Left: Alan O’Halloran Wright: From Hahndorf College to St Peter’s College, to the Boer War, to killed in France in 1915: 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles
Robert Kearney’s outstanding work ‘Fallen Saints’ (published in April 2015) tells the story of the almost two hundred former students of St Peter’s College, Adelaide, who fell during the Great War. World War One literature is a thoroughly saturated market but the niche subject matter of this book – one school, one war – makes it a prize addition to the genre. It tracks the story of the fallen in a chronological way via the progress of the war and, as the conflict becomes ever more consuming and lethal, the word pictures of the fallen, telling their individual stories and circumstances of death, come thick and fast with increasing poignancy and impact.
As someone who contributed a little to this book as an assistant editor I found background information to be of particular interest. That they all went to the same school was their common denominator but, before their enlistments in particular, their individual backgrounds in terms of family, work, and general interests were very different. A regular theme to emerge was how mobile people were in that pre-war society: roughly the first decade of the twentieth century. Today, fast, jet passenger aircraft and the instant connectivity of the Internet and mobile phone make researching information, and thus access to almost any part of the world, a fairly easy task. A hundred or so years ago though, with only cable and rudimentary wireless transmission facilities available, and the passenger ship the main means of moving around the vast expanses of the British Empire, then at its absolute zenith, people did not seem perturbed by the challenges presented.
Within Australia the challenges of finding work caused people to travel. Society was less centralised than today with rural communities thriving, although dependent on favourable weather to remain viable. Thus drought was a major problem and forced men onto the road and the well travelled byways in search of employment, often outside their native state. This meant that there was no such thing really as a fully homogenous, by state or city, Great War unit. The famous 10th Battalion, adopted by Adelaide as its own, was as close as to this ideal as any but even it included men who were not native South Australians, and indeed many local men served in units raised elsewhere in the country, simply because they enlisted near, or where they were working.
The influence of the British Empire was of course very strong. Local society in those days believed, almost unequivocally, that Great Britain at war was the same as the Empire being at war; indeed an Australian Prime Minister of the day more or less said this. Thus there were many Fallen Saints who did not serve in Australian units at all. There were representatives in the armed forces of South Africa, Canada, New Zealand and, of course, in very large numbers, Great Britain itself. So what might have been some of the reasons for this? Well, I would suggest that there were several but we can certainly say that from the turn of the twentieth century until that time in late 1914 and early 1915 when the AIF essentially deployed from Australia to European theatres of war – roughly the last decade of peace – it must have been a lucrative occupation to run a passenger ship!
Travel between, in particular, Great Britain and Australia must have been near continuous from, say, 1900 to about 1914 and not seen as anything unusual. The British Empire was guarded by the overwhelming power of the Royal Navy with its tendency to resort to some fairly unsubtle gunboat diplomacy when needed (indeed the British Army of the day was a small, fully professional force and not at all suited to the large continental war it went to fight in), but their merchant feet must have been truly immense and there were surely opportunities to buy passage to or from Australia as crew for the less wealthy, or indeed as a passenger on a configured vessel for those who could afford it. There were Fallen Saints whose families had strong British connections by birth or entitlement, or indeed land holdings, who felt the need to return home to protect that inheritance. There were those who gained places at the great British universities, often then coming back to Australia to utilise their new found skills. There were those seeking a commission and responsibility who struggled to get it in the more egalitarian and meritocratic Australian military system but found it in serving in the family regiment of the British Army, and nor should this be seen as a slight on brave men – they died as easily as did so many others. Perhaps it was just the bonds of family; a brother might want to serve with his sibling’s regiment or, at least, in the same army. Perhaps it was just adventure: wasn’t it rather more exciting to travel to Europe to enlist (close to the battlefields) than travel down the road to do it?
Please read Fallen Saints if you get the chance but, at the same time, read between the lines and enjoy and appreciate a raft of fascinating stories. No two men tell quite the same story, but they certainly dispel the myth that travel is a human condition confined to the modern world, post the Second World War say. The means of doing so may have been different a century or so ago, but the intent was equally strong.
The Bayly brothers (Colin and B.B [Brian]) are listed on this Semaphore Church memorial: both fell in France serving with British units.
(Image courtesy of AMOSA)
© 2016 Major Christopher Roe
Manager, Army Museum of South Australia