Gallipoli, Palestine and the Western front dominated post war impressions of the Great War. It was as if every family was affected, such was the impact of these theatres. Little was said of the New Guinea campaign. Sid rarely mentioned his experiences with ANMEF. His response to the war didn’t fit the paradigm; he was unwilling to march in ANZAC Day parades. Perhaps he marched in the first one, but that was it. It wasn’t a matter of indifference. His focus was on the sacrifice, his reluctance perhaps a product of concern about the risks of glorification.
Sid was saddened by some of the other unintended consequences of war. On their return to Australia several ANMEF officers were charged with looting. A culture of looting seems to have prevailed amongst some sections of the ANMEF. The official record on the extent of this behaviour, is far from clear, but as a consequence of this ill discipline the reputation of the ANMEF suffered. Whatever his precise motivation Sid chose a different path.
At first he avoided the whole issue. In the boom decade following the war he married and became a successful SP bookmaker. He also managed to win the lottery. Just how much Sid won isn’t certain, but it was sufficient for him to buy a house on the northern side of Coogee, along Alison Rd.
With the crash in 1929 his fortunes were reversed. Family history suggests he’d been trying to help his mates, lending money to other bookmakers. When the crunch came he was unable to call in these debts. Soon the house was gone and, in his mid 30s, with a wife and two small children to support, Sid found himself walking to and from Central railway each day where he’d managed to find work in the railway bookstore.
Central Station, in those days, had the importance and commercial life of the airport terminal of today. Anyone wanting to travel outside Sydney or travel to Sydney, went to Central. Here the state’s rail network converged and since it was well before the days when cars offered a viable transport solution, this was the centre of the state. It had a vibrant retail precinct, several major breweries nearby, many pubs, the main markets, Chinatown and the busy port area of Darling Harbour were close at hand. Sid’s excellent clerical skills now served him well.
Also working at the bookstore was Sophia Crosby from Tumut. Sophia had been raised by a family called Mowbray, her parents were unknown. The Mowbrays were missionaries in Tumut lying as it did at the convergence of three different Aboriginal lands. Sophia grew up on an Aboriginal mission.
In 1930, at the age of 35, Sophia married a British returned service man, Horace Crosby. A widower, this was Horace’s second marriage and at 57 he was 22 years her senior. Originally from Bristol he’d come out to Australia to work, after his wife’s death. At the time of his enlistment he was working as an accountant in Nyngan.
When Horace joined the 17 Infantry Battalion of the Australian Imperial Expeditionary Forces, in December, 1915, he was already 42 years old. In addition to the desire to fight for King and country, he was keen to see England again, and visit his daughter Marion. Unfortunately he had already been injured in the Boer War. His active service on the Western Front aggravated old injuries leading to a medical discharge. Now he was 100% disabled and wheel chair bound.
In 1921 the Australian Returned Soldiers and Sailors Imperial League (the forerunner to the RSL) imported one million silk poppies, made in French orphanages, for the commemoration of Armistice Day on the 11 November. Although a noble charitable act, such products proved expensive so a short time latter they began purchasing Australian made poppies, fashioned from red crepe paper. Some time in the 1920s Horace probably took up making red crepe paper poppies. It’s most likely to have been a small income earner for a man so completely incapacitated. When Horace died in 1933 it seems Sid and Sophia carried on the business together, diversifying into the production of wreaths fashioned with artificial laurel leaves and bearing the words ‘Lest we Forget’ on purple ribbon.
Over time Nana was drawn into this work, mum as well when there was pressure to complete things quickly. Suit cases of red crepe paper, boxes of buttons, green cloth coated wire, shiny pressed paper laurel leaves and rolls of purple ribbon, were common place.
Days and evenings were spent sitting by the adults as they worked from a card tables, cutting up petal shapes using a metal template; stretching each petal so it assumed a concave shape reminiscent of a poppy petal; gathering clusters of petals about a button already set at the end of green bound wire; and, tying all together with a few dept twists of more green wire.
Between the Crosby’s household and my own it seemed most, if not all, of the poppies for Remembrance Day were created. They had something approaching a monopoly, particularly during the booming economic conditions that followed World War 2. When Sid died Doris and Sophia continued the business, now employing people on a piece rate basis and roping in any vaguely competent passing relative.
No one was ever able to say much about Sid’s war record. Throughout his life Sid too had little to say about his wartime experiences. Such was his taciturn approach that when he eventually died Nana had difficulty obtaining definitive proof of his war service, because she didn’t know his exact unit number or anything much about his service record.
It was so commonplace to spend one’s days and evenings with adults engaged in this highly repetitive cottage industry that I rarely bothered to mention it outside the home. Yet, on reflection, it was something that marked our family apart connecting us, in an almost devotional way, with the tradition of commemoration.
The very act of making each poppy was commemorative, there was often talk of the young who’d sacrificed their lives for our freedom. The importance of their sacrifice was taken for granted and the apparently endless creation of paper poppies was, in hindsight, something like the creation Sadako’s paper cranes for peace. Certainly, while born of the need to earn a living, poppy production had an undeniable and almost mystical significance.
No other family I knew of was engaged in such a way. Each ANZAC Day or at any time when wreaths were laid at cenotaphs or other places of commemoration for the fallen dead I new it was Nana and Sophia’s wreaths that were being laid. In a sense it placed us at the centre of things. Other young people either weren’t interested or didn’t believe me when I told them. It felt important yet strange work.
Years later sitting with Balinese friends as they spent hours preparing delicate janur, palm leaf offerings, for temple festivals I realized just how unusual my childhood had been in many respects. Some of the best Balinese art is ephemeral, indeed all over Indonesia there are similar art forms or Janur as they’re called. In Bali this process is part of Bhakti, a central part of devotions. As the day of a major festival or odalan approaches women in particular, sit in groups folding, weaving and platting. When I spoke of my own childhood, of the boxes of red paper and the days and evenings with adults sitting, fashioning red flowers from the materials at hand, they understood.