My ties to the ANZAC tradition have always been strong largely due to the fact that my great-grandfather, Captain Robert Thompson McMaster served in the First World War in Gallipoli. He was one of seven officers and 73 men from the 10th Light Horse regiment from West Australia who were killed in action at the Nek, in circumstances that were portrayed in Peter Weir’s 1981 film, Gallipoli.
My great-grandfather. Capt McMaster was relatively senior at 49 years old when he volunteered to serve in the 10th Light Horse regiment. He had also served and been decorated in the Boer War and so could have avoided active service as he had been placed on the retired list. He was an architect and town mayor of Victoria Park in Perth and had a wife and five children when he enlisted. Maybe he had some personal ambitions, but I do believe that he along with most of those who signed up for the war did so because they wanted to serve their country.
I feel proud of the commitment these men had and am grateful for the sacrifices they made. I feel a sense of connection and belonging to this country in the knowledge that my great-grandfather fought and died serving Australia. But I also feel an incredible sense of loss for the families these men left behind. And I feel especially for my great-grandmother, Emily Frances McMaster. What must it have been like when she said goodbye not only her husband, but also two of her sons ’s who also enlisted following their father’s death at Gallipoli?
I have the original letter that the Army Chaplain sent to her to inform her husband’s death. He would never return from Gallipoli as his body was not retrieved from the battle at the Nek; but she was sent his remaining belongings and a medal for his contributions. I have his medals, his sword and several of his other belongings from Gallipoli, and as beautiful as they are, they surely could not possibly come close to compensating for his life. I also have all of my great grandfather’s personal letters that he sent home from Gallipoli to his wife, Emily. The letters capture a loving husband and father with a strong faith, yet also with an acceptance of the futility of his situation in Gallipoli and a sense that he would not be returning home to his family.
I try to imagine how I would cope if my husband was to die in action at war, and then if my son was to follow in his footsteps, as my great uncles did just over a hundred years ago. What must it have been like to continue as a single mother raising five children in Perth in 1915? I know that Emily McMaster continued to work as a piano teacher and to raise her children to her best ability until she died at age 76, in 1941.
Surely that’s what anyone would do in similar circumstances. I guess that whilst I feel a great sense of pride and nationalism on ANZAC day, I am also filled with sadness at the incredible loss of war. And although my great-grandmother Emily was not decorated by the military for her loss, I do believe that by remembering the ANZAC tradition that there is a sense of egalitarianism and a connection to something that is greater than us as individuals. We can connect to the strength and to the need to carry on to our best ability, no matter what.
Whether one has a strong connection to the spirit of the ANZACs or not, I believe we should acknowledge the lives that were lost and the families that were broken by the war. And we can admire and draw strength from the people who carried on and did the best they could, despite these great tragedies.
Editor: Thank you Sarah Jones Palmer for sharing your ANZAC story. Lest We Forget.