Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the month “February, 2014”

Egypt 1915

I have been thinking about Charles Holdorf’s journey from Sydney to Egypt in 1915. His departure is well documented on November 9th, but the exact route taken by the troopship Beltana is uncertain. Did the ship sail north via Brisbane and up over the top of Australia, or did it sail south to Melbourne and across the Great Australian Bight to Perth, and then north to Sri Lanka, which was then called Ceylon? I assume that it stopped in Colombo and then sailed around the southern tip of India toward the Suez. Then from Port Suez at the southern end of the canal the ship would have made its way north through Egypt toward the Mediterranean.

Cairo is west of Port Suez, but where did the 30th Battalion of the 8th Brigade disembark? Did they go to Cairo? Where were they based? What did they do in Egypt? Dad writes simply, Here they provided part of the protection force for Egypt and continued with training. The battle at Fromelles in northern France was not until July 1916, so the battalion was in Egypt some 6 months. They would have celebrated Christmas 1916 there and then were involved in training. The Gallipoli campaign was largely over by the time Charles and his battalion arrived in Egypt, after the allied decision to withdraw. The Australians that had evacuated on the 19th and 20th of December 1915 would have been arriving in Egypt at the same time as the 30th Battalion of the 8th Brigade. After Gallipoli Australian forces spent the remainder of the war fighting in the Middle East and the Western Front in France.

Thomas Keneally’s recent novel The Daughters of Mars places two fictional sisters, Australian nurses from the coastal town of Macleay, NSW, in the same area in the months before Charles arrived. Though there are no dates in the book, they seem to have arrived sometime around the beginning of the Gallipoli campaign, but they left on a hospital ship which had been commandeered as a troop transport sometime in the latter half of 1915. Their ship was torpedoed and they ended up on an island in the Mediterranean for some time before travelling further to France. For them, as for Charles and thousands of Australian soldiers and other military personnel, Egypt, the Mediterranean and then France became the centre of their lives in the fateful years of 1915 and 1916. Many young Australian lives ended there, far from their homes in the bustling cities and remote country towns of rural Australia.

There is an evocative description of Cairo seen through the eyes of young Sally Durance, one of the nurses of Keneally’s tale. I will quote some of it here. It gave me a feeling for what it must have been like for Charles, arriving on his ship from Australia, though under different circumstances, and no doubt with different responses. It gives an idea of the wide eyed amazement at arriving in a fabled city which until now had only been known from books of the exotic east.

A city that was everything, too many people moving with too many ambitions, too many hopes and destinations. Its all-at-onceness couldn’t be conveyed item by item. It was at the same time a glimpse of moored riverboats on – could it be – the Nile. (These were officers’ clubs where Nubian waiters in red tarbooshes and long white robes glided along with drinks trays held high.) It was people carrying all possible items on their heads – a child’s coffin new-bought, a lounge chair, a haunch of camel meat, a bed. It was camels and donkeys on pavements and the smell of their urine, and men seated by them on mats working with sewing machines or turning furniture legs on little lathes. It was car horns of the army and of the rich blaring at one time with the clang of trams and the trumpet blasts of tram conductors. It was street sellers leaning into your gharry trying to sell flyswatters and whisks, scarabs and lottery tickets, and passing British soldiers telling them darkly to clear out – imshi! – and leave the ladies alone. It was raucous native bands in unexplained processions booming and howling – brass and trumpet – and shoe shiners crying, “Allo George” to the soldiers, and the soldiers with cockney accents calling “Ello, sweetie” at the nurses gharries. Whistles from Australian soldiers – wandering the streets like men used to the place – frosted the hubbub with levity… Effendis – Egyptian gentlemen in well cut suits and tarbooshes – sat at café tables talking at an impossible pace yet like centres of calm in all the fury. In the broad streets animal trainers made apes and goats. There were acrobats, fire eaters, snake charmers – all yelling out at passing British and Australian soldiers for baksheesh. Watchmen sat on low benches in front of buildings, occasionally being served little brass cups of Turkish coffee. Shocking beggars – young girls with infants, crippled crones, their hands stained pink and yellow, and every kind of blindness and crookedness of body and amputation – as if these people themselves were the ones who had taken part in a recent and very savage war. And if you looked at the sky you saw kites curling above the putrid streets, waiting to descend to their abominable yet cleansing meals of flesh… All this just the surface anyhow, the visible part of the crammed ocean of life here that you were not equipped to deal with in any way other than by looking at it – if at all – at a tangent.
       (The Daughters of Mars, Thomas Keneally, p35-37 in the paperback version, published 2012)

Such was the sight that must have greeted Charles on his arrival in Egypt at the end of 1915. Egypt became his home for the first months of 1916, as part of the Allied defence force protecting the Suez Canal which had been the goal of an unsuccessful attack by the Ottoman army earlier in 1915. But as Spring drew on into Summer eyes were turned increasingly toward France and the Western Front, where the 30th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force would fight their first major engagement at Fromelles.

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Major Charles John Holdorf (1869-1954)

The following was written by my father, Ian, about his grandfather, Charles John Holdorf, who I mentioned in the previous blog. It outlines Charles’s military career.

In 1890 he enlisted in the New South Wales Military Forces, and was commissioned in 1896. He had various commands as a Major during his part-time service, initially in Goulburn and then based in Sydney. He was awarded the Volunteer Decoration for his 25 years of part-time military service. He enlisted on the 5th August 1915 in the recently formed Australian Imperial Force, and was appointed Second in Command of the 30th Battalion of the 5th Division.

As second in command, Major Holdorf was responsible for outfitting, equipping, accommodating, feeding and administering the 1000 strong Battalion. Following their preparation, the Battalion embarked on the “Beltana” on 9th of November, 1915, and sailed across the Indian Ocean to the Suez Canal. Here they provided part of the protection force for Egypt and continued with training.

Early in 1916, the Battalion, which was part of the 8th Brigade of the AIF 5th Division, travelled by sea to northern France and the Western Front. Their first major engagement was in the infamous Battle of Fromelles near the Belgian border. The main battle was from 19th to 22nd July, and they suffered the heaviest casualties ever recorded by the Australian forces. This was caused by the poor planning of the British generals who unrealistically ordered the Australian troops to charge over 350 metres of no-mans land in the face of deadly German machine gun fire. The British also failed to provide covering artillery fire. There were a total of 519 deaths from the 8th Brigade of which 338 bodies were never recovered. The opposing German force included Corporal Adolf Hitler.

During the battle, the Commanding Officer of the 54 th Battalion (14th Brigade) became a casualty, and Major Holdorf was appointed to command this Battalion on 1st September, and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. However his command only lasted until 6th November, when he was evacuated out on medical grounds. H e was subsequently invalided home with suspected emphysema, arriving home on the “Ulysses” on 12th April, 1917. This diagnosis was obviously wrong as he lived another 37 years. His service in the Army terminated on 17th October 1917. The following year he changed the family name to Holford because of anti-German feeling. He later served as a Company commander in the Volunteer Defence Corp in the Mosman area during the second World War.

Troopship Beltana

Troopship Beltana

The joy and the pain of nationality

Last night I watched the WW1 film, Passchendaele. It is a film about relationships, and the effect that war has on them. Not just that, but it is about family and identity, a film that asks questions about who we are and the decisions we make. It is a story about the Canadian involvement in the war, and made me think of Australians who similarly found themselves fighting a European war on the other side of the world. The brutal backdrop of the Passchendaele campaign provides stark relief for the issues the film raises.

My great grandfather, Charles Holdorf, was a Major in the 8th Infantry Brigade, 30th Infantry Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force in World War 1. He was 46 years old when he embarked for France on the troopship Beltana on the 9th November 1915. He was a widower, his wife Florence having died of typhoid in 1908 at the age of 30, after bearing five children. He left the children, one of whom was my grandfather, with their grandmother, Caroline Holdorf, a native of southern Germany. In 1915, when Charles departed for Europe, Grandpa would have been 16. Charles did not fight at Passchendaele but at Fromelles, a much less known campaign of the First World War, and one about which no films have been made, but where thousands of Australians lost their lives just the same.

Those are the facts, and I couldn’t help wondering as I watched the film last night, about how it was to grow up in Sydney during WW1 with a German grandmother, when Australia was at war with Germany. In fact, Grandpa’s father didn’t change the family name to Holford until he returned from Europe, so as a child my grandfather too had a German surname, which he took to school with him every day. His father, meanwhile, was in France fighting against the land of his parents’ birth. How must that have felt? The brutality of war, the deep emotional wounds that are inflicted with the loss of comrades all around, leads so often to hatred of the enemy.

But Charles Holdorf had grown up in a German home, his father from northern Germany, close to the Danish border, his mother from Bavaria, so he must have known many German customs, have eaten German food, perhaps even spoke German, just as my Australian born children know Swedish and Sweden, their mother’s language and homeland. Charles must surely have loved Germany as the land of his parents, but suddenly his country of birth was at war with his parents’ country of birth. He was a soldier. He found himself in France fighting his parents’ countrymen. What happened in his heart as he saw his friends die all around him? How did he reconcile his love for his parents with the hate for Germans which was growing all around him, perhaps even in his own heart? And how was it for Grandpa, going to school with boys whose fathers were falling in battle at the hands of the German enemy? Children can be cruel. Did his friends begin to see even Grandpa as the enemy? Not to mention his German grandmother, with whom he lived.

As a child I was unaware of such things. I never asked Grandpa how it was to grow up in Sydney 100 years ago. I never even realised that he was of German ancestry until I was much older. His name, like mine, was of course English, at least after his father returned in 1917 and had the family name changed. I understand that name change now. I’m sure there were many German names changed at the time. After all, the British royal family changed their name, setting an example for many others. What a relief that must have been for Grandpa, to be recategorised as English.

But what of Caroline, his grandmother, did she change her name too? How did she think of her native land? She was 67 when the war broke out and over 70 when it ended. Germany must have seemed a long time in the past for her. Perhaps it had become so remote that she no longer thought of it as her native land. Perhaps she was thoroughly Australian. She must have been bewildered by the actions of the land of her birth. Overwhelmed by the pain of the conflict that must have taken the sons of not just her Australian neighbours, but her German relatives who happened not to have migrated just when she did. Her husband, thankfully, did not live to see the world plunged into the flames of that terrible conflict, having died in 1898 when Caroline was only 51 years old.

The film Passchendaele touches on some of these questions, but ultimately is a love story, about love across artificial barriers of identity that can so easily jump up from nowhere. It paints a picture of the futility and stupidity of war, of fighting and killing people that are ultimately just like ourselves, but happened to have been born on the other side of the border. How is it that friends and family can suddenly become enemies, and how do we understand the reality that there is as much of the enemy in us as there is in them, and that it is as easy to love the enemy as it is to hate them, depending on the circumstances that we find ourselves in.

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