Diggers’ reports from faraway lands

With Simon Vella

This ANZAC Day will be different to so many that have passed before it. Not only do our veterans dwindle in number, but with lockdown restrictions in place, this year we cannot come together to commemorate their great stories and deeds.

With more time at home and only short walks for exercise, there is an opportunity for people to unearth the interesting history of the people and places around them, including our ANZACs.

The founders of Exploria, a discovery platform for local stories, are encouraging people this year to go online to contribute to ANZAC commemorations by exploring their local memorials and unearthing stories about diggers from their suburbs.

“I generally attend an ANZAC Day dawn service as I was close to my uncle, who was a Vietnam veteran and my grandfather was in WWII. Both had shocking and amazing stories in equal measure, but I’d never connected any local diggers to their actual stories.” said Simon Vella, one of the co-founders.

“Near where Mark and I live in North Curl Curl is a headland war memorial called the Cobbers Way. Every day, thousands of walkers stream past it and every summer day thousands stare up at it from the beach. I bet few know its background. It was recently in the news for the wrong reason – vandalism.”

Along with his co-founder, Mark Murray, they thought it would be a fun way for families and schoolkids to celebrate ANZAC 2020 by helping to uncover some of the local digger stories that have been left in old newspaper and online book archives. With some simple online sleuthing, many stories are quite easy to put together.

What they have discovered online is not limited to ANZAC war stories, but along the way finding great tales from the early days and stories of characters who formed the local community.

“The North Curly war memorial is a great story itself and links to many more with the nine men it identifies. Not only about the great sacrifice they made, but the friendships formed and freedom that existed around this area more than 100 years ago,” said Mr Murray.

It would have been a huge effort just to get there at the time. A group of young mates from around Sydney travelled to Manly in the summer of 1913, walking miles through coastal bushland, crossing the lagoons to camp for weeks on the beach over summer. Fishing, swimming, surfing and sleeping by a fire next to the clear lagoon and ocean shore. It is hard to imagine a bigger contrast to their destination on the beaches of Gallipoli and the battlefields of France over the next two years.

After the Great War, among the diggers’ remaining mates, two men (Martin and Robertson), walked the three miles all the way around from Manly in 1918 carrying the cement and marble monument that now sits on the clifftop overlooking the beach where they camped that summer.

The monument’s construction, and effort to get it there, is testament to the strong bonds that these close friends had for the nine men listed who fell at Gallipoli and France by 1917.

The stories of these men are worth sharing, so they can be passed down to the next generation of Australians. Here are just two interesting stories linked to the nine listed on the epitaph.

Captain Samuel Townshend
Before heading off to war, Captain Samuel Townshend was a successful young barrister in Sydney, having won the University of Sydney’s Law Medal, and was appointed the inaugural registrar of the University of Western Australia in Perth. A life ahead, full of potential.

In 1915, little more than a year after last camping at North Curl Curl, Captain Townshend was overseeing the landing of his battalion on that fateful ANZAC day. They suffered heavy losses at the attack on Bloody Angle, only to be given responsibility a week later for defending Gallipoli’s front line. Captain Townshend was assigned the command of a company to attack the Turks at Quinn’s Post.

Quinn’s Post was a high point on the front, a short distance from the Turkish trenches. After holding the position for two days, the Turks attacked and secured a foothold in the Australian trenches. Ordered to retake the position, with 40 men of the 16th Battalion, Captain Townshend led the counterattack in the dark of night.

He shouted to his men, “Fix your bayonet”, then “When I call ‘Australia forever’ … charge boys.”

As Captain Townshend took off over the parapet, they were met by a hail of fire. Some were killed immediately.

Only five or six managed to survive, with Captain Townshend shot in the foot during the charge and unable to walk. When the order was given to retreat, one of his men, Sergeant William Cross, picked him up in his arms to carry him back to safety.

Sergeant Cross almost succeeded in getting them back to their trench. He was just a few metres short when a bullet ripped through the right sleeve on his coat, hitting the captain in the head, leaving him lifeless in sergeant’s arms.

Sergeant Cross would later receive a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his courageous attempts to save Captain Townshend’s life.

Unfortunately, Captain Townshend was the last of his family’s line; two of his war medals never reached his mother, Ellen, before she died.

Arthur Barnes in Cairo
Samuel Townshend’s stepbrother, Arthur Barnes, is also remembered on the memorial. They used to travel the long distances from Randwick each summer, to camp on the sands of North Curl Curl.

Arthur enlisted in the army in mid-1914 and was one of the original soldiers of the 1st Battalion. The Battalion first served in Egypt before landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. He was declared missing in action four days later, one of the thousands of men to lose their lives in the heavy battle.

Besides being part of the oldest infantry battalion in New South Wales, its history extending back to 1854, Arthur left behind some colourful descriptions of life in Cairo and time exploring the pyramids in the months before landing at ANZAC cove.

They were camped at Mena, on the sandy desert at the foot of the pyramids, where there was nothing but sand hills and mountains of bare rock. The soldiers would train hard, marching for miles in the hot sand, subsisting on biscuits and tea. They would explore the nearby Sphinx and ancient pyramids, climbing to the top, picking up souvenirs and remarking about the many Arabs trying to sell their wares and guiding services.

On their days off, the Australians would head into Cairo’s European Quarter, whose old streets were full of soldiers on leave and which would be forever changed by the influx of free-spending soldiers of the Commonwealth.

Arthur wrote that, “Almost every Australian arrived with a fair sum of money … Cairo will never forget the millionaire Australians.

“The English officers [who were paid half of what the Aussies were] could not understand the Australian privates, who overran the best hotels where the generals congregated. These hotels are much larger than the Australian Hotel in Sydney.

“Grog can be obtained at any shop. All the dirtiest places have been reconstructed and turned into eating houses and bars. They bear such names as ‘The John Bill Bar’, ‘Australian’, ‘Sydney’ and others. The stuff sold is bad and sends the fellows mad.”

The innocence and clash of cultures from across the world was also jarring in Arthur’s letters.

“The fact that struck me most, and as very peculiar, was the dress of Arabs. The men all look like women dressed in harem skirts. It took us days to get it out of our heads that they were not women. Most of the Arab and Egyptian women of the Mohammedan religion wear veils from the bridge of the nose down,” he wrote.

“One New Zealander had received a cut in his throat with his own bayonet by the Arabs for pulling one of these veils off.”

Whilst these were fleetingly exciting times, it was against the backdrop of awful battle rumours and the expectation to move out at an hour’s notice. Arthur tired of Cairo and wrote that he would be pleased to be sent to fight something.

Sir George Reid, a previous prime minister of Australia, visited Mena Camp, to encourage and buoy the men. Sir George remarked that the Australian soldiers were in great physical shape, which the men knew already from their training and superiority over the English in competitions, whom they called the “Terriers”.

In truth, the Australian soldiers had no idea what to expect, and one of Arthur’s friends wrote: “When we meet the Turks or Germans our victory will be what I would term a foregone conclusion. The men here are like racehorses overtrained. They are getting a bit stale and are anxious to settle the little account with Emperor Bill. I really believe the Australians will have a big percentage of casualties on account of their eagerness and gameness for the fight, for they are afraid of nothing and will revel in a bit of a ‘scrap’.”

The free times were not to last. The words of one of Arthur’s neighbours on the Clarence River summed up the feeling well, which for most soldiers was still the calm before the storm.

“I am getting tired of going into Cairo. I wish I could sometimes have a glimpse of the good old gum trees for an hour or two,” he wrote.

•••

This ANZAC Day, many of us will stand in our driveways to pay our respects. Sharing the stories and their location online is another way we can all help keep their memory alive.

“I think it’s up to us to pay tribute now by unearthing and sharing these stories before we lose the last connection to folklore we have,” said Mark. 

Simon added, “There are many great public sources of information online, and we’ve put a guide at Exploria.me to help post and share their stories. You would be amazed at what you can find with some searching. Even while I was researching North Curl Curl I found a shocking story about a whaling mission from off this very beach! And what my kids love is that these stories all link back to a physical location, otherwise it would be near impossible to get their attention.”

This monument was erected at Dee Why Head in memory of soldiers killed in the Great War and who were previously known to have visited the beach. It was put there by Mr C.G. Martin, who designed and made the marble tablet, assisted by Mr Robertson (known as Unk), and several other surfers of Curl. The monument, built of concrete, stands on a large rock base above sea level, overlooking the spot where these boys used to spend their weekends. The cement for the monument was carried from Manly, round the beach, by Mr. C.G. Martin and others, two or three miles, that being the only means of getting it to the site. The monument can be seen from the open sea by passing ships, as it stands out boldly on the cliff. The work was done by purely amateur labour and was all voluntary.

~an edited transcript from Sun (Sydney), 12 May 1918.

For more information about this project, please email Mark Murray at Exploria [email protected]

About Exploria

Exploria is a true short story platform that brings tales connected to a location to life, encouraging communities to collect and post local stories for others to discover. The companion app can search for text and audio stories across towns and cities, play through a phone and be shared with friends. Available on Apple App Store and Google Play Store.

Do you have a story to share? Why not share it with Exploria, or send it to [email protected]?

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Written by Mark Murray

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