Tag Archives: AIF

Passchendaele

My Great uncle was 35 when he was killed in action at Passchendaele, Belgium on October 12, 1917. Europe was at war since 1914 and in Russia the revolution was to explode in a few days.

Duncan had enlisted in AIF in November 1916 and sailed to England to get some basic training before arriving in Calais and being sent to the front.

Seeing the headstone of his grave with his name simply inscribed D.McCallum was deeply and profoundly sad. So far from home in Sydney

It was was a sunny afternoon when I saw the headstone in a cemetery surrounded by corn fields. The corn had been cut and the stubble retained in the earth. In the distance were farms and further away the villiage of Zonnebeke, further still Passendale.

Duncan’s 36th Battalion’s mission was to take Passchendaele from the Germans. On October 12 it was unsuccessful. Thousands of Australians died in that poorly planned battle in the driving rain and waist deep in the Belgium mud.

I don’t know what killed Duncan, a bullet, a bomb or bayonet. It will never be known. But what is certain is the order from Field Marshall Haig to attack when the officers on the battle ground knew it was hopeless, given the weather led to the deaths of thousands that morning.

Duncan is my link to the Great War who did not return home. Unlike my grandfather Alex Gibson and other great uncles, Bill Gibson, Jack Gray and Gerald Boés who married aunty Gloria. Duncan never saw his two little girls grow up, or watched a rubgy league game or saw his brother Don again.

So somewhere between the jumping off point and his grave in the small Dochy Farm New British Cemetery he was wounded and died on the shoulders of the Australian stretcher bearers.

Visiting the area today is vastly different to that place which in the weeks before October 12 had been pounded with over 4 million exposives that punctured the water table and turned the land to a quagmire.

Today the farms are back growing corn, leeks, cabbages and brussel sprouts. Children ride their bikes to the village school on the country lanes and roads.

There is a B&B called Varlet Farm where they have a small muesem and Charlotte shares kindness and smothers you in food and comfort. She knows the places where the troops were, what happened to who and where they maybe buried.

Every year 20 tonnes of WW1 munitions are found on the fields of Flanders. There are no winners in WAR we’re all losers.

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Today i will be in France

This morning here in Helsinki I finished reading “The Great War” by Les Carlyon.

Today I will be in France.

It is truly well worth reading, a fine book which tells the stories of some of the hundreds of thousands of Australian men and women who went to Europe in the Great War. “The war to end wars”. He tells the story from many viewpoints.

I’ll be thinking of the men my mum told me about, her dad Alex Gibson, her uncle Jack and men I met like Gerald Boës who was my great aunt Gloria’s husband. He was an electician from Sydney, a trade unionist and a Dutchman. He had served in the Dutch Navy as an apprentice electrician.

Gloria came to Helsinki with her political work in the women’s peace movement.

Mum loved her dad immensley and she remembers him everyday. I never knew him, he died young from the results of mustard gas shelling. He spent 3 years in France and Beligum. It is impossible to contemplate.

I asked my aunt Gwen recently whether Alex Gibson said much about the Great War to her. She said all he said was those who talked about it weren’t there. On another occasion during the Great Depression on seeing a workless mate from the AIF walking towards him in the street he said, “here comes another workless victor”.

I know that both Alex and Gerald were politcally active and there is the story of Uncle Jack throwing down his war medals at a protest in the Sydney Domain in the depression only to threatened with a charge of destroying the King’s property.

So today I will be in France and I will remember them.

I will also think about Duncan McCallum, a railway fettler of Redfern who grew up in Lakemba. He is my Dad’s uncle who is buried in Belgium near Passchendale. My great uncle.

My grandfather Donald McCallum was opposed to conscription and he lost his brother Duncan to that war to end wars only to watch his sons go off to the next one.

Duncan was 35 when he died, the father of two little girls. He’d been in France and Belgium less than a year when he was killed in that terrible battle. I will visit his grave.

So this part of the reason for my journey. Lest we forget.