DEAR MARY is based on a story written by Margaret Simpson from the Deniliquin Creative Writers Group. It was narrated by Matt Hansen and Sarah Parsons and produced by The Shack Studios, Deniliquin.
The story was inspired by the experiences of Captain Ralph Anderson from Hay, who was recommended for a Military Cross for bringing wounded soldiers back to safety near Farm do Mouqet during World War 1.
The Passing Out Parade was supported by the Australian Government’s Anzac Centenary Arts and Culture Fund and was coordinated by South West Arts in partnership with South West Music Regional Conservatorium and Outback Theatre for Young People.
By Margaret Simpson
I am Ralph Anderson. I grew up in Hay at Bishop’s Lodge as the younger son of the then Bishop of the Riverine. As soon as Father consented, I left school to go jackarooing in Queensland. It was a fine life for a chap like me – a country lad born to the saddle. I love horses. My sister, Mary was wont to boast of my prowess as a horseman.
In 1914 came news of war with Germany. I rushed to join the 7th Light Horse. Adventure! Service for King and Country! You ripper!
They took me despite an accident having deprived me of the middle fingers of one hand. I was promoted to Corporal. Father was proud.
In February 1915 we shipped with our horses for Gallipoli. Whose bright idea was this? The Peninsula has rough, rocky terrain and steep cliffs. We could not use the horses.
A year later we were sent to defend Sinai and the Suez from a Turkish advance. I wrote to my sister of the bountiful barley and wheat crops harvested by villagers with hooks and loaded onto camels.
We had fresh dates to eat, delicious after ANZAC biscuits and tinned meat.
During service there I was promoted to Second Lieutenant, a leadership role which was a position I enjoyed. - lots of raids, skirmishes and evenings in camp with good food and plenty of water for the broncos. A trooper, as fitting.
This idyll ended in 1916 when we were shipped to the Western Front. A big offensive to push back the Hun was imminent. I was now to serve in France as part of the 52nd Infantry Battalion.
Our horses were left behind to who knows what fate. We felt like chess pieces moved about on a board. Casualties in France and Belgium had been massive.
I wrote to May on the 9th of November from “a farm somewhere in France”, I know not where. I told her we were advised that we should expect to be home by Christmas and to keep me some pudding …
I was jolly glad of her letters with news of Hay folk and she welcomed my scribblings and my many photographs. I had become a ‘shutterbug’ she teased. “Old girl,” I wrote, “I have now been made Captain.” She replied, “Let me know when you become Lieutenant Colonel”.
My promotion was hard-won. In April 1917 I was in Albert when we received news that some wounded men had been caught in No Man’s Land near Farm de Mouquet. At four miles our position was closest. I volunteered to bring them in after dark.
The men were trapped closer to enemy trenches, without an officer, and under heavy fire and shelling from both friend and foe. The ground was pockmarked with craters and I had to use these to zigzag from one pit to the next. The wounded had head and leg injuries. It took eight hellish hours to weave our way to safety. We were mostly bent double, helping each other, or on our bellies crawling and dragging a mate in tow.
My task was as the guide; trying to pick the safest path and to avoid the sweeping guns of both the enemy and our own forces. “Keep down.” “Keep down.” “Now, go, men, go!” Thank God, we got through with only one man down. My head pounded as much as the guns. For this action I was commended.
Usually my letters to Mary are about France and aspects which will fascinate her; to wit – the richly designed and coloured silks of which scraps are even used in their postcards. I close with “Heaps of love, Your loving brother, Ralph”.
I do not tell of things which will make her fear for me. She has kept my letters and photos to read together, after the war ends. Oh, to be back home!
Ralph was wounded during the Battle of Messines and died next day; one of eight officers and twenty-eight men from the 52nd to make the ultimate sacrifice in that battle. He is buried at Westhof Farm Cemetery in Belgium.