Preserving the past

A 100-year-old chocolate bar may not sound like the tastiest treat in the world. But imagine receiving it in the trenches of World War 1.

Bill Thompson, museum curator at the Ballina RSL sub-branch in northern New South Wales, says the chocolate was a Christmas present to soldiers – a small token of luxury during a time of international trauma, courtesy of the Australian War Contingent Association in London.

Now, the chocolate lives in the museum, donated by Dorothy Brumley. The recipient had been her father, Henry Wharton-Braithwaite, when he was in France in 1915, after he had served at Gallipoli.

“It’s still in the tin, [and] it’s in excellent condition – except the chocolate, of course. It looks bloody awful!” Thompson says.

Almost all Australians are familiar, at least by name, with the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, and its treasures of memorabilia. But fewer know that their local RSLs often feature their own exhibits, sometimes of thousands of items.

These pieces have the power to touch not only those with personal associations and memories of wartime, but younger generations who have grown up without any kind of equivalent experience.

“We get a lot of visitors from schools, and they all arrive with a great list of questions, and they’re usually more orientated with some of the later conflicts,” Thompson goes on.

“[But] all of our families had connections with World War 1. I know mine did, and it was just normal – everybody had some member of their family or relations that served in World War 1 because there was so many of the poor buggers.”

Thompson, a former national serviceman, took over the curating role from his friend Mac McCallum, who passed away in October. The pair had worked together on building Ballina’s display for the past 15 years.

“When I joined, there were only a few items in the museum,” he says. “Macca and I got together about recording and displaying them, we got a few cabinets together and away we went. Now, we’ve probably got upwards of 800 or 900 items in the museum.”

The late McCallum had his own particular distinction as a dog handler in Vietnam: his pooch was Caesar, a famous hound whose service was so distinguished that he was bronzed. The sculpture was unveiled in Edmondson Park, Ingleburn in 2016.

Caesar, a labrador-kelpie cross, also earned his own set of medals, housed in the Ballina sub-branch museum.

“They’d be dropped with their dogs out in the jungle somewhere, and it was up to them to sniff out the enemy,” Bill Thompson says. “The dogs would lay with the men in the jungle and eat out of their packet tins.

“And he was unbelievable, this dog Caesar. I’ve got some of his history hanging on the wall with Macca’s photo that we put up a couple of weeks ago, and it’s got the list of medals that they’d given to the dog.”

The Seven Hills–Toongabbie–Wentworthville RSL sub-branch, in western Sydney, also has an impressive collection, which has been carefully documented by Honorary Secretary Chris Gammadge.

Gammadge is a serious archivist who has dedicated to organising and documenting the material collected by the sub-branch. Out of 5000 items, that often come to the museum with no known details, he has failed to identify the origin of just two.

When he came to the sub-branch, he says, “the guys had four glass cases full of stuff that was totally unidentified”.

“I’m an ex-primary school principal, and I like to have things organised, and to know what things are. My wife went overseas with her niece one April, and I decided to go to the club and spend time identifying the stuff and writing stories about it.

And so Gammadge turned himself into a memorabilia historian, a valuable role in preserving and enhancing our knowledge of what was otherwise in danger of being lost – or, if not lost, trapped in cases, without any context for visitors to understand or appreciate them.

It’s a role that strengthens the bonds between the RSL, its members and the local community. The Oberon RSL sub-branch, west of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, engaged the community on another level: extensions to the museum were painted by inmates from the local correctional facility.

Bill Wilcox, president of the Oberon sub-branch and Blue Mountains District Council, says many of the prisoners took an interest in the resulting exhibit that went far beyond a job that got them out of their “office” for the day.

“A couple of them were, ‘Are those guns real? Do they work?’ I said no, they’ve all been disarmed, so don’t get any ideas! And they were joking, but they were good.”

Wilcox, a Vietnam veteran who had served as a field engineer clearing minefields, had a few very personal exhibits of his own to share.

At the age of 20, on a mission to rescue and recover members of the 6th Battalion, Wilcox himself was hit in an explosion that killed one of his mates and left him with significant injuries. In the museum, he says, “I’ve got photos of myself and X-rays of all the shrapnel that’s still in me. They were right into it!”

Having his own body as part of the display, Wilcox said, had helped close the circle on his experience, along with a return to the site of his experience in 2010.

Wilcox ended up a small part of Australian popular culture folklore, too. Before he was hit, the first soldier he reached was Frank Hunt, whose story was told in the popular Redgum song I Was Only 19, in the lyric “Frankie kicked a mine, the day that mankind kicked the moon”.

The song’s author, John Schumann, took a little necessary poetic licence: though badly injured, it wasn’t Frankie who stepped on the mine, but Lieutenant Peter Hines, who was killed. Schumann changed the roles at the request of, and out of respect for Hines’ family.

Wilcox says it took him 50 years to reconnect with Frank, who lives in Bega on the New South Wales south coast, and the two are still in touch today.

It’s these more personal stories, like Wilcox’s X-rays, that have the most power to move audiences.

First published in Reveille, Vol. 94, #2 March 2019

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