Inside Story

From a distance

A chance find reveals a trove of wartime letters and other memorabilia

Anne-Marie Condé 23 April 2024 2145 words

Enlisted at seventeen: Cecil Stoker in uniform. Australian War Memorial

So, Anzac Day is with us once again. As it is a day for remembering, I began drafting this piece with the thought that it is now ten years since the beginning of the much-anticipated centenary of Anzac: those four long years of commercial and state-sponsored events and projects marking one hundred years since the Australia’s involvement in the first world war.

Peak Anzac was reached, in my recollection at least, between November 2014 and April 2015. The bracketing events commemorated the departure of the first convoy of Australian troops from Albany in Western Australia in November 1914, and the landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. An estimated eight thousand Australians and two thousand New Zealanders travelled to Gallipoli that April for services there, while in Canberra 120,000 people attended the national dawn service at the Australian War Memorial.

Things then simmered down considerably, and by November 2018 much of the Anzac energy had drained away — though not before an extraordinary amount of money had been spent. The following year, when historian Carolyn Holbrook attempted to make sense of what had just happened, she offered some figures drawn from work done in mid 2015 by Anzac commentator David Stephens. Germany’s projected commemorative spend for each soldier and civilian killed in the war was $2. France was committed to spending $52, the United Kingdom $109. Australia? A projected spend of $8889 per soldier and civilian killed. My lord.

The first couple of years of the centenary saw an exhausting round of ceremonies, events, exhibitions, art commissions, television documentaries and websites; everyone trying to out-Anzac everyone else. Some of these were clearly devised to offer people a chance to experience and share heightened emotions in a safe way. The Anzac Days that many of us have grown up with have always done that, of course, but this was next level.

The most obvious example was a cluster of events in Australia and New Zealand called “Camp Gallipoli,” whereby people paid to join others for an evening under the stars to remember the Gallipoli landings. Attendees at the Tasmanian event on 24 April 2015 were promised an “emotional roller coaster” where they could sing, eat, drink, laugh (and cry) but most importantly… be together.”

There were some epic embarrassments. The commemorative television features sometimes rated poorly, and the Camp Gallipoli Foundation found itself accused of failing in its promise to pass on profits to veterans’ charities (claims it rejected). Anything that smacks of commercial exploitation of Anzac has always attracted suspicion, and the limits of tolerance were breached by supermarket chain Woolworths just before Anzac Day 2015, when a public outcry forced the cancellation of a digital ad campaign inviting users to upload an image of an Anzac to a picture generator. The generator added the green Woolies logo and the words “Fresh in our Memories.”

Among the sugar-rush projects, however, many initiatives were of enduring value, especially from libraries, archives and museums keen to use the opportunity to exhibit and digitise objects and records from their collections. I was involved in one or two, or three — no, four — of these, and they certainly did reveal hitherto unseen material and nuanced stories at a time when the public appetite was extraordinarily high. But I too became overwhelmed by so many stories, so many young men’s (and occasionally women’s) faces, and so many sad artefacts reminding us of all that loss of life and potential.

From a distance, they all look the same. You need to get up close to discern the differences; but by 2018 my vision was blurred and my capacity for surprise was gone. It had also been such a noisy time. Anzac and Remembrance Days always end with a minute’s silence (it used to be two minutes) but there was not much silence during the four years of the Anzac centenary.

Only gradually did my ears stop ringing long enough for me to lean into the post-centenary silence. By then hardly anyone was bothering any more. I was like American poet Mary Oliver sitting on her old stone bench in a forest, listening to the silence. “What’s magical, sometimes, has deeper roots than reason,” says the poet. I doubt she was thinking of historical research when she wrote that but there are some stories that take you deeper than reason, and they can still be found if you sit quietly long enough.

I found one of these in the small town of Uralla, twenty-three kilometres southwest of Armidale on the NSW tablelands. Upstairs in McCrossin’s Mill Museum (the local museum so named because it is housed in a former flour mill) is a display about Cecil Stoker, a local man who enlisted for the first world war in July 1915 and was killed in France less than a year later, after barely two weeks at the front, in June 1916. The story is best told backwards.

In 1982, according to their own account, two members of the museum committee, then much younger, were inspecting the interior of Uralla’s oldest existing building when they noticed a boarded-up fireplace. The building in Bridge Street was a former general store known as Stoker’s Store, empty and earmarked for demolition. They knew that technically they were trespassing, but “boys being boys,” and it being a Sunday afternoon when there was “nothing else to do,” they tore the timber away.

Inside, covered in soot and rubbish, was a rusty tin trunk, and inside that was another trunk in pristine condition. Inside that second trunk — which they opened without hesitation — they discovered Stoker family memorabilia from 1860 to 1951, including many artefacts, photographs and letters related to the military service and death of Cecil Stoker.

Their surmise was that Stoker’s mother, Elizabeth Stoker, had sealed up all the things in 1951 and had them hidden away. She died in 1954 aged eighty. Back home in front of my computer in Canberra I established that Elizabeth had made her will in 1951, so it does indeed seem she made final decisions about what to do with her possessions in that year. After her death her estate was duly dealt with by her two surviving sons, but the trunk mustn’t have been mentioned in her will. Her sons presumably didn’t know or had forgotten about it, and there it remained until the two Indiana Joneses broke into it in 1982.

Cecil Stoker was a junior railway porter in 1915, aged just seventeen, when he put his age up to eighteen so he could enlist. His father had died in 1910, leaving his mother to run the business and raise three sons on her own. He was obviously hell-bent on going to the war; he and nearly all the other men in the Uralla Football Club enlisted together.

From a distance, this is the type of story upon which the Anzac legend is built. If we wonder why that legend is so powerful, we need look no further than this. A beautiful young man leaves his family and his rural hometown to fling his life away in a global conflict not of his making. His family is shattered by grief but his community honours him for upholding values of courage and sacrifice, and later cherishes his story in the local museum. The Stoker display at the McCrossin’s Mill Museum in Uralla is a micro-version of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, shrunk to fit. There is even a spray of preserved flowers brought back from Stoker’s grave after someone from Uralla visited in 1992.

The most remarkable thing about the Stoker story is completeness of the family archive Elizabeth kept. The memorabilia goes back to the family’s earliest days in Uralla, and includes a photograph of their shop when it was a tinsmith operated by Cecil’s grandfather. There is a family photograph of Elizabeth and William Stoker and their three young boys, and a memorial card printed after William died in 1910 when Cecil was twelve. There is a snap of the dozen or so young men from Uralla who enlisted together, proudly posed around a motor car, still in their civvies, and a portrait photograph of Cecil in uniform taken at a studio in Armidale. There’s a birthday card from his “special friend” Vida Williamson, a local Uralla girl, wishing him bon voyage. There’s a postcard to his mother from overseas, sent from his troopship HMAT Warildra, and a photograph taken of him on a camel in Egypt. There are souvenir handkerchiefs Cecil bought in Cairo for his brothers, and a silk embroidered postcard and cushion cover for Elizabeth, all still in beautiful condition.

The power of the display lies in the artefacts associated with Cecil’s death, beginning with the telegram announcing that he had been killed. This was sent to the local Anglican minister in Uralla, Reverend E.H. Stammer, so he could break the news to Elizabeth. Very few of these telegrams have survived but obviously Reverend Stammer left it with her, and she kept it. Cecil’s campaign medals are there, along with a photograph of his grave at the Brewery Orchard Cemetery at Bois-Grenier, near Armentières, in France. Elizabeth’s last letters to Cecil were returned to her stamped “deceased” because he’d died before he could receive them.

Then there are the personal effects sent by military authorities to Elizabeth after Cecil’s death. Every deceased soldier’s service file records the effects, if any, returned to the family, and always, as on Cecil’s file, they are listed with brutal simplicity: photo, metal brooch, knife, letter, papers, disc, belt, badge, notebooks, “devotional” books, and so on. I have often brooded over these lists but I have never seen the actual things laid out like this, almost complete. They were usually disbursed among the family as keepsakes, but here Elizabeth kept nearly all of them herself.

I stood looking at Cecil Stoker’s last possessions. New Testament, prayer book and notebook. A belt covered in a school-boyish collection of buttons and badges. A tin of curios. Two saucy postcards he’d obviously picked up while on leave somewhere, never thinking his mother would see them. A photograph of a young girl in a white dress and wide-brimmed white hat (not Vida, as it turned out, but a girl called Amy). The knife and identity disc are not there, so perhaps Cecil’s brothers managed to grab a souvenir each.

Elizabeth kept all Cecil’s letters, and her letters to him have also survived. Museum volunteers have faithfully transcribed them for visitors to read. It is quite unusual to have the complete exchange; generally a soldier’s letters from the front are the ones offered to archives and libraries, while the family’s letters to him either don’t survive or aren’t considered historically important enough for posterity.

Elizabeth wrote to “Ces” every week and was always anxious for letters from him. She chats about local comings and goings, although Uralla is very quiet with so many men away. Mrs Besley is knitting Ces some socks. A man from Newcastle named Solomon wants to buy her business and she is thinking about it (ultimately she doesn’t sell). She will be closing the shop for a few hours on 25 April 1916 “in commemoration of Anzac Day.” It is also six years since “poor dad died” and she is feeling very miserable. She sends Ces parcel after parcel: socks, biscuits, tins of cheese, sheep’s tongues and salmon, preserved fruit, lollies, soap, coffee, milk. What else could she do? “I hope you will enjoy them,” she writes.

At the funeral address for Elizabeth Stoker in June 1954, the local minister declared she had been a loving and devoted mother and a faithful daughter within the church, had done much good in the community, and had earned the esteem of a wide circle of friends. No doubt she had. By then the double-boxed family archive had already been hidden away for three years, but to me it feels like Elizabeth had long sealed off her deepest feelings about Cecil’s loss. The boxing was her act of emotional independence, a declaration that she had never wanted anyone’s sympathy, and when she began preparing for her own death she hated the thought of anyone, even her family, going through her things and feeling sorry for her all over again.

What if, instead of passively weeping and writing nice little thank you notes to people who sent condolences after Ces died, Elizabeth Stoker took herself out on winter nights through the frosty paddocks around Uralla where no one could hear her, lifted her head and screamed and howled at a non-existent god for taking her husband and son? By herself, with only a few startled sheep to witness a rage so vast it couldn’t be absorbed by conventional gestures and memorials, only by an open sky and distant, icy stars. •