100 Years

1918 - 2018

Marking the end of World War I

Silent Heroes: Great Uncle Allan

by Cheryl Threadgold

This story belongs to families from all nations who proudly own a photograph of fine young men and women from past generations. They may wear a military or nurse’s uniform, but the family has never had the pleasure of meeting them.

If born in peace-time, these young people could also have created their own family lineage, lived in a home, with a garden, and kept framed photographs on a shelf. Instead, for thousands of young servicemen and women, it is they themselves who proudly sit or stand in the framed photographs, treasured today by new generations. Their homes and gardens may lie in the far-away lands where their beautiful young lives were cut short.

A great triumph from this senseless tragedy of war was the wisdom and foresight of photographers and the soldiers and nurses to record their presence. These images ensure their memories can live on back home with families they never knew. Silent, mysterious heroes. Loved and admired.

I never met great uncle Allan, or even realised he existed until recent years. Private Allan Douglas McPhee was the brother of Angus, our Grandpa. We knew Grandpa had enlisted for both World Wars, but did not know or understand at the time that he had lost a precious brother in action during World War One. When Dad was asked years later why his uncle Allan was never discussed, he replied to my brother Bernard, “It was far too upsetting”. Families from around the world would identify with this suppression of intense grief at having lost a loved one in war action.

If great uncle Allan had returned from the war, he probably would have joined in hearty family sing-a-longs around the piano at his brother’s home. While his sister-in-law Queenie belted out good old-time songs on the piano keys, his grandchildren would be playmates for my brother and me. But Allan was never there, nor the girl he might have married, nor their children and grandchildren. Nor was his name ever mentioned during this time of post-war renewal and hope.

Two generations later, a family’s private anguish is replaced by modern-day enthusiasm to ensure great uncle Allan’s memory continues. There is sadness that we never met, but even mentioning his name is a tribute to his existence and the sacrifice he and so many others made for their nations.
Allan Douglas McPhee was born in Northcote South, Victoria to Donald and Elizabeth McPhee and lived in High Street. He enjoyed his time in the school cadets before working as a labourer and living in Yan Yean. World War One broke out on 28 July 1914, and Allan enlisted for service just 20 days later, on 17 August, 1914. Number 130.

Private Allan McPhee and unknown Gurkha colleaguePrivate Allan McPhee and unknown Gurkha colleagueImage P00 254,001 Australian War MemorialThis photo was taken in late 1914 or early 1915 in Cairo, Egypt, and unites soldiers from two nations in friendship as Allan and his Gurkha soldier colleague pose in their uniforms. The name and fate of the Gurkha soldier is unknown, but we do know that Private Allan McPhee survived the Gallipoli landing. He too would have experienced grief at the unimaginable loss and maiming of his mates. On 8 May 1915, great uncle Allan’s luck ran out. Aged 23 years, he was killed in action at Cape Helles after his Seventh Battalion arrived to support allied forces.
Allan McPhee’s home and garden is now the Gallipoli Peninsula, where the Helles Memorial includes a 30 metre high obelisk, visible to ships passing through the Dardanelles. Back in Australia, Allan and his Gurkha soldier colleague have a home in the Australian War Memorial, where their photo proudly joins those of fellow servicemen and women. In the homes of great uncle Allan’s unknown family in Australia, the framed photograph creates a warm sense of familiarity with both young men, tinged with sadness in the knowledge we will never meet personally.

It would be easy to express bitterness at poor organisation and leadership of battles at that time, such as our soldiers instructed to hold their shovels up for protection against machine gun fire. The question could also be raised as to whether foreign troops had good reason to be on Turkish soil in the first place. However, this story is not about questioning negative elements of the war, but focuses on the positive importance of keeping the memories of our lost loved ones alive through photographs. The official records may be stamped ‘deceased’, but the people themselves can live on in our memories through photographic images and family folklore. We must talk about them, even talk ‘to’ them, to connect and gain a sense of understanding of who they were, for passing down to the next generation.

Commemorating the Armistice Centenary is a wonderful opportunity to pay tribute to these silent servicemen and women of all nationalities who made sacrifices for us to enjoy peace. And to their families, who waited anxiously at home during the uncertain times of war.
Lest We Forget.

Cheryl Threadgold, 2018

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