Rose sat at the kitchen table cradling the little frame holding the photograph of her with her husband, George. On the back, written in his handwriting was, ‘Rose and me. Married 17th October 1940’. It was taken in front of the hedge in their backyard just after he joined up with the Royal Australian Infantry Forces. He looked proud standing beside her in his new uniform. It fitted him badly and Rose thought he looked as though someone had just stopped him in the street, said, ‘Here, put this on,’ and took the photograph.
She closed her eyes and thought about their time together before the war. They’d met at the Sixth Street dance. She noticed him glancing in her direction a couple of times and when she caught his eye, she gave him a quick smile. He looked down at his feet and shuffled around a bit before taking a chance on another peek. Then, taking a deep breath, he stepped out, walked over and asked her if she would like to dance. Of course she would, and they started keeping company.
About 6 months into their relationship, war was declared and George talked to her about joining the army. She wasn’t happy about it, but it would have been a severe blow to his pride if she had objected. They decided to get married before he was shipped off. Although it wasn’t what you might call being desperately in love, they were happy together. They talked about buying their own home when he came back; about having children and a dog and cat to play with them.
Marrying quickly was a fairly common thing for the soldiers at the time. It was a comfort to know that someone back home was thinking about them, waiting for them, giving them a reason to survive. Some women only thought about the money they would receive each fortnight and if the worst thing happened, they’d be entitled to widow’s pension. Rose didn’t really think about that – she just wanted George to come home safely.
Her heart melted as she looked at his open, honest face. He was one of 11 children, a kind, gentle and thoughtful man – a knapsack maker for God’s sake. And they put him in the 2/48th Battalion, took him to Egypt for 2 months ‘training’ in warfare then sent him off to the desert of Libya, into the hellhole called Tobruk.
Tears spilled from her eyes as she thought about the letters she had received from him, telling her about his days. He never once mentioned the danger or living in fear for his life. Never spoke about his mates who were wounded or killed. He was strong in spirit and character, but she knew in her heart there must have been times when he was afraid.
He told her how each man had a meagre ration of water each day. When they cleaned their teeth, they swilled the water out and spat it into a can that had a gas mask filter on top. When you had half a can, you washed your face in it, then put it back through the filter. He could occasionally wash his socks with it, then put it back into the can. He could use it to shave once in a while, then eventually it would be tipped into the truck radiators. Never wasted a drop.
Rose was so conscious of how much water she used now. When she had a bath, she felt guilty for using so much water and cut the water level right back to just barely enough. It wasn’t helping George, but in a way, it gave her a sense of connection.
The winter of 1940/41 in the Sinai desert was the worst in local memory. Unbelievably cold rain with sleet filled the trenches and turned the sand to glue.
There were fleas everywhere and flies that covered everything they tried to eat. The sand was relentless – it was in the food, the water, the weapons; in their pockets, armpits, boots, hair, eyes. It even curdled the tinned milk used for their tea and caused desert sores, particularly where their shirt collar rubbed their neck. Wives, mothers, sisters, girlfriends sent parcels that included soft scarves to tuck into the collar to help prevent the sores.
The Aussies were known for their general wit and humour under pressure. The British artillerymen were stunned to hear the Aussies setting up the anti-tank guns. When they wanted to increase the elevation, it was ‘Cock the bastard up a bit!’ And the usual fire order was ‘Let ‘er go mate!’
In George’s latest letter received just a couple of days ago, he said Rommel’s Panza troops had received reinforcements and were apparently keen to get into action. George felt that things had heated up a bit, as the German Luftwaffe planes were strafing and bombing more frequently. When the British Lancasters flew over to retaliate, the Aussie troops rushed out of their holes, waving furiously and shouting words of encouragement.
When she heard the knock at the door this morning, she hadn’t been prepared to see the nervous young telegram boy looking awkwardly at her. He held out an official Government telegram which she took robot-like as he nodded his head sympathetically, turned on his heel and walked quickly away.
She closed the door and walked as if in a dream into the kitchen where she sat at the table. She looked at the envelope for a few minutes, but knew she was just postponing the inevitable. Her shaking hands struggled to tear the envelope open. On behalf of the people of Australia, the Government regretted to inform her that her husband, Lance Corporal George Gordon Richardson had been killed in action on August 3rd 1941.
She clutched his photograph to her chest and wept.
This is a factual story about my Uncle George whose Sten gun pit was hit by a German mortar at the Battle of the Salient, Tobruk, Libya.