tables with tressels and that's were the food was served, so you ate underneath where you slept. But it was no joy on that trip.
Well I didn't ... still you know, we thought that we were going to see the world. We still had the spirit of adventure in us. We lost a bit of that when we got to Egypt and we were stuck in tents out in the sandy desert and started training.
Well, there were long marches across the sandy country carrying ... you had an eighty pound weight pack on your back, which held your ground sheet that you slept on, emergency rations and a little bit of underclothing and a blanket and then hanging to one side was a bottle, a water bottle, the other side was a bayonet. And hanging and flapping just above your posterior was an entrenching tool. It was a pick on one side, when you put a handle in it, and a shovel shape on the other. That's what you used to dig down the trench.
How to march in what was sandy country and very little water.
Yes well, that's why they had us all very young, I mean fellows were getting into their late thirties and forties, weren't good material out there. A lot of them started to feel physical troubles, once they get into their forties. I speaking now out in the desert, in Egypt.
Yes, and the sand was so dry. You see we used to also lay - being the signal company - insulated telephone lines across the sandy desert from the Canal, where the headquarters were, out to where we were in the desert. But it was only a single line. It wasn't a duel line business like they have in the average telephones. Earth return, that is you peg, you drove in to the sand, had a single cable on it and then if it was driven into ordinary moist earth, it would act as a return - a bit off, but usable. But the sand was dry there we found we couldn't get a signal at all, many times, and we used urinate on the peg, which used to make it work to some extent, but I only illustrate that as conditions out there were pretty awful.
Now talking of urinating, when you got to Gallipoli, and you were living there in those very harsh conditions with bad food, and bad clothes and everything filthy, what did you do about going to the toilet? Did you have latrines and were they safe?
Oh well. what they had to do was first of all make certain that none of us were relieving ourselves in the trench, 'cause it soon become, might become impossible. So they used to generally pick out a suitable spot, as well as they could, out of sight of the Turkish trenches, and then a pioneer company did this. They were soldier diggers really and they used to dig down into the dirt and trench anything up to six feet down and about four feet wide and then they'd lay a long pole along it on a tressel each end, and that's where the relieving was done. You get as many as about fifteen men on that pole at any one time, but the Turks were very shrewd people and they found out what was going on. This doesn't actually apply to the whole of the front line, which was a pretty long one even on Gallipoli, but I know on our part they discovered that they could lob a bomb into that thing by sending up, we called them, broomstick bombs with a big brass case full of explosive and a wooden tail on it. That's why they were called broomstick, and that was to steady the thing on the way down. And of course if one of those fell in the trench when a lot of people were using it, it could cause some devastating results.
Oh, yes, some. See a lot got wounded, others got killed in the thing and those of us who survived we could hear this whistling sound that the broomstick bomb made and no matter what stage we'd reached that took us there in the first place, we'd pull up our pants and we'd go for our lives out of that pit. And that's how I think a few of us saved ourselves. But it is no way to live. But it was the best they could provide because the only other thing would to have been to have the men in the front line, when they had to go somewhere, allowed to go right back somewhere. Well you never knew when there wasn't going to be an attack. Any hour of the day or night, so they had to keep the troops in the front line and they could just be allowed to go out a few yards to this trench.
Oh that and bad water, were the two main reasons, I think, why the Gallipoli campaign suffered so badly.
It played a big part. Because half the soldiers within about two or three months after they had got there were weakened already from the good strong bodies they had when they landed there, and they were weakened by dysentery caused by infected water, lack of proper food and vitamins. Mind you of course, the Turks had it pretty bad too, but it was their country and, I suppose, they were a bit more accustomed to it.
No, it was never even mentioned in any of my training.
Oh well things were a little bit different in France, Robin. We were never confronted with any incident with the Turks that they were not normal people. Even some of our chaps, who became prisoners, were given proper treatment. It wasn't easy but ... But with the Germans there was different stories going around there, that some of the battles on the Somme they ... It was rumoured around - I never had any evidence of it myself - they didn't bother about prisoners. They hadn't room for them. They couldn't spare the men to take them back behind the line, some miles away from the front line, and the rumour was that they were polishing them off. Well that didn't make us love the Germans anymore. But I don't know to this day how true that was. I saw no evidence of it myself.
No. I think it was a case of try and shoot somebody else or be shot yourself. There is no time for any other feelings. [INTERRUPTION]
Well, it solves nothing. A lot of misery, a loss of life, but the idea of overwhelming another country, the original idea was that you take possession of what you've captured, enlarge your own country. I think that was the primitive approach to it, of fighting battles. And neither of the World War One or World War Two, ever proved any sense in that thinking. I went over to Germany soon after World War Two, on behalf of the company, on business, and of course, Germany then had taken a dreadful battering from our bombing during World War Two, but when I went over there about three years after that War finished, I noticed in a lot of the factories that I inspected, and so on, the most modern machinery, motorised machine tools, spanking new, humming away, and back in England they still had old machines all riven by belts with shaft overhead. They were a way behind because the Germans had it been largely furnished modern machine tools by the Americans.