By Max Solling, Bulletin 3/2023, May 2023

Historian Max Solling spoke to a large gathering of residents at the Glebe War Memorial on 25 April.  He described the identity of Glebe during the World Wars and gave an insight into the daily lives of its residents.  He also spoke of the evolution of war literature, in particular the memoirs of prisoners of war, stories he says ‘rarely rate a mention in the military histories of Australia.’

Max Solling delivers his 2023 address to residents at the War Memorial.  Image: Phil Young

This morning I’d like to share some thoughts on what sort of a place Glebe – and what is now Forest Lodge – was during both world wars, its contribution to those conflicts, and reflect on the evolution of war literature in Australia and Europe.

By 1914, inner Sydney was heavily industrialised and overtly working class in its demographic profile. Glebe was a constituent part of Sydney’s inner city, and its population remained relatively stable between the censuses of 1901 and 1947, accommodating between 20,000 and 22,000 men, women and children.

Neighbourhood networks and extended kinship characterised life in Glebe. Families tried hard to establish themselves within a neighbourhood, to fit into some sort of network – which they needed to exist with some measure of security. Without the sustaining services of a welfare state, men and women relied upon the neighbourhood for help when they or their children fell ill. The threat of unemployment and consequent poverty produced a need to become known and trusted so that they could call on the shopkeeper or pawnbroker for credit.

Neighbourhood meant more than houses and streets. It meant the mutually beneficial relationships one formed with others. The values and practices of the neighbourhood embraced reciprocity and, since services could not often be bought, mutual aid of a monetary and non-monetary kind.

Most Glebe households – 70% to 80% – were renters, raising large families on single incomes. Their homes, often terraces, were generally within walking distance of the breadwinner’s workplace, possibly, in 1945, one of Glebe’s 164 factories. Tariffs, arbitration and a parsimonious social security system, could not insulate Australia’s commodity-based economy from the powerful shocks that an unstable international economic order meted out between the 1890s and the 1940s.

The largest employer of Glebe’s male labour was manufacturing. About 28% of Glebe’s working-age women were in paid employment, mainly in the clothing trades. The domestic skills and informal networks of the 72% of local women not in paid work kept the family together and, with limited financial resources, were crucial components of working class strength in 1947.

A mix of retailers extended in groups along the eastern side of Glebe Road (now Glebe Point Road), and corner stores were ubiquitous in Glebe; 58 of them in 1895. Among the most numerous businesses were butchers (13), fruiterers (20), mixed businesses (39), grocers (29), bakeries (3), boot makers (16) and hairdressers (19). The housewife walked to the shops several times a week for food and other groceries. In an insular and parochial world, most didn’t travel far.

On the streets, there was an uneasy coexistence between horse, tram and motor car, with Glebe still a predominantly pedestrian society. Local churches had a pervasive influence on the conduct of life, with Sunday School attendance at its zenith. Going to the pub remained a very popular male activity, with 16 to choose from. On Saturday evening, some found a sort of nirvana in the Picture Show – at 166 Glebe Point Road – with Hollywood supplying 90% of feature films. And if you wanted ‘a bit of a flutter’, Glebe was the place to be, with Friday night Trots at Harold Park, cheap entry to the Dogs on Saturday night and 180 bookies accepting two shilling bets. Betting was an integral part of working-class culture, and hundreds of greyhounds were housed in backyard kennels in Glebe in 1939.

Glebe’s contribution to WWI and WWII

Unlike the mass European conscript armies of World War I, the AIF was an entirely voluntary force. Columns of names on Glebe’s memorials and honour boards demonstrated the magnitude of their contribution in the First World War, many giving their lives. About 800 Glebe citizen soldiers sailed off to foreign battlefields between 1914 and 1918, and about one-quarter didn’t come back. The loss of a breadwinner, with a war pension a pittance, condemned a working-class family to poverty.

The World War II service records of Glebe’s overwhelmingly Australian-born population tell us that 2,347 men and 79 women – 2,426 altogether – enlisted in what was truly a global conflict.

Between 1939 and 1945, there was a strong collective memory of troop trains travelling along the goods line that passes by tunnel under Glebe. Families and friends gathered near the tunnel mouth at Burton Street to farewell the soldiers, displaying placards with the names and numbers of enlisted locals. Slit trenches were dug in Foley Park, and American troops camped in and around Wentworth Park from 1943.

The evolution of war literature in Australia and Europe

Robin Gerster observed that Australian war literature of the Great War and beyond was peculiarly obsessed with perpetuating the ideal of the noble ANZAC sacrifice, ennobling the distinctive characteristics of the digger and proclaiming the birth of a nation. From C.J. Dennis, who in The Moods of Ginger Mick (1916), saw war as the catalyst for turning the urban larrikin into a noble soldier, to the post-World War I novels of Frank Dalby Davison and Ion Idriess, an enormous amount of creative energy was devoted to elaborating a particular ideal of the Australian soldier.

This literature is peculiar precisely because European writers – Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Blunden in Britain, Erich Remarque in Germany and Henri Barbusse in France – focussed on the waste, futility and senselessness of war. Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front – just as influential in shaping the modern revulsion against warfare as the poetry of Owen and Sassoon – was banned from sale in Australia during the interwar years by Chief Censor Creswell O’Reilly, who felt the film undermined the public confidence in the armed forces and the Government.

War produced some remarkable Australians. Joe Maxwell, born at Annandale in 1896, was an 18-year-old boilermaker’s apprentice when he enlisted in the AIF on 8 February 1915. Posted to the 18th Battalion, he served at Gallipoli, where he wrote, “God, what a damn fool I was to get into this”. He then proceeded to France in March 1916. In just over 12 months, this roisterous man-of-action engaged in extraordinary acts of bravery in major battles of the Western Front, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the Military Cross and Bar, and the Victoria Cross. He was only 22 when the war ended. In 1932, Maxwell published his very successful memoir Hell’s Bells and Mademoiselles. Stylistically, Maxwell was not always up to the task of giving anything more than a superficial account of what he had seen and encountered, but he was one of few memoirists bold enough to confess his fear in combat.

It took until the publication of Bert Facey’s A Fortunate Life in 1981 for a soldier-writer of the First AIF to admit unequivocally to being ‘scared stiff’ during the ANZAC landing and the shocking slaughter of that morning. The author is no nostalgic advocate of the triumph of the battlefield. Yet the heroic character of this unassuming man’s journey through a ‘fortunate life’ of severe hardship is in no way diminished by his evident hatred of war. For one who endured so much, Facey’s aside that his four months on Gallipoli were ‘the worst’ of his life gives the reader a vivid idea of how testing the Gallipoli campaign was.

Bert Facey was 86 years old when his autobiography was published, selling over a million copies. It was a remarkable achievement because he had little schooling and had taught himself to read and write – he had begun compiling notes on his life soon after the First World War. His standing was enhanced by his determination to write about war without indulging in the boasts that once seemed mandatory.

Perhaps the most valuable gift of World War II to national war literature was the prisoner of war memoir, which has become a leading branch of the genre. The POW story barely rates a mention in military histories of Australia – it is difficult to incorporate this into the Anzac legend. Over 30,000 Australians were taken prisoner during the war. The majority (22,000) were held by the Japanese, and one-third (8,200) died in captivity; all suffered physical and psychological torture. Photographs of their emaciated bodies posed a direct challenge to understandings of Australian, and especially ANZAC masculinity. 

The rise of the POW memoir is one sign of the coming-of-age of Australian war literature. The prisoner-of-war experience, commonly one of collective bonding, has had a remarkable appeal as autobiography, memoir and diary. These prisoners suffered considerable privations and the invidious bodily decay wrought by torture, starvation and disease.

An extraordinary account of this genre is The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop, published in 1986. Edward Dunlop was the chief physician and commanding officer of 1,000 men forced to work on the Bangkok to Burma railway. He used his generalist surgical knowledge to save countless lives in very challenging conditions. He received supplies of food, money and medicines from Thai resistance worker Boon Pong, although these were never enough to alleviate the hardships and brutality that led to the deaths of many prisoners. On a number of occasions, the Japanese subjected Dunlop to severe beatings and threatened him with execution. His physical control under extreme provocation from his captors earned the respect of his troops. The noblest of men, Dunlop believed his 1942-1945 diaries should remain unpublished for 40 years for fear that they might add further to the suffering of the bereaved. In the evening of his life, after deep reflection, he decided to publish the diaries. After he died on 2 July 1993, Dunlop’s ashes were taken to the Burma-Thailand railway and scattered at dawn on ANZAC Day 1994 at a place prisoners called Hellfire Pass. 

The retention of a prisoner’s sanity and humanity and the quest for self-preservation is also evident in the writings of Stan Arneil’s (1918-1992) One Man’s War (1980), Captain Adrian Curlewis’ (1901-1985) Letters and Diaries (1982) and the trilogy of Ray Parkin (1910-2005), Out of the Smoke (1960), Into the Smother (1963) and The Sword and the Blossom (1968). All four authors succeeded heroically.