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The Memory Boxes

By JOL Admin | 2 November 2017

Guest blogger: Greer Townshend - Q Anzac 100 Fellow

It’s a strange feeling, opening up a box of someone’s entombed memories. A box of a soldier’s secret truths - truths that were never meant for me, but for “My dearest sister” or “Darling Nell,” or “To my sweetheart”. Boxes the colour of solemn grey skies - each filled with numbered white envelopes, inside of which you find tiny black books filled with lists and drawings and mysterious calculations, you find exotic embroidered postcards, and frail yellowed letters covered in cursive script; all treasure maps to a soul. Find me, each object seems to murmur. Find me.

Postcard from Jack McGrath in Egypt to his "Dear Girl" Bertha Vellnagel in Brisbane, Queensland. He writes that he has returned to his unit. From 30731/49 John Joseph McGrath photographs and correspondence. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

As you open a soldier’s diary, gently fanning through the pages, the little book blink blink blinks as it adjusts its eyes to the light. You perhaps find a miniature photograph of an unnamed landscape – is it Egypt? Turkey? What about those hills made him stop and take out his camera? You go on to find a pale sketch of a church. A note for a girl named Alice. A last testament and will.

View of the Transjordania railway line crossing the Yarmouk River and gorge in Jordan, 1914-1918. From OM77-14 2nd Light Horse Association Records. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

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World War I souvenir postcard for Belgium featuring 1917 embroidered in Allied flags ca. 1917. From 29463 Hutchinson Family Papers. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Opening these boxes is like awakening into a dream; you can’t quite understand the storyline or who the characters are - but you immediately grasp the intensity of feeling. Often, this is a sentiment of quiet dread or restrained panic, sheltering beneath an elegant veil of stoicism:

“I had a thousand narrow escapes but so far not got a scratch” – Private M. Levine
“I have just read your letters again and I feel I can never be grateful enough for them” – P.O.W. M.Delpratt
“I hope we will be together next Xmas with God help” – Private J. McGrath

In letters, there is reference to the cold and, several times, to the wind. There is reference to the gun being too hot to hold, to their hands being torn and bleeding from ramming cartridges into the magazine. There are thank-you notes for the sugar and the cakes. There is mention of them noticing themselves in the glass, and how old they now look. One card is simply signed and checks the box: “I’m quite well.”

Field Service Postcard from Maurice George Delpratt to his father, J.H. Delpratt. From 28115/4 Maurice George Delpratt Correspondence. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

They write about the landing. The tiny boats headed for shore. They describe the bullets hitting the water beside them, and then, later, bullets hitting up the dirt as they dig out a trench with a tiny instrument in the dark.

They mention the cold again - but it’s not too bad really, Nell, dear. They wonder if this letter will make it past the censors. They ask how Aunty Someone is and to please thank her for the socks.

They are running out of room on the page, but they find some space along the side to scribble down: “I have come to the conclusion that this is a risky game, if they don’t turn it in soon somebody will be getting hurt.”

And they die.

And they are buried in Gallipoli.

You look again at the one grainy photograph of this soldier. He has a kind face. A strong face. A young face.

Checking dates, you see he was killed in action three days after writing the letter. Only five weeks into the Gallipoli campaign. His name was Michael Levine.

You close the box. First, making sure everything is in order; that the envelopes are properly sealed, that no light can reach inside this endless night. You wake from this dream; this surreal slice of life of a young shearer from Toowoomba, in a trench, in the dark, on the other side of the world, a lifetime ago. Writing to his sister.

You have a sick feeling in your stomach.

You place the box on the Returns Trolley. You have never seen the person who collects these boxes, but you know the boxes go back into the depths of the repository, back into the State Library’s matrix-like unconscious, methodically stacked alongside other memories, returning to blackness, to the quiet. Heavy doors locked. Eyes closed shut.

Yet you feel a tender reassurance that, just for a moment, this soldier was awake, and alive in your hands. And that he will be remembered.

Greer Townshend


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