No matter how small
Every town has one;
Maybe just the obelisk,
A few names inlaid;
More often full-scale granite,
Marble digger (arms reversed),
Long descending lists of dead:
Sometimes not even a town,
A thickening of houses
Or a few unlikely trees
Glimpsed on a back road
Will have one.
— From Geoff Page’s “Smalltown Memorials,” published in a collection of the same name by the University of Queensland Press.
When Geoff Page published “Smalltown Memorials” in 1975 its elegiac tone resonated among readers worried that the rituals of Anzac were fading from Australian life. Perhaps, it was thought, Anzac commemorations wouldn’t outlast the passing of the last veteran of the first world war?
The poem reminds me of country drives. You stop for a break, and on the way back to the car you glance across at the town’s war memorial and frown, wondering if you should pause. If someone had the decency to put a memorial there — no, if someone had the decency to volunteer for war in the first place — the least you can do is spend five minutes having a look.
You wander over to read the names inlaid, and marvel at the men, obviously from the same family, who all joined up, quite possibly breaking their parents’ hearts. You circle the memorial respectfully so as not to neglect names from later conflicts, or the names of the occasional Boer war man or army nurse. But the wind whips up and you go back to the car. Doors shut, you turn up the music and get on your way.
A curious traveller might pull out their phone. Many websites are now dedicated to Australian war memorials and monuments, putting biographical flesh on the names they list. A few taps will bring you the service record of every Australian enlistee in both world wars, kept in the National Archives of Australia.
Twenty-three years after Page’s poem came the pivotal academic work on war memorials, historian Ken Inglis’s masterly Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape (written with Jan Brazier). Despite those earlier fears, interest in Anzac, and in the history of the first world war especially, has not withered. Quite the contrary: our last man might have long passed away, but his memory is kept alive by many, many commemorative shillings.
“Every town has one…” Yes, so it feels, as if small-town and suburban memorials have always dotted the Australian landscape. And yet there must have been a time during and after the first world war when no town had one, when no names were inlaid. What did families do when they began, painfully, to accept that the empty place at the dinner table would never be filled? How would the memory of their son or husband be kept alive not just for now, but for the future?
Historians have written extensively about mourning and commemorative practices in Australia during and after the first world war, and about whether and how they brought consolation to the bereaved. These are not new questions, and indeed they were not in the front of my mind when I came across a photograph of a woman named Fanny Cooper in the Australian War Memorial’s collection. This studio photo with her son Louis was taken in Launceston shortly after he enlisted in October 1916.
It was the image of Fanny that gave me pause. I wondered instantly who this beautiful, sad-eyed woman could possibly be. She seemed old enough to be Louis’s grandmother rather than his mother. Patient resignation is written on her face, as if she has known tragedy and is steeling herself for more. And it came. Louis served on the Western Front with the 12th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, but in July 1918 he died of broncho-pneumonia in a military hospital in England. Such is the ready availability of records these days that it took very little effort to establish these facts. The lad in the photograph did not come home. What then of his mother?
The Coopers lived in Longford, a small town about a twenty-minute drive south of Launceston. The family made no special mark on history and apparently left no personal letters or diaries in public archives or libraries. But the National Archives holds Louis’s pay file and service records, and in these I found a few letters from Fanny to military authorities seeking information about this and that. Not much, and little to tell me about her life or character.
Now fully immersed in this story, I kept digging and turned, inevitably, to local newspapers. The Launceston papers, the Examiner and the Daily Telegraph, routinely covered events in this and other northern districts. For decades historians have been using local papers to recover myriad small but telling details of people’s lives, but digitised newspapers now make this astoundingly quick. They open new paths for searching across places and associations with church, school, sport, leisure and work. This is how I recovered the Cooper family’s war story.
Fanny was the daughter of Isaiah Briggs, a saddler by trade and stalwart of Longford’s Methodist church, and his wife, Maria. One of Fanny’s sisters married the brother of Walter Lee, a Longford man from a Methodist family that ran a business making agricultural implements. Lee rose to prominence as a Tasmanian parliamentarian and, as Sir Walter Lee, was three-time premier of the state. Fanny married William Cooper, a painter and decorator, in 1880. Large families were still common then; Fanny was one of ten children, and she and William had six sons and five daughters. All eleven survived infancy, but their daughter Elsie died of typhoid in 1904, aged seventeen, and in 1910 two of their grandsons died in a horrific fire, aged just six and four.
Louis was the only one of Fanny’s sons to enlist, but by the time he did, seven of her nephews had enlisted and three had died. It is no wonder that, by then, Fanny looked all of her fifty-seven years.
The Coopers were at their property at Liffey when the dreaded telegram arrived in July 1918 announcing Louis’s death. For some years the family had divided their time between Longford and Liffey. The Liffey River drains the cliffs of Tasmania’s Great Western Tiers and meets the Meander river near Carrick. It is an area of wild beauty, known today for its protected wilderness areas and especially for the famous Liffey Falls. In the Coopers’ time, families ran small farms in the valley, grew vegetables and fruit, and trapped rabbits and marsupials for their fur.
The Cooper property appears to have been a mixture of farm and orchard, and provided extra income and employment for the Cooper sons beyond the family painting and decorating business in Longford. The Coopers sent Louis and perhaps some of their youngest children to the school at Liffey, but although there is a Baptist church there the Coopers worshipped at the Methodist church in nearby Bracknell, where William was a lay preacher.
Among the first things William and Fanny did after hurrying back to Longford was place an “In Memoriam” notice for Louis in the Daily Telegraph headed “Duty nobly done.” A few weeks later, at Bracknell on 16 August 1918, a memorial tree-planting was held at the recreation ground. Premier Sir Walter Lee attended the event along with local councillors and clergy, and addressed the crowd. His wife, Margaret, planted the first tree in honour of Colin Saunders, killed at the landing on Gallipoli, who was the district’s first soldier to die. The relatives of twelve other soldiers then planted trees, the last one being for Louis Cooper. He had not been dead a month at that point. His parents must still have been reeling.
This was several years — many years, in some cases — before permanent war memorials were established in Australian towns and cities. Ken Inglis has noted that expenditure on lavish monuments was discouraged during the war because all fundraising was directed to the war effort. Afterwards, local communities took so long to raise the money and settle upon the form and the site for their memorials that it was too late, Inglis thought, for them to serve as sites of immediate healing or consolation for many bereaved relatives. Anzac and Remembrance Day observances were still only in a formative state.
In the meantime, families needed something, somewhere to go, something to do, beyond their private grieving. This is what a funeral is for, after all. The Coopers and 60,000 other families had no body to bury or funeral to arrange, and no one knew when or how permanent memorials would be established. In the meantime, tree-plantings must have been a response to a hunger for ritual.
In Tasmania in the spring of 1918, with the war still going on, public tree-plantings were occurring all over the state — in fifty towns, according to one estimate. The trees were usually planted along major roads as “soldiers’ avenues.” They drew on a longer-standing practice: community tree-plantings as civic beautification projects had been a feature of Empire Day celebrations each 24 May, possibly based on an American tradition known as Arbor Day. Australia’s nationwide tree-planting movement — both to encourage enlistment and to mark the sacrifice of men of the district who had volunteered and died — began in 1916, promoted by returned soldiers’ associations and state recruiting committees. A major memorial avenue of 520 trees was established on Hobart’s Queen’s Domain in 1918 and 1919. These were planted solely for the dead, but in some towns there were plantings for all known volunteers.
Not a huge amount of money or coordination was required to clear and prepare land to establish soldiers’ avenues, and councils or local committees raised the funds to cover the costs of trees, tree guards and name plates or boards. Although they were usually secular affairs, a local clergyman would typically make a speech, and there would be hymns. “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” was the most popular, and the assembled crowds would salute the flag and sing the national anthem.
Tree-plantings didn’t have to be gloomy. The town of Cressy, about ten kilometres south of Longford, was described as “en fête” for the planting of its sixty trees, and the ceremony at Exton featured games and races for the children. People were often encouraged to support the latest national war loan, and a word of thanks would be put in for the Red Cross. Families gathered for photographs. Children might help plant the trees, although surely no one in these rural towns minded getting a bit of dirt on their knees. Proceedings invariably concluded with an afternoon tea provided by a committee of local women.
About 150 trees were planted along several of Longford’s major streets on 24 August 1918, a few weeks after the event at Bracknell. Premier Lee was again in attendance. He paid tribute to the bereaved parents of the district and declared his belief that trees were a much better way of “keeping green” the memory of those who had enlisted than the “rearing of a marble monument,” because the trees “would grow and live for many years.” The names were too numerous to be noted by the local press, but it seems likely that Louis Cooper was among those memorialised. Anyone who had “a boy at the front” could plant a tree as long as they promised to look after it.
Less than a month later, in the grounds of the Liffey state school on 15 September 1918, the Coopers had another tree-planting to attend. Basil Archer — a member of the Longford Municipal Council, Methodist lay preacher, and scion of one of northern Tasmania’s wealthy landowning families — did the honours this time. Again, the first tree was dedicated to Colin Saunders. (Five Saunders men — four brothers and a cousin — had enlisted and three had died, a fact that was probably the stuff of legend in the district.) A tree was planted for Louis Cooper.
As years passed, though, most soldiers’ avenues, even the large one in Hobart, fell into disrepair. Relatives who had tended to “their boy’s” tree, who had gathered there to spend a moment remembering or even have a picnic, gradually moved away or died. Councils ceased to pay attention. Trees died or were cut down to make way for other developments. Guards and name boards were lost. Memories were not “kept green.” Rather than being “inlaid,” the names were usually painted, impermanently, on timber.
At some point Longford’s council removed the name boards for refurbishment, after which they were forgotten and finally disposed of, apparently with no record kept. Were it not for newspaper reports, the existence of many soldiers’ avenues would be almost impossible to trace. In 2015 the little community in Liffey replanted their commemorative trees on the site of the old ones, and marked each with a new metal plate. Likewise, volunteers in Hobart have restored the soldiers’ avenue and launched a website explaining the history of this and other Tasmanian avenues. It keeps the memory digital.
Tree-plantings were one form of community response to the loss of sons and husbands. Honour boards were another, and here again we benefit from the efforts of volunteers in recent times to locate and digitally document artefacts scattered across sometimes obscure places.
Honour boards were unveiled in churches, schools, workplaces and community halls: hundreds in Tasmania, thousands across the country. Most consisted of lists of names painted onto a timber plaque, or “tablet” as they were sometimes called, perhaps embellished with elaborate carvings. Some were merely painted or printed on paper and framed. As with soldiers’ avenues, the same names would be repeated in different places, or sometimes omitted entirely for reasons impossible to recover now. No official coordination was undertaken, and few precedents or traditions existed. People just did what they felt was right.
Louis Cooper is named on a large, printed honour board dedicated to hundreds of men of the Longford district, which includes enlistments as well as deaths. It looks like a commercial effort by a publishing company, and evidently someone who was not local has gathered the names because all five of the Saunders men are erroneously called Sanders.
The same mistake was not made on the honour board for fifteen men from Liffey state school (now a community hall), which includes the Saunders men as well as Louis Cooper. A more elaborate board dedicated to “the mothers in sympathy and in memory of those sons from Longford who fell during the Great War” was unveiled in Longford in 1920. Twenty-six men are named, including Louis and two cousins, Guy Briggs and Charles Lee. Curiously, Louis was not included on the Bracknell town honour board even though his parents planted a tree for him there.
He is named on the honour board unveiled at the Mountain Vale Methodist church, however. A settlement principally based on sawmilling grew up in this area south of Liffey towards Blackwood Creek in the 1860s. The church served as a school building as well. Although the village was in decline by the early twentieth century, fifteen volunteers, including Louis Cooper, are recorded on the honour board. Six had died. The church has been dismantled and the honour roll is now kept at the Liffey Baptist Church.
Back in Longford, in May 1922, a memorial window was unveiled at the Methodist church, commemorating the loss of Louis Cooper and six other men from the parish. After the hymns and addresses, the assembled stood in silent prayer as Basil Archer drew aside the Union Jack to reveal the window. Its central feature is a crusader in armour with sword and crown, surrounded by the words “Faithful unto Death” and “I Have Fought the Good Fight.”
Longford’s permanent memorial was finally unveiled in Victoria Park, in the centre of town, in August 1922. It is a black granite obelisk with fifty-three names inlaid, including Louis Cooper’s. By then his name had been honoured with three tree-plantings, three honour boards and a church window, meaning that the Coopers had put his name forward for commemorative projects no fewer than eight times in four years. I have no doubt they and their family attended every single planting and unveiling.
We can read accounts of all these events, but we can only imagine the social interactions: the greetings among neighbours and extended kin, the consoling hand on a shoulder, the stories told in odd moments between formalities. Ageing parents listen eagerly to men who had been to the war and come back, keen for anything that could help them understand how their son had died. Over cups of tea, they might grumble about how slow military authorities were to pass on information but also share some of their son’s letters and mementos, perhaps even a pocket diary sent home with his last effects. Clergymen murmur words of consolation. Young men who had not volunteered stand apart talking among themselves. Children dodge about, gobbling cake while trying to look solemn.
Community events like this gave the bereaved a space within which to renew social connections and compose a story of the war that they could live with. They would see roughly the same people and hear the same speeches from the same local worthies at events held sometimes only weeks apart. The very repetition might have been comforting. Everyone had heard all the rhetoric before, of course, but that didn’t matter. Seeing their boy’s name listed in public among the others was what mattered. If that helped to define and externalise their loss, a path towards acceptance might just have been possible.
Fanny Cooper would have known that Louis might not come back. Other women in her community, including her own sisters, had already been bereaved by the time mother and son posed for their photograph in a studio in Launceston in late 1916, he in his newly issued uniform and she in her best dress. How could any parent live with that awful uncertainty? That is the mystery preserved in the photograph; that is what draws our eyes to hers. •