Tragedy of Anzac brought home for new generation of historians

Tributes: Adam Billsborough, Sophie Burdett and Angus Morris from Goondiwindi High School will travel to Gallipoli to deliver eulogies for their ancestors. Photo: Janie Barrett
Tributes: Adam Billsborough, Sophie Burdett and Angus Morris from Goondiwindi High School will travel to Gallipoli to deliver eulogies for their ancestors. Photo: Janie Barrett

Private John Thomas Crane is off to serve king and country. His hands rest on the shoulders of five-year-old Jessie in what looks to be her best Sunday dress.

His wife Catherine - from a homestead called Allanbank in Goondiwindi - whom he'd courted over seven years with letters and poetry, is with their youngest, 2½-year-old Maisie.

The girls would have been precious given that the Cranes' first child, a boy, died during childbirth.

John Crane enlisted in November 1915 at Toowoomba. Also joining the 25th Battalion were two of his brothers, Will and Bert. Another brother, Steve, was in the 11th Light Horse Regiment.

After embarkation, John carried on regular

correspondence with Catherine, writing from the ship en route and while it was docked in Fremantle, expressing his love for his darling wife and his two little ''pets''.

When he arrived in Egypt there was a telegram waiting for him from Catherine.

''Maisie died Cerebral Hhaemorrhage 2nd of April.''

Now almost a century later, Angus Morris - the great, great grandson of John Crane - stands in the front room at Allanbank (it's still in the family) holding the grief-stricken reply sent by his ancestor.

From the letter dated May 20, 1916, Angus reads: ''Oh Kit I can't realise it yet, she was too good to live, our angel. Keep her grave green with some flowers, Kit, try and bear up Kit, for Jessie's sake … Goodbye sweetheart, til we meet again, kiss Jessie and tell her, I hope to see her again some day when victory is ours.''

Private John Crane didn't return. He had been treated in a hospital at Oxford, in Britain, and his wife received a cable on May 18, 1917, saying he was ''still progressing favourably''. He had, in fact, died the day before at the age of 34.

Angus, 16, says: ''It was extremely heartwrenching to hear what his wife had to go through. She not only lost him and her daughter but she also lost her own brother.''

For generations learning history at school seemed a rather dull affair but some students of Goondiwindi State High School, on the NSW-Queensland border are exploring personal connections to history that show it doesn't have to be like that.

They are researching their ancestors, and soldiers named on the town's impressive war memorial, to discover the true stories behind their contribution to the war. Next month the students leave to tour the Western Front and Gallipoli. Their research will be used as the basis of a eulogy they will each personally deliver at the battlefield grave of the soldier they have researched.

What is being achieved has impressed many.

Bernie Howitt, president of the NSW History Teachers' Association, says teaching of the subject has changed dramatically.

''The availability of sources makes it a lot easier, but with that comes the responsibility of also teaching students to be critical of sources, so that they don't just trust everything that they find,'' he says. ''More and more we have moved away from the textbook approach … When a kid said, 'Stop talking, let us get on with this,' I realised the more I made myself irrelevant, the better I was doing.''

Howitt says the personal aspect is increasingly playing an important role in the study.

''More and more people are making family connections to history which makes it much more relevant,'' he says.

''It's amazing what kids can dig up when history gives them the opportunity. Anzac Day isn't about what politicians or history teachers tell you about it, it's what you find in it yourself.''

At Goondiwindi, a rich recruiting ground during the Great War, it is through the enthusiasm of principal Brett Hallett and history teacher Rose Clyne that a new generation is learning to appreciate Anzac Day isn't solely the preserve of war veterans.

The scholars embody the wisdom of essayist and philosopher George Santayana that ''those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it''.

Hallett says the field study trips that have run every two years since 2006 have become an event entrenched within the community.

''I was privileged to go in 2012 and I was blown away by the opportunities that the children and the community get to be involved with as part of this,'' he says.

''A parent on that trip said the students go over as children and they come back young adults.''

The students (there are more girls than boys) sitting under a tree in the school grounds are happy to discuss what they have learnt.

Tom Andersen, 15, says: ''I have got a few different great-uncles that have gone over. I had one that went over for the four years. He went to Gallipoli. He survived. He went to France and he didn't come home for four years, but he survived.''

Asked of his expectations of the trip, Tom adds: ''I think it is going to be different. You'll probably get a different perspective on how it was over there. Pretty sad for them because they were so young.''

Kendell Ross 16, says: ''My soldier was David William Carter. He survived Gallipoli then went and fought on the Western Front. He died on the first day of fighting. I also read about one of his friends who saw him die. It really hit me then that one of his great mates watched him die, then had to bury him.

''If they hadn't fought in that war Australia wouldn't be how it is today. I think we are really lucky that they went over and fought for us at an age that is only three or four years older than us.''

Cloe' Wallace, 16, says: ''This tour gives us the chance to essentially walk in their footsteps, to see what they were put through, the tests they had to overcome and what they endured.''

Sophie Burdett, 16, will deliver her eulogy to her great uncle Cliff McMaster at Row C, Grave No. 12 at the Toronto Avenue Cemetery in Belgium, where 78 Australians are buried. One of 11 children, he enlisted at 22 and died at the Battle of Messines at the age of 23.

Sophie says: ''Cliff only lasted three days. He got killed by some shrapnel right next to his brother. Henry was 19 and survived that explosion.''

Adam Billsborough, 15, found that his great-great uncle Henry Norman Bilsborough from Bingara in north-western NSW was a ''very popular chap'', he was five foot, four inches tall and had blue eyes.

He was 22 years old when he went to Gallipoli with the 2nd Light Horse Brigade - sent without horses to reinforce the infantry.

On his return to Egypt he allowed three prisoners to escape from a prison camp and was sentenced to 14 days field punishment and confined to camp.

''We are unsure why he released the prisoners,'' Adam says. ''We are unsure if he released the prisoners or was overpowered, or fell asleep. We have been trying to look into it. He had to serve 14 days in detention but he was released after two.''

Lance Sergeant Bilsborough served on the Somme in October 1916 in the coldest winter in 40 years.

A sniper himself, he was shot by an opposing sniper and died the same day.

''We think we might be able to go to the exact trench where he got shot,'' Adam says. ''I would love to do that just to find out a bit more about him, to see where he fought.''

Rose Clyne the school's history teacher, who has instilled a sense of enthusiasm in her students, says the program was ''a perfect history lesson'' giving them the opportunity to come up with relevant questions and then go off and find the answers to those questions themselves.

''From past experience they will often be quite upset at their soldier's grave when they are doing their eulogy. It is very common for us to have tears,'' she says.

''I think they kind of develop a bond with that soldier because they have learnt so many details about their life and particularly because they are people from Goondiwindi.

''They sometimes get overwhelmed by the sheer scale of death at the Western Front.''

This story Tragedy of Anzac brought home for new generation of historians first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.