Australia on the western front: 1918 – The nightmare ends

The ruins of Villers-Bretonneux photographed in April 1918 (Australian War Memorial).
The ruins of Villers-Bretonneux photographed in April 1918 (Australian War Memorial).

As 1918 began, Germany was deeply worried by the US entering the war. The Americans were mobilising in large numbers so the Germans needed to win the war before they arrived. The Russian Revolution ended the war on the Eastern Front, and Germany rushed its troops to France for a major offensive in March.

Using massed artillery and “stormtrooper” tactics which foreshadowed Hitler’s Blitzkrieg, they forced the British Army back 50km to the Somme over the graves of previous battles. General Gough’s Fifth Army took refuge in Amiens, a vital communications hub, and Gough diverted the Australian divisions from Flanders to defend gaps in the line. By the time they arrived, German momentum was weakening. They attacked heavily at Villers-Bretonneux, 25km east of Amiens but the Australians drove them off. The following day they repulsed the Germans further north at Hébuterne and Dernancourt.

The Germans launched another major assault on Villers-Bretonneux on April 24. Two Australian brigades with British units counter-attacked that night in a pincer movement, yelling as they charged under machine-gun fire. The following morning, Anzac Day, the Germans were in full retreat. Amiens was safe. A hill overlooking Villers-Bretonneux was selected as the site of the Australian National Memorial in 1938. It was repaired again after being damaged in the Second World War.

As 1918 progressed, the Americans arrived on the battlefields in large numbers shifting the balance to the Allies. Birdwood handed over command of the Australian army to Sir John Monash. Monash was a civil engineer from Melbourne who understood the need for organisation, initiative and good morale. The division in Flanders defending Hazebrouck was moved to the Somme bringing the five divisions under Australian command. Monash attacked at Le Hamel using Australian and American troops on a battle appropriately set for July 4.

Supported by new Mark V tanks, aircraft and artillery, Monash’s infanty achieved their objective in a brilliantly planned attack. Le Hamel was possibly Australia’s finest hour in the war. On August 8, two Australian divisions joined a massive attack on weakening German positions on the Somme. Over 2000 Australians died in one day, but the Germans were routed. General Ludendorff called it “Der Schwarze Tag” – Germany’s black day.

Monash drove the troops to Mont St Quentin and Péronne, a strongly defended riverside town. In bloody hand-to-hand combat, Australians won eight Victoria Crosses in three days, the largest of any engagement in the war. The Germans withdrew to the Hindenburg Line while Monash urged on the exhausted Australians, despite crippling losses.

It was a race against time with winter approaching. In his final attack of September 29 at St Quentin Canal, Monash commanded more “doughboys” (as the Americans were called) than Australians. The Allies finally breached the Hindenburg Line and Germany’s war was lost. Amid a total retreat, most of the Australians saw their last action capturing Montbrehain on October 5. They handed over to the doughboys and sat out the last month of the war.

The year 1918 claimed 12,000 Australian lives on the Western Front. The last to fall were three pilots and three tunnellers in a British attack at Sambre-Oise on November 4. The war ended on Armistice Day a week later though a defeated Germany never admitted the word “surrender”.

Around 60,000 Australians died in the war of a total of 17 million worldwide, seven million of those civilians. The war changed borders, with ramifications the world is dealing with 100 years later. European power was fatally weakened and three empires collapsed. Yet nations did not heed the lesson of the “Great War”. The unsatisfactory nature of the peace led to an even bloodier conflict 20 years later. Australia would again serve in Britain’s interest, but would also be forced to defend its own borders as Japan emerged as a global military power.

Australia on the western front 1917: Bapaume to Passchendaele

Over 6000 Australian names are on the Menin Gate to the Missing at Ypres
Over 6000 Australian names are on the Menin Gate to the Missing at Ypres.

As the winter of 1916-1917 ended, Australian and Allied troops were treated to an unexpected sight. The Germans had begun to withdraw. It wasn’t far, just a dozen kilometres east to a new defensive zone which the British quickly dubbed the Hindenburg Line. The tonic the withdrawal gave the Allies was illusory, this German position was stronger and better-prepared.

The Australians marched into the gap and arrived at the ruined and empty town of Bapaume near Amiens. It was St Patrick’s Day but there was little to celebrate. Germans snipers held outposts beyond the Hindenburg Line and took murderous casualties. By April the two armies faced each other again on the Line. The four AIF divisions that fought on the Somme were part of the 5th British Army ordered to Bullecourt. General Gough repeated his mistakes of Pozières. The Australians had to take the Line without artillery and it was two bloodsoaked weeks before the Germans withdrew. The Australians lost 10,000 men in two attacks that achieved little. Bullecourt convinced Australian soldiers British brass was incompetent.

Field Marshal Haig’s next plan was to send the army back to Flanders and drive the Germans from the ridges around Ypres. Ypres was one of the earliest battlefields in 1914 and had been in stalemate for three years. The first object was to take the Messines-Wytschaete ridge to the south of Ypres in an audacious plan.

The Battle of Messines on June 7, 1917 was the Australians’ first large-scale encounter in Belgium. Men from the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company used their mining experience to lay thousands of explosive devices under German positions. The force of the bombs detonated the ridge and the din could be heard in London. A memorial to the tunnellers now stands on Hill 60.

The Australian 3rd and 4th Divisions and New Zealanders attacked the shattered defences of what was left of the German line. They got as far as the ruined Broodseinde village which was held by the Germans on a higher ridge. The Australians attacked under the cover of a creeping barrage, taking the heavily defended town, perhaps the most complete victory yet by the Allies on the Western Front. With the Germans tottering the fates stepped in: it started to rain.

Within days the slimy muck dragged every advance to a halt. On October 12, the 3rd Division and New Zealanders attacked the high village of Passchendaele. Artillery support was weak and the rain was relentless. Australian infantry were stuck in the mud in front of heavy machine gun fire and casualties were enormous. The Germans counter-attacked and the exhausted Anzacs retreated in a rout. They lost 7000 men at Passchendaele. The Australians  left to regroup and the Canadians took over the position. The Allies made gains but nearly half a million men died at Ypres in 1917, their tragedy compounded as almost all the ground was lost again in the Spring Offensive.

War historian Charles Bean calculated the five divisions lost 38,000 men in the eight weeks of Ypres. Six thousand Australian names ended up at Ypres War Memorial, the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing (erected ten years later).  As 1917 ended, Prime Minister Hughes had another go at introducing conscription. On December 20, the referendum suffered another narrow defeat as the Catholics voted against it. The AIF would remain a depleted volunteer army as it entered 1918. Despite years of war, morale remained surprisingly high. The Aussies were calling themselves “Diggers” and the five divisions were brought together as the Australian Corps, under Gallipoli commander William Birdwood. Moscow was burning in revolution but America was finally in the war bringing a belief that after three years the tide was turning.

Irish Lives and Australian Treaties

John Redmond plaque, Wexford.
John Redmond plaque, Wexford.

I’m over half way through a 6-week online course Trinity College Dublin is offering in Irish history called “Irish Lives:1912-1923″. Not part of any degree and no real certificate at the end but being free and having 17,000 participants it sounded intriguing. I learned about it a week after it started so I’m still wading through Week 4 as this week ends.

I wasn’t sure I needed a third history project to go my study into an Australian Treaty with its Indigenous People, and a biography of Irish-Australian James Dalton. The Treaty is something I’ve come to believe in while Dalton had an amazing life surviving orphanhood in the famine to being in a gold rush in Australia and ending up one of the wealthiest Catholics in Australia.

Then I thought the Trinity course might offer perspectives on Dalton because Redmond was so important from 1912 to 1918. A Wexford man, he represented it in parliament before moving to Waterford. Brother Willy later became MP for Wexford and he was the only MP to be killed in action in the First World War.

John and Willy’s 1883 visit to Australia brought the Dalton and Redmond families together. Dalton was one of Redmond’s biggest supporters in Australia and he paid a heavy price, losing a magistrate position on claims of treasonable activity. The Redmonds repaid their support in kind. John married Dalton’s half sister, Willy married Dalton’s daughter. I wondered if Redmond’s Australian family influenced his thinking as he took thousands of Irish to war in 1914.

I signed up to Irish Lives and I am enjoying it immensely, despite playing catch up. The video lectures are making us think about individual motivation and there is plenty of digitised primary material to study. In particular, the Bureau of Military History is full of great stories from the era. I’ve really enjoyed Muriel MacSwiney (Terence’s widow on how she got into politics through nationalist newspapers and the conviviality of a Cork bookshop), Ned Broy (on the organisation of the DMP and the looting during the 1916 Rising) and some Waterford ones John Riordan and Paddy Paul both of whom fought non stop from 1914 to 1923 (both ending up as Free Staters).

Paddy Paul followed the wishes of his local MP. If John Redmond said they go to England’s war for Ireland he would go to that war. Paul was in an Irish regiment in Macedonia during Easter 1916 and all the men openly cheered for good news from the Rising. Most joined the Volunteers in 1919. By then Redmond was dead and his dream of Home Rule dashed. Paul came back to fight the British in Waterford.

This was great stuff but there was a second reason I took on Irish Lives. I hoped the 1912-1923 period in Ireland might also inform my thinking about treaties in Australia. Most people in Ireland accepted the Treaty process was legitimate even though they were split by the outcome. The most interesting thing I’ve found is the full text of Robert Brennan’s book “Allegiance”. Brennan was an important Sinn Feiner and under secretary for foreign affairs 1921-1922 who was the fledging regime’s publicity officer.

Brennan firstly reminded me of another Irish Treaty, The Treaty of Limerick 1691 that confirmed Protestant rule in Ireland. Brennan quotes Erskine Childers saying the Irish always underestimated the British who always “find a way to repudiate their signatures”.

Brennan also speaks of a meeting he had with Eamon De Valera and Michael Collins in 1921 as both sides looked for a way out of the war. Brennan said a man wanted to meet them, but he was believed to be a British spy named Tom Jones (it’s not unusual). Brennan told Dev and Collins Jones said he knew people in London who could bring a settlement. Collins replied yes let’s meet him and find out his game. Dev says no, he doesn’t want to meet a spy. He tell Brennan to give Jones a message.”(M)y opinion is that the British should offer to negotiate a Treaty with Ireland as a separate state. We can meet on this ground”.

Meet on this ground. So Dev, so devious, so delicious. No wonder Redmond suffered abuse from the press when he visited Australia in 1883. He didn’t want a separate, just home rule, after all that was what Australia enjoyed. The newspapers would have none of it. Australia was too far away and rule from London was impractical. Ireland on the other hand was, the Brisbane Courier said “an integral part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain”. It was preposterous, the paper said “to suppose any Englishman loyal to his country can sanction the disintegration involved in any national Home Rule for Ireland.

Starting as a military prison colony, white Australia never had to treat with the Indigenous people it encountered in Australia.  By the time the Redmonds visited white Australians were trying to create a southern Britain. By 1912-1923 Australia was a federation and its troops fought alongside the Irish at Gallipoli and the Somme. The Aboriginal people were written out of the young nation’s constitution, forgotten and expected to die off.

Though things have improved, Australia has never offered to treat Indigenous people for its thefts. They need to do a Dev, negotiate as a state and “meet on this ground”.

Reflections on the first two weeks of Irish Lives

A sectarian riot in Belfast, 1920.
A sectarian riot in Belfast, 1920.

We are three weeks into Irish Lives and therefore at the half way mark. But I’m still behind, only completing a third of the course so far. I started at the beginning of Week 2 and thought it wouldn’t take me long to catch up. But I didn’t finish Week 2 until today. I’d say I’ve done six to eight hours a week so far, which is more than the recommended dosage, but it’s taking me longer expected to go through the material.

This is no fault of the lecturers. Prof Ciaran Brady in Week 1 and Dr Anne Dolan in Week 2 have skilfully steered the course through fascinating traffic. The “problem” they have offered is a voluminous set of digitised primary sources, wonderful first-hand texts now within reach of anyone with the internet. It’s proving to be buried e-treasure.

I said when I started Week 1 was a straightforward chronology of the events. What I didn’t immediately pick up was why the course was called “Irish Lives” and not say, “Irish History”. People are the focus of this course not great events, though every person was deeply affected by those events, both in Ireland and overseas.

Week 1 placed Ireland firmly in the context of world affairs. I knew why war mattered to Ireland between 1914 and 1923. What I knew less was that culture mattered too. Films like Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid preoccupied in Ireland in 1921 as much as war did. Todd Andrews was hardly more than a kid when he fought in that war and I found his autobiography “Dublin Made Me” as an e-book through Queensland’s State Library. Andrews grew up in Dublin and his memories of the first 20 years of the twentieth century tell as much about working class Dublin’s preoccupations with football (everyone followed Bohs or Shels) and cricket (everyone followed Kent or Surrey) as they did about changing the government. The Irish were part of the world’s biggest empire and they absorbed the correct British attitudes to the “Fuzzy Wuzzies, Niggers and Indian Nabobs”. Dubliners knew more about Belfast than they did about Cork. Dublin was a British city no different to Manchester and Birmingham save in one crucial respect: it was mostly Catholic.

For Protestant Belfast Home Rule in Dublin was an anathema and the Curragh Mutiny proved it would never be imposed on them by force. The First World War gave everyone the chance to get time out from the problem and support their monarch for their own reasons. Those monarchs Willy, Nicky and Georgie conducted a family spat at the cost of millions of lives, but each each of those lives had their own reasons for being in battle.

If Prof Brady’s approach in Week 1 was a “great man theory of history”, Dr Dolan’s approach in Week 2 went into lesser histories to find out what it meant to fight. We had to move away from “the stylised wars of our imagination” and instead examine the lives of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times. What motivated them?

She offered places to find the answer. There is plenty of secondary sources preaching down the history of Ireland. But better still are the primary sources; the words, stories, images and art of the people who lived in those times. Those people are almost all dead now but these Irish Lives live on in bits and bytes: RTE Archives, the Bureau of Military History, British Pathé and National Library of Ireland – all have rich databases, some are haunting. British Pathé pictures of Belfast refugees fleeing the riots of 1920 reminded me of people in Aleppo and Homs in today’s Syria.

Some stories are extremely detailed. The testimony of Collins’ primary intelligence agent at Dublin Castle Eamon Broy is over 100 pages long but a gripping insight into how those who fought in 1919-1921 learned from earlier conflicts. Broy joined the Dublin Metropolitan Police to pursue his love of athletics and he was careful to draw a distinction between it and the RIC. The DMP was paid partially for out of the rates so Dubliners did not consider it a “British” police force unlike the paramilitary RIC (and its network of spies) that kept order in the countryside. Broy and many other DMP officers had republican sympathies and he was a crucial source of information to the rebellion. Broy and Collins laid out a plan to “melt down” the RIC and its network of spies to overcome “British Providence” that so cursed the planning of previous Irish revolutions.

The testimony of Dungarvan revolutionary John Riordan was fascinating for different reasons. I was attracted to his story as a fellow Waterford man and I learned Riordan spent nearly all of the period in military activities. He signed up to the British Army in 1914, fought and was injured at the Somme in 1916 and when the war was over, he was posted to quell a rebellion in Egypt. Riordan was silent about what he thought of Egyptians rebels. Did he see them as Niggers and Nabobs like Andrews or independence seekers like he was about to come? In 1919 Riordan took off his British uniform and went back to Co Waterford to join the “Volunteers”. His military experience was invaluable and he took part in successful operations at Piltown (near Dungarvan) and Cappoquin. He was also involved in the only operation in East Waterford in that war: at Pickardstown outside Tramore on a cold winter’s night of January 6, 1921. I knew that ambush was a failure and from Riordan’s account I could finally see why. Someone in another platoon fired too early leaving Riordan’s men confused and with nothing to aim at. “We were ‘in the dark’ in every sense of the word,” Riordan said. “Nobody seemed to know exactly what was happening”.

Despite the fog of war, there were people who knew exactly what was happening and they used blatant and subtle messages to get their point across. The British government needed men for their war and many Irish signed up for the decent pay and a bit of excitement. For those that needed more encouragement “Pals battalions” sprung up so volunteers could go to war with their buddies. Posters encouraged people to go to France “for Ireland”. The Irish Free State government also learned the value of propaganda of doing things for Ireland. In 1922 they issued handbills criticising the anti-Treaty fighters with a cartoon showing them hiding under the bed during British rule. The rebels responded with moral tracts of their own, grim pictures of dead men in Irish fields, and public warnings against anyone thinking of executing the hiding de Valera.

Whether it was at Gallipoli or Galway war was a dangerous place, but was also exciting. Many worried it would be all over before they got there. It didn’t take long for the bloody conflict to dispel their sense of adventure. Emmet Dalton’s Royal Dublin fusiliers lost 800 men at the Somme in one day, a death toll far out of proportion to the battle’s objectives. “When we finished, I marched out with 98 men out of 929 that went in,” he said. Dalton was proud of his service for the Crown but like Riordan he returned to play a big part in the War of Independence and Civil War.

As Dr Dolan said both of these wars were civil wars pitting Irish people against Irish. The Royal Irish Constabulary were hated symbols of British oppression but its men were mostly Irish Catholic. The furtive nature of those wars left its participants jumpy and shooting at shadows. The Black and Tans and Auxiliaries saw all the Irish as hostile Shinners but they killed more cows in the dark than people. This was a dirty war with dirty tactics on every side. If the British did not like themselves in Ireland, the Irish too had their demons with many suffering nightmares from the killings they did.

There were other kinds of fighting that did not involve guns or bullets: women fighting for voting rights and prisoners wanting political treatment, while hunger strikes, force feeding and funerals all played their part. Funerals especially were great fodder for inspiring martyrdom. Pearse’s graveside oration for the old revolutionary Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in 1914 was a masterclass in sympathy for the nationalist movement. The British fools had left the Irish their Fenian dead, Pearse intoned, and holding these graves, “Ireland shall never be at peace”.

Pearse’s own martyrdom was a powerful war aphrodisiac while even peace-loving cardinals and prelates jostled for position at the funeral of another rebel Terence MacSwiney. The British also knew the value of ceremony by laying out the bodies of its Bloody Sunday dead in Westminster Abbey. The rite was so powerful the Free State held onto the bodies of anti-treaty rebels until the war ended for fear of the impact the funerals might have.

As bitter as Ireland’s troubles were they took place in a period of extraordinary violence across Europe. Ireland was dangerous by British standards but not by the standards of the Western Front or by the Balkans or Turkey or Russia or the Middle East. It’s true many Irish paid with their lives like 16-year-old Belfast girl Ethel Burrows out on a Saturday night with friends and shot dead for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or like Collins at 31, chasing shadows at Béal na Bláth.

Some survived but were scarred forever by the fighting, carrying a bitterness towards enemies, real and perceived, to their dying days, like the British irregulars frustrated they couldn’t have a free hand to solve the Shinners problem, or the rebels who could never forgive the new Ireland for not matching their vision for it.

But others thrived on the fighting. De Valera would dominate Ireland’s politics for another 40 years. Eamon Broy helped shape the new Free State as head of the Garda SíochánaTodd Andrews led Bord na Móna and the CIE while Emmet Dalton became a successful filmmaker. War was a dangerous furnace but for many people, fighting forged their future.

Australia at War: 1916

Australian soliders at the Somme (Australian War Memorial).
Australian soldiers at the Somme (Australian War Memorial).

The Australian Army spent the new year of 1916 in Cairo licking its wounds from the Gallipoli campaign. It needed a fresh injection of blood and got it in large numbers as “Dungaree Marches” across Australia landed new recruits for the volunteer army by the thousands.

From about March 1916 on, the Australians began leaving Cairo in dribs and drabs. Four divisions (1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th) were sent to Belgium, via Marseilles or England. Though half were already battle-hardened by Gallipoli, the Western Front presented a fresh set of hells to deal with such as muddy trench warfare, terrible weather, murderous machine guns and nerve gas, and later tanks and airplanes. The Australians were given ‘the nursery’ to defend, a quieter part of the Front near Armentières just over the border in France.

But this was no place for infants and 600 Australians died in under three months defending the borderline. It was here Private William Jackson became the first AIF soldier to win the Victoria Cross in France. He captured a POW (who were greatly valued for their information) and then rescued wounded members of his raiding party from no man’s land until his arm was blown off by a shell.

It would not be long before the Australians had outgrown the nursery. The main British Army in France was 100km further south of the border, concentrating its force on the Germans at the Somme. The Battle of the Somme was planned as a massive war of attrition. British soldiers were ordered to deliberately walk slowly across no man’s land as second-guessing generals thought this would unnerve the Germans. It didn’t unnerve German machine gunners and 20,000 died in the first hour, 60,000 in the first day – Britain’s highest ever one day casualty list.

A Northern Irishman who fought on the Somme sent a letter home to his Orange Lodge telling them to expect the worst. “There is no doubt that when you receive this note I shall be dead…The more I brood on what may happen the surer I am I shall not survive it. All of us say, ‘It’ll be the other fellow who’ll be killed’. I feel that I am one of those other fellows.”

As more and more those other fellows died, the Australians were sucked into the conflict. Three of its four divisions were re-directed south from ‘the nursery’ to the vast battlefield of the Somme. On July 19, 1916 the 5th division (there was no 3rd division at the time), attacked Fromelles but the Australians were poorly prepared and lost ground to a German counter-attack. It was the worst 24 hours in Australian military history. They suffered 5500 casualties in a devastating blow to the division which lost entire ranks. More Australians died that day than in the combined Boer, Korean and Vietnam wars.

The town of Pozières also became a place of death for many Australians when the front line of the Somme shifted there. On July 23, the 1st Division attacked the town under artillery fire and captured it in five days at the cost of 5000 men. The 2nd Division came to relieve the 1st and suffered another 2000 casualties. They were followed by the 4th division who attacked nearby Mouquet Farm. The narrow front exposed the Australians to murderous shell fire and counter-attacks. Over 42 days, the three Australian divisions attacked Pozières 19 times, 16 at night at the cost of 6000 dead and another 17,000 injured. Those who survived put it down to endurance and luck. In September the exhausted and depleted Australians were sent back to Flanders to recover their strength.

Back home Prime Minister Billy Hughes could see those appalling losses were taking a huge toll on the AIF. Britain’s own volunteer “Kitchener Army” was also cut to pieces (and Kitchener himself dead) and needed conscription to top it up. Hughes became convinced Australia also needed conscription. The issue split Hughes’s Labor party and the Senate was hostile to the idea. When Hughes finally took it to a referendum on October 23, 1916 the No vote narrowly won, but Hughes remained committed to the idea. He left Labor to form a coalition government.

The news was no better for the men in Flanders who were ordered back to the bloodbath in the Somme as winter approached. All four divisions were posted to France as this enormous battle rolled to an unsatisfactory conclusion five months after it started. The muddy conditions had left both sides virtually immobile, an uneasy truce punctuated by raids and shelling. Men succumbed to respiratory diseases, rheumatism, frost bite and “trench foot” (a rotting  condition caused by prolonged standing).

A bloodfest that started in high summer, the Battle of the Somme ended in the damp wintry squib of November. Hundreds of thousands lay dead in the fields and only a handful of kilometres changed hands. The overall state of the war was the same in January 1917 as it was in January 1916. The Australian Third Division was finally raised by trainees in England and they arrived in France as the year ended. But the patriotic enthusiasm the Aussies had in 1914 and 1915 for this great adventure was long gone. Those who went home wounded brought back the news about deadly modern warfare. Their missing limbs and broken spirit spoke of a quieter horror no one was yet ready to confront. The nightmare would continue for two more years.

Saving Boggo Road Gaol and the matter of history

The quadrangle of Boggo Road Gaol, photographed in 1912 (courtesy QldPics).
The quadrangle of Boggo Road Gaol, photographed in 1912 (courtesy QldPics).

History is essential to the task of making sense of ourselves. History provides a narrative that helps us understand where we have come from and guides us where we are going. I felt that strongly in Ireland, and am now feelong its pull as an Aussie of 25 years standing. As an immigrant it was Australia’s geography that attracted me in 1988 not its history. My earliest memories of Australia as a child were the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef though I was also fascinated by a second memory, that of a boomerang which thrown would mysteriously return to the thrower. The boomerang reminded me Australia was the home of Aboriginal people. “Aborigines” was a whitefella construct as was “Aboriginal behaviour” which was non-existent in Melbourne where I lived for nine years. It was visible when I moved to Brisbane, though not to be admired as the “Aborigines” there were drunks, beggars or both. It was no surprise to find Indigenous people were over-represented in jail.  Brisbane’s jail (or gaol to use the spelling here) for over a hundred years, was Boggo Road, an imposing and intimidating castle on a mound in Brisbane’s southside where prisoners had some of the best views around.

The story of Boggo Road Gaol is essential to the story of Brisbane, and it is a story under threat. Most prominently seen from Annerley Road I’d never been there until yesterday because as a northsider I’d never been down that far south on Annerley Road.  I’d been thinking about visiting for over a year, but my desire was quickened by media reports suggesting developers are hovering over it. I believe it is essential the site is kept and preserved by the State of Queensland, because so much of its history was made at this address.

Annerley Road was always an important thoroughfare on the way to Ipswich (if now neglected by us dreadful northsiders) but had a reputation for its terrible condition. Initially called Bolgo Road, it became “Boggo” to users continually frustrated by the poor drainage along the road. When a penitentiary opened here in 1883 authorities called it Brisbane Jail but Boggo Road seemed a better name to capture the immobility of its inmates.

The prison had one link to the long-gone convict era. Its oldest artifact is a bell forged in 1838 in the Moreton Bay penal colony. The bell would have been mournful for convicts and still carried a threat in the Boggo era, rung three times before an execution and three times 15 minutes afterwards. Patrick Kenniff would have heard the bell as he went to his death in 1903. Kenniff was a cattle duffer hanged for the murder of a policeman out west. He went to the gallows proclaiming innocence, but Kenniff was probably guilty as was Ernest Austin hanged a decade later for the murder of a young girl.

Austin was the last to be executed at Boggo. Doubts over the effectiveness of capital punishment led Queensland to become the first state (pdf) in Australia to abolish it under the Labor government of EG Theodore in 1922. That Queensland was humanitarian in the 1920s may come as a surprise, but Boggo remained no place for a liberal. The prison was state of the art in the 1880s but was showing its age in its golden years; filthy, overcrowded and with a fearful reputation. It held Queensland’s worst murderers but also held many people on much lesser crimes, jailed for their sex, their colour or their poverty.

Innovations in punishment continued at Boggo. The worst cells were chicken wire sheds out in the open. These were home to recalcitrant prisoners or those the gaolers hated. They had no bed or blankets and their piss-and-shit-bucket would blow over in the wind. It was more fitting for Changi than Brisbane and the gaolers denied its existence for years. Finally photos emerged forcing authorities to close it down. An underground dungeon continued for recidivist offenders.

Boggo Road was not a foolproof prison and many escaped, oddly enough all in daylight. The most notorious escapee was Arthur “Slim” Halliday who absconded twice by the same method. The irregular shape of the prison enabled blind spots on the wall that guarders could not constantly observe. Halliday took advantage of a blind spot to escape in 1940. He was re-captured after two weeks and his gaolers increased the size of the guardhouse on the walls to guard against what inmates called “Halliday’s Leap”. The effect was to move the blind spot further down the wall. Halliday and two others found the new spot in 1946. Halliday was better at escaping than staying free and he was re-captured again after four days. But making fools of prison officers did not endear “the Houdini of Boggo Road” to authorities. When finally released Halliday was charged with the murder of a taxi driver, a charge he believed he was framed for, and he didn’t get out until the late 1970s.

By then the prison was dating horribly though the care of prisoners were rarely in the attentions of hard-line Nationals leader Joh Bjelke-Petersen. His tough on crime approach filled gaols rather than change conditions in them. While the government presented a forward-looking Queensland at the expo in 1988, Boggo Road gaol remained a model of inhuman Victorian-era punishment.

The prisoners had the last laugh. The Nationals government booted Joh out of office amid corruption controversies. Five prisoners took to the roof of Boggo Rd. There they were initially fed by smuggled food from below but after two days it became a hunger strike. After five days, there were protests outside the prison in favour of the prisoners. A rock band plugged their speakers into a nearby house and played their songs at full blast. An Aboriginal flag flew from the top of the prison, reminding the world their people were among the worst affected by incarceration.

The UN hammered Queensland on the atrocious treatment of its prisoners and the government finally agreed to close Boggo Rd. The rooftop protesters came down in victory, with one additional condition they had got from their jailers: a bucketload of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Just 12 months later, the most notorious place in Queensland was empty with prisoners moved to Wacol. In the 1990s the women’s prison was demolished to make way for an Ecosciences Precinct and park (freeing up the view) leaving the remaining blocks for private tours. The Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society is unhappy about the tours which it is says are expensive (I paid $25 for a 90 minute tour yesterday). The Society says the gaol is a public asset and they welcomed Leighton Properties plans to redevelop the site retaining the oldest buildings which date from 1903. But tour operator Jack Sim is unhappy saying his business is on the line.

The remaining buildings are heritage-listed but that may not be enough to save them. I don’t trust Leighton Properties to do the right thing by Boggo Road as like most developers they are capable of killing the goose that lays their golden egg while honouring history (Oaks Festival Towers, anyone?).  It is crucial Boggo Road remains recognisable as a place of state internment, and its history faithfully recorded. Its ghosts and memories must not be demolished for financial gain. Our history and our sense of self as Queenslanders, Australians and people demands nothing less.

Joining in the party on Irish history 1912-1923

irish historyTHERE may be no such thing as a free lunch but there may be such a thing as an free online course in history. Irish Central told me today Trinity College Dublin started a class in Irish history called “Irish lives in war and revolution: Exploring Ireland’s history 1912-1923.”  There’s no diploma at the end of it (though you can buy a certificate) but if nothing else it could be useful learning and a possibly stimulating discussion on the most tumultuous era in Ireland since Napoleonic times.

It might be a large discussion. Trinity are expecting as many as 17,000 people to sign up for this Massive Open Online Course. Though it began eight days ago, it’s not too late to join and I became student #17001 today. The course is expected to take six weeks, at five hours a week, with little expectation of prior knowledge of the history (though some knowledge will speed up the process). The 12 years chosen are watershed years. After 112 years of political union with Westminster, 1912 was the year Irish Home Rule was finally passed by the House of Commons (at that stage a bill covering the 32 counties) and 1923 was the end of the undeclared civil war that ensured a Treaty government in Dublin had a lot more power than home rule, but at the cost of six counties ceded to Britain. These events were framed by the modernism that was shaking the world and the Great War that almost tore that world asunder.

I did my catch up week today, and with the aid of fictional characters speaking real words, it introduced the three great main strands of early 20th century Irish political history: parliamentary reform, revolution, and unionism. The unionism is this context is the political union with Britain, not the Trade Unions, who were active but never organised as well in Ireland as they were across the water. The Unionist is the first character and she is a working class Protestant woman in Belfast dedicated to her family, her religion and her culture. Their proud shipbuilding tradition had just taken a huge hit with the sinking of the Titanic. Allied to the catastrophic news that London might approve a parliament in Dublin, it led to a deep sense of troubled times among northern Protestants. Home Rule was Rome Rule to these people, who feared a Catholic parliament would discriminate against them, destroying their industrial base in the process. Led by firebrand lawyer Sir Edward Carson (a nemesis of Oscar Wilde), the Unionists raised a volunteer force of 100,000 men at arms dedicated to stopping Home Rule by force.

The second voice was a moderate Catholic Dubliner. This man was a Redmondite, a follower of Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond, who seemed ready to succeed where the great Parnell had failed and convince London to vote for Home Rule. The Third Home Rule bill was being introduced to Westminster and the hostile Lords could only defer it for two years, meaning that by mid 1914 Ireland would have a parliament again. The Dubliner’s biggest worry was that huge volunteer army massing to the north in opposition. But he had a second worry and that was radicals in the south who were not satisfied with Redmond’s rapprochement with London and who wanted nothing less than full independence.

These radicals are represented by the third voice, a nationalist youth from Cork. This voice was much younger than the other two, a schoolboy influenced by a teacher spreading his own nationalist zeal. These people were frustrated by the delays in handing over power and wanted to speed up the process. In the meantime they poured their energies into cultural pursuits like Na Fianna and gaelic games.

The year 1913 was all about escalating tensions. The Home Rule bill was passed three times by the House and rejected three times by the Lords. Unwilling to wait for a solution from London, the Unionists prepared for civil war with the south. The south in turn copied the Unionists and organised their own large-scale paramilitary force.

When 1914 came, there was more frustration for the Nationalists. Instead of the long promised Home Rule, there was a Great War erupting on the continent. The Unionists, determined to show their loyalty, immediately deployed their entire force to this new conflict. A patient Redmond too had no choice but to support the war. Like most people he believed it would be over in a matter of months and he encouraged service for the King in Flanders to help the Irish cause after the war. The Nationalists were more suspicious. Though never a large number, they believed England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity. They formed a breakaway volunteer movement dedicated to complete rupture from Britain.

Reading the course notes, this Week 1 material aims to introduce the broad themes of the era as well as grappling with the chronology. It also looks at more broad questions of history such as what voices and what perspectives tell the story and why they are selected over others. I look forward to the next few weeks and providing my own perspective on turbulent times.