Opinion

They did not grow old, as we that are left grow old

By Shepparton News

McPherson Media Group editor (non-dailies) Andrew Mole is addressing a Remembrance Day Service this morning. His speech has been drawn, in part, from this story.

On February 8 next year – at 5.09am – the name Clinton Carlisle Tainsh will be projected onto the exterior of the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Although the AWM concedes that might be give or take a minute.

Unless I, or one of my immediate family, are present the name, for the fleeting moment it is on show, will not register with anyone.

Assuming anyone in the national capital is up at that ungodly hour on a Saturday morning.

Yet Clinton Tainsh is a name, and face, and story, I have known intimately for more than 60 years – even though we never met.

But I was introduced to him as a three or four year old, asking my grandmother who the man in the large oval frame was.

He was my grandmother’s only brother and he had died, ridiculously, pointlessly, in northern France on October 9 in 1917.

An infantryman with the 27th Battalion he never even fired his rifle; had never faced the terror of going over the top, abandoning the safety of the trenches for the hail of lead trying to cross no-man’s land.

Instead, in his first week on the Western Front, he volunteered to help a stretcher party and while carrying a wounded man to safety behind the lines, was killed by artillery fire.

The army report of his death reveals the man on the stretcher and the other stretcher bearer, survived, shielded from the blast by my great uncle’s body.

After seeing the wounded man to safety the stretcher bearer took other soldiers back to the scene to recover Clint’s body.

But it wasn’t there; replaced instead by more shell craters.

He had been 25 years old.

His memory lives on today only on the Menin Gate at Ypres in Belgium, on panel 111 in the Commemorative Area at the AWM and in my memory, and perhaps in the memory of my brothers and sisters.

The connection ends there.

My children and grandchildren have walked past that picture which hung in grandma’s house, and now in mine, and never really questioned it.

Nor the picture of the man next to him.

My grandfather.

He went to the same war, went to the Western Front also, where he was badly wounded by German machinegun fire, leaving him with a permanently weakened body and badly damaged arm.

Condemning him to an early death and my grandmother, who I adored, to more than 25 years without her husband. He got a death sentence, she received life.

Have you ever watched one of those shows on TV, such as Who Do You Think You Are? I’m not a fan but occasionally have been stuck there as my wife happens to love them.

Although she is sick of me mocking the week’s celebrity guests, who always seem to be able to shed tears over someone they have never met and who has, in some cases, been dead these past 200 or 300 years.

But squatting on the steps of the Menin Gate a few years ago, with my guide pointing out where Clint’s name is etched alongside a veritable army of names, of soldiers with no known resting place because they had simply disappeared in the maelstrom of war, I knew it was the chill wind making me cuff at my eyes.

Fortunately, a few hours later, listening to the Last Post being played under the arch of the gate, as it is every day of the year, no-one noticed me having more trouble with that Belgian wind, it seemed to be affecting everyone.

The family story goes that in 1882, Clint was the first white man born at Murat Bay on the far west coast of South Australia.

He was the youngest of three children, the darling of his mother and two older sisters.

None of them, my grandmother confided in me when I was much older, ever recovered from his death. The light apparently forever went out of my great grandmother’s eyes and both grandma and my great aunt Myra always had Clint’s picture in the pride of place no matter where they lived.

His death and my grandfather’s premature death would be followed by three of my uncles, his sons, serving with the Royal Australian Navy during World War II and my father, the fifth of six sons, with the Royal Australian Air Force. The eldest brother was classified unfit for military service and the sixth son was too young.

My cousin Greg, in his father’s footsteps, would join the RAN and serve in Vietnam.

My eldest brother had polio as a child. The military didn’t want him.

My next eldest brother was deaf in one ear and had affected hearing in the other. The military passed.

I was healthy, all 187cm of me, and to this day I count my blessings Gough Whitlam won the 1972 election, because one of the first things he did on taking office was pull us out of the Vietnam War.

World War I was a travesty and so few lessons were learnt all it really achieved was to lay the groundwork for World War II. As the draconian Versailles Treaty was being signed in 1919, the French commanding general Ferdinand Foch dismissed it not as a peace treaty but an “armistice for 20 years”. He was only out by a couple of months.

And history has proved the total folly of the war in Vietnam.

Ironically, as a young journalist I would interview Whitlam while he was still Prime Minister, and with that arrogance of youth attempted to wing it (there was no such thing as Google or Wikipedia in those days for quick background checks). An immense intellect, Whitlam sensed immediately he had a live one and with a pleasant smile on his face cut me to pieces and it was all recorded on the film being shot by my cameraman, who I could also hear sniggering as the PM cut another strip off me.

His nemesis, Malcolm Fraser, was War Minister while we had troops in Vietnam and we became mates later in life. He always wanted to put Vietnam in context.

I didn’t overly argue, I didn’t go so I had no real claim to make.

Over the years I have often wondered whether I should have some sense of guilt for not following the family’s tradition of service. Whether that was what drove me to be a history obsessive.

But I don’t. And I doubt it.

What I do regret is that I never met great uncle Clint and that I never got to know my grandfather.

What I do unreservedly respect is a large reason why you and I can live the lives we do is because these men, and so many like them, did fight and die all those years ago.

Especially those in World War II, perhaps the only war that ever really had to be fought.

My uncles and father never talked about it.

I still wonder, often, if my grandfather, or Clint, would have.