Archive number: 2541
Date interviewed: 25 January, 2000
You are listening to the interview audio
NB. This transcript is of an interview filmed for the television series, Australians at War in 1999-2000. It was incorporated into the Archive in 2007.
Where were you when you were growing up?
I’m thinking of trying to get back …
Talk a bit loudly.
Yes okay, I’ll move up. Think of before the war, trying to get you to recall, if you can go back as far as when you were at school or did you go to cadet camps?
Nothing to do with the schools, I don’t remember much.
How different things were there, compared to now?
I can get a, because my mind period then was totally different to what yours was. Totally bloody different. So if I’m going to tell you a story, I’m going to tell it my way you see? Because it’s as if you’re saying bread and butter, and bread and jam, plainly as such. How did it happen? Did they have bread and bloody jam you see?
We had cakes and what not. Me, I had bread and syrup. No bloody jam, so I’m going to tell you about that you see? And why it was so.
So did you, when you were at school, do you remember being at school?
Oh yes. What I first remember, the first thing I can remember was the school. As a baby sitting in at my father’s table, he was the headmaster, at Hamate [?] and I remember
when he weren’t happy. In front of all the kids, I must have been about two, how the hell I’d offended, me at age two I don’t know. At that age, that’s the first thing I remember, is that I ended up at my Dad’s table.
And your dad was a schoolteacher? You had quite a big family didn’t you?
Eight in the family. Eight kids,
in the pecking order I was number seven. I don’t know if that’s got anything to do with my longevity or not. Those numerologists would go to town about that.
I think they would, yeah.
When you were at school did they, did you, did they teach you stuff about Empire and the war, the other war?
Well you see my friend, they couldn’t teach me anything. I was an absolutely bloody no hoper. That’s, now don’t get me
wrong, I’m not trying to be funny I was a proper bloody dunce. I couldn’t understand what a relative pronoun was or mental arithmetic or, a train travelling at fifty miles an hour goes past a place is sixty miles long and what speed was it going at? How the hell can anyone work that out? I can work it out in my head, now, then, I didn’t know what I was talking about. I was a dunce.
And when you’re talking about school, that was fairly me in those days. This is, after my father died and [(UNCLEAR)] the great separator, okay. No king of the castle could spell it. And I had my hand up; I can spell the damn thing. And I spelt it. He said, “How the bloody hell did you know that, it’s about the only
thing you do know?” I said, “Listen my friend, I’ve got to get up in the morning to herd the bloody cows, twenty of the damn things.” Through winter, frost, no socks, shoes like you people wear now. And I’d herd those out and I’d put them in the cow barns, and my brothers would milk the wretched things. And I’d have breakfast and I’d come out and turn the bloody separator. Alfalaval - A-L-F-A-L-A-V-A-L
S-E-P-A-R-A-T-O-R. Who the bloody hell could forget that bloody word separator, turning that for an hour, an hour and a half of that damn thing. “Oh,” he said, “You win.” That’s the only thing I ever got marks for, was that one word separator.
That was imprinted in your mind.
Oh well, it wouldn’t work like we could forget that.
But you said that your dad died, and he left you, obviously your mum was left with …
When was that?
Do you remember when your father died?
I do remember, 2nd February in 1908, Sunday. He died all of a sudden. Every Sunday, my mother used to prepare a main meal, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, they were Yorkshire people. And my father wasn’t fat, you’d say he was a bit rotund, and they always had a gap on Sunday afternoon, and Mum said to me,
“Eric,” she said, “Now don’t you get up on that shingle roof.” The shed out the back you see, where the horses. So when they went, it was the bloody first thing I thought of, getting on the shingle roof. Mum saw me about an hour later, round about quarter to four. “Come here boy, Dad was asleep, waking him up.” He had to go to the toilet, you know down the backyard, and in the process he gave me a bit of belting you see,
for not doing what I was told. Had to sit in the [(UNCLEAR)], in the lounge room, and when he came back from the toilet he said, he said to my mother, “Mix me up a glass of physic [medicine].” Physic in those days was like a pain killer, you know pink stuff – Physic. And he went back to bed and about an hour or two later he was, “No, no, no.” he said, I’ve got a ghastly headache”. So one of my brothers had to go to Wynnum,
that’s about four or five miles on a horse, get a doctor, he came about half past six, and my Dad was dead about seven o’clock, 2nd February, Sunday. Eight children, my brother fortunately was leasing a farm just outside Ipswich, at a place called Kuraby. I don’t think it would succour a blasted goanna,
that place. We had twelve cows and the cows would produce, how they would produce milk, I didn’t know how they produced milk and I had to turn that separator and we’ve got some money from the market, from the cream. And that’s how we lived and of course we had to, ploughed the ground and we grew some cotton. I had to pick bloody cotton before I went to school. And a bloody job if there ever was. The fingers get,
you know, what cotton rolls are like?
Yeah, it cuts your hands.
It cuts your hands off. We got some money from those things, anyhow we lived. We didn’t die. You see. So it didn’t do me much harm did it? No bread or jam and no jam, oh crikey how I wish we had jam, but we had bread and treacle, no butter.
When the war broke out, your brothers enlisted didn’t they?
Two had, then I
enlisted, and two more after me.
And what did your mum think about that though?
I don’t know, I don’t know, I’ve often thought about that. No, she was an English lady type. When I say lady, I mean it’s the type that never had to do a damn thing, she didn’t know how to boil and egg or make tea or anything like that. She had other people to do that for her but anyhow, when she got out here, I often wondered how my mother existed, with five children at the war. Two
killed in the process, and every time the phone rang, no we didn’t have a phone back in those days either! Every time the telegram boy came with a message, she used to shudder, I suppose. I never asked her when I came back, never asked her. But she, when I came back from the war, she cried a lot.
Did she ever talk about it later on in her life?
Not to me, not to me she didn’t, not to me. And I was her,
I considered I was her pin-up boy, don’t know why. I don’t remember ever having an argument with my Mum. I often remember I had chores every weekend, cleaning the bloody knives; you poor blighters have stainless steel now. We had to clean it every week, clean the stains off, things off with a [UNCLEAR] and towel, that type of thing. We used to have to do the glasses from the lamps, the wicks on the lamps,
my job every Saturday and Sunday. And I’d have an argument with my Mum, “Mum, I want to go and play marbles or something.” “No, you have to do these damn things Eric, will you wash the floor, mop up after the kids.” “Yeah, no problem.” So when she was dying, I do remember back when she had, when she was dying, she said to my eldest sister who was there at the same, when I was there, only two of us. She said, “Look
after Eric.” Was I such a bad bastard that she must have seen something in me, hey?
You needed a bit of looking after or something.
I don’t know, I’ve often wondered why. When I die, I’ll see my Mum and say, “What the hell did you mean when you were dying?” and she’ll tell me or Shannon no doubt.
But back, when your brothers enlisted, do you remember anything about
them going to the war and hearing about, do remember anything about why they enlisted? And going off to Gallipoli?
Well you’ve got to remember that times were pretty tough in those days. My eldest brother had this farm that I was telling you about in Kuraby and it’s a ghastly place, a lot of hard work, and not getting anywhere in the process. And of course he said, anything’s
is better than nothing. Getting paid and kept medical bills and all that paid, all that type of thing, and there’s a certain amount of convenience attached to that. So that anyhow, so he enlisted right from the start and he was at Gallipoli. I think he was with the first boat, or the second boat to land on the shore, he told me about that. But I thought he was in the 9th Battalion, but some say he was in the 15th Battalion, whether he changed or not, I don’t remember.
But I don’t remember him going to the war. I suppose I was there when he went away.
Did you ever hear from him? Did you ever get any letters?
Oh yes, yes. Well he wrote us all a letter just whether he mentioned me, but that’s really back home of course. But I saw him when he was in the hospital in England, he was wounded.
He was in hospital there for awhile. I said, I was not yet [(UNCLEAR)], I was in the process of going to France. And I knew he was in there so I went in up to see him. And I went back, had to go through London, to go back to the camp as a [(UNCLEAR)] said the girlfriend and the girlfriend in London of course I got landed with five shillings, just after I got the early train out to the camp and
got there just after Rick was.
So he went off to Gallipoli and did you ever hear anything about Gallipoli, do you remember hearing what was happening in Gallipoli?
Yes, he got a lot of, that’s all you should get. We got it there. A letter that was published in The Courier Mail and we’ve got the cutting of The Courier Mail. He wrote on 5th July,
1915 from Gallipoli, told you a bit about it. How it got through the censor I don’t know, but it did. So that’s one letter that we have and I’ve still got a copy of it.
So did you remember hearing about Gallipoli when you were at the Post Office? Or any news from there? Or in the papers?
No, no, no. A matter of fact I didn’t take much interest in the war. You see I told you I was a
dumb student, but I picked up Morse code, quicker than any other buggers, mastered it in about nine months, Morse code. You know what Morse code is? You know how the thing goes through, how anyone can detect dots and dashes from that? It intrigued me. Oh I spoke rubbish, so I said if anyone can do that I surely do it, and sat down and listened to this
damn machine, in the Post Office at Eumundi and whenever I had spare time, I used to sit down and listen to this damn machine. And after two or three days I had A-N-D coming out and then T-H-E-R, I said, “A bloody pushover this business, it’s easy.” I passed my test in nine months. They promoted me out to Boulia.
So that was a desired skill to have in those days?
Well you see, my godfather up there is looking after me, he could see into the future but more than I could. Anyhow I only wanted that because it gave me an extra fifteen shillings a week I think. That’s all I got a week. By the passing that test I got a pound a week or something like that. I don’t know how much it was but anyhow, I got something. And they promoted me to Boulia.
So you never had any cadet training or anything before the war did you? So what, what happened?
How come you came to enlist? What caused all that to happen?
Don’t you know the story?
Oh, there is a bit of a march involved and then…
Anyhow, I’ll tell you the story. It was round about November, I think it was 1915, Boulia was a sleepy place in those days, at night time, not a damn thing happening anywhere and the [(UNCLEAR)]
some people like the Dungarees [recruiting march] were coming down to, to talk about the war, trying to get some recruits. That’s when the shouts went out, me and all, and a lot of my cobbers [friends] about my age, eighteen and over. I was second in charge of the movement, as much as the buggers were older than I was. So I must have had something in it apart from this tic-tac [signaller] business.
Anyhow, that’s how it was. We went to lunch to hear this business. No intention of enlisting. Not one of us. And Boulia was the place where we had a brass band, a lot of Germans there. They used to play um-boop-um-boop, you know those bloody big things? Boop-boop. They were champions at that machine, and anyhow, they had a brass band there and they played and there was speeches
made and gone and finished and they called for volunteers, and people were going up and signing on the dotted line, but not interested, not a bit interested, not one skerrick of interest did I have with signing up. And then the band played the march, la la la la la, I thought that’s fine, I couldn’t resist before and that’s why I signed on the dotted line. That’s a true story. That’s why I enlisted friend. Not because
King and country or my brothers were there and my mates were there signing on the dotted line, none of that nonsense. This is because of that blasted Le Marseillaise.
There had been a lot of promotions of the war before that too hadn’t there?
Oh a lot of talk about it, we got reports from time to time from the paper, that’s all. That’s all I knew about. We didn’t have TV like you people have got nowadays. None of that nonsense. Very little radio either.
So what were these
recruitment marches like? Were there speeches?
Oh yes, yes, yes.
And trying to get you to, what did they say? You’ve got to go and fight?
Oh yes the King and country, the King and country in England and these are the consequences if you don’t go through. None of that interests me at all. The only thing that interested me is that blasted Le Marseillaise. My brother there wounded, that didn’t seem to make any difference at all.
So off you went.
Off I went and look at me now?
Didn’t do me any harm did it?
No that’s true.
I thought I was alarmed but I had my friend up there, He looked after me.
What did you think was going to happen? What was your, when you joined up and you went off to the war, how did you feel about going to war? What did you think it would be like?
I was off with the fairies, I was a soldier. Seventeen and a half. Oh gosh, you hadn’t any idea what it feels like. I don’t remember much about it apart from the fact that I was in,
absolutely exhilarated at being a soldier, going to war.
How did the people, the women, the people at home react to you?
Oh treated us like bloody heroes of course, like they do now. Everywhere we went, when we went away on a train down to Sydney, every place we stopped at. They were there with cigarettes and lollies and fruit and all sorts of things, scones and what not. Treat us like heroes.
Before and when we came back, just the same. Marvellous what these women’s communities do, I don’t know what they call them now. War - I don’t know for those women.
And they had committees, to what, what did they do those committees?
They make socks and send them over to us, and that’s what they call The Comforts, C-O-M-F-O-R-T-S, The Comforts
Fund. Oh and The Comforts Fund and the army dish out this material to the various units from time to time. The only, the only one I remember was in March 1918, when the Germans broke through, in the Somme. We had just been issued The Comforts Fund. The bloody panic button, bells are rung.
Full dress, six o’clock or whatever time it was, full dress marching order, six o clock. Marching order means the whole bloody box and dice. All these damn tins of chocolates and, leave the damn thing behind. We took what we could of course but a hell of a lot we couldn’t take, socks and all that type of thing. The bars of chocolates and tins of coffee and milk mixed up together.
Lot of that had to be left behind. That broke my heart and all the other bloke’s hearts too. Marching order means you’ve got to fall back quick in line.
What was that marching order for?
To go down to the Somme, to protect Amiens. Do you want the story about that?
Oh, dear. That’s the scenario, the Germans broke through on 21st April on the Somme, they decimated the British Fifth Army.
When I say decimated, I mean in the true sense of the word, and they took a lot of territory and they were aiming for a place called Amiens. A-M-I-E-N-S. That was our railhead, the British Army railhead. The Germans wanted that and if they took that garrison we’re gone and that’s, our army would be in strife and of course our army knew they wanted it and they wanted to keep it.
Now what did they do? Use your own commonsense. They had all the guards divisions, they had all the other bloody divisions, they got their [UNCLEAR] out, stood around and faced in between where we were and Amiens. They got us there, five divisions, helter skelter, at a moment’s notice, down to this old, to this Villers-Bretonneux in front of Amiens, between Amiens and Germans, tell them that,
“Now come and take the bloody place if you can.” They didn’t actually say that, that’s what they meant. The Germans took, because we were there, we were there but we were defending it, that English battalion or something, recruits and it didn’t appear to be much worth, anyhow the Germans took it. The order came back, take it back, 25th April 1918.
They took it back. But with it, we were attached to the British 4th Army. The British general, called Rawlston, I think his name was, I don’t know what his name was but anyhow he got the brigadiers who were in charge of this taking it back, taking Villers-Bretonneux back, they wanted to find out what our tactics they adopted, see? So he said, “Righto, what are your tactics?”
He said, “Well we want to attack at half past seven at night.” “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no half past five in the afternoon.” And our boys argued the point about that but they said no, so we [(UNCLEAR)] and he said, “Well, they said the finish is and listen,” the general said, “If you want us to do the job, we’ll do it our way or not at all.” He was adamant about that so he said, “Well, what do you want
it at half past ten for?” He says, “Well, the Germans are, that’s when they’re changing the guard.” Bit of panic then, not panic but a bit of difference but anyhow, he said, “And then it’s half past ten, it’s dark, nobody will see us, then again we’re not going to have a barrage to let them know we’re going to come.” He said, “Thanks,” he said. From 1916
to 1918, those Germans never learnt a bloody skerrick because in 1916 they adopted this nonsense about attacking at half past five. We lost, my division, five hundred and sixty people in one night, in my division, one division, one bloody night, not a month or a year. Five thousand, five hundred and sixty odd. Two of those thousand were dead, finished and they wanted the same bloody tactics in 1918.
Makes me sick. I get hot under the collar because one of my brother’s was killed in these bloody [(UNCLEAR)] in 1916 when they adopted that nonsense.
And that was the war of attrition, they called it.
Wasn’t war, not war at all in my book, not the way you conduct war. Let the poor buggers get mown down like corn before a scythe - no,
row after row of our boys were blown down like [(UNCLEAR)], including one of my brothers. That’s why I get hot under the collar.
So how were soldiers feeling about that?
They didn’t like it much at all, even our generals didn’t like it, they told him, they didn’t like this half past five business. Now little bit further, little bit later than that our general more or less were given charge of the British, our five divisions. First time we’d had a
full complement, see?
I just want to go back to when your brother, when did you learn that your brother was killed?
Dunno, I can’t answer that. I don’t know. Don’t know when I heard about that first, could have been a bit later.
Probably was because the news didn’t travel that fast.
No, no, no, no. Must have been afterwards, might have been a couple of months after he was, that was in July he was killed. It might have been August or September in ‘16. I don’t remember, I can’t answer it.
How did you feel about it though when you found
Well, I can’t say I was emotional at all because we’re living with death all the time, don’t forget. That question was asked of me about, one of my cobbers got killed, [(UNCLEAR)] just outside my dugout with a bloody big shell that fell on him, got him and killed him and the sergeant didn’t get a scrape of the same shell. The girls [researchers] asked me the question, what emotion?
I didn’t have any. And I said, “Oh,” I said to myself, “Why is that? Why didn’t I have any bloody emotion? The poor bastard’s dead.” I did not have any emotion. He was the bloke I just relieved in the tic-tac business. I didn’t have any emotion. And I said to myself, “Bugger this, it might have been me a couple of hours later.” Could have been me, the sergeant too. But
I didn’t have any emotion whatsoever. When I heard about my brother getting killed, no emotion either. I might be different, I don’t know. But it’s all around us. You can imagine that. That when my colleague got killed. They couldn’t relieve him because of the intense bombardment was so intense that they, they sent rations up to us, that was, [(UNCLEAR)] a little bit
and they didn’t arrive. So, as I said, we get ourselves sent another, sent another lot about an hour later he came and said, “The rest come in?” I said, “No, Sir.” And he said, “Give me that bloody phone.” And the phone, he’s talking to, he says, “Where’s those bloody rations?” He said, “Well, we sent two lots up.” He said, “They haven’t arrived.” He said, “We can’t send anymore, no we’ll have to starve, that’s all.” Three days we had to starve. [(UNCLEAR)] I’m still here brother, one hundred and two damn near.
It didn’t kill me, did it?
So what do you put that down to? I mean it’s…
It’s due to the intense bombardment. We were only allowed in action for four days at a time. Four days and a fortnight off to recover from the, the ghastly bombardments that we had to suffer, then go back another four days. That went on and on. It went on for two or three months anyhow until this bloody shemozzle of the Somme. We had to go down the Somme.
But did people begin to get disillusioned? I mean with the war after that sort of, and put into that sort of pressure for time.
We did, we did. I say we, the troops in the front line did. I wasn’t in the front line thank God, I was about four or five hundred yards behind with this machine business. But that’s, somebody had to do that and our people, the tic-tacs, were
to take a certain line, the second line of troops. No, can’t go any further, our boys were taking second line, get to second line and look down the barrels of the big guns of the Germans and 18 [UNCLEAR] different, difference but at the same time 18 [UNCLEAR], watch them carting the bloody things away. That used to break their hearts. Milo said, don’t know if he told [UNCLEAR] he said, “Let me get the troops. Let them
go until they can’t go any further.” This happened on 8th August when he was in charge, we started, never finished until 8th November, that was, then it was finished altogether.
That was the big final push.
Let me tell you a bit about.
But earlier on in that time though when you were going back to what it was like when you were really getting hammered a lot, did people despair of you know like religion, did people start to question what things were about? What was it like living in the trenches?
No, no, no, no, no.
Did you rely on your mates? How did people survive through that time?
Well, they did survive on their mates. This, I don’t know, we had to do the twent- four shifts and between us that didn’t matter, we didn’t have, no problem at all. That didn’t hurt us. I could tell you a little story about that? Righto, this brother, Cock, Greyhawks [?] got killed. The three of us lived in one dugout. The same dugout and when he got
killed that meant that there was two of us left. So what’s his name, “Leave me, it’s dark.” I said, “Nick, I’ll go and get my gear and put them close here, so if you want me in the night I’ll be handy.” “Good idea.” I said, “Right, by the way, will I bring yours?” He said, “No, no, no,” he says, “I’ll go get them in the morning.” “Okay.” The morning came and he says, “I’m going to get my gear now.” He came back in a minute and said, “I can’t find the bloody place.” I said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “You come and see if you can find it.”
I went with him, along the trench I said, “It’s up here.” Then there’s up about twenty yards up here, by this side we were there. “That’s where it should be”, I said. A bloody big hole. We looked at that quietly. He said, “You thinking what I am Kizzy?” I said, “Yes, I am.” I said, “Had Greyhawks not been killed,” I said, “You and I had have been in that bloody place.”
Work it out. Nick lost all his gear, his pocket books, his papers, his girlfriend’s photographs, all gone haywire. He had to put in orders, new kit that’s all. Didn’t get any photographs back, letters he received, shocking thing to lose all those things, to a solider. That’s why he
used to live on in his spare time, just looking at his girlfriend and reading the letters again.
Interviewee: Eric Abraham Archive ID 2541 Tape 317
Well, maybe the question has more to do with the difference between the Australian troops and the other troops. How did you see yourselves, did you see yourselves as different?
Well, we didn’t know anything about that.
That’s come about after the war. The Germans have admitted that when we were against them they knew they were up against something which is totally different from the other people apparently, so you make your own opinion about that.
So, they always knew when they had a fight on their hands when our people were on the side but we didn’t know anything about it. We just went [UNCLEAR] on the way we normally thought it was a useful thing to do, our people. And the bayonets in Gallipoli, the Turkish just ran like buggery, see themselves about it [UNCLEAR], they would have, they would have stopped.
But what did the soldiers begin to think about the people who were running the show after those big stuff ups?
Well, I don’t know. In our particular mob, the signals, we used to talk about it of course but you can’t do anything about it. They say, what a shocking thing to do, lose five thousand people in one division, one night, that type of thing, see? That rankled, when one poor bugger gets shot in [East] Timor there’s a bloody full page article about it in the paper. One poor bugger. Just
shot by accident, I suppose it was. And we get five thousand and it’s, just a part of, just a part of, casualties were heavy, casualties were heavy. They never published five thousand, golly there would be a riot back here.
People didn’t really know what was happening?
Billy Hughes [Australian Prime Minister] did and he wanted conscription to cope with it. No we were committed to nine thousand
troops a month, to reinforce us. That costs, nine thousand a month is nothing, just a three month, and of course when these things happen in 1916, he said the only thing to do is to have conscription. We didn’t want conscription. The soldiers voted against it because they knew that we didn’t want anybody forced to do what we did voluntarily. But
it’s, that was the [UNCLEAR] about four days in action. We wouldn’t like anybody to put up with that situation. So we, I think it was about eighty or ninety percent against conscription. There would have been some for it, I suppose. But the main thing is, it was out. Billy Hughes was left hanging. It was hard work to get his nine thousand.
That’s right, the numbers of people began to fall off, didn’t it?
You’ve got to remember there was only four million people to get their nine thousand and the, I don’t know how many enlisted the first year, would have been a few thousand anyhow.
Twenty or thirty thousand.
More in the first year probably.
Yes, yes, yes. Well, there are not too many left, [UNCLEAR] in 1915 there would be a few thousand too, wouldn’t there? A few thousand
more people. So I can understand Billy Hughes wanting, wanting conscription, when he missed out it was shocking.
Was there much push for, you were in the front when the first conscription, when the first conscription came out were you still back in Australia then?
Don’t think so.
The first one was in 1916.
Oh, I’d left.
I left in
Do you remember the first Anzac Day?
First Anzac Day I was in hospital in Wentworth, April. I was in not exact hospital, I was in recovery, what do they call it? And it was probably Wentworth, I was recovering at, oh I was in hospital again, yes. I probably, yes the first of April I was in bloody hospital. Somebody
played a joke on the nurse. Oh, yes, oh hell, yes I was there. It was hospital in Wentworth, the first, it would have been 1917, that would be the second one.
That was the second one.
The second one. ‘17 I was in hospital, yes. First one, first one I was in England, in the signals
camp learning how to, the procedure for military, the procedure for sending and receiving messages. I was in that place called Hitchin I think. That would be April or early June. That would be May, June, July, August I think we went to France, told to find the 5th Division. “Where is it?” “Don’t ask silly bloody questions, find it.”
That was it? So when you left Australia you went to Egypt. Is that
That’s right. Tel el Kebir.
Can you tell me a bit about that because you heard a lot about the, we’ve heard a lot about the Australians when they were in Egypt; they played up quite a bit. Did you go and visit some of the places and…?
Yes, yes but I didn’t play up.
Oh, no, no, no, we know that.
I was only a young bloke anyhow. Seventeen and a half but had you received the bloody lectures that we got, you wouldn’t play up either. You’d be an idiot if you did.
What was that, you mean about the health warnings?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
What did they tell you?
Oh, be careful or don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t be stupid. Anyhow, a lot of them wanted to do it and there’s a fella, a bloke who had his [UNCLEAR] or something like that. Now we’ve got a picture of this inside his pocket book, they tried to do that before I went to the war in Albert Street. They bloody well
pulled the place down like the café or something like that, the Germans. Anyhow they pulled the bloody café down. That, somebody pinched his, this bloke’s pocket book and there was a riot, 1916, early 1916 that would be, right in Albert Street. But that wouldn’t be publicised at all.
So was there much
animosity towards the Germans? But I mean towards the Germans though at home while you’re on that question. There were a lot of German people living in the town where you were, weren’t there?
There were, yes. A lot of them were incarcerated, not so many though, in the First War apparently it wasn’t so desperate, I don’t know why it wasn’t. The Second War they put in James [(UNCLEAR)] but the first war, no, no-one was running around, as far as I remember in Vila?
But this pocket book story, that was in a place
owned by Germans did you say?
Yes, well yes, that’s the, in Albert Street in Brisbane.
And this was at night time, round about six or seven o clock, this erupted. I was in town at the time. I don’t know, I didn’t see it, don’t know where I was, or my cobber, we must have been at the theatre. Didn’t know anything about that until after it happened. It happened about, we got out at ten o’clock, of course it was
get out quick and hurry or the MPs [Military Police] will catch you and we didn’t have a pass, my cobber and I, was not far to the barracks at that particular time. Seven days and he said, “That’s no bloody good. We’ve got to go to get us out.” So we got home alright because of that, that wretched revolution, or whatever you call it. [(UNCLEAR)] About the soldier losing the pocket book.
So how the Germans feel about that though?
I don’t know,
I didn’t have any contact with them. They didn’t like it much, I suppose, didn’t like it at all. Not that they, if they didn’t learn a lesson from that, they should have. Don’t interfere with the troops. Leave them alone. And you get the troops, because the troops in those days, they banded together, and that’s how this trouble started because the MP’s started stopping one or two.
No not another race, and that’s how, the other year after, built up from little to little and little and bigger and bigger. So it was all in. Even in those days a boy likes a scrap [a fight].
But Australians were known for that, weren’t they, for their sort of wild attitudes? Did you ever experience anything in any other places when you were overseas anywhere? You ever see that?
No, no, no. You see
I don’t know, I suppose a signal coming, a different type of people, isn’t it, different type of people. The industry had all sorts, all flavours and they had miners and you know tough babies, bloody good blokes to have alongside you when you’re in trouble, believe you me. Bloody good blokes. They’re only wild because well have a couple of [(UNCLEAR)] or something like that. And there’s no war on, what are we worrying about?
It’s not the war yet. When the war’s on they behaved themselves. Impeccably. No doubt about it, until towards the end of the war, I think someone played up, revolted a bit. You don’t hear much about that.
Is that because people going AWOL? [Absent With Out Leave].
No, one of the reasons was because of this lack of recruits. They had to have so many divisions you see in the, when I was, the divisions was
four, battalions were division. They wanted to make another division so they had to take one battalion out of each division to make another one. The troops didn’t like it much. They take some out of a battalion to make another battalion. They didn’t like that much. They had an affinity with the 25th or whatever battalion they belonged to. They didn’t like being taken away from it. They revolted.
I don’t know what the sequel was, I don’t know. Anyhow it didn’t erupt to any major operation at all. It just fizzled out.
The troops certainly didn’t want to be broken up like that, no.
Not because of anything the hierarchy did to them. Not because, well you’ve fragmented. They had to get this other division. It was six divisions they were trying to make. They only had five.
Don’t know what, six divisions. Six divisions is just the same as five divisions of manpower. That’s what it looked like to me. So why worry about six divisions? Why not just have five? I don’t know. There must be a story about that somewhere. I don’t know the story about that one.
What did you think about the people, AWOL and got out of the war and they jumped ship?
Oh, the only crime they committed my friend was being caught,
the only crime. AWOL, who cares about AWOL? As long as they behave themselves and don’t get drunk and disorderly, that type of thing. That’s where they got slapped properly. If they got caught AWOL a couple of days or something like that, I’d give them a fortnight CB [Confined to Barracks], stupid things, go back to barracks. CB. I don’t know. I didn’t do it. I did it when I came
back to London after seeing my brother. I said bugger, I might as well stay here for a couple of hours and see my girlfriend. That’s what I did. I got landed. Well that’s the crime. There’s never been any crime without being caught. So I wasn’t caught. Oh I was caught. They charged me five shillings in my paybook. The only blot on my escutcheon.
Well that’s not too bad.
Four years is not bad.
I don’t know any more. I didn’t think we had any. But I do realise now we did have a few. But as far as I know I don’t think we had any. Nobody at my house deserted anyhow. No persons in any of the battalions in our division, that I know of. They probably kept it dark anyhow. Wouldn’t publicise it, would they? So I don’t know about that.
So can you just explain to us – you joined up in?
Yes well this was in, I think it was November 1915. I left for Egypt 31st March 1916, arrived at Tel el Kebir in Egypt about two or three months.
And half of our contingent went to France in June ’16 and the other half went to England. The half that went to France in June ’16 were in the Pozieres from Alderstone [?] and those poor bastards lasted about three weeks, three months. The other poor buggers that went to England were saved all that shemozzle. Righto, I was in camp at.
Righto let me tell you how I got into this thing. I was in the infantry at this stage. I paraded with, they called me out of parade one morning, me and my cobber who was a signaller, teleman like I was. “Report to corps headquarters.” so we did that. They said, “Are you a telegrapher, Abraham?” “Yes.” “Are you a telegrapher,
Walker? Henceforth, you are in the signal engineers. You report to Hitchins forthwith.” Got to Hitchins [?] forthwith and learnt a bit about the procedure of sending in military messages and whatnot, the technique. Eventually three weeks, a month or two later we’re sent to France. Advil [?] is the place which was our training in the camp.
Training camp, from there, England to Advil to a unit. So we were there for about three weeks to a month. “You got to find the 5th Division”. Well we found the 5th Division. One night, eight pm, dark, windy, cold and miserable, sergeant gave us a
blanket each and found us somewhere to sleep, not easy. Because as I said, dark and miserable and the only place that wasn’t occupied were the places full of mud and water or something. Anyhow we found a place that wasn’t too bad and we bedded down. Next morning, oh that’s another story. Anyhow what we had to do there was to send and receive messages
on what they called a Fuller phone which is a Morse code business. And just the same as the tic-tac, the metal thing that we had back here only it’s a metal sound back here. Their’s was a buzz job. That’s it. The other was a click business. A bit different. But anyhow we managed that. That was our job. That’s what we did all along the line.
And the first time you came into contact with
the war, when the first shell landed. Can you tell us about that, your reaction to it?
Righto. We reported down at this place called Meadowlea Wood, two signallers. And next morning after breakfast the staffer says, “Report to Audley River [?], Abraham”. Reported there. “Abraham,” “Yes,” “You and this bloke take rations up to our forward area.” Forward area was up where the action was eh? So
we’re going along to that forward area which was quite, the area wasn’t as bad as that fashion zone that I told you about before. There were shells here and there falling, nothing intense. And we was, my cobber and I, I had a sandbag full of tins and whatnot for our forward area and he had stew which was alright. Sitting chatting away, nice and quiet and all of a sudden hell broke loose, behind me.
My knees buckled up and I fell to the ground, tins and things all around me. This bloke looked at me and grinned. “Hey you don’t want to duck from them digger?” I said, “I’m not bloody well ducking. I’m frightened.” Which I was. He said, “They’re our guns. You don’t want to duck for them. Wait a minute. Fritz’ll take umbrage at that. Fritz don’t like those damn shells falling on him. He’s going to retaliate.
Duck them, brother. Fast as you can.” He was right. Fritz did retaliate. And I don’t remember a thing about those rations. I don’t remember going back to base. I haven’t the faintest idea what happened. Righto. A couple of days later I saw a bloke who’d been there longer than me. I said, “Listen, friend, did you hear about my episode?”
He said, “Yes I did.” and started to grin. I said, “Listen it’s no bloody laughing matter, it’s serious.” He slapped me on the shoulder, he said, “Listen, we all act in the same way. If any bloke tells you he wasn’t frightened of the shellfire the first time, he’s a bloody liar and he’s not here.” He said, “The funny thing about it, you get used to it.” I said, “Don’t be bloody silly. How the bloody hell do you get used to that?” He said, “You get used to it alright.” He was right on both counts. You did get used to it.
And every other bugger I spoke to reacted the same way, under shellfire the first time, it’s a shocking business. So then I re-found my bloody commonsense after all that. But we did get used to it. And I didn’t think we could.
In Egypt, what did you do in Egypt? What did you find out about?
I found out this much, Egypt is a crook [bad] place. Not worth a bloody cracker to put it in common language. Bloody awful as a matter of fact. I got a couple of bouts of sunstroke to start with, mild ones, but they were bad enough for me. And what happens, just before I got there the general in
charge, he organised a march from Tel el Kebir to Hezbollah. It was supposed to toughen the troops up for what was to come later on you see. And we were supposed to go with one water bottle and it was just before I arrived. And it did nothing for the toughening up process. What it did do was to give the New Zealand Ambulance Brigade an
exercise in recovering troops, our troops, fallen by the wayside. Fallen by the wayside, thirsty and sun and oh, it was a shocking business. But they got a good exercise out of that. But as far as our blokes were concerned they didn’t learn a damn thing apart from the fact that one water bottle on a trek like that is not enough. But anyhow this bloke, the general, got the nickname of Butcher. He retained that all his years.
Never heard of him after that. So God knows whether he was sent back home or not. Anyhow, it’s safer there. The Butcher, I know his name, but I’m not going to tell you that.
He wasn’t well received by the troops?
Is that good enough, about Egypt?
Oh what about the Aussies reputation there? Can you tell us anything?
Oh that’s before me too. It happened before I got there.
The Battle of the Wazzir they called it. The Wazzir was the red-light area, just in case you don’t know, and that’s where the troops got their, the occasional, pocketbook. One of the girls pinched the pocketbook from this bloke. They didn’t like it back home. And they still don’t like it when their pocketbook’s pinched. Anyway they erupted and it erupted properly. Because they had a bit of
resistance. The more resistance they got, the more opposition they got. More [(UNCLEAR)] they got from our blokes. Hell of a big concern. The place got on fire. And the fire brigade brought the hoses over and our blokes simply cut them with their bayonets or knives or whatever they had. [General] Kitchener, I think it was, came along and saw the result of this and he said,
“The Australian troops have undone in quarter of an hour what I spent twenty-five years to do in Egypt.” Spoilt the whole bloody lot. Well, they deserved it. Anyhow after that, there was no trouble after that. No pocketbooks pinched any more. So that was the Battle of the Wazzir. I wasn’t there. But that’s the story they told me.
Did the Australians
play up much on R & R [Rest and Relaxation] in France? Did you go to any of the, behind the rest camps, behind the lines?
Yeah. I went to the famous Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden is a top drawer brothel in France, in Bologne I think it was. Bologne, Calais, up north there somewhere. And it was a big place, full of smoke,
people smoked cigarettes in those days. Had all sorts of drinks and things. It’s a nice place to look at. Three of us went in and of course we weren’t interested in anything else but having a look see. What we saw we enjoyed very much. It was nice to look at. That’s as much as exhilaration we got out of it. But there you go, that’s The Garden of Eden. We came out. We spent about half an hour there. Had a drink of beer, whatever
they had. They called it beer. It didn’t taste like beer. But we had a drink or two, left and came out. Saw what we wanted to see and that’s it.
Did you get to meet many of the French people?
Oh did I ever. My book’s full of, you’ve got my book have you? It’s full of girls. Not full of them. I had a girl at every damn town I went to. It was good. And the only reason I had a girl in every town,
it’s not to what you’re thinking of. Lesley’s [researcher] probably thinking the same way. I never slept with any of them. You hear that Lesley? Yes. That’s the type of bloke I was. I enjoyed their company and I used to go home and have dinner with them. Their stews were better than bloody bully beef and spuds. That’s all we had. Mum used to put on a decent feed when a soldier came along.
Top drawer. It was nice. So that’s how if we liked their company we’d take a box of chocolates or something like that. I don’t know what I had. I didn’t have much money anyhow. In that book, you see I mentioned a contact. That contact meant I had a girlfriend in Bologne. Betty Jeanette was in Bologne. Simone was in Avoise. Angie was in Amiens. Simone, not the same Simone though.
So there they are if you read it, but I didn’t sleep with any of them.
Oh well you were a good boy then.
I think it was more fright than anything else. I was frightened I suppose. Because we used to have lectures, you know, we had lectures in England from our major and he was the first one who got VD [Venereal Disease]. Never heard of him since.
He was the first bugger to get VD, and a major too. I’ll tell you another story, this is a true story. My cobber and I, the bloke I stuck with, three of us went to London on the first outing when we arrived from Egypt, about four days. First time in London. Last day,
after lunch, we were due to go home and catch the train about half past five I think it was back to our camp. Walking up Shaftsbury Avenue, do you know London? Shaftsbury Avenue, we were walking up Shaftsbury Avenue, it’s near Leicester Square. I saw two floors up two girls smiling at me; I stayed put to look at the scenery. The other two blokes walk off.
I saw these two girls. They waved and smiled. Waving at me of course. And they said, “Come up.” How the bloody hell am I going to get up? Anyhow they dropped something down. Shaftsbury Avenue’s a busy place. The Londoners subscribe to the view, if it’s not yours, don’t touch it. Bloody good idea too. So I thought, somebody’s going to pick that damn thing up before I get there. Over the other side of the
street, you see. So I wandered across the street, picked this thing up. It was her visiting card. “Marie Bertrand” at such and such a flat, so and so. By this time I’d called the blokes out, “Hey, hey, I’ve got contacts.” They came down and the three of us together, presently the two girls came towards us. Say, “Oui oui.” They’re the girls I saw up top. I didn’t recognise
them. Anyhow they looked at us and they spoke French - accent, they said, “Would you like to come up and have afternoon tea?” “Oh yes we’ll be in that.” So we went up and there was a settee for two and there’s chairs like that one there. I opted for the chair. The other two buggers sat in that settee. The two girls came in with the afternoon tea and after the afternoon tea one of them sat between those two blokes,
and the other one started talking to the other bloke on the side of the settee. I was left like a shag on a bloody rock, reading The Times or some damn paper, the magazines that they had there. Eventually my cobber and one of the girls disappeared, I have no idea what happened to them. Beautiful girl she was too. The other one stayed put for a few minutes and eventually they disappeared too. Anyhow, when they came out they were grinning like Cheshire cats both of them.
I said, “What the bloody hell you been doing?” They said, “Mind your own business. Anyway we better go home.” I said, “Righto, we better go home.” because it was time to go home. So I turned to Marie, I said, “Excuse me, my dear, I’ve got to go.” and she said, “Come back would you?” I said, “I’ll come back.” Marie was the older of the two. She wasn’t as pretty as the other one, but she had something inside that showed us she had character. Anyhow, to cut a long story short, about ten days after one of these blokes had to go to
bloody VD camp. Never saw him again. So a month later, a few weeks later when we got transferred to this signal business we got another four days leave. So I went in to see Marie again. And I said, “Where’s” whatever her name was.” I forget her name now. “Oh,” she said, “No. She’s died of the big sick.” Big sick, that’s what my cobber got, the big sick too.
I don’t know whether he died or not. I didn’t hear, but we never saw him again. That’s how lucky you can get.
Interviewee: Eric Abraham Archive ID 2541 Tape 318
… which leads me to our line, you’ve got to remember our line was a semicircle. And the jeeps was in the centre of the semicircle. And the Germans could enter the line from all over the place. We went straight out from the middle of the road, straight up the middle of the road. Of course the Germans had the
exact mileage from A to B, any part of that space. Now one part of that space was a huge crater where they had the Salvos [Salvation Army] and the YMCA [Young Men’s Christian Association] bickies [biscuits] and the coffee and tea and whatnot, that’s where we used to stay. Anyhow there was this shuffle, more or less continuously shuffling. Remember I told you he gets used to it. There we were lying down there. We did get used to it.
Lying down there, tired after working two hours, they were ten minutes every hour and we were marching about three or four hours to get there. We had another hour to go before we got to the, three quarters of an hour to get to our place where we got a watch on. And we have this cup of tea, this chopper up. All of a sudden, you know what a bullroarer is? Boys use a piece of string and it makes a bloody noise?
That’s what this shrapnel, the sound of this shrapnel, some of it does – bang smack!!! Hit my leg. The boys said, “Who got that?” I said, “I did, bugger it.” No blood. Couldn’t make it out. It hit my leg. The contact hurt my leg. That’s where my gun was. It didn’t dawn on me the shrapnel, later on when I picked up the gun to go, there was the shrapnel,
embedded in the stock of my gun. About two or three inches long, about three quarters of an inch wide and about five thick. Track. So that’s going to be another months, probably three or four thousand times people in the war, they’ve got stories like that, most of them.
Was it just luck that people got through? What do you call it?
No. My friend up top [God]. No doubt about it. I could go to town about that, but you don’t want that in the story.
Were you religious in the war?
No. I wasn’t. Can I tell you a story? Briefly. I never had a religious upbringing. I never went to Sunday School in my life. The first time I went to church
in earnest was when I got married in 1923, I was twenty-five. I got the faith second to none now. My cobber said to me about six months ago, “You got faith.” I said, “Yes,” he looked at me, he said, “Wishy washy, no doubt eh?” I said, “Wishy washy,” but I looked him in the bloody eye and I said, “Listen friend, my faith is as strong as if not better than the Pope’s.” He said, “You a Roman Catholic?” I said, “No.” He said, “What you mention him for?” I said, “He’s the top dog
in the Christianity business around here.” “Why’d you mention Roman Catholic?” I said, “Put him on. I’d take the two of them on.” I honestly believe that my faith is as strong as if not better than the both of them put together. Now I never had any religious upbringing and I’m an accountant by profession. And I’m one of these blokes that wants to know why, how and when and all this type of thing you see. How come that I’ve got this blasted faith that I’ve got? How come I’ve got it? This is about
eighteen months or two years ago that I worried about this. Go to my senses. It’s my experiences during the war and my experiences after the war combined with an abundance of commonsense which I am alleged to have had. I haven’t got it now because I’m too bloody old. But during my youthful capacity, I had a lot of commonsense. “Eric,” he’d say, “You can see around corners.” That’s commonsense.
So what happened to God during the war for most people?
I didn’t know any others there. I didn’t have any faith in God at all. None whatever. But God was certainly looking out for me. No doubt about it. Because the things that have happened to me since, which I could tell you but they’d take too long. You’d rather talk to me for a fortnight rather than two hours.
You got gassed didn’t you? Tell me about that.
Yes. Oh on 24th April
1918. The Germans attacked our patrol on 24th April 1918 and they put up a colossal gas attack. We occupied, I say, we, the brigade’s signal section occupied the Chateau at Kilby and they hunted down the Chateau to perfection. They had about five or six directives already.
So we bypassed that. We had the outer houses. So I was in one of the outer houses with five or six of my cobbers that night, the night of 23rd. The morning of 24th I woke up. They’re gassing us. God ‘struth, bloody gas. I got up, put my boots on, looked out, there’s our headquarters on fire. “Good God!” I said. I put my bloody, doing it up,
and put the hat on and ducked out. No gas for us though. Got out in the quadrangle and there’s the officer looking for me. “Where the hell have you been?” I said, “I’ve been asleep.” “Good God I went out there,” he said, “How can you sleep through this?” “I can sleep anywhere.” He gesticulated to put the gas mask on, which I did. He said, “Listen there’s an emergency machine over there with an urgent message on it. Better go and take it.”
This message was what they call an operation message. The technique in that is you’ve got to take a sort of tic tac business and then report it back by voice to make sure that the damn thing’s right. These operation messages were not five or six words. They were two or three paragraphs. A couple of sheets, a sheet and a half of message paper. I was just, as I got gassed, a mask full of gas
my eyes were crook. I still feel it. Oh God. I could hardly see out of my eyes. I couldn’t talk. If I can’t talk, friend, it’s serious. You’ve gathered that I take it? Well that was bloody serious for me. That’s all the voice I could get. Walked like a bloody scarecrow. Across here’s red raw, red raw. Bloody horrible. Anyhow there was a couple of other blokes who disappeared. They’d been gassed. Taken
away. I had to stay put. I took that message and stayed put. And the Germans took Villers Bretonneux. We took it back on 25th, I told you that story. That’s the gas. A colossal gas attack. The 56th Battalion lost about half its complement in that gas attack. That’s a hell of a bloody swag of people.
Italians had roughly a thousand. That’s operating people, infantry men, about a thousand. About nine or hundred of all of us. Anyway that was about five hundred, half their strength. That’s 24th April 1918.
Towards the end of the war, a story about…
31st August 1918.
That was a story about where you were in relationship to the battle and you could see it and your brother was in there and you didn’t even know about it.
Mont St Quentin was about as, not as high as [UNCLEAR] for instance, they called it a mountain, Mont St Quentin. And it
guarded a place called Peronne. The Somme took men from north to south, just in line with Mont St Quentin and Peronne. Took it from there, and me and my mob were here - my brother there. Mont St Quentin’s over there and Mont St Quentin the other side of the Somme. The Somme was between me and Mont St Quentin.
And I saw that battle, they took the place two or three times too I think. Took it the third time and they stayed put. They knocked back France twice. Took it the third time and saved it. That’s how we took it. Of course that was the main part for the protection of Peronne as far as the Germans were concerned. So we took that as the protection for Peronne, so they retired then from Peronne. About
three weeks or a month after that they said, we’re going to leave, to England. I had twelve months continuous. Everybody had twelve months continuous, automatically sent away. No-one’d apply for it. Automatically just sent away for ten days, twelve days, leave to England. And I went and when I came back my division was out in rest area. I took up with them again, in the rest area. We were in the rest area when the war broke –
finished. Strangely enough, on 11th November, being the signalmen, we should have known all about it. You must remember we heard all sorts of rumours up to this date that said it was happening tomorrow. Tomorrow came and nothing happened. Next Tuesday, next Tuesday came, still nothing bloody happened. This was the same with 11th November. And of course we took it with a grain of salt. We didn’t hear about it until about four or five o’clock in the afternoon.
Then we had action. Fortunately I was on duty that night. There were people who were a sorry sight the next day. See, God looks after you all along the line; even then, otherwise I’d have been with them. Drinking all this vin blanc and vin rouge, it’s shocking bloody stuff you know. Terrible bloody stuff. Supposed to be wine, masquerades as a type of wine. The boys had another name for it.
So how did you feel that the war had ended?
Exhilarated, home, brother, home. And another thing, this is fantastic. In my division we must have had about a hundred people I suppose and when the war finished the hierarchy had to find some means of keeping us occupied. It’s commonsense. So they devised all sorts of things. One of them was to
provide, in many cases of course, for all those people who were restricted from going to their course, which they would have had, should had they stayed put in Australia. But for certain reasons at the university or any other reason, they got to provide courses at a place there called Rue on the coast of France. I put in for that. And another
course was to go to London GPO [General Post Office] and learn something about mechanical telegraphy which was in my forte, you see. I put in for that too, both at the same time. Word came through I’d got the Rue education course. Took up my
term there. I’m in the first intake, January 1919. Cold as blazes. No braziers in the huts. No tables in the huts. No chairs in the bloody hut, to sit down. I only had a bunk with a couple of blankets. That’s all we had. I’ll tell you another thing. We had to attend classes and profess to listen to lectures on this that and the other damn thing. And we would listen to them and
eventually had to, he said after we’d been there for a week, he said, “I want you to write an essay on the pros and cons of the Anglo Japanese alliance.” I said, “That’s right up my alley. Go to town on it. Oh crikey. Beautiful.” Just remember I was a crook student. I couldn’t write a bloody letter properly, let alone an essay. Anyhow the idea was to write the essay and put it on the
professor’s desk in the morning and go away and have lunch and you’d come back and it’d be on your table. Anyhow this is the day I went back and I saw on my table, my stuff, big writing right across it “Rotten.”. He was right though then, I don’t blame him for that. Anyway I could take that type of treatment. No use in being angry.
So you had training did you?
training, yeah, to pass these exams. They’d have passed us anyhow whether we were good enough or not. I didn’t care about that. I wanted to get away from the bloody regulation of being a soldier. Once it finished, I was finished. Anyhow, to cut a long story short, they sacked me and sent me back to my unit. The sergeant said, “Oh you miserable creature, put your name on the roster, get your name on it.”
So I did put my name on the roster. The first message, one of the first messages I took, “Savrico report to division headquarters in room two.” to what do they call it? Something employment in England. Two jobs I got. Not
one of our blokes got any of them. Out of the hundred. I got two of them. So after being sacked in the education business I got to London. We spent about a week there and then we found out none of them bastards wanted anything to do with us. There was two of us there. So we said, “We’re wasting our time here. Why do we need to go near the place at all?” So we didn’t go near the place. Had three months in London. Eight dollars a day. Eight, not dollars, eight quid [pounds] a week
I think it was, sustenance allowance, to help us, we were always broke you know. But anyway we had three months in London. But we behaved ourselves. We didn’t get into trouble. So when the time was up I said, “We’ve got to get into trouble to get to camp.” Not a word was said. Nobody wanted us. They didn’t care two hoots.
So you had a good time?
Oh wonderful! Three months in London. I made some money too.
Eight pounds a week extra.
I just want to go on. What was it like coming back to Australia for the first time after so long? Do you remember where you came back and how and who was there?
Yes. Ted Smout [another WWI veteran] was on the same boat as me and I didn’t know until about three months ago. On the Orita. What a trip I had. Oh my God, I’ll never forget it. A shocking trip. Did Ted tell you about it?
Yeah. A lot of people down below got sick didn’t
Everybody was sick. It was so rough. All the deck houses were blown overboard. The wireless was blown overboard. How the mast stood up to it I don’t know. The funny thing about it is that I never got seasick. Going over I was dead to the world going through the Bight. Same thing happened. Rough weather. Shocking. Terrible storm. Oh boy. I did the world. Johnny Walker will look after me.
He used to bring apples and oranges and things like that and soup. He’ll look after me, he did look after me properly, But there you are. I come, after four years; I suffer the same damn thing and don’t get sick. I can’t understand it. Ted Smout remembers it. He agrees with
me. It’s the worst trip he ever had.
Do you remember seeing Australia though? What was it like seeing the country?
Oh I don’t know. I can’t remember. It must have been exhilaration.
Was anyone there to meet you?
No, only in Brisbane, only in Brisbane, my mother and sister. The younger of the two sisters, she was there with my mother.
Was I glad to see them! The doctor said, “Anything wrong?” I said, “No. I want to get out of the bloody place. Nothing wrong with me at all.” I forgot to tell him I was shell shocked. The doctor saw me, thirty, forty years later. I was retired. He said, “What’s your war pension, Eric?” I said, “What do you mean war pension?” He said, “Don’t you get the war pension?” I said, “No way.” “Good God almighty, what were you doing over there?”
He said, “You should have got a war pension.” Looking back now I should have got for that period anyhow. I don’t want a pension now do I?
Too old for a pension. So how did you adjust to the shell shock coming back? Did you go straight back into work?
Yes. We had three months leave you know.
Out of, all over Queensland with the railway. Three months. So when I got back home I had to report back to the post office to see if I could get a job back at the post office. This story’s going to rock you too. Listen to this Lesley, this is going to rock you, both of you. There was only one place in Queensland that I wanted to go. I won’t mention what it is now. Only one place in Queensland. So I went to report in and he said, “Yes. You’ve got a place at Eyre.” I said, “Where the hell’s Eyre?” He said,
“North Queensland”. I said, “Forget it, brother; I’ve been away and out of commission for a long time. I want to come where there’s a bit of habitation, not in North Queensland.” He said, “Righto, come back again in three weeks.” Three weeks or a month later I called back, “Yes, we’ve got a place at Longreach.” I said, “I know where Longreach is. Forget that bloody place too.” He said, “Come back. When’s your leave up?” I said, “About six weeks.” “Oh come in about a week before.” So I went back about a week
or seven days before. He said, “I haven’t got a thing on the books for you. Not a thing. What about a cup of tea and we’ll talk about the war?” I said, “Righto.” He used to like my stories, like you do apparently. So we had a cup of tea and a piece of cake and his phone rang. You won’t believe this. You won’t believe it. You’ll think I’m constructing a bloody story. He said, “Yes, yes, oh yes. Oh yes. Oh thanks very much,
thank you,” and put the phone back. He said, “Will Ladbury [Laidley?] suit you?” Ladbury [Laidley?] was the only place that I wanted to go, because my sister was there. He worked that one out. That’s not only one time, it’s a dozen times I could mention somewhat similar to that.
How did you feel coming back from the war? How difficult was it to adjust?
None whatever. Took three months, that’s all. I got itchy feet I suppose. I wanted to go someplace
else. So I went to New Guinea. That was with the Taxation Department this time in Brisbane. And I went out to it on the Monday morning, I’d just come back from leave. And I saw a bloke I admired with his hat and coat on and tie and everything. I said, “What’s the matter with you? Why aren’t you on the job?” He said, “Oh I’m going to New Guinea.” I said, “Where the bloody hell’s that?” He said, “I don’t know. It’s up
north somewhere. They’re crying out for people to go up to New Guinea. Do you want to go?” I said, “I’d go anywhere.” Cut a long story short they said, yes they want me. Got inspected by the MO [medical officer], a list of questions. One of them was, any insanity in the family. I said, ‘No.’ He put his pen down and he says,
“You’re bloody well lying to me,” you know. He said, “There’s insanity in the family, alright,” I said, “Not as far as I know.” He said, “You’re bloody insane, you bastard.” I said, “Why?” “Cause you’re going to New Guinea. I wouldn’t go there if you paid me!”
Did many other people have problems adjusting though?
I think a few people couldn’t adjust. Quite a few. My
brother-in-law, my wife’s brother, he died about three years ago, he got sores and things on his legs. Not ulcers. What do you call them? Some damn disease. You could put your hand in the hole in his leg there. So he couldn’t adjust to that. He used to wake up and squeal.
People are built differently, you know. When I came back these things didn’t affect me much. The emotional part of it didn’t.
So what do you think the Great War achieved in the end?
Nothing. Not a damn thing. The only achievement is only supporting the theory that I’ve always had, that and that everybody else
has had that war’s no bloody good anyway. Never solves anything. Matter of fact, I don’t think, I know that we didn’t win the war. The Germans lost it. We came off on top. Bit of a difference there, if you look at it. We didn’t win. How the bloody hell could we with those bloody Germans that fought the way they did. Germans lost it because they bloody well made mistakes too. They went by the
book instead of common sense. [General] Monash used commonsense. I think he was in the reserve or something like that. He’d never fought anywhere before. No, he just used commonsense. And he adopted commonsense for the Battle of Hamel for instance.
And had Australia changed much since when you went away to war ‘til when you came back? Or was it the same place?
I didn’t notice it much. Not then.
But brother, I’ve noticed the difference in the sixty years since. The difference is practically obscene to me. Girl like Lesley here can’t go down the street by herself anywhere. Night or daytime. In my day, well we’d go anywhere by ourselves. I wouldn’t like to walk alone these days.
Never would. I’d have a bodyguard around me and a couple of Alsatian dogs too. It’s not all bad. Those Mackay schoolgirls that came down to see me before they went to France about three or four months ago, they came around to see me. A collection of young girls I’d like to see all over the place. But unfortunately they’re not all over the place.
and they said to me, “You should go.” I said, “Why?” They said, “Well the young people look up to you. People like you.” And then the penny dropped. I remember when I went to France, the week after I got to France, I saw a bloke with a Boer War ribbon on his chest. That bloke, didn’t know him. Went over and asked directions straight away. That was only sixteen
years before. This bloody war the boy was probably talking about was eighty years before. What a miserable creature I’d be. All these poor little kids sitting in the gutter. I’ve been every time since then. That was about four or five years ago. We’ve had four shows since. The poor little buggers are sitting there waving their flags. “You got time to come down to our place before you go?”
“No.” So you fix it, looking at these poor little kids and see the expressions on their faces, and I will. I’m happier to see, to please those kids just to see me, an old bloody soldier, who’d been there eighty years ago. And I’d not give up that pleasure, all these years.
Why do you think people are interested in it now?
I don’t know. I don’t know. But every year, I don’t want to start bragging about this, but every year that I’ve been I find that the crowd is increasing. Why, I don’t know. Originally I was the sole survivor of The Dungarees, and that’s in the first march I came. They featured that in the talk, the blokes,
describing the march, “Mr Abrahams is the sole survivor of the famous Dungarees” – blah, blah, blah. There was a lot of people there, a lot of people came next, next to see this sole survivor. Now they’re just coming in droves again. In those days it was about three or four deep, last time, eight or nine deep, in the main street. I don’t know whether it’s Anzac Day or me. I don’t know.
Do you think we need these kind of…?
I think so, yes, if you’re talking about Anzac Day, that’s a day that we should keep. Get rid of Labor Day and some of those other damn days; get rid of those damn things, yes, but not Anzac Day.
But should we make heroes of the people from the war?
No, I don’t approve of it anyhow. We did our job as we saw fit. Not bloody heroes. I’ve been described as a bloody icon,
national treasure, doesn’t impress me one little bit and I don’t think it should happen. Just say he’s a bloke who fought in the bloody war, that’s good enough. He did his job and paid for it. He came home. Lucky to come home. I thank my God every night, that’s the faith I’ve got, my friend.
And did you ever imagine that there’d be another war after the one that you fought?
No, when we left, me and the people I talked with, this was the last of them. Because the gas was a shocking thing. A shocking thing No, we said, if anyone takes gas, everyone’ll be frightened now. They won’t be a war because they’re frightened. Twenty years later. We can’t foretell maniacs, you know. Hitler was a maniac. No doubt about
Do you think there’ll be another one?
I hope not. I’d hate to forecast one. Yes I think there will be. Totally different from the others too. It’ll be quick and smart. Four or five atomic bombs and that’s it. Whoever gets in first will win it. It’s not going to be European - Asian Wars.
It’s going to be, I don’t want to say this, but you know, part of it’s not very far away from us now.
That still remain a threat to Australia, do you think?
So I’m afraid that’s the other reason, it’s going to be a religious war, I’d say, the next one. See how far wrong I would, in about twenty years you’ll say that old bastard was right.
Interviewee: Eric Abraham Archive ID 2541 Tape 319
If you could just pick up on that, the symptoms, you said you had shell shock. How did that affect you and how did it manifest itself?
Well let me see. I got married in 1923 and of course in those days married couples had a double bed. Night time I used to kick my bloody
legs about your see, both legs, all of a sudden, jerk. It’d wake me up. And my wife would be awake and she’d say, “What’s the matter?” She’d say, “What’s the matter?” I’d say, “I don’t know what happened.” She said, “You kicked your legs and then you nearly jumped out of bed.” I said, “Good God!” That didn’t only happen once, it was a regular performance. I said, “Listen, darling, I don’t want to keep you awake.
Get me a single bed.” Which she did. That’s how it manifested itself for me. Nervous reaction. Mostly at night time. It must have affected me in the day time but I don’t remember it affecting me in any way. Apart from the fact that my brain developed from being a numbskull, I became a bloke of importance
as far as the brain power’s concerned. I could be doing things in my bloody head that you people would need a pencil and a piece of paper.
So the war was of some benefit, do you think?
I don’t know if the war was responsible for that. It would have happened anyhow. Because I remember reading some scientific evidence that supported the fact that anybody that was left-handed, well, I was left-hander who
got that knocked out of them, it affects their brain. My father was a Yorkshire man, you see. I used to eat my porridge. “Ah that’s bloody well how they eat their porridge, right-handed.” as in like the peasants. That’s what affected my brain, according to the scientists. Whether that’s right or not. But I can support it because I was really dull. Really dull. But I wasn’t really dull in my civilian life
after I came back from New Guinea. I can’t pinpoint it when my brain developed. But I don’t think the war had anything to do with it.
So did the war change you at all do you think? From when you went away and when you came back?
Only that I’d grown up from a useless youth to a man I suppose. Then I married too, a couple of years later, 1923 I was married. Four years after I
came back from the war. Married my wife, the best wife anybody ever had. Fifty-seven and a half years.
Why do you think that Anzac is important for us to remember, the Anzac legend? Do you think it’s a myth or a legend?
There’s no myth about it. It’s actually a thing that happened. Our people
overcame all the terrors that we were forced to face. The first error was landing in a place where they weren’t supposed to land because the tide, I don’t know whether you thought about the tide taking the troops up on a dark night in a narrow channel. Never thought of the tide. And it was a mile out of its position. Now when they got there, before they got there, this blasted
warship, there was a, off the coast of that place, Gallipoli. They bombed the bloody place ten days beforehand and let in the Turks that we knew something was going to happen there. At the time we were going to take there, our boys were going to land there, not a soul within cooee [near to] of the place. This idiot
decides to bombard the bloody place. So when they got there, there was all sorts of opposition. They overcame that, in spite of all that nonsense which was actually against them, they overcame it. They retreated from Gallipoli. Ten thousand odd men. How many did they lose? Do you know?
One I think and that was a bloody accident. One bloody troop, they got out of Gallipoli. Now that’s a masterpiece. Lawrence says that’s what our troops were. To come out of that conflict and the Turks didn’t know a damn thing about it – and not lose a man. It’s a masterpiece.
Do you think there’s more made of Gallipoli though than the Western Front?
I don’t think so. Gallipoli was a shemozzle. The Western Front was a shemozzle, but not so much of a shemozzle you see. It took longer, takes four years, the Western Front and Gallipoli was only five or six months or something. But I think it should be remembered for those people I told you about. The
eight or nine thousand troops out of Gallipoli. Only one man was lost. They did the business up in such a way that the Turks thought we were there. They had the guns along there, they used to go off by themselves automatically. Water onto the bloody trigger. They used to activate the trigger, bang, oh the troops are still there. They tricked the Turks.
How did you think about it though? Did you ever hear about the retreat?
I only read about that subsequently.
Was there some sort of confusion in Australia at the time because all of a sudden the troops were retreating?
Well I suppose it would be a defeat.
Well I don’t know. I don’t know how it was reported. I don’t know how people saw it.
I was home here at the time, I was here, 1915 I was in camp in Enoggera.
I don’t remember discussing it. I don’t remember anybody discussing it, until it was over and then I suppose we did discuss it a little bit. Got thrown out of Gallipoli, can’t say that’s a win, surely. To me, it’s a victory that they got out at all. They got out without losing a man. That’s fantastic.
Before that they were promoting it as a great victory and then all of a sudden.
Oh it’s not a victory. It’s only a victory in the sense that they got away without losing a man. That’s the victory part, they didn’t beat the Turks, only tricked them into thinking that we were still there. They weren’t there though.
You went back to France. How did you feel about hearing the French national anthem again? Did you hear the Le Marseillaise played?
Yes. But not the same, not the same,
generally an orchestra plays it. Totally different with a brass band you know. Gets you in, the big brass instruments. Oh yes they played the Le Marseillaise and it didn’t affect me to any extent, not like the brass band. You see it’s a different tune. Played on the piano it wouldn’t affect me either. It’s a nice tune, that’s all. But to
chill up your blood like the brass band did, it’s got to be a brass band to do it. I was up on the podium. Wonderful.
Tell us, the cost of the war to your family was pretty high I would imagine. You had five brothers
who went to war. What happened, can you tell us?
Six boys in the family, five of them went to war. Four brothers and me. The ending, the sixth brother was fourteen when the war finished I think. He couldn’t have gone if he wanted to, he’d have gone too probably. There’s five out of our family out of six boys. Two stayed there in France. Three of us came home. Two wounded and me with the gas.
Bloody lucky if you escaped anything, you know, if you was in the war for four years like I was. Especially a place called Passchendaele. Four days in action and then a fortnight out. Come back and get another pummelling in four days. And it goes on and on until you’re sick and tired of it and you go back in the rest area. It’s too much.
That’s a pretty high price for a family to pay though don’t you think?
I don’t know how my mother whatever,
she was an English nanny type. Didn’t know how to cook when she got married. And that’s the type she was. And they talk about this stiff upper lip. That’s true as far as my mother concerned. She didn’t seem to be hassled or worried when I got back. She seemed to be just as when I left. It was a marvellous way to be. I don’t know how she did it.
She did have a terrible deal. She could have had a seventh. The boy needed to look after children like me or help in the kitchen, nothing. Do the ironing. Of course the women in those days had to wear those petticoats. This girl’s lucky. She doesn’t wear those damn things.
So what happened? People just picked up the pieces and went on as if nothing happened?
That’s right. As far as I’m concerned they did. I did anyhow and my brother did too. Except he couldn’t pick up the pieces because he was too bloody sick, he had nephritis,
the elder one. That’s the bloke in Gallipoli. He got wounded in Gallipoli, wounded in France and took a couple of his toes off. Of course that’s the last resort, knows he can’t fight with a couple of toes off. I don’t know why, but he’s out. They sent him home. And then he got nephritis, poor bugger. He was an invalid pensioner for the rest of his life.
The other two brothers, did you ever find out
what happened to them?
Yes, multiple gunshot wounds at Pozieres, at half past five. And the other boy died of pneumonia three weeks before the end of the war. He was buried at Villers-Brettoneux, I didn’t know he was buried at Villers-Brettoneux but when those,
Mackay girls went over; they went over with the idea of finding the graves of all those people who were residents of Mackay when they went over, about sixty of them. I said, “Can you find my two brothers?” Yes, they’d find my two brothers. Which they did. One is at Etaples at the Channel Coast, that’s where he’s buried,
that’s the younger one, he got killed at Pozieres. The other one’s buried at Villers-Brettoneux. They found the grave, sent me pictures back, which was very good. But they’re not there. That’s their grave site, that’s all. God knows where their bodies are.
Their bodies wouldn’t be there at all. We buried a fellow at, what was left of him; the poor bugger was killed in 1916. They dug him up in 1998, we buried the poor bugger.
How did you feel about leaving all those people behind?
Not good, didn’t feel happy about it at all. It was a very emotional business, this last trip over there. Memorable, but very emotional. I was there in Hamel in 1918, I was there in 1998, in Hamel. Amazing thing hey?
Yeah. A lot of people didn’t make that trip.
I didn’t either. I
was in an accident, but we were in reserve. But my division was in action. The division was there, under the 14th Brigade. I think the 15th Brigade was an excellent MO [?]. They did a marvellous job. I was in reserve. Only evidence that I’ve got in my war diary is that we captured fifteen hundred prisoners that month. That’s my account of Hamel.
Did you ever see a German prisoner?
See prisoners? Oh crikey yes.
What did you think of the Germans?
Shocking damn thing. Originally they were well built, well fed, good looking soldiers. That was in 1916. I used to see them going back. 1918 they were pasty faced blokes, ill kempt, didn’t look like soldiers even, although they had their uniforms on. Totally different. They were out on their,
down to bedrock, the German nation was, down to bedrock. The tyres on the motor cars were iron I think they were, iron with springs on them. They didn’t have enough rubber for a motor car and things. They were down to bedrock judging from the look of these people, they didn’t had a decent feed for months and months.
Did you ever talk to your brothers about the war between you when you came back?
No. He didn’t talk much about it. He’s not as garrulous as I am. If anyone likes to listen I like to talk to them.
But was it only between the soldiers that they talked about the war and to nobody else?
Yes, as a rule.
I’m always telling people if they want to hear I believe in telling them. A lot of people don’t believe that, they say, “What’s the good?” I don’t know. They might not have had the same experience as I had. That’s what I put it down to. They may not have had the experiences as I had. They can’t talk about it. Most of them can’t talk about it. But if anybody wants to listen to me, ask me questions, I’d be pleased, only too happy. That’s how it should be too. People want to know about it.