Late Anzac Day thoughts

27 Apr

I didn’t do a special post on Anzac Day, letting last year’s serve, and a few people did Google to it I notice. However, two good programs on ABC-TV last night have inspired some reflections, not so much on the day and its significance — important and solemn rather than sacred as far as I am concerned; I can’t help thinking the word “sacred” in this context really isn’t quite appropriate.

The first program was decently low key, I felt: Andrew Denton’s Gallipoli: Brothers In Arms.

Why are more Australians drawn to the shores of Gallipoli each year? The Dawn Service at Anzac Cove, once a modest gathering of souls, has become an event on a scale that rivals the original invasion. The gentle, grassy slopes of this Turkish landmark are thronged with the relatives of those who fought and died, veterans of other conflicts, the merely curious, and a generation of backpackers paying their respects as they circle the globe.

In 2006, Andrew Denton went to meet some of these pilgrims, to listen to their stories, to ask why they had made the journey and what they were learning from it.

Focusing on the war-time experiences of three pairs of brothers, as told by the families who remember them, Andrew returned with a portrait of a special place, which then as now, is crucial to our understanding of ourselves and our nation…

As the program pointed out, even greater horrors awaited on the Western Front. (Transcript now available.)

kenMy Uncle Ken (right) was on that Western Front but never talked much about it, not to me at least. I know he saw considerable action though. Browsing through the CD-ROM of my family history so brillantly researched and presented by a relative, Bob Starling of Wangi Wangi, I note the family’s leading military figure, Norman Whitfield, my father’s cousin. I never met him, but my father was proud of him and talked about him at times. Here is a Bob Starling’s account of him.

Norman enlisted with the Illawarra Volunteers during World War 1 – enlisting on 10 April 1915 – discharged 20 January 1919. [NOTE: My Uncle Ken enlisted with the same mob in April 1917. — N.]

The following words in italics I believe are from a post card (below) sent by Norman Harold Whitfield to Uncle Will (additional information researched by Audrey and Alan Scheumaker): Left Australia for Rabaul on 18th August 1914.

Rabaul, Capital of New Britain, an island off the NE coast of New Guinea was founded in 1910 as a German Colonial Headquarters. By 1914, the Australian and German governments controlled most of the coastal area. Norman was part of the Australian Military Expeditionary Force (AMEF) sent to Rabaul on a 6 month contract to take over German wireless stations. Great Britain having declared war on Germany on August 4th 1914.

Sailed for Gallipoli and France on July 14th 1915.

Norman’s career in WW1 led him to the Rank of Captain and on 29th August 1917 he was decorated with the Military Cross while serving with the 5th Pioneer Regiment. He was then around twenty one years old, held the rank of Lieutenant and carried three chevrons (badge in a V shape) on his sleeve, indicating three years Army service. He had enlisted on 11th May 1915 and discharged on 14th January 1919.

Norman’s WW2 career took him from the Rank of Major to Lieutenant-Colonel and was Director-General of Recruiting. His Bar to the Military Cross (as recorded on the Internet) was possibly earned in France WW1.

norman.jpgArticle by Margaret Augusteyne:

Norman Harold WHITFIELD: At one stage he attended Thirlmere school. Following the outbreak of the First World War the call to arms beckoned him and even though slightly under age, he rushed off to enlist. His distraught mother informed the authorities and he was recalled. It was only a matter of time before he paid a visit to his grandparents, Elizabeth and William Whitfield of Upper Picton, to say goodbye. His young cousin remembers seeing him walking along to the little house. She thought he looked very tall and handsome in his uniform, but he hardly noticed her.

I have been told that he fought in Gallipoli and was wounded in the arm. After looking into the was records in Canberra I found he was awarded three Military Crosses (Military Cross plus Two Bars) and mentioned in dispatches. Norman’s Unit was the 5th Pioneer Battalion, 6th Australian Division, 1st Anzac Corps. (Note by Bob Starling: I believe there was Military Cross awarded with 2 Bars).

In 1916, near Gueudecourt on two occasions as a Lieutenant, he set out communication trenches leading to the front line. He was sniped at continuously by the enemy. As a result of his good sightings, the men were able to succeed in their digging. On another occasion he was in charge of the water supply from the front line to the captured positions. This he maintained under the most trying conditions. Through these actions he showed himself to be “a brave and courageous officer” and was awarded his first M.C.

In September 1917, east of Polygon Wood, Lieutenant Whitfield and his company were wiring the front line. Just as they were to withdraw an SOS signal warned them of trouble. Immediately shooting broke out and there were several casualties, including the Company Commander. The injured men could not gain their own line. Despite heavy dire, Norman went out to give assistance and brought back a badly injured man. He returned to assess for him self that there were no more wounded. Two others had to assist him. It was said, “Lieutenant Whitfield showed the greatest coolness and disregard of personal danger”. For this he received a bar to the M.C.

In 1918 near Bullecourt, Norman led his company on urgent forward road work. His coolness and example were said to be responsible for their initial success. Later, in dense fog and under heavy machine gun fire, he took forward a portion of his platoon and drove the enemy from the northern portion of Bullecourt, thereby allowing the road to go through. Later on, he organised a party to disperse the enemy. His courage, initiative, example and devotion to duty were largely responsible for getting the road through. For this he received another bar to his M.C. He returned from the war to a very proud and grateful family. However, he had not escaped the terrible effects of the dreadful mustard gas.

Ironically, after being exposed to so much danger, his life ended tragically in a train accident in the 1950’s, but his memory lives on.


He was also active in World War 2, being awarded a US Medal of Freedom in 1948. “It is designed to recognize individuals who have made ‘an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors’.”

bullwinkel.jpgThe second program last night recounted the inspiring life of Vivian Bullwinkel.

Vivian Bullwinkel became famous as the brave Australian nurse who survived the worst atrocity committed against women during the Second World War. But her story has been forgotten over the years.

This documentary sets out to rediscover who Vivian Bullwinkel was. It is the first serious attempt to tell the story of Vivian and the Australian nurse POW’s.

An Australian Heroine uses Vivian’s war diary excerpts, interviews with family, friends and colleagues and newly discovered newsreel footage and photos to chronicle her rich and eventful life.

Australian army nurse, Vivian Bullwinkel was one of the hundreds of Europeans evacuated at the last minute as Singapore fell to the Japanese. Her ship was bombed and sunk by Japanese fighters and Vivian and some fellow survivors washed up on the shores of Bangka Island near Sumatra.

Their attempt to surrender to the occupying Japanese army was ignored. The men were bayoneted and the nurses were ordered to march into the ocean and were machine-gunned. Vivian Bullwinkel was shot through the side and survived by pretending to be dead. She hid in the jungle for 13 days, caring for a soldier who had been bayoneted and was badly wounded. Eventually starvation forced her to surrender and Vivian spent the next three and a half years as a prisoner of war in the most appalling conditions.

After the war ended, Vivian Bullwinkel had a successful career as a civilian nurse. She became the much loved matron of Melbourne’s Fairfield Hospital and, as the President of the Royal College of Nursing Australia, she was a key player in the struggle to have nursing education moved to universities.

Certainly a person to be remembered, even if the ABC’s the worst atrocity committed against women during the Second World War (horrible as what happened to those nurses was) is highly debatable. Among the worst atrocities may be nearer the mark. Think of a whole range of atrocities from the Rape of Nanjing through the lives of the “comfort women” through Auschwitz and Belsen… Sadly, one could name so many atrocities against or affecting women (and children). And it still goes on: Violence Against Women in Armed Conflict (Amnesty International). Of course none of this detracts from the inspiration Vivian Bullwinkel’s story still offers.

When I lived in Glebe in the late 1970s one of my neighbours, very hospitable folk whom I came to know well, was John Waterford, father of the Canberra journalist Jack Waterford. He was a survivor of the Burma Railway and wrote up his experiences. Not only did John tell me about all this but I have also read his memoir Footprints.

Footprints by Pte. John Waterford (2/18 Bn)

A story of the experiences and philosophy of a young country lad, as he was, when he enlisted, who was lucky not to be in the firing line on those occasions, when his Unit had its two most important encounters with the Nips, in the Nithsdale and adjacent Joo Lye Estates at Mersing and on Singapore Island. As a P.O.W. was sent to Blakang Mati, but had need of hospitalisation for appendix operation, which sent him back to Roberts Barracks and therefore made him available for selection for “H” Force, when it went up on the “Railway”. A tribute to Father Marsden and Major Fagan.

He has been unlucky to have been stricken with multiple sclerosis. He turned his hand to writing as a type of a therapy, because of his physical handicap. His first effort was devoted to the research and writing of his Family History.

He was encouraged then by his brothers and sisters to write this book, “Footprints”. It is only a 54 page paper-back and the cost of printing it was met by the family.

John is long gone, but what I recall most is how little he hated the Japanese. Indeed, when I knew him one of his major points was his belief in the need for good relations with Japan, and China. The last chapter of his book is about that. He and his family were originally from out Coonamble way; they were also early champions of Aboriginal land rights and reconciliation and great supporters of the work of Fred Hollows. (I do get peeved when the Right appropriate all this tradition, forgetting even such elementary facts as the actual politics of Simpson: the Man with the Donkey at Gallipolli.) I notice John’s story is retold in Legacies of Our Fathers: World War II Prisoners of the Japanese – their Sons and Daughters Tell their Stories ed. C. Newman (2005).


Pic from the Burma Railway during World War 2: see the Changi website.

See also…

Jim Belshaw’s “Musings – ANZAC Day “.

Jan on Anzac Day.

Veterans by my favourite right-wing blogger, Adrian Neylan.



2 responses to “Late Anzac Day thoughts

  1. Davo

    April 27, 2007 at 8:35 pm

    It never ceases to amaze me Neil. No “manufactured re-construction” TV or filmed production with well fed actors can ever hope to represent those “stick figures” of the real story.

  2. Davo

    April 27, 2007 at 8:40 pm

    What “spirit” kept them alive? .. when all there was is skeletal skin and bone.. ?

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