My Uncle Fred died fifty years ago. We used to go and see him two or three times a year. He was boring.
He was twelve years older than my dad, and Uncle Fred worked on farms most of his life. When he retired, he played lawn bowls all the time. That was even more boring. He had a funny way of standing and walking, with one shoulder sort of bent over. So he looked silly as well as boring.
‘Your uncle Fred has a real history,’ Mum used to say. ‘Get your dad to tell you about him, sometime.’ Huh, I thought. If my uncle’s history was as boring as he was, I didn’t want to know about it.
Uncle Fred was shy with me. I was at high school, and quite good at my subjects. All my uncles and aunts thought I was clever. It used to embarrass me, but I felt pleased about it too.
My uncle had left school when he was thirteen, to start farm work. He liked reading, but he was really slow. He always asked me about what I was reading and studying. I’d show off—pretend I was smarter than I really was.
One time when we were driving back home, my mother asked what Uncle Fred and I had been talking about. ‘Nothing, really,’ I replied. ‘He’s boring.’ My father looked at me and started to say something. Then he stopped.
I was still at high school when Uncle Fred died. We went to his funeral, and what I learned there helped me to find out the truth about him.
Some other old guys spoke at the service. They were from the RSL, and they’d been in World War One with Uncle Fred. They talked about what a good soldier he’d been, and about the medal he’d won. ‘He was the best and bravest cobber a bloke could ever have,’ one of them said.
This time when we were driving home, I said to Dad, ‘I didn’t know Uncle Fred was in World War One and got a medal.’
Dad nodded. ‘There’s a lot of things people didn’t know about Fred.’ Then he finally started telling me my uncle’s history.
When the war began, Uncle Fred couldn’t decide whether to fight. He thought all war was wrong, that people shouldn’t kill one another for any reason. But in the end, he decided to join the army.
He was only 17, but he was strong and fit from his farm work, so he lied about his age and signed up. (You could get away with that in the days before computers.) He trained in Australia, then travelled by troopship to Europe and took part in some of the terrible battles in France.
In 1916 he fought with other Australians and New Zealanders in the Battle of the Somme. This was a series of attacks that went on for weeks. Allied forces charged across no-man’s-land time after time, trying to capture German trenches.
In front of these trenches, the Germans had placed great barriers of barbed wire, with spikes as thick as a man’s thumb. Their machine guns covered every inch of ground. Each time they attacked, the Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, British and French soldiers were shot down in their thousands.
In one attack, a corporal from Uncle Fred’s platoon was badly wounded. My uncle picked him up and carried him back to their own trenches. It was 200 metres across open ground, with the enemy shooting at them all the time. They’d almost reached the trench when a German shell burst nearby. A piece of shrapnel hit Uncle Fred in the shoulder, but he kept going, and saved the corporal’s life. For the rest of his own life, he couldn’t move his shoulder properly, and of course, that was why he stood and walked the way he did.
‘He didn’t want you to know about the things that happened to him in the war, son,’ Mum said. ‘He didn’t want anyone to know.’
‘I learned about it mostly from his friends,’ said Dad. ‘They told me he came back saying that nobody ever again should have to go through what he and his cobbers had to.’
My mother nodded. ‘He was proud that you were doing so well at school. He said that you, and people like you, could try to make sure that people never go to war again.’
I didn’t know what to say. ‘What happened to his medal?’ I asked.
Dad was silent for a bit. ‘One of his best friends was killed in another battle a year later. After he heard, Uncle Fred threw the medal away. When he got home, all he wanted was to live a quiet, ordinary life.’
So I learned the truth about my uncle and his history. And some truth about myself, I suppose. I wonder what I’d say to him if I could somehow meet him again.
Actually, I do know. I’d say, ‘Thanks, Uncle Fred. Thanks for all you did. And I wish I hadn’t been so … so boring.’