My father died eons ago, but I’ll post one of his poems today, Father’s Day, to thank him for volunteering to join the army to go the Middle East back in the 40s.
I get the feeling from this poem that as he was thinking and writing, he was probably regretting his decision to go so far from home, but at last he was coming back and couldn’t wait to get off the ship he had sailed on for weeks, the Duntroon. I also get a sense of appreciation for the hard-working nurses who attended him in Kantara Hospital, Egypt, and now on board this ship.
As I lie in my bed and gaze around,
I long for the day they set me aground,
My mind wanders back to my hometown
For this goddamned ship is getting me down.
I think of the fun and the times I’ve had
I think of my Sweetheart, my Mum and Dad,
I wish for the places I’m longing to see,
I wish for the faces of those dear to me.
You see, I’m in dock, on board this fine ship,
And I’m anxiously waiting the end of this trip.
I watch all the faces, the expressions they wear,
Some fat, some thin, and some have no hair.
Then there’s the Sisters in capes coloured red,
As they carry the medicine to ease a sick bed,
Their hours are endless, thanks often nil,
I’ve ne’er heard one grumble
And p’raps never will.
In Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’, which adorns numerous war memorials around Australia, there is a verse that every Australian knows:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old…
Opening line of the Author’s Note, Desert Boys, Peter Rees, 2012
I’ve heard the line ‘They shall grow not old…’ every year of my life, yet it still catches me out. Wars need poets.
When I look at the photo above from my father’s World War Two album, taken during his time in North Africa in 1941/42, I wonder whether these soldiers fell or grew old. Unfortunately the photo is uncaptioned and I have no names for them. They seem to be posing, demonstrating a lesson in warfare.
I’m struck by its similarity to the image on the cover of Desert Boys by Peter Rees, a book about Australian soldiers who fought in the desert in both world wars. In each photo there are five young Australian men in helmets, focusing on something to their left. Perhaps these cover men are also posing. In any case, their photos remind us that they went to the desert to fight, and may not have returned to grow old.
Some years ago I scanned hundreds of photos from an album my father brought back from the Middle East in 1942. The original snaps are small, about 2″ x 3″, so I’m fascinated by the detail I now see in these scanned and enlarged photos, such as the people on the right in the image above. The caption for this picture says “Col. Gee, Syria”. Nothing about the other guy. However, it’s uncertain whether it was taken in Syria or Lebanon. The photo below, the ski school for the soldiers, is marked as located in Syria when in fact it was in Lebanon.
Easy mistake to make, since the Australian soldiers were sent to train in Syria in the winter of 1941/42, but from there they went to Lebanon to train to fight in snow country. A disused chalet near Bcharre in the Lebanon ranges was turned into a ski school. It was pretty hard on the Australians, used to extreme heat but not extreme cold.
So much snow. The magnificent cedars of Lebanon form the only contrast in this black and white image.
My father captioned this photo in 1942 ‘Dud bombs’. But judging by the rubble almost covering the small building at the bottom right, some earlier bombs had done the job they were made for.
It’s an odd photo that seems to have a part of another photo laid over it; the man looking at the dud bombs is transparent! The hill of rock behind him is visible through his face…
The WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge this week is to find an image that evokes danger, so I immediately thought of this one from Dad’s war album of photos from Egypt and Libya. I don’t have a clue about bombs, exploded or unexploded. But these dud bombs were probably a source of danger.
This week’s WordPress photo challenge title is The Road Taken, which is not the road taken by the poet Robert Frost in his poem, The Road Not Taken.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and Frost made a decision to take the grassy road, the one that wanted wear, the one less travelled by. Ages from then, he told how the road taken had made all the difference. The poem’s title is a careful play on its message – The Road Not Taken, for him, is the one everyone else took.
Here’s an image of a road taken in Israel, a road where no grass grows, where tarmacadam has been laid to avoid the mess of wheel ruts. The photo is from my father’s war album; he called it “Point duty Tel Aviv”. This traffic cop is a living traffic light, bang in the centre of converging roads, with only his arms and two painted arrows to give people direction. Clearly it’s a road that needs some form of traffic control, and indeed the officer seems to be looking at something coming his way.
Still in Israel, here’s a road that’s long and winding. The Road of the Seven Sisters was constructed during the time of the British Mandate of Palestine (1920-1948), and apparently there are seven bends in the road, though many disagree. I’ve read it’s hairy to drive it, but, at the time, it was the only approach for cars coming to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. It looks quite bleak in this black and white image but recent colour photos show vegetation now softening the roadsides.
(The photographer might have been my father or it might have been a friend; soldiers commonly swapped photos.)
Unlike Robert Frost, it’s not often I find myself in a wood, and even less often in a yellow wood here in a country where native forests are perpetually green. But if I did, and if I came to a fork in its road, I would not take a path if it needed traffic control, or if it were a steep winding road of hairy hairpin bends built for army vehicles. Like Frost I would go where no one else that day had trod.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
If The Road Not Taken is new to you, take a brief moment to read it. It’s in many places online, here for example.
It is said that the department store Whiteaway Laidlaw & Co. was often nicknamed Right-away & Paid-for, since they accepted only cash and offered no credit. It was also known simply as Whiteaways and became a household name in India, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai during the first half of the 20th century, as well as in other British colonised cities like Mombasa and Nairobi in Kenya, seen here in these wartime photos.
The store was founded by a Scotsman, Robert Laidlaw, in 1882 after he had lived in India for 20 years. He was not just an entrepreneur but also a philanthropist and British politician. He died in 1915 in London, but his emporium continued until 1962. It imported and sold household goods and was also a tailoring business, selling products that appealed to Europeans and wealthy locals. As advertised on the store sign in Mombasa, they were drapers and “Complete Outfitters”.
Kenya was then a British colony engaged in defending itself against Italian Ethiopia (created in 1936) on its northern border. Kenya herself contributed a great number of men to fight for the British colonial Military: the King’s African Rifles. The Italians were defeated in November 1941 during my father’s period in North Africa. Hence these photos in his album.
I’ve been looking at these old photos since I was a small small child and have often wondered why two photos feature the same franchise of Whiteaways. Perhaps my father bought some outfits here. Apparently the store catered for shoppers with a small purse, which would therefore have attracted soldiers. Thanks to WordPress for challenging me to find out who Whiteaway Laidlaw were.
Any image of a tram makes me long for the past. When I was a child in Brisbane there were trams in the city, but by 1969 the use and support of trams had declined and the tramway was closed. It had been operating since 1885.
(An aside: In case you’re wondering about Vincent’s, they were powders for headaches, wrapped in paper. You poured the powder into your mouth and washed it down with water. My father took them daily. They were withdrawn from the market in the 1970s because they were causing renal failure and codeine addiction. So he shouldn’t have taken them with confidence after all.)
These days in Australia, only Adelaide and Melbourne still have trams. Melbourne is famous for them, and whenever I’m there I catch them just for the fun of it.
When I lived in Lyon, France, I often got around on trams, enjoying the ease of hopping on and off without having to climb stairs or walk down the aisle in search of a seat, as you do on a bus or a train, and without having to descend into the subterranean metro stations.
At present in Canberra, a light rail system (tramway) is under construction, but there’s a heated debate about the expense of it and disputes about the benefits. A local election in a couple of weeks will determine whether the project continues. And if The Opposition wins, it will stop the construction and cancel the contracts for which numbers of people have been employed. Hmmm.
But despite the arguments against our tram project, my nostalgia-filled heart is firing up memories of tram trips taken, of the fun of travelling on these little street trains, of waiting at the tram stops with my mother or father, or by myself in Lyon, holding my ticket nervously purchased in much-practised French, and being transported quickly and efficiently to my destination. So, rationally or not, I’m pro tram.
This 1941 photo of a tram in Port Said, perhaps waiting for the Australian soldiers to jump on board, gives me a little thrill every time I look at it. I wish it could teleport into my life so I could ride on it.
This week’s photo prompt, Curve, immediately made me think of the semicircular arches on the Catholic Basilica in Heliopolis, Cairo, or Basilica of the Virgin Mary. I’ve written about it and posted a few photos in other posts, for example here and here and here, but I have a fourth one from a different angle. It’s a church that’s not particularly Roman Catholic in a western European sense, but rather more like the Byzantine basilica, Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul, which also has large semicircular arches on its sides, and multiple domes. The Heliopolis basilica is deceptively cake-like in this photo and doesn’t look too monumental, that is, until you look at the little man walking down the road!
I post these images for those who are interested in not-so-ancient Egyptian history; they are from my father’s war album, a collection of photos he took in 1941/42 as well as photos from his mates.
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.