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‘Has anybody here seen Kelly?’ The lost, and the loss, of World War I

Posted By on November 9, 2018 @ 06:00

The numbers are stark and brutal. Out of a population of five million, more than 60,000 Australians were killed in the First World War and at least 137,000 more were wounded.

But the statistics don’t fully convey the extent of the loss to the culture and humanity of the nation.

The years before World War I saw a blossoming of artistic endeavour with the emergence of the likes of Picasso and Matisse.

With them on that wave rode a remarkable, multi-skilled, but now largely forgotten, young Australian musician, composer and athlete, Frederick Septimus Kelly.

Like many other brilliant young men, Kelly fell victim to the war to end all wars. He was killed on the Western Front on 13 November 1916.

He had composed some of his best music by candlelight in deep dugouts, sometimes as artillery pounded around him.

Alongside his musical skill, Kelly had stunning ability as a rower, winning a gold medal as stroke of the British eights at the 1908 Olympics. As a single sculler, he won the 1905 Henley Diamond Sculls in record time that stood for 33 years.

Musician and historical researcher Christopher Latham says Kelly was undoubtedly Australia’s greatest cultural loss of that war, but few Australians have any idea of the scale of what’s gone.

‘He was the greatest amateur rower of the period, a brilliant pianist and a composer of pure genius’, Latham says. ‘It seems incredible he’s not better known.’

Kelly was born in Sydney and sent by his family to Eton. He studied in Germany for five years and took up a scholarship to Oxford.

When war broke out he volunteered to fight with the British forces and joined the Hood Battalion, a naval contingent which was sent to fight on land at Gallipoli and then in France. Lieutenant Commander Kelly is believed to have been one of the last three officers to leave Gallipoli and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his role in the evacuation.

Kelly was a close friend of Rupert Brooke, and began writing an elegy to him as the poet lay dying. Soon after that, the brilliant young Australian composer was killed while leading an attack on a German position.

Because Kelly served with a British unit, his name doesn’t feature on the wall of the Australian War Memorial, though it is recorded at the memorial among the Australians who died fighting with allied forces.

Latham directed the international Flowers of War project, which set out the cultural cost of World War I. He produced Three treasures—the rediscovered music of three lost World War I composers featuring the work of Kelly, a Frenchman and a German.

‘These are the pieces people wrote facing death’, Latham says. ‘I can’t do anything for the other 60,000 Australians who died in World War I, but I can bring Kelly back.

‘This is another cost of war beyond the economic, the material and the treasure. You lose culture. When you lose these people you lose all the pieces they would have written, you lose their students.’

The potential for regeneration was also lost, Latham says. ‘Every generation which comes through shakes up the status quo.

‘No one had realised just how awful a heavily-industrialised war of attrition would be.

‘European culture was probably at its absolute zenith in 1913 and then so much of it was lost.

‘The art was so vibrant that you have to think, what if it had kept going and there hadn’t been the war?’

Another remarkably talented young Australian to die was John Clifford Peel, a reconnaissance pilot with the Australian Flying Corps. In 1917, Cliff Peel wrote to the Reverend Dr John Flynn suggesting that he could use aircraft to carry his ministry through outback Australia. Written just 14 years after the Wright Brothers made the first powered flight under control, that letter provided the inspiration for Flynn’s creation of what was to become the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

On 19 September 1918, just seven weeks before the war ended, Lieutenant Peel and his observer vanished after being sent to photograph a section of the German Hindenberg Line. It emerged later that they’d probably been shot down by a German fighter.

Among the Diggers who went through much of the fighting, and very nearly survived the war, was Thomas ‘Rich’ Baker, an 18-year-old South Australian bank clerk who enlisted in 1915 and found himself serving as a gunner on the Western Front.

His letters home and a set of logbooks he owned when he later moved to the Australian Flying Corps describe his extraordinary wartime experiences.

If you look past the elegance of the handwriting, the paper faded with age and the quaintly formal language, some of the letters contain the same sense of excitement found in emails from any teenager of today backpacking through Europe. The pictures sent home to ‘Dearest Ma’ were taken with a Kodak rather than a mobile phone, but all the youthful exuberance is there.

Held in the National Archives, the letters cover in lighthearted fashion Baker’s acceptance that he would not, after all, be home for Christmas with the family in 1916, and an episode in which he was buried up to his waist in mud as he repaired a phone cable under heavy German shellfire. He took that as a bit of a lark, but his commanding officer had Baker awarded the Military Medal for his bravery. He won a second MM for putting out a fire that was in danger of setting off a pile of ammunition.

Most of the Australian troops who’d played a key role in smashing through the Germans’ main defence, the heavily fortified Hindenburg Line, were spared the final slaughter. There were about 100,000 of them, all volunteers, on the Western Front; most were under the command of Lieutenant General Sir John Monash. They had been fighting hard and, just before the end of the war, he pulled them out of the line for a rest.

Two groups of Australians who were not rested were a contingent of miners who had been tunnelling under the German lines and who were under British commanders, and the airmen of the Australian Flying Corps.

Historian Peter Burness has described the deaths of sappers Charles Barrett and Arthur Johnson and Corporal Albert Davey of the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company as they prepared to place a bridge over a heavily defended canal.

The unit commander, Captain Oliver Holmes Woodward, described later how Davey, a 34-year-old Ballarat miner, came to him before the attack and asked him to take care of his personal belongings and send them to his wife if anything happened to him.

‘Davey must have seen that the war might soon be over and felt that going into one more heavy battle was chancing his hand too far’, says Burness.

Davey was killed by a German shell as the attack began. Barrett and Johnson also died. They were the last Australian soldiers killed in action in the ‘war to end all wars’, though many more died later of wounds.

But above the battlefield, two squadrons of the Australian Flying Corps were fighting a German air force that was well equipped and far from defeated.

The same battle also robbed the world of British poet laureate Wilfred Owen.

The young gunner, Thomas Baker, had often looked skyward from the trenches and yearned to join the flyers far above the mud; finally he got his wish and was sent to train as a pilot.

In one of his letters home he describes a trip to the theatre with ‘the Misses Longbottom’ and the tea that followed ‘in a bonza little joint called “The Thistle” opposite the Piccadilly tube station in Haymarket—if you ever go there don’t forget to try the shortbread’.

There’s the complaint to his mother that ‘I have rather an unsightly crop of pimples’, and then the description of an air battle in which he destroys a German aircraft and kills its crew.

In a letter dated 11 August 1918, he describes how ‘I downed my first Hun. I have since shot another to pieces.’ He and two other pilots went looking for a ‘stoush’. They dropped through cloud to find two German aircraft nearby and gave chase.

‘A pal of mine shot his down in flames and as the other tried to turn and get away I poked my nose straight at him and let fly from about 40 feet and shot his left bottom plane [wing] off. He then folded up and crashed in pieces.’

‘So long’, Baker finishes, ‘I hope to add a few more Huns to my score soon.’

Later, he tells his mother that he’ll be flying one of the latest fighter aircraft and adds: ‘I’m just itching to try out on a Fritz.’ On 1 October, he writes: ‘That makes five! Had a ripping time this morning on an early flip before brekker.’ He spotted a German two-seater aircraft on the enemy side of the lines and goes on in a letter to describe in Uncle Remus fashion how ‘Brer Rick got his fifth Hun.’

He pretended he hadn’t seen the enemy aircraft, stalked it, killed the crewman in the rear cockpit and kept shooting until the plane crashed. In October, Baker was promoted to temporary captain and flight commander.

The 4th of November 1918, just a week before the finish, was one of the Australian Flying Corps’ worst days.

The Australians were skilled pilots and had the latest British aircraft, the Sopwith Snipe, a development of the famous Sopwith Camel. The Germans, too, were very experienced, flying their state-of-the-art aircraft, the Fokker DVII.

The Australian squadron was escorting British bombers when the Fokkers attacked. The Australians climbed to intercept them and were quickly involved in a swirling dogfight. It was over in minutes. When the squadron reassembled, three aircraft were missing and all three pilots—Captain Thomas Baker, Lieutenant Parker Whitley Symons and Lieutenant Arthur John Palliser—had been killed.

Palliser and Baker were ‘aces’, Baker with 12 ‘victories’ and Palliser with seven, including one balloon.

Baker, the youngest, had turned 21 on 25 April, Anzac Day.

There’s a sad and faded footnote to that battle in the archives.

After the war, Palliser’s mother, Mary, wrote to official war historian C.E.W. Bean to give him details of her son that he had requested. She wrote across a corner of the letter: ‘My husband has never recovered from the shock of our son’s death. He is now a confirmed invalid.’

In 2004, author Joseph Persico wrote Eleventh month, eleventh day, eleventh hour, in which he revealed that, in the final hours of the last day of World War I, pointless last-minute attacks were ordered along the front line.

This was not just the lunacy of junior officers with a sense of unfinished business. In some cases it came from the top. US Major General Joseph Kuhn sent a message to his commanders: ‘Hostilities will cease on the whole front at 11 hours today, French time. Until that hour the operations previously ordered will be pressed with vigour.’

Disbelieving soldiers who had been celebrating news of the armistice and thought they had survived the war were ordered to go over the top one last time; gunners were ordered to fire their remaining artillery shells into enemy positions to avoid the inconvenience of returning them to stores.

Nearly 3,000 men died in those final few hours in what Persico describes as the perfect metaphor for the four years of senseless slaughter that preceded them.

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