Thomas Evan Whitton and the former Bernice Margaret Collopy with their sons Evan (left) and Richard.
These companion pieces reflect the horror of war and the effect of chance on our lives. The first, by Evan Whitton’s daughter Margaret, is a poem about her response to a 1918 photograph of wounded soldiers nursed by her grandmother, Bernice Margaret Collopy. Margaret is a clinical nurse consultant at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney. Her poem was first published in the April 2015 issue of The Lamp, the journal of the NSW Nurses’ and Midwives’ Association (membership c. 59,000). The second is about the war experiences of Evan Whitton’s father, Thomas Evan Whitton. He was nursed by Bernice Margaret Collopy and they later married. The piece originally appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald on 26 April 1983.
• Among fifteen wounded men
by Margaret Whitton (above)
Under another cloudy sky
my grandmother stands
among fifteen wounded men.
I wanted them to be young,
and strapping, and larrikin.
But, as they look into the camera
they whisper things to me
that flash and burn my memory.
The fog of the day settles.
They are chilled as they gather close their
Their neatly parted hair shows a control they crave.
But, the confusions, the smell, the noise
and the terror are all there in clenched half smiles,
in darting eyes.
My grandmother’s hands rest with priority
on the gloved man’s wheelchair.
He holds his side protecting the broken rib,
the torn abdomen.
His eyes do not focus on the camera.
They dwell in an anger, a madness of pain.
In a destiny reshaped by brutality.
Sister Collopy and Patients the photo is titled.
My grandmother seems impish and full-fleshed,
not the way I ever knew her.
For a few fleeting, nightmarish weeks
these people were thrown together,
entwined in a mistake of history.
To be repeated.
To be continued.
I smell the slow burn of the 1918 flash,
And see the men move stiffly to pick up their hats.
They help each other across the road to the hospital
As Bernice wheels her man
Each bump echoing pain.
• The diary of an uncomplaining Anzac
By Evan Whitton
“A GREAT MAN your father,” an old chum of his once told me, “heart of a working bullock.” Indeed. But something else.
Here is a guy with a cushy job, watering the horses at Alexandria, but he becomes a deserter and a stowaway. Why? To get to Gallipoli, a place he’s seen from a boat, and knows what it’s like.
“Why did you do that?” I asked him once.
“All our mates were there,” he said.
Perhaps Australians were different seventy years ago.
Thomas Evan Whitton worked in a grocery store in the Riverina, and was a professional footrunner. Once he managed evens. When the trumpet sounded in 1914, he was 23 and single. He caught the first train to Sydney and was the 533rd person in NSW to put his name down for King and country.
His little diary has recently surfaced. Although he later became a newspaper proprietor, there is little literary flavour; the few pencilled entries are laconic to the point of terseness. Some excerpts:
Monday, 5 April, 1915: Had a look over boat. Not up to much, a cattle boat. Fell off train between Cairo and Alexandria.
Thursday, 22 April: Mail came on board. None for me.
Saturday, 24 April: Left Lemnos Bay 1.30. Anchored 6 pm. Just been issued with two days rations 2 tins Bully beef 2 tins Oxo and biscuits.
Sunday, 25 April: Bombardiers started about 4.
Friday, 30 April: At Gaba Tepe this morning. Casualties yesterday 2,600 deaths.
Saturday, 8 May: Port Helles. Just got word to send my 2 horses ashore to fill up casualties. Was a bit of a nark not going with them.
Impressions of Gallipoli. From the boat it gives the impression of some mountain town at night, lights and camp fires everywhere. And in day time you will hear a shell coming and everyone makes for a hole as fast as he can go and when all is quiet again (they) come sneaking out again. To get a good idea of it, get on some big rabbit warren about sundown, fire a shot and see the rabbit making for his hole.
Wednesday, 12 May: Left Gaba Tepe this morning about daylight. Crook today.
Friday, 14 May: Arrived Alexandria dinner time.
Tuesday, 18 May: Up at 6. Water and fed the horses. We groomed for half an hour and then took the horses to the beach for a swim. Stripped right off and hopped up bareback.
Monday, 24 May: Got in town (Alexandria) just in time for the Sultan’s procession and a very gorgeous affair it was too. Large arches, wreaths and flowers everywhere.
Thursday, 27 May: Birthday. Got leave from 1 o’clock. Went to Alexandria with a couple of pals and kept it up.
Thursday, 26 August: Getting ready to make a dash for Gallipoli. Tired of grooming. Came down to the Wharf. Boat going in a couple of days. Going to have a go for it.
Friday, 27 August: Came aboard the Beltana at 9.30 pm.
Saturday, 28 August: Kept out of the way all day. The other Australians fixed us up for buckets and blankets.
Wednesday, 1 September: Left Lemnos 4.30 pm, arrived Gallipoli 9 pm. Was taken aboard a lighter at 12.30. Came ashore.
Thursday, 2 September: Had a rotten night. No blankets, pretty cold and a hell of a stink. The armed guard arrived to take us. Major Abbot then arrived. The Major went and saw the General and we were attached to 2 BAC. [As punishment for deserting from Alexandria, he was confined to barracks (the beach) for 24 hours.]
Sunday, 3 October: Got a crack on the shoulder with a shrapnel pellet.
Monday, 15 November: Arrived 15th General Hospital Alexandria.
Tuesday, 15 August, 1916: Arrived Pozières Front. Went straight into action.
Thursday, 17 August: Infantry made a charge and captured 7,000 personnel and 2 generals.
Sunday, 20 August: Got hit by aeroplane bomb about 9 am. Was taken to a dressing station. Had wounds dressed. Was then taken to 44th clearing hospital.
Monday, 21 August: Had left amputated below knee.
Tuesday, 22 August: Had to have another amputation above the knee.
Friday, 25 August: Arrived No 2 25 Canadian at Boulogne.
Sunday, 27 August: Arrived Alexandria Hospital Cosham Hants.
Friday, 13 October: Amputation of R. leg.
The diary ends here: gangrene was all through him. They put screens round his bed, and sent for the padre. He knew what that meant. He said: “Bugger the padre; I won’t see him”, and started to get better.
He lived another fifty years.
He’d done his duty and he didn’t complain, but sometimes he had pain. I asked him once what it was like.
“A knife digging into the ankle,” he said.
He never heard a song they play at this time of the year, And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda. It doesn’t do me much good, but I don’t think it would have troubled him.
Footnote 2015. Thanks of a grateful nation.
Years after Pozieres, Tommy Whitton left hospital in Sydney and went to collect his back pay. The Corporal looked at his papers and said he’d better get the Sergeant. The Sergeant got the Captain; the Captain got the Major; the Major got the Colonel, the most senior staff man at the pay office. The Colonel had to give him the bad news: there was no money; the papers said he was a deserter from 1915. At least he wasn’t taken out and shot.
Smith’s Weekly and the member for Riverina took up his case, and the Government finally disgorged. The money was enough to buy a bush newspaper, The Muswellbrook Chronicle. I eventually became a reporter; Richard became, against his father’s advice, a soldier.