Anzac Morn

On this Anzac Day morning I think and I remember. I remember my father, long passed, who fought for his country far away from home in the war against Hitler and Japan. I think of my brother-in-law who went to an ultimately unpopular conflict and had to wait so long for the recognition he and his comrades deserved. I spend a little time considering the fact that my sister’s and his son who, in the era of Iraq, Afghanistan and terrorism, was also bravely prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice if called upon. Three courageous men I am proud to call family. And, this morning, I think back further of the two shots in anger that bought a war very close to home.

On Sunday mornings it has been my habit, of late, to venture to Northgate to collect the papers and then to mosey up to Banjos to peruse them over a flat white and date scones. The Sunday just past, in doing so, I sidetracked to a photographic display the shopping centre had set up to commemorate all those Aussies who were prepared to sail to war zones worldwide. The selection of images concentrated on, not our troops at war, but the home front. There were servicemen preparing to depart, parades and their return. It focused on the Boer War and the two great conflicts of last century and it focused on Tassie. There were men and women – soldiers, sailors and aviators.

My eyes were drawn to the World War 1 images, particularly those showing aspects of the preparatory training the men underwent at Claremont Camp, established where Cadburys is now sited. It was set up when it became clear that the regular facility at Brighton couldn’t cope with the numbers required. That is just up the road from our abode by the river and Claremont Village is where we regularly travel to for mail, groceries and newspapers. I looked at the faces of the men at this training ground and wondered if any of them had been responsible for those shots on another morning on the little island, off the coast, that Leigh and I had so recently visited.

It was a special three days Leigh treated me to on Bruny Island. There is much to attract the visitor there – it’s scenery, tucker and wildlife for example. But there also is its history. It was the latter that my mind goes to as I sit by the river this Anzac morn, looking out over the Derwent. For, on a small patch of Bruny, a war came to Southern Tasmania.

During those days, just across the D’Entrecasteaux Channel from here, we visited the remaining buildings of the old quarantine station. Built in an isolated spot, for obvious reasons, near Barnes Bay back in the 1880s. It was at its peak during the horrendous flu pandemic that swept the world immediately after the Great War. All Tasmanian troops, returning from various fronts, had to spend a week at the station to ensure that they were virus free before they could sail on up the Derwent and home. But the most interesting tale, for me, from its years of existence, occurred during he 1914 to 1918 war when perhaps the only shots fired in anger on local soil at the ‘enemy’ happened.

Now, as we know from the recent excellent ABC series on General Monash (whose forebears had been Monasch), anyone with a German sounding name or background could be interned, such was the outrage at the actions of the Hun during the early days of the call to arms. Some bright spark down here in a governmental authority decided that the station on Bruny Island would be the ideal place to house these poor souls, suspected to be aliens, given it was isolated, yet within easy sea reach from Hobart. Somewhere between 50 to 75 such men were sent to the island during this period, including 41 German seamen who had the misfortune of being docked at Port Cygnet when the news came through that Britain, therefore Australia, was at war with Germany. It’s a lovely tale that, on the journey from there to Hobart on the now commandeered SS Oberhausen, the ship’s grog supplies were liberated from a locked storeroom and by the time the city was reached, both crew and captors were right royally inebriated.

By February 1915 the Quarantine Station was housing a range of presumed unsuitables, including the now compulsorily sober sailors. They were put to such tasks as tilling the soil, building wooden huts and erecting a shop to spend their meagre allowances at. Of course ‘no ales or spirituous liquor’ were for sale. The semi-prisoners could, though, take a boat out from shore to fish to supplement rations. But overall the men were bored out of their brains in such a nothing location, as beautiful as it may look to the eye. By July they’d had enough. And when their miniscule wages failed to arrive and they had nothing to spend at the shop retailing their small luxuries, they decided to down tools and go on strike.

The head guy at the camp put in a call to his superiors in Hobart. He had witnessed the sentry on duty being pelted with rocks and the mob refusing to return to barracks. A platoon training at Claremont were transported to the docks, shoved on a ship and waved farewell to go to Bruny to face the break out.

The only record of proceedings I could find on-line reflected the material on view at the little museum where these events took place over a hundred years ago now. It was in the form of a letter from a soldier in the party, a Ray Searle, written to his mother. This account is taken from his missive.

As the troops approached landfall they were ordered to fix bayonets. In reality it was all over in minutes. As the men in uniform were landing a warning shot was ordered to demonstrate they meant business. The armed troops then located all the detainees and frog-marched them down to the beach. Six of the malcontents were arrested and the rest escorted to their cabins.

However the thought of his freedom being again restricted was too much for one of the Germans. He (Searle describes him as a big man) decided to do a runner and he took to the bush. One of the party took aim at him and fired. There is no record of whether the shot hit its target or what happened to the largish wannabe escapee. And that was the end of it.

By the end of 1915 the Federal Government at last got their act together and took over from the states the responsibility of housing all internees. Those at the small facility on North Bruny were sent off across Bass Strait to a much larger one to sit out the war. Apart from the sailors, most had lived quietly and happily in Tassie for up to thirty-five years, yet were still considered a threat – even if many similar, such as Monash, were serving and fighting their former countrymen. Their war, thought there is no doubt, was much better than for most poor sods on the Western Front – but still their fate was so ridiculous and lacking in logic, let alone humanity.

On this Anzac Day morning I awoke to birdsong on my bedside radio. I had opened my eyes and ears to the live broadcast of the dawn service from the nation’s capital; in fact, to the minute’s silence between the Last Post and Reveille (which is French for, appropriately, to wake up). Except, during that minute, it was anything but silent. It seemed all the birds of Canberra had gathered to send off their own gorgeous tribute to the fallen. I wonder if the glorious bird life of Bruny gave any comfort to the men cooped up there during those months. With its honeyeaters, robins, firetails and pardalotes; as well as its water fowl, parrots, raptors and avians of the sea, it is an ornithologist’s paradise. It certainly wasn’t that for the men there, but maybe there could have been some positive memories despite the stupidity of war.
Lest We Forget.

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