A Middle Class Man: An Autobiography, Chapter 2. At war and at home

Chapter 2. At war and at home

Author: Alistair Knox

I can recall very little of the events that followed the outbreak of the Great War - Germany, Austria, and Turkey battling Britain, France, Russia, and their allies - except that Edie and her friend Isabel taught me to sing 'It's a Long Way to Tipperary'. They would stand me up on the black-bean sideboard my father and his brothers had made when my parents got married. Edie and Isabel took me out often, so I felt it well worthwhile to perform for them as a sort of recompense. I was conscious, however, that my father didn't think much of these exhibitions, although he was too tactful a person to have interfered.

I was vaguely aware that Uncle Bob was unlikely to return to Melbourne because he would instead try to enlist in the Royal Navy. There was some general talk at home about what was going on at 'the front' - which I somehow confused with the art nouveau lead-light front door of our house. I thought it must have been a very big door indeed which they spent all that time fighting about. My sister Isabel, who was five years older than I was, showed me where she planned to hide when the Germans came: in an old tin trunk in the washhouse. She demonstrated what she meant by actually getting into it and pulling down the lid after carefully warning me not to lock it on her. She, at least, was aware that there was more than mere juvenile imbecility going on behind my wall of silence.

In support of the mother country and with great enthusiasm, Australians entered the First World War. Australia had already sent a contingent of more than sixteen thousand to the Boer War between 1898 and 1902; most of them had been mounted cavalry and in the end they surprised the British authorities by proving more capable of the work assigned to them than had their own men. They had achieved a reputation for dash and skill in action - and a rakishness when unengaged which would send shivers of alarm through the regular army command, drenched as it was in stiff tradition after sixty years of Queen Victoria's reign and the British Raj in India.

The great debt owed by Australia to Britain was the freedom of the seas which had given the colony peace for one hundred twenty-six years. The Russian threat of the 1880s sharpened the realisation that this protection could disappear, and efforts were made to awaken conservative Australian opinion to the need for a measure of naval independence. But it was the shock which swept the Empire in 1909 - when it realised that Germany's enormous naval expansion eventually would challenge the British main defence and command of the seas - that finally broke through the resistance. By 1914 the Australian fleet comprised the battle cruiser Australia, three light cruisers, and some submarines and minor vessels. Even then, the conservative elements favoured presenting the mother country with a dreadnought rather than having us develop our own resources.

It was this Pacific squadron that in 1914 took part in the earliest engagements between Australia and Germany. The first encounter involved the destruction of the signal station in German New Guinea near Rabaul; and the second, the sinking of the famous South Seas raider Emden by the light cruiser Sydney.

Australia was undergoing the first contractions which would force its birth into turbulent and bloody nationhood at Anzac, Palestine, and Flanders. The pioneering age came to a sudden halt and, in the best tradition of the times, enthusiasm for empire and enthusiasm for Australia ran harmoniously in parallel. Australian homelife was fairly similar to that in Britain and America, and the added influence of the backwoodsmen - those men of the great sheep stations and the mining fields - had developed in the population the resourcefulness and ability to struggle towards objectives even when opposed by authority. The strange and antediluvian survival-conscious landscape they lived in had welded them together in a common bond so that, no matter what the situation, a man must stand by his mate. The Australian war historian C.E.W. Bean wrote: 'Contrary to the current economic creed of "devil take the hindmost", they clung to the creed of standing by the weaker brother, and the Australian ballad writers Gordon, Lawson, Paterson, Ogilvie, and others were constantly read and quoted. The people were not formally religious, but there was a marked comradliness in their outlook, and no degree of economic pressure could induce them to abandon it'. The moral influence of games, especially cricket, was also very strong, and the names W. G. Grace, Victor Trumper, Turner the Terror, Mrs Noble - and those of the hundreds of other protagonists of the willow and the leather - became the modern counterparts of mythical Greek heroes of the Trojan Wars.

Anzac Beach, Gallipoli, 1915 Anzac Beach, Gallipoli, 1915. The beach packed with Australian soldiers and supplies with more arriving in small boats. Australian War Memorial, H03574.

The Anzac Landing at Gallipoli scarcely registered with me, as I had just turned three; in addition, its seriousness probably caused my parents to shield me from it. But the drowning of Lord Kitchener in the North Sea during enemy action two years later did seem to be a matter of great importance. His image was seen on billboards everywhere, imperiously demanding that all males between eighteen and forty join up immediately. His peaked cap, black moustache, and pointing finger penetrated my imagination so deeply that tinges of the urgency still remain. Kitchener's words to the Australian troops as they set off for the war zone were: 'Fear God - honour the King. Remember on the soil of a friendly nation to abstain from liquor and looting and be courteous to women, but not more than courteous'.

To my infant understanding, life in our street from 1914 to 1918 was outwardly undisturbed. Most of the husbands and fathers were over enlistment age, but as they walked down Armstrong Street to the station each morning they seemed to speak quite seriously to one another, with their heads close together. We were all conscious that these were very urgent times. Armstrong Street was the central cross street and shopping centre of Middle Park, and it connected the rail station to the sea baths on the beach front. The South Melbourne Municipal Baths- a grey wooden building with a red-painted trim, set on piles - offered Ladies' and Gents' hot sea baths, as well as general sea-bathing facilities. It sported a small sweet-stall, where one paid to enter, which displayed giant glass jars of snowballs, sherbet, suckers, nulla nullas, silver sticks, and great, soft gingerbreads. There was a wooden ramp that crossed the sand and led to the entrance. The sides of the structure swelled outwards from this central point in a semi-circular curve, so that it was possible, once within, to turn left or right and walk along the wooden deck which gave access to lines of bunks on both sides of the building. These cubicles provided an odd Edwardian type of privacy: in them, one would undress and then hang up his clothes, but afterwards he would emerge naked and proceed to the diving board - in conspicuous view and isolation. At the point at which the enclosed swimming space reached a width of fifty yards, the sides of the baths straightened and went out into the deeper waters in parallel lines. The view of the opposite side always provided a clear, changing pattern of activity as men walked up and down among and over inert figures sunbathing on their carefully spread towels. Sporadic skirmishes occurred when boys started towel-flicking fights, but this would quickly be stopped by older bathers shouting at them or by a naked baths attendant named Sacco coming up to clear them all off. Beyond the extremity of the piled boundary wall, yachts, rowing boats, and canoes passed spasmodically on a pleasant day, and further out, in the deep channel, a steady flow of overseas vessels moved majestically on their way to the Port of Melbourne.

Middle Park Sea BathsThe Middle Park Sea Baths. Photo: Herald Sun

The male swimmers had very much the best of it. They enjoyed the privilege of bathing in the nude, provided they came no nearer the shoreline than the second rest. Notwithstanding this precaution, it was quite easy to spot - from outside the baths enclosure - the naked, suntanned figures of laughing boys splashing about among corpulent and whiskered gentlemen, who quietly breast-stroked it or swam a sort of overarm stroke with stiff arms and a frog-kick called the 'trudgeon' stroke. Women were permitted to swim only during a three-hour period each day, from ll a.m. to 2 p.m. When I was three years old, I was allowed to go with my sister Isabel into the ladies' session. Isabel was an excellent swimmer, as were nearly all the local inhabitants. In fact, there were several world champions who had learned how to swim on that quiet, curving beach in those pre-scientific-swimming days.

The baths were also a major social-gathering place of the district, especially for the early-morning swimmers, many of whom would not miss a day in a year come storm, rain, or frost. As my uncle Jim was one of the doughtiest members of this morning group, I became a spectator of its activities even earlier than I did of the ladies' session. My mother and her sister Isa lived so close by one another that my mother, father, sister, and I would often go over to the Isa's house at nights, particularly on a Saturday. Rather than disturb my sleep they would all generally allow me to stay until morning because Uncle Jim, a notorious early riser, would lie in an hour longer on Sundays than on weekdays. Even so, he would still jump out of bed by 6.30 a.m., kneel down for a short time of prayer at the bedside, and then arise spiritually refreshed to perform Swedish physical exercises, with dumbbells. He dressed by pulling his cycling knickerbockers over his pyjamas and donning his tweed cap and buckled shoes preparatory to cycling off for his morning swim. I used to get into Isa's and Jim's bed when I first woke, to wait for this event. When the weather was fine, I was permitted to go with him.

James Squire Forman was a wonderfully methodical man, and his life followed exact patterns. He would proceed to the washhouse at the rear of the backyard where his cycle, equipped with Major Taylor racing handles, stood hooked vertically against the wall. He would pump the tyres to an exact pressure, and then hoist me onto his back. Once we were out the back gate, he would leap on and set off down cobbled Nimmo Street, which led to the baths. I had to cling on like grim death. Jim's walrus moustache and strong, bristly chin cut into my arms like needles, but the pain was forgotten in the dangerous swaying motion of the cyclist. The speed caused the air to blow cold and sharp on our faces as the tyres whirred over the crisp macadam surface. The whole experience would never have been undertaken had anyone less robust and dauntless than the intrepid Uncle Jim been the person in charge. The climax came as we rattled over the transverse timber decking which led from the street across the sand to the entrance of the baths, where Jim would alight with the elegance of the man on the flying trapeze, right inside the building, and zestfully set off for the big event.

The unvarnished floors and general structure of the baths building combined with the waves rolling in directly beneath it to produce a strange smell - like the bleaching agent in a washing machine, mixed with human sweat. This odour intensified after storms, when much of the structure would become saturated with sea-water. It was as if the whole complex were actually one giant piece of driftwood washed in from the Bass Strait, forming a stage set for the ongoing boisterous social activity enacted within it every Sunday morning during the summer months. A few years later, these charades reached a climax. The main actor in this drama was always the same retired sergeant of police, who had become slightly senile. The sergeant was conceited about his ability to handicap his morning-swimming-comrades' prowess. All present would stage a set piece, which was to ask the sergeant to give about ten of them handicaps for a fifty-yard race. He would then act as official starter and watch them approach the finish line, immediately below where he stood. The competitors would start splashing up volumes of water and all draw into one line as they approached the finish, egged on by the assembled spectators. The sergeant, quite oblivious of the facts, would crouch down on the starting board to decide the winner - an impossible task, even for a man with clearer eyesight than his. When the sergeant announced the winner's name, an argument would rage for some minutes, with competitors and spectators joining in promiscuously. At the end, the sergeant would be praised and applauded for his handicapping ability. Then, after a suitable pause, he would walk to the end of the diving board, which set about ten feet above the water. Silence would be called for, and a loud voice would announce 'Standing dive by Sergeant Taylor!' who would adjust his erstwhile military figure into a straight line, and then fall rather than dive. His body would remain rigid as he attempted to hit the water head-first, with feet behind. Generally, they both more or less hit the water first, with a startling thwack, in a great cloud of foam and spray. It was as if a stiff corpse had been thrown overboard. Great cheers and clapping would accompany this act of mayhem, which would continue as the sergeant made his way back to the rest of the group - in pain, and half-drowned. There was usually someone prepared to rescue him if he started to sink. Whatever the sergeant lacked in discernment he made up for in courage and fortitude, because he would repeat this performance every week, year after year. Just like the populace watching Horatius from the city walls as he returned bleeding and exhausted from defending the Bridge,

'Oft they thought him sinking
But yet again he rose'.

While it is not fair to say that everyone present thought the act was funny or desirable, the general level of wit among early-morning swimmers was of a low standard, which may have been caused by excessive sea-water affecting the brain. Those who enjoyed it most claimed that the sergeant loved it all, that it helped him to keep living - a case of kill or cure! The Australian sense of humour was quite sardonic in those days; it enjoyed the spectacle of someone's suffering who was from within the orbit of the group.

The war had intensified the conflict between the Establishment and the convict, and the rivalry between Protestant and Irish; other perennial topics also filled in what otherwise would have been a colourless hiatus of five and one-half working days each week, topped off with hedge-trimming and lawn-cutting on Saturday afternoons.

Very little visible work was done on Sundays. During the war years, it was observed strictly as a day of rest. Churches were well attended. There was a large Catholic community, and bells chimed to announce the starting of mass every hour from six a.m. until noon. The Protestant churches would start up between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. until the whole area was flooded with ringing bells. The City Council did its best to stimulate church attendance by forbidding open-sea bathing between the hours of 9.00 and 12.00 on a Sunday morning, and they sent inspectors to patrol the beach to see that it was enforced. Even on days when the sea was calm and blue and the wind blew hot from the north, the sea front would be deserted. The Middle Park residents were walking to church. A degree of controlled freedom returned on Sunday afternoons, however, and each train from the city would regurgitate a large contingent of strangers from other suburbs on summer days who were headed out to swim or to promenade on the foreshore. The local inhabitants - who generally wore simple clothes, walked barefoot, and carried towels - would eye these blue-suited and felt-hatted interlopers with distaste. These Sunday outsiders destroyed the remarkable sense of integrated community life we enjoyed during the other days of the week, where we knew everyone in sight and everyone knew us.

In the first three months of the war there occurred the rape of Belgium, the retreat from Mons to the River Marne only nineteen miles from Paris. Events in 1914 were moving almost as rapidly as they later would in the German Blitzkrieg of 1940. At the same time, the Russian steamroller advanced rapidly on the Eastern Front and then stopped as the first struggle for Ypres was joined in the west. Large numbers of Australians were enlisting. The gravity of the situation led the Australian Stock Exchange to close for nearly two months, and a change of Government also occurred. Andrew Fisher became prime minister, and W. M. (Billy) Hughes attorney general at the same moment - an event which was to have strong influence on Australia's contribution to the cause. Billy Hughes had an enthusiasm for the common defence of the Empire. He hurled himself with all of his Welsh fire into the movement for universal service while others were still talking only about local issues. These world-shattering events meant nothing to me, especially as my family were, for 'spiritual' reasons, conscientious objectors to the war.

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