Accounts from the Front
Rowing club’s exhibition reveals members’ war experience in their own hand
21 December 2017
'The artillery and machine guns, as I am writing, are all around us, and causing a terrible din. However, things are not too bad. While on sentry last night I had a bit of luck, as a bullet struck the mud alongside my foot.'
R.J. Betancor wrote home from France on 15 July 1916. Four days later he was lost on the first day of action at Fromelle. He was only 20 years old.
His letter, extracted above, was published in the wartime newspaper The Winner, part of Trove’s digitised newspaper collection, on 13 September 1916. For Albert Park-South Melbourne Rowing Club historian Grace Blake, it’s a touching example from club members’ letters collected for Anzac Centenary exhibitions, with the latest, Accounts from the Front, currently showing at the Emerald Hill Library and Heritage centre.
Royce (Roy) John Betancor joined the rowing club only a month before Australia joined the war in 1914 and enlisted the next year on 12 April aged 19, only to be discharged for being underage. With his parents' permission, he successfully re-enlisted on 2 August, and landed in France as part of the 60th Battalion on 28 June 1916. The letter - with its optimistic and philosophical tone - is one of nine displayed along with biographies of 13 veterans, all members of the Albert Park and South Melbourne Rowing Club who enlisted during World War I.
The Winner was published by The Herald for soldiers and contained mostly sporting and entertainment news. The Albert Park Rowing Club secretary, Stan Stewart, was a Herald writer who worked on The Winner and published letters from the front, many of which were from club members. 'They would write their letters home, sometimes to family, sometimes to the rowing club,' Ms Blake says. 'They told us a lot about their characters, who was friends with whom, all sorts of things.'
Lieutenant Charles Monteath, an Albert Park oarsman and club treasurer, as well as the winner of a Military Cross, comments in a letter on the rowing fraternity, as well as revealing some gallows humour:
'The rowing fellows are doing fairly well, there is no mistake. I expected to have a third star by this time, but we had a lot of Anzacs returned to the battalion lately, and, of course, they all ranked senior to me. I have been made second in command of a company for the next stunt. Last stunt I was company commander, and the one before I was the suicide club king (officer commanding bombers). I just get that way that I do not care a hang what I'm doing.'
The Winner was distributed to troops overseas and despite being six months behind, was eagerly consumed. Discovering The Winner in her initial searches, Ms Blake said that without Trove she would not have even known the publication existed.'It’s been amazing, I wouldn’t have been able to do as thorough research or as extensive research. It would have been a much shorter project if I had just used microfilm,' she said. Trove has also been vital for identifying Diggers from the honour rolls, as there were many common names such as Smith, and only initials and surnames listed.
Ms Blake used the UNSW's AIF Project website to look people up by name and address, then cross-matched that information on Trove. She also used regimental numbers to obtain service records from the National Archives, and additional information from the Australian War Memorial. 'It was a multi-pronged approach of comparing data to confirm a certain person was a member of the rowing club, using their first name and looking at the service record, and from there I was able to find out when they enlisted or when they came back, and what they did overseas,' she said.
Ms Blake was also able to find photographs in Trove. She had one club photo from that time, of the South Melbourne members in a group shot, but only two names.'Sometimes you put in a slightly different search name and something new turns up, and I found a club photo from Albert Park from 1914 that had all the names. So I thought if there is one for Albert Park there’s got to be one for South Melbourne,' she said. 'It took a couple of days and it turned out to be the same photo I had but with all the names, plus an unexpected bonus because I was able to confirm [footballer] Roy ‘Up There’ Cazaly was in the photo.'
Trove also filled in gaps in the club record, with annual reports not produced during the war years due to a shortage of funds.'Without Trove we wouldn’t have been able to find out what was happening. Fortunately, the reports of annual general meetings were published in the local paper, The Record, which has also been digitised,' Ms Blake said. She said the result had been a 'really interesting time capsule of what was happening at the club at a certain time’.
The exhibition, staged with assistance from the Victorian Veterans Council, is at the Emerald Hill Library and Heritage Centre until 22 January 2018.