Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Arthur Tyrrell Williams and The Gallant Light Horse

Several Olive Street soldiers returned from the war and became closely involved in the work of the RSSILA (Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia, later to become the RSL (Returned and Services League)).

They were strong advocates for their fellow returned servicemen, and one of the most passionate was Arthur Tyrrell Williams, who lived at 139 Barker Road on the corner of Olive Street in Subiaco. Before, during and after the war, he was quite a remarkable man in many different ways.

Before the war, Dublin-born Williams had been a civil servant working in the Lands Department. In 1908, he married Nellie Lalage Stacy, and in 1910, he became a land agent in partnership with his father-in-law, George Stacy. Over the next thirty years, Williams would involve himself in any number of land and mining ventures around Western Australia, always ambitious, though not always successful.

Nellie Williams was an interesting individual in her own right; before marriage, she was a piano teacher, and at 18 had become the youngest musician in the Commonwealth to obtain the L.A.B degree in Music (Licentiate of the Associated Board of the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music, London, in conjunction with the University of Adelaide).

Nellie Lalage Stacy

Arthur Tyrrell Williams at war

Williams was 38 years of age when the Great War began in 1914, and he had a long military history of his own, having served during the Rhodesian Rebellion in 1896-97, and in the Boer War between 1899- 1902 as a Lieutenant Senior Cadet. He was amongst the first to enlist in August 1914, and with his prior experience, he applied for a commission in the 10th Light Horse Regiment. He was appointed a 2nd Lieutenant, and sailed for Gallipoli.

Writing home on 31 May 1915, Williams recounted a lucky escape from death that would, though he didn't yet realise it, change the course of his war experience:
Am still safe and sound although slightly wounded. At a point in our line of fire trenches, only eight or nine yards from the enemy, I was on duty in command of supports to a sortie made by 60 of our regiment. This party was led by two of our lieutenants, and whilst busy filling up the fire-trench two bombs fell into our supports trench. I saw them fizzling about two paces behind me, and I knew I was too late to pitch them back again or 'duck' for cover; so I just turned my face away and waited.

Both went off, and at each bang I felt a corresponding bang on my back, but after the dust, smoke, and fumes had cleared away (not being conscious of anything more than a bruised feeling in my back) I carried on with my work, which was so lively and absorbing that I had no time to think of anything else.

 In a lull in the awful inferno of the at tack I felt a sensation of wetness on my back. I reported to the nearest dressing station and had a field dressing put on four punctures from fragments. Afterwards I walked down to the beach and had the pieces picked out and am now as well as ever. On making an examination of my equipment, I find that all the large pieces of bomb which came my way struck my revolver belt, haversack, and great coat. My emergency ration tin has a good sized hole in it. I was very lucky to get off so lightly considering that nearly all the men hit by bombs are terribly mutilated.
The same letter, published to The West Australian in July of that year, also provides colourful detail of the dangers of bathing at Gallipoli, and is well worth a read at the link above. He ends by stating, "I have quite recovered now and feel no ill effects from my slight injury."

But within a few weeks, greater physical problems began to emerge. In the end, although he had managed to keep fighting after the initial injury, Williams had to be removed to Malta for further treatment, and from there to Italy. 

Over the course of several months, his long list of maladies would grow to include dental caries and pyorrhoea (inflammation of the gums), ptomaine poisoning (food poisoning), plus sciatica, lumbago, rheumatism, myalgia, and fibrositis (fibromyalgia). Williams believed that the concussion of the bomb blasts was responsible for his aches and pains; another contributing factor was a fall from scaffolding whilst supervising building works in Malta. 

Williams describes his illnesses and injuries
(Source: NAA)

As an artist across many different modes of expression, Williams used some of his convalescent time to set down his impressions of Gallipoli. He drew a scene of Anzac looking north from Walker's Ridge, which was published in the newspapers:

While at Gallipoli, he also collected seeds from the Gallipoli rock-rose (Cistus canastens). He sent these home to his father-in-law George, who became one of the first to propagate the plants in Australia.

An ANZAC wildflower, propagated by George Stacy from seeds sent home by A. T. Williams
(Source: Western Mail)

After several months moving through the hospital system into Egypt and England, it was clear he would not return to fighting fitness, and he was sent back to Australia for change. For someone so passionately committed to the war effort, this was not a happy circumstance, and he was determined to get back to the fight. He did manage to return Egypt by mid-1916. But he fared no better the second time around, adding neuritis and neurasthenia to his list of ills, suggesting that there may have been an ongoing psychological element to his trouble. 

He returned to Australia again in 1917, and was permanently back on home soil from that point forward.


Lacking the ability to fight, Williams instead worked as an instructor at the Blackboy Hill camp, and became an active recruiter. He spoke at public gatherings, wrote impassioned letters, and sent poetry to the newspapers.

Hark to the cry from the trenches, 
Think of our men over there! 
Hardship or war never quenches 
Their dash and courage to dare. 
 What are we? Neutrals or aliens?   
Hearing their cry, and afraid — 
"Send reinforcements, Australians, 
Send out another brigade. 

Reg'ments that won fame and glory, 
 Reg'ments that never will die, 
Living in legend and story, 
Crooned in the child's lullaby. 
Glory and fame must not perish,   
Famous battalions must live.   
Shades of dead heroes we cherish, 
Call to Australia to give.   

Australia, gem of the ocean, 
Home of the brave and the free, 
Name that inspires emotion — 
Synonym of liberty. 
List, Parliamentary benches, 
Will you her fair name besmirch? 
Hark to the cry from the trenches, 
Don't leave us here in the lurch."

From The Daily News, 22 February 1917

He was not the only family member appealing to the public through verse. Father-in-law George Stacy, who was a former journalist and was involved in theatre productions locally, was a supporter of the "Yes" vote in the divisive conscription referenda. He was as prone to dramatic expression as his son-in-law, and after W. R. Winspear's famous work The Blood Verse circulated as an anti-conscription message, Stacy responded in kind.

"Why is your face so white, mother? Why do you choke for breath?"
"Oh, I have dreamt in the night, my son,    
That I doomed a man to death."  

"I dreamt, my son, that I left a man
To perish for want of aid,
 Though he fought to guard your mother, my son,
 For of death he was not afraid.

"He had sweated and bled and starved for us,
Who were nothing of kin to him;
 But he fought and wrought till his muscle sagged
And his once clear eye grew dim.

"And though he hoarsely called, "Send help!"
No heed I took of his cry;
When 'Yes' would have saved him I answered 'No,'
And I left him there to die.

"As I saw him sink, by numbers slain,
 I woke with a frightened scream.
Oh! God, be thanked for His mercy great,
What I saw was only a dream.

"O, little son! O my son!
That dream was a message sent:
To guide my feet in the path aright,
That vision was surely meant.

"To-day I will answer that dream-man's call,
And thousands will LIVE to bless
Her who for country and country's sons
Had courage to answer 'Yes!''

GEORGE STACY, St. George's Terrace, Perth. Without apology to W. R. Winspear, Sydney.
The Daily News, 27 October 1916

W. R. Winspear's original The Blood Vote
(Source: Museum Victoria)

Arthur Tyrrell Williams took his recruitment approach a step further again. With pianist wife Nellie, he composed a piece of music titled The Gallant Light Horse, aimed at encouraging others to join the fight.

The sheet music is held by the State Library of Western Australia, and when I first came across it, I put out a call to see if anyone would be able to assist by recording it. The request was answered by the wonderful Tim Chapman, Director of Music at Perth's St Hilda's Anglican School for Girls, who was not only able to play the piano but also provided the vocals.

Unheard for many decades, I'm now able to present to you The Gallant Light Horse, by Lt Arthur Tyrrell Williams and Nellie Lalage Williams, very much as it would have sounded in 1917.

Advocacy, Innovation, and the RSSILA debate

Williams did not only encourage others to go to war without a thought for what they would face. He was also and early and active advocate for Western Australia's returned soldiers. 

In 1917, guided by his extensive experience in the Lands Department, he proposed a new repatriation settlement in the Riverton area. The idea was somewhat controversial, as the sandy conditions were ill-suited to the planned purpose of group farming. After much negative publicity, the project did not end up going ahead, and Williams himself quietly gave up his allotment of land in 1921. 

 In vocal letters to the newspaper written by himself and his opponents, Williams often gave the impression of a man of strong opinions and ambition, and it is plain that he was not always popular.

A public joke at Williams' expense in 1919

(Source: The Sunday Times)

In 1918, he was embroiled in controversy after signing himself as the state secretary for the Western Australian branch of the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' League, implying that this organisation was the official Western Australian branch of the national RSSILA (later to become the RSL). At the time, the A.I.F. Returned Soldiers' and Sailors' Association (the RSA) was also active in Western Australia, and the general secretary of that group, Charles Taylor, objected strenuously to Williams claiming to represent the state to the nation. 

Deep divisions existed between the groups, and there was much shifting, changing and blending between they and the RSSILA over time, but from 1919, Williams appears to have bowed out of the ongoing power struggles amongst those at the highest levels of action.
He did, however, continue his fight to improve conditions, particularly for those who had been wounded in battle and were unable to return to their former occupations. Undaunted by the failure of his Riverton scheme and the bitter politics of the returned soldiers' world, he launched a new venture in which wounded veterans would make and deliver sandwiches to businesses in the Perth Central Business District.

The workers of the Returned Soldiers' Sandwich Supply in 1919
(Source: Western Mail)

Although the Returned Soldiers' Sandwich Supply was operated by others through the 1920s, such as the unfortunate Fred Johnson, Williams was still described as a caterer in electoral rolls through to the 1930s, later describing himself as a mining investor. After that point, his public life became a lot quieter, with mentions only of various mining ventures appearing in the newspapers, and the publication of a handful of plays.

But war was not done with the Williams family yet. On 18 September 1943, The Daily News published an article about the Williams' son Jack, who was an air observer with the RAAF in England, training to become a night fighter.

The former Hale School boy and gold assayer, who had been just three years of age when his father first went to war, had survived a close shave in the air when his out-of-control plane pulled out of a dive with only 150 feet to spare. The article also mentioned that he had married an English girl, Hazel, two weeks previously.

The very day after the article appeared, Jack was killed in a flying accident.

Arthur himself died in 1951, aged 75. He may have faded from public view over the years, but when it counted most immediately after the war, he was an influential figure in the lives of returned servicemen in Perth.