Staking a claim for peace

by Ann Webster-Wright

The stillness of the morning was broken by a terrific roar as thousands of guns spoke with a single voice. The din was deafening. After a few minutes, the barrage lifted and the attack began. In the dim light, single columns of men moved steadily forward through the bursting shells and fume laden air. We brought up the rear. A partridge, half stunned, fluttered at our feet. It is strange how one’s mind retains such small things. This was no time for thoughts of peace, but long afterwards one felt ashamed that we could make hideous so lovely a morning. The beauty of nature, the birds, the sublime countryside, all seemed to make this war, the handiwork of man, appear to be a crime.

 

RECENTLY, THE JOURNAL of my great uncle was unearthed. This pithy description of life on a World War I battlefield is taken from its pages. Reg Pratten died when I was ten, yet I remember him as a gentle man, with a slightly nervous stutter, who shuffled his feet and tugged his braces when he spoke. My imagined Matthew Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables was fashioned on Uncle Reg. He was a conscientious objector in the war – a pacifist who volunteered following the Gallipoli disaster, but did not bear arms. Joining the First Field Ambulance Corps, he described himself as being ‘armed with a stretcher’.

His journal, all that remains of this man, is almost one hundred years old. A unique artefact of beauty, its hundred and twelve tightly handwritten pages are enclosed within intricately marbled endpapers. Inside lies a fictionalised novella that he wrote soon after his return in 1919, drawing on his experiences. In the words of Tom, a stretcher-bearer who served in the same places in France as Reg, he expresses his ideas about war and peace among his yearning for a broader life. Reg never married, but lived a quiet life as a railway clerk in Brisbane, supporting his mother and sister until he died.

Peace is seldom celebrated except by commemorating the end of war. Peace, like justice, tolerance and kindness, is a slippery notion, not as easily recognised as its counterparts. It’s easier to spot war, injustice, unadulterated bigotry and sheer rage. They are delineated events with clearer boundaries. Is peace only the space that remains between such events?

Coming of age in the late 1960s, my awareness of war was limited to marching at protests, chanting slogans and wearing peace signs as jewellery. ‘Make love not war’ summed up my naïve and cynical response to commemorations of war such as Anzac and Armistice Day. It was not until I was middle-aged, and took my elderly mother to Gallipoli, that the enormity of those experiences hit me.

She wanted to honour her father, Lloyd Chambers, an eighteen-year-old lad in the Ninth Battalion who landed at dawn on that inhospitable beach in 1915. At the time, my own eighteen-year-old son was on his first trip alone overseas, so I was familiar with an actual person against whom I could imagine the horror of my young grandfather’s reality. Although Lloyd shared no stories with his family, my mother recalled her father weeping each Anzac day. Lloyd collapsed with a nervous breakdown several decades later, when his younger brother returned from his own brutal war experience at Changi.


WHEN I WAS growing up, I saw Anne Deveson as an icon, an independent, articulate woman who championed the rights of the disenfranchised. I read her books on schizophrenia and resilience. Before she began her current skirmish with Alzheimer’s, she had gathered nearly eight decades of her experiences in seeking peace and protesting against war into a book, Waging Peace (Allen & Unwin, 2013). In this wide-ranging memoir, she dips into history, philosophy and science, questioning how peace can be ‘rebranded’, made more active than its current positioning as the absence of war and conflict.

Peace is the background of everyday life, as unnoticed as the air we breathe. Yet peace is more resilient than war. Anne describes peace sneaking back, in the midst of tragedy. In her travels to war-ravaged parts of the world, even in horrendous, prolonged situations of conflict such as Rwanda, she saw moments of normality finding their way into being: a mother rocking a baby to sleep, families sharing a meal, a child playing with a stone. As Reg also describes it, peace can be glimpsed in a flower thrusting through the mud of a Flanders field of war.

Reg was a gardener. In his vegetable garden at the far end of the backyard, spinach and rhubarb stalks stood alert, as pumpkins sprawled their way across the raw earth around splotches of radishes and chives. I remember sitting cross-legged on the dirt floor in his well-tended fernery, in the netherworld under the wooden house he shared with his mother and sister. Adults had to stoop to enter that space, so few, apart from Reg, visited. In that cool, dark profusion of greenery, my childhood imagination wandered at will. It was a private place of profound peace.

In his journal, Reg expressed the hope that mankind could find better ways to resolve political conflict than wholesale slaughter. His family were deeply religious. Reg’s mother was the daughter of the well-known local minister. But his questioning of the morality of war extended to a critique of religion. In the words of Grace, his fictionalised ideal woman:

Don’t talk to me of religion when such things can happen after nineteen hundred years. Millions of the best men in the world are killing each other in the most brutal fashion and you talk to me of love. Christians slaughter Christians in the name of Patriotism and you call it the will of God.

Slivers of space have been given through this recent year, already thick with war memories and commemoration, to Australia’s pacifists and conscription debates. The referendums for conscription in 1916 and 1917 were both narrowly defeated. Reg lived in a conservative area of Brisbane whose inhabitants, backed by the local churches, were enthusiastic supporters of marching to war to defend the Mother Country. In this part of Australia, a majority actually supported conscription. Reg opposed it. According to him, serving soldiers were also dissenters who argued against the referendum. He describes ‘a growing feeling in Australia that the Constitution should be amended that never again would she be called upon to make such sacrifices.

REG WROTE A letter home to his parents on Armistice Day. It reads:

It is hard to grasp the tremendous significance of the news today. An armistice has been signed and Peace – the magic of the word – is in sight. The sirens are screaming and the bells are ringing… I can well imagine the effect of the news at the front, where for four years the artillery has roared, there is now silence and peace. Often in the line we have had a few minutes of dead silence when someone has jokingly remarked ‘Peace is declared’, but some beastly gun would soon dispel the illusion. And now the guns have stopped. I hope forever…
Perhaps a more wonderful day has never dawned in the history of the world, but it has been a hard fight and in the midst of our rejoicing there is sorrow in the world. What of the poor wretches lying horribly mutilated in hospital, and of the brave men who will never go home. Today I told the glad news to one of our patients who will never walk again and he said, ‘It is too late’ and heard the news with mixed feelings… I have received letters from you and glad to hear you are well. Sorry to hear of the mishap to the old dog and hope he pulls through. It is good of you to take so much trouble over him. Must close now with much love to you and the girls.

We take peace for granted. Like breathing, we only notice its absence when the suffocating horror of war or violence is thrust upon us directly. Peace can be found amidst everyday life if we have eyes to see. Reg’s love for his cattle dog sits beside his wider concerns for the world as part of his landscape of life. Celebrating peace means acknowledging the importance of the quiet miracles of life, the valuing of ordinary people facing the humdrum challenges and rewards of being alive.

And so I honour Reg’s quiet claim for peace, which he staked as consistently as his garden. He has no direct descendants, no memorials, other than a small plaque in a wall that makes no mention of wartime heroics. I place flowers to remember this gardener and dreamer, not on a commemoration day or even his birthday, but on an ordinary Tuesday when a cool breeze whips up from Oxley Creek carrying the smell of honeysuckle.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 48: Enduring Legacies © Copyright Griffith University & the author.