Speechifying

At an informal meeting that I wasn't able to attend, it was agreed that I would be the best person to deliver the keynote address at the opening ceremony for Tramway Anzacs – if it was not too much trouble. Further, it was suggested that this be a written speech, so the museum had something to keep for the records. Naturally, the rest of the committee would understand if I didn’t want to do it.

After sigh or two, I knew the game was up.

Writing the speech wasn’t hard, although it is very different writing words designed to be spoken rather than read. The cadence and flow of the speech is all important, and given the topic, I wanted to maximise the emotional impact.

Having done a little bit of public speaking, it was obvious that practicing the speech would be important. The only problem is how to get through to the end without tearing up, as the subject matter resonates with my own family history. Five brothers of my grandfather went off to the First World War – Bert died of wounds in Alexandria in August 1915, Richard was killed at Gallipoli on Hill 60 in the same month, Stan at Pozières in July 1916, and Carl died at the First Battle of Amman in Transjordan in March 1918.

Only Ted survived – and he was wounded twice and gassed once. When he got back to Australia, he met his family on Station Pier, whom he had not seen for four years – and three days later his wife died from Spanish flu, leaving him with two children.

I remember Great-uncle Ted from childhood, with his dry rasping cough caused by scarring of his lungs from poison gas, and sitting on a decided slant as a large chunk of his buttock had been shot away at Villers-Bretonneux.

Most of the practice runs saw me tearing up a little, but delivering the speech on Saturday went rather well – although it got close on one or two sections. The text follows below.

Tramway Anzacs

The First World War left an indelible mark on Australia. Every town and city has a war memorial, recording the names of those who served, and those who never returned. The names of far-off places appear on street signs in our suburbs – Fromelles Avenue, Bullecourt Road, and Passchendaele Street. People go to the RSL for a quiet drink, or a flutter on the pokies. Thousands of students attend lectures and tutorials at Monash University – named after the commander of Australian forces in France in 1918 – while almost every Australian at some time in their life will attend a dawn service or watch a march on Anzac Day.

All these things are part of the backdrop of Australian life, originating from a time before Australian citizenship, when to be Australian was to be a loyal subject of the British Empire.

One hundred years ago today, on the eleventh of April 1915, the men of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps were yet to be committed to action. They were waiting on transports anchored off the Greek islands of Mudros and Lemnos, two weeks away from landing on a beach on the Gallipoli Peninsula, on a place that became known as Anzac Cove.

Who were these men, these soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force?

Those who had held jobs on the Melbourne tramways were a little older than the general run of soldiers, ranging from their twenties to early forties. They were men with established careers, responsible men who had good civilian jobs. Many of these occupations – gripmen, clerks, motormen and tram conductors – no longer exist today, or their duties and titles have been changed almost beyond recognition.

The Tramway Anzacs were Australian-born, and immigrants from the British Isles. They were single men, and husbands, and fathers. During the course of the war, five hundred and thirty-eight Melbourne tramway employees enlisted, joining over three hundred and thirty thousand Australian volunteers who served overseas. The Tramway Anzacs represent a snapshot in time, a true microcosm of their society, of what it meant to be an adult male of European descent serving in the Australian Imperial Force during the Great War of 1914-18.  They enlisted for many different reasons – from a sense of duty, for the adventure, or for escape from an unhappy life.

Before landing at Gallipoli, we imagine that some of the Anzacs were excited, some were apprehensive, and some were afraid. None of them could have had any real conception of what they were to encounter.

Over the next three and a half years, they were to experience a true hell on earth, on the battlefields of Gallipoli, in the deserts of Sinai and Palestine, and most brutally in the trenches of France and Belgium, on the Western Front – the place that soldiers gruesomely called the sausage machine, a relentless industry that processed millions of strong young men into rotting corpses.

One in five Australian soldiers were killed. Two in every five were wounded, by gunshot, shrapnel, high explosive and, worst of all, by gas.  The Tramway Anzacs were no different. Eighty-six of them were killed in action, were posted missing, or died of wounds. Many of them still have no known resting place.

Today, we cannot truly conceive of the scale of loss. Every family, every town, and every workplace was affected by the loss of sons, brothers, husbands, friends and workmates in the war. A generation of Australian women did not marry, for a generation of men had lost their lives on faraway battlefields. Children grew to adulthood without knowing their fathers. Many rural villages suffered a long slow death, as the distant war took their future away.

A common thread in many service records of the dead were requests from families to see a photograph of the grave, seeking reassurance that their bodies were laid to rest in a Christian manner, or pleas for details of how a loved one died, trying to make sense of their grief.

The loss was not restricted to the men who did not return. Over the following decades, the maimed and crippled from the war were a common sight in Australian cities and towns. Men who were missing arms, legs, or faces were an accepted part of life. Then there were those who did not carry visible scars. Today they would be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, but post-war the veterans were expected to suffer in silence, without support or treatment. Many became alcoholics, or became emotionally unavailable, in their pain retreating from friends and family. Others, their health ruined by the stress of active service, died before their time.

These men did not talk of what they endured, and denied that they were heroes – although most of them would say they knew a couple of blokes who were. However, for all of them, their service in the First World War was the time that more than any other, defined their lives.

Did their achievements outweigh the terrible cost?

For many years, the legend of Gallipoli and Anzac Cove has grown, and many proclaim it was the true birthplace of Australian nationhood. But the campaign was a fiasco, a long, slow and bloody defeat created by ambitious politicians and incompetent generalship.

The bloodbaths in France and Belgium in 1916 and 1917 were no better, when thousands of lives were spent for meaningless gains of a few hundred metres. Few of us know of the pivotal role the Australian Corps played in 1918 in defeating the German Army on the Western Front, in an unparalleled series of victories from Villers-Bretonneux to Montbrehain. Fewer still have heard of the part the Australian Light Horse played in capturing Jerusalem, Damascus and Aleppo from the Turks.

Although they have all now passed, we honour the men of the AIF – for their courage, for their endurance, and for their role in gaining victory, and ending one of the bloodiest and most senseless wars in history. Even more, we sorrow for the price that was paid for that victory. Above all, we will remember them.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Lest we forget.

 

538

Today, Yarra Trams employs over 2100 staff in the operation of Melbourne’s tramway network. But what would happen if a war broke out, and one in four of them suddenly enlisted in the armed forces?

Staff shortages would have a significant effect on tram services. Less trams would make getting around Melbourne more difficult; car traffic would no doubt increase, and city streets would likely be more congested.

Melbourne faced this situation between 1914 and 1918, when at least 538 tramway employees enlisted for active service – encouraged by their employers at the various tramway companies and trusts. These organisations even instituted policies to guarantee volunteers employment on their return from active service; in addition, time spent in uniform was credited to employees’ seniority, together with promotions in grade.  

Naturally, this encouragement led to a shortage of staff, placing considerable pressure on tramway operations. To address the shortfall, in 1915 the Prahran & Malvern Tramway Trust (PMTT) seriously considered employing women as conductors. The design of contemporary tramcars required conductors to swing along exterior footboards to collect fares, exposing them to the dangers of falling to the road. This was considered far too dangerous for women, so the PMTT modified one of its trams (No. 36) by cutting an aisle through the seating, enabling conductors to collect fares much more safely from within the car’s interior.

Despite this experiment, and British tramways employing women as both drivers and conductors throughout the war, the PMTT did not proceed any further with this scheme. There were sufficient men ineligible for military service due to age or physical condition to cover. Outside of the PMTT, no other Melbourne tramway considered hiring women as conductors or drivers during the First World War. It would be another twenty-five years before women were able to work in frontline tramway roles, again as a consequence of wartime labour shortages.

A Sense of Detachment

As with other confronting subjects, the research for Tramway Anzacs required a certain level of detachment. Given so many of them were killed or suffered gruesome wounds – and the level of detail in the records we researched – it was necessary to maintain a clear mental separation from the stories. Without it, we would have likely been overwhelmed with the tragedy and horror of the First World War; and the impact on real, relatable people. One cannot begin to conceive of how difficult it must have been to have lived through that experience, either as a soldier or family member back home.

Those with a darker sense of humour might find something in the more odd ways some met their end; for instance, the story of the poor digger who was urinating out the window of a moving troop train on the way to the front. One moment he was there, and the next moment – whoops! – he fell out and was done for. Understandably, the authorities did not enlighten his family of how he died.

But whether you see the humour of these tales or not, little can reduce the sense of terrible loss and tragedy that their stories convey.

In almost every case we investigated, the war had a terrible impact on the Tramway Anzacs, and not just death or dismemberment. Many of those who survived died young on returning to civilian life, their health ruined by service in the trenches. Others were committed to mental asylums, or drank themselves to oblivion.

For many serious researchers, the glorification of the Anzacs of the First World War by some ignores the harsh reality of the war and its impact, both during and after the conflict. They were ordinary men put in a terrible time and place, required to do horrible things. In one way or another, it cost them their lives.

Regardless of their individual circumstances or stories, we still remember them and their service.

The Darker Side

As has undoubtedly been discovered by many war research efforts, so too have we found that not all the Tramway Anzacs were exemplary soldiers and citizens.

Like many of their fellow soldiers, a surprisingly large number contracted venereal disease. The nightclubs and entertainment of Cairo was all too close to their training camps in Egypt, and as young men often do when far away from home, they indulged.

The British military authorities did not issue prophylactics to the troops, insisting that they do the moral thing and resist temptation – in effect, be upstanding members of the British Empire.

But what happened if you were unfortunate enough to catch VD? You would be placed on report, have pay stopped, and be admitted to specialist hospital wards. In a pre-antibiotic age, treatment for VD was crude and not terribly effective. Recurrence of VD was common, with serious long-term health consequences.

Like many other servicemen, several Tramway Anzacs were placed on charges for being drunk in the line of match, absent without leave, or abusive to an officer or NCO. Stoppage of pay was the usual punishment, or reduction to the ranks if an NCO, but some unfortunates were subjected to Field Punishment Number One. A few were court-martialled of more serious offences, and imprisoned for lengthy sentences – months, or years in some cases.

However, none were sentenced to death – after the Breaker Morant and Wilmansrust incidents in the Boer War, the Australian Government determined that capital punishment would never apply to our troops. This was a continuing bone of contention with British High Command throughout the war, who viewed the Australians as undisciplined and a poor example to the British troops - the bad boys of the Imperial family.

Researching the Stories

State Library of Victoria Reading Room, 1913 (SLV Collection)

State Library of Victoria Reading Room, 1913 (SLV Collection)

The task of researching 538 individual stories is ambitious by any measure. So where did we start?

To determine exactly how many tramway employees volunteered and served in the armed forces, we began with photographs of tramway honour boards from the First World War. The soldiers who died on active service were the easiest to investigate – the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website was the first port of call. This valuable website would produce service number, regiment, date of death, and the place of burial (where known). From that point, it was relatively easy to find service records in the National Archives of Australia, as well as embarkation records and the Red Cross files at the Australian War Memorial.

The Public Records Office of Victoria was also an excellent starting point – as there were was a ledger detailing the names and occupations of volunteers from the Melbourne Tramways Board.

But this was still the beginning – there was no single list of Tramway Anzacs, as records were incomplete, and the various tramway authorities in Melbourne (there were seven of them) had differing levels of record keeping.

The Trove digital archive of Australian newspapers on the National Library of Australia website was invaluable, allowing us to scan family notices for volunteers with a tramway connection.

We dreaded trying to find details of Smiths and Joneses, Greens and Browns. It was only after contacting the National Archives regarding the lack of a service record for Albert Cubitt that the Archives discovered that his file had been incorrectly indexed. They were happy to fix this, and we got to read his service details.

The research was a slog that required a combination of patience, dedication and sheer bloody-minded stubbornness. We trust the result is of benefit.

The Lucky Country

We are so lucky in Australia.

To qualify that statement – we are so lucky that the Australian First World War service records are incredibly detailed, complete, online, and freely available. This certainly made the research process much easier.

As a few of the Tramway Anzacs transferred to serve in the British Army, we looked to their archival sources to complete our research. And it was here we made some curious discoveries: the British records are nowhere near as detailed as the Australian sources, and are behind a paywall. The lack of detail and breadth is not entirely surprising, given over 60% of the comparable British records were destroyed by bombing in the Second World War. Most of the surviving records show signs of fire and smoke damage; in those we managed to access the bomb damage was evident!

If we had been attempting a similar exercise to Tramway Anzacs in Britain, the research would have been very expensive. As a small volunteer organisation, we could never have assembled the detail of individual soldier’s stories that we managed to without the rich and complete records of the National Archives of Australia, the Australian War Memorial, the Public Records Office of Victoria, the State Library of Victoria, and the National Library of Australia.

It is common in Australian society to denigrate the public service. But in this case we should be thankful for and proud of the job they do in preserving our national history and cultural heritage.