Perhaps the most tantalising story Gwenyth told me about her aunt, Doris, was in response to my question about why she had never married. Gwenyth explained that many years after Doris had died, she found out from her father (Doris’ younger brother, Walter) that when Doris was very young, she’d had a sweetheart – a teacher – but that he had died in World War 1. After he died, she never talked about him because she found it too painful to have lost the man she loved, and she decided she never wanted to marry anyone else.
Since Doris graduated from Claremont Teachers College in 1913, and WW1 was over by 1918, this only leaves a window of 5 or 6 years when she would have met her sweetheart. The man might have been another student from her time at the College or a teacher from her first jobs after graduating. Between 1914 and 1916 she was moved between the schools at East Perth, Geraldton, Northampton and Bayswater before being sent to East Vic Park School in February 1917 where she stayed for more than twenty years.
Curious about who the man might have been, I wrote to Shannon Lovelady, a historian who I had seen in the local paper as having done research about West Australians who died at Gallipoli in WW1. She wrote back within days with a list of nine names – all the West Australian teachers who died in Gallipoli WWI, adding there would have been more who died on the Western Front. She liked the idea of John Regan as the potential sweetheart since he was at Claremont Teachers College the same time as Doris.
But while Gwenyth said that Doris’ sweetheart was a teacher, she didn’t specifically know if Doris had met him while at college. It was also possible that the man she was in love with, had moved from the Eastern States, and might not have registered for service here in Perth. If he moved back east before enlisting, there would be no way of finding out who he was.
During this time I was also undertaking a writing course with Natasha Lester at UWA Claremont, which is actually the old Teachers’ Training College where Doris studied a century earlier. Not only did I find photographs of the 1912-13 teaching students lining the walls of the main corridor, but I found a memorial in front of the building dedicated to all the students and teachers who died during WW1. There were 35 names on the memorial, each potentially a candidate to be Doris’s sweetheart. Inside the building, there was a board with the names of 116 men, all teachers who enlisted for service in WW1, and presumably made it home again.
To my understanding there is no living person who knows the name of the man – Doris did not talk about him with her family: if her brother knew the man’s name, he did not pass it onto Gwenyth, and anyone else who may know the story of the dead soldier would have passed away long ago.
I decided to research a couple of the more likely suitors – chosen because they were at College at the same time as Doris and were therefore a similar age. Plaques inside the College, erected by classmates included
Walter Blair (class of 1913)
Sydney Forbes (class of 1913)
George Hall (1913-1914, so presumably class of 1914)
John Regan (class of 1914)
Malcolm Stewart (class of 1913)
Ronald Wallace (class of 1912)
Frank Matthews (class of 1908).
However, this put our ‘favourite’, John Regan in a different class to Doris, as she graduated in 1913, while he is recorded as having graduated with the class of 1914. Their dates of enrolment and attendance match, but for some reason he did not matriculate until the following year. After requesting his student records from the University, I discovered that for some reason John failed to turn up to his final two exams in 1913. However he must have sat them at a later stage because he graduated the next year, putting him in the Class of 1914. So although he and Doris would have been in the same classes for two years, he did not officially graduate until the year after she did.
While researching on Trove I came across an article in the Western Mail article, dated Friday 28t April 1916 which detailed the commemoration service of three students who died in WW1. The three students were Frank Matthews (who was several years older than Doris) John Regan and Walter Blair, both of whom started their teaching course at the College in 1912 – the same year as Doris. I could imagine Doris returning to the College for the special service, and standing there listening to the Minister of Education talk about the man she loved. With two possible candidates, I started researching both John and Walter further, and the seeds of my novel was born. Although it has now been removed from my current draft, this scene of Doris standing at the back of the room while the commemoration service took place at the College, was the first I ever wrote.
John Regan was one of nine children born to John and Margaret Regan. The two eldest, both daughters, were born in Ireland and the young couple then immigrated to Western Australia in the mid-1880s. Their first son Patrick, was born in Jarrahdale in 1888. Margaret then had another six children, all boys except for one girl Arlene, a twin born in 1899. There was 22 years between the eldest child, Margaret born in 1880 and the youngest, Charles, born in 1902, with John being the 6th child born in 1895. This also makes him two years younger than Doris, who was born in 1893.
Photos of John show him to have a slight build, a delicate face with dark eyes, dark hair and a rather sensuous mouth.
According to an article on Trove, John Sr was granted an ‘Eating and Boarding House’ licence on December 14th, 1900. At this time he had eight children, although the eldest daughters may have married and moved out by then. It is possible he and his wife took in boarders to help pay the bills from feeding and caring for such a large family.
Four Regan brothers enlisted in World War 1 – Patrick, Michael, John and James. John was the first to sign up, on 21st October 1914, shortly after graduating college. Interestingly, John’s papers say he was 20 years and 9 months when he enlisted, but he was actually born in 1895 so he pretended to be a year older than he really was. According to Shannon Lovelady, this was quite common: the enlistment age was 21, and if you were younger than this you either needed signed parental consent, or to lie about your age.
John would have been 19 when he enlisted. By lying and adding a year to his age, he made his age close enough to 21 to make ‘the enlistment officer look the other way’, especially since due to training (2 months) and the long time it took to reach Europe by ship (one month), he would be 21 by the time he was on the battlefield. He made the rank of Trooper.
John was killed within a year, on 7th August 1915 in Egypt. He had a horrible death, with a gunshot wound to his right arm, and both legs amputated at the No: 15 General Hospital in Alexandria. He died from his extreme wounds the following day. John would have been twenty years old.
His brothers all enlisted after John was killed in 1915. Michael, the second eldest son was killed, but both Patrick and James both returned home. Charles was too young to serve (born 1902), and I cannot tell why Daniel (born 1892) did not enlist.
When you look at the Regan brothers’ enlistment papers, it becomes clear that John, although not the youngest, was the smallest of the brothers. His brothers were either taller or heavier or broader than he was. Patrick, the eldest was married and living in Bunbury where he worked as a fireman on a locomotive, and he was drafted to the Railway Unit and reinforcements special draft.
The brothers were no angels. Michael (aged 26) was written up and fined for drunkenness while on service, while James had a venereal disease card amongst his war service record. I wonder if perhaps John was considered the runt of the family. While his brawny brothers laboured and worked as firemen and timberworkers in the Jarrahdale, John was the ‘brains’ of the family, winning a five year scholarship to No. 6 Jarrahdale school, and enrolling at a very young age at Claremont Training College. The WA Record writes in his obituary that he had ‘a brilliant course’ at Claremont, suggesting he was very bright.
John Regan embarked for the front on February 17th, 1915. He was part of the 10th Australian Light Horse Regiment, ‘C’ Squadron, and sailed on the ship Surada from Fremantle. Of the approximately 165 men in board, only 10 were younger than John, recorded as being 18 or 19 years of age, and all but one of these boys returned home. John was one of the unlucky ones, being killed after having been in Europe for only a few months. In the article in the Western Mail about the commemoration of the plaques at the Training College, it said “Trooper Regan, a young man of great promise, whose ambition it was to serve his country in some public capacity”, making me wonder if he had hoped to run for public office or the government had he have lived.
Born in NSW (Murwillumbah) in March 1893, Walter Bell Blair was the son of Thomas and Jessie Blair. When he enlisted at the age of 20 years, he was working at Maylands School, while his family now lived in Maddington. He completed his two year teaching course at the same time as Doris, and was well known as a footballer (soccer), being part of the Claremont ‘Training College’ football team. A number of obituaries lamented the loss to ‘Association Football’ after he died. An enlarged photograph of Walter was also unveiled at the Maylands State School as part of an ANZAC Day ceremony in 1916, with the MLA Mr R. T. Robinson conducting the ceremony.
Walter achieved the rank of Lance Corporal and was serving in the 11th Australian Infantry Battalion, when he was killed in action in the landing at Gallipoli. He is in the famous Cheops Pyramid photograph, seated towards the top left hand corner, one of the few men with his hat off, instead holding it in both hands between his legs. Photos of Walter show him to be very serious, almost sad. In images of Walter surrounded by school mates, when others may be smiling, he is always serious.
Walter had at least two brothers, Thomas the eldest, who was listed on the electoral rolls in 1925 as a ‘traveller’ and John Esperance Blair, named because he was born in Esperance, was three years younger than Walter. John Blair also enlisted in WW1, and joined the 27th Battalion in mid-1916 (one year after Walter had been killed). John was wounded in action at the very end of the war with gunshot wounds to both thighs, but he was invalided to England and returned to Australia at the end of 1918.
I will never know if either John or Walter was indeed Doris’ sweetheart. But there was something about their stories that made me want to pursue them, and now I feel they are like family to me. Unlike Doris, of whom I have never seen a photograph so I have no idea what she looks like, I have a number of images of both John and Walter. It is their faces who look out at me from a silver frame on my desk. When I write, it is them I am thinking of, and elements of their personal appearance and life have inspired characters in my novel.
But the truth is, there were thousands of men like John and Walter, young men who signed up for this great adventure across the sea, and who now lie buried across Europe. These men – boys really – never had a chance to really start their lives, let alone finish them. And there are just as many women like Doris, whose life took a sad and unexpected turn, when their sweetheart never returned home. My novel may be inspired by Doris’ life, but it really will be the story of many women, and it is my way of remembering them and the thousands of other young Australian men and women whose lives were cut short or irrevocably changed by the Great War.
ANZAC Day, April 25th 2018
Cheops image has been sourced from the 11th Battalion Cheops Project.