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Shane Elson


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April 2008 # 3

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William Robert and the ANZAC Legacy

William Robert Elson, Serial Number 6733, natural born British Subject, was 21 years and eight months old when he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on the 4th August 1916. He was sent off to the other side of the world as a private in the 22nd Regiment, 12th Battalion. He was my grandfather. 

I grew up in a small town on the northwest coast of Tasmania, not far from where my grandad was born. He noted on his enlistment form that he next of kin was his father, William Elson of Sprent. He also put down his “Trade or Calling” as “farm labourer”. 

The first thing I noticed about my granddad’s documents was his handwriting. Isn’t it marvellous what the wonders of modern technology allow us to see and do? Thanks to the archiving project being undertaken by the National Archives of Australia, I was now, some 92 years later, able recognise where my father learned his cursive script. 

Sure, its not the neatest but it is clear, rounded and where he names his father he adds little serifs to the ends of the characters. My dad did this too when he was writing things up. Perhaps it was their way of highlighting something of importance or to stress the words. The curls of the W, R and E in his signature belie his rough, bushy nature. 

In reading the documents available on the web and tracing his military service I was able to, with the help of my mum filling in a couple of hazy details, come to understand a little more of where I come from and the legacy my granddad left behind. 

The most vivid memory I have of my grandad is him in the backyard of his home working at the huge grinding wheel, sharpening his axes. When I close my eyes I can still see the kitchen at the back of the house and my nan busying herself with whatever it is nans do. And just off to the left, outside the door, under the awning, is the green meat safe. 

If I keep my eyes closed I can still see my grandad riding his bike. He would ride all over the place working as a farm labourer and later on to visit his also retired mates, most of whom, it seemed to me, still lived out of town. 

According to his enlistment form he was a short man, five feet, four and three quarters of an inch tall. I had forgotten that. Seeing it brought me back the time I announced that I was now taller than my father and, by dint that my father was a inch taller than his, I was now the tallest “man” in the house. The arrogance of youth! 

My grandad sailed off to France, then on the England where he promptly got sick and was hospitalised. Five months later he was wounded in action while somewhere in France and was shipped back to England to recover. 

It seems that he recovered quite well because on the 29th September 1917 he was caught “beyond the limits fixed by the AIFDO in that he was found at Andover without leave”. That cost him three days pay. However, this little indiscretion did not prevent him from having to rejoin the march to the front in Belgium the following month. 

Other than a bout of scabies, which saw him admitted to the sick bay, it seems life went on in that monotonous way that soldiers on the front talk about. I guess he lived with the same fears and anxieties, hopes and joys, pain and fatigue and utter boredom that descended when the rains set in and the skies were nothing more than grey, damp cotton balls of drizzle. Come the 9th May 1918 and my grandad was no longer the man he was before. 

Later that month a short telegram from the Imperial Forces, Base Records Office, was sent to his father stating that “Private William Elson wounded. Will advise anything further received”. What it didn’t say was that my grandad had been repatriated to Southwark Military Hospital in England “suffering from gunshot wound chest, severe”. It wasn’t until January 1919 that another telegram was to announce that he was “reported progressing favourably” and a subsequent one to announce that he was “reported convalescing”. 

On the third January 1919 he was returned to Australia on the mail ship Orontes. By this time his record was marked “invalid” and on the 27th March 1919 my grandad was medically discharged from the Australian Imperial Force. 

I started thinking about my grandad’s service as the build up to ANZAC day began. As you might be aware I’m one of those who have become quite jaded at the growing nationalistic tone of ANZAC day ‘celebrations’ over recent years. The twisting of the so called “ANZAC legacy”, for narrow and potentially dangerous intent, has put me right off the whole thing. However, these feelings have never overshadowed my desire to understand what it must be like to be in a war. And another futile one at that. 

My grandad is long gone. The scars and pain he carried for the rest of his life relieved by the coming of death. I can still remember him lying in his hospital bed after a massive stroke. He’d ridden, just the day before, up the bush to visit one of his mates. 

He knew we were there, my dad and I, but his body wouldn’t respond and the best he could muster was a grunt when we both turned away from his bed. He knew we were there and as his last moments neared I guess he just wanted to be with someone he knew. 

Perhaps, in that moment, he had just awoken from a dream that transported him back to that lonely, noisy, muddy battlefield just moments after he had been shot and realising that understood, so much better than those who sent him off to war, the waste of life these fool hardy adventures are. 

My grandad was not a “war hero” he was just one of the thousands who did what they had to to survive. His life was not grand or noted. Nor was he remembered beyond those whose company he kept. Like so many others my grandad was just a young bloke who went off to war and left some greater part of himself there. 

While in name and being he remained William Robert Elson, father of Albert James, grandfather to Shane Gregory I believe, after talking with those who knew him better than I and reading his records, that his soul never recovered from that second wound. For that, no medal, no honour, no red poppy or record will ever suffice. And that, perhaps, is the nasty but real legacy that is left to our veterans and their families.

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