100 years ago today…

Today is the 100th anniversary of the battle of Fromelles. Until 2008/9, few Australians had heard of this tiny village on the old Western Front, or of the fighting that took place there in 1916. Very few towns in Australia included the name “Fromelles” on the war monuments listing their dead sons.

Photo courtesy Bobbie Ruben – Poppies in a Fromelles field

In 2008 my husband Lex, our daughter Ali and two friends were sailing our boat Malaika in southern Borneo, where we met Caroline Barker, a British forensic anthropologist. I was fascinated by Caroline’s stories about her work, which had taken her to some of the worst atrocities in war-torn parts of the globe, including Bosnia, Guatemala and Timor, recovering and identifying victims of mass killings. Her next job was a dig at a place called Pheasant Wood, in northern France, a WW1 battlefield. She said, “You Australians are obsessed about Gallipoli, and rightly so, but Fromelles was a much bigger disaster.” As soon as I was home again, I began reading.

In 1916, some 6 months after the evacuation from Gallipoli, Australian soldiers fought their first major battle in Europe. The Battle of the Somme had begun on 1 July, and the action at Fromelles was intended to draw German troops away from the Somme. It was a complete disaster.

The fighting began at 6pm, along a front of less than 4000 metres. It ended about 9am the following morning, but most of the casualties were sustained by 9pm the first evening. Three hours. In that time, 1701 Australians were killed, a further 216 died of wounds, 470 were taken prisoner, and 3146 were wounded. 5533 Australian soldiers taken out of the conflict in just one night. As Robin Corfield writes in “Don’t forget me, cobber” : “These losses were the highest for one Australian Division in one day in the whole war, the 60th Battalion’s losses the highest for any Australian battalion in a single action.”

The morning after, the Germans asked for a ceasefire in order to collect the casualties. The generals, including Australian General McCay, refused, so young German soldiers were sent out under cover of night to collect as many of the dead as they could. They recovered enemy dead as well as their own, and the bodies were searched for ID which was later sent to the Red Cross. 250 Allied dead were buried behind the German lines at Pheasant Wood, near the village of Fromelles.

Many years later, a Melbourne history teacher named Lambis Englezos met survivors of the battle and became interested in the history. He realised after much investigation that there were men not accounted for on the lists at the VC Corner cemetery. In his words: “…the number of Australian soldiers who died at Fromelles and the numbers recorded at the VC Corner Cemetery just didn’t add up.”

It took Lambis Englezos years of effort to convince authorities in Australia and Britain to agree to a search, and on the first survey in 2007, they found evidence of Australian soldiers. The following year 250 bodies were exhumed, and by 27 May 2016, 150 soldiers have been identified.

The result of my research into the battle of Fromelles was my novel Ronan’s Echo. Everything I read about it affected me profoundly. One line in particular influenced me a great deal. A woman who bought of copy of Don’t forget me, cobber, told author Robin Corfield: “The battle of Fromelles has ruined four generations of my family…at least I will know where it all started.”  That’s the nub of it – the tragedy is not just the loss of life, but the damage that echoes down through the following generations from the trauma and horror that soldiers experience in war. I decided my contribution to extending an awareness of Fromelles could best be done in a way that reached people who might not read war histories.

And just last night I had the great pleasure of meeting Adjunct Professor Bill Gammage of ANU and his wife over dinner at our friends’ home. In 1974 Bill first published his ground-breaking work The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War, and it’s been reprinted many times since. He has an abiding interest in Fromelles, so we had some great conversation – he has visited Fromelles and was an advisor to the search for the missing Australians. [and yes, I gave him a copy of Ronan’s Echo!]




Singing the Technical Blues…

The Sun must be in Scorpio or the Moon in the seventh level of Hell, or something, but we are cursed with technical misfortune at the moment. My uncle would have said it less politely, but I must have run over an electronics technician recently.


We’ve been without internet since we moved into our new place. NBN was the recommended way to go (the new, much hyped National Broadband Network, for non-Aussies), so we chose a service provider, paid the money and waited. About two weeks later the modem arrived, the NBN box was installed, and the nice techie even connected the modem for me. There it was, flashing away seductively as we slid the cd into the laptop and opened the instructions. All 158 pages of them.


Suffice to say we couldn’t get past number 1. Instruction number 1, not page, that is. After sending messages for help to the provider (who is impossible to contact directly) we finally had a callback which revealed that a crucial button on the modem wasn’t switched on. Simple! No, of course not. It’s still not working and we’re waiting for another call back, and another booking for another technician.


The day after that, our brand new Smart TV stopped working: no signal, or else a picture like shattered china wrongly glued back together. Antenna problems it seems, so now we have to navigate real estate agent>Body Corporate>technician… still waiting for a callback.


Lex has been using a mobile remote to connect, but that’s gone on the blink. And his computer is showing signs of joining the rebellion.


This morning I wanted to write a short piece about old stuff. I have, and use, my grandmother’s old rotary beaters, a worn but working piece of egg and batter beating equipment that needs no electricity, batteries, instruction manual or warranties. They were first made in 1932, and hers is probably an original. I thought it would be good to take a photo of it, for the youngsters who’ve never seen one. Yep – my trusty (and only 6 months old) Lumix digital camera won’t download the photos. It sits there dumbly, not doing anything.


I’m at my local café, using their internet. In the New Yorker today, in a serendipitous bit of synchronicity, there’s a cartoon with the title “Apple Comes Up with Phone that’s Impossible to Unlock” and beneath it is an old black Bakelite telephone with a dial and a handset. Just what I need. My mobile phone will probably be next…


A little rave about Tassie…

We’re constantly struck by the beauty of this island. It seems that every time you turn a corner, there’s another breathtaking view of mountains, rivers, channels and islands, gentle rolling hills, grapevines, crop-striped farmlands or forests, and sometimes all at once. Often all at once! People we meet are friendly and welcoming, and the food – especially the fresh seafood – is excellent. Below is the Coal River, which flows beneath the beautiful Richmond  Bridge.

Read more »

Officially Homeless!

When we sailed out of Darwin in July 2008 on board our first yacht Malaika, we were off on an open-ended voyage across the world with our youngest daughter, Ali. We’d sold our house and had no fixed address, so we were granted “long grasser” status by the Electoral Office. Now, seven years later, and in a different boat, we’ve gone a step further and today we’re officially homeless as well.

Lex, with our daughter Ali on Malaika in the Similan Islands, Thailand in 2008

Finally, it’s time for the big announcement. We’ve held off making it until it was completely signed, sealed and delivered, and it’s taken all of three months to happen, with falls at every jump along the way. We have sold our beloved Tramontana, our home since late 2009. Superstitious and (as it turned out) well-deserved paranoia kept us from making an announcement about it, fearing that if we spoke too soon it wouldn’t happen. Settlement on our buyers’ property actually collapsed twice at the last moment during that time. However we knew they were the right people to take over the custodianship of this boat. Being very experienced sailors, they knew a great boat when they found one and they’d fallen in love with her the moment they saw her. So we waited.

Tramontana at the Spit Bridge, Sydney 2015

We sailed to Newcastle NSW last week to finalise the sale and the handover. Just to keep the tension wound tight, settlement was delayed for the third time, by the biggest storm the east coast has seen in years. Our last night on board was memorable for the worst weather and the strongest, loudest winds Tramo had ever been in, but we were safely tied up (and triple-tied at that!) at a berth in Newcastle marina. While canopies and sails were being shredded all around us, she suffered no damage at all. So, after numerous delays, yesterday morning, 23 April, we handed Tramontana to Jenny and John, her ecstatic new owners.

Lex checking the mooring lines at the Newcastle marina during the gale

So what’s next? We’re not really sure. A year ago, we decided it was time to change tack and sell our boat, time to do something different, so we set out for Tasmania last October, hoping to find a buyer along the way, but without any real plans past that. Why Tasmania? Maybe it’s an overreaction but after 40 plus years in the tropics, we wanted a change of climate. A Tasmanian winter should sort that out! We’re going to be house sitting for a few months – a month in picturesque historic Richmond, in a house that’s 188 years old, and three months in a lovely place high above the D’Entrecasteaux Channel near Kettering, on the coast south of Hobart.

Different kinds of waterways beckon now…

Darwin remains home – even if we don’t have a house there at the moment – and we’re sure we’ll wind up back there. Three of our four children and most of our grandkids are there, plus four decades of friendships, so we’re treating this as a sabbatical rather than a re-location. In the meantime, we’re going to explore Tasmania as thoroughly as we can, and I’m going to get the next book written!




Writing in paradise…

We’re still floating around this beautiful waterway – Broken Bay, just 16 nautical miles north of Sydney. It’s a huge harbour, full of long, wide arms (called creeks), with snug little coves and quiet anchorages off each of them. This is the Hawkesbury region, one of Australia’s earliest settled places after Port Jackson. Read more »

Tea, anyone?

When people write about sailing, it’s usually about the dramatic stuff – storms, near-disasters, actual disasters, exciting or terrifying experiences. But in between those fairly rare events, sailing is a lot more comfortable and safe. Often there’s not enough wind, let alone too much. You’ve tried all the possible sail combinations to keep the boat moving and sometimes you just have to give up and start the engine. Read more »

Middle Percy Island to Scarborough, Qld

One of the things I’m enjoying about cruising down the Queensland coast, is the early dawn. After nine hours of night, which are very pleasant when all is calm and moonlit, but not so pleasant when it’s black, windy and turbulent, the discerning of a faint glow in the east is cause for celebration. 4am on a cloudless morning sees the eastern sky starting to pale, and by 5am you’re wondering where you left your sunglasses, because you’ll need them in another half hour.

We usually up anchor and leave by 5, and get a few good miles under the belt before breakfast. On a good day we can cover over 100 nautical miles, even sailing to windward as we have been so far. The conditions have been varied on the voyage – a lot of strong winds around 35kn and some heavy seas, but the boat handles it well (a lot better than me!) I’m not a fan of speed and strong winds, but I’m improving. I think. Read more »

Cairns to Middle Percy Island

I now understand that old sailors’ maxim: “A gentleman never sails to windward”, although I think they were more concerned about spilling the drinks. It’s certainly a lot more work sailing into the wind, requiring more tacking, hauling on ropes and grinding away at winches. My hands, gone soft and smooth after years of city living, have callouses again which appeared so fast I think they were just lying dormant under the skin.

Cairns was a welcome respite after the slog from Cape York. The genoa and staysail needed repairs, so the moment we tied up, we pulled the sails down and rang a number we found on the internet. Read more »