‘Lest we forget.’ Three words that have been seared into the hearts and minds of people whose nations went to war in 1914. These simple words were supposed to remind both leaders and people alike of the horrors of war, so as not to repeat the folly of the Great War.
It seems we are not good at learning from history.
One hundred years after a shambolic decision was made to send Australian and New Zealand troops to support the British Navy in a battle for the Dardanelles, not only have we not forgotten but we seem to have turned Anzac Day into one big party.
Many Crosslight readers will have grown up with stories of fathers or uncles who fought at Gallipoli or on the Western Front. You will also have your own stories of living and/or fighting in World War II, Vietnam or other conflicts from that time. But for those born after 1960 these stories are more distant… history lessons taught at school or, maybe, stories shared by relatives who understood the horrors of war.
I write as one who has come into my own history late in life. I regret my lack of interest as a younger person, and only recently understand the enormous grief which inhabited this nation for much of the 20th century.
Frederic Christie Mulvey, known as Eric, was the uncle my father never knew. My paternal grandfather’s brother never had children of his own, never saw his nieces and nephews raise their families, never lived the life he should have. Aged just 22, he died half a world away from his beloved ‘mummy’, one of the many young men lost to those who loved them and the nation that grieves them still.
Australian men responded with alacrity to the call to enlist in August 1914. A happy naivety is captured in many personal letters of the time. Most had no military training and, after a few short months in military camps around Australia, the first ships full of eager young men set sail.
Initially bound for England, the ships were rerouted to Egypt, where the recruits underwent further traditional army training in desert conditions, far removed from the environments they would eventually encounter in Turkey and France.
Rev Andrew Gillison (pictured right), then minister at St George’s Presbyterian Church East St Kilda, enlisted as a chaplain in October 1914 and applied to be attached to the 14th Battalion. Padre Gillison began a diary, whilst based at the Broadmeadows Army Barracks. The carbon copy of his reflection is stored in the Archives of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
It begins: Nov 1. Today I assisted at a joint Church parade. The first since my being gazetted as a chaplain of the Australian Imperial Force on Oct 27.
Written for his wife Isobel and their children it contains the mundane daily routine often captured in personal diaries.
My great uncle was much younger than the 46-year-old padre, which was typical of most soldiers and chaplains serving at this time. The chaplains were on average in their 40s, whilst the soldiers were often not much older than 20.
Lance Corporal Mulvey’s ‘Calling’ (the word used in the official form) was listed as Hydrographic Surveyor, Works Depot, NSW. He enlisted earlier than Chaplain Gillison, signing up on 22nd August 1914.
Rev Ernest Northcroft Merrington, a Queensland-based Presbyterian minister, embarked at Brisbane on HMAT A5, ‘Omrah’, on 24th September, the same day and city as my great uncle who, with his fellow soldiers of the 2nd Light Horse Regiment, boarded HMAT Star of England.
Only one of these three men returned from the war – the other two both died at Gallipoli, two of 8,709 Australian men who were killed in a senseless slaughter that raged from 25 April 1915 to the quiet evacuation at year’s end. A battle that achieved nothing.
Padre Gillison’s diary, initially filled with touristy chats about pyramids and markets of Cairo, takes on a very different tone as sounds of the Anzac Day battle reaches their ship as it enters the Dardanelles.
“The moment they [the Anzacs] had got a footing over the edge a machine gun opened upon them and simply withered them up. Such a storm of lead I had of course never before seen and could not have imagined, tearing up the ground and littering it with fragments of undergrowth and mangled men.”
I recently spoke with Australian historian, Michael McKernan, who wrote his PhD on Australian churches during World War I. He believes that the moment war was declared churches abandoned Christianity and embraced a civil religion.
“For the most part, churchmen never understood what war was really like. They thought men were shot and a chaplain came along, read some prayers, and had a Christian burial, stuff like that,” Dr McKernan said.
“They had no concept that 40 per cent of the bodies could never be reassembled to enable that to happen because shells had just obliterated people. They had no understanding of the power of shells. They had no understanding of randomness of life. No understanding that men decided that if your name was on the bullet you had it.
“Fatalism was the only brand of certainty you could have in those circumstances.”
Dr McKernan is particularly disturbed by a sermon given at the Presbyterian General Assembly in Melbourne just prior to news reports informing Australians of the Gallipoli campaign.
“How can a Christian minister stand in a pulpit in 1915, as news of Gallipoli is about to hit, and say: ‘Wouldn’t it be a tragedy if our soldiers did not mingle their blood with the soldiers of other nations because in that case we would become vain and full of pride. But if our soldiers mingle their blood…”
Dr McKernan stopped mid quote and then, speaking with vehemence and dismay, asked: “what does he mean, mingled their blood? He means die, be killed in the worst possible way.”
Dr McKernan is clearly angered by the Church’s failures at that time. He believes some of the failures related to a highly inflated view of their relevance to society. Across the denominations – Catholic, Church of England and Protestant – there was almost universal support of the war, including using the pulpit to exhort men to enlist.
When church leaders were approached with the request that ministers take on the role of delivering the casualty telegrams, there was no understanding of what the outcome might be.
Writing in Gallipoli A short history (2010), Dr McKernan said: “…in quick time, clergymen the length and breadth of Australia came to hate this job of delivering the telegrams…when they saw a minister in the street, particularly in a small town like Euroa, people feared that he had a telegram in his pocket.”
When you consider the war-related fatalities, more than 51,000 Australian soldiers, it is little wonder clergymen felt burdened by such a heart-breaking task.
More than 400 men served as chaplains for the Australian Imperial Forces. About a quarter of those were transport-only chaplains, which meant they provided religious support to the men en route to and from the front. The remaining chaplains – a mix of Catholic, Church of England, Presbyterian, Methodist, other denominations (such as Baptist and Salvation Army) and other religions (Jewish) – filled a quota system based on the population numbers in Australia at the time.
Dr McKernan believes the chaplains shared a similar view regarding the Christian understanding of the men, only to discover that they were ministering to the first generation of un-churched Australians.
“The chaplains received a terrible shock when they met the men of the AIF,” Dr McKernan explained, “because they thought they were somewhat Christian and they discovered they were not.”
He said those chaplains willing to let go of sectarian differences were received more positively than those who wanted to divide the men into their stated denomination or faith. Unfortunately, many chaplains perceived their role to be one of moral police. They introduced swearing jars, preached against consumption of alcohol and insisted on separate parades and services for the different religious denominations.
It was the chaplains, small in number according to Dr McKernan, who sought to walk alongside the men, help in any way possible, not segregate themselves with the officers but live in the trenches with their men who won respect.
Perhaps the most famous chaplain of World War I was William McKenzie, a Salvation Army officer. McKenzie quickly recognised the importance of the water carriers and spent one night cutting out steps up the Gallipoli hillside to ensure as little water as possible was lost in its delivery.
Dr McKernan observes it was chaplains such as McKenzie, Gillison, James Gault (a Methodist chaplain from Victoria), and Gerard Tucker (who established the Brotherhood of St Laurence post-war) who saw a vision of Christianity which would work in Australia.
Sadly, the churches resisted all the insights of chaplains, continued with their sectarianism (made worse by the 1916 conscription debate, which led to the Protestant/Catholic divide that defined Australia until the 1970s), and failed the nation completely.
“I would have thought you would have got ‘pause, think, examine carefully, then pronounce’ [from the church leadership of the day]. And what you got everywhere in Australia right from the kick off was an absolute blind commitment to whatever the government was up to.
“Now when you look at the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan you will see particularly in the Methodist Church, the strongest possible statement against that on the basis of all sorts of grounds, some theological, some humanistic. Everybody paused and wondered.
“You get none of that in the First World War at all.”
A close reading of Padre Merrington’s diary, also stored at the Australian War Memorial, provides a description of the exact battle that killed my great uncle. In a chapter titled “Life in the Trenches”, Rev Merrington describes how the 2nd Light Horse Brigade became the first light horsemen to be called to trench warfare.
Their task on 14 May 1915, a mere two days after arriving at Anzac Cove, was to “seize and fill up certain advanced enemy trenches, which constantly menaced our lines”, Merrington wrote. “There were many casualties.
“The deceased Light Horsemen were buried at the foot of Pope’s Hill, near the approach to Quinn’s (Post).”
The digital record for 541 Lance Corporal Mulvey states that he died 14 May 1915 at Quinn’s Post, Gallipoli, aged 22. One life of many, on all sides of the war, snuffed out before he had time to demonstrate his military training, let alone create a history for himself.
My family has postcards and letters sent by Eric from Alexandria to his mother, most with the salutation, ‘Dear Mummy’. He was just a boy, eagerly en route to Gallipoli with other excitable inexperienced soldiers, dead before he became a man. The impact of Eric’s death had further ramifications for the Mulvey family. His older brother Roy, my grandfather, a teacher, husband, and father of two, enlisted on hearing of his brother’s death. He served on the Western Front, was injured twice (gunshot wounds and gas), was mentioned in dispatches and was awarded the Military Cross. He retrained as a doctor at the conclusion of the war, and had three more children, including my father. I never had the privilege of meeting him. He died in 1952. His second son was named Frederic, also known as Eric. He died whilst serving in World War II.
The detail and description in Gillison’s diary enables the reader, 100 years later, to picture the conditions, the respect the chaplain held for the men and the role that he made for himself as someone who had no specific responsibilities beyond irregular Sunday services and burials.
“…That night I took up my quarters at the dressing station with our medical officer. It was rather an eerie moment when I looked up to where… was holding his post 250 feet above, but quite close, and saw the glistening bayonets and the willing men and heard the order “Charge”…It was a sad night helping to dress and care for the wounded as they came down, many of them badly hit with shrapnel as well as rifle bullets. But they did not grumble. Indeed the way these boys have taken their suffering is a marvel.”
Gillison was amongst the first chaplains to be landed at Gallipoli. Other chaplains were held back initially as they were taking up spaces on the landing vessels that were reserved for armed soldiers. Not surprisingly, much of his time was taken with burying the dead:
During the first few days burials were conducted by night or in the early morning on the hill just below the trenches. Necessity knows no law. Some of the men were buried by their comrades without a service as a chaplain was not at hand.
Later we have had a burial ground not far from the beach which we have divided into sections, so that each unit may be kept separate. Here the burials are conducted at night. Carts are put at the disposal of chaplains to remove any bodies requiring burial and we take down a party to dig the necessary graves and carry out the burial. We get away about 11pm and back to our dug-outs any time from 2.30 to 8am, according to the work to be done.
Gillison’s last entry dated 16 June describes the famous armistice that was agreed between the Turks and the Allied forces on 24 May to enable both armies to bury their dead. He wrote: We calculate that there were buried that day between the trenches about 4,000 Turks…I never beheld such a sickening sight in my life and hope it may not be my lot again.
The padre from Melbourne was to live only another two months, shot down as he and a stretcher bearer attempted to rescue a wounded soldier, despite the entreaties of those around them.
Merrington, who conducted Chaplain Gillison’s burial service, recorded that moment in his diary as told to him by witnesses: “…despite the warnings, they crept out in front. They got close to the man, when the Turks fired, and both were hit. They rose up and ran for our trench and reached it. Gillison collapsed but was conscious for an hour or two. He was shot between the shoulders where the bullet struck him as he crawled forward. The bullet came out of his chest near the heart. He and his gallant comrade were tenderly treated; but the end of Gillison was not far off. ..His words were of his loved ones in Melbourne and of the hope that never failed his courageous spirit.
Merrington describes the burial service in detail and then ensures the character of Gillison will not be forgotten: He was a soldier and a friend to all. Full of high spirit and cheerfulness, knowing no fear, he led the men along the paths of their duty in this great campaign. He died for an unknown wounded man. What decoration, posthumous or in the time of life, can surpass the glory of his deed in pure, unselfish heroism?
Dr McKernan has spent much of his adult life researching Australian military history as a senior staff member at the Australian War Memorial. He has taken numerous tours to Gallipoli and has walked over the Gallipoli Peninsula on many an occasion. What is his view of war?
“War is an absolute evil. It should never be used for solving any human issue or problem. It will inevitably corrupt whoever is involved in it.
“We (non-combatants) don’t get it. If you want perfect Christianity go out to talk to those blokes, the veterans. They care for each other, they look after each other.”
The evacuation of the Allies (41,000 from Anzac Cove and nearly 50,000 from Suvla) was carried out in carefully planned silence and secrecy over several nights in late December 1915. Not one life was lost. Unlike the death toll over the previous nine months of the Gallipoli campaign: 21,000 British soldiers, 10,000 French, 8,709 Australians, 2,700 New Zealanders, 1,370 Indians and 86,000+ Turks.
Lest we forget.
St George’s Uniting Church East St Kilda was sold as part of Uniting our future. Its congregations have relocated to become St George’s Burnley St Richmond. St George’s has held an annual memorial service on the anniversary of Rev Gillison’s death, in memory of all who have died in military conflicts. Due to the relocation, the ‘Healing the Wounds of War’ service will not be held in this, the centenary year. The photos of Andrew Gillison and of the Gallipoli battlefield were donated to the Uniting Church Archives by the congregations as they prepared to move.
The names of Frederic Mulvey, Andrew Gillison and all other Australian men and women killed at the various fronts of World War I will be projected onto the external wall of the Australian War Memorial numerous times throughout 2015. If you have a relative who was killed during WWI, you can look up their record on the AWM website and find times specific to your relative listed on their honour roll. Visit the Australian War Memorial website at www.awm.gov.au.
Such a powerful article! Each year we mutter “Lest we forget” and buy our poppies, yet how many of us have truly taken the time to think about the men that lost their lives fighting? It must have been so confronting for chaplains in the trenches, surrounded by so much death and despair. It’s so encouraging to know that some (although a small number) acted on their Christian faith – showing love and kindness – by choosing to walk along side the men and help where they could. That would have been a great comfort to those around them when all else seemed lost. What better way to reflect God in a seemingly God-less place?
It’s really put things back into perspective for me and has made the upcoming Anzac Day more than just a day.
These are powerful accounts of the sacrifice of our brave Australian relatives and friends in their efforts during World War 1. I am hoping to display some of these pages in an exhibition linked to the Remembrance Day concert to be given by my Choral society in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire U.K. in November. We will never forget the compassion of the chaplains who walked with the men.