By Ruth Skilbeck
Grandfather was an officer and a gentleman. He returned from World War 1, a young hero, who had been awarded the Military Cross, and many other medals, for his bravery at Ypres, Passchendaele, leading his battalion, the 38th Battalion, for weeks on end after the Commander had been killed and he, as the Adjutant took over. After the War, he was, in acknowledgment of his extraordinary service, offered a parliamentary position, as Clerk of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly. He was offered a position in Canberra, in the Federal parliament, so my mother told us, but Grandmother did not want to leave Sydney. He took up the position in the NSW parliament and every day for all of his working life he travelled to and from the city to their big house on the edge of the gully, on Sydney’s leafy north shore.
Grandfather was a trim dapper man, five foot eleven, he had a square, calm, pale face, with intelligent eyes, and a quiet good humoured manner of speaking, he dressed immaculately in three piece suits, bespoke leather shoes that were always well polished, and he never went into the city without his hat, a trilby, and in the inclement season his cream coloured raincoat, and of course always his mahogany-coloured leather briefcase.
With his highly capable modest ways and scrupulous attention to detail, his selfless devotion to duty, he was a highly respected public servant, who was highly thought of by all, as the booklet that was printed to commemorate his life, when he passed away, twenty years after his retirement shows. Over 15 members of parliament stood up and give speeches in his memory, which are recorded in the book that was given to my mother, and that I keep along with other documents of the family history.
But there was another man, who fought bravely in the war. There was another family. Of the man, who fought bravely and lost an eye, in the same battalion. He was the Sergeant in the same Battalion where Grandfather was the Adjutant. Uncle Jack and Grandfather were good friends. All the Anzacs who went through such hell as the trench warfare on the western front were mates for life, but as Sergeant and Adjutant they had a bond of holding the line together through the hells of Ypres and Passchendaele, that went much deeper than words could ever say.
|Chateau Wood Ypres, 1917 Photo: Frank Hurley|
Grandfather and Uncle Jack fought here
This was a family of three girls and a mother. Three girls, and the eldest was just a couple of years younger than my mother. Three sisters; the middle one, looked quite like my mother, with her black wavy hair, green eyes and high cheekbones. This family lived only a few streets away from Grandmother and Grandfather and my mother when she was growing up. They all went to the same private girl’s school, in spacious grounds not far from the Pacific Highway.
Every Christmas we went to Uncle Jack’s, mother told us, as we were growing up in England. And we had to spend a few hours at their house every Christmas day. Her voice tended to falter and come to a halt there. What did you do we asked prompting her to continue, helping her to go on.
Oh we all just sat around the living room. We gave each other presents, she said. There was Aunty K. and the three girls…
Pa, my father’s father also fought in WW1. He was a boy of 16 in Middlesbrough, Yorkshire, when the war broke out and he lied about his age, said he was 18 so he could go and fight for his country. After the war was over, instead of returning to England, he went back to Australia with his ANZAC mates, who he met in the trenches. At least that was never hidden; we knew his story, although his willingness to go off and fight at age 16 was a source of wonder and awe that was somewhat beyond our comprehension as children. We knew about it, nothing was hidden.
It was on the colonial Australian family side of my mother's family that the long silence fell.
Those quiet heroes, kept very quiet, and that was probably no doubt to do with the trauma they had suffered in those terrible years.
There was much that they did not want to talk about or remember, and that included the truth of my mother’s origin, and her own mother who had been eradicated from the records and official history. Yes, there was much else that got swept up into the waves and walls of silence that fell and formed the uneasy muffled backdrop of our colonial families’ lives.
Nobody talked about those things then, and that we, grandchildren, were not allowed to know. It would be many years until I would ever know about the real significance and identity of the mystery man my mother talked about as “Uncle Jack”, and that other family.
Uncle Jack and Grandfather were good friends. All the Anzacs who went through such hell as the trench warfare on the western front were mates for life, but as Sergeant and Adjutant of the 38th Battalion they had a bond of holding the line together.
From notes for a novel in progress.