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We Will Remember Them

Rememberance Day is a day for memories and I wrote this piece for my publisher, Random House Australia, about a young sailor's chat with a defeated German skipper at the start of the First World War.

"A memorable conversation – both prophetic and touching – occurred on this day a hundred years ago at the start of the Great War, 1914-18.

It was between a senior German naval officer and a teenage boy from Tenterfield in Northern New South Wales, and it took place on the deck of the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney somewhere in the vastness of the Indian Ocean.

Two days earlier, the boy’s ship had destroyed the German’s – the light cruiser SMS Emden – in the first naval battle of World War One.

Sixteen-year-old Ernie Boston (pictured) was captain’s messenger and the liaison between the two warring skippers, and on 11 November 1914 he was taking the German to meet the Sydney’s Captain John Glossop on the bridge.

It was the early morning when they came up on deck as the Sydney steamed north through a large allied convoy of ships that had left Albany in Western Australia the previous week.

“Boy,” said Captain Karl von Mu¨ller, “what’s all this then?”

The boy from Tenterfield declared that they were the troopships filled with Australians and New Zealanders. They were the men who were destined to become the Anzacs of Gallipoli.

The German, a fair man with a reputation for daring and chivalry, replied, “It’ll go hard for the fatherland if all the dominions rally to England like this.”

“Which it did,” Ernie told me many years later.

Ernie Boston’s chat with the enemy captain occurred years before 11 November 1918, when the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the month marked the guns falling silent in the Great War.

Ernie was one of the lucky ones. He survived to become an old man, as mischievous and perky as a kindly uncle when I met him, and like the other Anzacs I interviewed for the ABC, once met – never forgotten. “They were the cream of the country,” Ernie told me. “They were bushman and Australians and the spirit of adventure was great in them.”

Ernie Boston died in 1981. My memories of him, and others like him, inspired my novel A FATAL TIDE. I’m sure their characters and their fate played also on the mind of other writers, such as Peter FitzSimons who this month published another history, GALLIPOLI.

Like young Ernie, for the most part those boy-men aboard the troopship convoy steaming towards an indelible place in Australian history, were volunteers all, basking in the pleasure of a first ocean cruise and the news of a first victory at sea. Theirs was a simpler world view for a different time. They were naïve and unsuspecting, unaware of what lay ahead, except for the certainty that it would be a great adventure and sure to change their lives forever. Herded cheerfully towards their fates, unaware that the first enemy they would fight would not be the hated Hun but the unknown Turk, and a better enemy they could never have imagined.

We mark Armistice Day as if it were all over, as a time to reflect and bow the head and stay silent for a few moments, to commemorate the end of that awful slaughter and the lessons we supposedly learned. We’ll never forget, we say.

Ernie’s conversation with the German captain on the deck of HMAS Sydney came when the Armistice Day that we mark on November 11 was still four years away. In this centenary year of the beginning of World War One, I think it’s worth remembering the years of blood and pain that lay ahead in the terrible adventure that would kill so many, wound so many more, and change the lives of us all."

See the article here


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