Thank you Bruce for your introduction. First, I would like to acknowledge those special guests previously mentioned, including the Major, Councillor Des Hudson and the POW’s present today.
It’s an honour to speak at this national memorial. I thank the committee for asking me.
Over the last 16 years of my involvement in the lives and history of our ex-POWs, my job, as I see it, is to tell their stories. With that in my mind, constantly, I’ve a lot to tell. Today I would like to speak about two of these men. First, my words are to be a homage to a man who served in both wars. The other is to recognize the loss of a dear friend; a sailor off HMAS Perth and one of those men set to survival on the Thai Burma railway.
Authors often need deadlines to work too; at least this one does, but mores’ the case with me, I need to give titles to each bit and piece I write. Today’s is, ‘A Place of Stories’. As this place is just that!
There are more than 35,000 POW names of soldiers, sailors, airmen, nurses and merchant seaman (and one merchant woman) on the wall behind us, the stories to be told by future speakers here will never run out. Sadly.
But this is a place of stories. And of names.
Of men, and women: brave and frightened, stalwart and solid, gentle and rough-edged. All determined. Survivors: some. Many not. Too many who were to die far too quickly upon their return. Names forgotten, many remembered, but all honoured here today. We all know names on the wall. A precious few are here. We have 13 ex-POWs in attendance, the largest number since the opening of this memorial in 2004. And, I would like to recognize these men :-
In thinking of the WW1 centenary for today’s address, I went in search of one or more stories of the 4,151 Australian POW’s from that war, all of whose names are etched on this wall. Over 1,100 alone were captured in one day. Taken after the first Battle of Bullecourt, on 11th April 1917; as a consequence, this commemoration will be held on that centenary day next year instead of this in February.
I went looking for a story from amongst those Bullecourt men. But another man’s story stood out. That man wasn’t at Bullecourt; rather he was wounded and taken prisoner much earlier in 1914. John ‘Jack’ Moule-Probert MM MC was his name.
Jack’s life before the war was one of privilege, mixed with deprivation. He ended up in jail twice for ‘borrowing’ things; one of the sentences landing him a 6-month stretch in Darlinghurst jail at hard labour. To sort himself out after jail, he went to sea and became a Windjammer ‘boy’ on a three-masted ship named the Marian Woodside. It ‘grew Jack up’ and gave him the discipline he knew he needed. But by 1912, with little to go home to, Jack joined the British Army – just 18 years of age.
Melbourne-born and raised, Jack went to the same school my son’s attended. But, unlike my sons, this boy at age 18 was set to fighting the Germans as a private of the First Battalion in the famous green jackets, with their blackened brass buttons, of the British Rifle Brigade; in the first month of war Jack was fighting on the front line. As a Rifleman he had been sent to the field of battle with 150 rounds of .303 ammo, a water bottle, entrenching tool, a bayonet, a greatcoat, a ground sheet, a primitive gasmask, a mess tin and rations and various other bits and pieces while carrying his Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Mk 111 rifle.
Jack’s war service records show him as the only Australian listed as being a POW of both WW1 and WW2. He put his age up for the first war and down for the second…..in WW2, he was one of the ’39’ers. Too old for war, but he went anyway.
His First World War history some would say is stellar; I would suggest it was as well, arbitrary and capricious, and as many soldiers know, a matter of luck. And I will leave it to you to consider his WW2 outcome.
As a WW1 Rifleman Jack was quickly promoted corporal, then awarded a Military Medal for ‘bravery in the field’. Later he was to receive a Military Cross for his escape from a German POW camp and was gazetted for promotion to lieutenant, which he never took up. Upon his return to England, he gained a commission in the Royal Flying Corps. Jack Moule-Probert’s wartime history hardly moved along a predicable path, but neither did his early years.
After capture at Mons, Jack ended up with 4,000 other POWs at the Doberitz POW camp in Germany (nicknamed ‘Hungry Hill’). Prisoners were allowed Red Cross packages and care parcels from home at that camp – something our men from the Thai Burma Railway know would have saved lives. However, the Doberitz prisoners weren’t badly treated – by WW2 standards. Basically they were hungry and bored, but they were permitted correspondence with home. In one of those letters Jack found out his father was dying. With that, Jack decided he was off, and as he had taught himself German – as you do!! – he reckoned he might have a fair chance of getting back to England. And, bless him, he made it. Jack was a man who would back himself against all odds, and so, with bag loads of luck and bravado, he simply walked out of the camp with a mate; picked up some clothes previously stashed in the bushes and, as he had been a seaman, the plan was to catch a train to the nearest port and do some fast talking. A couple of Swedish sailors, well met in a bar, agreed to stow away the two POWs in their coaler which was making for Malmo: unbeknown to the escapees, their hiding place was to be in the coal itself. During a final check, the Germans captured Jack’s companion, yet that man never gave away Jack’s presence. Jack then spent three days without food or water jammed into the coal. It’s a rollicking tale with Jack surviving an eleven-day journey overall and eventually making it to England via a nice stop over in Sweden. For his courage, Jack was awarded the Military Cross. Sadly his father had already died.
In the calendar of WW1, it was only September 1917, Jack was but 20 and the war was still well afire. Jack’s sensible decision not to be returned to the Western Front prompted him to join the fledging Royal Flying Corps, learn to fly quick smart and graduate as a Second Lieutenant, but the war ended before he had a real chance at having another go. Not, however, before he had two serious crashes.
Apart from not wanting to go back to the horror of the trenches as a Rifleman, Jack couldn’t, as his Rifle Brigade had been either shot out or taken prisoner in that first horrific year of slaughter. Jack was a rarity. He was certainly a lad; and a dish. A photograph of Jack in his flying jacket during his RFC months is very Carey Grant’ish. ‘Farmer and aviator’ was the caption on a photograph taken in the 1930’s in Australia. Jack was a born fly-boy; he loved it!
Post-war Jack returned to Australia, where he was allotted a dirt-dry Soldier’s Settler’s block just out of Griffith in Rankins Springs, NSW (I have to say, I do love the Australian penchant for naming places with no water, ‘spring’ or creek’! Alice Springs, springs to mind here). As a farmer, Jack wrestled with the land years longer than many others in the same circumstance. His time on this holding was one of drought and struggle and eventual loneliness as his first wife and child simply walked away from the gruelling, hard life their eked-out property and little shack afforded; their loss only saw Jack become tougher. And so when another war came along, he joined up, again.
The seemingly less interesting part of Jack’s life was this time as a farmer. Oddly though, it was here where I got some sense of the mettle of the man. It would have been a backbreaking time of survival; working alone in searing heat with little result. I felt here was a man who would never give up. I have known men like this from both wars who worked the land and made a good life for themselves and their families. Jack was the type of man who made this country. He was adaptable, resourceful and determined and that plainspoken word; hardworking. Jack stuck it out around Griffith and became a well-respected part of his community.
But, war was with us….again……and Jack’s enlistment found him as a driver in the 2/15th Regiment of the AIF, shipped off to Singapore just in time to fight the Japanese at Gemas. Here again, he was in the front line. And, by 15th February 1942, Jack was, once again, a prisoner of war.
In the compelling book, written by Jack’s two sons, Sherriff and John Probert, one of the last chapters is entitled ‘The Final Irony’. It’s an apt choice as it tells the story of Jack’s last years, beginning with Selerang Barracks in Singapore, and then, so sadly, Jack becoming part of B Force and sent onto Sandarkan. Jack Moule-Probert, who had already done his duty in an earlier war, died in that murderous death camp. He was one of those too starved and sick to move on and march toward Randau…..Jack died on 10 May 1945. Jack was left in that camp in the jungle to just die. The cold-bloodedness and inhumanity of this is universally known and felt in this country, but for Jack to get so very close to war’s end: irony indeed. He is buried in Labuan War Cemetery in an unidentified grave. Jack was aged 51. (As the 2/2nd Pioneers Association is about to travel there in August, I’m sure Colin Hamley and Jenny Davidson wouldn’t mind putting a poppy somewhere there for me please.)
As bitter an irony, and straightforward horror of Jack’s death in Sandarkan is, I want to tell you the only funny story I can find about him. And it’s a bit wicked in our Australian way.
While a POW in Selerang Barracks in 1942, an unexpected full dress parade was called for all Australians troops for a visiting British general. There were grumbles at the unnecessary nature of this, but as the general moved along the ranks he passed this little fellow, who of course was Jack Moule-Probert. Noticing something amiss, he stopped in his tracks and did a double take. Pointing at Jack’s uniform, the questioning went something like this :
‘That’s an MC ribbon you have there, soldier? An officer’s medal!’
‘Where did you get that?’
‘With the Royal Flying Corps in World War One sir.’
With that the general walked away, looking nonplussed and shaking his head, muttering something like, ‘Colonials!’ Putting Royal Flying officers in the ranks!’ What makes me laugh is that Jack didn’t get the MC for flying, but for escaping from Germany in a pile of coal. Jack should have come home, as many should have from that theatre of war, but when I looked at his older, worn and weather-rugged face in his WW11 uniform, I asked where the young fly boy from the first war went? My only answer is WAR and its unforgiving horrors. No matter what numeral it’s given.
Jack Moule-Probert straddled the world; he straddled two world wars.
I would like to finish here today by marking the death of one other of those names on the wall behind us. I have been completely taken up by the RAN, and HMAS Perth 1 in particular, and one of their own died just before Christmas. Lieutenant Gavin Roy Campbell, RAN (Retd) was the last of Perth’s officers. An exemplar of a man. A good friend, a very good Australian and ex-POW of Williams Force on the Thai Burma railway. Gavin’s POW story is long and he was generous enough to let me into some of it; but not too much, as is the way of ex-POWs. Basically, we became friends; such good friends that he and I used to rag one another about our respective football teams most Saturdays: I will miss him this winter. David Manning, a fellow shipmate of Gavin’s is here today and I know he too will join me in remembering Gavin as a particularly good bloke. Which is not such a bad way to remember anyone I think.
With that, I thank you and leave you with something author and ex-POW Rowan Rivett wrote about his fellow prisoners of war some years after returning to Australia. Rivett wrote, ‘We have found and witnessed higher human qualities among our fellows than were ever normally experienced in civil life.’ Great commentary by one who was there.
And finally, those epic words: ‘When you go home tell them of us, and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today.’ Following this same sentiment, two of my sons recently stood in a Greek field at the monument of Thermopylae that read –
“Go tell the Spartans,
that we lie here,
obedient to their laws.’
Thank you gentlemen.
Lest we forget.