Townsville’s ‘Tree of Knowledge’ claims first place

Today is the Labour Day public holiday in Queensland. The birthplace of the Australian Labor Party has traditionally been claimed to be under the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ at Barcaldine in 1891 during the great shearer’s strike. However, it wasn’t known as the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ until the 1930s. An investigation into other ‘Trees of Knowledge’ around Australia raises the question to which has the claim as the original ‘Tree of Knowledge’?

Queensland unionists and community members will break out their hats and placards today for the annual Labour Day marches across the state. The first weekend in May has been of major cultural and historical significance for the union movement in Queensland ever since the state’s first Labour Day procession took place in Barcaldine on 1 May 1891. The Labour Day public holiday has been celebrated by workers in Queensland on the first Monday in May since 1901 (apart from a few years during the Newman government). It is deeply ingrained in Queensland’s history as a day to recognise workers’ rights.

Labour Day March, Queensland

Labour Day, like Anzac Day, is a day when we remember the sacrifices our forebears made: the mateship, the loyalty and the determination to build and protect the freedom and rights we now enjoy. Both are also occasions when we recognise the ongoing struggles of today, and thank those standing beside us in the fray.

The Labour Day date was moved from May to the second Monday in March in some parts of Australia after World War II. For a large section of the Brisbane labour movement it remained important that the Labour Day celebrations be changed to enable participation by all Queensland workers and that the date of the procession from the traditional one on 1 March to 1 May. The main arguments for changing the date of the celebrations was to make them part of the international campaign, begun by the International Labour Congress in 1889, to make 1 May an official workers holiday around the world. This campaign was given a major boost when, on 1 May 1891, more than 1000 striking shearers participated in Australia’s first May Day march through the streets of Barcaldine, where their leaders wore blue sashes and they carried banners and the Eureka flag. It was reported that cheers were given for “the eight-hour day”. Henry Lawson wrote “Freedom on the Wallaby” to mark the day.

Tree in Oak Street, Barcaldine

The meeting of the shearers under the Queensland ghost gum, a Eucalyptus Papuana, outside the Railway Station, Barcaldine during the strike of 1891 is widely regarded as a defining moment in Australian political history. Australian Labor history has long held that it was under the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ that the Australian Labor Party was founded.

There are many other  trees dubbed the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ around Australia.

  • The 150-year-old Moreton Bay fig tree in Randwick, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, known by locals as the ‘Tree of Knowledge’, was removed in July 2016 to make way for a light rail line.
  • Goondiwindi
  • The Galamarrrma, or ‘Tree of Knowledge’ is located in the courtyard of the Darwin Civic Centre, and has been used as meeting place, postal address and community notice board
  • The Perth ‘Tree of Knowledge’ was craned into the children’s section of the City of Perth library.
  • ‘Kidman’s Tree of Knowledge’ is a mature coolabah tree at Glengyle Station, Bedourie under which he reputedly camped when contemplating the development of his pastoral empire. It is for this reason it has been heritage-listed.
  • The ‘Tree of Knowledge at Camooweal’ is a mature Coolibah tree on the eastern side of the Georgina River where drovers, teamsters and others would camp, rest and yarn.

Trees are significant in many of the world’s mythologies, and have deep and sacred meanings throughout history. They are powerful symbols of growth, death and rebirth, with evergreens sometimes considered symbols of the eternal, immortality or fertility.

The source of knowledge in many ancient myths is a tree that symbolises how knowledge represents the connection between ideas from different worlds, for example the world of humans and the divine world. The tree of knowledge (World Tree) is found in many religions and mystic traditions such as the Tree of Eden, the Norse Yggdrasil, and the Kabalistic Sephiroth Tree, to name but a few.

No doubt the Barcaldine Oak Street ghost gum tree bore silent witness to those events of 1891 that saw riots and 2000 police and army personnel in the town to protect the strike breakers, however there is no evidence that the strikers met there. Also the ghost gum was never called the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ at the time, in fact it wasn’t until at the least the 1930s that the tree began to receive this moniker.

The tree was first known as the ‘Alleluia Tree’, so called because local members of the Salvation Army congregated to worship under its branches. Bullock drivers who were constantly on the move throughout Western Queensland also used the tree as place to gather and swap yarns and news from along the trails.

The ghost gum continued to be referred to as the ‘Hallelujah Tree’ in 1914, and in 1919 when Myles Ferricks, a Labour senate candidate, addressed the crowd it was reported to have occurred at the Hallelujah Tree, in 1921 the Barcaldine newspaper, the Western Champion reported the Hallelujah Tree was in decline in health. In 1923 there is again reference to the ‘Hallelujah Tree’ in the local media in Barcaldine, continuing still in 1927. It’s not until 1931 there is evidence in the Western Champion referring to the old ghost gum as the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ rather than the ‘Hallelujah Tree’.

The argument to support the position that Barcaldine never referred to a ‘Tree of Knowledge’ in its community until the 1930s is the reference in the Western Champion, 29 March 1919 to the regular unemployed meetings in Townsville

held under a tree, which is now described as the “Tree of Knowledge”.

There is no reflection in the newspaper column on the name being originally a Barcaldine term from the 1891 strike, almost 30 years before. As an article that was critical of the success of the Townsville unemployment meetings reference to the unoriginality of the name of the meeting place would have been mandatory. It was not mentioned.

In 2006, the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ at Barcaldine was poisoned. The culprit/s were never found and the ALP (Qld) has a $10,000 reward for identifying who poisoned the tree at Barcaldine.

The dead gum tree was removed and a sapling, propagated from the original, now grows at the Australian Workers Heritage Centre. Ironically, the Barcaldine ‘Tree of Knowledge’ also achieved National Heritage listing in 2006. A memorial has been erected to commemorate the history of the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ in Barcaldine and its significance to the Australian Labor Party, Barcaldine and Queensland.

The north Queensland city of Townsville also has had an historical ‘Tree of Knowledge’.

Public meetings held in Townsville under the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ played a role in the development of Townsville’s industrial and trade unions. Flinders Street, Townsville has been the home of cafes, theatres, hotels, and jubilant celebrations, yet it has also witnessed under Townsville’s own ‘Tree of Knowledge’ unemployment meetings, weekly communist party meetings, political protests and individual spruiking, as well as in 1919 gunfire and union agitation after a demonstration when 3,000 meatworkers protested over their wages and conditions.

The ‘Tree of Knowledge’ linked closely to the Townsville Workers Electoral Leagues, established on 17 July 1891 and eventually became the Australian Labor Party in Townsville. The impetus for the League came from trade unionists whose pursuit of solidarity and reform quickened in 1888 with the formation of the Townsville Trades and Labour Council and its reconstitution in 1890 as the Townsville District Council (TDC) of the Australian Labour Federation.

The Townsville ‘Tree of Knowledge’ was actually three trees planted in the 1890s. It appears the three ‘Trees of Knowledge’ stood outside the Aplin Brown Building at the corner of Flinders and Denham Street and was a central meeting point for union meetings in Townsville. Until about 1918 they were referred to as ‘The Shade Trees’. However, by early 1919 when the Unemployed Committee first began having outdoor meetings in Townsville the name had changed and within a month the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ had started to appear in the local press as an address.

The three trees were Terminalia catappa, commonly called beach almond, or sea almond. The name Terminalia comes from the Latin terminus, end, and refers to the clustering of the leaves at the ends of the shoots; catappa is the Malayan name for the tree. These were suitable trees as a meeting place (clustering) for the labour community who did not have access to the wealth needed to distribute their political positions, such newspapers, radio, the outdoor public meeting was their only option.

The ‘Tree of Knowledge’ remained a Townsville city landmark for many years and was a popular place for the public to rally and listen to union officials, labour candidates and politicians, such as Tom Aikens, the long-term Member for South Townsville, and Fred Paterson, the Communist Party Townsville Alderman. In 1926 the first major tree was cut down. It was under the second and third trees where all the soapbox debates occurred, and the opening rallies of all political campaigns—municipal, state, federal.

Flinders street in Townsville with Tree of knowledge, at right. W. J. Laurie Album, 1912, NQ Photographic Collection ID 156. Reference: https://jculibrarynews.blogspot.com/2013/10/special-collections-fossickings-28.html

It’s not clear when the third tree disappeared, however the second and final tree was badly damaged by Cyclone Althea in 1971 and was removed on 8 January 1972. However, it is reputed that a cutting was saved and replanted in Anderson Park, Townsville. It was from this tree that three cuttings were planted in a triangle by the Townsville Probus Club in 1986 in Ogden Street near the tree’s original position in Denham Street to represent the ‘Tree of Knowledge’, ‘The Tree of Love’, and the ‘Tree of Understanding’.  The cuttings were planted in a triangle with a brass plaque set in a granite rock in the middle with the words:

“We pray that those who come by here will have the knowledge, love and understanding of their fellow man”.

The replanting of the trees was a memory to the soapbox oration of politicians, union officials and others over at least 80 years under the Townsville ‘Tree of Knowledge’.

In 1985, the Townsville City Council with the support of the local unions, commissioned Anthony Dennis Pryor to create a ‘Tree of Knowledge’ steel sculpture as a remembrance of the old tree.

It was unveiled by Margaret Reynolds, Minister for Local Government on 21 November 1987 and continues to reside in Perfume Garden Park, a block away from where the original ‘Trees of Knowledge’ had stood.

As Barcladine had not stopped referring to their meeting place tree as the ‘Hallelujah Tree’ until the 1930s, then it appears Townsville can lay claim to the first ‘Tree of Knowledge’ under whose broad branches and leaves the men and women of labour could meet to act collectively to help each other to seek a better and purposeful life.

The 1891 shearers strike in Barcaldine was a Capital vs Labour reflection to the 1919 Unemployed Committee organizing in Townsville almost 30 years later.  However, the difference was in the use of the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ name. The evidence shows that the term was originally used by the Townsville vagrants marginalised by the post-World War 1 lack of support for employment and who were in direct solidarity with the meat workers strike at the same time.

Today we celebrate those workers and union delegates who stand alongside their mates and colleagues to preserve and better the working conditions of all Australians. We celebrate the toil of men and women everywhere, and in these economically dark times we also extend our hands and hearts to those who have lost jobs and pride.

It’s always worth remembering: if you’re standing alone then you’re begging, if you stand as a collective then you’re bargaining.

* I’d like to acknowledge the research assistance in writing this article from Brian Davies.

Dead Regular – the reality of life as a paramedic

DEAD REGULAR is a novel at the forefront of a new genre — paramedic procedural. Harry Colfer (pen name) is a practising paramedic who tells the reality of life as a paramedic through fiction.

He sees factual television programs such as Ambulance Australia that follow New South Wales and Queensland Ambulance Services from the Triple Zero Control Centres to paramedics on the road as heavily sanitised and not reflecting the reality of the work of paramedics in Australia. Colfer has addressed this sanitisation by portraying reality through fiction.

Dead Regular is a murder mystery set in Brisbane and takes place in 2012. There is a strong sense of place in the novel with the streets of Brisbane anchoring the story.

The paramedic characters portrayed in the novel work for the Brisbane City Ambulance Service (B-CAS), which doesn’t exist and is in no way meant to portray or depict any existing or former ambulance service or organisation. The author makes the point that the 2012 time setting also reflects medical techniques from then.

In Dead Regular, there is one thing stopping Jono from loving his job as a paramedic. It’s not the blood and gore, nor the vomiting drunks, not even the seemingly endless rolling shifts. It’s the overbearing management. He’s a competent clinician who always does the best for his patients, but petty bureaucracy and red tape never fail to fire him up.

Despite this disaffection, Jono won’t ignore the fact that several ambulance “regulars” have been turning up dead. Each death in itself seems innocent enough, but the sudden mounting body count raises his suspicions. Is it just a coincidence, or has someone decided to clean up the city? What’s more worrying is that Jono appears to be the only one who cares.

Catching a serial killer won’t be easy when nobody suspects murder.

Harry Colfer’s excellent descriptive prose and his fantastic use of Australian metaphors make it easy for any reader to enter the fictitious yet very believable world of Jono and his professional life working for the Brisbane City Ambulance Service. Full of unexpected twists that kept me guessing right to the very end, this story made me laugh throughout and even cry on a couple of occasions. It’s craftfully written, at times beautiful in its descriptions, downright and at the same time a real page turner with a plot that rockets along as fast as the code one drives that the Ambos do. It’s an insider’s view of the emergency world that only a few people ever really get to see.

Colfer has a remarkable way of bringing characters into full-blown three dimensional light. There are certainly no flat characters here. Fully developed, Jono and his crew mates take you on a full-tilt journey not only into the world of ambos but also an engaging mystery plot expertly woven in, complete with a little romance.

The quirky references to Brisbane streets and locations were delightful treats to those who can relate. The style is easy to read and brilliantly captures the quick-witted banter and sledging that is a common culture of such close, mission-critical teams.

Colfer stated recently:

‘Everyone knows a paramedic and all paramedics have a story to tell, it’s how we cope with the sometimes confronting nature of our job. Inevitably, when the yarning starts, the stories we tell are full of embellishments and always served with a heavy dose of dark ambo humour.’

The author continued:

‘I started writing Dead Regular back in 2012 because my wife suggested I use it as a stress relief. It took two-and-a-half years to write, and since 2016 have edited numerous times.’

Paramedics face violence on a daily basis. Being ambulance staff can be a high-stress job. They encounter many situations in their daily line of work that can have a lasting impact on their mental health.

Paramedics have one of Australia’s most dangerous jobs — and not just because of the trauma they witness.

Central Queensland University’s Professor Brian Maguire said in 2017:

“The fatality rate for paramedics is six times higher than the national average. Their injury rate is twice as high as the rate for Australian police officers. Assaults account for a large part of the risk, while the number of serious injury cases secondary to assault among paramedics has tripled from ten per year to 30 per year, between 2001 and 2014.”

Violence against people doing their job is unacceptable. And the cost to individuals, the health sector and the public is too great.

In July 2020, researchers at Flinders University published a systematic review of research on paramedics health which found that:

‘…compared with other professions, paramedics have far higher rates of mental health disorders, workplace violence, workplace injuries, fatigue, sleep disorders and suicide.’

The researchers found paramedics say workplace culture – and how state and territory ambulance service management treat their staff – may play an even bigger role in the link between paramedics and poor health.

Harry Colfer has published to date 22 short stories in the Ambo Tales From the Frontline series and plans to write another ten, one for each of the 32 AMPDS codes — the system used worldwide to categorise emergency calls.

Dead Regular is a far cry from the TV reality shows such as Ambulance Australia. It is a funny and clever, fast and unpredictable read with great humour and an extremely descriptive writing style that places you on scene. You gain, as a result, a different perspective of life behind the scenes for a paramedic.

Ambulance Australia season four is filmed on the streets of Brisbane. Dead Regular is set on the streets of Brisbane. One is real and one has been sanitised.

Harry Colfer is definitely an author with a winning, distinct style and one to follow closely as he writes about Jono and his crew roaring ’round and ’round, up and down, through the streets of your town.

Dead Regular is a truly Australian novel.

About the author:

Harry Colfer is the pseudonym of an experienced paramedic who lives and works in Brisbane. Although his stories are total fiction, his writing style is very realistic and he maintains a healthy level of paranoia with respect to his anonymity. He would love to tell you more about himself and someday will, but at the moment he considers that revealing his true identity could be a career-limiting move.

A taster for Dead Regular is available here.

Saving Daylight in the Sunshine State

Daylight saving time ends: Move your clocks back 1 hour before bed tonight  - al.com

On 1 January 2021 the 1990 Queensland Cabinet Papers were released, including a Cabinet Minute on “Options in Relation to Daylight Saving”. The implementation of Daylight Saving in Queensland is a perennial issue that rears its head every 5 or 10 years.

In August 1989 the sun was setting on then National Party Queensland premier Mike Ahern’s parliamentary career. Having just survived a leadership spill within his own party, the National Party leader decided to go against his party’s advice and announce a one-year daylight saving trial. One of his last acts as premier was to introduce legislation to get the trial up and running by the summer of 1989.

Wayne Goss claiming victory in 1989

On 2 December 1989, the sun set on 32 years of conservative rule in Queensland when 38-year old lawyer Wayne Goss claimed victory in a Labor won landside. Goss and Labor scored a 24-seat swing, the worst defeat of a sitting government up until that time in Queensland. Voters had clearly grown tired of the Joh era and the stench of corruption uncovered by Tony Fitzgerald QC. With the election of Goss and Labor, Queensland was rescued from the deep chasm of corruption, self-indulgence and arrogance it had fallen into.

Queensland had briefly used Daylight Saving during WW1 and again during WWII for three summers as a means to conserve fuel. Queensland again trialed Daylight Saving in the summer of 1971-1972. The Bjelke-Petersen government was of the view that Queensland’s geography was not suited to daylight saving.

The Goss government went ahead with the daylight saving trial over the summer of 1989-1990. The Daylight Savings Task Force identified that the “Brisbane and Moreton regions were clearly in favour of Daylight Saving but the other regions were not”. More than 89 per cent of written submissions were not in favour of daylight saving, with people citing the climate, family lifestyle, meals, television news, long days, skin cancer and primary production as reasons they opposed it. 1990 Cabinet Papers show the recommendation was the clocks only be wound forward in south-east Queensland.

In August 1990, cabinet agreed to introduce legislation to enact daylight saving across the state “on a permanent basis”. However the legislation was not to be enacted until the end of the three year trial extension.

A referendum on the issue held on 22 February 1992 asked the question: “Are you in favour of daylight saving?”. Queenslander’s came back with a 54.5 per cent “no” vote. Antony Green noted:

In the 53 seats in the urban south east, the Yes vote won 60.6% to 39.4%, with the yes vote passing 70% in the southern Gold Coast. In the 36 seats covering the rest of the state, the Yes vote was clobbered 22.9% to 77.1% No.”

The implementation of Daylight Saving in Queensland is a perennial issue that rears its head every 5 or 10 years. It will never be accepted by Queenslanders outside South-East Queensland. The only option for establishing Daylight Saving in Queensland would require a two zone system. Queensland Premier Anna Bligh stated in 2010:

I intend to be a Premier for the whole State – not just one part – therefore my Government will not introduce daylight saving in Queensland“.

To force through a two zone system in Queensland may well be the catalyst for a separate state for North Queensland.

Below is a speculative flash fiction short story I wrote in response to the perennial daylight saving debate in Queensland.

‘Saving Time in the Sunshine State’, AntipodeanSF, Issue 123, August/September 2008.

It all began with the Daylight Saving fiasco in Queensland in 2016. The Queensland vote went against falling-in-line with the other eastern states, so the Federal Government intervened to force time consistency.

In hindsight, it is absurd how Queensland police enforced Federal Legislation by inspecting clocks in government buildings to check for time compliance. But absurdity and impossibilities stand side-by-side in a world where live piranhas in glass handbags are the celebrity fashion accessory of choice.

The crunch came in the summer of 2018. It became downright ugly when North Queenslanders, like my grandmother in Charters Towers, were busted for time cheating.

My Gran. So many clocks in her house. Gran loved clocks — clocks with chimes, clocks that dinged and donged on the hour and half-hour, a cuckoo clock, and even one with a cat on its face that gave a sickening meow every quarter hour.

But the most frustrating thing of all was that not one of these clocks kept the same time. In Gran’s home, time was never accurate but it could always be heard. I guess she never had to be anywhere at a set time. Her life was very fluid. Days merged into each other. Week days, weekends — they all had a sameness.

Not that Gran’s life wasn’t full and rich. But it wasn’t constrained by the work-a-day weeks that bind most of us. “Gran Time” we called it. For her, time was never uniform, singular or predictable. It was relative. To what, we never knew. But when she was told all her clocks had to be set to the new ‘Canberra Time’ you could almost hear the cogs in her mind synchronise for the coming battle.

Here’s the nub. The feisty old girl not only refused to turn forward her clock the mandated hour, but also started saving daylight.

I’d guess the sunshine hoarding was what alerted the Federal Time Marshal about Gran. It was all over the house. Drawers overflowing with it. Cupboards full. A spare room packed to the rafters with sunshine. Boxes of it stacked in the hallway and under the beds. And all her curtains faded from the inside.

My Gran had compensated for what had been taken from her by Federal intervention with her own sunshine bank. Who knew, though, what could be the effect of so much banked sunshine?

When the Time Marshal and the Queensland Police burst through Gran’s front door one Sunday morning they were first hit by a blinding burst of sunshine, then an overpowering smell of food that had rotted well before its expiry date. And there, sitting on her favourite blue-patterned sofa, wearing huge welding glasses, was my now teenage Gran, her internal body clock reversed from so much living within her own sunshine state.

My Gran, the time cheat, had just cheated time.

Katrina & The Waves – Walking on Sunshine

Remembering Rosa – the Plea of a War Mother

The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month marks the moment the guns fell silent on the Western Front after the bloodshed of World War I. Over the past century, this moment has been adopted across the globe as a time to remember those who served and sacrificed in all wars and conflicts.

November is always a time of remembering. The Feast of Saints is held at the beginning of November and is now widely observed across the world to remember those recognised as today’s saints. This is followed by All Souls that encourages the remembering of those that have gone before us.

A few days later on 5th November is Guy Fawkes Night, which remembers the survival of James I from Guy Fawkes’ assassination plot when he attempted to blow up the House of Lords.

And of course, Remembrance Day held each year on 11 November for just over a century is when Australians ‘remember to remember’ and pause for one minute of silence at 11am to honour those who served.

More than 2000 Australian nurses served in the Australian Army Nursing Service during World War I. They may have been motivated by adventure or by loyalty to Australia and the British Empire – or held hopes that enlisting would take them closer to loved ones serving overseas.

Nurses worked in hospitals, on ships near battlefields inaccessible by land, on trains and in casualty clearing stations (makeshift wards close to the frontline). Nurses had to be aged between 25 and 40, and unmarried. Twenty-five Australian nurses died during the war and eight were awarded the Military Medal for bravery. One of these nurses was Sister Rosa O’Kane from Charters Towers, north Queensland.

Gill Street, Charters Towers in 1897. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-22/gill-street,-charters-towers-in-1897/10291778?nw=0

Sister Rosa O’Kane, granddaughter of infamous nineteenth century newspaper editor Thadeus O’Kane, was born and raised in Charters Towers in the 1890s and into the new century. She trained as a nurse in Townsville and became a matron in western Queensland hospitals before World War 1.

Rosa signed up to train as a battlefield nurse in 1915 and was called up in 1917. On 11 November 1918 she was bound for Europe on the SS Wyreema to serve as part of the Australian Army Nursing Service when the Armistice was declared. Following her ship’s return to Perth, she volunteered to tend to World War 1 servicemen suffering from pneumonic-influenza, the Spanish Flu, who while returning to Australia on board the transport ship SS Boonah, were struck down with the ‘Flu’.

Between 1918 and 1920, pneumonic-influenza, commonly known as the Spanish Flu, plagued society. This pandemic caused more deaths than World War 1.

To prevent the spread of the Spanish Flu, those on-board the SS Boonah were unable to disembark and reunite with family for some time. Sister O’Kane was tending to soldiers at the Woodman Point Quarantine Station to the south of Fremantle, WA when she too became ill and died on 21 December 1918.

This extraordinary work at Woodman’s Point Quarantine Station in Western Australia in December 1918 was instrumental in maintaining the quarantine of Australia against the deadly influenza pandemic sweeping the world.

Sister Rosa O’Kane’s sacrifice was remembered and held true in particular by her mother, Jeanie O’Kane. Her mother’s obituary stated:

From that moment in 1919 until the day of her death, Mrs O’Kane was in every respect a ‘war mother’ and no cause was ever so dear to her as that of the digger or the nursing sister. As each year passed she was an outstanding personality among those who organised the annual dinner (luncheon) in honour of soldiers on Anzac Day, and the aim or unanimity in public commemoration of Anzac Day was an objective for which she was an unceasing champion.”

Jeanie O’Kane, Rosa’s widowed mother, had been the editor of the Towers Herald for a couple of years after the death of her husband, John G. O’Kane (son of the infamous editor of the Northern Miner, Thadeus O’Kane) in the early 1890s. The O’Kane family comprising the widow Jeanie O’Kane, her daughter Rosa O’Kane and two younger brothers (including Frank O’Kane who was to serve in WW1) left Charters Towers in May 1898 when she returned to teaching with the Education Department. Over the next 12 months Jeannie O’Kane was appointed to a number of provincial Queensland schools, such as Liontown, Upper Olam (near Rockhampton, in the Dawson Valley), Scotchy Pocket (Gympie), and the Broughton (Charters Towers), with her eventually returning to Charters Towers, where she worked until her retirement at the Richmond Hill and Boys Central State Schools.

Richmond Hill State School, Charters Towers 1904. http://www.bonzle.com/pictures-over-time/pictures-taken-in-1904/page-3/size-3/picture-qf1m5d5i/charters-towers/students-pose-in-front-of-richmond-hill-state-school-charters-towers-1904

At the time it was common for a widow to receive a war pension if an unmarried son was killed during the war and the mother could show that she was a dependent. A decision needed to be made as to whether a widowed mother of a deceased and unmarried daughter should receive the same benefits.

Jeanie Elizabeth O’Kane’s application for a war pension was originally rejected.

On 6 June 1919, Jeanie O’Kane wrote an eloquent eight-page letter to the Governor of Queensland. In July 1919, the Governor’s Private Secretary replied with an expression of the sympathy from the Governor and his wife and their grief at hearing such sad news, as well as their apologies for being unable to assist Mrs O’Kane in her application for her late daughter’s pension as it was a federal matter.

Sister Rosa O’Kane

 “Both his excellency and Lady Goold-Adams were deeply grieved to learn of the death of your daughter whom they remembered very favourably at the Kangaroo Point Hospital, and they appreciate your thoughtfulness in sending such a fine photo of her”.

Then, after a lot of letter writing Jeanie was able to have Rosa’s effects forwarded to her in Charters Towers in September 1919.

Even without the support of the Governor, Rosa’s widowed mother continued to dispute the decision to refuse her the war pension.

On 18 November 1919, the acting Assistant Commissioner, Pensions and Maternity Allowance Office, Department of the Treasury, Melbourne queried the Officer-in-Charge, Base Records, Department of Defence, whether Rosa O’Kane was

appointed for service outside Australia on the date she was called up for duty on 27 November 1917, or, if not, on what date?

On 24 November 1919 the response from the Officer in Charge, Base Records was she embarked for active service abroad on 14 October 1918.

Eventually advice was received from the Repatriation Department stating:

as members of the Army Nursing Service are soldiers within the meaning of the Repatriation Act an application….may be accepted from Mrs. O’Kane”.

The, after she proved her dependence upon her late daughter during the 12 months before Rosa’s enlistment, her claim was reassessed and she was granted a pension of two pounds per fortnight.

The impressive letter-writing skills of the ex-editor and school teacher Jeannie O’Kane were evident on 9 June 1921 when she demanded the Australian Imperial Force Base Records forward her daughter Rosa’s medals to her, as she was her next-of-kin, as stated in her enrolment form. Even though the ‘Deceased Soldiers Estates Act 1918’ argued medals went to nearer blood relations than a mother first, she was also successful in achieving this request in honour of her daughter.

The death of Rosa O’Kane prompted her home town of Charters Towers to fund a monument to her thousands of kilometres away to the south of Fremantle in Western Australia. It was intended to embody all who died in the Great World War.

The Brisbane Courier wrote on Armistice Day, 11 November 1931:

Sister O’Kane’s grave, with a headstone erected by the patriotic committee of Charters Towers in memory of her magnificent self-sacrifice, is in the only military cemetery in Australia— that at Woodman’s Point— and each Anzac Day a contingent of returned soldiers visits the cemetery and places wreathes on the graves of the three nurses who made the supreme sacrifice.”

Rosa O’Kane’s headstone at Woodman Point Quarantine Station

The WA Defence Department wanted to transfer O’Kane’s remains to Karrakatta cemetery as her story had become of great interest to the community, but her mother Jeannie O’Kane

would not have the remains disturbed’.

The bodies of Rosa O’Kane and Hilda Williams remain at Woodman Point Quarantine Station rather than the Military Cemetery at Karrakatta, the former marked by an impressive granite obelisk, and the latter by a simple wooden cross.

In the century since 1919, the surroundings have overgrown with bushland, but the graves are maintained by the Friends of Woodman Point Recreation Camp. The Quarantine Station is open to the public with Friends of Woodman Point Recreation Camp.

The Miner’s Cottage in central Charters Towers where Jeannie O’Kane lived for many years has become a museum that houses an extensive collection of Australiana, Antiques, Collectables and Curios.

Miners Cottage (Jeannie O’Kane’s residence), Charters Towers today

Today is the day to remember Rosa O’Kane and all nurses who have died caring for others, and their mothers who kept their memories alive.

Queen’s Birthday – a public holiday without meaning

Queenslanders took the day off work today, not in recognition of their hard work, but to recognise a monarch who will most likely be sleeping through the public holiday held in her name.

Australian’s love their public holidays even if the reason for the occasion is a little vague. For goodness sake, we even have a public holiday in Melbourne for a horse race and in Brisbane for an agricultural show. Nevertheless, the Queen’s birthday purpose is the most vague of them all.

But where are the community events with Queenslanders feasting on finger sandwiches, washed down with a pot of Earl Grey tea, followed in the afternoon with re-watching The Crown. The lack of any public activity around the Queen’s Birthday Queen’s Birthday public holiday shows how the concept of monarchy is out-of-step with contemporary Australia. 

National Director of the Australian Republic Movement (ARM) Sandy Biar said the Queen’s official website indicates the date didn’t rate a mention at Buckingham Palace:

The head of our country should be someone who lives here, is proud to be an Australian and is in touch with Australians.

Apparently more than 5.1 million Australians holding a day in the Queen’s honour still isn’t enough to get the attention of Buckingham Palace. It’s time the day was set aside to honour those who would truly appreciate it instead, such as our frontline service men and women and volunteers”.

So, on the day more than 5.1 million Queenslanders acknowledge the ‘Birthday of the Sovereign’, the Queen and Buckingham Palace appear not to be aware about it at all. Despite an entire day being set aside in honour of Queen Elizabeth II, Queensland’s tribute – the state named in honour of her great-great-grandmother – seems to have gone entirely unnoticed.

It has always seemed absurd that Australians acknowledge the birthday of Queen Elizabeth II at a completely different time to her actual birthday. Around Australia in 2020, the Queen’s Birthday public holiday will be held on the second Monday in June — except in WA on Monday, 30 September and in Queensland on Monday, 5 October,

Queen Elizabeth II will turn 94 on Tuesday, 21 April 2020. You have to wonder when will she be allowed to put up her feet? Most 93-year-olds are long retired, but not that trouper the Queen. My grandmother will be 95 later this year. She’s a hardy soul, but there’s no way she would be up to the frantic pace needed to be a world leader. Even though retirement plans for many people keep going further and further beyond 60, Queen Elizabeth II has still well and truly exceeded this. Prince Philip was able to officially retire in August 2017 at 96 after his dramatic announcement of his intention to retire from active royal duties in May 2018. So surely it’s time for the British monarch to step down and start having afternoon naps.

After the election of the LNP Newman Government in 2012, until its shock electoral loss in January 2015, there was a steady outpouring of ideological revisionism aimed at bolstering the concept of monarchy in Queensland. During 2011, there had been widespread consultation by the Bligh Labor Government on changing the public holiday system in Queensland. It was agreed, in 2012, that Labour Day would remain in May and the Queen’s Birthday public holiday would move from June to the first weekend in October, while retaining a one-off Queen’s Diamond Jubilee public holiday in June 2012. However, Australia completely ignored the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

All this was thrown out the window later in 2012 when legislation was passed through the Queensland Parliament by the newly elected LNP Newman Government to move the 2013 Labour Day public holiday from the historically traditional 1 May to the first Monday in October and the Queen’s Birthday public holiday back to its previous June timing. The change in attitude towards the public holiday timetabling suggested the Newman Government was determined to take a conservative monarchical stand. With the election of the Palaszczuk Labor Government in Queensland in 2015, one of the first actions was changing the Queen’s Birthday public holiday for 2016 to the first Monday in October and restoring the Labour Day public holiday to the first Monday in May. With this move Queensland had become a little less ‘Queenie’, but no one seemed to have noticed the move.

Surely, this must be the most irrelevant and outdated of all public holidays? Although the Queen’s Birthday public holiday is observed as a mark of respect to the Sovereign, there are never any public celebrations or community engagement around it whatsoever. The Queen’s Birthday holidays don’t remind us of anything good about our country. At worst, they tell us Australia’s head of state gets the job by inheritance and that Australians are subjects of a foreign crown — the opposite of democracy and liberty. The lack of any public activity in Australia around the Queen’s Birthday holiday is a clear example of how much the entire concept of monarchy is out-of-step with contemporary Australia. It appears Australians will turn out and show respect to the Queen when she is here but when she is not, then the concept of monarchy becomes irrelevant. Australians may like the celebrity surrounding the monarch and the royal family when they visit Australia but are then totally uninterested in any form of royal celebration when the “party girl” is not here. You can’t have a party without the “party girl” — which brings up the issue of an absent head of state.

We have our own identity as Australians. The Royals represent Britain, but cannot represent us or unite us as Australians. Australians believe in freedom and equal opportunity, not that some are born to rule over others. Monarchist’s can prattle on endlessly about how retaining the monarchy brings stability and is cheaper than having a homegrown head of state and the like. But when you boil it all down, you can’t escape the fact there’s something a little unnatural about a grown child of, shall we say, 230 years, still electing to live in mummy’s back bedroom.

It is a disgraceful fact that without constitutional change the citizens of Australia will not even be consulted on our next head of state. Since his birth, Prince Charles has known he will take over the top job. One morning we will simply wake up to hear news from England that will change our country for decades to come.

Deciding to pack our bags and finally leave our Buckingham Palace nursery room isn’t being rude to the Queen. It’s just the natural order of things and the Queen has reportedly acknowledged as much to past prime ministers. We can have respect and affection for Britain and its celebrity royals but still question why we do not have our own head of state. The royals are welcome to visit as representatives of Britain, but I look forward to when the British people and their royal family will welcome a visit by the first Australian head of state.

How many more Ashes tours must we endure with the Barmy Army taunting us with their song, ‘God Save Your Queen’? Time to cut the apron strings, assert our independence and let one of our own people serve as Australian Head of State.

Reference List

For the past nine years I’ve been arguing the lack of any public activity around the Queen’s birthday shows how the concept of monarchy is out-of-step with contemporary Australia.

7 October 2019 | When the Queen’s birthday isn’t even a birthday, it’s time to move on

1 October 2018 | Paving the way for independence: Citizen’s Day instead of Queen’s Birthday

22 April 2018 | The Queen’s (real) birthday — time to talk succession planning

2 October 2017 | Royal poll shows there may not be a King’s Birthday holiday in the future

12 June 2017 | Queenslander’s silent on no Queen’s Birthday holiday 

21 April 2017 | Operation London Bridge: For the term of ‘her’ natural life

3 October 2016 | Three birthdays for the Queen — Isn’t it time for a Republic? 

13 June 2016 | Bring on the Republic of Queensland

9 June 2015 | Goodnight knights and dames: Taking the Queen out of Queensland 

9 June 2014 | Another Queen’s Birthday — isn’t it time to break free?

21 April 2011 | Happy 85th birthday Queen Elizabeth II. Time to retire? 

Wattle Day for an inclusive Australia Day

THE FIRST DAY OF SEPTEMBER has many names. Some welcome it as spring’s dawn, a time to celebrate nature’s renewal. For others, it is National Wattle Day — a time when the smells of spring are in the air as well as Australia’s vivid gold blossom.

In Australia, the wattle is the largest genus of flowering plants. In Australia, you could plant two or three different wattles for every day of the year and still have plenty left over, for Australia has more acacia species than the year has days. These acacias are extremely diverse and found in habitats from rainforest to arid lands.

I have written before on how Wattle Day is celebrated annually on the first day of spring. A sprig of Australia’s national floral emblem, the golden wattle – Acacia pycnantha – is traditionally worn on the first day of spring. The green and gold of wattle leaves and blossoms were declared our national colours in 1984; in 1988, the wattle was adopted as the official national flower; and National Wattle Day was formally declared on 1 September 1992.

Australians may have made a home for themselves among the gum trees, but it is the wattle tree that has found its way into Australian republican symbolism. In 1993, the Australian Republic Movement gave its support to Wattle Day celebrations being held throughout Australia on 1 September. Wattle captures something crucial to the success of the republic — feeling for country. It is a unifying symbol.

September 1 marks the 28th anniversary of the declaration of National Wattle Day, as well as the 27th anniversary of the Australian Republic Movement giving its support to National Wattle Day celebrations throughout Australia.

Wattle Day has been celebrated annually on the first day of spring since 1910. However, the first known use of wattle as a meaningful emblem in the Australian colonies was in Hobart Town in 1838, when a resident suggested wearing a sprig of wattle to celebrate the golden jubilee of the landing at Sydney Cove. In this seemingly small gesture lay a suggestion of an independent Australia.

Wattle is a broad and inclusive symbol of an egalitarian, classless, free citizenry. It grows in all parts of Australia, differing varieties flowering throughout the year. This democracy of wattles – the fact that they grow in all states – was the overpowering reason why the wattle and not the waratah was chosen as the floral emblem in the early 20th Century.

Wattle celebrations first arose as occasions when earlier generations of Australians stood up and said: “I am from this land. This place is home.”

It is a symbol that comes directly from our land. Wattle is Australian and represents us all. Like the Southern Cross, the appeal of wattle is not first and foremost to the idea of nation — but to the idea of place.

In 2017, Terry Fewtrell, President of the Wattle Day Association, proposed in the Sydney Morning Herald that:

We could link National Wattle Day, with Australia Day as joint days on which we celebrate Australia, this land, its waters and environment, its people and our nation. National Wattle Day would not compete with Australia Day, rather it would complete Australia Day. It would do what Wattle has always done — unite us.

Perhaps we could also see its blossoms as a metaphor for the land waving its flag to remind us to care properly for it. It is precisely wattle’s long presence in and deep association with the land that sets it apart as a national symbol and endows it with added meaning.

Wattle touches all levels of society.

Early pioneers and World War I diggers were buried with a customary sprig of wattle. Then Governor-General Sir William Deane took wattle blossoms to Switzerland to commemorate young Australians who died there. Prime Minister John Howard also wore sprigs of wattle at ceremonies after the Bali bombings.

Terry Fewtrell said in a 2014 Australia Day speech that:

“…wattle has journeyed with us in kitbags, pockets and letters to places that become synonymous with our shared story; be they Gallipoli, Kokoda or Swiss canyons.”

Australian athletes wear wattle-inspired green and gold uniforms and those honoured with an Order of Australia receive awards with an insignia designed around the wattle flower.

Let’s all take a moment this National Wattle Day and reflect on the wattle flower which symbolises an egalitarian, classless, free citizenry.

So, when the blaze of wattle lights up the Australian landscape each year, let’s all remember that the wattle is a symbol of our land that unites us all.

The golden wattle, Acacia pycnantha is already our national floral emblem. Why not extend the symbolism a step further? Wattle Day may be the answer to the debate around celebrating Australia Day on January 26. Spring represents hope and renewal, so needed in our nation right now and in the foreseeable future. But above all, 1 September would be so much more inclusive.

Happy 2020 Constitution Day, Australia!

Happy Constitution Day! Today marks 120 years since Queen Victoria provided Royal Assent for the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900.

Constitution Day in Australia is observed annually on July 9 and acknowledges the day the Constitution of Australia was approved in 1900.

This day commemorates when the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act was passed by the British Parliament and given Queen Victoria’s Royal Assent. On 1 January 1901, the Commonwealth of Australia was officially established when this Act entered into force.

Constitution Day is not a public holiday in Australia and is arguably the least known of the notable days in the Australian calendar. In 2000, the commemoration for the centenary anniversary of the Constitution of Australia was established. However, the commemoration was not widely held after 2001.

The National Archives of Australia revived the observance in 2007, as this is where the original Constitution of Australia document is preserved.

Copies of the Act, the signed Royal Assent and related documentation have been dubbed Australia’s “birth certificates“. However, unlike Australia Day, Anzac Day or Melbourne Cup Day, Constitution Day is linked inextricably to a set of defining documents. It also commemorates the outcome of a democratic process — the votes of 573,865 people in the six Australian colonies, in the referenda of 1899 and 1900.

The Constitution of Australia is the first national constitution anywhere in the world to be put to a popular vote. As it did in a number of areas of social reform around this time, Australia led the world in constitutional development.

The Constitution of Australia has a special status in that it can’t be changed in the same way as other laws can be changed. It is a supreme law — that is, it overrides other laws. The Federal Parliament can change ordinary laws, such as the Marriage Act, by passing amendment laws, but it can only initiate proposals for changes to the Constitution. The approval of the people of Australia is necessary for any change to the Constitution, just as the approval of the people of Australia was a step in the process of creating the Constitution in the first place.

Many proposals for constitutional change have been discussed since 1901, but most have not got as far as a referendum or have been rejected at referendum. There have been 42 proposals to alter the Australian Constitution passed by the Federal Parliament and submitted to referenda, but only eight have been successful — the last in 1977.

1999 was the last Referendum. Geoffrey Sawer stated we are a “constitutionally frozen nation”. Perhaps it’s time we started to defrost our nation.

Over the past few years, Australia appears to have gone through a “Constitutional crisis“. Since October 2017, Section 44 (i) of the Constitution has become the subject of national attention, with 15 parliamentarians being disqualified, or resigning pre-emptively, due to breaking this Constitutional clause, which refers to dual citizenship.

Section 44 (i) states that a person is disqualified from running for office if they are:

‘ … under any acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power, or is a subject or a citizen or entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or a citizen of a foreign power.’

The Constitution of Australia takes the form of a statute and was drafted in broad terms, so as to last over a long time. It provides the foundation of the body politic. The Australian High Court is the ultimate arbiter of the Constitution and as has been shown, it is clear that “unknowing” is no defence.

The Australian High Court acknowledged its decisions on the dual citizenship referrals was harsh but correct. This has led to certainty and stability for overseas-born British citizens. The decisions are clear. This is the future.

On this 2020 Constitution Day, Australia’s “Constitutional moment” isn’t over. The ghost of Section 44 (i) continues to hang over both Federal chambers.

We all hope the dual citizenship fiasco has been resolved for the Federal Parliament through better processes. If not, expect the High Court to interpret the Constitution of Australia Act to the black letter of the law.

Happy civic birthday, Australia!

Tune in to Big Ideas on ABC Radio National at 8pm on 9 July 2020 to hear Paul Barclay talk to a panel of experts about the Covid-19 pandemic and the constitution.

https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bigideas/covid19-and-the-constitution/12421534

How have state and federal relationships (the Federation) equipped the nation to address this ongoing public health, and economic, crisis? What historic precedents are there for this pandemic in Australia?  How effectively have we limited the spread of the virus in to indigenous communities? Presented in conjunction in with the National Archives of Australia

Speakers

Dr. Paul Sendziuk – Head of the Department of History at the University of Adelaide.

Pat Turner – CEO of NACCHO, the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation.

Professor Kim Rubenstein – Co-Director, Academic, the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation, University of Canberra

Queensland Day – another wrong date

It’s the Queen’s Birthday weekend all around Australia except for Western Australia and Queensland who have the long weekend in October. Coincidently the 6 June was also Queensland Day which commemorates when Queensland officially separated from New South Wales as an independent British colony on 6 June 1859. The problem is the true Queensland Separation Day is 10 December 1859.

Moves towards Queensland becoming a colony began with a public meeting in 1851 to consider separation from New South Wales.

As the push for separation gained momentum, Queen Victoria was approached to consider establishing a separate colony based on Moreton Bay. The Queen gave her approval and signed the Letters Patent on 6 June 1859, now known as Queensland Day. Not surprisingly, she favoured the name Queensland over suggestions to call it Cooksland in honour of Captain James Cook.

The only problem with celebrating 6 June 1859 is that 160 years ago, nobody in Australia knew it had happened. We are talking about a period before the telegraph, when all communication was by sea mail. It was many, many, weeks before anybody knew the key documents to create Queensland had been signed and were on their way to the south seas with the new Governor.

Indeed, Queenslanders were completely oblivious to what Queen Victoria was about to do. Even as the key documents were being signed to make Queenslanders resident of their own colony, Queenslanders were getting ready to elect members of parliament to their old colonial parliament in Sydney.

All this is just another example of the ambiguity of Australian history. So many of the dates we celebrate as part of our road to nationhood are often ambiguous. Australia Day celebrates the arrival of 11 boat loads full of military men and convicts, few of whom actually wanted to be here. Trying to name a date when most of the Australian colonies started self-government is complex, and even trying to name a day when Australia became fully independent of the British government in Westminster is ambiguous.

NSW had been granted responsible government in 1856, always with the proviso that the Moreton Bay colony would be separated. The administrative arrangements for this had been underway in 1859 when a political crisis took place in NSW forcing the colony to an early election. With a new electoral act in place that greatly expanded the right to vote, the 1859 NSW election was historic in breaking the control of the colony’s ‘squattocracy’.

But the early election meant that Queensland had to elect MPs to the NSW Parliament for the third time, even though it was known that in the future, notice of the separation of the colony would arrive from London.

The Queensland leg of the NSW election started on 10 June 1859 when nominations from the hustings took place for the division of Brisbane. 13 June saw nominations for Ipswich. A day later saw William Henry Walsh elected unopposed for the vast district of Leichhardt. In the next week Robert Cribb defeated William Tooth in East Moreton and Henry Mort won West Moreton.

The final elections took place on 5 July when Gilbert Eliott won The Burnett and John Douglas and William Handcock were elected for the two-member district of Darling Downs.

One final election involving Queensland took place on 6 July. The 1859 NSW electoral boundaries included three specialist electorates that covered the Gold Fields. The right to vote was slightly modified for the Gold Fields districts, the holding of a mining license creating the right to vote rather than registration at a fixed address covered by the state’s magistracy system.

The members elected for Queensland continued to hold their seats until 1 December when NSW proclaimed the separation of Queensland.

On 20 July 1859, the new colony of Queensland held celebrations when they were told Sir George Ferguson Bowen would be the colony’s first Governor. Fireworks, cannon fire, flag raising and the sound of gunshots expressed the public’s sentiment.

Governor Bowen arrived in Brisbane, with his wife Lady Diamantina Bowen, on 9 December 1859.  He disembarked at the (City) Botanic Gardens and with his party travelled along George St and Queen St to Adelaide House, the first Governor’s residence.  Adelaide House, overlooking the Brisbane River at Petrie Bight, was built by Andrew Petrie for Dr Hobbs and was to become the temporary residence while the Government House at Gardens Point was under construction.  It was from the balcony of Adelaide House that Queensland was proclaimed.

Then on 10 December 1859, the newly appointed Governor of Queensland George Ferguson Bowen formally read the proclamation in Brisbane, creating the colony of Queensland.

December 10 became an official holiday throughout Queensland, and it was celebrated in many ways over many years.  Sports carnivals, cricket matches and race meetings were popular events. Trips to the seaside – Sandgate and Redcliffe and Wynnum for the Brisbane folk – were undertaken, and country train stations reported record crowds travelling on special excursion trains.

Separation Day was to remain a public holiday for 60 years, until 1920.  With Federation in 1901, national matters were overtaking state concerns, but people did not want to give up a holiday, even though Queensland had moved on from a pioneering colony in the 1850s and 1860s to a modern and prosperous state of the new Commonwealth of Australia.

So December, not this weekend, is the real occasion to celebrate Queensland Independence. That such a long gap exists between Queen Victoria’s signing of the authority and its implementation five months later shows just how slow communications were in the days of sail.

VE 1945 – the roadmap out of lockdown for one Australian soldier

75 years ago Europe was just coming out of ‘lockdown’ after Victory in Europe was declared on 8th May 1945. After nearly six years, the war in Europe was finally over. On 16th May 1945, my great uncle Private Donald Davies was officially declared in his Australian war record a ‘Recovered POW’. As a Prisoner of War for four years in total, first in Campo 57 in Italy and later the notorious Stalag-344 near Lamsdorf, Germany he experienced the ultimate lockdown. VE Day 2020 commemorations of the defeat of the Nazis in Europe have been muted due to the devastation across Europe brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. As nations around the world are currently struggling to develop the road out of COVID-19 lockdown it is worth reflecting on the road out of POW lockdown for one ordinary Australian soldier 75 years ago.   

Donald Walter Davies

Following the outbreak of World War II on 3rd September 1939, the Australian government announced the decision to raise the Second Australian Imperial Force for overseas service.

The 2/15th Battalion was an Australian Infantry Battalion that consisted predominately of rural workers from central western Queensland, drawn from 11 Brigade CMF – 26 Battalion (Longreach, Hughenden and Cloncurry), 31 Battalion (Townsville region) and 42nd Battalion (Capricornia). John Mackenzie-Smith documents:

They were scarcely trained and severely deprived of arms which consisted of antiquated .303 Enfield rifles and bayonets, one Tommy gun, one-clapped-out 2 inch mortar, one Bren gun and probably grenades.

My great uncle Donald Walter Davies was a single labourer who enlisted in the 2/15th Australian Infantry Battalion on 1st June 1940 in Cairns, north Queensland. He was 21 years and 2 months old. By 7th June 1940 he was undertaking basic training at Redbank, Brisbane. On 26th December 1940, Private Davies embarked from Sydney arriving in the Middle East on 3rd February 1941. He was not to return to Australia until 8th August 1945. He was to be enlisted for 1956 days, which included 61 days active service in Australia and 1687 days in active service overseas.

The Italian Army had occupied the North African port of Tobruk until its capture by Commonwealth forces in early January 1941. The Italians were driven back across Libya, where the Australian 6th Division captured Bardia, Tobruk and Benghazi. More than 130,000 demoralised Italian troops surrendered

As the Italians collapsed in North Africa, Hitler was forced to intervene. In February 1941 General Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps arrived in North Africa to support the Italians. Rommel was a remarkable and brilliant commander. The British advance had continued until Rommel’s counteroffensive on 31st March drove the British and Commonwealth troops back to the borders of Egypt, although a defiant force of 14,000 Australian troops as well as a smaller number of British troops held the port of Tobruk against the Germans in a siege that lasted for eight months.

In April 1941, things were going well for the German armed forces. Yugoslavia and Greece were falling, and plans for the conquest of the Soviet Union were moving forward. In a series of earlier campaigns, they had conquered Poland, the Low Countries, Norway, and France. Though tentative plans to invade England had been shelved after the desperate and heroic British defense in the Battle of Britain, U-boats were now trying to slowly starve the stubborn British into submission.

As British and Commonwealth forces fell back, the Australian 9th Division, only recently called to the front from Palestine, was ordered to move to Tobruk from its position in Derna to the west. By dawn on 7th April 1941, most of the Ninth Division was east of Derna. During breakfast the 2/15th Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel R.F. Martin, along with his headquarters staff and part of the 8th Light Anti-aircraft Battery, had been surprised by a company of German panzers. After a short sharp fight, nine officers and 215 men from the 2/15th became the latest prisoners of the Third Reich. It is most likely one of these was Private Donald Davies.

By the evening of 9th April 1941 the Ninth Division, accompanied by a multitude of supporting troops and stragglers, withdrew stoically into the Tobruk perimeter. General Lavarack’s orders on 8th April 1941 included:

Your main task will be to hold the enemy’s advance at Tobruk, in order to give time for the assembly of reinforcements, especially of armoured troops for the defence of Egypt … To gain time for the assembly of the required reinforcements, it may be necessary to hold Tobruk for about two months.”

Private Donald Davies’ official war record states he was reported ‘Missing in Action. Believed POW’ on 13th April 1941. He was believed to have been captured at Derna on 7th April 1941, one week before the important Easter Monday Battle.

On 14th April 1941, Private Donald Davies’ comrades still in the field from A Coy, 2/15th, 9th Division were headquartered as the brigade reserve less than four miles behind the Red Line, where the roads to El Adem and Bardia intersected. In 2014, John Mackenzie-Smith documented the pivotal role A Coy, 2/15th, 9 Division of scarcely trained and basically equipped soldiers from Queensland’s western and provincial areas had against the superbly armed, battle-hardened unit of the Wehrmacht that had recently been involved in the blitzkrieg which brought Western Europe to its knees. that delivered the final blow.

In 2014, John Mackenzie-Smith documented in Tobruk’s Easter Battle 1941 : the forgotten fifteenth’s date with Rommel’s champion how the initial Australian and British victory over Rommel’s Afrika Korps on Easter Monday 1941 (14th April 1941) at Tobruk was Germany’s first defeat in World War 11. In the desert sands outside the coastal city of Tobruk the Axis juggernaut would learn of the tenacity and maturing skill of their British and Commonwealth opponents.

It was not until 10 July 1941 that there was official confirmation that Private Donald Davies a ‘Prisoner of war’, or POW.

Uncle Don Davies

Some 8591 Australians became prisoners of war of the Germans and Italians in the Second World War. They included airmen and soldiers of the 6th, 7th and 9th Divisions. Most of these were infantry captured in 1941 during the campaigns against the Germans and Italians in North Africa, Greece, Crete and Syria. Unlike the thousands captured in Singapore, these men were usually taken in small groups, and sometimes as individuals, such as shot down RAAF aircrew. Those POWs captured in North Africa were sent to Italian, Greek or German camps. Most remained captive for more than three years and endured cold, hunger and a spirit-crushing boredom. Private Donald Davies’ POW captivity was to last a little over four years.

In the first year it was unclear where he was held. But by January 1942 he was in the Italian internment camp, Campo 57 at Gruppignano. From late 1943 until early 1945 he was in German Stalag 344 at Lamsdorf. His was to be a long war.

When most Australians today think of POWs, they will probably recall stories of the men and women who were prisoners of the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War. There are some understandable reasons for this: they represented the highest number group of Australian POWs of any conflict, then or since; and their experience was of unprecedented brutality and horror.

Conflict Australian POWs captured Mortality Rate
Boer War (1899-1902) ~104* Unknown
World War One (1914-1918) 4,070 9%
World War Two (1939-1945) 22,376 (Pacific)

8,591 (Europe)

36%

3%

Korean War (1950-1953) 29 3%

There were two main reasons why Australian POWs in Europe died in such low numbers compared to their Japanese counterparts: they were generally better treated by the Germans and Italians, and they had access to regular Red Cross parcels as well as medical supplies. There was also the possibility of being repatriated well before the war was over, due to reciprocal prisoner exchanges between the Allied and Axis countries. POWs were also allowed to regularly send and receive mail – an important morale booster and a way of keeping in touch with loved ones at home. While there are elements of truth in these generalisations, comparisons between the two groups only serve to diminish the genuine suffering of European POWs. They also returned to a public that was focussed on the stories of Australian POWs in the Pacific and, apart from the stories of the escapes from the German camps, knew little about life in captivity in Europe.

There is little known officially of Private Donald Davies’ first few years as a POW. It is likely that at first he was held in a temporary camp in Greece. The first mention in his war record is on 2 September 1943 as being held in Italian Internment Camp 57. Australian POWs who were not officers were held in Campo 57, at Gruppignano near Udine in north-east Italy. The camp was commanded by the very harsh Colonel Vittorio Calcaterra. This Italian officer died before he was able to be charged with war crimes.

The first evidence of where Private Donald Davies was being held captive was a letter written in January 1942 from Campo 57 to his mother in north Queensland. In this first letter he refers to Audrey who he would marry after the war and Nell, his sister. He talks here of not yet receiving any parcels from home but tries to keep the letter with a hopeful tone. This would have been his first white winter – as a north Queensland boy he would never have experienced the cold from snow before.

January 31 1942

Dear Mother

There is still very little I can say in a letter but here goes to do the best I can. Up to the time of writing I have not received any parcel but am still hoping. I have had one letter from Audrey and one [?] message. Twice this week it has snowed in noticeable quantities. I have only had one message from Nell. I can’t write to everyone as I only get paper for one letter per week and it is better for one to get all and pass the news on. Then I love to write to occasionally to Audrey. Then to add to my tale of woe I have a very bad cold which makes things pretty bad but still I’ll see it out as I fail to see how this can go much longer. Well this is about all so I must close with

Love

Don

In the second letter to his mother he again refers to not receiving any packages from home. However he does receive regular food parcels from the Red Cross. This letter also has been censored with 2-3 lines blacked out. The context of the letter suggests it was a critical comment about the Italian authorities holding up Red Cross parcel deliveries.

February 22 1942

Dear Mum

Just the usual note to show the usual. I am as usual quite well. I have not received any parcel from you yet. The worst of the winter is now over and I think I have weathered it quite well. The chilblains are a bit painful though. I had my first letter from Nell this morning. It has taken a long while to reach me being several months old. Wrote to Agnes last week. I only remember one girl of that name and believe me she is easy on the eyes. Yes we get a parcel of food from the Red Cross weekly. Theoretically that is. Sometimes owing to a hitch somewhere or other they don’t turn up. [Black censored 2-3 lines] This is about the lot so I’ll say cheerio.

Love

Don

In the third letter to his mother he discusses social activity at Campo 57 and some of his health problems. Food was poor in the Italian internment camps, and housing was crowded and insanitary. Although there is reference to a dentist in the letter the prisoners usually had to improvise their own medical treatment to cope with both pneumonia and kidney disease. There is a sense of his growing depression and frustration at the lack of contact with family and the outside world.

19 May 1943

Dear Mum

Things have all quite a lot improved recently. Since I last wrote you I have had a slight attack of dysentery. Nothing to worry over though and I am as well as ever again. Also I am having a spot of trouble with my teeth. The dentist says that most of it is due to that fracture I had at college. I am not getting very much mail these days but I am glad of what little I do get. I have taken on the boxing again. I have a chap teaching me who has been in with most of the good men at home. My boxing sense is as good as ever but I am fearfully slow with my hands. That can be easily rectified though. Since my capture I have had two letters from Nell. Not a bad average is it. I am getting a little tired of writing and getting no reply. You might mention it to her next time you write. This is all for this time so will close with kind regards to all.

All love

Don

The final surviving piece of correspondence is a postcard to his sister-in-law, Ann. Although it is brief the message suggests that parcels and messages from family was now getting through to the POWs in Italy.

5 July 1943 [Postcard]

My Dear Ann

Had a letter from you a while back. Thanks for the card of the kid. He sure is a fine boy. Had a parcel from Mum dated 4th January. Am doing quite well at present.

See you soon

Love

Don

In September 1943 Italy surrendered to the Allied forces. Some prisoners were able to escape to Allied lines in the confusion. Those unable to get away were rounded up and sent to Germany. Private Donald Davies was one of the Australian POWs who was to eventually find himself in a German POW camp.

When Italy capitulated in 1943, all POWs in Italian hands were transferred to German control. POWs were held in over 40 major camps all over Germany, from Lithuania to the Rhine. About 8,600 Australians became prisoners of the Germans. They included 7,115 Australian soldiers captured in North Africa or Greece; 1,476 airmen, mostly bomber aircrew shot down over Germany in 1943–45; and a few sailors.

Private Donald Davies’ official war record reports on 10 May 1944 he was interned as a POW in STALAG 344 at Lamsdorf, Germany. While officers and other ranks were rarely separated into different camps in Japanese captivity, in the German case this was the rule: officers went to ‘oflags’ and all other ranks to ‘stalags’. Men accepted unaccustomed responsibility: one Australian warrant officer became the de facto commanding officer of 11,000 Allied prisoners of war in Wolfsberg camp.

Guardroom at entrance to Stalag 344

Stalag VIII-B was a notorious German POW camp, later renumbered Stalag-344. It was located near the small town of Lamsdorf in Silesia. The camp initially occupied barracks built to house British and French prisoners in World War 1. It was opened in 1939 to house Polish prisoners. There were approximately 100,000 prisoners from Australia, Belgium, British India, British Palestine, Canada, France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, the United States and Yugoslavia pass through this camp. By 1943, the famous camp for Allied flight personnel in Sagan Stalag Luft III had become so overcrowded that about 1,000, mostly non-commissioned flight personnel, were transferred to Lamsdorf. In 1943, the Lamsdorf camp was split up and renumbered Stalag 344.

 

In January 1945, the Soviet armies advanced into Germany and reached Stalag 344 on 17th March 1945. What was the chain of events at this time for Private Donald Davies is unknown except that by 27th May 1945 he was back in the United Kingdom. It is a good assumption that he was one of the fortunate POWs in that during the months of March and April 1945 he must have got far enough to the west to be ‘liberated’ by the American army. When the Soviets ‘liberated’ the eastern German POW camps many of the POWs still present were marched westward in groups of 200 to 300. This was the so-called ‘Death March’. As a result many POWs died from the bitter cold and exhaustion.

Private Donald Davies from north Queensland had a long war comprised of 8 weeks and four days active duty in North Africa followed by over four years in Italian and German POW camps. Family legend has that he was valuable in the Italian POW camps due to his understanding of Italian having grown up around the large communities of Italian immigrants who had around the cane fields of north Queensland in the 1930s. The legend continues that because of his linguistic expertise he was involved in a number of escapes. As a result of this he was sent to a more secure German POW camp. This seems a little fanciful as not only does the Italian peninsula contain so many different dialects but he was actually transferred to Germany as a result of the capitulation of Italy in 1943. What is intriguing though is the events that led from him being ‘liberated’ from Stalag 344 to his arrival in the United Kingdom. On this we have no information.

It states in his war record that Private Donald Davies was officially declared a ‘Recovered POW” on 16th May 1945 – eight days after VE Day on 8th May 1945. He spent time in England where the photograph of him in Scottish dress was taken on 28th May 1945.

Uncle Don 2

However, on 4th July 1945 he embarked from the United Kingdom for Sydney arriving on 2nd August 1945. On 8th October 1945, Private Donald Davies was discharged from the 9th Division. He went on to have a long and successful life.

On this 75th anniversary of his official notification of being declared a ‘Recovered POW’ from the Battle for Tobruk it is worth spending a moment and reflecting on the service of one ordinary Australian soldier and his long road out of POW lockdown.