A month after the WWI armistice was signed, the NSW State Library advertised their desire to purchase the diaries of returning officers from Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. The price was determined by the quality of the entries as well as the rank of the officer. Of the 500 strong collection, many diaries came from stretcher bearers. The highest paid diary set belonged to Major General Rosenthal. He received 75 pounds.
For the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gallipoli, the NSW State Library hosted an event called Letters Home. Since most of the material in the collection is one-sided, three panelists were asked to craft their own response to a WWI letter of their choice.
The fourth and youngest member of the panel was an actor named Brandon McClelland from a show called Anzac Girls. I’ve never seen the show, but with his gorgeous voice I imagined his character cradling a dying nurse in his arms while whispering you’re going to make it- just hold on! He administers the last bit of medicine available, but it is the sound of his voice that guides her back to her senses.
Even the men were moved. Peter FitzSimons, a journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald, asked the audience of predominantly retired women, “who thinks Brandon had the best voice ever?” As people cheered Peter joked, “he could sell fly spray to housewives and they’d think they got sex.”
Peter is also a non-fiction author and he was just in the process of finishing up a book about WWI. When it was time for his response it felt both memorized and off-the-cuff at the same time. He leaned into the podium with an aggressive stance and tore into his monologue with white-hot rage.
Peter apologized to Langford Colley-Priest, the stretcher barer from Neutral Bay whom he was replying to, for the unnecessary carnage. The men who ordered the pointless military maneuvers that kept Priest’s stretchers filled round the clock were never held accountable. Five and a half thousand men died in one battle alone and not one yard was gained.
The last panelist to read her response was Jackie French, an award-winning children’s book author. She was a firecracker of a woman in a red poppy shirt and red lipstick and wasn’t afraid to cut to the chase. “Has anyone ever killed someone?” Jackie asked the crowd. “Has anyone ever had someone try to kill them?”
Many years ago she had been taken hostage by a Basque terrorist organization and had been in a very difficult situation in which she had not been able to save a three-year-old child. From this experience Jackie emphasized that these letters and diaries should not be read voyeuristically. The reader should enter the piece after having thought about what they would do in that situation. Would they be willing to make the same sacrifices that the soldiers did?
At the end of the evening we left with a taste of what it had been like to be a soldier on the frontlines and also with a piece of fruitcake burning our tongues and warming our bellies. Because it was prohibited to send bottles of alcohol, soldiers were often sent sticky soft fruitcakes laced with rum and brandy. You could smell the alcohol from a few feet away.
Jackie was the 6th generation in her family to have sent this cake to an overseas soldier. “Only have a small piece if you are driving!” Jackie called out from the podium.
In an ideal world, she would also be the last generation to have that opportunity and the cake would instead become what it was that evening- a little piece of history enjoyed in the comfort of a library.