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Horror of life in the trenches

22 April 2011 2,061 views No Comment

IN Crack Hardy, Stephen Dando-Collins uses the letters and journals of his great-uncles, the three Searle brothers, reinforced by remembrances of other family members, to construct a deeply moving account of Australian soldiers so far away from home during World War I. All the conversations and quotations in this vivid and well-researched book are taken from wartime letters and diaries, as well as newspaper and oral history accounts.

The author of the justly acclaimed Captain Bligh’s Other Mutiny and the award-winning Pasteur’s Gambit, the Tasmanian-based Dando-Collins recounts the true story of how, during what was grievously misnamed as the “Great War” of 1914-18, Viv Searle was killed at Gallipoli and his brother Ray (commonly known as “Nugget”) died on the Western Front. The youngest Searle, the larrikin Ned, who also fought with the 15th Battalion, was discharged from the AIF in February 1919 and returned as a highly decorated hero to the Tasmanian town of Westbury, where they had been raised.

Established in 1824 as a garrison town for British troops in the north of Tasmania, Westbury is 34 kilometres west of Launceston. Including Viv and Ray, 64 young men from the district never returned from the war. Until she died, Elizabeth Searle agonisingly referred to Viv and Ray as her “lost boys”, which indeed they were. Sadly, Ned had fallen out with his mother, who often complained that the “wrong brother” had returned home.

Viv’s wartime diary survived, as did his poems, at least one of which he had recited to his mates in a Gallipoli trench in 1915. Apart from being a poet, Viv was well dressed and urbane and throughout his young life never smoked or drank.

To “crack hardy” – to grin and bear it, put on a brave face – was a common saying among Australian and New Zealand soldiers who fought in one hazardous campaign after another. Dando-Collins adroitly interweaves a compelling family history with the broader canvas of the Anzacs – from the first wave of the Gallipoli landings to Lone Pine, from Ypres to Flanders, to the desperate and bloody battles on the Somme in the mud during the winter of 1916-17, and well beyond.

It was, Dando-Collins argues, the “crack hardy” spirit that came to define Australia as a nation and Australians as a people and that, he maintains, endures today. However debatable this might be, Crack Hardy is a fine and important book, affording detailed firsthand accounts of all the iconic locations of a war, fought on far-flung foreign battlefields, that cut down so many of our “boys” long before their prime.

During World War I, letters were crucial to morale, both overseas and at home. Throughout the conflict, mail was a cause of both joy and pain. Months might elapse without any news from home. Then a torrent of mail would arrive, “often with letters that were disappointingly many months old and outdated by recent correspondence”. Intriguingly, “getting the postal system right” was to prove “one of the great ongoing battles of the First World War”. As many soldiers, including Ned and Viv, soon discovered, it was a battle often lost.

Food and water were also cruelly inadequate. New Zealand and Australian soldiers often complained that they were severely ill-fed. More than once, Viv Searle – feeling miserable in the extreme – wrote in his diary: “I am going to bed hungry.” Moreover, as he explained, the entire Anzac front suffered from a lack of drinkable water. “It is terribly hot, and I am parched with thirst, as water is very scarce,” he complained to his diary during a brief but much-needed break. Shortly after this, he wrote: “Our worst trouble now is want of a wash and a change of clothes.”

Even the imperturbable Ned, who was close by, had had enough: “Getting pretty crook tucker here; everything salt, and very little of it. We are being treated rotten. Hardly enough to live on, and cooked badly at that. If things don’t change, we will be walking corpses in a short while.” And so it went, during that most terrible of wars.

In C.J. Dennis’s book of poems, Digger Smith (published in 1918), the central character, an AIF veteran haunted by dreadful memories of war, is urged “to drive the bogey man away”. The narrator says to him: “A bloke would think, to see you stare, there’s visions on the ‘ill-tops there.”

As Dando-Collins explains, these days Digger Smith’s problems would probably be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet, as his wartime experiences show, Ned Searle, who died in September 1967, aged 79, was in the main mentally tough – except perhaps when it came to young women.

Then, as now, at least some, if not many, former soldiers from the field can let their horrific experiences be a thing of the past. As Dando-Smith writes in his epilogue: “If Ned was troubled by memories of the war, he never let on.” The same, it seems, also applies to the negative opinion held about him by his desperately grieving mother.

Crack Hardy, Stephen Dando-Collins, Vintage, 363pp, $34.95
Review by Ross Fitzgerald, SPECTRUM, Sydney Morning Herald, April 22, 2011

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