Two days before Christmas, on 23rd December 1916, HMAT A64 “Demosthenes” sailed out of Sydney for Portsmouth carrying 150 young men on their way to fight for King and Country in places whose names they couldn’t pronounce. They were the 18th Reinforcements of 26 Battalion, 7 Brigade, Australian Imperial Forces.
The 2nd lieutenant of the embarking reinforcements was William Snowden Acworth, whose occupation was given as commercial traveller, age 23, marital status single, address at date of embarkation Ganges Street, West End, Brisbane, Queensland, and next of kin, father William Alfred Acworth of the same Ganges Street address – no listing for his mother, though I know she was alive. Her first name is my middle name.
William Snowden Acworth is my father, was my father.
His dress uniform hung in the silky oak built-in wardrobe in my parent’s bedroom in our house in Coorparoo when I was a child. In the top draw were cuff-links and tie-clips, big man’s handkerchiefs in shades of blue and brown and a cigar box, with threadbare bars of cloth and little medals.
Every so often I would pull out the box and sit on the bed and look at these. I didn’t really understand what they meant at the time – well, you don’t when you’re a kid – other things take your eye, things that are mysterious, just at the edge of comprehension: the British War Medal had a naked St George on horseback – yes, naked. Armed with a short sword symbolizing the mental and physical toughness that achieved victory over Prussianism, I have learnt subsequently. At the time, the fact that he was a naked saint took more of my attention. There was also the Victory Medal – fortunately, this just showed King George’s head; also called the Inter-Allied Victory Medal because many Allies agreed to smith and adopt it at the Versailles Peace Conference – again, later information…
I could have offered to polish the medals with Brasso, just as I polished my Brownie badges – but these bars and medals seemed made of different stuff.
The Demosthenes disembarked March 1917. After a stint at “Rollestone” training camp, my dad “Proceeded to France” on 20/6/17.
Looking at the Divisional sheets that list a soldier’s movements – it’s hard to know what happened there but the entries included:
22/8/17 – detached to Division Bomb School
28/8/17 – rejoined ex Division Bomb School
What? Was my 23 year old, commercial traveller father sent to a bomb school?
I didn’t know what this meant. I spoke to my cousin who told me that teams of 4 (2 bayonets, 2 bombers) would travel the trenches – Empire and German forces in the same trench. The bombers would go ahead, throw their bombs, and then the team would advance and kill anyone found still alive. The German teams would be doing the same, coming towards them. I tried to imagine what my 23 y.o. father thought and felt while doing this.
Dad saw service in France from June 1917 to November 1917, when he was listed “sick to hospital”(trench fever or gassed maybe? The battalion was badly gassed in early November) and invalided back to England to recover. He returned to duty in France from early February 1918 to July 1918 when he was invalided with trench fever and returned to England; then was back in France a few months later.
I know he served at Polygon Wood (Ypres Sector, Belgium) in September 1917 as he was mentioned in dispatches.
“For coolness in action and devotion to duty: The officer rendered valuable assistance in reorganizing the Coy during an attack at POLYGONE WOOD on the 2(?) Sept 1917. He exhibited coolness and determination when in charge of (evacuating?) and carrying (patients?) under heavy shell fire.”
I’m reading a scanned image of a fragile piece of paper that is 100 years old. It looks thin; the writing is faded and written in copperplate, a penmanship that hasn’t been taught for over 70 years. The links to my father’s life as a young man are so faint, so friable, they look as if they could fade from sight, just blow away like breath.
I have only begun searching for this in the last few years. I mean I could have found out earlier, probably should have done so. But it seemed pointless, in a way – he was dead. And, when alive, he never spoke of it – not of either war though he served in both – I could never get him to say anything, except that war was terrible and good men died, and there were a lot of poor buggers who didn’t deserve what they got.
But a few years ago I realized I still had a child’s understanding of that. I realized I very much wanted to know more.
I wanted to know why he left Mum the last instructions he did.
I wanted to know why, like so many men of his generation, he never spoke of the thing that so profoundly shaped him.
I wanted to know where he was on the Western Front, and how that was: what it cost, what he left behind him there, and what he brought home. I wanted to know why he was the way he was.
So I began researching in the John Oxley Library with a Q Anzac 100 Fellowship – exploring the diaries and letters home of other young men who had fought the same fight as my father.
The story of My Father’s Wars is twofold. It is the story of a young man’s initiation into manhood through the awful vicissitudes of war. It is also the story of my search for information on this part of his life – the search for the unacknowledged young man who would determine everything from there on in, every position he held on politics, and religion, every reaction he had to subsequent events in his life. Reading these diaries and reports at the JOL, I have come to know something of my father’s experience on the muddy battlefields of 1917/8 but I will never be able to say I have come to fully understand it. Now, though, I see the events of my childhood in quite a different light. Now, that angry man when I was 5 means something quite different to me: the trenches of the Western Front fundamentally formed my father and he fundamentally formed me – of course... It couldn’t happen any other way.
So, I’ve written a series of short audio works from the research at the JOL – a blend of drama and documentary, pairing up an event from my early childhood with an experience of my dad’s in the War. I think these short pieces will speak to all of the Australian families who, like me right now, seek to understand their men, the men who came back from the Front, all the Fronts. Fathers, brothers, husbands, grandfathers, great-uncles… these men formed the civic life of our nation for years and never spoke of the most formative event in their lives – the thing that shaped them.
My father was a tough man. He became furious at incompetence and miscommunication but he was deeply, silently loyal…
He hated humbug.
He loved beauty. And family, his children and grandchildren – and paint, the painter’s ability to capture some other state of being.
I have realized that when he was alive, I loved my dad as the father that he was – but did not know him. Kids don’t; they can’t; not really. That journey – to an adult relationship with a parent – happens much later. That wasn’t possible for me as Dad died when I was young. So 40 years later, it’s happening now. He can’t make the journey with me so I am making it alone. But that doesn’t make it less valuable. Perhaps it makes it more so. Though I will never have those conversations with my dad on what happened over there, I feel that now I not only love my father as the child I was, I understand him a little as an adult, understand the man he became.