Never rains but it pours: Historical talks in Darwin

It’s not just the weather in Darwin where it never rains but it pours. Over the past week we’ve had a flurry of diverse historical and genealogical talks. Today I’ll focus on the historical talks.

On Saturday 18th February the Genealogical Society of the Northern Territory, with support from The Northern Territory Archives, hosted a talk by local identity Pearl Ogden on “The impact of the war years on Darwin” though Pearl extended it down to Katherine.  A couple of snippets that particularly caught my attention were that the prisoners were released from the Fannie Bay Gaol so it could be used to house servicemen, the number of army farms growing a wide variety of vegetables, there were Catalinas anchored at Doctor’s Gully (now fish-feeding tourism), the Vic Hotel was favoured by the Americans, and that indigenous women workers were treated and paid the same as men. There were obviously large communities of Army activity around Adelaide River and Katherine. Pearl also talked a little about the the bombings further down the Highway. I’ve now been in Darwin quite a while so as she mentioned innumerable places and streets I mostly knew where she was talking about. A big omission from the talk was any maps or photographs to illustrate the talks. It would have been greatly enhanced if these had been used – and no doubt the interstate visitors would have gained far more from what was a fascinating talk. And I still don’t know where the Victualling Yards are in Stuart Park –need to suss out a Darwin “old timer” and ask.

Monday evening 20th February a large number of people lined up for another session hosted by the Northern Territory Library and attended by many from the combined Unlock the Past and Mat McLachlan BattlefieldWar comes to Australia” Tour. The first speaker was Dr Tom Lewis, former naval officer and Director of the Darwin Military Museum and the wonderful new Defence of Darwin experience. (Previous to last week I hadn’t known there was a anti-submarine boom net across from what we call East Point but technically is Pt Dudley ). Tom’s talk had lots of fascinating detail which addressed some of the misconceptions and myths surrounding the bombing.  In particular he emphasised that some of the statistics bandied around were misleading, for example comparison with Pearl Harbor did not match up because the bomb capacity was lower even though more bombs fell. The torpedo bombs used on Pearl Harbor were far more damaging.  Dr Lewis made a very valid point which was that Nagasaki had only one (atomic) bomb and by a pure comparison of numbers, Pearl Harbor and Darwin would both be more important than that which would indeed be plainly ridiculous. He cited that 2000 civilians died at Pearl Harbour, which did not concur with the 40 listed on the Pearl Harbor website I’d already looked at, and wondered whether some were civilians employed on military bases. Certainly the Bombing of Darwin wasn’t the biggest disaster in Australia’s history and he cited Cyclone Tracy and the sinking of HMAS Sydney. He did not agree that Prime Minister Curtin had covered up the bombing deaths and also denied that we had insufficient  defences with 18 anti-aircraft batteries around town, which were red-hot after the battle. However he did agree that the men had not had much practice prior to the event. My own view was that the talk was fascinating and full of detail and that Tom’s personal experience  of the “fog of war”, as he called it, added to his understanding of the history of the event, but there were times throughout the talk when I wondered if it didn’t blinker him to some of the other views put forward. Shauna Hicks has also posted her views of the talk. What became very clear is that anyone with a serious interest in this historic event would need to read widely and critique what they read before reaching their own conclusions.

The second speaker was Brad Manera who is the Executive Manager of the ANZAC Memorial in Hyde Park in Sydney. Brad spoke more widely about the experience of Australians in war right back to our early white settlement. He also gave a good summary of the different Australian Brigades as they entered World War I. His explanation of the Gallipoli battles was clear and concise. It would be fascinating to be on a battlefield tour in situ to really understand more about this Australian-coming-of-age battle.  His discussion of Australians on the Western Front was informative and no matter how many times you hear the numbers, they remain sobering. Again it’s emphasised for me that a Western Front battlefield tour is one I’d really like to take so an expert can fully explain the mechanics of the battles on the ground. We visited Villers-Bretonneux , Amiens and Fleurbaix back in 1992 as these are “family sites” and they were tremendously moving but to learn more from an expert would add a greater dimension. Another item for the bucket list!

A number of my relatives were in the Light Horse so I was interested to learn that it was the Queensland Light Horse who started the tradition of the emu feather in their slouch hats and that it dated from the 1891 shearers’ strike in which they helped to break the strike –not so keen on that bit. The New South Welshmen apparently wore a black cockatoo feather while unsurprisingly the West Australians chose a black swan feather.

Brad also explained that the ubiquitous presence of war memorials around Australia post-WWI was partly because the families of those who died would never have a burial and were unlikely to ever see their relative’s grave because it was so far away (not to mention that some soldiers’ bodies were never found as evidenced by the huge wall at Villers-Bretonneux) .  Almost every family was affected and every community so they needed to have some symbol of their patriotism and tremendous losses.

Shauna Hicks was the last speaker at this seminar and spoke clearly about how to locate information on your military ancestors. Although I don’t have anyone in the Boer War, I was interested to learn that some of those records remain with the state libraries or other repositories. She also highlighted the Mapping Our Anzacs website, reminding me that adding scrapbook notes to my relatives’ entries is another item on my “to do” list that remains outstanding.  The other helpful site is the ADFA site which has had various incarnations over the years. As usual, Shauna will post her talk on her webpage making it easier to revisit the details.