The Kia ora coo-ee : the magazine for the ANZACS in the Middle East, 1918
The Return of The First Division
The Return of The First Division.
Though it was as far back as 1917 that an agitation was first raised in Australia for the return hither on furlough of the surviving members of the First Division of Anzacs, our politicians were too busy winning the war to attend to this trifling matter till 1939, when the war was as nearly over as such a war could ever be. And when Senator Pearce, Junr., son of the great Minister for Defence, was convinced that the veterans of the A.I.F. would be granted their first leave from the front, in order to see their relations once again, the excitement in Australia was intense.
It was agreed by everyone that these heroes, who had been incessantly fighting for twenty-five years, deserved a rest. It was pointed out in Parliament that the Original Anzacs, hardened though they were by frequent battles, must have to some extent deteriorated in physique and resistance to fatigue. And it was hinted that if the First Division were left any longer abroad they would be in danger of forgetting Australia altogether. Already, it was reported, Australian sightseers who had visited the Original Anzacs at the front, had considerable difficulty in making themselves understood. The long absence in foreign countries of these veterans had 80 altered and corrupted their good Australian language, that even their swear-words were unrecognizable. It had been found necessary to supply these tourist parties with interpreters.
When the Minister for Defence announced that the survivors of the famous First Division were at last on their way home, all Australia was thrilled. The Veterans' Reception Committee was besieged by eager mothers who dimly remembered having sent sons to the war somewhere about 1914, and by women who wanted to see for certain whether they had really married Original Anzacs before their departure. As most of these women had since married other men, and had forgotten or mislaid their original husband's name, or death notice, they were naturally somewhat worried. But the Veterans' Reception Committee had no information to give them of the names or number or state of health of the returning Anzacs.
However, it was felt by Australia that no honour too great could be bestowed upon these Saviours of the Empire, already almost mythical to the generation growing up. On the day fixed for the arrival of the transport, politicians delivered patriotic speeches to all the school-children; enthusiastic flappers importuned eligible uncles to buy buttons; live stock and old hats were auctioned in Martin Place; kewpies were loyally raffled in the Winter Garden of the Hotel Australia; and the aged Prime Minister, Sir William Hughes, Kt, delivered his 10,378th speech on winning the war. Beyond these fervent expressions of hero-worship it was rightly felt that even Australian patriotism could not go.
The Veterans' Reception Committee also erected a triumphal arch in Woolloo-mooloo and requisitioned Red Cross aeroplanes, Nos. 187,371—18,842 to convey the heroes to the Red Cross Buffet, where wattle, sandwiches, massed bands, and massed politicians were awaiting them. And on that morning the noble approaches to Woolloomooloo were thronged with dense masses of citizens, while the Red Cross aeroplanes, decorated with wattle, awaited their passengers in the Domain Aerodrome.
The Earl of Holman, who was then the Lieut-Governor of New South Wales, and incidentally, it may be added, the only satisfactory Vice-Regality that this State had ever possessed, waited at the wharf in his magnificent uniform as Commander-in-Chief to welcome the heroes home with a speech. Agitated wives of respectable citizens wondered if, after all, they had unwittingly committed bigamy; and men and women of twenty-six waited eagerly for the first sight of their fathers, and hoped that they would recognize them.
Amid tumultuous cheering the surviving members of the First L.H. Regiment disembarked, and greeted once more his native land. There was only one of him.
He was a very nice old man; he was physically complete, but looked a little run down, and had to be assisted down the gangway. As he listened to the noble oration poured forth upon him by the Earl of Holman, his eyes wandered curiously about, like a lost child seeking its whereabouts."
I've seen you before, somewhere, boss," he remarked after the burst of cheering that broke forth at the conclusion of the Earl's brilliant peroration; "but I don't exactly remember. Memory's not as good as it was. I say, boss, is this here place really Australia? We blokes sometimes used to speak of Australia—in between battles—but I never found any bloke as could rightly get the hang of it."
The Earl graciously answered him that this was really Australia, and that he was actually in the presence of the Lieut.-Governor—the permanent Lieut.-Governor of New South Wales.
"I've forgotten myself what it looked like," the hero replied, "and, may be, I've forgotten what some of the reinforcements said it was; but it all seems different-like. I thought it would feel more like coming home. I've been through so many campaigns, seen so many places, been so long away. . . All the same, boss, if yer say it's Australia, I'll take yer word for it."
"But your comrades, the other glorious heroes, where are they? " the Earl anxiously asked. If necessary, he was willing, nay eager, to reel of his oration again. "They're coming in the other transports, I expect.?"
"No," sighed the old man. "There ain't no more. It's this way. We've fought in every battle that ever took place these last score years, and. . ." "I know!" The Earl smiled his famous reassuring smile. "Those immortal battles, Lone Pine, Suvla Bay, Romani, Rafa, Beersheba, Gaza ..."
The tottering old man in the frayed khaki vaguely shook his head, "I don't remember
them scraps," be muttered. "We won so many battles. Those must have been some of the first we won. I don't know. I lost count. When you're fighting a new battle every few months—well, you can't keep on remembering the first lot."
"But the battles I mentioned are world-famous. The school-children learn them off by heart."
Better send them to school again, then," the old man quavered, with a watery smile.
"No, I can't say as how I've heard of them before; but I'll take your word for it, boss."
But where are your heroic comrades?" "Well, boss, you'll find a good few of them dotted all over Palestine. They never relieved us; nobody here seemed to think we was worth relieving. So we dwindled down and down. Every battle we won we came out of with fewer mates. If you go on dodging bullets long enough, you'll dodge too slow once."
"All killed?" the Earl sighed.
"Not much!" said the old man. "There's a bigger mob in Egyptian hospitals, and a much bigger mob married in Cairo and Palestine. And you ain't likely to see any of them out here. Their wives won't let'em!"
"But surely the transport was full before she left Egypt?" the Lieut-Governor asked.
"Yes, boss, but the night before we left the blokes got telling about this here Australia of yours; and, from what we heard of it, it didn't seem the sort of country a decent bloke would go to. One chap told us that it was inhabited by anti-conscriptionists. Well, it didn't look good to us, to go into exile among a mob of antis. So they cleared-back to Palestine."
"Oh, I was too slow; they caught me. The CO. said there'd be hell to pay if the transport hadn't somebody to show for its trouble. And they treated me well all the way out, though, of course, I was too valuable ever to be let out of their sight." He looked piteously around. "Wot's that mob waiting for?" he said.
"To see you!"
The Anzac's lips trembled pathetically. "I don't like this here place! There's too much speechifying about it. I miss the sand storms and the rain. It ain't natural." His eyes wandered; he looked like a miserable child that was going to be whipped. "Don't keep me here, boss!" he implored. "Send me back to the firing line!" He blubbered, "I-w-want to go-o-o home!"