LEST WE FORGET
One hundred years ago today, or tomorrow, depending on your global whereabouts, Australia joined Great Britain at war against Germany. It was 11pm in London, August 4, and around 7am, August 5, in Lithgow. As part of the Empire, Australia’s involvement was automatic; and the consequences as devastating as they were for any other country, too.
Now, with this anniversary upon us, we’re in the midst of a battle narrative extravaganza. From the well trod trail of Simpson and his donkey to the long overdue commemoration of our black diggers and our nurses, it was inevitable that Australians would make a fairly big deal of this moment in time. One hundred years on and we’re still trying to make sense of it.
Was the blooding of our first Australian Imperial Force necessary to our sense of nationhood? Was Gallipoli a boys own adventure gone tragically wrong? Why was this young nation compelled to rush to the assistance of Britain, with 416,809 of our boys, and at such an enormous cost, in terms of both life and money? How is it possible that the AIF lost more than 5,000 men in one day in northern France, some of them so gruesomely blown apart their remains were never identified? Why does this war, above all others, live so large in our national psyche that ANZAC Day services bring us to tears? Tears of pride; tears of grief.
These are the questions that pushed me along the road to my own exploration of this conflict – it sits at the very centre of my first novel, Black Diamonds. I never set out to write a First World War novel, though. Having fallen hard in love with the town of Lithgow at the foot of the Blue Mountains, its natural beauty and its industrial past, initially I wanted to write a story about a coal miner, and something maybe about my German heritage, and my Irish heritage too. I wanted to write something set during a time of white washed Union Jack waving that would give voice to some of the other many and varied ways Australians are, well, Australian, brave and extraordinary.
But the more I read, and the more I thought and dreamt, the more the war took over. The sheer scale of its scar became too much to keep at any distance. I knew I’d have to take my coal-mining hero, Daniel Ackerman, into its black heart. And when the war hurt him, as it did all who turned up for that show, boy did I cry. It was my first blooding as a writer, I suppose, when one of your characters becomes so real their pain becomes your own.
And with it came anger. While I was writing, towards the end of 2004, I remember seeing our prime minister at the time standing with troops, who were somehow involved in the Iraq War, and the shameless, cynical photo op of the whole thing – right on election time – only made me more committed to telling the truth as I had come to feel it in my bones. Politicians really have no place standing next to serving soldiers – unless they are prepared to prostrate themselves on the ground and kiss their boots in abject apology.
Politics and all other modes of fiction aside, I came to see that this war was an inescapable part of my own psyche too. It had been a huge and harrowing part of my maternal grandmother Nin’s life, as her brother Peter was one of those who put up his age to run away from his poverty and Irishness into the army. He ended up a lieutenant and made a great success of himself, only to die young, at 44, from the effects of having been gassed in France. Nin’s hushed reverence for old soldiers suddenly began to make some depth of sense, as did many other snippets of family lore, not least my paternal great grandfather’s decision to change the family name from Schwebel to Swivel in 1917.
But there was someone else whispering to me down the years all the while I was writing, too. Someone I had no idea existed until I got to the end of the first draft of Black Diamonds. In my research I stumbled across reference to a young man called Henry James Schwebel – a relative of course, although one I’d never heard of as he would have been a second cousin of my Pop’s. He was killed in action in Flanders, in Zonnebecke, and the report of his death stopped Marrickville Council from changing the name of Schwebel Street in that suburb to some other less offensive thing. He is one of the boys whose remains have never been found. When I found him, boy did I cry. My whole being shook as I cried.
I wrote great slabs of the first draft of that novel sitting the car “watching” my eldest son, Tom, play cricket. I’d cry and laugh and rage along with my characters in the peace and quiet of my old Daihatsu Charade, and pray that it didn’t rain so that I’d get my full four hours worth. One of the boys in the team, a beautiful kid called Jordan, who was dark-haired and bigger than all the other kids, was sort of the original inspiration for Daniel. A few years later, after Black Diamonds was published, Jordan was killed in a car crash on the Great Western Highway. Just like that: gone. I’d always intended to tell him one day that I’d used him as a model, but I didn’t want to embarrass him. He was only eighteen.
Whether it be on the battlefield or coalfield or highway, it’s an excruciatingly heartbreaking thing when beautiful young people are snatched from us, when life is cheap to the powers that be. Lest we forget the more than 60,000 Australians who died and the hundreds of thousands injured physically and emotionally across the duration of that first war that bred a next; lest we forget those Australians who risk their lives in mines every day to make our world, the nine-three men who died at the Port Kembla mine disaster 1894, and the ninety seven who were killed at work so far this year; lest we forget the three hundred or so who die on our roads every single year.
This little World War I-coal mining novel of mine is being republished now, without fan fare or launchings or reviews. And I am so grateful that it has this chance to live again. It’s my book for our boys, for our beautiful young ones, and it always will be.
It’s also Daniel Ackerman’s wedding anniversary, the day he married Francine Connelly, one hundred years ago tomorrow morning. Just a story, I suppose, but one that changed my world.
WWI kookaburra postcard from the collections of the State Library NSW