Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The sadness of war

William Robert Ralph Caldicott.
His name was William Robert Ralph Caldicott and he was my grandmother’s elder brother.

Like her, he was born in Rozelle, a suburb of Sydney. But he was four years older. The grandmother I speak of is my father’s mother. She lived together with us in Sydney after leaving her husband, from 1962 until she died, aged almost 90 years, in the late 90s. I grew up with granny but she never talked about her brother. At all.

Her brother was born in 1902 and he died in 1946 after being discharged from the military. He was ‘natural born’. There is a long list of entries about persistent illness on his service record.

I know this because I’ve got a photostated copy of it. Some months back I was contacted by a person who had located some service medals, including my uncle’s. WRR’s father’s WWI service medal was also available. Did I want them? There was no other family. My uncle’s father, William Caldicott, had remarried after his first wife died. There were living relatives deriving from the second marriage but there were no children from WRR’s marriage. I said ‘Yes’. A few days later I requested his war record from the National Archives.

If you’ve ever seen one of these things you’ll know that they’re full of jargon and the handwriting that was used to record movements and events is pretty hard to decipher. Occasionally there’s a word, like ‘pneumonia’ or ‘Middle East’, that you can make out and fix mentally and with confidence. I know for certain from the record that he was a cook, he served in the Middle East, was sent back to Sydney, and served out the rest of the war in a stores depot in Sydney. The record starts in February 1941 when he was already 39 years old, and ends with his discharge in September 1944. He died in 1946, probably as a result of the illness that plagued his military career. My father, in his memoir, provides a bit more information:
In 1943, Grandfather was informed that Uncle Bill had survived the Siege of Tobruk - only just - and would be sent home after release from whichever hospital in England, wherever that was. Information like that was restricted but we at least believed that he was alive. He was probably in the battle that took that important port from the Italians in January 1941.
In March that year Tobruk was isolated from the main British forces to the East and the Germans laid siege, finally taking the city in June 1942. Of course we didn't know where Bill was but we did follow the campaign and because we had heard nothing from him, we supposed that he was still in North Africa. The Germans took 35,000 Allied prisoners, perhaps he was one of those. Sometime in the next year or two Bill came to stay with us and we realized that he was a very sick man.
Bill and his wife were divorced and had no children so I suppose mum, his sister, offered to look after him and aid his recovery, however he returned to Sydney and died soon after (1946). He had survived as one of the Rats of Tobruk, who, after the disaster of the fall, survived being prisoners of war until their remnant numbers were freed by the British in November 1942. He had two or more years in hell and couldn't talk about the experience, in fact he couldn't talk about much at all.
WRR’s record shows he was in the Sydney suburb of Rosebery, in the Stores Unit, by November 1942. Dad’s memoir says the family was informed of WRR's situation in 1943. The discrepancy may have been just due to poor memory. Or it may have been due to a difficulty the military had while trying to contact WRR’s stated next of kin – his father. It may have been due to WRR’s poor physical state. Or it may have been because WRR did not want his father to be contacted. Or it may have been due to security issues.

But soon after that entry there’s one which shows that WRR’s next of kin changed from his father to my grandmother. Maybe WRR’s father was ashamed? Maybe due to his remarriage William Caldicott wanted nothing to do with his first-born son? We’ll never know. My father didn’t know the full story either and his account is the most detailed to have survived. As I said, granny never talked about her brother.

The war record provides more details about the movements WRR completed. It says that WRR embarked in Sydney for service overseas in June 1941. He disembarked in the Middle East in July of the same year. In January 1942 he was transferred to Stores Corp, and then embarked on HMS Mauritania later that same month, destination Bombay. By June 1942 he had disembarked in South Australia. Then to Sydney. From August 1943 there is a long list of medical entries, some noting ‘pneumonia’ and ‘bronchitis’. He was discharged in August 1944 “being medically unfit for further military service”.

I can see his signature on the form in 1941 and then on another form in 1944. The curlicues are less robust on the second signature. It looks a bit tired and less optimistic. But I may just be transferring feelings about things I know from family history onto this simple thing.

Dad seems to have gotten some of the dates wrong. It doesn’t really matter. The story that these war records and dad’s memoir tell is a sad one. My grandmother’s silence therefore is a continuing source of puzzlement for me. But she’s long gone so I can't ask her why.

WRR died for Australia. He may have been insignificant: a cook and then – something in the Stores Depot in Sydney. But he was crushed by incarceration after Tobruk was taken by the Germans, or just by the war itself. His medals sit in a frame on my wall, near the kitchen. The frame is gold and ornate. It’s like a little box. The two medals sit, side by side, in a boxy frame on the wall near my kitchen and they remind me that there should always be a better alternative to war.

1 comment:

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