Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “ww1”

866 Company in Dublin 1916-1919

A brief visit to Dublin
I recently spent a few days in Dublin. It was my first trip to Ireland; I was there for the wedding of a friend from Australia, Simon More, who has made his home there. He and his wife Michelle were married at the City Hall, an imposing edifice squeezed in between city streets, not far from the famous Trinity College Dublin (TCD). I had arrived the day before and spent the day wandering the streets alone, trying to get a feel for a city to which I felt no connection at all. A broad river, the Liffey, crossed by numerous bridges, runs through the centre of the city. The streets were crowded and chaotic. Every nationality seemed to be walking the streets. I heard languages that I recognised and others that I didn’t. It seemed like the whole world had come to Dublin.

The River Liffey in Dublin today

The River Liffey in Dublin today

It felt remarkably un-British and I suppose that is not surprising since it is many years since it stopped being part of United Kingdom. In 1922, following a period of revolution in Ireland, twenty-six of the thirty-two counties of Ireland seceded from Britain to form the Irish Free State, which later became the Republic of Ireland. The currency is the euro, not the pound, and the Irish language is seen everywhere, on signs and in publications. Having said that I heard few people speaking Irish, although in the mish-mash of languages that are spoken on the streets of Dublin it was no doubt hiding there somewhere.

As well as the rather distinctly European (as opposed to British) feel, I was struck, as I browsed through a few bookshops, by the number of books on offer that focussed on the Easter Rising of 1916, realising that this was doubtless a reflection of the approaching centenary year. I also realised I knew pretty much nothing about that momentous event which is so significant in the history of modern Ireland. The names of the leaders of that revolt against British rule were unfamiliar to me, and their fate before a firing squad was something of which I was unaware. The Irish Republic which they proclaimed on Easter Monday 1916 lasted 6 days before it was squashed by the military might of the British Army.

When the ringleaders were executed they became martyrs for the cause of Irish Republicanism, attracting many who were previously pro-British to their side. There was a clampdown of British force, with a confusing train of events over the ensuing years. This so called revolutionary period in which the Easter rising was the first major militant attempt of the period to gain independence for Ireland, included repeated waves of civil unrest leading to the War of Independence (1919-1921), the creation of the independent Irish Free State (1922, as a result of the Anglo-Irish Treaty), the Partition of Ireland (when Northern Ireland opted out of the Free State to remain within the United Kingdom) and the Civil War (June 1922-May 1923). The Irish Free State renamed itself Ireland in 1937 and declared itself a republic in 1949. Northern Ireland gained Home Rule for itself but remained part of the United Kingdom.

The General Post Office in Dublin, destroyed in the Easter Rising of 1916 and rebuilt some years later. Flying the Irish flag.

The General Post Office in Dublin, destroyed in the Easter Rising of 1916 and rebuilt some years later. Flying the Irish flag.

My first visit to Ireland therefore coincided with the centenary of a momentous period in Irish history, and as I wandered the streets of Dublin I realised that just as I knew almost nothing about that time, I knew very little about this country. A number of my ancestors migrated from Ireland in the 1870s and 1880s, notably from two families – the Byrnes and the Hicksons. However, both these families came from the other side of the country, from County Kerry. Why they left is still an unanswered question for me. One of them, John Christopher Hickson (who arrived in Australia in 1870), made return trips to the old country in 1893 and 1911, but after that it wasn’t till my parents visited Ireland on a number of occasions in the 1980s and 90s that there was any sort of reconnection. The connection became stronger however, when my father married Eunice Orr after my mother’s untimely death; Eunice’s mother was Irish, though she lived most of her life in Australia. She died just last year.

I found myself in Dublin, and wandering the streets I pondered my ancestral connections with this land, and this city. I knew of no ancestors from this side of Ireland, but as I pondered the events of 1916 presented in so many bookshop shelves, I remembered that my English great grandfather, George Simmonds, had served here with the British army during World War 1. He was in the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) and though he served in Europe during the first half of 1916, in Salonika, Greece, he was posted to Dublin in November of that year, some 7 months after the uprising. He spent the rest of the war here, some two and a half years, so he must have got to know Dublin quite well.

George Simmonds in Dublin
I was not sure however whether I was pleased with this realisation. The British army were, after all, the enemy, or at least it seems that way looking back. Of course there were many in Dublin at the time who saw themselves as part of Great Britain – not everyone was a republican, even if home rule was important to many. The Easter uprising of 1916 polarised the city and the nation however. The years that followed were years of unrest and uncertainty, but the cause of secession from Britain grew ever stronger. The British Army came to be seen as representing the enemy for more and more of the population, almost like an occupying force. George Simmonds was a part of that British Army.

But armed conflict between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British Army did not really erupt until January 1919, when Sinn Féin established themselves as the First Dáil (Assembly) and declared an independent Irish Republic. By that time George was close to the end of his tour of service in Ireland, discharged from the army in May of the same year. By that time the lines had been drawn: the IRA had became the official army of the Irish state, while the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) supported by the British Army, were loyal to the British Government. A War of Independence followed lasting a little over two years before a truce was declared in July 1921. The infamous Black and Tans was a force of temporary constables recruited in Britain toward the end of 1919 to assist the RIC in their struggle against the IRA. Many of them were WWI veterans who had seen action on the Western Front, although some were Irish. They were notorious for their brutality and their reprisals on civilians and civilian property.

However, George Simmonds was demobbed in May of 1919 and had left Dublin before this guerrilla war really got going so he missed the bulk of the violence, thankfully back home with his family and his market gardens west of London, where he could only read about the horrors unfolding in Ireland. Even while he was in Dublin he was not a soldier in the conventional sense, being part of the RASC. He was a member of a horse transport company, namely 866 Company, involved in support and supply for the army. He had performed similar duties in Salonika, one of the less remembered theatres of the European War, where he had also been in a Horse Transport Company, 483 Company of the 27 Divisional Train. His war service, both in Greece and in Ireland, was more focussed on transportation than on military tactics, more on horses than on humans. Although motor vehicles were becoming more numerous in the 1910s and 20s, horses were still the backbone of transport systems in the First World War. George had been involved in the transport industry before the war, a so called “carman.” During the war he continued what he knew best. But as in Salonika he could not avoid the reality and the effects of bitter armed conflict around him, in Ireland he felt the tensions, saw the effects of the conflict, and no doubt experienced the hostility of the local people in a city that was asserting its independence from the British Empire of which he was a proud citizen. It is hard to know whether he felt resentment or sympathy for them.

What stories of the IRA did he tell his young family when he returned to England? By the time he came home his oldest son, my grandfather, was 14 years old and there were four younger children in the family. Their father had been away for a good part of four years and certainly the younger siblings, James and Mary, who in 1919 were just 5 and 3 respectively, hardly knew him. My Grandpa Simmonds, who I never knew, would leave England forever just four years later, in 1923, and never see his parents again. Some years after his arrival in Australia he would marry my grandmother Gertrude Byrne, a first generation Australian, whose father George Byrne had migrated to Australia from Ireland in 1882. Her mother, Susie Hickson, was also of Irish stock. Both George and Gertrude knew Ireland only second hand, from stories their fathers had told them.

Healing the scars of the Great War
My mother said of her grandfather that he was scarred by his experiences of the Great War, and I suppose no-one from that era escaped unscathed. Mum told me that his lungs had been damaged by gas used in the trenches, and that had led to his early death in 1928 at the age of 52. Of course Mum never met her grandfather, who died 9 years before she was born, and on the other side of the world. What Mum knew of her grandfather must have been passed down to her from her father. I have not been able to find any evidence of lung disease in George senior’s military records. His pension application suggests that he was suffering from joint pain – arthritis which he felt had been worsened by sleeping in wet clothes on active service in Salonika. It also indicates that he was treated in hospital in Malta, and later in the UK. Many soldiers from Salonika were evacuated to Malta, but few of them for battle wounds. More were affected by infectious diseases and it is possible that George contracted pneumonia from his wet clothes. Many contracted malaria too.

The name of another hospital also appears on George’s pension application, though there is no indication of why he was admitted there, for what he received treatment. It was a hospital in England, a so called Voluntary Hospital, at Rainhill, in Lancashire. From what I have been able to find out, it would seem that Rainhill was a psychiatric hospital and the majority of patients there during WW1 were treated for shell shock, which we now know as post traumatic stress disorder. This has raised a whole lot of questions in my mind. Could it be that George Simmonds was a victim of shell shock? Was that the reason he was not sent back to Europe after his repatriation from Greece? What really happened in Salonika in the first half of 1916 that could have so traumatised him. The little I have read of that time in Salonika seems to indicate it was a relatively calm period, with most of the offensive occurring after George left.

There was also a hospital in Dublin in the years that George was there that specialised in the treatment of shell shock in returned Irish servicemen: the Richmond War Hospital. But if George had indeed suffered shell shock, his treatment was presumably over by the time he came to Dublin. Maybe Ireland was a place of rehabilitation for him, for though there was certainly violence in Dublin in the years 1916 to 1919, it hardly compared to the terror of the Western Front, or even the lesser known theatres of war like Salonika.

The Wicklow Mountains
The day after Simon’s wedding, another of my expatriate Australian friends, Jeremy Cavanagh, arrived from London. We drove south out of the city and spent two refreshing days tramping through the Wicklow Mountains. Though it is so near the city feels far away. The hills are barren and wild, and when we were there the heather was in flower. From a high road that crosses the mountains we followed a track down a green valley to Lough Dan. There was no-one about though we passed several farmhouses. We came to the lake between the mountains, its dark waters ruffled by a chill wind; a deserted farmhouse with padlocked doors stands forlorn between a thick growth of ferns on the valley floor, the stream running swift and silent through the trees nearby. We sat for a while on the little beach and stared out across the water before climbing the slopes beyond the stream and ascending through forest back to the barren heights. The next day, from Glendalough nearby, we climbed a steep path through another forest to emerge atop a precipitous escarpment far above that lake. We walked upwards into a broad shallow cirque, a glacial hollow between ancient hills. The treeless horizon made a stark silhouette against grey clouds scudding across the sky, patches of blue revealed from time to time through a parting in the clouds.

The green hills and heather clad heights of Ireland breathed life into my tired soul. I wondered if they had the same effect on George, raised so close to the great metropolis of London, scarred by the horrendous conflict he had witnessed across the sea. For George and his horses it may well have been that despite the tension and intermittent violent outbursts that he witnessed in Dublin, Ireland, with its green slopes and wild mountains, was a place of healing, restoring the peace of spirit he needed to return to his market gardens and his family and start over with the life he had left behind four years before.

The Wicklow Mountains near Lough Dan

The Wicklow Mountains near Lough Dan

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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.

Major Charles Holdorf at Fromelles

Major Charles Holdorf

Major Charles Holdorf

It is a cold, windy summer day in Dalarna, Sweden as I write, 19 July 2013. I have been reading a little about my great grandfather, Charles John Holdorf, born 1869 in Sydney. His parents were German migrants to Australia and he grew up in Goulburn, where he met his future wife, Florence Stacey, the daughter of English migrants.

Ninety seven years ago today the horrendous Battle of Fromelles began in northern France, one of Australia’s greatest military disasters. Charles was there, in the trenches, fighting in the Australian Imperial Forces for the Franco-British alliance against the German army. He could have been potentially fighting his cousins. Charles was in Europe for just over a year. When he returned to Australia he changed his name to Holford, a good English name. I wonder what he felt as he reflected on his army service in northern France, fighting the descendants of his forefathers.

Here is my father’s description of his grandfather’s involvement in the Great War:

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 54th 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.

In a few weeks we are going to France on holidays. The world has come a long way since WW1, when Europe was gripped by that cataclysmic conflict. It is hard to imagine the horror of those days in July 1916 as I look out on the cloudy skies over a peaceful landscape of forest, mountain and lake.

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