Tramway ANZACs

Tramway Anzacs: detail from exhibit, April 2015. Photograph courtesy Adam Chandler.

The following text forms the keynote address delivered on 11 April 2015 for the opening of the Tramway Anzacs exhibition, held at the Melbourne Tram Museum to commemorate the 538 employees of Melbourne tramway companies who volunteered for service in the Australian Imperial Force and the British Army in the First World War (1914-1918).

It expresses the impact of war on the Tramway Anzacs – both those who returned, and the eighty-six who were killed on active service, posted missing, or died of wounds.

The First World War left an indelible mark on Australia. Every town and city has a war memorial, recording the names of those who served, and those who never returned. The names of far-off places appear on street signs in our suburbs – Fromelles Avenue, Bullecourt Road, and Passchendaele Street. People go to the RSL for a quiet drink, or a flutter on the pokies. Thousands of students attend lectures and tutorials at Monash University – named after the commander of Australian forces in France in 1918 – while almost every Australian at some time in their life will attend a dawn service or watch a march on Anzac Day.

All these things are part of the backdrop of Australian life, originating from a time before Australian citizenship, when to be Australian was to be a loyal subject of the British Empire.

One hundred years ago today, on the eleventh of April 1915, the men of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps were yet to be committed to action. They were waiting on transports anchored off the Greek islands of Mudros and Lemnos, two weeks away from landing on a beach on the Gallipoli Peninsula, on a place that became known as Anzac Cove.

Who were these men, these soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force?

Those who had held jobs on the Melbourne tramways were a little older than the general run of soldiers, ranging from their twenties to early forties. They were men with established careers, responsible men who had good civilian jobs. Many of these occupations – gripmen, clerks, motormen and tram conductors – no longer exist today, or their duties and titles have been changed almost beyond recognition.

The Tramway Anzacs were Australian-born, and immigrants from the British Isles. They were single men, and husbands, and fathers. During the course of the war, five hundred and thirty-eight Melbourne tramway employees enlisted, joining over three hundred and thirty thousand Australian volunteers who served overseas. The Tramway Anzacs represent a snapshot in time, a true microcosm of their society, of what it meant to be an adult male of European descent serving in the Australian Imperial Force during the Great War of 1914-18. They enlisted for many different reasons – from a sense of duty, for the adventure, or for escape from an unhappy life.

Before landing at Gallipoli, we imagine that some of the Anzacs were excited, some were apprehensive, and some were afraid. None of them could have had any real conception of what they were to encounter.

Over the next three and a half years, they were to experience a true hell on earth, on the battlefields of Gallipoli, in the deserts of Sinai and Palestine, and most brutally in the trenches of France and Belgium, on the Western Front – the place that soldiers gruesomely called the sausage machine, a relentless industry that processed millions of strong young men into rotting corpses.

One in five Australian soldiers were killed. Two in every five were wounded, by gunshot, shrapnel, high explosive and, worst of all, by gas. The Tramway Anzacs were no different. Eighty-six of them were killed in action, were posted missing, or died of wounds. Many of them still have no known resting place.

Today, we cannot truly conceive of the scale of loss. Every family, every town, and every workplace was affected by the loss of sons, brothers, husbands, friends and workmates in the war. A generation of Australian women did not marry, for a generation of men had lost their lives on faraway battlefields. Children grew to adulthood without knowing their fathers. Many rural villages suffered a long slow death, as the distant war took their future away.

A common thread in many service records of the dead were requests from families to see a photograph of the grave, seeking reassurance that their bodies were laid to rest in a Christian manner, or pleas for details of how a loved one died, trying to make sense of their grief.

The loss was not restricted to the men who did not return. Over the following decades, the maimed and crippled from the war were a common sight in Australian cities and towns. Men who were missing arms, legs, or faces were an accepted part of life. Then there were those who did not carry visible scars. Today they would be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, but post-war the veterans were expected to suffer in silence, without support or treatment. Many became alcoholics, or became emotionally unavailable, in their pain retreating from friends and family. Others, their health ruined by the stress of active service, died before their time.

These men did not talk of what they endured, and denied that they were heroes – although most of them would say they knew a couple of blokes who were. However, for all of them, their service in the First World War was the time that more than any other, defined their lives.

Did their achievements outweigh the terrible cost?

Over many years, the legend of Gallipoli and Anzac Cove has grown, and many proclaim it was the true birthplace of Australian nationhood. But the campaign was a fiasco, a long, slow and bloody defeat created by ambitious politicians and incompetent generalship.

The bloodbaths in France and Belgium in 1916 and 1917 were no better, when thousands of lives were spent for meaningless gains of a few hundred metres. Few of us know of the pivotal role the Australian Corps played in 1918 in defeating the German Army on the Western Front, in an unparalleled series of victories from Villers-Bretonneux to Montbrehain. Fewer still have heard of the part the Australian Light Horse played in capturing Jerusalem, Damascus and Aleppo from the Turks.

Although they have all now passed, we honour the men of the AIF – for their courage, for their endurance, and for their role in gaining victory, and ending one of the bloodiest and most senseless wars in history. Even more, we sorrow for the price that was paid for that victory. Above all, we will remember them.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Lest we forget.