By Frances Thompson
Evidence of the terrible toll on my family taken by war has been in front of my eyes since I was a child.
I can’t say I didn’t know.
Books on shelves, old photos in frames and albums, sombre Anzac Day and Mum close to tears… the legacy was such a burden.
Lest we forget.
Then came the Vietnam War. My response was “war is hell.” Let us forget.
In 2016, the centenary of that ocean of mud, blood, bone, flesh, muscle, terror and chaos called the Somme, I have chosen to remember.
It is 100 years since my great uncle, Nicholas McInerney, aged 29, was killed in action, probably early in the battle for Pozieres.
To mark the anniversary, I have compiled a chronology using the official records of the Australian War Memorial, the National Archives of Australia and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
It traces his enlistment in 1915, to his death in 1916 and the exhumation and reburial of his remains in 1928.
It is also the story of his brothers, Michael and Patrick McInerney.
All three were from country South Australia, all participants in the Great Adventure.
One hundred years on, the internet is my time machine.
Grandparents and great uncles, dead long before I was born, stare back at me on my computer screen, accessible on demand.
I see their faces buoyed by pride, ravaged by prison camp hunger and horror.
Battalion colour patches are visible in faded black and white.
I read a Kapunda Herald newspaper report of Patrick’s 1918 letter home telling his family about “being busy chasing Fritz” and meeting up with South Australian soldier friends. How was it possible to sound so carefree?
I see the handwriting of Anne, the brothers’ widowed mother and the signatures of her sons, one obliterated in France, then those of her grandson picked off by a Japanese sniper in a malarial jungle valley.
The ‘net takes me back repeatedly to Anne’s unflagging efforts to find out what happened to Nicholas, her first-born son.
The bronze plaque in his memory she received from the government in 1923 has come to me and sits on my bookcase.
I was probably eight or nine when I first saw it on a mantle piece in a South Australian house, in which my great-aunts, Nicholas’ sisters, lived out their lives together, either widowed or unmarried.
These plaques may have been derided as death pennies and a widows’ pennies but it is beautiful.
The work of the Imperial War Graves Commission, that picked over tens of thousands of scattered graves and human remains and found Nicholas’ battered A.I.F disk, seven years after he was killed is especially poignant.
Nicholas’ service number and name are abbreviated by some shell, bomb or gun.
--119 N L ---IERNEY. 10th Batt AIF
That tiny piece of mangled metal allowed a name to be put to the “remains’’ reburied in France in 1928.
In its huge task, the unit also found uniforms, mess tins, boots and, in one case, a silver boomerang, the records show.
Nicholas may have been a soldier of the Great War but thanks to that discovery, he was not unknown. That disk put a name on the headstone. A name for Anne.
I’ll never know the answers to the questions raised by trawling through the digitised records.
Was the disk all that was left of him?
What sort of war was Major J M Lean’s, the Base Records, Melbourne officer who received and replied to Anne’s persistent correspondence and no doubt many other grieving mothers.
The last letter from him on file is signed personally. Sent in 1921, before the disk was found, it sounds like a last-ditch attempt at securing any skerrick of information that would “obviate the necessity of interring them (soldiers, including Nicholas) in the new Military Cemeteries under the heading “An Unknown Australian Soldier”.
Why did Nicholas, then 28 and the eldest, leave enlistment until 1915, when so many South Australian men, including his younger brother Michael, were in the historic 1914 muster at Morphettville that formed the 10th Battalion “originals”.
Perhaps Nicholas felt he had to follow Michael. If so, did that influence the third brother, Patrick, who embarked in 1916?
Nicholas was a long way from home. Could a family rift, or something else have led him to move to Port Lincoln, so far away from the rest of the railway family together in Jamestown?
What did these young men from the South Australian bush think of the crowded, exotic port of Colombo, deserts and medieval forts, the Suez Canal, Port Said, Alexandria, the pyramid of Giza, the Sphinx?
Who rescued Nicholas’ personal effects, how did they get back to Anne and what happened to them?
Two McInerney brothers returned to Adelaide and lived in the West Croydon- Kilkenny area.
Patrick, who received a Military Medal, died in 1946 aged 55.
Michael, my grandfather, started a family, his first-born my mother and served his community as a councillor and advocate for returned service men.
He died in 1956, aged 67.
A fourth brother, Laurence Eiffe McInerney, served in World War 2 and was taken a prisoner of war by the Japanese in Java. He died within a few months of Michael in 1956.
A family photo shows him at a welcome home gathering in West Croydon, probably outside his sister’s house in Alfred Road.
Working through the digital records, trying to put these hard, broken lives back together, has been a thrill.
At times I’ve felt like a detective, a voyeur, a spy but mostly, a penitent for my past neglect.
Sources and further information:
Anne McInerney, mother of Nicholas, Michael and Patrick, and grandchildren.
Likely taken in the backyard of Michael’s house in Cavendish St, West Croydon, in the mid-1920s.
Standing is Michael’s eldest daughter, Sheila (Cecelia) Thompson, the author’s mother.