Off to the Great War': Woolloomooloo, 1915 – Peter Stanley, June 1, 2015

off to war

In 1915, more men volunteered for the Australian Imperial Force than in any other year. July was the peak month, with over 36,000 men enlisting—one-tenth of the total number who served in the war.
Herbert Fishwick’s photograph depicts a volunteer walking past the big waterside sheds at Woolloomooloo—today probably waterfront apartments worth hundreds of thousands of dollars—just before he embarks on the transport that will carry him to Egypt, then Gallipoli or Britain and the Western Front.
None of the individuals in the photograph is named, but they stand for the almost 100,000 men who left that year for the war and for those who farewelled them.
The volunteer carries his kitbag on his shoulder. One of the two young women—his sisters, perhaps, or even daughters—carries his rolled-up overcoat, with his service cap dangling from it; he’s preferred to wear his slouch hat. The woman on the far right could be his mother or wife. The women wear white; this may be autumn or spring. The young ones are buoyant. Only the older woman seems to be ambivalent about farewelling him. She might one day be wearing black.
If this is early to mid-1915, the subjects of this photograph have not yet seen the full extent of casualties on Gallipoli. In July 1915, the first wounded from Gallipoli will arrive home, also at the wharves of Woolloomooloo.
The photographer, Herbert H. Fishwick, was born in Britain and became well known in the commercial field in New South Wales and beyond, working for The Sydney Mail and The Sydney Morning Herald. He recorded a wide range of subjects, including the Southern Alps (Fishwick was a pioneer skier and kept skiing into middle age); aerial photographs of towns; boxing matches;  landscape scenes—and sheep. The Pastoral Review and Graziers’ Record noted when he died that ‘in the realms of the stud Merino sheep breeding industry he excelled … outstanding amongst these experts in animal photography’. The National Library holds over a thousand of Fishwick’s images.
See the boys larking about—embarkation for them meant a more interesting day out. The lad on the right is about to be yanked out of the frame, but he has been captured forever—a bystander innocent, for now, of the war that will come to dominate his country and, perhaps, his life.

The Blue Room – I initially discovered the photograph and the above piece about it in the June edition of the National Library of Australia Magazine. To me it was the informality of the photograph that seemed to be its significance in an era where posing was de rigeur. The author makes his own educated guesses about the women around the departing infantryman, but I’d like to imagine, displaying the romantic in me, one of them to be his sweetheart – perhaps the damsel to his right who may well have her left arm encircling his back. That would give him something to think about during the terrors that lay ahead for him. It is, I agree, difficult to deduce exactly how old the soldier may be and we’ll never know if he returned to Oz in one piece or forever lies in foreign soil.
I love the look of the lad in the far right hand corner being taken hold of by an unseen parent, we imagine, in order to calm him down amidst all the excitement. Is it his brother to his rear, in the cap, heading off quick smart to escape those same clutches?
For me there is so much to relish about this photograph from an instant in time in the year 1915. Adventure was thought to be over the horizon on the other side of the globe for the unknown soldier captured for all eternity by Fishwick’s lens. All too soon, in a few month’s time, both will know that such send-offs will be little cause for jubilation. That then had to wait till war’s end.

fishwick armistice_photo_

Fishwick – Armistice Day

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