Friday, May 17, 2013

Boy Soldier by David Mussared

Anzac Day is a topic which has been addressed in a number of children's books, including those written by our supporter authors, Jackie French, A Rose for the Anzac Boys and Dianne Wolfer, Light Horse Boy.

This website has a longer list of books with an Anzac theme together with other resources about the significance of Anzac Day for children from Australia and New Zealand.

Today's post, from Adelaide journalist, David Mussared, is a personal reflection.  We recommend that younger readers ask an adult to read it first to determine whether it is suitable for that reader.

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It's the little things that get you.

Look at this photo for example. It's what finally got to me.

What the photo shows is my grandfather's initials, carefully written in 1917 - somewhere in the battlefields of France - on the back of a new armband he had been issued to wear with his AIF uniform.

A few days ago I was going through some of my grandfather's war memorabilia with my father. When I noticed the red initials I felt a chill of recognition - "someone walked over my grave", as my mother would say.

Because doesn't the way my grandfather drew his initials remind you of something?  Isn't it exactly the way a child might do it?

Look at the way he joined the letters, 'JLM', together in a crude monogram. Can you imagine any adult you know writing his initials like that?  I certainly remember doing my initials like that as a kid, on the back of my ruler at school.

Remember that these initials are the work of a capable AIF veteran, a man who - surrounded by death and destruction - had already earned the respect of his superiors, had been wounded, and would shortly be commissioned as an officer.

But this veteran was also still little more than a child: he was just 17 years old. Like so many others, he had put up his age by two years so he could join the army.

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The year before, aged 16, he had already fought for several months in the Somme, one of the legendary bloodbaths of World War 1. In October 1916 (a month after his 17th birthday) Grandpa's service record reports that he had been "slightly wounded", but that he had quickly returned to the Somme trenches.

Then in November, as the freezing wet of the French winter set in, Grandpa had contracted "trench foot". He was evacuated from France to England.

Lying in hospital in London, my grandfather saw a medical note attached to the foot of his bed. He asked the man in the bed next to him to read it for him. The notice, his mate told him, said that Grandpa was scheduled to have both his feet amputated.  My 17-year-old grandfather crawled down to the end of his bed and tore the notice up.

His feet recovered.

By May 1917 Grandpa was back in France. Details are scanty, but his service record shows that in July that year he attended something called the 'Pigeon Flying School'. Soon after graduating from that, he was commissioned as an officer.

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As far as I know Grandpa didn't have anything to do with messenger pigeons during the war, so perhaps Pigeon Flying School was a code name for something else - perhaps an intelligence training unit.

Whatever the case, at some stage that year my grandfather was issued with the white armband marked 'INTELLIGENCE' - on the back of which he scrawled his initials, his hand still childish despite all he had been through.

Later in 1917 (a few days after his 18th birthday) my grandfather took part in the now-famous Battle of Polygon Wood. Perhaps it was there that he picked up some of the other objects which have come down to me, via my father.

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Among Grandpa's war souvenirs is a German soldier's belt - the buckle emblazoned with the famous 'Gott mit uns' motto, and a smattering of other German army memorabilia - including several buttons, and an enamel mug.  I wonder how he came by these.

My grandfather returned from the First World War with his souvenirs, and with some other enduring legacies.

My father recalls that Grandpa regarded the annual Anzac Day and Remembrance Day commemorations as "almost sacred" events. The war never really left him - literally. He died in 1974 with pieces of it still embedded in his body.

As a boy I can remember my grandfather showing me a small dark mark - not unlike a deep tattoo - under the skin of his arm. It was a piece of shrapnel from World War I, he told me, still working its way through his tissues. Over the years several other pieces had already found their way out.

But there is another story which has come down in the family which reminds me of just how young Grandpa was. When he finally returned to Adelaide after the war, he moved back in with his parents.

His father - my great grandfather - told this veteran of the Somme, Polygon Wood and who knows what else, that he must be home by 11pm. When my grandfather did not comply one night, his father locked all the doors and windows of the house except one, then moved his bed under the unlocked window so he could catch him when he came home.

There was one final, bitter irony. Two weeks after my grandfather returned, his father died of the Spanish Flu which was then sweeping the world - a pestilence supposedly brought back to Australia by soldiers returning from the war. The implication is obvious, but thankfully unprovable.

I have not inherited Grandpa's reverence for Anzac Day. I don't go to Dawn Services, I have never donned his service medals to march in Anzac parades. I doubt I ever will.

There is no moral to this story.

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David Mussared’s favourite book growing up was ‘The Buccaneer Explorer’, a biography of the amazing William Dampier. David read that book over and over again. He always wanted to grow up to be just like Dampier – to travel the world, to lead a gang of cut-throat pirates into battle against dastardly Spaniards and to amaze people with his courage and unexpected intelligence. Sadly, none of this ever happened.

David, now 52 and nowhere near as smart as his four kids, lives in the beautiful Adelaide Hills, where he and his wife run a small on-line business. But he still remembers his childhood in a small country town in South Australia, where books were in short supply. He read them – all. He cleaned out the school library and scoured bookshelves all over town looking for more. There town was so remote there was no TV reception, only one (very boring) radio station and (gasp) the internet hadn’t even been invented yet. David learned to love books, and he thinks you should too.


  1. Doreen De Silva17 May 2013 at 13:27

    A very touching and moving story about your Grandfather. So young and at war. I am so glad he returned home. Remembrance Day is especially for the likes of him and so many others. We should never forget what they endured for love of their Country at that young age.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this - I was really moved and am sitting here at my desk, teary-eyed. I was especially floored by the ending, 'there is no moral to this story'.