The moving poem “In Flanders Fields” was written in 1915 by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae for the men he buried in Ypres, Belgium, during World War 1. Recently our Flagstaff Community Choir has been singing the lyrics. In the second verse, a drum takes up the beat and the words connect with me.
My Grandfather Pops, an ANZAC soldier, marched in Flanders fields and in Gallipoli. He was decorated twice for bravery, imprisoned once for forgery and twice badly wounded. He returned home, his life muddied by war. He tried to wash that mud away – unfortunately, with alcohol. His life was one of suffering and sadness. That suffering is still felt through the generations.
Two years ago, I learnt that I have a second cousin. We knew that some time between Gallipoli and Flanders Pops had married an English bride. We knew that after returning alone to Queensland in 1918 with disabling injuries Pops committed bigamy by marrying my grandmother. My father and his two siblings came from that second union. My stroppy great-aunt discovered the deception and forced Pops to put things right, but my father still felt he was born a bastard, a harsh judgment of self that we noticed and could not understand.
In 2016 we discovered the other half of this story. His English bride Ethel carried Pop’s first child, a daughter, conceived before Pops was repatriated back to Queensland. We had not known that this courageous war bride came out with her entire English family to search for Pops, first in New Zealand and then in Australia. She never found him and he did not honour her, despite living with his second family just around the corner in Sydney. Ethel stayed the requisite two years in Australia so that she could divorce Pops on the grounds of desertion. She moved to New Zealand, married someone less touched by war and the bottle, and went on to create her own family.
The child of that ill-fated wartime union grew up and had a daughter: my second cousin. She is tall and strong-boned, a hard worker, and she looks more like Pops than we do. We met a year ago and have researched Pop’s story together.
My dad would have loved a sister. He might have understood and accepted his own father had he heard more of the story. Pops was a brave and damaged man, dying with shrapnel still inside his body. He was a resourceful man. In 1917 he convinced his German captors they were going in the wrong direction. He turned them back, whereupon they marched straight into his own ANZAC camp, saving himself and several others. He became a drunk and terrorised his wife and kids, and he was remote to us grandkids. He was an intelligent man who had ambitions for his own children, sent them to a private school and saw them do well in sports and university. He died when he was nearly 80 years old, and never ever did he tell us the real story.
Sleep now Pops. We hold your torch high. We will not break faith with you, and Flanders poppies bloom in all our gardens.
Dr Sue Walthert trained as a GP, and is now working in various teaching roles within the Otago Medical School in Dunedin, New Zealand. She was moved by recent WW1 commemorations to look further into her family’s war time history.