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On August 4th 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. The enthusiasm for war among the Australian population was overwhelming- the young and not so young fell over each other to reach the recruiting booths, and I was among them. Butcher boys in small towns and cities wrapped up their last parcels of chops, removed their aprons, and headed to the nearest recruiting station. Shearers in distant outback communities rolled up their swags, removed the grease from their arms, and set out in the same direction. Bank clerks closed their tills for the day and reached for their jackets. Book-makers' sales went sky high, due to the number of young men wanting half an inch added to the heels of their boots (when they fell short of the recruitment sergeant's requirements!)
I was a young lad of nineteen when I decided to pay a visit to the recruiting office. I had recently married my wife, Evelyn Mary Parslett, the daughter of one of my father's acquaintances. I had purchased a small piece of land about twenty kilometres from Mount Barker, on which a modest house stood. I would start farming here, and Evelyn and I would start our family. Though the two of us only recently become husband and wife, we lived a respectable life. A school friend of mine gave me a couple of cows, and Evelyn's cousin was helping her with the home duties. When I told Evelyn of my intentions, she simply replied, "Why, of course, dear".
"William wishes to sign
up, too", I said, "The two of us plan to journey to Albany together. The nearest recruiting office is there". I could see the uncertainty in Evelyn's eyes, though she said nothing, just smiling briefly. Women know nothing about war, I remember thinking at the time. Evelyn's oblivious tone and naivety completed my opinion.
Three days later, William Chambers, a childhood friend of mine, and I drove to Albany. The seventy kilometre trip gave us a chance to talk openly; just the two of us. "Imagine it!" Bill shouted, "Free men fighting for their country. It doesn't get much better than that." We drove steadily, the wind on our faces refreshing us.
"Steady on, Bill", I laughed, "Don't get your hopes up. They might not accept us."
"Sure they will. Look at us! Young, happy, brave. What more could they want?"
Our laughs would never be heard together after that day.
"Name please", the recruiting sergeant gave me a stern look, as if to himself questioning my supposed age.
"Francis William Gomm, sir", I replied as respectably as I could.
"Stand up", he ordered. I obeyed. The sergeant reached for a measuring tape. "Up straight, then".
I stood tall; my shoulders back, my chin up. "Height's good", he muttered to himself, scrawling something on some paper. He moved away to another official-looking man. I watched as the sergeant who had dealt with me pointed at what he had written to the other officer. They both eyed me firmly. "Very well", I heard him say to his colleague. Whilst the men were busy discussing me, I turned around to see Bill two booths away from me, being measured also. I caught his eye and gave him a heartily smile. He smiled back, with a doubtful expression. The queue behind us lead into the distance as far as the eye could see. Men, young and middle aged, of all builds were lined up. The sergeant approached me again. "We have decided to recruit you as part of the Merchant Naval crew, on the H.M.S. Hawkshead. You will leave at dawn with the first convoy, on the first of November, from King George Sound."
"Why, thank you, sir", I replied with dignity. A thrill of excitement rushed through me, and I found Bill waiting for me outside. "How did you go, mate?", he asked enthusiastically, with a hand on my shoulder.
"I'm in. Naval crew on Hawkshead. Yourself?"
"They accepted me too. You're looking at Private Chambers!" Bill put his arm around me. He hadn't realised that we were separated, as I was part of the naval crew, and him a private on land.
"We won't be together, Bill", I told him. He looked in my eyes, and processed what I had said. We both stood in silence, looking at the ground. There was a long pause.
"She'll be right, Frank", he said after what
seemed an age, in a small voice full of disappointment. We slowly made our way back to my ute, watching as our fellow competitors either came running out of the building prancing around with joy, or were turned away with their shoulders sagged. I spotted a group of teenage boys, no older than fourteen, approaching the recruitment office. I smiled to myself.
"Cheeky buggers", Bill muttered.
I walked through the door. I could hear Evelyn in the kitchen. She heard the door close and came running out. "Hi, honey", she sang, "How did you go?"
"I was accepted! So was Bill. But I'm a sailor on a destroyer ship called Hawkshead. Bill's a Light Horse private. Not naval, like me".
Evelyn sensed my dissatisfaction. "What a shame. Can't one of you be moved?"
"I think the decision is final". I dropped with a sigh into my armchair. My wife wiped her hands on her apron, and knelt down beside me. She rested her hand on mine.
"At least you two were recruited. Think of the poor souls that weren't. Even though you're not together, you and Bill will be fighting for your county, and that's all that matters". With these words came a sympathetic smile, and a stroke through my hair.
"I suppose you're right".
"Come, dear. My stew's ready. I've made beef and onion. Your favourite."
I gave her a quick smile and tried to look less miserable. The soup seems to take my mind off things.
After a while Evelyn let out a loud cry, clutching her stomach.
"What's the matter? Are you alright?" I ran to her side, grasping her hand and pulling her up from the kitchen floor.
"I'm fine", she said in a whisper. "Just a sharp pain. Nothing to worry about".
I kissed her forehead, and told her to lie down for a bit. She nodded and moved towards our bedroom. I turned and sat back down, reaching for the newspaper. I was turning the front page when I heard Evelyn retching. All was quiet for a moment, and I wondered if going to war was the right thing to do. Though she hadn't said anything, I could tell. Evelyn was with child.
It was the first of November, just after dawn. My heart thudded in my chest, my hand growing sweaty. I looked around, surrounded by a sea of heads. As far as the eye could see, young men shouting and laughing with their mates were dressed in uniform. I could hear a band playing a medley of "The Red, White and Blue", "Auld Lang Syne" and "The Girl I Left Behind Me". Even though it was so early in the morning, all the banter and excitement was still being carried out. Bill and I approached some official-looking men, probably lieutenants, studying a roll call.
"Sir, could you tell me where the privates leaving for Egypt meet please?" Bill asked politely. His courteous tone surprised me. After all, he was just a young rascal with a mind that lust for adrenaline had corrupted. The two lieutenants looked us up and down. One had a bushy moustache, who reminded me of a walrus.
"And the Merchant Naval crew, also, if you could", I made an attempt to match Bill's civility by dipping my cap.
"The Naval crew is gathering at the summit of Melville, and will leave with the first convoy at six", the walrus said. "And the troopship for Cairo leaves in ten minutes".
"Thank you", we both replied. Bill and I looked at each other, with remorse in our eyes.
"Good luck, mate", Bill softly whispered. We shook hands for the last time and turned away.
This was it; my last view of my home country before departing. I turned around to see Evelyn blowing kisses at me, her other hand resting on her stomach. I felt guilty. I could see by the look on her face that she knew I had realised. That night at home when she was retching and feeling sharp pains had indicated it clearly. How would she manage while I was gone?
On my back was a canvas duffle bag. Inside were my essentials, as well as a secret bottle of whiskey! I heard a fellow crewman tell his mates that alcohol was not prohibited. I ignored these words, as my arrogant mind was longing for of thrills and the feeling of heroism on board the H.M.S. Hawkshead Destroyer. Little did I know that life in the Merchant Navy was not one bit what I expected. Boarding the ship just a low-class seamen, I was unaware of the authority and ranking that would soon be presented to me.
I glanced at my pocket watch. It was half way through my fourteen hour shift. The heat from the burning coal and flames was making me sweat in my formal, impractical uniform. I had recently been appointed the position of Chief Petty Officer on board the H.M.S Hawkshead, and was in charge of overseeing the workers down below. Believe it or not, during those horrendous hours, with all that heat, dirt and noise, I learnt to sleep standing up. The men down there constantly sweated and cursed, whilst keeping the coal burning and the ship moving. As you can imagine, twenty five metres below deck made me lose track of time, day and direction. From the last I had gathered, we were somewhere south of Norway. Each night, all of the men in this level of the ship were locked in like prisoners, and I was one of them. I recall one young lad, no older than eighteen, asking me why he and his fellow comrades were locked in every night. Mind you, I was only a year older than the lad.
"For heaven's sake, sir! If this level of the ship floods, they'll be no escaping. We'll all be drowned!", he shouted. All of the shovelers stopped work and waiting with anticipation for my reply. I must admit that I was terrified. There were at least eighty of them, and one of me. I don't know why, but suddenly, I felt my mouth open. "This is war, men. War".
I walked onto the deserted deck. It was no more than four degrees. The metal sheets were covered with a thick, opaque layer of ice. I looked out to the horizon. The sky was black; the colour of a vicious bruise that threatened to never heel.
I lit a cigarette held onto the wires overhead to stop from slipping over. The wind howled in my ears. I heard someone approaching me. I turned to see a fellow seamen.
"Frank, how's naval life treating you?", he asked.
I offered my companion a cigarette from my packet.
"Bloody awful, mate".
"You know what today is, right?"
I thought for a moment, then gave him a quizzical look. "No, I don't".
"It's Christmas Day", he replied.
It was the 3rd of January, or so I had been told. My heart skipped a beat. It was the firing of a nearby cannon that made me realised what was occurring around me. Men were shouting commands around me. I was meant to be giving orders, but the surrounding scene left me speechless. A German warship had opened fire on the H.M.S. Hawkshead. I looked around to make sure that all the guns on deck were manned and active. All were but one. The man sitting behind this cannon looked to be asleep. I approached him, and shook his shoulder.
"You alright?", I cried over the noise. No reply. I felt his face. It was purple, his eyes closed. There was no blood; I looked for a bullet wound, and couldn't find one. I pulled off his five layers of clothing to check if his heating jacket was working. It was only when I saw the snapped wire that I understood what had happened. He had not been shot by our attackers; a bullet had hit his heated jacket, and it had stopped circulating warmth. He had lost his life to irony. "He's dead", I called.
On August 4th 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. The enthusiasm for war among the Australian population was overwhelming- the young and not so young fell over each other to reach the recruiting booths, and I was among them. But little did these men know the horrific circumstances they would encounter. The low morals of the high-ranked, the corruption between countries; I would never forget any of it. What I experienced during my time served was so ironic, so brutal, so ruthless, it will haunt me forever.
'As the sun riseth and goeth down, we will remember them.'