Armistice Day 1918: How teachers would have experienced the end of the War

By the time WW1 officially ended, Doris was 25 years old, living at home with her family and working as a teacher at Victoria Park Primary. She had passed an Inspection a month prior, and was employed as a level B1 teacher on an annual salary of £180.

During the war years, enrolments at Vic Park Primary had grown so much, that the school had to hire the local Town Hall as well as erect several marquees on the grounds to hold all the extra students.

For several days, whispers of the Armistice had been reported in newspapers across the nation, leaving the people at home in a terrible state of limbo. But due to the time difference, when the Armistice had finally been signed at 11am (in Paris) on Tuesday the 11th of November, it was already night-time in Perth.

Regardless, the state government called for schools and businesses to be closed the following day.

Without the benefit of the internet, or indeed even private phones, there would have been little warning to the state’s teachers that schools would be closed the next day. It is entirely possible that Doris went into work on Wednesday 12th November like all of her colleagues, only to find the joyful yet confusing situation of the end of the war and no work. Almost certainly some of the students would have arrived as well only to be duly sent home.

The following day, Thursday 13th November, Perth students enjoyed a half day of schooling, expected to attend in the morning for special talks by prominent citizens on the subject of peace, and then dismissed afterwards to enjoy an afternoon of holiday. There was much singing and celebration. While many businesses reluctantly re-opened ‘as far as possible in the present joyful circumstances’, teachers and students alike were informed that schools would also be closed the following day, Friday 14th November.

In effect, the end of the war gave the teachers and students of Perth a five day weekend.

In reality, there was very little to celebrate.

Not only had Doris lost her sweetheart, but at least 46 other teachers from across Western Australia had enlisted and been killed in the Great War, including some she would have studied together with at Claremont Training College.

Even more pressing, the world was in the grip of the Spanish Flu, a devastating epidemic that would ultimately kill more people than the war itself. Each returning ship to Perth was held in quarantine, and across the sea in New Zealand, they had already made the decision to close many of the public schools as a precaution.

Armistice Day may have symbolised the end of the war, but it did not represent the end of the suffering, for the men and women returning home, and for the families and women left bereft by the men who would never return.

 

With thanks to Shannon Lovelady, the incredible WA historian who has overseen the massive project to ensure that all West Australians who served and died in WW1 have been acknowledged and remembered. Learn more about her work here.

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A character by any other name

While my novel has been inspired by real-life people, it is ultimately fiction and so all my characters needed new names when I began to write.

A character’s name is so important, it is worn like an item of clothing that one cannot remove. It distinguishes you and discloses things about you, more than we realise. Choosing a name for my characters was an exercise in finding monikers which were historically accurate, and for some, a fun way to recognise family and friends.

My character Charles is loosely based on Walter Blair, a student who attended Claremont Training College at the same time as Doris and who sadly died in WW1. Although Walter died at the age of 21, there are a number of images of him that survive – his role in the College football and cricket teams meant there were plenty of team photos from his time at the College. This meant that I was able to use some of his physical characteristics when writing the character.

Walter needed a different name when he became a character in my book. Very little of Walter Blair’s life actually informed the character, and besides, Walter was the name I was using for my protagonist’s father. Charles was an easy decision as it was a common name of the time, and to choose his new surname I chose that of a friend whose first name was actually Blair, a moment of quick word association. This was how the character became Charles Morgan, a name that I felt was strong and somewhat refined, and could easily represent a man born into a family of well-bred lawyers at the turn of the twentieth century.

Today, while researching the second convoy of ships to leave Western Australia for the front, I discovered that there was a real-life Charles Morgan from Perth, who also was a Corporal, and who also served with the 11th Battalion, just the same as my fictional character. Real-life Charles Morgan was killed in action in France in July 1916. I also found Private Charles Morgan, a farmhand who served with the 10th Light Horse, the same Battalion as my character John.

I admit I am devastated, and disappointed with myself that I hadn’t thought to check sooner. It was a good name and will be difficult to think of my character by another, but out of respect for the real-life Charles Morgan’s who enlisted in WW1 from Perth, I now need to find a new one (or at least a new surname) for my character.

Immediately after my discovery about Charles, I had a moment of panic when I thought about my other main male character, John O’Meara. This character was loosely based on the real-life John Regan, and even though I kept the same first name, I chose another surname to represent his Irish heritage.

A quick search on the National Archives turned up dozens of John O’Meara’s who served in WW1 as well as the record of a John O’Meara who was a patient in a Queensland mental asylum. However none of them enlisted from West Australia, and so I am content to keep the name.

So now I am on the lookout for a new surname for my character – and I welcome any suggestions.

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Reference:

http://www.diggerhistory.info/pages-conflicts-periods/ww1/1aif/1div/03bde/11th_battalion_aif.htm

The ANZAC Boys

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.

Regan_John_2John Regan

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.

walter BlairWalter Blair

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.

 

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Image used with thanks from 11th Battalion Cheops Project http://11btn.wags.org.au/ 

 

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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.