Since last year the Australian War Memorial has been projecting names of Australians who died in WWI onto the front of the building. I’ve been to the Memorial on cold dark nights to see the names of two brothers, D’Arcey and Frank. Recently, it was their brother George’s turn.
George Ronald Shaw, my grandfather’s cousin, was killed in France, near Sailly-sur-la-Lys, on 20th April 1916, a hundred years ago this week. He was 24, the first of the three brothers to be killed in action, all of them in France. (My grandfather was wounded on the Somme a few months later but returned home alive.)
George had disembarked in Marseille on 3rd April and made it all the way to the Somme in northern France, where he was killed 17 days later when his billet, a farmhouse, was shelled. His record says he was KIA, killed in action, but he actually didn’t get to fight against anyone.
An aside: the last couple of times I’ve been to the War Memorial to photograph my relatives’ names, I’ve read the banners advertising the presence of Mephisto, the Rarest Tank in the World (they were still there when I took the photo above, but in preparation for Anzac Day on Monday, they’ve been removed). Today I decided to see Mephisto for myself. It’s a Sturmpanzerwagen A7V invented by the Germans, and Mephisto is the only one of its kind left in the world. It has a painted red Faustian demon on the right side, carrying a British rhomboid-shaped tank under its arm. Hence the name Mephisto, short for the Faustian character, Mephistopheles. It was a great lumbering vehicle, hot, cramped and noisy inside, but it was one of the first of many tanks that would change land warfare for ever.
The War Memorial was quite crowded this morning, and Canberra generally seems to have more people moving around this weekend than usual. Perhaps they’re here for the Anzac Day long weekend. I’m considering going to the dawn service on Monday. I’ve never done it. Yet.
The siege of Tobruk began 75 years ago on 10th April, 1941, and yesterday in Canberra the anniversary was marked at the ‘Rats of Tobruk’ memorial on Anzac Avenue.
Tobruk is a small town on the Libyan coast with a deep water harbour, which Australian, British and Indian troops were charged with protecting in 1941 to prevent Rommel and his German forces from accessing the port and advancing into Egypt. The men of the Tobruk garrison withstood attacks for eight months, never retreating or surrendering. The Nazi propagandist ‘Lord Haw Haw’ said they were like ‘rats in a trap’, and from then the Australian troops proudly called themselves the ‘Rats of Tobruk’.
My father arrived in North Africa in September and worked in the hospital where he saw numbers of wounded men from Tobruk. Other soldiers gave him some photos of the harbour and town of Tobruk in various states of ruin, which he brought back in an album when he returned to Australia. A couple of photos are enough to give an idea of the bay in 1941.
The monument on Anzac Avenue is modelled after another one which you can see in the black and white photo, constructed in the cemetery at Tobruk but destroyed a few months after. Beside it is the present monument in Canberra in a photo I took today. On the front of the new one is a bronze eternal flame that faces the avenue, below which were laid wreaths for the 75th anniversary of the siege:
The Tobruk siege is significant for two firsts. It was the first defeat of Hitler’s troops on land. And Corporal John Hurst Edmondson, who died from wounds and is buried in Tobruk cemetery (and whose grave photo is also in my father’s album) was the first Australian to be awarded the Victoria Cross in the war (awarded posthumously).
Finally, a poem. Here are the first two stanzas of Wounded from Tobruk, recorded by my father in his poetry book, but written by James Andrew “Tip” Kelaher and published in The Bulletin on 29 October 1941. Sadly, Tip Kelaher was killed the following year at El Alamein in Libya. Here’s the page in my father’s writing, followed by my transcription with corrections:
You come limping down the gangplank
Or you’re carried down instead,
Covered by a dusty blanket
With a boot beneath your head,
And you all look lean and hungry
Underneath that Aussie grin,
Sick of bully beef and biscuits,
But the sort that won’t give in.
Perhaps you’re smiled at by a bearer,
Who is muscular and big,
Fishing fags out of his pocket
With a “Better have one, Dig”.
And you take it as he lights it,
And return the wry old grin,
Making little of your troubles,
But there’s no one taken in.
Poets, photographers, artists, sculptors, and a corporal who saved a man but sacrificed his own life. We must write about them lest we forget.
By coincidence, a literary journal named The Cossack Review has accepted my translation of a story set in Russia and Ukraine. There are no cossacks in the story, but there is a quirky Russian man who falls in love with a coat. He is alone, winter is long, his sojourn in the Russian countryside is monotonous and tedious, and now he is besotted with a velvet and sable coat that is not his.
You can read ‘Joseph Olenin’s Coat’, my translation of ‘Le Manteau de Joseph Olénine’ by Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé (or Marie-Eugène-Melchior, Vicomte de Vogüé!), in Issue 6 of The Cossack Review, out now. The original was published in 1886 in an illustrated review, Les Lettres et les Arts. Above, in the header, is a part of the decorative first page as it appeared in the Paris journal. And here’s one of the images that appeared mid-story:
And here’s the cover of the spring 2016 issue of The Cossack Review (not from Paris, nor from Russia, but from America):
Issue 6 features new prose, poetry, and translation from twenty-five contributors and three translators.
A few weeks ago I told a friend that I do read Facebook but I never write on it. Well, today – never say never – I wrote on it for the first time, after reading, somewhere, recommendations for promoting one’s own writing. Apparently I was mad not to be taking advantage of it.
I much prefer blogging. I’ve enjoyed writing this post today, hunting down the picture and thinking about my words. Facebook seems too narrow by comparison; but perhaps I should look at it like one of those poster pillars we see in city centres, where people can legally post bills. So today, I posted a bill advertising the journal that has very kindly published my translation.