Letters Home: Week 219

WWI letter from the NSW State Library collection: Sydney, Australia

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.

About: The NSW State Library WWI letter collection

ANZAC Day in Canberra: Week 163

Veteran placing a poppy on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial on ANZAC Day: Canberra, Australia

At this hour, on this day, ninety-nine years ago, the Australian and the New Zealand Army Corps, at Gallipoli, made immortal the name of ANZAC.

By 5:30 in the morning the crowd for the 99th anniversary of the ANZAC landing had swelled to 37,000 pairs of quietly shuffling feet. Although one could sense the size of the gathering, it was eerily silent. The squawk of cockatoos filled the pauses between odes and reveilles, their white feathers faintly illuminated in the night sky. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were fuzzy shadows outlined by the light of the moon.

When Chaplain Peter Willis began the Lord’s Prayer, a baritone rumble filled the outdoor amphitheater. The solemn ceremony ended before sunrise and people poured out as quickly and as quietly as they had arrived. Those who remained waited in line to place a poppy on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier or on a series of tablets with the names of fallen soldiers called the Roll of Honour.

By 8am the Olims Hotel was filled with military personnel and civilians with inherited war medallions on their jackets. Barret and I hadn’t slept well in the YHA dorm the night before, so we bypassed the free-flowing beer (some places started serving beer at 4am) in favor of coffee and a shotgun breakfast- eggs, toast, tomatoes and sausage.

I was about to fall asleep in the warmth of the room when I saw a veteran sitting alone with the morning light striking the side of his face. I went over to take his photo.

ANZAC Day gunfire breakfast at Olims: Canberra, Australia

Ken was from Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe) and had fought in the SAS for 12 years during the Rhodesian Bush War- a civil war which led to the Zimbabwean independence and the election of Mugabe in 1980.

Ken was part of the estimated 60% of the white population that emigrated after the close of the war. Because his bank account had been frozen, he only had $100 when he arrived in Australia. During his first four years he worked three jobs. His fortunes changed though and now he is building a new house in Kiama.

The only time Ken’s accent was noticeable was when he was in agreement. “A reindeer-pulled sled ride? Your vacation in Norway sounds amazing. ” “Oh jaaaa!”

A quiet suburb in Canberra, Australia

It was 11:30am when Barret and I walked away from the parade announcements echoing down the wide, sprawling streets. Despite being the seat of Australian politics, the city of Canberra is notorious for being quiet and sleepy. Its current location was chosen because it wasn’t Melbourne and it wasn’t Sydney and it was equally out-of-the-way for both cities.

View of Lake Burley Griffen from the National Gallery of Australia: Canberra

We walked along Lake Burley Griffin, named after the American architect who designed the city, and through the sculpture gardens of the National Gallery. Unlike the streets, the path along the lake was filled with activity: joggers, dog walkers, and bicyclists.

National Gallery of Australia: Dadang Christanto's  "Heads From The North"

By 2pm we were fishing in our pockets for the $5.50 fee to join the Canberra Returned Services League. It didn’t matter that we weren’t Australian and hadn’t served in the military, we had our membership for the year and could stroll inside the gates to play two-up.

Two-up was the gambling game of choice amongst the Australian diggers in WWI. Because of its connection with the troops, ANZAC Day is one of the few days in which it’s legally allowed to be played in pubs.

The rules are simple; two coins are arranged on a plank of wood (called the kip) and then tossed into the air. The ringkeeper is in charge of the coins and of announcing the results while the boxer paces about the ring to facilitate the betting. In order to participate, you have to find someone else in the audience who wants to bet the same amount as you.

If you bet heads, tap your money against your head until someone takes up your bet. If you want tails, then look for someone tapping their head or shout out your bet. Tails is always the person who holds both bets. This is a good system for people who are too drunk to remember what they chose.

Ringkeeper waiting for the coins to fall: Canberra RSL gathering on ANZAC Day

The receptionist at the YHA told us we wouldn’t have a good time here unless we were, “18 and looking to get pissed.” However, she underestimated how much fun it is to watch drunk guys yell at shiny objects spinning in the air.

“Are we ahead?” Barret asked as the afternoon wound down.


“Are we behind?”


“Sounds like the perfect time to leave.”

How to get to Canberra: Murrays direct bus service

About: The National Gallery of Australia

About: ANZAC Day at the Australian War Memorial

ANZAC Day at the Australian War Memorial: Canberra

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