District Diggers did us proud

DIGGER NURSE: Sister Elizabeth McRae, one of our great local WWI stories, with a detail in the background from an oil painting by George Coates showing nurses attending to the first wounded diggers from Gallipoli in 1915.
DIGGER NURSE: Sister Elizabeth McRae, one of our great local WWI stories, with a detail in the background from an oil painting by George Coates showing nurses attending to the first wounded diggers from Gallipoli in 1915.

BIG crowds, young and old, will turn out to honour our war dead at Anzac Day commemorations next week.

I suspect the power of April 25 is that it’s so deeply personal, so easy to touch, with war veterans still among us, and many local families affected by past wars.

My wife’s family is typical. Trish’s brother-in-law served in Somalia in 1993, her father served in Vietnam in the 1960s, both her grandfathers served in World War II and her great-grandparents were a Gallipoli veteran who fell in love with his nurse in 1915.

That example is repeated many-fold across Macarthur.

I reckon it is inspiring to see the number of young people investigating the service of their forebears, or for teenagers without a Digger ancestor instead studying local soldiers from Campbelltown, Camden or Wollondilly, many of whom died without having descendants to remember them.

There is no better example than St Patrick’s College in Campbelltown, a Catholic girls school which has adopted three World War I veterans buried in the old Methodist/Congregationalist cemetery next door, tending the graves and learning about their war service. Magnificent.

As a 20-year-old reporter on a Sydney daily newspaper in 1987, I was asked to interview Billy King, a Light Horse veteran in his 90s, just before the movie The Lighthorsemen came out. After the article was published, Billy and I stayed friends and we would meet up each month, before his death, so he could read me his latest poems.

Every time I see The Lighthorsemen today I think of Billy and it hits me: what a rare honour I had, to have had a friend who was actually in the charge of Beersheba, leaning into his stirrups, bayonet in hand, as he charged under the guns in 1917.

This newspaper has researched many local WWI veterans, from fighter pilots and artillerymen to stretcher bearers, but the one who probably resonates most with me most is Sister Elizabeth McRae, who saw five years of war but wasn’t listed on local honour boards because she was a woman.

Indeed, she had also been forgotten by Campbelltown; no one seemed to know anything about her. The nosy journo part of me wanted to know more when I stumbled across her name in an old article from 1920. It was only after tracking down her distant relatives, obtaining photos, and studying her war record in Canberra that I fully realised what an incredible woman this was. 

She tended the wounded from Gallipoli, and then saved countless lives on the Western Front in France and Belgium. As a surgical nurse, she was up to her elbows in blood and guts at casualty clearing stations located immediately behind the front line, operating on wounded men as German bombs fell around her. 

When she was gassed in 1918 she refused to officially report it so could she could remain on duty to save lives – causing respiratory ailments that plagued her the rest of her life. That’s why she had to move to Terrigal from Minto in the 1920s – she needed a constant sea breeze for her damaged lungs.

Thankfully, Sister McRae is no longer forgotten. Campbelltown Council has named a major street after her in a housing estate that stands on her old Minto farm, and also unveiled a memorial to her in an adjoining park.

Now, John Therry High School is preparing a special Anzac garden to honour the fallen and will make her one of the veterans it celebrates with a plaque, researched by the students. 

May all our veterans also have a light shone on their deeds. Lest we forget.

1816 war dead also recalled

Many local children attended the 2016 Appin Massacre anniverary commemoration at Cataract Dam.

Many local children attended the 2016 Appin Massacre anniverary commemoration at Cataract Dam.

MACARTHUR has another important war remembrance event coming up – the Appin Massacre Memorial ceremony on Sunday, April 23, at Cataract Dam.

Like Anzac Day, it will draw big crowds – but not necessarily the same crowds – which I find a bit sad.

There is still a gap between remembering our local war dead from 1916 and our local war dead from 1816. But the gap is narrowing each year, particularly with our young people.

Last year I noticed a number of schools – big contingents from John Therry High School and St Patrick’s College in particular – yet again sending students to both events – Anzac Day and the Appin Massacre memorial, with banners, uniforms and obvious local pride.

Our history is a shared one, and in the spirit of reconciliation, speakers at Cataract Dam last year not only spoke of the Aboriginal dead, but remembered the white settlers killed in the frontier battles as well. Because, local history shouldn't be about “them and us”.

Simply “us”.

Or the three words used by the organisers: “Remembering, Healing, Reconciliation”.

I am reminded of the Aboriginal Diggers of WWI and WWII who were were accepted as equals in the trenches, but then returned home to be banned from entering a hotel with their mates on Anzac Day – a bloody disgrace.

“Us” is the only way forward. Lest we forget.