I have never commemorated Anzac Day in any significant way.
As a child, I always looked forward to seeing Essendon and Collingwood at the MCG and I absorbed with awe the spectacle of 100,000 people standing silently.
But until this year I never fully appreciated why we get up early and stand so introspectively in the middle of our towns and cities.
I knew my great-grandfather Frederick Brooke Darling – Fred, as he was known — had been a captain during World War I and had his leg blown off by a shell, but that was about it.
I wasn’t much interested in knowing more: I never knew him – he died 11 years before my father was born – and the war that claimed his limb ended 76 years before I was born.
An email two weeks ago from my first cousin, once removed, changed that.
The “rabbit hole” was the Virtual War Memorial Australia (VWMA) website, a page full of testimonies and historical records that aims to piece together the lives and personalities of the men and women who served in Australia’s armed conflicts.
My great-grandfather’s saviour was Wilfred John Mann Hughes, a man from Glenelg serving in the second Division Medium and Heavy Trench Mortar Batteries in Belgium in 1918 when German forces began an attack.
War records show he was shot dead at the age of 22, trying to get Fred to safety.
‘You can be wonderfully proud of him’
What I read next made me feel the closest I have ever felt to an ancestor: a letter to Wilfred’s father written by Captain Darling while recovering from his injuries in a London hospital, four weeks later.
“Dear Mr. Hughes,
Not knowing you it is rather difficult to know really what particulars to give you in regard to your son. I think I will risk it and tell all I know…
I had the misfortune to get my leg shattered, and he with another man carried me to the nearest Aid Post under intense enemy fire. He accompanied me down on the light railway truck and was shot through the head by a machine gun bullet shortly after we started. Death was absolutely instantaneous; he did not suffer at all…
I hope the foregoing may give you an idea of the stuff your son was made of. I want you to believe me when I say that your son ranked with the finest of those who have made our army what it is. He was fearless where duty was concerned and had a smile for all misfortunes and hard knocks. We in the Battery respect and honour him as a man who did his duty to the full and lived an honourable, straight, and clean life. More than this no man can be. You can be wonderfully proud of him.
You will know him for what he is and that is the main thing.”
My family and I were overwhelmed by Wilfred’s sacrifice – it is possible we are all alive today because of what he did — but also by our relative’s grace and sympathy for a bereaved father.
It is a great solace to know the kind of man Fred was.
Catharsis and truth
I felt compelled to reach out and thank the Virtual War Memorial as a result of this experience.
The centre is based in Adelaide and has been around for seven years. It was launched to coincide with the centenary of Anzac Day and more specifically the Battle of Amiens.
Chief executive Sharyn Roberts told me there were now 655,000 profiles of servicemen and women on the site, and that revelations like the one my family had experienced in recent weeks was the website’s raison d’etre.
“We’ve got a big project underway at the moment to complete the person database: names and service details on the individuals that served, from the Boer War right through to Afghanistan and peacemaking missions,” she said.
“We are hoping by the middle of the year we will move from 655,000 tribute profiles through to about 1.6 million.
“Last year we did an oral history on Laurie McEwen, a World War II veteran in Wallaroo, South Australia,” she said.
“He had turned 100 in October and never spoke about his war experiences. In the last couple of minutes in that interview, he indicated how important it had been to talk about it, so it became a peacemaking thing for him.
Ms Roberts said the VWMA now had five employees, 15 volunteers and thousands of citizen researchers contributing.
“A lot of the commemorative focus has been on those who didn’t return, justifiably so, but as we’ve worked with veteran communities, a lot of the sadness has been around stories not being captured,” she said.
“If we look at that shift to 1.6 million tribute profiles, that’s about 1.6 million stories to be told. This is about elevating those stories that would otherwise be unknown.”
More than 8,000 Australian soldiers died at Gallipoli, and twice as many were injured across months of fighting by the Allies to try to force the Ottoman Empire out of World War I.
After my family’s discovery of Wilfred Hughes, in addition to feeling solemn on April 25, I will now also feel grateful.
Grateful to Wilfred, grateful to Fred for honouring the man who saved him, grateful that I live in a country barely touched by conflict compared to the rest of the world, and grateful to the dedicated people who dig up these stories.
Ms Roberts thinks the memorial’s work will become more important as the world wars of the 20th century grow more distant.
“When you look at facets of history like conflict that have such a significant impact on societal values and economies, all of those things are well documented. What isn’t told as much is the stories of the participants, the people that enlisted,” she said.
“We cannot remember them if we don’t know them.”