Lenah Valley RSL

“Thank you for the opportunity to speak today.

Why do we commemorate Anzac Day? This question was posed recently by my daughter’s American partner. They live in New York City. In the US, they have two commemorative days: Veterans Day on the 11th of November and Memorial Day, held on the last Monday in May. The latter honours military personnel who have died in the service of their country.                              Read More ... 

 So why Anzac Day? Of course, we have the symbolism of the date – the Landing at Gallipoli. We know the importance of the day goes far beyond the Great War – we commemorate the contribution of all those who have served Australia. I explained this to our American friend, Tom. But I also said, it is a day where there is a deep longing for connection.

We need to understand and connect with our history, borne through the experiences of brave men and women who have served in all theatres of war and conflict.

Some are able to tell us their stories in person – relating moments of great adventure, striking terror and unrelenting sadness. For others, their stories are told in the shadows of war memorials and gold leaf written on honour boards. Special stories are treasured by families in faded diaries and photographs. And sadly, many stories are lost to the mists of time.

On Anzac Day, we can find so many connections that are a gateway to our collective history of service and sacrifice.

As a historian, much of my research has been on the Great War. That cataclysmic event over 100 years ago that sucked 16,000 Tasmanians into a maelstrom from which we still feel its effects today.

A focus for me has been the stories told along the Soldiers Memorial Avenue on the Queens Domain. It is Tasmania’s largest war memorial, commemorating 535 of the 2,900 men who died during the Great War.

The Avenue holds stories of some local men from Lenah Valley and New Town.

The four Self brothers of Swanston Street – Robert, Herbert, Thomas and Frederick who ventured to war. Frederick, 35 years at embarkation, was a rower and cyclist, and a member of the Hobart Fire Brigade. Sadly, Frederick was killed in action just one week after joining the 12th Battalion in August 1918. He probably didn’t need to go; he was married with four children, but he went just the same. His death notice, stated “His duty nobly done, for the freedom of future generations”.

Another local, Richard Higgins was a 23 year old butcher from Giblin Street. He enlisted in that hurly burly of patriotism in August 1914 and joined the Field Artillery. Landing at Gallipoli on the 25th of April, he was wounded severely at the end of July. He died on a hospital transport ship and was buried at sea. A young Tasmanian lost forever.

New Town orchardists Roy and Archie Owen volunteered immediately after receiving news their brother Reg had been badly wounded at Pozieres in July 1916. But fate decreed while Reg Owen would make it safely home, his two brothers would not. The family was living at Creek Road when Roy and Archie enlisted.

On 14 March 1918, Roy was killed in action in Belgium. Fellow Tasmanian soldier Herman Hull later wrote: “Poor little Roy Owen went west in my arms. He got hit in the same place I did, but with an explosive bullet. He never recovered consciousness. Please give the Owen family my deepest sympathy. He was a fine lad, and a soldier to the backbone.

On 23rd July 1918, Archie was wounded in action, suffering wounds to his stomach with a fractured thigh and skull. He died of his wounds the same day.

As you walk along the Avenue and read the plaques you can feel the heart rending loss of loved ones, but you can also see how the Avenue became a symbol of the Hobart community’s desire to remember. Those trees were the places mothers and sisters came and mourned; where wives tried to explain to children who their dead father was; and where young sweethearts pondered what could have been.

The first dedication of 350 trees was held on Saturday, the 3rd of August 1918. Sir Herbert Nicholls led the speeches, noting that, ‘as the trees to be planted gradually grow up perpetuating the memory of the men who were once like strong young trees, they will remind us of those heroic patriots, whose bones are now lying on foreign shores.’ 10,000 people turned out on the day to plant and dedicate the trees.

It was reported, ‘At every tree there were touching incidents. At one tree, returned men filled the earth in memory of a “digger” who had nobody there to do it for him … Feeble old ladies and gentlemen, hand in hand attended to other trees …. The planting was completed by 5 o’clock, but along the winding and undulating course of the avenue little knots remained till dusk like groups of pilgrims.

This truly was a landscape of grief, the hopes and dreams of so many families dashed by the horrors of war.

For the Swift family their sacrifice was doubled. Thomas was with the 12th Battalion at Gallipoli, killed on that first day at the Landing, aged only 20. But news of his death was unclear, and the family was in limbo. This did not stop his brother John Henry, aged 24 and his father, John senior aged 45, enlisting. Sarah, the wife and mother, was left behind with two other boys to cope with.

Then on the 2nd of September 1916, Sarah wrote to Base Records seeking more information on Thomas. “Dear Sir, I am awfully sorry to trouble you … about my son T.W. Swift who was reported missing at the Dardenelles … . I have a disc with his name and number returned … but no paper to say if he is killed or what ... I don’t know what to think about it and cannot get word about it over here. If you don’t mind to try and find out for me, I would be so very grateful. It has been a great trouble for me … The poor woman was distraught.

The sad irony was that the day after she wrote that letter, her husband was part of an attack on Mouquet Farm and killed. Yet, less than a year later another son, Leslie had enlisted. Thankfully both he and John junior would survive.

Sergeant Hedley Venus, a 29 year old cabinet maker, left his home on Main Road before his first child was born. On 25th June 1916, Hedley was killed by a mortar shell near Fleurbaix. On the 9th of July, his daughter Betty was born to Eleanor. In a cruel twist, Hedley’s death notice was published on the same day as Betty’s birth notice. Betty became known as the ‘poor girl without a father’, although of course so many children would have no father to come home. A little girl standing beside a memorial tree to a father she would never know. A loss so personal, but also so distant with no memory to sustain her.

Stories of love and loss, all connected through a memorial avenue, now restored and protected in perpetuity.

I grew up on Mount Stuart, and my family has many connections around Lenah Valley and New Town. I am proud to honour those of my family who served. A great uncle with the Tasmanian Mounted Infantry in the Boer War; his sister who served with the Army Nursing Service in the Great War, in far-off places – India, Persia, and the North West Frontier with Afghanistan.

Another great uncle, who served and died in the mud and torment of the Western Front. My mum’s uncle, who lost an eye at Gallipoli. My dad who was one of the first radar officers in the RAAF during the Second World War, bringing new technology to the frontline; his cousin, who somehow survived as a bomber pilot over Germany. And in the present day, I have a niece with long service in the Royal Australian Navy. All doing their bit for Australia.

Great uncle Len Wadsley has a tree on the Avenue. His body was never identified from Mouquet Farm in northern France, so this tree has become his surrogate grave, a deeply emotional place for my family.

Len wrote his last letter the day before the battle that would kill him.

Dear Everybody at Home,

If you receive this I will by then have passed to the Great Beyond. We are just preparing to go in on a fairly large stunt which may be the end of a good many of us and I may be one of the number. …

Well, I leave myself in the hands of the Almighty and trust him absolutely. You may depend on it, I've done my job and you'll have no need to be ashamed of me. I would have liked to have got back again but 'twas not meant that I should. Never mind girls, there'll be someone else to take my place.

Well Dad goodbye! Goodbye girls! Let the remainder of the family know I think of you all and hope to meet you all again later on. 'Tis rotten having to write this but c'est la guerre! One thing we know Fritz has a much worse time than we do, I guess there'll be great rejoicing when it is all over. We are all thoroughly sick of it.

Well goodbye again to you all,

from your son and bro, Len

Len was 26 years old. A life lost, but having his letters enables us to understand something of the man who fought and died.

And your families too, all have stories that are cherished. Memories that are so special. You have stories you can share. So, we all have a responsibility to remember, to reflect and to honour.

From our small island at the end of the world, we must stand and say “WE WILL REMEMBER THEM” for they are our history.


Thank you.

ANZAC Day address: by Mr John Wadsley – at The Cenotaph, Lenah Valley RSL
Source: Mr John Wadsley, Thursday 25th April 2024

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