Michael Greenham was the guest speaker at Dartmoor’s ANZAC Day ceremony 2014. His speech captured the audience and encouraged listeners to reflect on war, love and their effects. Read below:
“Thanks to the Lions Club for the invitation to speak today. I reminded members people had heard me speak on this occasion before and may have had enough of me…to which came the reply, “We’re sure you’ll have something interesting to say“. Nothing like a bit of pressure!
Though as Keith Miller, Test cricketer and WW2 RAAF pilot once famously replied to TV interviewer and cricket tragic Michael Parkinson when he asked about the pressure of batting after a top-order collapse… “Pressure? I’ll tell what pressure is. Pressure is having a Messerschmitt up your arse. Cricket is not.”
So War is real pressure, talking about it should not be. But what to talk about on this ANZAC Day?
Well I had thought of talking about dead people – I’ve researched quite a bit about our district dead in war, especially the First World War. And after all, the current official purpose of ANZAC Day according to the websites of Australian Government, RSL, DVA, Army, Navy, Airforce, AWM and even Wikipedia is to…remember all Australians and New Zealanders who have served and died in all military conflicts and operations including peace-keeping.
So I should talk about dead men and women. But a few weeks ago I felt maybe I shouldn’t. I was watching the ‘7.30 Report’, and former Army Captain James Brown who served in Iraq and Afghanistan was talking about his just published book ‘ANZAC’S Long Shadow’.
You would know, that more than 12 months out from the ANZAC Centenary, Australia is gearing up for an enormous celebration to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Gallipoli landing. 8,000 Australians will flock to ANZAC Cove for the event. But do you also know, over $325 million is to be outlaid on First World War commemorations, more than double the amount Britain plans to spend?
James Brown is not particularly happy about this. He said … The injunction at most war memorials is, “Let silent contemplation be your offering”. But instead we’re about to embark on a four-year festival for the dead …There’s merchandising, there are tours, there are cruises, there are surfboat races, there are stonemasons who are whipping together memorials all across the country and actively selling their product to sub branches of RSLs and other community groups. So, there’s a lot of money in this. I mean, just managing the events in Turkey over the next couple of years will cost the Government $27 million, which is going to a company in Melbourne. So people are making money and living off the ANZAC industry… We’re commissioning new histories about the soldiers at Gallipoli when we haven’t even begun writing the history of soldiers at East Timor, in Iraq or in Afghanistan. We’re spending three times as much money on ANZAC Day ceremonies over the next four years as we are on the problem of mental health for those soldiers coming back with post-traumatic stress disorder. And for me, I can’t understand it. If we really believe what we say about ANZAC, then why aren’t we spending that money looking after the soldiers right here and now?
Retired Major Garth Callendar, who was severely injured by explosion in Iraq, joined Brown in the discussion… I think it’s a real shame… the glorification of the ANZAC, the idea in society of the digger is the bronzed Aussie battler making it up the beaches in Gallipoli. Yes, definitely that’s part of it, but I would like to think that it should be the image of the young corporal lieutenant, bombardier, you know, patrolling the poppy fields in Uruzgan Province would be a better image for people to have, definitely a more relevant image for people to have.
They have a point. More soldiers have died from suicide since returning from Afghanistan than were killed there on active service. Maybe the public money that Vicroads will spend on a memorial plaque at the soon-to-disappear Greenwald Avenue of Honour beside the new overtaking lane could be used to train more Post Traumatic Stress Disorder psychologists?
But are we ‘officially’ allowed to consider such issues on this ANZAC Day? Well, yes…we are. Because there is one sentence on the Australian Government website that states…“ ANZAC Day is a day when Australians reflect on the many different meanings of war”. Which sort of means we can talk about anything pretty much – past or present. Controversial or safe. Near and far.
So I would like to tell two stories, and in respect to James Brown and Garth Callendar, who have been there and done that and thereby have the right to be controversial, one story is of a current veteran I recently met in Canberra. And in respect to those whose names appear on the walls of this Memorial Hall, who also went there and did that, the other is about one of our local First World War veterans. I believe both have the right to be honoured today.
These stories are of war, and love.
Harold Rowland Heathcote has a tree in the Dartmoor Avenue of Honour, but was born in Ascot Vale, Melbourne in 1892. His father Oakley Heathcote was a merchant seaman who had spent most of his working life on ships sailing between England and Australia. In 1898, when Harold was six, his mother Mary died leaving Harold and his siblings in Oakley’s care. Employment was scarce, money was tight, and parenting was tough, so Oakley voluntarily placed the children into the Kildonan Presbyterian Home for Children in North Melbourne in 1902. The institutional system of care worked like this: a monthly fee was charged to feed, clothe, educate the children, and if the family couldn’t pay, then they were offered back, or to country families willing to care for them. Unable to keep up payments, Oakley consented to the boys being allotted for foster-care. Older brother Fred went to Alex Donald at ‘Woodford’, younger brother John went to the Tunnock family at ‘Heathdale’ Drik Drik, and Harold went to a family in Allansford, near Warrnambool. It was not to his liking and he ran away – and from several other families who were tried in the same area. In 1910 he reached the age Kildonan Home no longer oversaw his ‘welfare’ and he looked for scraps of work in the Dartmoor area where brother Fred resided.
Little wonder he enlisted into the Lighthorse a month after the declaration of war in August 1914. His luck in life didn’t improve; at Albany, en route to Egypt in March 1915 he caught typhoid fever and was hospitalised there for a month, delaying his landing at Gallipoli until July. He lasted until October before he got seriously ill again – with enteric fever this time – and was repatriated to Australia early in 1916. There was little to keep him here, so he re-enlisted after recovering somewhat and went back to Egypt in August 1916, attached to the Camel Corps in Palestine. He was regularly back in hospital over the next 12 months, before receiving a bomb wound to his left hand in November 1917 which rendered it useless. On return to Australia in February 1918 he was admitted to Macleod Military Hospital where he fell hopelessly in love with ward attendant Eleanor Wood. At the end of the following year she ended the relationship, and Harold went to Quambatook in the Mallee to try to find work…and himself. Early in 1921 he returned to Melbourne and sought Eleanor out at the Caulfield Military Hospital at 4pm on a Thursday afternoon. He was in a quiet mood, and had travelled all night with her last letter in hand. “I don’t intend to give you up” he said. She replied “I do not love you”, but made an appointment to meet later. Eleanor did not feel well, and did not go, but sent a note instead. Later that evening she received a parcel in return, which she did not open until the next morning – it was Harold’s wallet. Harold’s body, with the head severed, was found on the railway line between Gardenvale and Elsternwick hours beforehand on the night of 13 January 1921. The Coroner in his enquiry asked the distressed Eleanor, “Had he ever threatened to take his life?” Sobbing, she finally replied…”He had said that he would not trouble to live if I gave him up.”
The Coroner gave his finding…”There is nothing to determine that this is a case of suicide, although it looks suspicious. The conditions under which he was found seem to point that way, and that he deliberately placed his head upon the rail. This man was disappointed in a love affair. There seems to be no doubt that the girl he wanted did not want him. Many men are troubled in similar matters, but they do not attempt suicide.”
Maybe those men hadn’t also lost their mother as a child, spent the rest of their youth in an institution, fled from a series of foster homes as a teenager, and suffered from debilitating illnesses and injuries in harrowing places in a horrific war…?
At the end of last year I got invited to a function at the National Museum in Canberra, and took my daughter Maggie as a co-driver…up one day and back the next. The most thought-provoking experience of the trip was not the evening function at the Museum, it was later in the TV lounge of the backpacker hostel where we stayed the night.
There was only one bloke in the lounge when I wandered in about 9.30pm to see what was on and wind down after a big day.
‘Do you want to watch something in particular…I’m not really watching this’ said the slightly unkept, bearded Aussie bloke in t-shirt, trackie dacks and bare feet; lying casually on the couch with a can of drink in hand.
‘No’ I replied, ‘whatever’s on’. I sat down and thought I might as well seem polite and continue with some sort of conversation. ‘What have you been up to today?’
That opening line kicked off a two hour talk…one innocuous question became an intensely personal exchange, without any plan or probing.
To cut a long story short, it turned out this fellow was a Warrant Officer in the SAS, having been promoted up from Private over his 24 year army career. Based in Perth and now principally involved in training, he was a year into 3 years leave accrued from a succession of overseas duties in Rwanda, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. He was separated, with a 12 year old daughter, and was looking forward to taking her on a six month holiday experiencing the classic tourist sights of Europe.
The late news came on TV, with scenes from the days-old devastation caused by the typhoon in the Philippines, and the difficulties in dealing with the emergency.
‘They’ve got the response there arse-about’ observed the soldier. ‘They should send the army in first – before the food and doctors. We can deal with the dead bodies. Stop disease, sterilise water, and point a gun when its needed to keep order when supplies are given out. Families will do anything to save their kids, and fathers do desperate things to make sure they survive’.
‘Makes sense‘ I tentatively agreed, and ventured… ‘From the places you’ve been, I guess you’ve seen plenty of that?’
He paused…only briefly.
‘Yeah, but kids are great everywhere. When we were in Afghanistan we weren’t meant to give them anything; play with them, even look at them…. Bugger that! How can you set up a relationship with people? One day we were giving some kids a bit of water and rations, and the CO busted us. He wanted to put me on report. “For giving a kid a drink I said?”! “Yeah, he replied”. “Well let’s make the report more worthwhile”, so I thumped him. Three days I got, then they let me out. A few weeks later I was in a search patrol trying to hunt a particular rebel and we got bloody lost. Comms were out and it was getting dark. Bit of a worry being in Taliban country. Anyway, we came across a kid looking after some goats, and I recognised him as one of the kids I’d given some water to. Bit of sign language…’show us back to the village’, which he understood…and he leads us kilometres home no worries.’
It seemed to be my turn to comment. ‘It’s interesting and sad about Muslims; radicals give every follower a bad name. My family just finished cycling and holidaying in Turkey – Islamic country – fantastic. Met a heap of nice people, felt safe.”
‘Yeah, it’s not about being Muslim. In Kosovo we were sent to look after a Muslim village. Lovely friendly people. Family was all important. The Serbs had been in – meant to be Christian – they took most of the men and boys, shot them, and put them in a pit. The villagers wanted us to find the head of the village in the pit so they could bury him with a proper ceremony– must have been a well-respected bloke. We did that…and they were happy. Do you know what the bloody Serbs did a couple of days after we’d gone? Came in one night, dug him up again and took the body off somewhere. How could you hate… that much?’
I took a deep breath. ‘Dunno’. ‘They’re the sorts of things I can’t explain; do you talk about it much?’
‘Not really. Some of my mates have struggled. Stuffed me up for a while too. But that’s why I said they should have the army in the typhoon area. We’ve seen all sorts of shit and can deal with it. Like in Rwanda. We went to one village where there had been a massacre…the men killed, the women raped. But do you know what they did to the kids…they cut their bodies up into little pieces? Why would people do that? To Kids! Why?’
I shrugged in silence – way out of my depth of experience – and tried a lighter topic I was more familiar with. ‘Speaking of kids, whereabouts are you going on holiday with your daughter?’
“I want to take her to all those fancy places you hear about in Europe like Venice and Paris. All the fairytale castles, and old buildings. Famous paintings and museums and stuff. Fancy hotels with marble floors. So she can feel like a princess.”
I gave him a short-list of sights, travel tips, wished him well, and thanked him for his service. He thanked for me for the talk; he said he needed it.
I don’t know his name. I hope he will be loved, and not have to go to another war.
But how do we end it?
Kemal Ataturk, inspirational first President of modern Turkey and hero-soldier officer at Gallipoli, addressed his people in 1935 on this ideal: ‘The citizens of the world must be educated to refrain themselves from jealousy, greed, and hatred.…Peace in the home, Peace in the world.’
Lest We Forget.”
ANZAC Day, 25th April 2014, Dartmoor.