Anzac day has always been special for most Australian’s. We’ve grown up hearing the stories of our ANZACs. We’ve watched movies and read books about it; it makes up part of our DNA, but it wasn’t until I read a small article from 1920 about an incident that happened in my home town around this time, that I discovered there was so much more to World War one, and the legacy those men left behind.
I was given an article about a returned war hero and a young local girl who had been involved in a terrible incident while at a dance one late November night in 1920 and my life was never going to be the same again. Why? I hear you ask? Well, for one thing, I discovered things about my town, my family and two complete strangers that would spark a passion for local history in me that has only increased since writing Poppy’s Dilemma. Secondly, developing an obsession for a man who has been dead for 94 years, well, one never quite recovers from something like that!
Things happened while writing this book, strange things… and if I believed in strange things, I’d be thinking it was almost as though Alick wanted this story to be told.
While researching for Poppy’s Dilemma, based on the years following the First World War, I stumbled upon a series of scanned letters on a website. It wasn’t until I dug deeper that I was astonished to discover these letters were written by the man I was basing my story on, Alexander McLean. I now have these letters, letters that are almost 100 years old, some written from trenches in France during the war, and I feel a connection to this man that spans over a century.
Alick joined the army in August of 1915. He was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery in the field. He was well respected by his senior officers and men, even being promoted in the field by showing excellent leadership skills during battle.
After a wound to the head which resulted in Alick losing an eye, he was returned home to Australia in late 1918. He returned to work with his bullock team and went on with his life, however after a dance in November, 1920 for reasons unknown, Alexander Mclean approached a young woman named Gertie Trisley on a bridge just outside the hall they’d been dancing in earlier, and shot her in the head, before turning the gun and mortally wounding himself, dying a few hours later.
So how did a much loved and respected, hero end up committing such an out of characteristic crime? Parts of the inquest held after his death often referred to his head injury received during the war, and given as the only real explanation.
These boys who had grown up in the community were farmers, timber getters, shop clerks, delivery boys. They played football, they sang or played instruments for weekend dances. They were normal, everyday young Australians and their families proudly waved them off from the train station but when they came home, a large part of those same boys would not return.
The coroner, Mr Hodge summed the general feeling of the time rather eloquently referring to Alexander Mclean;
“We remember how he went forth voluntarily to fight for his country and his King; and we know how valiantly he carried out the trust. He fought with such distinction that he gained that very coveted honor, the Distinguished Conduct Medal, and I think that at this very critical time he had been recommended for a lieutenancy. We all remember how he returned covered with honor; we hailed him back; we loved him, God only knows the great thing that caused him to do what he did; we feel that there must have been something that impelled him to commit such an awful crime. Our sympathies must go out towards those gallant men who fought for the Empire and came back with head wounds, or are suffering from the effects of gas; they went through a hell, and we have to make every allowance for them.”
It was while reading this article, which can be read in its entirety along with the Coroner’s report via my web page, that I felt a need to write this story, not to solve any great mysteries, but to give Alick a voice; a glimpse into what life was like for these men who went off on what they all thought would be a huge adventure only to return home broken shells of their former selves.
I also wanted to explore what my town had been like during and after the war, once men like Alick returned. These men were returned home and expected to fit back into a world they’d left behind. How did anyone think a person could go from living in a muddy trench and fighting on a bloody battle field one day to walking down the main street and chatting to their neighbour’s about the weather, within the space of a few months?
This year is the 100th anniversary of WW1 and to commemorate it, there’s a variety of upcoming events and projects underway that will extend into the following 4 years throughout communities all around Australia, so keep your eye out for things happening and let’s help remember our ANZAC’s.