How World War One changed Australian lives and communities

Sergeant Douglas Page, left, and his brother Sergeant Gregory Page, who were both killed in action in 1917.
Sergeant Douglas Page, left, and his brother Sergeant Gregory Page, who were both killed in action in 1917.

TREVOR Brooker is standing before a wall filled with names.

The 94-year-old’s eyes wander up and down the ranks of the 304 names embossed on the time-varnished wooden panels of an honour roll in the reception area of the Dungog Memorial RSL Club.

The names belong to men from this farming district of New South Wales who served in the First World War.

They are long gone, these men. But not in the memory of Trevor Brooker.

He can still put a face to quite a few of these names. He knew them from around town, from talking with them at the club. They are, for Mr Brooker, the faces of the First World War.

“They were just ordinary blokes who never talked about it,” says Mr Brooker, himself a veteran of battles in New Guinea during the Second World War.  

“You don’t talk about war, mate. You remember it all, but you don’t talk about it.”

We remember war, especially on November 11. Remembrance Day. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the guns fell silent after more than four years of fighting. So this year’s Remembrance Day marks a century since the armistice that led to an end to the so-called Great War.

In 1918, when word reached Dungog that the fighting had stopped, the town went wild. As the Dungog Chronicle reported, “About 9 p.m. a wire came through to this office giving official confirmation. Dungog had changed. Wild hurrahs had disturbed the erstwhile peaceful atmosphere… If anyone was in bed in Dungog by this time, a Doctor should be consulted. Sleep was impossible. The din was terrific.”

Memorial gates in Dungog, outside the local RSL club.

Memorial gates in Dungog, outside the local RSL club.

It was the same all over the country, in communities small and large. For every community had sent away many of their young men. About 420,000 had enlisted during the war from a nation with a population of only five million. It was an enormous contribution to the British Empire. So the relief and celebrations were overwhelming when the fighting stopped.

But half a world way, on the shattered landscape of the Western Front, the atmosphere was different. As Ashley Ekins, the head of the military history section at the Australian War Memorial, points out, the closer to the frontline the troops were, the more subdued and sombre their reaction was.

“Most were just too tired and relieved to celebrate,” Ashley Ekins says.

And when the guns fell silent, there was time to reflect, and to begin the agonising task of counting the cost. As just one example, Ashley Ekins cites the story of the Australian war correspondent and official historian, Charles Bean.

On November 11, 1918, Bean was in no mood for celebration, for he had returned to Fromelles in France, the scene of Australians’ most tragic day in battle. On July 19, 1916, Australia suffered 5,500 casualties. More than two years on, as he walked amid rags that were once uniforms and bones that were once men, Bean noted in his diary, “we found the old no man’s land simply full of our dead”.  

Bean’s observation in 1918 reminds us that Remembrance Day is about much more than a particular date, a moment in history, about the ‘when’.

It is about who we remember.

Trevor Brooker stands before the honour roll in the Dungog Memorial RSL Club.

Trevor Brooker stands before the honour roll in the Dungog Memorial RSL Club.

We remember who we lost.

On the honour roll in the Dungog RSL, the centre panel is flanked by long black crosses and the heading, “Killed in Action”. The panel is filled with 48 names. Tragedy can’t be quantified, but it can be multiplied. On the board are two by the name of Ikin. Two Haggartys. Two by the name of Dark. And two Pages.

Douglas Page and Gregory Page were the two youngest boys from a family of 12 children, who lived on a farm at Main Creek, just outside of Dungog. After the brothers enlisted in 1916, the Main Creek community gathered “to show she appreciates the sacrifices her men are willing to make for their home and King”.

Gregory, or Sergeant G.V. Page, kept a diary while on active service. When he was killed on March 9, 1917, his older brother, Douglas, entered his own thoughts in the diary.

“Sleep on! Dear brother of my sweetest memories,” Douglas Page wrote the day after his brother died, aged just 19.

“I am alone in the line, because now Greg has gone. I will always be alone till perchance some day I return across the waters.”

Douglas never did return. Sergeant D.L. Page was killed in action on May 17, 1917. He was aged 21.  

The Page boys’ memory is maintained in the club, not just on the honour roll but with a copy of the diary and a portrait photo. Tom Banister, the secretary of Dungog RSL sub-branch, shows the photo of the brothers hanging in the memorial room. They are smiling, with Greg looking at his older brother, as though they have just shared a joke. The Page photo is among a collection of portraits of local men killed during the First World War.

According to Mr Banister, the Page boys’ mother planted a pine tree on either side of the family farm gate in honour of her lost sons.

“For two brothers to be killed so close together like that must have been so hard for the family, and for the community,” says Mr Banister.

The effect on the Page family was life-sapping.

Maureen Kingston, from the Dungog Historical Society, has helped conduct extensive research into local men who served in the First World War, including the story of the Page brothers.

“Family history reveals that their mother took to her bed when she heard that her second boy had died,” Maureen Kingston explains.  Lucy Page died just five months later, in October.

As the sub-branch’s Tom Banister emphasises, the loss of young men was not just devastating for their family but also for the community, economically and socially.

“A lot of them who didn’t come back, their families had businesses in town; there was sometimes nobody left to continue these businesses,” he says.

The story of Dungog’s pain and loss due to the First World War is but one. A similar story played out in every community across the young nation. More than 60,000 Australians were killed during the war.

With each death, it became harder for small communities to live. A part of their very future was buried somewhere in the Old World, often in an unmarked grave.

Trevor Brooker at the memorial, with the town of Dungog in the background.

Trevor Brooker at the memorial, with the town of Dungog in the background.

About 156,000 Australian soldiers were wounded or taken prisoner during the war. So while they were able to return home, for many, the life they had known was gone. They were hardly recognisable to their communities, their loved ones, even to themselves.

“They had to pick up the pieces and be strangers in a strange land,” historian Ashley Ekins says.

“The tragedy was Australians never knew them during the war.”

The War Memorial historian explains the French and Belgians, in particular, had seen the Australians at close quarters and had come to know them as humans and soldiers, and “by 1918, they were among the best in the world”. Yet in Australia, “they came home to a society that didn’t know what they’d done.”

It was not just the returning soldiers who had to pick up the pieces. And sacrifice had reached far beyond the battlefields, across the seas, all the way back to the home front.

The people of Dungog were keenly aware of that. Outside the RSL club is a cenotaph built in 1925. Above the gate is an inscription from the district’s ex-soldiers, “In Grateful Appreciation/Of Loyal Services Rendered By/Our Women Folk/During The Great War.”

Trevor Brooker reads the names on the war memorial in Dungog.

Trevor Brooker reads the names on the war memorial in Dungog.

Yet the impact of the war on Australian women hardly ended when the conflict did. Kate Ariotti is a lecturer in history at the University of Newcastle and has studied the effects of war on families.

“The war may have been over, and the men may have come home, but that didn’t necessarily make it easier for a lot of Australian women,” Dr Ariotti says.

“A lot of women became caregivers for men who were physically or psychologically damaged.

“Men were sent off in the flower of manhood and came home requiring around-the-clock care.

“A lot of mothers became mothers again.”

Kate Ariotti says about 80 per cent of those Australian men who enlisted during the First World War were bachelors when they went off to fight.

She says while there wasn’t quite the “lost generation” here that was experienced in Britain and France, the deaths of so many young men would have had an impact on some single Australian women.

“If you grew up in a small town and half the population went off to fight, that lowers your chance of finding someone to marry,” she says.

If only all those men and boys killed, wounded or damaged in the First World War had never had to fight, what would have Dungog become? What would each and every community around the nation have become? What would Australia be now?

“We paid an enormous price,” says Ashley Ekins. But 100 years on, it should also be remembered that the Australians’ contribution and achievements on the battlefields, particularly in 1918, played a significant role in bringing to an end the First World War.

“As one of the youngest democracies in the world, it was a mighty achievement,” Ashley Ekins says. “We should not take that away from them by just thinking about the cost.”

What’s more, from their efforts grew an ideal that has helped shape a nation and people: the Anzac legend. Despite the best efforts of some politicians, Ashley Ekins says, the Anzac legend “remains a grassroots, very powerful belief”.

Trevor Brooker and Tom Banister standing at the memorial outside the Dungog Memorial RSL Club.

Trevor Brooker and Tom Banister standing at the memorial outside the Dungog Memorial RSL Club.

BOUND by memory and respect, Tom Banister and Trevor Brooker stand before the granite memorial outside the Dungog RSL club, which began life as the community’s town hall, built in 1920 to commemorate those who had served during the war.

On the memorial are two brass plaques with not 48 but 52 names of local men killed in action during the First World War. Recent research by Maureen Kingston and fellow historical society member Marie Neilson brought to light the names of four more men to be honoured and remembered.

From the memorial, there is a view over the tops of the buildings along Dungog’s main street to the range of hills shielding the town. It is a beautiful scene, which only engraves deeper the tragedy that the men behind those 52 names etched into the plaques never had the chance to return home and see this view once more.

Having left their mark on history, those 52 are not just marks on cold brass. And the same goes for all the names on war memorials in cities and towns, villages and parks right around Australia, and overseas.

On Remembrance Day 2018, and on every day, they are not just names on plaques.   

“They are more than that,” mutters Tom Banister, as he looks at the memorial. “They’re still men.

“If it wasn’t for them, what would we have? Who knows.”

Thanks to military historian David Dial and Maureen Kingston, from the Dungog Historical Society, for sharing their research.