Lots of rabbits this year

DISPERSED AMONG LENGTHY discussions of cycling, which must have been their shared passion, a teenage Charles Harlock was given some erratic career advice by an amiable relative in Sydney called Thomas Love in 1903:

You say you are going to leave school soon. What are you going to do for your living then? Are you going to learn the art of catching rabbits or electrical engineering, or typewriting or photography? Whatever you do, don’t learn to be a shoemaker because it’s a poor trade.

When I think of my great-uncle Charlie, this whimsical image comes to mind along with an old sepia photograph of dry-stone walling in Victoria’s Western District at the end of the nineteenth century. The people in the image are posed – standing with wheelbarrows and examining the fruits of their labour – but the dog is not. An endearing blur of overexcited collie still smudges the corner of the photograph more than a century later.

I knew Charles Harlock when I was a child, as he approached the end of a long life and I viewed him with the awe and fascination that the very young sometimes have for the very old. Even today, when I think of him, it is with the impressions of a young mind in formation rather than the compartmentalised and formulaic memory of an adult. I can’t remember particular things he said or did, but I still retain a sense of amazement at someone who was so vast, craggy and ancient, and yet seemed to radiate the benign tolerance of a curious and rather awe-struck youngster. More than two decades after his death, I am still aware of a childish glow of affection for what I then thought was the oldest living thing in existence – a kind of shy, grandly avuncular tortoise in human form.

On entering the Harlock family home in Geelong, still occupied by Uncle Charlie’s surviving daughter, there is a full portrait photograph of a young man in uniform, shoulders back, feet apart, slouch hat freshly plumed, staring fervently into the horizon – exactly the pose struck by millions of other young men heading optimistically to the Great War.

To our relief, the war experience of Charles Harlock seemed remarkably benign. The story went like this: Uncle Charlie enlisted late in the war, and had been sent out on a troop ship that took so long to get to Europe that the war was over by the time it arrived. He explored London and visited Windsor Castle (where he was served tea by a princess along with the rest of his battalion). He then visited Belgium, where he got on so well with the local family who billeted him that they gave him a piece of lace cut from the same cloth as his host’s wedding dress. This account of Charles Harlock’s war experience seemed to be quite appropriate, if rather lucky – the prospect of sending a young dairy farmer from the hamlet of Pomborneit in Victoria’s Western District to the industrial carnage of Ypres, Pozières and Harfleur seemed incandescently wrong. The Harlocks were much more interested in local weather and cows than they were in the European balance of power.

The recent discovery of a biscuit tin, however, containing a fragmentary collection of letters, photographs and field notebooks reveals a different story. Far from arriving late and experiencing a genteel war of tea and tourism, he spent two years fighting on the Western Front. Uncle Charlie enlisted at Warrnambool in Victoria in October 1916 and arrived in Plymouth on the troopship Honorata in early 1917 to join the other young men of the district. These were the Boyds, McGarvies and Hallyburtons – friends, neighbours and relatives who, like the last of the medieval armies, had all joined up as villages to fight together. A life-saving bout of flu kept Charles Harlock in hospital for three months, which meant he missed the slaughter at Bullecourt in May 1917 that killed 80 per cent of his battalion. He entered the line shortly after and remained on the Western Front until the end of the war before being repatriated in late 1919, unharmed. But the letters are not an account of the Western Front. As in Charles Harlock’s later life, this experience is only half alluded to in the correspondence, much of which is about the life left behind on the farm and in the district.

TWO SNAKESKIN POUCHES, scored with the words ‘6460 c. harlock 24 btn’, held the trove of letters (whose address bore only his name followed by ‘Australian Imperial Force, Abroad’), photos and two small field notebooks that contained scrawled, cryptic and laconic details of life on the front. The minute, fading scratches of watery ink read as a shorthand inventory of movements into and out of the line, inspections, parades and vast lists of correspondence owed and received from home. They represent a random selection of tesserae from a greater mosaic of lost experience. The notebooks are interspersed with pressed poppies, gum leaves and what appears to be a small sprig of wattle whose fading brilliance is a counterpoint to the restraint of the notebooks themselves. The entry for 11 November 1918 – now a hallowed moment – simply reads ‘Armstice signed’, but the preserved foliage speaks of hidden memories and a silent expansiveness. A faded red-and-black petal taped to a card reads ‘Pozières Ridge 1917’.

Private Harlock records a succession of calm seas and bright, sunny days on the way over. Two men – sensing what was in store – deserted at Cape Town but were captured the next day. He saw a whale and a stop at St Helena reveals a ‘barren looking island with high cliffs…a few scrubby trees’. There are festivities on New Year’s Day 1917: ‘sausages for breakfast, pudding, tea and tug of war won by 24 Btn’. It is cold and rough as the Honorata nears England, and a day out of Portsmouth, ‘five torpedo boats come out to meet us’ and escorted them into port.

He is issued with a service rifle – number 9800 – and given detailed technical training, which is faithfully recorded. The gun’s loading mechanism is described: ‘the ball strikes against the base of the cartridge and forces it into the chamber where the extraction springs over the rim of the cartridge…the left side of the bolt face strikes the side of the ejector causing the bolt to progress out ready for the next.’ But after this the entries become short expressions of fact. ‘27/3/1917 Went into line’ is a typical entry. He records that it is ‘very hot at Harfleurs’ and later that he had ‘done 36 hours water & mud over our knees and come out with trench feet’. Easter Sunday in 1918 is spent ‘on the Warrington Front about 1/2 mile behind the line in pill box, machine gun post & gun guard’, and not long afterwards the ‘battalion badly gassed about two companys almost wiped out D & A’. Boxing Day 1917 and New Year’s Day 1918 are spent loading shells, while New Year’s Eve is spent making barbed-wire entanglements. And then there is a ‘beautiful sunny day in the sappers trench’.

BUT IF CHARLES Harlock’s personal notes were sparse, letters from home kept him informed and attempted to foster a bit of jolly war spirit that is entirely absent from his own account. His uncle, William Dillon from Pomborneit, writes:

Glad to know you were alive and well and feeling fit for old fritz for he takes a lot of beating my word it must have been cold over there Cows are coming in now milking eleven ourselves and our neighbours likewise.


There seems to be a stiff time ahead of Allies but hope and trust they will pull through and smash old fritz up to pulp.

There is also good news from injured friends and relatives who’ve been repatriated, although William Dillon rather charmingly seems to confuse descriptions of young relatives returned from the war with cattle, ‘Jim McGarvie is back again and looks splendid and is stout fat and rosy looking’, while ‘we had Jock for a day he looks splendid big and plump and rosy and weighs 12–13 stone he says’. But not everyone was stout and rosy: Harry Parson had ‘gone under…he had worked himself up to Sargeant they say too poor fellow’.

There is other news from the district. The ‘Boyds are getting a new Ford car Colonial body like ours’ and, inevitably, there are ‘lots of Rabbits about this year I’ve caught over 70 myself’. There is also a hint of scandal: ‘Albert Lucas married again took on little Gertie Moore this time a school girl you might say just about 17 years old and he is about 36 they say. Something disgusting aint it.’

News also comes from Marguerite Gardner, a student at The Hermitage, Geelong’s pre-eminent ladies boarding school, who had been assigned a soldier to write to. Unlike all the other correspondence, which is handwritten, this letter is typed and the tone is both articulate and prim. ‘I must also thank you for the details about these battalions which were last in the firing line – yours was one of them and no doubt you feel glad to have this honour,’ she writes from the prosperous seaside suburb of Brighton in 1919. Reflecting on Charles Harlock’s impending homecoming, she writes: ‘I think there must be a feeling of gladness and thankfulness too deep for words, in the hearts of those at home, for their brave soldier here has been spared to see them again.’

But these are the only references to the war. She is excited about a new development in the district: the arrival of an electric train which breaks down unexpectedly during a trial run, owing to a suspected ‘escape’ of electricity:

A party of officials arrived on the scene, to investigate the mystery, while some subordinates awaited commands. One of the latter, in the most approved Australian style, leant against a stanchion. He no sooner touched it than he described one or two somersaults over the ground. The others ran to him to know the cause of this unexpected demonstration and he answered ‘I found the leak’.

But there is a more sombre allusion to the after-effects of war. Talking about a relative who has also returned from the front, she writes:

I don’t know what you and Harry have done but he thinks there’s no one like you – but I know others that think the same. I think he has aged a good bit and he says the gasses are starting to affect him again but so many of the boys say the same.

JOHN HARLOCK’S LETTERS to his son, signed ‘Your affec Father’, are both anxious for Charlie’s safety and eager for his return to help with the demands of running the farm. In March 1917, shortly before Charlie was sent to the front, John Harlock writes that he is glad to hear ‘you were well we are all well things are all looking well there has been a good lot of rain lately the grass is growing well Arthur and I are trapping rabbits’.

They pay income tax of twenty-eight pounds, and ‘got six bags of peas and twenty bags of potatoes…the wool sold well about a penny more than last year’. The work is unending, ‘milking cows about 55 gals a day from 22 [cows] the dam broke away again’, although the ‘thistle are not really so bad this year’. But after these descriptions, he adds ‘this is all I can think of to write so good my boy my thoughts are always with you’. As Charlie is away longer, the tone of the letters appears to become more concerned, but the subject, as ever, quickly reverts to the all-consuming work of the farm:

I am writing a few lines to let you know that I have not forgotten you but I cannot forget you for one hour in the day we have finished shearing and sent the wool away the grass is green.

Being so far away, John Harlock repeatedly offers financial assistance as the only thing that he can do at a distance for his son: ‘…let me know if money would be any good to you and I will send you some that is the only thing that I can do for you now hoping you are well we are well’.

But by 1919, as Uncle Charlie awaits the lengthy process of repatriation to Australia, John Harlock increasingly needs his son back on the farm. ‘When do you think you will be able to come away home if you think that you can get away by paying your passage home I will send the money to pay it’ he urges. There is work to be done, prices are coming down, and there is physical labour that needs extra farm hands. Although it is not stated, like much else in the Harlock correspondence, it is clearly time for Charlie to come home. The anxious tone has gone and is replaced with the endless and myriad demands of primary production:

I have got the thistle all cut I am at the rabbits now they are bad this year I have sold all the sheep and lambs that I am going to…sheep have come down very low…the wool is not sold yet the dam is getting very low we will have to sink the old bore a bit deeper… I hope this finds you well.

BY FAR THE most visually arresting letters are those from Uncle Charlie’s mother. His father’s letters are neat and concise, written in a controlled, backward sloping copperplate script. Elizabeth Harlock’s letters, however, stride boldly across the page in strong strokes that almost defy readability. As the war wears on, they become bolder, strokes across the page increasingly disconnected from the actual shape or forms of letters and words, but nonetheless recognisable as the lilt and flow of language. The letters convey an almost musical impression in their illegibility, with a barely contained energy that increases as the letters progress into a crescendo of downstrokes and dashes across the page. It is likely that she is not fully literate and what can be deciphered conveys a mixture, much like that of her husband, of concern for her son’s safety and farm news. They are also the only surviving letters that contain any religious references.

My Dear Boy I hope you are still out of Danger am afraid you will soon be in the Trenches…to think thear will be a great battle soon and so hoping for a letter soon…. All are well at home Jim was down on Thursday and bort 4 Effers at 14 pounds 10 a dreadful price… Hill is sending you a pare of socks.


We are having Very Cold Wether latly and you ar having it very Hot in france By the way…your trees ar growing well now Everything as going well if you were only Home We Would be Happy but we must trust in god to bring you Home safe and sound.

Well Dear Boy I must say goodby and god bless you both your father so good and he takes the Milk to the Factory himself I did not think he would doo that goodbye once more.

Your loving mother E H xxxx

WHILE THE CARES and concerns of work on the farm dominate his parents’ letters, Uncle Charlie is clearly beginning to have the time of his life now that the war is almost over. On writing paper from the AIF & War Chest Club (97 Horseferry Road, London SW1) he provides an account of the ‘absolutely marvellous Windsor Castle’ where he was impressed by enormous rooms, polished floors, vast carpets, paintings and gem-studded thrones. There was also the delight of tea, which was ‘better than we are used to the sugar being a big improvement, first sugar I have had in England’. The troops are expecting to be greeted by a princess and there is much speculation about this until it becomes apparent that one of the young women serving the tea is, in fact, Princess Alice. She makes a favourable impression on Pte Harlock. ‘She was very plainly dressed had no jewellery hanging about as most of them do here but had a very nice face,’ he writes. Following this, he takes the train back to London and is ‘shouted tea at Trafalgar Square by some lady or other I do not know her name’, then is taken to the theatre in the evening. ‘They look after us well here,’ he observes cryptically, although ‘the Australians make a good impression here and behave very well of course there are a few who make fools of themselves but not as many as you might think.’

But the war still dominates. While he thinks it is ‘only a matter of time before we will be pulled out altogether’, there is still much fear and privation in the capital. ‘The people here are terrible afraid of air strikes you will see the women and kiddies asleep on the floors of the tube railways frightened to go to bed.’ The war had necessitated a near command economy and while a comparatively good living was possible farming in Australia, Uncle Charlie finds that many food items are simply unobtainable in London – the situation is ‘a long way worse than what the papers say… Money is not much use here you cannot get only a certain amount of bread or anything else and meat is almost a thing of the past. Sausages is the only meat we get and they are nearly all head.’

There is also a dissenting analysis of the futility of trench warfare, although it appears that the end of the war is now coming into sight:

Even in France things are at a standstill now I think it is impossible for either side to move the line is like a fortress talk about guns you cannot imagine what it is like. It was said out in orders that the British would not attack this year that they were going to wait for Fritz but I think he knows better as it is impossible for him to get very far through and he would lose too many men. These stunts don’t pay, the stunts we had at Ypres cost the Australians 80,000 casualties and they gained about a mile and a half which is very little use. If they could have got on about 3 miles further it would have been alright as they would have been able to reach Ostend with the big guns but like everything else it has been a failure.

But peace was at hand, and among the curiosities of Uncle Charlie’s biscuit tin is a ‘peace edition’ of the Daily Mail from 30 June 1919 – two days after the Treaty of Versailles was signed – printed in gold leaf. The front page shows the signatures of Herr Hermann Müller and Dr Bell, who signed the treaty on behalf of Germany between a gilded portrait of ‘Their Majesties the King and the Queen’, and a panorama of the Hall of Mirrors at the Versailles Palace where the peace negotiations took place. Toward the back of the paper are illustrations of the ‘brothers in arms’ – the ‘types of men from the far off Dominions and India’ who fought in the war. Kilted Canadians, turbaned Indians and slouch-hatted Australians march fraternally with New Zealand, South African, Newfoundland and British soldiers of Empire.

AMID THE FINAL letters and scraps of paper from the war – old ration coupons, regimental Melbourne Cup sweepstakes, leave passes and lottery tickets – are the minutes of a ‘Digger’s Parliament’ held aboard HMAT Chemnitz on the return voyage to Australia in 1919. This was a mock parliament in which the troops’ aspirations for recognition and a changing society, along with a sharp satirical eye for parliamentary pomposity, are recorded along with strict instructions for the conduct of the battalion lottery at sea. Among the proposals are calls for the nationalisation of the coal industry, the commemoration of AIF battles and the reservation of the term digger ‘exclusively for those who have served in the AIF’. Satirical questions put to the relevant ‘minister’, presumably selected from among the wittier soldiers, by the MPs for the constituencies of ‘Bon Jour’ and ‘Ma Cherie’:

Member for ‘Bon Jour’ to ask the Rt Hon Minister for Customs ‘So as to strengthen the entente cordiale between France and Australia, will he permit Vin blanc, Vin rouge, Cognac, and Beck to be placed on the free list for the exclusive use of bona fide members of the RSA?’

Member for ‘Ma Cherie’ to ask Rt Hon Postmaster General ‘If he will take steps to protect the returned soldiers from domestic troubles at home by judiciously censoring or destroying letters of an amorous nature addressed to married men from lovers abroad?’

There are also songs – sung to the tune of ‘John Peel’ and composed by a ‘member of the Bath’ (signed ‘The Blighter’) – that, in stilted couplets, recounted the fortunes of the 24th Battalion AIF during the war:


In Egypt sands we learned the game

Through weary months the sun aflame

To stick like death and honor our name

Till we sailed right away one morning


On the sunburnt cliffs of the Dardanelles

You know the story history tells

Till Abdul increased his stock of shells

And we glided away one morning

Our next opponent was dear old Fritz

Who tried his best to break us to bits

But we plugged him back and gave him fits

His neat little stunts idly scorning


And the ships came in and we filed to the deep

Past the crosses white, where the vanguard sleep

Forever our hearts their memories keep

Since we left them in glory that morning

IN GEELONG, THREE armchairs stand side-by-side in the Harlock family sitting room. The farm has been long since sold and Uncle Charlie, his wife Lalla, and their daughters Patricia, Marjorie and Elizabeth left Pomborneit in 1960 following Charlie’s retirement. A grandfather clock, bought for a few shillings in 1905, still ticks resonantly in the entrance next to the century-old photograph of Pte Harlock in uniform and older family photographs of Benjamin and Rebecca Harlock. These were the first members of the family to arrive in Australia as indentured labourers in 1851 and were ‘disposed of’ on arrival to a certain T Armstrong for thirty-five pounds and twelve months of rations. They eventually settled in Pomborneit, although during the voyage their daughter, Louisa, died of hydrocephalus.

Two of the chairs sit empty now – the third is occupied by Pat, Uncle Charlie’s sole surviving daughter. One day while I was visiting, there was a knock at the door and a sprightly ninety-year-old appeared, bright-eyed and full of vigour. She pointed to a picture on top of the television set in Pat’s sitting room, which showed two young men in uniform sitting in a rickshaw in Cape Town on their way to the Western Front in 1916. They were Pte Charles Harlock and his best friend and neighbour in Pomborneit, Pte Harry Boyd – the sprightly old lady was Harry Boyd’s daughter. And as we met, I felt a sense of continuity with the two elderly daughters of old friends whose families had settled in the Western District 160 years ago and who are still visiting each other today.

For a moment, the empty armchairs, the ticking clock and the fading photographs seemed to come back to life in the half-formed echoes of the past. Emptying the biscuit tin to be sure I haven’t missed anything, I find a small piece of Belgian lace.


With special thanks to Patricia Harlock and Robin Droogleever

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