Mrs M McConaghy – Deputy Principal
In this time now, we are remembering – quite simply – those who made sacrifices for the good of humanity.
I want to do this today through a story which is personal and I want you to make your own meaning. I particularly want you to consider how seemingly small, unknown people can be great in simple quiet ways.
Last year, while on Long Service Leave, with some friends, we drove from Istanbul to Gallipoli and the site at Lone Pine where the ANZACs landed. We walked the beach, swam in the sea and walked around the graves of the Australian and the Turkish soldiers who had fallen. I did not know, but my brother – an historian – emailed to tell me about a relation of our family whose name is on the Lone Pine monument – Lance Corporal George Laurence Murphy. His story of heroism and complete sacrifice – and that of his mother – exemplify everything we should remember and honour on Remembrance Day. It is for others – at a different time and in different circumstances – to question the wisdom and efficacy of his deployment, with so many thousands of other Australians – in the Great War of 1914-18. Today it suffices to remember this:
George Murphy was a 22 year old labourer from Victoria who joined the AIF in September 1914. From his original enlistment records in the National Archive I know that he was single, of fair complexion, had brown hair and blue eyes. He lived at 23 Avondale Street, Armadale. Thanks to Google street view, I have visited his old home. It is a lovely street – quiet, leafy, private. After enlisting he was mustered to the legendary 14th Battalion. His next of kin was his beloved mother Elizabeth. She lived at 433 Hargreaves Street, Bendigo. It’s hard to tell from Google if the house is still standing on that address. It appears to be a car park for either the dentist or the lawyers occupying old-world cottages in this part of the street. A few doors up, at 437 Hargreaves, is the Bendigo Centre for Non-Violence. Oh how mother Elizabeth would have embraced that cause.
For on 19 July 1915 George Murphy was shot at Gallipoli. ‘Bullet wound throat,’ says the report.
When his mother Elizabeth heard the news, she was sick with worry. A widow, her correspondence survives at the National Archive.
I cannot express in words how grateful I am to you to let me know where my son was. Dear Sir, will you kindly let me know how he is wounded & is he still in the hospital – as I have never got any information either out of the papers or by letter – only what you let me know and we are deeply affected…
Somehow George recovered from his wound; or perhaps he was able to walk and carry a rifle – and that was enough. Because less than a month later he waded in to the famous Battle of Lone Pine of August, 1915. In four days of fighting, 2277 Australians were killed. George was one of them. Elizabeth didn’t know it when she corresponded about her son’s hospitalisation, but by then he was already dead. The aftermath of this battle was so horrific that one officer remembered that ‘[t]he trench is so full of our dead that the only respect that we could show them was not to tread on their faces, the floor of the trench was just one carpet of them, this in addition to the ones we piled into Turkish dugouts.’
Back in Bendigo, Elizabeth eventually received at her door a telegram informing her that her son George was missing. Identification was often impossible and many of the dead were hastily buried. Nobody could know – nobody would ever know – where many of them were. And so she hoped, beginning a desperate correspondence with military authorities and the Red Cross. A full year later – on 29th August 1916 – she wrote to the headquarters of the Australian Military Forces.
Will you kindly favour me by letting me know if my son is a prisoner of war? LC George Laurence Murphy. I have heard so many different reports. I have made enquiries at the Base records office. No personal effects of any description have been received and I am led to believe that I have hope still. As it is now over 12 months since he was reported, Dear Sir will you greatly favour his widowed mother that is anxiously waiting and deeply affected – if possible – for you to find out any particulars.
Elizabeth had to wait another year to learn the truth. She was informed by the Red Cross in October 1917 – two years after her son’s death at Lone Pine – that an officer who survived the slaughter was present when he died. The officer’s original testimony survives. It reads:
Casualty was on Queen’s Post about 5th of August 1915 at Gallipoli and whilst in charge of his section in the trench I actually saw him killed by a bullet. We buried him behind the Queen’s Post. There was no time to mark the grave. He was buried with a number of others.
Like all the other Australian families who lost their sons to the war, the country had one more thing to ask of Elizabeth Murphy. For the Roll of Honour in the War Memorial, certain particulars were required for the record. The circular she filled out dutifully lists who he was and what he had done prior to the war. One of the final questions asked was, “Any other biographical details likely to be of interest to the Historian of the AIF or of his Regiment?”
There was one. Elizabeth wrote that George was “a student of history.”
History and its memories live on and we must discern them and preserve them. That’s what Remembrance Day is about.
And so are we today – all of us – students of history.
Lest we forget.