A Middle Class Man: An Autobiography, Chapter 4: The Meeting

Chapter 4: The Meeting

Author: Alistair Knox

The Anzac participation in the Dardanelles campaign continued for seven bitter months. With their usual ponderous strategic attitude, the western Allies' intention to take the land on the sides of the narrow entrance to the Black Sea had been telegraphed to the Turkish defenders some months prior to the event actually occurring. A young Winston Churchill, who was Lord of the Admiralty, first conceived the plan for the taking of the straits - he would utilise old battleships without land forces - some months prior to the 25 April landing. It was believed that the forts at the entrance to the straits had 'possibly' been reduced and that the ships could thereby proceed up in a systematic manner. There were hopes that it would be seen as a major operation - and not merely a demonstration - if it did succeed; but it was to be conducted in such a manner that should it fail, it would be regarded as having only been a demonstration. And fail it did! Some of the older battleships, as well as a modern one, were sunk or badly damaged by mines, and the action had to be called off. When the landing did actually take place, the Turkish Army was ready and waiting in advantageous high positions all along the narrow straits, which extended from the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmora - a distance of more than fifty miles.

Australian, English, and French troops won landings and contested the surrounding heights for the next eight months but were never able to make a decisive breakthrough. It was the first real war in which Australians and New Zealanders had fought together, and both the suffering and the heavy casualties bonded them in a deep and abiding fraternity. Australia lost 7,600 killed and 19,000 wounded; New Zealand 2,500 killed and 5,000 wounded. There were fewer than one hundred prisoners taken. From the very first hour of the landing until the last shot as they vanished without the enemy even realising they had left, every person in every element of both armies (in the words of C.E.W. Bean, the official Australian war historian) demonstrated 'reckless valour in a good cause, enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship, and endurance that would never own defeat'. This became a tradition - not only for those fighting, but also for the Australian and New Zealand people at home. Those seven months were the birth pangs of both nations, and produced a strongly-established military force with a real tradition. Anzacs would never exchange their battered digger hats and sloppy tunics, even when it was possible, for the newest and best of any other army: they wore them until they literally fell off their backs.

After the brilliant withdrawal from Anzac Cove, the fighting men returned to Egypt to re-form and to prepare for its defence against the Turks, who were expected to begin a full-scale offensive following their successful defence of the Dardanelles; this would set the whole of the East in turmoil. Before long, recruiting had doubled the numbers in the AIF. The first sudden - and enormous - casualty lists brought the realisation that the war was going badly. The number of enlistments in Australia rose from 16,000 in June 1915 to nearly 74,000 in October of the same year.

After they had been in Egypt for a period of time, it became necessary to send more than half the Australian forces to the European theatre of war. The Germans had pre-empted the well-laid Anglo-French schemes by attacking months before the latter were ready, in most bounderish and unsportsmanlike manner. Certain British commanding officers, however, were nervous about committing the Australians where they themselves were not succeeding because they regarded them as undisciplined and barbarian. It is true that the Australian troops were not very good at parade-ground saluting, but the fighting force that they generated at Anzac made them at least the equal of any traditional force, including the Germans, in the war. In addition, they had developed both an initiative and an improvising capacity which made them the shock troops of the western Allies in France - from the time they got settled in until hostilities ceased. In the end, they led the breakthrough of the German advances in 1918, turning it into the great retreat that would terminate the war. Both Hindenburg and Ludendorff, the commanders of the German forces, stated that Monash, the Australian commander towards the end, won the war for the Allies. As Ludendorff surveyed the battlefront on 7August 1918, when the mists that had shrouded the battlefield in an early-morning attack suddenly lifted, he could see how things lay. He later stated that this was the day when he knew he would have to sue for peace. Australia's part in the First World War was obviously numerically smaller than that of Britain or France because of its population; but its fighting men, brought up in a land of uninhibited space and wilderness, added a new dimension to European thinking. What the Australians lacked in culture and sophistication they made up for in courage and practicality in a wide variety of conditions. Originality and social inexperience tended to go hand in hand, and loyalty to the good cause and to one's mates was the essential way of life. To this day, these men have never been fully appreciated by the British High Command, except by men like General Birdwood, and a few others, who had been right through it all with them. They understood and appreciated their amazing calibre.

Australia emerged from its status as a British colony and became an independent nation during those years on the battlefield - on the home front, and especially in the political arena. During the political infighting that followed the war, the fiery Welsh prime minister and attorney general, William Maurice Hughes, out-performed all the Government's lesser representatives and won dignity and authority for Australia; he was just as outstanding as the armies on the battlefields had been.

Loyalty to the Crown abroad - balanced with political independence at home - became the general policy, which resulted in a nebulous, middle-course hiatus. The majority of elected Australian Governments that followed were conservative and perpetuated the colonial status quo. The awarding of Knighthoods, OBEs, and MBEs gradually produced the faint aura of an upper-middle-class superiority which has competed on equal terms with the 'leftist' groups - disparagingly included under the general rubric of 'socialist/communist' - ever since. It was the mateship experienced in the trenches of World War I, however - where officers came up through the ranks, and not because of birth - which caused a reflex action to occur. National decision making tended to be left to a small minority, as if it were felt that anyone could do the job if they set their mind to it. The average citizenry did not seek to hold political office. They all preferred to get back to their own carefree local communities, which had become heavily influenced by beer, cricket, and football. Most people felt more or less equal to one another during the age of Jazz, the Charleston, and the Black Bottom of the 1920s. When the Great Depression took over in 1929, it was found that a mere change of Government was not sufficient to bring about a true shift toward political maturity. Australia had returned to its colonial attitude and had never really come to grips with making its own decisions, as it would have to have done had it been a republic.

German Battleships turn away on coming under fire from the British Grand Fleet at the Battle of Jutland 31st May 1916 German Battleships turn away on coming under fire from the British Grand Fleet at the Battle of Jutland 31st May 1916. Image: http://www.britishbattles.com/the-battle-of-jutland-part-i-the-opposing-fleets/

Because I was only four years old , these realities did not affect my thinking at all, even though the Battle of Jutland (the greatest sea battle in history) occurred in May of that year, followed by the drowning of Kitchener (the British warlord) off the Orkney Islands, and by the Australians joining the fight on the Western Front - all within a month. April was the month in which most combat initiatives commenced, because it was spring in the Northern Hemisphere. The sludge of the European battlefields, churned up by the inconceivable bombardments, began to dry out. On the home front in Danks Street, Middle Park, I had nevertheless become fully aware that the main consideration of our lives was the outcome of the war; but still it was all far, far away and hard to come to grips with. Children saved the silver paper wrappings off chocolates and rolled them into balls to help the war effort. I greatly envied some of them as I calculated how many blocks of Nestles and Cadburys had been consumed to make such large, weighty spheres. The war's major effect on me in 1916 concerned the buying power of money. I used to receive twopence weekly for spending money. One day, I saw this meagre sum reduced to half its effective spending power at a single blow, and I was to discover the impact inflation could have on an economy - as it has continued to have on financial systems the world over ever since. I always invested my weekly allowance on long-lasting toffees, which meant that I chose Everton toffee blocks in preference to their chief competitor, the Silver Sammy. Silver Sammies were good-quality chocolate-covered caramel toffees, but they were twopence each. Once I started on a Silver Sammy I was unable to resist finishing it, which meant I could only suck sweets one day in seven. Everton toffees were thick, but brittle, blocks, and it was possible to break them up and keep half for another day. Also, they only cost one halfpenny each. On the day in question I entered Mr O'Dwyer's grocery on the corner of Richardson and Nimmo Streets. His shop was isolated from the main shopping centre and seemed a more modest establishment than the others. I also had the vague idea that both my mother and Aunt Isa patronised him because he had a large family to support and was 'struggling' to keep going. There was the large glass jar of smooth brown Everton toffee blocks smiling at me from the counter and causing my mouth to water in anticipation. Then Mr O'Dwyer broke the news that the price had risen to two for a penny-halfpenny, or one penny each. Farthings were no longer valid currency, so this announcement meant that I had to pay twice the price for a single block - fifty percent more if I were to buy two. But the crowning injustice occurred when I realised that in the latter case, my remaining halfpenny had become almost worthless. The pain these calculations caused was so evident on my face that Mr O'Dwyer laughed good-naturedly at my dilemma. I left without purchasing anything, my dignity in tatters. I never forgave his laugh that day because I had always been indulged at home and generally got my own way in the end; but I quickly realised that so far as toffees were concerned, things would never again be the same.

I drove past that same street corner recently - some sixty-six years later - and saw that in the intervening years only some minor changes have been made to the building that once housed O'Dwyer's: the brick walls have been painted and 'twigged' up a bit, and the entry door has been walled in to indicate it is now a private residence - no longer a grocer's shop. Serves him right, I felt instinctively, as if all those years had never passed at all - although the grocer must have been dead for at least thirty of them. Retribution had caught up with him and his innocent part in that war-profiteering. Someone once said that 'true maturity was to recapture the seriousness that one had as a child at play', which I feel is a relevant remark in this instance. In the end, I reflected, the poor always do pay first and pay hardest.

My daily life gradually changed from a series of separate incidents into a continuous pattern during 1916. The most constant event in my overall experience became the Sunday morning journey to and from the Meeting at Napier Street, South Melbourne.

Auntie Isa had three children: George, who was four years older than Marjorie, and Dorothy, who was three years younger again. My sister Isobel was between Marjorie's and Dorothy's age, and they were a fairly close group who did most things together. They often walked to the station to catch one of the two church trains which ran on a Sunday morning. It took my sandled feet a long time to get from Danks Street to the Temperance Hall and back, especially as the service varied week by week in length and character.

Temperance Hall The Temperance Hall where the Meeting was held. Photo: Tony Knox

The service usually proceeded along at an unhurried pace and pattern with the impromptu announcing of hymns, prayers, and Bible readings leading into the weekly institution of communion or the Lord's Supper, which was always sensitive, devout, and profound. The celebration was generally followed by an address by one or more of the male members of the congregation as they felt led by the Spirit to speak on a subject suggested by the preceding part of the service. Worship would then close with a final hymn and a prayer.

It was the simplest possible form of evangelical worship. Any male regular worshipper could take an active part in it if he felt he should, and a collection was never taken up once during the seventy years of the church's existence. There was no paid minister, and the rent of the Temperance Hall remained unchanged at £1 a week during almost the entire period. This small amount was contributed by some or any of the inner group stealthily placing offerings in a box concealed near the entrance.

Grandpa Knox presided at the communion table every Sunday until his death in 1884, after which Grandpa Brown succeeded him. There was no organ or musical accompaniment, and the singing responsibility was borne up bravely every week by the intrepid Uncle Jim Forman, whose voice had the same robust quality as his health and vigour. It was the sort of 'rolling, roaring' voice that Bunyip BlueGum ascribed to Sam Sawnoff in The Magic Pudding. It may have been a little flat at times, but the overall result was consistent and effective, and it certainly taught us the words and tunes of the hymns. The periods of silence that ensued between the singing, the prayers, and the Bible readings had the ability to stimulate the one who would next lead, but, as might be expected, proceedings did not always flow as easily as they should have. There was Mr Alexander - a sincere, simple man who seemed to have suffered a stroke some years before my time - who would sometimes start off with a set plan of taking over the whole service by storm. His hymn book and Bible, with markers sticking out of them, would be placed conspicuously beside him. He would announce the first hymn briskly, and then stand to pray almost as we sat down. He became emotional in his prayers, and even the pre-reading of the hymns could cause his voice to crack and tears to run down his cheeks. I used to watch him to see whether he would collapse under the emotional strain; and my father, who sat next to him, said he waited like Gregory (a world-famous fieldsman) in the slips, ready to catch him should he fall.

The space Mr Alexander allowed between events was generally just a half minute too short for another to feel graciously enough moved to intervene with a contribution of his own. He may not have played according to Hoyle - and we all knew it - but we accepted it as part of the system we went by, and in general it worked well. It trained us in a deference to the weaker brother and gave point to what the Apostles' Creed might possibly have meant regarding the perseverance of the saints.

From my earliest recollection, Grandpa Brown presided at a table spread with a pure-white linen cloth on which were placed two stemmed wineglasses and a decanter of red wine on one side; a large Bible in the centre; and some slices of white bread, from which the crusts had been removed, placed on a plate on the other side. Here he dispensed the elements. The elders, consisting of about twelve of the most senior men, sat on chairs in a semi-circle on either side; and the remainder of the congregation, with their wives and families and other adherents, sat on long-backed forms facing them. It was, with the exception of Mr Alexander's forays, an orderly, intimate fellowship of believers; and the opportunity for any member to contribute provided a freshness and surprise rare in pastor-dominated circles. It was not that the quality of intellectual material was always as high, but the sincerity and purpose were.

I must have heard the 53rd Chapter of Isaiah read hundreds of times during the communion in my early years, until it was etched on the flesh tables of my heart. When I was truly converted thirty years later and heard the words 'Who hath believed our report, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed' read, I would automatically go on: 'For he shall grow up before Him as a tender plant and like a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness and when we shall see him there is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief....' The quality of the words in the Authorised Version, combined euphoniously with the mystery and majesty of the concept, became real soul food when I finally 'tasted the Lord and found that He was good'.

I could always discern two societies in church: the visible and the invisible. I never saw the actual person of Jesus or an angel, but I knew they were all there - both the good and the bad. It was like a weekly enactment of parts of Paradise Lost. I cannot remember what I thought about when I was four years old, except that it was essential to say I believed in the saving power of the cross of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. I most heartily agreed within myself that I did, but I did not comprehend how this belief could work. For the remainder of the time, my mind would wander to wondering what Dorothy and Isabel were whispering about in the seat behind me, or to any other diversion I could think of as I sat wedged between Cousin George and Auntie Isa. My restricted movement forced me to study George's highly-polished light-tan brogues and his suspendered socks, with clox running up them. I was always conscious of the smell of lavender coming from Aunt Isa throughout the entire service. I also had an enforced opportunity to consider the family likenesses as I studied my father, Arthur Jean Francois (whom they called Frank), and his brothers Alex, Walter, and Willie as they sat around the circle. They were all 'highly strung', especially Willie, the artist. Uncle Walter was the shyest of them, Alex the eldest. My father had a calmer disposition than the others, but they all had a vociferous argumentative grain and would take issue, just for the sport of it, on all sorts of subjects, on any occasion. Sitting around the table at the Meeting was about the only time one could find them silent, contemplative, and reverent. Even then, they were balanced on their chairs in such unrelieved athletic postures that it appeared they were being restrained by invisible cords. They all expressed deep irreverence for any man-made topic or institution, especially the English and English ways and conceits. They all shared wonderful flow of language and a penetrating visual sense of humour, and spoke together in high-pitched staccato sentences interspersed with explosive bursts of laughter. They never swore, but their lurid descriptions of people, places, and situations evoked scenes more diabolical even than Dante's Inferno towards those with whom they differed.

There is no question that the Meeting gave me a sense of identity in a clearly identifiable community. Age made no difference. Every member had a part to play which was equally significant if not equally important. The hour and a half at the Meeting on Sunday mornings brought out our latent characters and attitudes because it was a place where personal restraint had to be exercised; this, coupled with the opportunity to express our most intimate and elevated thoughts and hopes in public, made it a sanctuary for the sympathetic baring of the soul for those of all ages. Our form of worship contained many of the conditions that applied to the early Christian Church where 'all that believed were together and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they continuing daily with one accord in the temple and in the breaking of bread from house to house did eat their food with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God and finding favour with all the people'.

The St Vincent de Paul's Boys Orphanage was separated from the Temperance Hall by high brick fences with broken glass set into the cement copings on top of them. From the side door of the hall which led to the lavatories, orphans could be observed at odd times like scouts of a marauding army, climbing over adjacent buildings to retrieve their footballs. On some Sundays during the church service time, the orphanage would have organised activities which we could hear very clearly. On special occasions, there were three cheers for some important visitor which set the mind to work wondering how it all looked. But it was their band practice which took the sanctity out of our service. There was generally a period of quiet as the band assembled, and we would be oblivious of the impending storm about to break out. Suddenly the shrill blast of an umpire's whistle would cut across the silence, followed immediately by the roll of kettle drums and the boom of a bass drum. A few seconds later, the music of the forty-piece brass band would set everyone off marching around the parade ground. The noise was deafening. Even Mr Alexander himself would be quelled, and the service had to be conducted mostly during the rests the band took between pieces. They played well and obviously enjoyed it all. It was not unlike a re-enactment of Joshua and the Children of Israel marching around Jericho, 'and the people shouted when the priests blew with the trumpets'. The walls did not fall down, but they did reverberate, and the windows of the Temperance Hall rattled and shook violently.

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