Horror of life in the trenches
IN Crack Hardy, Stephen Dando-Collins uses the letters and journals ofÃ‚Â his great-uncles, the three Searle brothers, reinforced by remembrancesÃ‚Â of other family members, to construct a deeply moving account ofÃ‚Â Australian soldiers so far away from home during World War I. All theÃ‚Â conversations and quotations in this vivid and well-researched book areÃ‚Â taken from wartime letters and diaries, as well as newspaper and oralÃ‚Â history accounts.
The author of the justly acclaimed Captain Bligh’s Other Mutiny and theÃ‚Â award-winning Pasteur’s Gambit, the Tasmanian-based Dando-CollinsÃ‚Â recounts the true story of how, during what was grievously misnamed asÃ‚Â 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. TheÃ‚Â youngest Searle, the larrikin Ned, who also fought with the 15th Battalion, was discharged from the AIF in February 1919 and returned asÃ‚Â 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 northÃ‚Â of Tasmania, Westbury is 34 kilometres west of Launceston. Including VivÃ‚Â and Ray, 64 young men from the district never returned from the war.Ã‚Â Until she died, Elizabeth Searle agonisingly referred to Viv and Ray as her “lost boys”, which indeed they were. Sadly, Ned had fallen out withÃ‚Â 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 heÃ‚Â had recited to his mates in a Gallipoli trench in 1915. Apart from beingÃ‚Â a poet, Viv was well dressed and urbane and throughout his young lifeÃ‚Â never smoked or drank.
To “crack hardy” – to grin and bear it, put on a brave face – was aÃ‚Â common saying among Australian and New Zealand soldiers who fought inÃ‚Â one hazardous campaign after another. Dando-Collins adroitly interweavesÃ‚Â a compelling family history with the broader canvas of the Anzacs – from the first wave of the Gallipoli landings to Lone Pine, from Ypres toÃ‚Â Flanders, to the desperate and bloody battles on the Somme in the mudÃ‚Â during the winter of 1916-17, and well beyond.
It was, Dando-Collins argues, the “crack hardy” spirit that came toÃ‚Â define Australia as a nation and Australians as a people and that, heÃ‚Â maintains, endures today.Ã‚Â However debatable this might be, Crack Hardy is a fine and importantÃ‚Â book, affording detailed firsthand accounts of all the iconic locationsÃ‚Â of a war, fought on far-flung foreign battlefields, that cut down soÃ‚Â many of our “boys” long before their prime.
During World War I, letters were crucial to morale, both overseas and atÃ‚Â home. Throughout the conflict, mail was a cause of both joy and pain.Ã‚Â Months might elapse without any news from home. Then a torrent of mailÃ‚Â would arrive, “often with letters that were disappointingly many monthsÃ‚Â old and outdated by recent correspondence”. Intriguingly, “getting theÃ‚Â postal system right” was to prove “one of the great ongoing battles of the First World War”. As many soldiers, including Ned and Viv, soonÃ‚Â discovered, it was a battle often lost.
Food and water were also cruelly inadequate. New Zealand and AustralianÃ‚Â soldiers often complained that they were severely ill-fed. More than once, Viv Searle – feeling miserable in the extreme – wrote in hisÃ‚Â diary: “I am going to bed hungry.” Moreover, as he explained, the entireÃ‚Â Anzac front suffered from a lack of drinkable water. “It is terriblyÃ‚Â hot, and I am parched with thirst, as water is very scarce,” heÃ‚Â complained to his diary during a brief but much-needed break. ShortlyÃ‚Â after this, he wrote: “Our worst trouble now is want of a wash and aÃ‚Â change of clothes.”
Even the imperturbable Ned, who was close by, had had enough: “GettingÃ‚Â pretty crook tucker here; everything salt, and very little of it. We areÃ‚Â being treated rotten. Hardly enough to live on, and cooked badly atÃ‚Â that. If things don’t change, we will be walking corpses in a shortÃ‚Â while.” And so it went, during that most terrible of wars.
In C.J. Dennis’s book of poems, Digger Smith (published in 1918), theÃ‚Â central character, an AIF veteran haunted by dreadful memories of war,Ã‚Â is urged “to drive the bogey man away”. The narrator says to him: “AÃ‚Â bloke would think, to see you stare, there’s visions on the ‘ill-topsÃ‚Â there.”
As Dando-Collins explains, these days Digger Smith’s problems wouldÃ‚Â probably be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet, as hisÃ‚Â wartime experiences show, Ned Searle, who died in September 1967, agedÃ‚Â 79, was in the main mentally tough – except perhaps when it came toÃ‚Â young women.
Then, as now, at least some, if not many, former soldiers from the fieldÃ‚Â can let their horrific experiences be a thing of the past. AsÃ‚Â Dando-Smith writes in his epilogue: “If Ned was troubled by memories ofÃ‚Â the war, he never let on.” The same, it seems, also applies to theÃ‚Â negative opinion held about him by his desperately grieving mother.
Crack Hardy,Ã‚Â Stephen Dando-Collins,Ã‚Â Vintage, 363pp, $34.95
Review by Ross Fitzgerald,Ã‚Â SPECTRUM, Sydney Morning Herald, April 22, 2011