Newsletter

July 2019

The second quarter of this year was an interesting and busy time, with a number of events and commitments arising while I was completing a book version of the “The Truth about Lasseter” video documentary that I finished making last year. The book, by the way, has been designed and formatted, and will be available shortly (as a PDF eBook only)—details to follow.

Hull Chamber of Commerce

Coming as a complete surprise in mid-April was the contact made by the IT manager of Hull & Humber Chamber of Commerce in the UK. He was looking for any additional information I might have about an episode mentioned in my biography of Oswald Watt (The High Life of Oswald Watt, 2016), regarding a visit the then Lieutenant-Colonel Watt made to Hull in May 1918, to accept the presentation of a gift aircraft to Australia from what was then the Hull Chamber of Commerce.

Readers of the Blog pages of this website will have seen the item which was triggered by this enquiry (“Oswald Watt & the Imperial Air Fleet”, 14 June), prompted particularly by the realisation that the Hull presentation was only part of a program organised by a group calling itself the Imperial Air Fleet Committee. Starting immediately before the First World War, the IAF aimed to promote the growth of British airpower by gifting aircraft to all Britain’s overseas dominions, establishing the basis for an Empire-wide aerial armada.

The Chamber’s recent involvement in this matter came about after it was approached by a man who had acquired a brass “mascot” or plate which featured the IAF’s motto “Heaven’s Light Our Guide”, along with the words “Advance Australia” and “City of Hull” with the date “25th May 1918”.  There were apparently three of these plates presented with the Sopwith Camel handed over on the day—one that was affixed to the aircraft itself, another given to Mr J. C. Manifold (the Australian MP representing the Commonwealth Government), and a third to Oswald Watt as Australian Flying Corps representative.

After it was further explained that the present owner of the plate had acquired it many years ago, at an auction in Scotland, the question naturally arose whether this might have been the one originally given to Oswald Watt? Although I had never seen or heard reference to the existence of this item, the answer is that it very well could have been. Watt had three sisters living in Britain, two of them in Scotland, and he was apparently in regular contact with family members during the periods he was in England during the war.

So interesting that finds like this still surface 100 years after the event.

Croydon Military History Group

The discovery of fresh information about Oswald Watt’s Hull sojourn in 1918 came at a particularly fortuitous time, as I had undertaken to give a talk on The High Life of Oswald Watt to a Military History Group meeting in the Public Library at Croydon (a suburb about an hour’s train ride east of the Melbourne CBD) on 28 June. In a talk devoted to illuminating the multi-dimensional life of Watt both before and after his starring role in the First World War, there was a lot of interest in the fact that his career continues to generate unsuspected connections and angles.

The convenor/organiser of the Croydon military history group is a man named John Howell, who—it turns out—has written a book to match that of Oswald Watt.  Called The Only Woman at Gallipoli, John’s tale is about a Victoria Cross winner from the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War, one Charles Doughty-Wylie, an officer killed on the second day of the landings at Cape Helles, on 26 April 1915. At the time of his death, there was so much confusion about the fighting at Gallipoli that first newspaper reports stated that he died leading Australians charging ashore at Anzac Cove.

The ‘only woman’ of the book’s title refers to a mystery figure who went ashore at Helles for an hour or two in November 1915, not long before the allied withdrawal commenced, to lay a wreath at Doughty-Wylie’s grave. Whether it was the hero’s wife Lilian (a dedicated nurse and hospital founder who was decorated by several nations for her humantitarian good deeds) or his long-time lover, Gertrude Bell (an intrepid explorer and friend of the famous who ended up as the only female delegate at the 1919 Paris peace conference), provides the crux of John Howell’s story. I won’t spoil the ending!

Its a fascinating tale which particularly resonated with me, because of the multi-dimensional approach that John was forced to deal with in his research—much like working out the full story of Oswald Watt.

Anzac Memorial, Sydney

In June I was also contacted by a former colleague from the Military History Section at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, who has been working for several years as Senior Historian/Curator at Sydney’s Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park. It had fallen to him to write the text for a new book being prepared as a part of the Centenary of Anzac project, telling the stories behind the soil samples collected from 100 foreign battlefields, and sites of military significance for personnel from New South Wales, which were embedded in a ring in the floor of the memorial’s Hall of Service in 2018.

 

As the timeframe for the publication had become increasingly tight, Brad was hoping I could help out with drafting one of the chapters, along with half a dozen of the accompanying soil stories that still needed to be written. Having just finished The Truth about Lasseter, I was in the fortunate position of being able to undertake what was needed—and within the deadline allowed.

So now we look forward to the book’s completion and publication.

Launch of No Less Worthy

Another opportunity for renewing connection with the Australian War Memorial was presented by an invitation to attend the launch in Canberra of a publication called No Less Worthy, on 5 July. This book was produced by the Aboriginal History Unit of the Western Australian Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries, and acknowledges the 135 Aboriginal men from Western Australia who volunteered to serve in the Australian Imperial Force during the First World War.

No Less Worthy doubles the number of names from WA mentioned in a previous book called They Served With Honour, published in 2014. Of the 135 now known to have volunteered, 83 actively served (including at least 13 at Gallipoli), 50 were rejected—often because of their Aboriginality—and three contributed to the war effort in unofficial capacities.

Apart from satisfying my own long-held interest in the matter of Aboriginal service in Australia’s defence forces over more than a century, the launch was a wonderful opportunity to catch up with good friend Mark Chambers while he was visiting from Perth. Mark not only played a central role in the Aboriginal History Unit which researched the personal stories of the men commemorated in the book, but he has been generous in supporting and assisting my other interest in the Lasseter’s Gold story over recent years. It was great to hear several of the official speakers on the theatrette stage at the AWM pay tribute to Mark’s great research skills and thoroughness—qualities which I also respect and applaud.