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Friday, 20 April 2012

A different ANZAC story

Mehmetciğe Derin Saygı Anıtı
(Respect for Mehmetçik monument)
A closer view of the statue, in one of the Turkish war cemeteries.
In Australia and New Zealand, we are about to celebrate ANZAC Day, the Gallipoli landings of 1915, and the carnage that ensued.  Few nations celebrate a defeat, but we do.  It's an amazing story, and in 2002, I visited Gallipoli, though I will probably never write a book about it.

I should, because there are little-heard stories that deserve telling, like the big Turk who, sickened by the suffering, strode out into No Man's Land to a screaming British soldier.  As the men on both sides saw him and what he was doing, the firing must have stopped.

He picked up the 'Johnnie', carried him gently to the trenches of the invaders, laid him gently down where his own people could retrieve him and care for him, and then turned back to his own lines.

The undeclared cease-fire must have held until he was safely back in a trench, because legend has it that he survived the day.  (Full marks, by the way, to our then Governor-General, who was, by 1967, Lord Casey. He had been there and witnessed the incident, and his1967 description of it inspired the statue.)

Sadly, if there were scraps and tatters of decency, little of that war was glorious.

Just recently, I have been looking into a little-known* versifier called 'Dryblower', because he used to write popular verse in the mould of Robert Service, Rudyard Kipling and many, many Australian bush balladists.  He had escaped my notice until I came across his celebration of the rescue of an Italian gold miner, trapped in an air pocket, deep in a desert gold mine in Western Australia.

The tale of Modesto Varischetti, how a flash flood in a desert trapped him, a thousand feet (330 metres) underground in an air pocket, and how divers were used to rescue him, kept Australia riveted for a week in March 1907, and 'Dryblower' celebrated the rescue in verse.  I wondered who he was.

A bit of digging revealed that Edwin Greenslade Murphy was 'Dryblower'. He was a Perth journalist, and, I quickly discovered, celebrated mainly for a poem written during the Great War, alias World War I, called 'My Son'.  It describes a father's feelings when his son goes off to war.
I have given you unto the Empire;
  You will follow its battle flag;
You will hear the sound of slaughter
  In valley, on plain and crag.
I have taken you out of the playground,
  From many a merry mate.
To send you, a stripling soldier,
  Out to the field of fate.
But when the good work is over,
  And your share of the strife is done
I shall be proud of the lad I lent,
I shall be proud to say that I sent.
             My son,
                          My son.
They have come in their thousands lusty;
  But the gaps still cry for more;
They have come from the bushland lonely,
  From the scrub and the sounding shore;
They have come from the desert dreaming,
  From out of the rolling range,
From the verdant placid pastures,
  From the hills that never change.
From out of the alleys squalid,
  Where the days are drear and dun;
With pride I have heard their footsteps ring,
And so I have sent, to serve my King;
             My son,
                          My son.
They have gone in the teeming troopship;
  They have fought the fight, and fell;
They have felt on their fearless faces
  Draughts from the deeps of hell;
Thinned by the hidden horror.
  Drowned, in the shot-swept blue,
They have closed up the gaps of glory,
  Steadied and thundered through!
And into that mounded country
  Where the deadly work was done,
Where the bloodstained trenches blur and blend
With no wav'ring weak'ning sigh I send
             My son,
                          My son.
Did I fall in a father's duty.
  Did I keep him with mine and me,
How would he face the question
  In the darkened days to be?
Could he walk in such public places?
  Could he do what all good men do
When the patriot women shunned him
  When it came to his time to woo?
If he took not to-day his bayonet,
  His khaki brave and gun,
I would see his brothers in shame abide,
I would see them pass on the other side
             My son,
                          My son.
God of our destined duty,
  Of our Country, Flag, and King,
Keep him in courage lofty
  When the hell-made missiles swing.
And if he must prove an Abel,
  Killed by another Cain,
Give him, O Lord, at parting
  No portion of Calvary's pain.
Let us write over his slumbers
  The glorious words, "Well done!"
For whether our Flag shall wilt or wave,
Let us remember He also gave
             His Son,
                          His Son.
A bit more digging, and I found that this was Dryblower's reflection on his own oldest son, Harry, signing up, and I wanted to know what Harry's fate was, whether he had survived the war.  There was a good chance that early recruits either died, or if they returned, had been maimed for life.

Harry Mansfield Murphy, No. 1018, 32nd battalion, and most probably in C Company, I think, signed on as a drummer, and I thought that sounded like a less than glorious occupation to be the subject of his father's poem, but drummers were still in the front lines, so I didn't write him off.

Then I found that Harry had returned to Australia in July 1916: this usually meant that he had been wounded, but it appeared he was unharmed.  That took a bit more digging, but I found that he became a jazz drummer and xylophonist, and was a sergeant-drummer in a concert party in World War II.

Harry Murphy, Perth Mirror,
28 August, 1926, p. 6.
In 1917, when Harry was drummer in a recruiting band, he was identified both as a returned soldier and an 18-year-old.  Like many others, he had falsified his age, and his proud father had stood aside as a 16-year-old went off to war.

Harry is quite widely documented (by me) in the Trove historic newspapers collection, so readers who wish can find him by looking for the tag <Harry Mansfield Murphy> (or just use this link).

You will find conflicting information: one contemporary account refers to him going on patrol in 1916, but a later story, written in 1935 by somebody who served with him, claimed that he was sent back from Egypt when his age was discovered, and that he never saw active service—but his father had approved of his joining up.

That's why I don't write military history any more.  I did, once.  My Kokoda Track: 101 Days was a basic and slightly simplified telling of a riveting story of the time in 1942 when two threadbare, unsupported, ill-equipped militia battalions held off a far larger Japanese force, long enough for seasoned troops to be brought into the line, and in the end, to force them back into the sea.

There was another tale, one that I muted, a story of bungling stupidity by the Brass.  It dominated the first draft, which I threw out.  Because my own minimal military experience was survived by emulating Jaroslav Hašek's Good Soldier Švejk (with traces of Yossarian), there was a human note to what I wrote in my second draft.

I didn't glorify war, but I gave an even-handed account, and that interested another of my publishers, who immediately asked me to do a particular campaign for him.  I gently declined, on the ground that when you do military history, you meet with an  awful class of people.

I prefer not to celebrate a world in which fathers could watch proudly as their 16-year-old sons went off to war, not bewailing the fact, but exulting over doing duty to country, flag and king.

The poem continued to live on, after the war, and after Dryblower's death in 1939, though the only copies I can find on the internet come from old newspapers of that era, three in Australia and one in New Zealand.  Well, I have changed that, by putting the clean text online. [Post script: I have since come across a clean version from the West Australian Bush Poets.]

The watchword of ANZAC Day is 'Lest We Forget', but equally, we should make sure we don't forget the butchery and the madness of war, especially the madness that allows a man to urge his first-born on to seek death or glory.  I won't write about it.

But I have a responsibility to write of it.

* Note added May 7: I have amended my description of 'Dryblower' from "lesser" to "little-known", after a W.A. bush poet sent me some of the 'Dryblower's' other stuff.  I now concede that I was judging 'Dryblower' by what appeared in the daily press.  This was often stuff penned on the spot to plug a gap in a page. After reading Going East (1903), I declare him to be an excellent poet. To see some of his other poems, use this link.

Note added, April 2015: I have just added an account of the first Anzac Day, held in October 1915, and pinpointing the second, on April 25, 1916.

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This blog covers quite a few different things, so I tag each post. I also blog about history, and I am currently writing a series of books called Not your usual... and the first two have been accepted by Five Mile Press, The offcuts appear here with the tag Not Your Usual... . For a taste of Australian tall tales, try the tags Speewah or Crooked Mick.   For a miscellany of oddities, try the tag temporary obsessions. And language us covered under the tags Descants and Curiosities, while stuff about small life is under Wee beasties.


  1. A very interesting post which meanders through several good stories. I find it telling that Murphy's poem speaks of saving his son (and presumably himself) from shame as much as it does about serving king and country. His blustering pride at sending a child off to kill or be killed seems bizarre - I can't help but wonder how much of it was motivated by a need to justify his own actions? At least we are able to look upon that sad period with an increasing degree of detached honesty somewhat free of the crushing societal pressure that Murphy felt.

    'Lest We Forget' is not an instruction to keep making the same mistakes, nor a plea for some kind of ANZAC fundamentalism - quite the opposite.

    1. No argument there, Neil. I was one year too old to go into the ballot for Vietnam, so I was never in a "put up or shut up" dilemma, for which I will be eternally grateful. Now my sons are probably too old to face a call-up, and I can't say I regret that, either. Since writing that, I have been researching the bubonic plague epidemic of 1900, and so I have encountered a lot of Boer War rhetoric. It's all very sad.