Friday 25 April 2014

Guest Post: Mary's War

By Meredith Resce

By the time Australia had entered the conflict known as The Great War, Mary had been living in this new country for thirty-eight years. She and her husband, Charles, had arrived in 1876 with a young daughter and an infant who had been born on the ship just before they’d disembarked. She had lost a small son on the trip over and buried him at sea, which is a dignified way of saying they dropped their child overboard in an unmarked place in the ocean. Charles had then brought Mary further away from the city of Adelaide into an area that was only just being opened up to white settlers about 200 kilometres north.

They had their children, some building materials and supplies, and their ingenuity and determination with which to build a home and establish a market garden. In the years that followed, Mary worked hard in this undeveloped land, produced a further eight children and did her best to keep home and hearth together. Charles died in 1904, and Mary was left to see her children and grandchildren grow.

Mary’s youngest son, Charlie, born in 1893, was just twenty-one when war was declared. Three of the neighbour’s boys and Charlie decided to enlist together. At that time, war was an opportunity for adventure. There were no war movies depicting the horrors of battle; if there was any media influence through books and newspapers, war was depicted as a glorious and honourable pursuit. Charlie and his mates were keen to go to the city barracks and receive their kit.

For Mary, in the out-of-the-way settlement of Wirrabarra Forest, all she could see was her youngest son leaving with no promise of protection. She was a mother and even though she might not have seen Saving Private Ryan, her mother’s heart would have been anxious. The quarrels of European heads of state were no concern of hers. Charles and Mary were not originally from the United Kingdom. Charles hadn't even been from a British colony, and had had to apply for citizenship before being allowed to purchase his land. What did she care about the rhetoric calling the boys to rush to support the mother country? She had no particular attachment to England, having been brought up in the colony of Bermuda not far from North America.

I’m sure Mary had her qualms and possibly expressed them, but the young Australian men were not about to listen to the fears of their mothers. So off they went, leaving behind only anxiety. Mary and her neighbours must have regularly prayed for the safety of their boys. They didn’t really know about what happened at Gallipoli or on the Western Front. They didn’t know about the trenches and the dysentery and the horrors of barbed wire and bombs.

All they knew was what they were fed intermittently through newspapers, and this news was heavily censored extolling the glorious honour of defending the cause of right. And there were the lists posted regularly at the post office. Mary lived quite a way out of town, but I suppose someone would make the trip in and read the lists to see if any of their boys were either listed as missing or killed in action. Other than the atmosphere of tension that was over the entire country – worry for the boys – there was no sign of war at home.

Then one day, Mary received a visit from the minister from the next town away. He came bearing the following telegram:

When I read this telegram, I cannot help but feel what Mary must have felt. Looking at the date, it looks as if Charlie might have been dead for two weeks before she knew about it. Apart from the grief she must have felt, she might have been forgiven for asking the question: “What was the point of that?” She was to learn later that two of the neighbour’s boys were also killed in action. The small settlement paid a high price for someone else’s quarrel.

Much later, the family received word from the military to say that their son and brother had distinguished himself in action, had received three citations for bravery and courage under fire. I’ve read the citations, and though I never knew Uncle Charlie, these citations tell of a man who placed himself in the line of fire numerous times, risking his own life on behalf of his comrades. I’m glad of that, but from Mary’s point of view, I suppose that was cold comfort. They received the medals and the citations, and though I suppose it is better than knowing he died of dysentery or was shot as a deserter, still what is a medal when it is your son you want to welcome home.

Uncle Charlie was actually my grandmother’s uncle and she was only a few years younger than him. She was a teenager during the war and knew him well, but she never told me the story about him. You might not think that odd, but I do as my Grandmother was a prolific story-teller, and the main subjects of her stories were family. I can tell you hundreds of family stories that she told us – not just once, but repeatedly – and yet I never heard her tell the story of Uncle Charlie.

As I sit here now, one hundred years later, I have to assume that it was all too painful. Uncle Charlie never came home. He was awarded medals and citations for his bravery, but the family didn’t tell the story with relish like all the other favourite stories. Mary’s war was not one of bombs and barbed wire, trenches and disease. It was one of loss – a loss that is remembered every year on ANZAC day.

Now, one hundred years later, Australians and New Zealanders still gather at dawn services and marches on 25 April, to commemorate young men like Uncle Charlie. Today I would also like to commemorate people like Mary and Ella (my Grandmother). Mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, nieces – women whose war looked very much like everyday life, and whose pain was not physical - but it was pain nonetheless.

Lest We Forget.

Meredith Resce – author of ‘The Heart of Green Valley’ series; ‘Cora Villa’ and other Australian Christian Fiction titles. You can find out more about Meredith at her website.


  1. That was very moving, Meredith. We often forget the loved ones left behind in the remembering of the brave young fellows who gave their lives.

    Mary sounds like a real hard working pioneer woman of Australia.I hope she found comfort in the Lord that she would one day see her sons again.

    Thanks for sharing this other point of view. I can imagine how you felt when you researched it. My dear grandfather never once told us about his experiences in Gallipoli. As you say, it must have been just too traumatic.

  2. Yes, it's interesting to wonder what it would be like to send your son to war, but I hope I never have to experience it firsthand.

  3. I think a lot of people choose not to remember. I had two Uncles who served in WW2. One never attended ANZAC Day marches, and he never talked about his time in the war. But we all knew it had affected him in ways none of us could understand.
    My friend from South Africa and I were discussing ANZAC Day yesterday. I told her that I suspect part of the reason why the day is so important to us is because most older Australian families have lost loved ones in conflict. Even though so many never talked about their experiences in War, we all saw it's effects - right through generations.
    Lovely post, Meredith.

  4. This is one of the most heartfelt stories I've ever read on a blog. Thanks so much for sharing. My grandfather fought in the pacific in WWII and was a great story teller. I don't know of one story, though, about the war. Those things must have just been too painful to share. Wonderful post,

  5. Meredith, beautiful post. Thanks for sharing Mary's story with us. We visit the Australian War Memorial a couple of times each year (it's near my home in Canberra). I love hearing and reading about the stories of bravery, courage, and comradeship of our soldiers who risked their lives to protect our country. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a special place to visit and remember the sacrifices they made for us.

  6. It must be so hard for the mothers. I guess I hadn't thought of that as much. I had 2 Great uncles die in WW1. Dads uncle died at Gallipoli the day after they landed which makes it special for us and mums uncle died in Belguim I think and won the military medal for bravery.
    I always knew they had died but finding dads uncle had died at Gallipoli made it more special.

    ANZAC day had meant a lot as when I was 12 I went to my first Legacy camp and they talked about how the children of ex servicemen and women got to march in the parade in the Legacy section and how a couple were picked to lay a wreath. I always thought it would have been an honour to do this.

  7. Much appreciated. Men on my father's mother's side shared in the first WW. I have a clipping of Mr Best sharing his story about the cavalry charge at Beersheba. Until then I had no idea of his involvement. Also have a Red Cross certificate for my father's mother who was involved with the Red Cross. From what I've heard men and women in WW1 and 2 were discouraged from telling their stories. Pity. might have helped them and their families.

  8. A wonderful post, Meredith. Our dear next door neighbour here was in New Guinea but never went to ANZAC day events. Some personalities simply have to try and put those horror years behind them. And this year, I haven't heard mention of Vietnam Vets. A young man we grew up with in our church was the first Australian officer killed in Vietnam. He was best man at my brother's wedding and I was thinking of Ken and his devastated family yesterday. And yes, years ago we did find his name at the War Memorial in Canberra.

  9. Thank you, Meredith, for this thoughtful blog. It brought back to my mind something that happened when I was about eleven and had travelled with a choir I was part of in Brisbane to a country town to give some concerts. We were billeted out with members of a local church and my friend and I stayed with this lovely older lady and her husband. I noticed some family photos around in the home and eventually this lady told us they had had three sons and all of them had been killed in World War Two. I can still remember the desolation on her face as she told us, even though I was only eleven. I was so impacted with how terrible it must have been for them to lose their entire family like that, as no doubt happened to many others as well, in both World War One and World War Two. Such a costly sacrifice.

  10. There are many stories like this. Perhaps we writer's might compile an anthology for posterity one day soon.


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