Sunday, April 8, 2012

Thomas J. Lockyer

I've been thinking about past generations today. My grandmother has been ill this year, and it really makes me think about all the family knowledge and experience and memory that lies with the oldest generation of our direct family line, and the fact that much of that will be lost one day in the not-distant-enough future.

My grandmother is my strongest connection to my family's history, and through her, more than a decade ago, I came across a battered old leather diary dating back to 1916, which began like this:

Sweetheart mine, the world is weary

When you yet are far away.

Days seem long, my heart seems dreary

When your face I cannot see.

These words, written nearly a century ago, were inscribed by my grandmother's aunt Vena, and addressed to the love of her life, one Thomas James Lockyer.

Thomas James Lockyer in his AIF uniform in 1916
(Click on the image to enlarge)

Tom was twenty years of age when he signed up to go to war in 1916, joining the 33rd Battalion in Armidale, New South Wales. He was a miner, prospecting around the Glen Innes area where my family is from, and from his diary we know that most of his days revolved around work, food and sleep- and Vena, who he saw often. According to his records, he was an orphan, and though he had a large family of siblings and half-siblings, in Vena's family- my family- he found a second home. The young lovers were engaged to be married, and when Tom went away to war, Vena's poem went with him, a heartfelt, handwritten reminder of her love. The poem goes on:

Stars will gleam again the brighter
Suns will shine with warmer glow
This fond heart will beat the higher
When you're nearer, do you know?
Do you know how much I love you?
Would you care how sweet you be?
But the angels high above you
Know how dear you are to me.

Tom Lockyer before the War

By the time Tom landed in France with the 3rd Battalion in September 1916, Australian soldiers had already fought their way through the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, dying in scores on the Turkish beaches, no longer thinking war was the Boys' Own adventure it had seemed back in 1914. By the winter of 1916, the same soldiers were pushing their way through muddy trenches on the Western Front, gathering a reputation for toughness and sheer stubbornness that was unmatched by many others.

Tom marched straight into the infamous fighting at Ypres, where in 1917 this iconic photograph was taken showing the incredible destructive power of war:

Today, the names of the battles are still lodged firmly in our memories, and when they mark a moment of change in your own family, it's easier to understand why.

Australian troops, possibly associated with Tom's battalion, passing through Vaulx-Vraucourt in April 1917

Tom's diary showed little sign of the horrors he was seeing. In fact, his style barely changed from before the war to during. Each day, he recorded that he got up, ate breakfast, and went to work. His words show that he was a simple kind of guy, but it's that poem I keep coming back to, over and over again.

Tho' your beauty time may sever,
When you're feeble, old and grey,
Still to me you'll be as ever
Precious as you are today.

Vena might have written it, but Thomas kept it with him, day in and day out. The Somme mud smudged on the pages is testament to that. Did he think of her often? Did he read and re-read it? Or did he keep it close to his heart, but ever closed, not willing to let his old life and his new reality collide?

We'll never know.

On 4th of May, 1917, Tom was killed by a falling shell at Maricourt Wood, near Vaulx-Vraucourt in France during the Second Battle of Bullecourt. His battalion commander's unit diary records:

At 0430 enemy attacked on extreme RIGHT and LEFT of my Battalion trench. He advanced up old communication trenches to within 30-40 yards and commenced throwing stick bombs. The fight lasted half an hour.
The fighting continued all day and well into the night, with shelling, machine guns and close combat all underway, until the Australians ran out of ammunition and had to retreat a short distance. By midnight, the situation was described as "normal", but the later dissecting of the action revealed that a number of the 56 infantry soldiers killed in the fighting, perhaps including Tom, had been killed by friendly fire.
On 4th, our "S.O.S" signals were not answered. Heavies, 4.5" Howitzers, and 18 Pounders at different times dropped short in and behind our trench; on one occasion our Field Artillery placed a barrage on my line. A number of casualties were traced to our own shells. One of the shells burst in our trench and killed four men.

The 3rd Battalion unit diary sketch of the battle in which Tom was killed- Maricourt Wood is at the bottom right.

No matter which side of the line the shell came from that killed Tom, just like that, in a hail of shattered metal, the lifetime he and Vena thought they would have together was gone.

Vena lived into old age, and never married. The man she lost at just twenty years of age was the only love of her life, taken cruelly from her by the machine of war, too young. She grew feeble, old and grey, but like so many of his generation, age did not weary Tom. Still, though, he remained precious to Vena forever.

Vena (left), her sister Ada and their cousin Violet

These are the ripples that flow down to me through my grandmother and my mother.

I went to my family's old dairy farm in the New South Wales highlands about six years ago on a little pilgrimage. The family farmhouse is long gone, which of course is no obstacle to an intrepid archaeologist. I was able to locate the remains in a paddock, and stood looking out over the rolling green dairy country from the porch on which Tom and Vena had sat in 1916, as recorded in his diary. In the little cemetery directly opposite the old house are the graves of a number of family members and neighbours. Some are just markers over empty ground, representing other young men killed in the First and Second World Wars.

A view of the family farm at Red Range

Tom is buried at Maricourt with sixteen other Australians, and a memorial to him exists at Villers-Bretonneux, where over 10,000 Australian soldiers are remembered. In the end, though, his memory is carried on by individuals like me.

Tom's final resting place at Maricourt Wood is beneath that stand of trees
(Photo courtesy M. Smythe)

I'll never make sense of war, but I'll remember Thomas Lockyer and all those who died alongside him. Through successive generations of our family, he has not and will not be forgotten.

It's not the fighting we remember. It's that enduring love- a reminder of what it means to be family, and what it means to lose the ones you care the most about. In war or outside it, these loves and losses are the things that define us.

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