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<p>Mike Bowers/The Global Mail</p>

Mike Bowers/The Global Mail

Memory’s Gamble

Australia’s commemoration of defeat is as elemental to Australians as our terrain.


The tiny town of Byrock, population 70, is a pinch of buildings sitting like crumbs on a vast plate of red earth spread across the dry table of outback Australia.

A burned down pub, an abandoned railway station, a ghostly water tower still sentinel for the trains that stopped rolling three decades ago, and corrugated tin sheds streaked with tears of rusted decay. The highway cleaves this Tidy Town 1998 in two. En route to Bourke further west, one might just miss the home of possibly Australia's highest proportion of war heroes.

Australia is a member of a small club of other nations such as Serbia whose military myths and sense of nationhood are characterised by a celebration of defeat.

This year, the scrub and wildlife, usually so parched that newspaper crackles in the heat, is drunk on rains from the north. A thin soup of aquatic life clings to the surface in these parts in pools of silver floodwater mirroring the vast blue skies, and flocks of ebullient birds screech their good fortune as they arch skywards. The liquid luck is a mirage. Soon, the sun will lick it dry and the land will return to its kindling and baked clay self.

Byrock was born a fettler's town in 1884, "Calico City" as Dave Creenaune tells it. Teams of railway fettlers drove their tent pegs into the earth, next to an ancient Aboriginal water hole where Cobb & Co. stage coaches and teamsters already had watered their horses for some years. Then they drove steel pegs into the earth to secure the railway that now parallels the much later road west to Bourke. When the last great floods swamped this area in 1990 and flushed away the rail tracks' earthen base, this feat of man versus wild was shut after little more than the life-span of a single toughened cockie. Now it lies like a 200 kilometre length of rotting rope ladder, writhing as it steadily corrupts under the sun.

Creenaune is the man who built the highway-side Mulga Creek Hotel in 1984, to replace the one so carelessly incinerated. Hungry to escape the city as a young man, he loved the bush and had hunted in these parts, where one day he stumbled upon an overgrown cemetery in the bush. A builder and amateur historian, he brushed the wisps of scrub from a marble-faced grave, and breathed new life into a long forgotten war hero, an adopted Australian son and Anzac raised in Scotland.

By 1914, Byrock's fettlers had mostly gone. There was one pub instead of five to serve a population of about 100. The heavy rains that led people to believe that good things last forever had given way to a cycle of drought and flash floods, but bales of Australian merino wool that sold like gold nuggets around the world kept the rugged outback profitable. When war broke out, Australian bushies were prized for a prowess with rifle and rein, eked from hunts and musters. Young bucks such as Lachlan Maclachlan and 20 others signed on to thrash the Kaiser.

On a wall of the Mulga Creek Hotel hangs a gallery of porcelain-browed young men. Of 21 of Byrock's boys who went to fight, one was awarded a Victoria Cross and one a Military Cross. One of four Hazelton brothers who went to war returned with one of the town's four Military Medals, while another brother was killed, another lost one leg, and another returned riddled with wounds. Like hundreds of Australian towns, Great War recruitment practices meant that the boys who had scrummed together in the schoolyard, died together as adolescents in single charges on the Somme.

<p>Photo by Mike Bowers</p>

Photo by Mike Bowers

A lizard sits atop a grave in the tiny cemetery at Byrock, NSW.

Barely two years in Australia before he elected to fight, the adventurous Scot, Lachlan Maclachlan, now of the 3rd Battalion Australian Imperial Force, was in the first waves on Gallipoli's beaches. In his long war from Turkey to France, he won a Military Medal, was wounded five times, was promoted in the field to second lieutenant, and returned to Byrock only to be crushed by a fall of wood from a dray cart in 1919, his neck snapped as carelessly and unexpectedly as a twig underfoot. Outback life is measured by such chance.

By the time Dave Creenaune arrived to build the Mulga Creek Hotel in 1984, drought and poor times had whittled the population to 30. The tomb of Maclachlan stood tallest in the scrub about a kilometre out of town.Creenaune organised the restoration of the old cemetery, setting concrete tombs for the remains of poor 19th century squatter infants whose wooden crosses had long been eroded away. With doctors a week distant by horse, settler children died like little soldiers back then, their graves — and memory of them — just another part of the battle against nature.

The restoration of Byrock's cemetery is a tiny part of a 20th century change in regard for those commonly forgotten by history. For years after the Battle of Waterloo, the best dentures in Europe were known as "Waterloos". Whilst the Duke of Wellington was being feted and decorated for his victory, the bodies of his fallen troops (and that of the French) were picked over for their healthy teeth before being swept into mass graves. The field of Waterloo was reputedly scoured for human and horse bones for industrial fertilizer when the process was invented in the 1830s. Memory was preserved instead by paintings and generals who represented great victories.

“Lest we forget’ contains the implicit phrase, when we forget.”

The Crimean and American Civil wars changed the way slaughter was both marked, and prevented. The bronze memorial to the officers and men of the Brigade of Guards in London was cast from cannon captured at Sebastopol, from which Victoria Crosses are still extracted to mark the courage of even the lowliest soldier. Volunteer American farmers, lawyers, and immigrants fell during that civil war, bringing not only the freedom of slaves but also modern laws of war designed to protect the treatment of ordinary soldiers when captured.

Australians volunteered for most of Britain's conflicts, from the Maori Wars to General Gordon's war in the Sudan in 1885, and then the Boer Wars. However the mass grief of mothers washed away simple notions of victory in World War One, when whole Australian communities like Byrock were crippled by the dead who never returned and the physically and psychologically maimed who did.

Once-cheerful cockies became taciturn fathers who mumbled small nothings when asked about their war, but could smile with too many beers and the company of friends who had survived with them. Don Browning, himself an 88-year-old Bomber Command veteran of the Australian 463 Squadron, recalls as a small boy his World War One veteran father taking him to visit limbless friends in rehabilitation wards in eastern Sydney, silent visits except for the platitudes that passed between the men.

Given that Anzac Day has always been about those who return as much as about those who did not, how will we remember and honour those comparatively few sent to fight the arguably futile and certainly now unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?

At first, joy and pride marked the day of landing in Gallipoli in both New Zealand and Australia. But unluckily, a day awash with imperial bravado and predictions of victory steadily soured over eight months as the extent of the defeat was emerged from the haze of war reporting. Curiously, Australia is a member of a small club of other nations such as Serbia whose military myths and sense of nationhood are characterized by a celebration of defeat, rather than victory. Anzac Day was gratifyingly ambivalent almost from the first footfall of Lachlan Maclachlan on Ottoman soil.

In 1931 another Scotsman, the professor of philosophy at Sydney University, John Anderson, outraged many when at a lunchtime meeting of the university's Free Thought Society he criticized the fetishism he associated with war memorials. The communist free-thinker and intellectual father of the famous Sydney Push movement was condemned in parliament and censured by the university. Australia's roughly 6,000 memorials were being built in number, as the daze of exhaustion and battle shock began to wear off, and Australians tried to instill significance into the unprecedented wastage of war.

In his book about historical memory called Against Remembrance, the veteran American war correspondent David Rieff writes that the phrase, "'Lest we forget' contains the implicit phrase, when we forget."

Memory of sacrifice is a force for both good and evil, and Australians mark it as much as we would rather forget it. Like our uncertain relationship with the land in which we live, governed by the forces of nature, we remain ambivalent about the Anzac ceremony which has most characterized our sense of nationhood, however respectful we might be of the men and women who died and survived.

Australia is a nation at war. Given that Anzac Day has always been about those who return as much as about those who did not, how will we remember and honour those comparatively few sent to fight the arguably futile and certainly now unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Our troops were sent by our leaders to fight for ideas that have proved false or misleading - seizing weapons of mass destruction, establishing democracy in benighted lands, bringing education to school girls, eradicating terrorism, making the world safer. Like Byrock, the ambitions of humans are ravaged by time and circumstances that first flood, then leave us parched. Like the debacle of Afghanistan, poorly recalled history spells disaster as surely as relying on rainfall.

At around the time of the Sydney Olympics, drought drove troops of kangaroos into Byrock. The Aboriginal rockhole had long dried up, as it does in long dry spells. Men killed themselves in despair, or wandered into the desert to die and shrivel with the scrub. The 'roos ate the trees, grazed out the lawns, and shredded the roses that had won the Tidy Town gong for Byrock a few years before.

Nature was afoot, wreaking the kind of havoc that for more than a century has driven the population up and down, closed its school house, reduced its pubs, diluted man's presence, and expunged memory.

Gambling has always been a part of Australia's rural life, as elemental as an Anzac Day game of Two Up.

6 comments on this story
by Keith

The claim as the source of Bronze used in the medals, at least in more recent times, is most unlikely. The source of the bronze was supposedly from the 2 or 4 cascabels off 2 cannon captured at the Crimea War. How far can that lttle volume of metal go. Certainly the makers of the Australian Victoria Cross since 1991 would not have access to any such material.
I found the article to be quite rambling.

April 25, 2012 @ 6:32pm
by Storm

I really enjoyed this article. It gave me a lot to think about, and taught me.

April 26, 2012 @ 2:18pm
by Scruffy

Poignant, brilliant context. Up there with "All Quiet on the Western Front". Well done Mr. Weiss

April 26, 2012 @ 7:15pm
Show previous 3 comments
by Daibokux

Wonderful article for which I thank you.
"Curiously, Australia is a member of a small club of other nations such as Serbia whose military myths and sense of nationhood are characterized by a celebration of defeat, rather than victory."
puts it wonderfully. And they were never our wars so there has to be nauseating spin as an apologia.
Further, it is unfortunate that the days of commemoration in Oz are days of national disgrace. Why not Jan 1st when we federated?
Strangely too among the freedoms we are thought to have preserved by war free speech about Anzac does not seem to exist.
If you think things are bad just wait for the centenary. Keep your bllshit filters in good order. Thanks anyway.

April 29, 2012 @ 12:53pm
by Stratton

I agree with this article. My father was a WW1 veteran and served on the Western Front in France. He was only 18 when he went so could not make a mature judgement re the war. 'The Heads' as the ORs called them took control of the whole story after the war and were largely responsible for all the jingoism that followed. One issue Dad and a majority of ORs were incensed by was the building of the Shrine in Melbourne. They wanted a hospital as a true and practical memorial. Of course we know what happened and afterwards Dad refused to have anything to do with the RSL.

May 1, 2012 @ 1:25pm
by Disappointed

Not a very well produced story. Not a single image showing the actual township itself - yet the entire article is predicated on telling the story of the township of Byrock.
The people? The main street? The old railway siding?
How about a map as well? That also puts it into geographical context.
Finally, like all the articles on this site, it was way too long.
I find the scrolling across the screen rather than vertically time consuming and bloody annoying.

May 10, 2012 @ 10:23pm
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