I have an enduring memory from when I was nine years old. My father was a sailor on the HMAS Melbourne and had been at sea for months. As I gathered with hundreds of others to watch the aircraft carrier return to port, our eagerness turned to misery: driving rain forced us to huddle under the eaves of wharf huts, dripping for what felt like hours.
As I look now at the wartime photographs of Fremantle, it is not hard to imagine the range of feelings that simmered among the crowd who gathered at the port to cheer the departure and return of troopships. On the days when troops came or went there must have been excitement, nervousness, trepidation, anguish and romance in equal measure.
When Madison Lloyd-Jones and I set our students the task of mounting an exhibition on Fremantle’s history of war, it seemed a good way to engage them in professional research that contributed meaningfully to their own community. We didn’t expect, though, to uncover such a wealth of photographs from forgotten archives. Nor did we anticipate that these discoveries would be so remarkable – indeed, that Fremantle would have such a powerful story of its own to tell.
We set about exploring for further photographic treasures and uncovered all sorts of things, not the least of which was a previously overlooked cache of press photographs from World War Two. We found pictures of High Street in Fremantle, decorated with imperialist bunting. We found images of civilians who mobilised to defend their communities. We found poignant photographs of the ambulances that lined the wharves to receive returning prisoners of war.
Most of all, we found that Fremantle – a strategically valuable wartime port – has its share of stories that make up Australia’s history of war.
Since then I have been haunted by the photographs of young people in Fremantle
whose lives were shaped by the First World War. The style of these pictures would be familiar to many: handsome young men dressed in the uniform of the Australian Imperial Force, posing in a studio for a photograph before leaving for the front. Sixty thousand of these ANZACs never came home.
A rare photograph in the collection of the Australian War Memorial captures the image of a family: Charles and Elizabeth Young, and their baby, John. Taken just before Charles’ departure for war in 1916, it depicts a sense of pride but also fear.
Perhaps in that moment, cast under the lights of the photographer’s studio, Charles and Elizabeth first fully appreciated the war’s grim reality. They were right to worry. Charles never returned – he was killed by German bullets at Villers-Bretonneux in 1918.
On a visit to Normandy this year, I tried to find the graves of Charles Young, Tom Vickrage, Jack O’Brien and a dozen other young soldiers from Fremantle who died on the western front. I couldn’t. Their remains are now mixed in the French soil with those they fell alongside, often unmarked and unknown.
But their names have been preserved on the Australian war memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. They were mostly from the 51st Battalion, almost half of whom came from Western Australia. Names, though, don’t tell the story photographs do. So, as I wandered through the memorial with my children, we planted pictures of Fremantle ANZACs with our poppies, hoping others might now remember them.
The faces of those soldiers haunt me, too. I can imagine the moment when Marjorie Cruite farewelled her husband, John, from the Fremantle Wharf. Neither she nor her husband survived the war. After John’s death at Gallipoli, Marjorie died from a botched abortion, leaving their four children orphaned. History is meaningless if it does not evoke the human experience.
At the 2015 100th anniversary of the ANZACs landing at Gallipoli, I will remember Charles Young, Jack O’Brien, John Cruite and the other young men who left our state for service in the war. But when I attend the dawn service I will make sure to remember those who experienced the war at home, too – women like Elizabeth Young and Marjorie Cruite, whose experience of war brought them to the Fremantle wharf.
Additional text hereWhen War Came to Fremantle by Deborah Gare and Madison Lloyd-Jones, $45, Fremantle Press.