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
Mum did not want me to enlist.
“Vernon,” she said, “think of Dad."
"Our farm at Numurkah is getting too much for him; besides you are only 18, wait until you are a bit older.
The war will wait for you … wars always do!"
But she and Dad signed a letter of permission for me, Vernon Rockliff, to enlist in the AIF.
The Great War … seems to me like it was two wars in France. A stalemate bogged down in trench warfare, then offensive followed by counter-offensive.
On 1 July 1916, the Great Push on the Somme began. We were pushing the Germans back but casualties on both sides were awful. On 31st July, I was shot in the hand and later moved to a hospital in Brighton. I recovered well and went back to the front line until again wounded in action on 4 December. Another spell in an English hospital.
After recovery I returned to my battalion in France but this time as a stretcher bearer on the front line. It was 1917. I was 5’9” and weighed 10 stone. I had speed as a runner and endurance to stand me in good stead under gruelling conditions.
Northern France has deep, rich black soil and is quickly turned to mud by heavy rain, frost and snow. A stretcher bearer had to be strong to resist the suction and drag of the mud while making progress with fellow bearers in carrying a wounded man to an Aid Post, all the while trying not to jolt the poor wounded blighter while subject to pounding artillery and rifle fire ourselves We were unarmed, mind you. It often meant struggling on to a Casualty Station, where surgery was done, laden with a moaning, groaning wounded man.
I had been a runner as a lad but ‘No Man’s Land’ tested all of us – this exposed area between our front line and the enemy. Boggy, pot-holed … it was impossible to move with any urgency and all the while the ground heaved, and the air was full of foul fumes from the shelling. We then had to soldier on and do it again and again and again, as our losses were so heavy.
21st March 1918, the German armies began their offensive on the Somme. They recaptured Pozieres and had Amiens and Albert under assault. We lost the gains of 1916-18. On 19th May the Australian 6th Brigade, 2nd Division were ordered to Albert, from which the British had mistakenly withdrawn. The fighting was the fiercest I saw … so many injured mates crying out for water, for help …
Suddenly, all fear of death left me. It was compassion, not valour, which made us go again and again into the maelstrom rescuing as many as we could … something gave me more strength and purpose than I knew was possible.The bombardment was intense but somehow, we succeeded in saving many poor wounded blighters. But it was a slog and a nightmare I have no wish to re-live.Upon returning to Flanders I reported for duty and was assigned a new partner accustomed to bearing the front of the stretcher. Foreboding dogged me.
One dawn while checking off my kit before Les and I went out, I was consumed by thoughts of gassing. As the war tide flowed against them the Germans made greater use of chlorine, choking and blinding men.Our first wounded man was barely more than a boy. “We’ll have to take this soldier to First Aid before the other five blokes,” Les shouted, “his legs are shattered, and I can’t staunch the blood.”I nodded, and as I reached down and straightened, holding my stretcher end, a piercing, searing pain hit me in the back. I screamed but in the tumultuous sound of explosions my cry was lost on the wind. I fell forward.I awoke six days later at a military hospital in England. A medical officer told me a bullet had been removed from my back. “You are a lucky bloke. It was lodged a thumbnail from your spinal cord. Tomorrow we will be moving you to Scotland to recover.”
“And the lad I was carrying to safety?”
“I am told he perished. You replaced him on the stretcher."
They gave me a Military Medal for my actions as a stretcher bearer on 19th May 1918. It was presented to me by King George V.I convalesced on a cattle stud at Kircudbright in south-west Scotland. This place was paradise after the hell of the Western Front. Clean, pure, sweet air unlike the choking fumes of the battleground.
I used to pinch myself when I woke in the mornings from restful, nightmare-free sleep. Was it REAL? I was SAFE. I was ALIVE. I would soon be on a ship heading HOME.
The greenery, the coastline, the friendly owners of the cattle stud which accommodated me were a tonic to my constitution, and my spirits lifted.Upon return to Australia I bought a property near Berrigan and named it after my Scots haven, a name which rang in my head like bird song – “ARDROSSAN”.