08 June 2021

Redundant reminisces: the ghost of employment past


Writing about family history has helped sort out many mysteries, tested my memory and forced reconsideration of not-quite forgotten events. The writing forces the thinking to a conclusion. That light also slays ‘ghosts’ and hauntings evaporate. Perhaps it can work on my own history.

The ‘ghost of employment past’ followed me for six years. I dreamt of nonspecific offices, meetings and processes: there’s unfinished business and uncompleted projects. With time, disappointments have less hold but some demons of despair and hallucinations of reconciliation hovered.

At the point where my employment ended, my mind was full of administrivia and organisational history. That noise washed away with the winter rains. 

Some memories of meaningful results and constructive engagement remain unassailed in a happy compartment with occasional suggestions that my work was woven into the lives of others for a greater good.

My early career was fortunate though at some cost to my education, but as a choice of necessity, it is free from regret. I wished to do something useful and build securely. Volunteer work provided recommendations and employment which offered the opportunity for service to a developing institution. There was no training program but to read the rules and engage with ‘the elders’. These people, some ex-military others from large corporations and several with international experience, were open-hearted mentors. Issues were discussed frankly and opinions expected, sought and considered. Decisions were final and loyalty built naturally from this genuine engagement. I was fortunate to have started my career as they were ending theirs.

Of course, there were mistakes and misunderstandings but persistent zero-sum malice was rare and unadmired. It was often said and widely believed, that ‘our staff are our most important asset’.

In time ’continuing’ employment was offered – and gratefully accepted. The institution had its own superannuation scheme and new employees had the choice of schemes; one more advantageous for those who considered short-term employment and the other more advantageous for those who were interested in permanent employment. Most employees took the first option initially and had the option of changing, once, after 12 months. I followed that course as ‘prudent’ but after a year changed schemes as I considered this would be my permanent place of work. In the late 1970s it was still possible to resign in a huff and find another job, so making a commitment was not what everyone wanted to do.

‘Continuing’ didn’t mean staying in the same position; hopefully, skills and experience would open new challenges. I moved into an area at the heart of the institution with an early mentor. On her retirement, a ‘new broom’ swept enervation through the unit. I sought an escape including an external appointment to a State Government department moving to a regional city. The thoughtful public servant who chaired the selection panel encouraged me to stay where I was. I don’t know what he might have said to my referees, who knew of my anxiety, but within a short space of time, I was offered a role in a newly amalgamated group within the institution. I was grateful for the challenge. It built skills, broadened perspective and rebuilt confidence. 

After six months I had the opportunity to continue in the new role or ‘return to the centre’, which had changed from ‘gentlemanly’ to more ‘transactional’; reflecting 'the real world.' The area was one in which I had previous experience and where I was able to enjoy a long tenure with supportive supervisors. 

After promotions, I was ready for a new challenge and one was provided in a growing area with a ‘corporate’ reputation. The move allowed a respected older staff member with health problems to move from a more stressful senior position to the one I had vacated. Mutual loyalty was still strong. The new area was about institutional promotion and development; important to viability, diversity and certainly ‘useful’. The positive image of the area was well deserved.

The wider environment was changing however and the institution more broadly did not respond well to a tougher financial environment. The trend to ‘corporatisation’ was probably unrecognisable to corporations. General poor people management and the end of an obligatory retirement age resulted in disengagement and low productivity. Redundancies were inevitable and occurred in waves across the wider ‘industry’ as the income tide receded. Blinded by wishful thinking, I was unaware of the consequential trend that saw the demise of institutional loyalty. Expensive consultants seem to have sourced their fees with the concept that staff were in fact the organisations largest liability. Voices for better basic day-to-day management and thoughtful training were not persistent enough. More redundancies loomed. At the same time, I was exhausted by a series of significant changes following staff losses within my unit and was obliged, though happy, to reduce an inordinate credit of leave.

I had naively taken the view that the welcomed pressure to reduce my leave would allow me to refresh myself before the final six years of employment. Meanwhile, the redundancy redux ramped up; significant losses were predicted and unproductive though entertaining speculation was rife about what it might mean for particular individuals. I had demonstrated flexibility in times of previous staff crises and the capacity to help in any transition. While acknowledging that ‘no one was safe’. I imagined what a final stretch and reconstruction might look like. At the same time, I was grateful for the opportunity to take part in a training program where I felt amongst ‘my tribe’ building professional depth.

We were to be informed about the outcome of a review of staffing in a mass meeting and understood that after the presentation we should leave the meeting without further discussion to await individual meetings for those whose careers would be impacted. Comparing the charts for the ‘now’ and ‘future’ structure, I had no place. The subsequent meeting confirmed this. My bland acceptance of the situation was a surprise to myself and, I think, to the others at the meeting. As a non-negotiable fait accompli, there was nothing to engage with.

As my emotions had gone, my brain took charge. To preserve the acquired superannuation benefits I would need to find another similar position elsewhere (in an industry where redundancies were rife) or take early retirement. I didn’t know what to believe about myself or, what, until that point had been, ‘my’ institution. My redundant view of mutual loyalty, and self-assessment as making a useful contribution evaporated. Everything looked different. Unexpectedly, forgotten injustices rose from their resting places to taunt me. 

My task was simply to clean up, provide a helpful hand-over and get out of the way before the Ides of March

In a busy old office, far from my daytime home for the previous three and a half decades, external advisors guided the transition from employment. I had an interesting chat with the fellow assigned to me. We talked about military history. He provided me with a workbook designed to help me make a detailed assessment of my life to answer the question; ‘What do you want to do now?’ The exercise was helpful personally but gave me no answer to the immediate question. My brain told me to apply for jobs but no one was interested in considering an ‘old bloke’ whose name was so tied to a particular place. I reluctantly declared myself ‘retired’ some six years before I expected to do so.

For anyone who has a choice: don’t just ‘retire’. Have a plan to evolve from one activity to the next; go part-time, develop volunteer networks, travel and learn as you wish, enjoy the freedom (and the frugality) - but also have an optimistic purpose. 

I found two years of part-time volunteer administrative work restored my self-esteem and showed me how to be disinterested without being uninterested. Ironically, employment had interrupted my education and I’m currently enrolled in an M. Phil. at ACU which I hope will produce a lively historical biography of a Washington Territory newspaperman. The ghost of employment past can now rest and hopefully will not try to sneak through fissures in the cosmos.

There is no ghost of employment present; rather a spirit of inquisitiveness. Any future spirit will be friendly and, like history, bring discovery of an unknown country.

'I lift up my eyes to the mountains…'

16 April 2021

I was a CEB and a server at St Silas South Seaford in the ‘60s!

One October day in 1967 I was waiting at the bus stop just outside the Frankston Train Station. A dignified gentleman approached me from the Station. He was in his fifties and lugging a large suitcase. Although I had never met him, I knew who he was. His ‘dog collar’ identified him as Anglican bishop Felix Arnott. 

The following Sunday I was to be confined by him. At the final catechism class in preparation for the event, the Vicar of St Paul’s in Frankston, Rev. A. G. Church had told the group; ‘I want you to tell me what colour his eyes are’.

Arnott asked me: ‘When does your bus come?’ I told him it was some time yet. He then asked me to look after his suitcase while he went across the road to the Post Office. I was happy to undertake the task and he quickly made his way across the road – being sure to cross at the pedestrian crossing. (The Station and bus stop were much the same when Gregory Peck visited in 1959.) I saw Bishop Arnott again that Sunday and double-checked his eye colour.

My confirmation certificate,
though my middle name is not as 'given'.

I was the youngest catechist in the small group which had met weekly at Mrs Palmer’s home on Fortescue Avenue, Seaford, and two years before had been the oldest baptism at St Paul’s for the year. I didn’t attend St Paul’s regularly as we lived in Seaford, five miles north of Frankston. I attended St Silas Church, also on Fortescue Avenue, which was a 'daughter' church of St Paul's. The services were initially held in a renovated garage at Norman Rae's home. The panelling was Masonite and the group of about 40 filled the room. Norman and Margaret Rae were the driving forces of the fledgeling congregation; he was Honorary Secretary and she was President of the Ladies Guild. The Church was presumably named in recognition that the original Silas supported the work of Paul the Apostle.

I had decided to attend after becoming a CEB - a member of the Church of England Boy’s Society. The CEBS handbook introduced me to several religious concepts and emphasised the benefits of attending a church service. All this was new to me. I had joined the CEBS in part because a hospital visit the previous year had alerted me to the world of religion. I considered joining the scouts but settled on the CEBS because it was different, the uniform was blue - and there were some scouts I didn’t like. Meetings were held in the Seaford Hall - once a picture theatre and now replaced with grass in front of the community centre. 

The congregation had outgrown the garage which was uncomfortable in the summer. And so, a proper church hall was built. It was designed in 1964 by leading ecclesiastical architect Blyth Johnson (1928-2018). The foundation stone was laid on 15 November 1964 by the Right Reverend Geoffrey Tremayne Sambell (1914-1980). Norman and Margaret drove the project and the building was dedicated - probably - on 1 March 1966. Services were held every Sunday with a variety of celebrants including Albert Church. The others who I remember are; Rev. Strickland, Rev. Bruce Clark who was chaplain at the Peninsular Boys School (now Peninsular Grammar) and lay-preacher Keith Stanley (who was later ordained and served in the Ballarat Diocese).

The inside cover of Mum's hymn book.

The choir was led by a stentorian-voiced Welshman, Sid Jones, who was also a regular lay preacher from St Paul’s. My mother was one of several people to play the piano for practice and services. I sang soprano and was expecting to become a tenor. The choir was large though only had one bass voice – Norman Rae – whose resonating murmur added a comfortable musical balance and a familiar consistency to practice and services. 

I remember some of the congregation – Hosking, Gooding, Palmer, Cole, Nicholls (who we often visited after services) and a Yorkshire woman who wore a fur coat and a purple felt-hat and spoke to my mother in French and Hindi. Norman Rae made a big impression on everyone; he was regularly farewelled to return to the Overflow in winter but was always back in the autumn. There were many others including a large Sunday School group supported by Greg Davies and ‘postie’ Arthur Turner - who had moderate success teaching me to ride a bicycle. 

For several years the church held an annual picnic at Devilbend Reservoir, which my mother thought amusing. I recall one fund-raising event in the Hall; a ‘housie-housie’ evening. This was my first such event and, as a boy, I couldn’t work out how playing a game could raise money. The name was a mouthful - especially when you had to call it out in order to win a round. Mum, who knew a bit about Presbyterian things, explained that it was usually called ‘bingo’. I thought this was a much better word to call out than what seemed to be the Anglican custom. I asked one of the organisers why he called it ‘housie-housie’ instead of ‘bingo’. His answer was; ‘Well, bingo is illegal’. This was too subtle for me but Mum smiled knowingly. This was significant as she usually didn’t do subtle.

Albert Church presented me with an Altar Book,
inscribing it in the vestry room at St Silas.

By 1970 we had left Seaford and lost contact with the group, though I continued as a server at St James the Less in Mount Eliza. In 1974 I met Norman who was a visitor to Manyung Gallery in Mount Eliza where I worked. He remembered me and we had a good chat. After that, I moved further away but was disappointed to hear that after Norman’s death in 1977 and Albert Church's tenure ended in 1984, the building was demolished and replaced with units. 

The building itself was, unfortunately, uninteresting from the outside, with utility rooms facing the unfinished crushed-rock car park, so it is unsurprising that no photographs seem to have been taken. Inside, however, it was bright with the floor and sanctuary furniture of light-coloured Australian hardwood brightened further with the morning sun through yellow, blue and un-coloured opaque glass triangles. The walls were mid-grey concrete bricks and the bench seating was made of thin black piping with crimson artificial leather. 

A plan showing the main features of the building.
Public Building Files, Victorian Pubic Records Office. 

Now, some five decades later, the St Silas stories should be told – including the many parts I don’t yet know about. It seems little has survived and of course the original organisers are no longer with us. Perhaps you have a story, a photo or a memory that adds to the picture.

Please let me know. 

Commonwealth Youth Sunday, St Silas, South Seaford, 9 June 1968.
I'm not in 'uniform', standing next to local MP Phillip Lynch.
Does anyone have a copy of the program?

Memory assistance

Thanks to Malcolm Boag, Ken Nicholls and Ian Stanley for much-needed memory prompts. They allowed me to remove several variations of 'whose name I forget' in the first draft. Of course, many gaps remain... 

Unfortunately, its gold letters have faded.
I have a nice photo of a rectangular piece of grey granite.

01 April 2021

The WAAAF’s 80th birthday and Joan’s coming of age

An earlier post celebrated Joan’s 100th. March 2021 also marks 100 years of the Royal Australian Air Force and the 80th anniversary of the creation of the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF). The WAAAF was created following lobbying by women, who wished to serve more directly in the war effort, and by the Chief of the Air Staff, who wanted to release male personnel serving in Australia for service overseas. The WAAAF was the first and largest of the wartime Australian women's services and also forced the issue of equal pay for women.

Sergeant Joan Marsh

Joan joined the WAAAF in February 1942, soon after her 21st birthday, and was one of the first twenty-three RADAR operators to be trained in Richmond, New South Wales, in June that year, and one of the first eight to ‘man’ a RADAR unit in Kiama, NSW.

The following poem celebrates the life-long bonds of this group of women.

Radar Returns, Volume 5, No 1. 1991.

Their last big reunion in March 1991.
Joan is in the centre in the black jacket with her arm around the poet.

26 March 2021

Norman – ‘Rae’ of Sunshine...

 In honour of:

Captain Norman Gordon RAE, MC (1886-1977)

and the Australian Light Horsemen who served in World War 1.

From Nanneella to Nymagee, an intriguing narrative about a young farmer who advanced his life by becoming a WW1 Light Horse cavalryman, a courageous Defence Force Officer, a loving family man who experienced personal tragedies and an outback pastoralist, who devoted his life to national and community service. 


Lance F Marke  (great-great nephew), who also provided the pictures. 

Edited by Leon J. Lyell, with thanks to Lance Marke for permission to do so and to publish the story.

Normal Rae as I remember him: Editor.

Early life and family

When Mary Rae welcomed the birth of her 7th child, Norman Gordon on 3 May 1886, she and her husband Michael could never have imagined the extraordinary and fulfilling life their son Norman would experience. 

Norman was born at ‘Prairie’, at Nanneella, near Rochester, Victoria, a vibrant rural area some 200 km north of Melbourne. He was a new brother to Annie Janet 11, Minnie Agnes 9, Michael Alexander (deceased), Florence Maud 6, Beatrice Mary 4 and Lilly Alice 2. Marion Mabel and Albert John would be born after him. 

Norman was educated at the Nanneella South State School and then Scotch College, Melbourne (1901-1903). At 17, Norman left Scotch College due to his father’s ill health returning home to help his mother and sisters complete the many arduous farming tasks. His father, Michael suffered from Parkinson’s disease and passed away in 1910.  

Norman was a great sportsman playing football for both the Scotch College 1st team and captained the Rochester Football team. He was an accomplished horseman and exhibited draught horses in agricultural shows including the Royal Melbourne Show and was a member a debating team.

Norman’s Parents 

Norman’s father Michael (1834-1910) migrated to Australia from Stirling, Scotland, arriving at Melbourne on the ship ‘Ebba Brahe’ in December 1857. Stirling, north-west of Edinburgh, was known for its rich farming land along the River Forth.  Michael’s early occupations included ‘gold miner’ and ‘farmer’.

Norman’s mother Mary (nee Campbell) (1851-1924) migrated to Australia unassisted on the ‘Red Jacket’ with her parents Alexander and Ann (nee McBain) and sisters arriving in Melbourne in February1866. The Campbell’s hailed from the ‘Bogs of Davley’, Forres, about 40 km northeast of Inverness. The Campbells first selected land at Timmering in 1883. Later they purchased land and built a home on Winter Road, Nanneella and became associated with the Rae family. Michael and Mary married at the Christ Church of England, Echuca, on 7 August 1873. 

Farming at Nanneella

The name ‘Nanneella’ is thought to be an aboriginal word for Sandy Creek. The larger district area was known as ‘Yalooka’, and for thousands of years was home to the ‘Pinpandoor’ aboriginal tribe.

The Federal ‘Grant Act 1869’ allowed prospective farmers to select land and apply for a licence. After three years of improving the land, farmers could either buy or lease the land for another seven years until the full price was paid. This legislation and the selection and leasing arrangement created a land rush to many farming areas including northern Victoria during 1870 -1874. The 1888 Nanneella Parish Plan shows the Rae family owning several lots of land near the current intersection of Webb Road with Winter Road.  

The 375 kilometres long, manmade Waranga-Mallee irrigation channel was a few hundred metres south of their property. The irrigation water provided by this channel was a lifeblood to nearby farmers, guaranteeing increased production of pastures, crops, fruits and vegetables. 

Michael and Mary were progressive farmers, buying and leasing more land to expand their enterprise, growing more cereal crops, as well as breeding draught horses, Jersey cattle and later a vineyard and orchards. They were well respected, energetic and community-minded. Later, Mary and the Timbering Rae’s children worked hard, farming their land and making value-added produce; cream, butter and jams.  

In June 1914, the local newspaper advised that Norman wished to sell ‘Trainors' consisting of choice irrigable land together with a four-bedroom weatherboard house. The farm was had loose loamy soils, post and wire fences, and irrigations channels, with every acre within half a mile of the Waranga-Mallee Channel. A few weeks later, the newspaper reported that the Norman was keen on moving to the Yanco irrigation area, north of Narrandera, NSW, which is supplied by the mighty Murrumbidgee River.  

All these plans came to a sudden halt with the outback of WW1 in August 1914. 

The Rae farm at Nanneella.

The Light Horse Regiments

In 1885, mounted infantrymen formed regiments known as the Victorian Mounted Rifles (VMR) to defend and protect their Colony from an invasion. A militia force of competent horsemen and riflemen holding designated ranks were located throughout Victoria. In the late 1890s, about 3,500 VMR members volunteered to go to South Africa to fight in the Boer War.

All existing cavalry and mounted riflemen after Federation in 1903 were designated ‘Light Horse’. The distinguished Victorian Rangers detachment at Rochester became the 9th Light Horse Regiment (VMR). In 1912, the 17th Campaspe Light Horse Regiment was formed by combining regiments from North and Central Victoria.  In 1913, King George V accepted an invitation to become Colonel-in-Chief of the Australian Light Horse.

Before WW1, there were 23 Light Horse regiments of militia volunteers throughout Australia. Many men from these units joined the Light Horse regiments of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) when WW1 commenced. Norman Rae had been a member of the 17th, Campaspe Valley Light Horse Militia based at Rochester for 9 years and rose to the rank of Lieutenant. 

Enlisting for WW1

At the start of World War I, Australia committed to providing an all-volunteer expeditionary force of 20,000 personnel known in the AIF, which would consist of an infantry division and a Light Horse brigade. As Australia's commitment to the war increased, the size of the Light Horse contingent was expanded, with a second and third Light Horse brigade being raised in late 1914 and early 1915.  Eventually, the Australian Light Horse regiments were organised into four brigades, 1st, 2nd, 3rd & 4th; and 12 Regiments, 1st to 12th. 

Norman Gordon RAE was a single, 28-year-old farmer when he volunteered barely a fortnight after the outbreak of the First World War. Many men enlisting in Australia Light Horse Regiments pleaded to take their own horses with them. Norman took his own personal horse named ‘Vanish’. The Government would have paid him about $60 to buy his horse, which was then branded with the Government broad arrow, the initials of the purchasing officer, and an army number on one hoof. Within eight weeks, Norman and ‘Vanish’ had embarked for overseas on HMAS ‘S.S. Wiltshire’ on 10 October 1914. Some 135,926 Walers (strong, hardy, stock horses) were sent overseas from Australia during WW1 (1914-1918), some being provided to the British and Indian armies.

Twenty men from the Rochester district enlisted with Norman. 

Captain Rae and 'Vanish' at Heliopolis, Cairo 1916.

The 4th Light Horse Regiment, part of the 4th Light Horse Brigade, AIF

The 4th Light Horse Regiment was formed as a divisional cavalry regiment on 11 August 1914. The regiment sailed from Melbourne arriving in Egypt on 10 December. Members of the Light Horse Regiment were experienced marksmen and excellent horsemen.  

Originally, the Regiment was considered unsuitable for operations at Gallipoli but was subsequently deployed in May 1915 without their horses to reinforce the infantry. Much of the regiment's time at Gallipoli was spent defending the precarious ANZAC position, most frequently around Ryrie's Post, but its squadrons were involved in several minor attacks. The 4th Light Horse Regiment withdrew from the peninsula on 11 December 1915. 

In 1916 the 4th Light Horse Regiment was engaged in security tasks in the Suez Canal Zone. In April 1917 it moved up into the Sinai desert in the wake of the main British and dominion advance but continued to undertake further security duties. 

Finally, after three years, on 31 October 1917, the Regiment was assigned its first major battle, known as the ‘Battle of Beersheba’, at short notice. The bravery and courage of the 4th and 8th Light Horse Regiments in securing Beersheba and its wells won them legendary status amongst defence forces around the world.   

After Gaza fell on 7 November 1917, Turkish resistance in southern Palestine collapsed. The 4th Light Horse participated in the pursuit that followed and then spent the first months of 1918 resting and training. The Brigade moved into the Jordan Valley in time to also participate in the Es Salt raids in April and May. 

In August, the regiment was issued with swords and trained in traditional cavalry tactics in preparation for the next offensive against the Turks. This was launched along the Palestine coast on 19 September 1918 - its objective, Damascus. The mounted forces penetrated deep into the Turkish rear areas severing roads, railways and communications links. 

On 1 October 1918, a patrol of the 4th Light Horse, commanded by Sergeant Frank Organ, was the first allied troops to enter Damascus. The regiment was soon involved in the next stage of the advance and was on its way to Homs when the Turks surrendered on 30 October.

Some long-serving troopers began to embark for home soon after and while the rest waited their turn, the 4th Light Horse was called back to operational duty to quell the Egyptian revolt that erupted in March 1919; order was restored in little over a month. The regiment sailed for home on 15 June 1919.

The Australian Light Horsemen through their courageous battles had liberated the lives of many historical occupiers of several ancient cities of Biblical times.  

The unwritten motto of the Australian Light Horsemen was that no sound man should allow himself to be taken prisoner and no wounded man should be allowed to fall into enemy hands. In the two and years of their campaigns in the challenging deserts, only 73 Light Horsemen were captured by the Turks, however, during that period the Light Horsemen captured 40,000 Turks. 

"The Australian Light Horseman has proved himself equal to the best. He has earned the gratitude of the Empire and the admiration of the world." - General Edmund Allenby.

Where the Lighthorseman got his skill.

The Battle of Beersheba

Beersheba, a heavily fortified town 43 km from the Turkish bastion of Gaza, was the scene of an historic charge by the Australian 4th and 8th Light Horse Regiment at dusk on 31 October 1917. 

The first attack had been launched at dawn but by late afternoon the British 20 Corps had made little headway toward the town and its vital wells. Although the British infantry had captured most of their objectives, it was the Australians and New Zealanders who had to make dismounted advances across open ground against two strongly defended hill-forts.

Major General Harry Chauvel, the first Australian to be promoted to Major General by the British High Command, was then appointed commander of the Desert Mounted Corps. He ordered the 4th and 8th Light Horse Regiments forward in an attempt to secure Beersheba and the much-needed wells under the control of Brigadier General William Grant. 

The 800 strong ‘ANZAC Mounted Division’ had made its way along dangerous, ill-defined pathways towards their assembly point, 4 kilometres from the Turk held outpost of Beersheba.

By late afternoon, the two British strong points had fallen, but there were still heavily manned trenches protecting Beersheba. Time was precious, the sun was starting to set, darkness would be an obstacle and many of the horses had already been without water for nearly 48 hours. The smell of moisture was in the nostrils of the thirsty steeds, nothing was going to stop them.  

Brigadier Grant suggested to Chauvel that two of his regiments, the 4th and 12th, could make a mounted charge against these remaining defences.  Such a thing had never been heard of; a mounted charge across about four kilometres of open ground against entrenched infantry supported by artillery and machine guns. Chauvel agreed.

The 4th & 8th regiments formed up behind the cover of a ridge and then moved off in a three-lined charge formation, going from walk-march to a trot, then a canter.  At the signal ‘charge’, the infantrymen rode at full gallop for the last couple kilometres, spurred on with wild yells, drawing their bayonets as swords and waving them in the fading sunlight with great momentum in the surprise attack on Turkish defences.

The Light Horsemen jumped the trenches and some leapt to the ground for an ugly man-on-man fight. Others galloped through the defences and into Beersheba as demolition charges, set by the Germans, started to blow up the precious wells and key buildings.

Fortunately, within minutes, the German officer in charge of the demolition had been captured by a Light Horseman. Most of the wells were saved.  The limited water available was shared by the troopers and horses as they swarmed the wells. Troopers watered their dehydrated horses in canvas troughs as they fell to their knees to drink beside their thirty mounts.

By nightfall, Beersheba was officially in the hands of British control under General Sir Edmund Allenby's army. Of the 800 men who rode in the charge, only 31 had been killed. Over 1,000 Turkish prisoners were taken.

The fall of Beersheba thus opened the way for a general outflanking of the Gaza-Beersheba Line. After severe fighting Turkish forces abandoned Gaza on 6 November and began their withdrawal into Palestine, changing again the history and occupation of the Middle East.

The Light Horsemen as mounted infantrymen with their superb Walers had carried out one of the most famous, successful and celebrated cavalry charges in history; against what seemed impossible odds.  During the five weeks of this Middle East offensive, the ANZAC’s of the Desert Mounted Corps had advanced over 800 kilometres, had taken nearly 80,000 prisoners and had lost a remarkably low 650 men from battle casualties.

This was a significant effort for the Australian Light Horsemen after the horrors and failures at Gallipoli. The Beersheba battle basically helped bring the three years Middle East War to a conclusion. The courage, commitment and unfortunate losses of our soldiers in World War 1 forged and sealed the righteous spirit and true values we still share as everyday Australians; mateship, integrity, courage, sacrifice, selflessness and ingenuity.    

Captain Norman Rae was commander in charge of ‘C’ Squadron during the ‘Battle of Beersheba’. 128 infantrymen made up a Squadron, therefore Captain Rae was ‘in charge' of about one 6th of the Light Horsemen who participated in this famous charge. He served in Gallipoli, Egypt and the Middle East.  He participated in every action undertaken by the 4th Light Horse Regiment. Vice-Captain George Rankin, a close friend of Norman’s also participated in the ‘Battle of Beersheba’. 

The AIF at Beersheba.

Norman’s Military Service

Norman took an oath to serve his King and Country on 27 August 1914, a few weeks after World War 1 broke out. He joined the 4th Light Horse Regiment of the 4th Light Horse Brigade with his own horse ‘Vanish’ and his Australian Imperial Force was 486.  He was promoted to Sergeant after 2 weeks on 16 September 1914 and served seven months continuous duty at Gallipoli.  

Norman’s 4th Light Horse Regiment was the only AIF unit to serve on each of WW1’s three major fronts; Gallipoli, Egypt and Palestine. Norman’s war service record indicates he was promoted to be 2nd Lieutenant in succession to Lieutenant Bourchier on 20 July 1915.  

Norman got very sick with fever and gastritis in September- October 1916, was hospitalised and sent to England for treatment and recovery. He arrived back to Egypt in December 1916 to active duty again, re-joining the 4th Light Horse Regiment in late December 1916 and was promoted to Major on 10 May 1917. On 17 August 1917, he was assigned to command ‘C’ Squadron, with Vice Major G. J. Rakin appointed as his 2nd in command.   

On 16 November 1917, he was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry and devotion to duty in the field at the Battle of Beersheba. Norman returned to Australia and was honourably discharged in October 1919 after serving King and Country for 5 years and 2 months.

The Military Cross

The Military Cross is the third-level military decoration awarded to officers and other ranks of the British Armed Forces and used to be awarded to officers of other Commonwealth countries.  Norman was awarded the Military Cross in November 1917 however was presented with the Military Cross by King George 5th at a service held at Buckingham Palace, London.  His Military Cross citation reads: 

“...For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.  During the regiment’s mounted attack on the hostile trenches, he single-handed captured over 60 prisoners, and set a fine example to his men under heavy rifle and machine-gun fire.” London Gazette – Fourth Supplement No 30482, 15 January 1918.

The Military Cross.

Norman’s own family

Whilst in England, on leave from the military in 1918, Norman began courting his future wife, Margaret (Madge) Harris. Margaret was from a wealthy upper-class British family, being related to the business ‘English Harris Tea and Coffee’ merchants. She was used to being served by maids and servants.  Madge was born on 24 November 1892 at Black Torrington, Devon. Her father was a farmer, Robert Thornhill Harris and her mother Margaret Kate nee Gossage. 

Norman wanted to return to Australia and set up a home before sending for Madge to join him in marriage. Madge migrated from Halwill Manor, Beaworthy, North Devon, United Kingdom, about 200 miles south-west of London. They were married at Christ Church, South Yarra on 28 September 1921; Madge was 28 and Norman was 35.  

They first settled on a farm called ‘Fernhill’, Crowther NSW, about 30 km south of Cowra. Norman had built their home, a slab hut, built from timber found on the property.  Whilst farming ‘Fernhill’, Norman and Madge had four children, Katherine Mary (1923-2006), Arnold Robert Michael. ‘Clancy’ (1927-2012) whose ashes are scattered over ‘The Overflow’), Gordon David Harris (1930-1936) and Murray William Harris (1932-1939).

Tragedy struck this family, two of their sons, Gordon and Murray died as young children.  Gordon, aged 6, was killed after being hit by a car in Sydney and Murray, aged 7, died of meningitis at ‘The Overflow’. 

In 1936, school was cancelled due to a polio outbreak.  Norman seized this opportunity to take his family on a world tour. Their 5th child, Tindall Constance was born in South Hampton, England on 8 January 1937. After returning to Australia, they moved their farming enterprise and purchased the outback station known as ‘The Overflow’, Nymagee, NSW, about 80 km south of Cobar.

‘The Overflow’, Nyngan, NSW

Almost being at the dead centre of New South Wales, ‘The Overflow’ is a traditional outback Sheep Station 90 kilometres South West of Nyngan and 600 kilometres North West of Sydney. It is located in the Bogan Shire on Pangee Road, near Babadah Rd about 30 kilometres south-east of Nymagee.  The station has good soils but rainfall ‘the gift of farming prosperity and life’, is somewhat unreliable.

The ‘Overflow’ entered the Australian cultural conscience in 1889 with the poem ‘Clancy of the Overflow’ by Banjo Paterson, where Banjo had met Clancy at shearing time.  

Norman Rae purchased the ‘Overflow’ station around 1937. In the 1970s this station covered some 10,000 acres but in earlier days it was much larger.  It boasted a 101-stand shearing shed and at shearing time employed 100 shearers and another 100 roustabouts and stockmen. Built in 1881, was a 48-stand shearing shed and a woolshed that could hold the locals use to know Norman by his nickname ‘The Captain’.  Later, Norman’s son Arnold was known locally as ‘Clancy’.

Norman’s Community Service

Such was the esteem with which he was held in Rochester that the position of President, Rochester Agricultural and Pastoral Society occupied by him at the time of enlistment, was kept open until his return from the war.

Norman was a Councillor of the Bogan Shire Council for 10 years and is thought to have served with the Frankston Masonic Lodge.

Norman and Margaret established a branch of the Church of England, firstly in the own garage and later a new church called St Silas, Church of England, at Seaford South, which was served with a minister coming from St Pauls at Frankston.  Norman and Margaret taught Sunday school there for many years. [Editor’s note: the St Silas story is worth telling and I hope to do so in later items. The Church began in the early 1960s and closed a few years after Norman Rae's death.]


Norman and Margaret moved back to Victoria in 1951.

They had part of ‘The Overflow’ homestead transported to Fortescue Ave, Seaford where they built a new home.  They called their home, ‘Dunslavin’ because of the effort involved in the 850-kilometre move. [Editors note: tragically, this timber home with a veranda on three sides, was demolished and replaced by pleasant though unhistorical flats.]

Norman would often tell humorous stories about this time in the War to family members however he never spoke about his own personal astounding achievements. 

Norman passed away in 1977 and Madge (Margaret) in 1979. Both are buried at the Frankston Cemetery.


Further Reading:

Sunday School Captain: My glimpse of Norman Gordon Rae MC 

A ‘new’ photo of an Australian Beersheba hero? 

14 February 2021

Joan’s 100th

Mum, Joan Kathleen Marsh, was born at Phoobsering Tea Estate, just north of Darjeeling on 14 February 1921. The estate was one of the oldest in the area and the bungalow she was born in was built in the 1860s. Here are a few photos of her early life to mark the centenary of her birth.

The earliest known picture shows Joan, with her mother Evelyn, visiting her Glaswegian grandparents Claud and Margaret Bald in August 1922. The Balds had recently retired from the Darjeeling tea industry and were living in London. The picture has been automatically colourised but is probably fairly accurate (green for grass is a safe bet).

This picture shows Margaret and Joan (right and incognito) at the old house in Phoobsering, together with two of the outdoor staff.

This picture shows Joan taller and more confident on her donkey in the centre. Margaret is on the left and an unknown child on the right, perhaps the child of the assistant manager at Phoobsering. The girls were brought up by an Ayah (the woman on the right is probably Ayha to that child) and the tea bushes of Phoobersing were Joan's kindergarten. Joan’s first language was ‘Paharia’.

Joan was 'sent' to boarding school, with her sister, in far off Worthing, England, at the age of eight. The school aimed to educate the Empire's children who, in previous generations, found English monoculture unsettling. She spent summer holidays with her grandmother Margaret Bald and aunt Agnes or her aunt Ruth (who married Arthur Campbell) in Bangor, Wales. Joan and Ruth exchanged Xmas letters until Ruth died in 1988. In spite of the relatively enlightened education she received, and the support of extended family, Joan had trouble adapting to England but her mischievous cynicism found joy. She avoided compulsory French for breakfast by skipping food and playing the piano – her life-long ‘escape’. The picture shows Joan and Margaret off to Kingdene School, Worthing, with Aunt Agnes. The street photographer snapped them at the same spot on several occasions.

Joan returned to Darjeeling in late 1937 and studied piano at St Michael's and Mount Hermon obtaining a licentiate in piano as had her mother. This is a page from a schoolbook she had in 1938, showing the well-known view of Kanchenjunga (the eastern end of the Himalayas) as seen from Darjeeling.

Joan and her sister were next sent to live in Melbourne with their paternal uncle Frank Marsh as war-related problems seem to have appeared early in Darjeeling. Joan studied music at the University of Melbourne but as soon as she was 21 joined the Women's Australian Auxilary Air Force (WAAAF) and was included in the first group trained in RADAR. Her cousin Jeffrey Downing withdrew from medicine to join the RAAF. Margaret found work in the Government clothing factory. The picture shows Joan enjoying WAAAF life and getting to know other anti-monarchists.

After the war, Joan got a job at Myer in Melbourne where she worked at the complaints desk (being partially deaf, she was regarded as ideal for the role). She took a fancy to Noel, a young fellow in the furniture department. Noel's sister had a catering business and employed Joan to wash dishes while Noel helped with the cooking (also wise moves). Noel's concession to his future mother-in-law was to shave off his pencil moustache. The picture shows the pair with a picket fence at an unknown seaside location in about 1950.

Joan died on 24 December 1997 after suffering a form of leukaemia not uncommon to early RADAR operators. An adaption of my eulogy for her is at Joan's Treasures. She just missed seeing the long-overdue, and possibly inadequate, memorial to RADAR operators unveiled at the Australian War Memorial but had donated to its creation.


14 October 2020

Darjeeling’s historic graves

Find A Grave allows anyone to search their online database and add pictures and information. 

Registered users can upload pictures of headstones, create new entries or suggest corrections to existing entries. The site is owned by Ancestry.com, but it is free to use.

Although it has been running since 1995, interest in Darjeeling is taking off. A number of entries have been made which makes it easy for the historically minded to take pictures of graves or add new information. You might find a virtual look-see interesting. 

Entries exist for the following cemeteries
  • Darjeeling Old Cemetery, 
  • Jalapahar New Cemetery, 
  • Jalapahar Old Cemetery, 
  • Lebong Cemetery,
  • Loreto Convent Cemetery,
  • Singtom Cemetery, 
  • Hope Town Cemetery, Sonada,
  • St Colomba's Cemetery, 
  • St Joseph's College Cemetery, as well as 
  • Kurseong Cemetery. 
Of course, more locations and people can be added.

If you live in the area, you may wish to take your camera for a peaceful look through a local historic graveyard. When taking pictures of graves please make sure inscriptions can be read - or make a note of them to submit with the picture. Sometimes a bit of water on the grave can make things easier to read. In some cases, you may need to pull out some weeds. Gently rubbing the headstone with dirt will often highlight the inscription and not cause any harm.

The tomb of General George W. Aylmer Lloyd overlooking Darjeeling.

General George W. Aylmer Lloyd obtained the deed of Darjeeling for the British from the King of Sikkim in 1835. He was in charge of the triangulation of the Himalayas for the Trigonometric Survey of India. His tomb is registered by the Archaeological Survey of India as monument number N-WB-60.

A screenshot of the page for General Lloyd.

While many graves date from the Raj it doesn’t mean all the people buried there are English. There are many Scots, Irish and Welsh and there are some locals and a number of non-British Europeans. Possibly the most famous non-Brit is Alexander Csoma De Koros the Romanian born author of the first Tibetan-English dictionary. He’s one of General Lloyd’s neighbours at the Darjeeling Old Cemetery. 

Also in the Old Cemetery is the grave of the not-so-well known Louis Mandelli an Italian tea planter and amateur zoologist and ornithologist - and possibly a political refugee.

Mandelli's memorial as seen from the road looking downwards.

The inscription on Mandelli's grave tells us something about the man and how well he was regarded.

to the
memory of

But what if you’re not in Darjeeling?

You can still take part in the effort if you have some pictures or if you’ve been searching for your Darjeeling connections and have information to add to the current listings. There are still many unknowns...

Let me know how you go!

18 August 2020

Fred Marsh’s Indian war service

When I was a primary student in the 1960s, ‘Remembrance Day’ – or Armistice Day as mother called it – was the opportunity to wear family medals to school. As my parents didn’t have any medals, I wore my grandfather’s. These were different from most other medals at school: they were older and they were from India.

Fred Marsh's medals
Fred Marsh's Indian medals.
Left to right; WWI service medal, King George VI Coronation Medal and
NMBR long service medal.

‘Grandpop’, Fred Marsh, had joined the Northern Bengal Mounted Rifles (NBMR) a week after World War I was declared. This was a civil militia unit and most of the members were tea planters like the 23-year-old Fred. However, for the War, the NBMR was ‘embodied’ into the Indian Army.

I did not think of asking what he did during the War. The only story he mentioned when I was a child was that he had some responsibility for provisioning troops including Australians and Englishmen. There was some anxiety to ensure that troops would be provisioned with either Vegemite or Marmite depending on their nationality. Neither wanted the other’s ‘national dish’ which each agreed was unpalatable. Americans, of course, would eat neither. 

Getting specific provisions was not easy, so Fred got what he could. An important factor in keeping all the troops happy was to remove any labels from the large tins in which such provisions arrived. This ensured that he could give the Aussies Vegemite and the Englishmen Marmite from the same container. 

I liked this story because it suggested he wasn’t involved in any fighting and had a bit of enterprise and humour.

A toothy Fred about the time he arrived in India in 1912

Recently I obtained a copy of memoirs written by a nephew of Fred’s, Bob Clark. Bob was born in Darjeeling to one of Fred’s sisters and the two developed a life-long friendship. His amazing book records three of Fred's NBMR experiences in World War I. I had never heard these stories before so I follow Bob's outline of them.

After Fred enlisted, he was trained as a cavalry officer at Jalpaiguri on the plains below Darjeeling. In February 1915 the still-single Fred spent his pre-embarkation leave with Bob’s family in Faridpur, now in Bangladesh but at that time in India’s East Bengal. 

Jalpaiguri Camp 1914

Bob’s father apparently took photographs of Fred in uniform, with five-year-old Bob by his side. Both stood strictly to attention with rifles by their side. At the end of his leave, Fred returned to Jalpaiguri expecting to be sent to a theatre of war. But on the final parade, he was told to report for 'special duties'. And then began an unusual military exercise.

The Panama Canal had been opened in August 1914, but problems had already developed. The Culebra Cut was silting up as the retaining walls were failing. It was decided to plant some water-loving growth as the best chance of holding the soil together. A species of bamboo which grew only in Sikkim – to the north of Darjeeling - was selected as the most suitable. 

This bamboo flowered only once in every twenty-five years, but botanists at Kew Gardens, London, had records which suggested it should have flowered recently. The seed would be mature for collection at the time that a hastily organised expedition could arrive. Fred, because of his knowledge of the local languages and managing people, was selected to guide the botanists, three thousand metres above sea level, in Sikkim. As predicted, they found seeds ready for collecting and these were eventually planted on the banks of the Canal.

When that commission was completed, Fred was posted to a Forestry Unit on the borders of Sikkim logging timber for the insatiable requirements of the war machine. He remained there until early 1917 when as a trained cavalry officer he was called to join a unit hastily collected to put down an uprising which began in Malabar on India’s south-west coast. These tensions had been simmering for decades and were presumably heightened during the War as poor Muslim residents of Mophla looked to the head of the Ottoman Empire as their spiritual leader. (Things would come to a head soon after the War.)

The unit which Fred was involved with consisted of five hundred Bengalis. However, they were not trained soldiers, they were labourers from the Kolkata jute mills supervised by a handful of trained officers, presumably including other militiamen. The troops travelled across India by train and then marched out to find the enemy. They met the enraged throng advancing and armed with long spears ‘ten thousand strong’, in Bob’s account which also places the confrontation in Pune. 

The Bengali troops had rifles, but they had no experience and little will to fight an angry army which outnumbered them. As the two forces faced each other, Fred considered that his last moments had probably come. The Army began to advance. Suddenly, without a shot fired, the horde turned and fled apparently in confusion.  

There must be much more to the story of course, though attempts to find details have so far not been successful. Indeed, at present, it has proven impossible to locate Fred’s war service record. There is a good chance it exists in the Indian archives along with those of hundreds of other ‘embodied’ militia members. The only way to know for sure is to visit. Any reader comments are very much welcomed!

While we are now becoming more aware that significant numbers of Indian soldiers were supporting Britain’s War efforts across the world in both World Wars, there is a largely untold story of Europeans who made their home in India supporting its defence efforts.

Fred was discharged from the Army shortly afterwards and returned to tea planting. Following Bob’s story, this would be about mid-1917. The year was busy for Fred as he married the boss’s daughter, Evelyn Bald, in December. Because of the many men who had not returned from the War, he was appointed, well below the normal age, as manager of the Singla tea garden. Bob visited Fred and Evelyn there for Easter 1918. 

Fred (right) with his new bride Evelyn and mother-in-law Margaret Bald at Singla c. 1918.

But what of the Vegemite / Marmite controversy?  Bob didn’t mention it.

There are a couple of good reasons for the silence. Firstly, Vegemite wasn’t invented until 1922 so it could not have been part of Fred’s World War I experience. Secondly, his memoir says nothing of World War II and at that time the two were living on different continents.

A couple of years before my grandfather died, I visited him with a friend who had a car… My friend raised World War II and asked my grandfather what he did in India. As I remember it, there was only one sentence on about an episode I had not heard before. The subject then changed.

‘Oh, we moved food supplies between India and Burma’, he said flatly.

Well, that fitted in with the Vegemite story. Later I wonder why he didn’t have any service medals for World War II. Unlike my parents, who neglected to get theirs, he would surely have made a point of getting his.

The answer to that question turns out to be simple. After World War I, the NBMR was reconstituted as a volunteer militia and Grandpop immediately joined up again. They continued their community service, occasional crowd control and regular annual training activities in Jalpaiguri until being disbanded in 1947. However, the militias did assist in the war effort even though they were not part of the Indian Army. The work of the Assam tea planters in the evacuation of Burma is reasonably well known, but the precise contribution of the NBMR remains unknown. The formal mechanism of engagement was through the Indian Tea Association and support would have been in the form of logistics and possibly repurposing tea garden labour for infrastructure projects. 

Along with the photo of the two young soldiers, there is more to be discovered…

Further Reading