Last weekend I watched Moana again with my kids. This was no hardship, as I love this movie. Heck, I love the direction Disney is going right now—they really seem to have figured out what makes a story tick. As the credits rolled, my oldest son turned to me.
‘Dad, I think I know what this movie’s about.’
‘Oh, aye? What?’ Now, my son’s not long grown out of Thomas the Tank Engine, so I’m not expecting a particularly sophisticated answer. Probably he’s going to tell me it’s about a girl who goes on an adventure with a shapeshifter and fights a giant lava monster at the end. Nope. His next words staggered me.
‘It’s about being who you are.’
I blinked. ‘That’s interesting. What makes you say that, buddy?’
‘Well…’ He frowned. ‘They talk about it lots. Especially in the songs. Moana loves the ocean, and that’s who she is. But she needs to be brave to be a sailor, because the ocean’s scary and her dad doesn’t want her to go. So she has to be brave to be who she is.’
I smiled. ‘Go on.’
‘Maui, he’s really nice, and that’s who he is, but he acts mean and tough because he thinks that’s how everybody will like him. And the island lady at the end…’
He shrugs. ‘That’s what it’s about. Being who you are.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I would agree with you. That’s what it’s all about. Well done.’
He gets it. At heart, whatever the details of plot or character, stories are about something. And when you’re writing, that something isn’t always clear. Sometimes you don’t figure out the theme until you’re deep in the editing phase. But once you realise it, you hold onto it and never let go.
I’d say it’s really important to know what your story is really about before you start trying to sell it—to the reading public, agents, publishers, whatever. It should be implicit in your elevator pitch, even if you don’t beat readers over the head with it. Once you can distil the essence of your story into a simple phrase, it’s your first step toward getting others to understand what it’s really about.
A couple of years ago I decided to do some research on the lives of my maternal great grandparents, Harold Moses Horne and Marion Gordon Horne (née Taylor). I thought I would share what I found, and my reflections on the ANZAC legend and what it has meant for my family.
It was relatively easy to find information on Harold in old newspapers and the national archives, as he was a soldier in World War I. Marion was more difficult to trace. I managed to find three photographs of Harold. I’ve included one above. There are only two existing pictures of Marion, as far as I know. One is their wedding photo, taken when she and Harold were young. The other is of them in their fifties, worn and unsmiling. Both pictures are lost in a box somewhere. For both of their lives I am dependent also on the oral tradition handed down to me by my Mum. What really strikes me is how profoundly the war affected both of their lives. These people were not legends, as such, but genuine human beings with all the strengths and frailties that come with being human. I hope nobody minds if I share some of what I’ve found, and some of the thoughts I’ve had trying to piece together their lives.
Our story begins with Harold. This is by necessity, because information about Marion is scarce. His war record says he was born in 1895 to Charles and Miriam Horne, both of them farmers. That’s not too surprising. The overwhelming majority of Australians were farmers in those days. He was a Baptist, and from what I understand pretty devout most of his life. Most of his life he lived in Rosewood, Queensland. What really hits me is that he was a promising kid. According to the Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser, he won an academic prize at Ashwell State School. I guess he would have been twelve. After that, he took up an apprenticeship as a mechanic at the Ipswich Rail Works. He would have just finished the apprenticeship when he signed up with the army in March of 1916.
Why did he sign up? The same old stories get trotted out around this time of year. The stereotypical story of the ANZAC recruit is that he had a craving for adventure, or an ardent desire to defend the Motherland, or (God help us) wanted to help forge the Australian identity. Honestly? I have no idea, but I am willing to speculate that there were more prosaic reasons he might have joined the army. The Ipswich Rail Works ceased operations less than a year after he joined. Government subsidies had been redirected to the war effort, and most of the company’s labour force had volunteered. Perhaps Harold saw the writing on the wall for the company, and decided to try his luck with the army as many of his mates had? Certainly he and his family had never been well-off, and Australian troops were paid a princely sum of six shillings a day—more than three times as much as their British counterparts. In any case, we do know that he enlisted in February of 1916. At the age of twenty-one, I don’t think he could have known what he was in for.
A few months later, he boarded a ship for Alexandria to undergo training. I don’t think he could have had much training or experience. Five months after he embarked from Australia to Alexandria, he was shipped off to Marseilles, and from there to the Somme. Harold was part of a machine-gun division. Perhaps he had been assigned there because of his experience with heavy machinery. Who knows? All I know is that what he experienced changed him forever. We can read of the Somme, but I don’t think any of us can really understand the pointless, empty brutality of the battlefield—young men cut to ribbons and left to rot in no-man’s-land, and for what? To gain a few feet of land which would be lost the next day? Whatever empty sentiments we hear on ANZAC Day, I have difficulty seeing anything noble or glorious about such pointless loss of life. As a machine-gunner, his role would have been defensive. He likely never went over the top, but rather defended his trench against enemy attack. I can’t imagine the horror of it, to have to kill or be killed. He would have let loose a hail of fire that would have decimated row after row of enemy soldiers. What does that do to a person? I’m glad that I’ll never have to know.
Harold served in France until November of 1917. On a cool Autumn morning, his unit was hit by an enemy mustard gas attack. In the confusion, he was snared in some barbed wire. He managed to get his mask on, but the damage was done. His lungs were shredded. He was relocated to a military hospital in Aberdeen with acute laryngitis. It is at this point my great grandmother Marion comes into the story.
Marion had been born in 1898. Her dad was a blacksmith, and she had lived in Aberdeen all her life. When they met she was a munitions worker, and volunteered by night as a nurse’s aide. Here the oral tradition diverges somewhat from the documentary evidence. According to my mum, her grandmother always said they fell in love gradually as she tenderly tended his wounds. He was the tragic hero, an exotic foreigner fighting for freedom. It was like a scene from a romance novel. Perhaps that’s genuinely how they remembered it, and I don’t doubt that they were immediately attracted to one another on some level. No, what I find myself doubting is the timeframe. Harold was admitted to hospital on the Eighth of November, 1917. He and Marion were married on the Thirteenth.
Crikey. They didn’t waste time in those days.
Most marriage certificates tend to be printed on cream paper with gold embossed writing—or the ones that are meant for display, at any rate. This one is pretty grubby, with military typescript and scribble. Whoever made the record got her name wrong. The paper says she was ‘Maria.’ I’m willing to bet Marion lied about her age. While other records show she was born in 1898, the marriage certificate says she was born in 1895. Or perhaps it was a clerical error.
I can speculate all sorts of things that might have been going on at this point. It was probably clear to them that Harold was going to be rejoining his unit soon, and chances were that he wouldn’t have made it home, especially with his wounds. Did either of them expect this to be lifelong commitment? Nobody knew when or how the war would end. Maybe they felt they had to live in the moment. Or maybe they were just silly kids who didn’t think things through. I expect they saw it as terribly romantic to get married so soon, in a flurry of passion. There could have been any number of reasons. I honestly don’t know. There’s only so much a scrap of paper can tell you, and only so much a grandmother is willing to divulge to a child. Don’t forget, one of my main sources is what my mother tells me her grandmother told her when she was a kid. I suspect we’ll never know the full story. It would certainly cause his proper English Baptist parents some consternation when he brought home a girl who was not only Scottish but Presbyterian!
Harold and Marion only had a few weeks together before he was sent back to the front line, where he was reassigned to another machine-gun division. A few months later he suffered a relapse of laryngitis, and was sent back to the UK to recover. I haven’t been able to figure out where, and I haven’t found any evidence of communication between Harold and Marion at this point. Then he was deemed too ill to return to fighting, but was not discharged at this point. The war ended in 1918, but he couldn’t go home just yet.
After four years of bloodshed and with millions dead, Harold was reassigned to the Burials Division. This was a common fate for a lot of soldiers in his boots, I think. Too sick to fight, not sick enough for a medical discharge. They called Australian soldiers ‘Diggers.’ The word ‘Digger’ evokes mateship and bravery in Australian parlance. It features heavily in the bellicose rhetoric of the tabloid, the trite warmongering of the political speech. In Harold’s case, I don’t think he would have found anything to cheer in the name.
At this point we find something a little unexpected in Harold’s war record. In May, 1919, he was admitted to yet another military hospital, this time seeking treatment for syphilis. When did he pick it up? How did he pick it up? Actually, you know what? Never mind how. Let’s go back to when, and from whom? When I mentioned the disease to Mum, her eyebrows raised. ‘Ah,’ she said. ‘Well, you know. These young blokes, they thought they were going to die any day. I guess they had to try it.’ It is entirely possible that he contracted syphilis from a casual encounter or through the services of a sex worker. Once more, we’ll never know.
And I’m okay with that.
What I’m more curious about is whether he had it before he and Marion were married. If so (as seems likely) then she would have caught it too. Mum thinks that would have explained a few things about their marriage. I cannot blame him for passing it onto her. After all, syphilis only becomes detectable to the naked eye in its later stages. I just feel terribly sorry for both of them. Treatments for syphilis in those days did little and had horrible side-effects. It must have seemed like a miracle when penicillin was discovered when they were in their thirties. Shortly after undergoing treatment, Harold was placed on indefinite leave, and returned to Aberdeen. I can only assume she was treated too, as both would still have been carriers.
Some months later, they embarked aboard a ship to Australia. By this point, Marion was pregnant; the baby was stillborn en route. He was Christened ‘Allan’ before being buried at sea. Marion always blamed him. Now I guess we know why.
Harold came back to Rosewood a hero. The local paper ran a photo of him on the front page. His name and picture were included in a commemorative book, Queenslanders in the Great War. Incidentally, you can still download a copy of this book via the University of Queensland library. But inside I think both of them were dealing with a world of hurt. They had both seen things that nobody should have to see. They had just lost a child. And I can imagine that each was suddenly realising the consequences of marrying a stranger. Marion was far from the only home she had ever known, and trapped living with her in-laws, who never lost their distaste for her. She spoke with a heavy brogue, and never quite fit in with her husband’s family.
The next decades are a blur. Times were lean. The roaring twenties largely bypassed the young couple, and indeed much of Queensland. Harold didn’t qualify for a pension, as the government did not deem him grievously injured enough to warrant one. But his health was permanently affected, and he was so frequently ill that he could never hold down a steady job. There are a few reports of him being fined a few shillings here and there for driving without a licence or public drunkenness. Their marriage was never easy. Before he left, Harold had apparently been easy-going and likeable. Now he was surly and easily provoked. The war had changed Marion too. As a girl she had been naive, energetic. Over the next years she nursed a deep resentment for the hurts she had endured, and a regret for the life she had left behind. They had three more boys, Jack, Gordon, and Allan. The last boy was her favourite, named after the baby she and Harold had lost.
Their marriage, always tense, seems to have reached breaking point during the Great Depression. I was startled to discover a 1937 article from The Queensland Times. I don’t know much about the context, but certainly the clipping is suggestive of deep problems in their marriage. I shall reproduce it below.
STIR IN COURT
Woman Leaves Witness Box
A stir was caused in the Summons Court yesterday when the complainant in a case became somewhat excited and rushed from the witness box before she had completed her evidence. Appearing before Mr. G.A. Cameron, P.M., Marion Horne, Ipswich, claimed that of February 20th, 1937, she had been unlawfully deserted by her husband, Harold Moses Horne, and that she had been compelled to leave her husband’s residence under reasonable apprehension of danger to her person.
The complainant, in evidence, stated that she had been married to the defendant for 18 years. Her present address was Bremer flats, but she had lived with her husband in Roderick Street until a year ago. She was not living with him now, as he had made her life a “hell.” On February 20th she was compelled to leave her home because she was afraid he would do her an injury. Her mind was a complete blank regarding the events that led up to the incident on February 20th, because every day was the same to her. She had gone through a lot and her nerves were bad. On one occasion he had thrown water over her, and he ill-treated her frequently.
With an outburst of emotion witness declared that she was happy to go to her own home, and she would never go back to live with him again.
‘Witness began to talk very fast, and after being continually advised by the Police Magistrate to tell her story calmly and coherently she shouted hysterically: “That is enough! You can do what you like with me!” She then left the witness-box and made for the Court-House door, but was recalled.
‘The case was dismissed, Mr. Cameron observing as he turned to the defendant: “You had better make arrangements to keep her.”
What conclusions can I draw from this? First, that the situation for women in the 1930s was pretty lousy, if that’s the best the judge could come up with when presented evidence of domestic abuse. Next, my great grandmother had considerable courage to testify against him in the first place. And finally… Look, I don’t want to absolve my great grandfather of blame, but my mind cannot help but make a connection to the war. It is possible that post-traumatic stress could have been a factor in the domestic violence. The war made her life hell as well as his.
This is one of the legacies of war, that it tears apart the lives of generations. She did go back to him, and that they never separated again after that. I’m not sure she had much choice in the matter. But when Harold passed away in 1955 at the age of sixty, I know she remembered him with fondness. She would sit by the window in the afternoons with a pack of cigarettes, and remember. Sometimes she would tell her grandchildren something of her life, and that of the blue-eyed boy she fell for in Aberdeen.
I have mixed feelings about ANZAC Day. Most of all I hate the way the legend silences the Anzacs themselves. I hate the way it has become commercialised like Christmas, with scented candles and slogans, biscuits, campouts and all this khaki rubbish. Is it nothing more than an excuse to get pissed and play two-up? Why do we mask the human dimension of conflict behind sanctimony? Harold and Marion’s was not the war to end all wars. A hundred years have passed since Gallipoli. Do we have the right to use the ANZAC story to encourage today’s young people to take up arms for God, gold, and glory?
No. I don’t think we do.
But you know what? I too am a part of the war’s legacy. So are my parents, my siblings, my children. I’m rather glad Harold and Marion jumped into their relationship head-first. I owe my present existence to a very rash decision two young people made around a hundred years ago. And now as an historian I can do my best to ensure that their legacy is remembered and not misused.