Australian Biography

Jack Hazlitt - full interview transcript

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When were you born?

When ...

When, what year?

1897.

And so you're ninety-four.

Yes, yes, I am. Yes, that's right.

Where were you born? What kind of a household were you born into?

In South Yarra in Melbourne. It was a two storey, kind of a ... the way that they built a lot of houses those days: a row of terraces - Milson Street, South Yarra.

And what did your father do?

He was an actor and stage manager with J.C. Williamson.

A theatrical family.

Yes, yeah that's where he met my mother.

Was your mother also interested in the theatre?

Well she was, but she was really a pianist and teacher but she did mingle with the theatrical people quite a bit in those days, when that was our only source of entertainment, wasn't it? Theatre and concerts - none of these things [laughs] and that's where they met anyhow. She was only seventeen.

Did you have any brothers and sisters?

I had two ... one sister. I never knew her cause she was the number one that came and she died when she was quite young - only a child. I had two other brothers and ...

Older than you?

Yes. Gerry he was seven years older than me and then the next one down, Richard, he was three years older than me.

Was it a happy family?

No, no when I was only about two years old ... Because my father was ... in his job [he] could seldom live in the family hearth because when you think of it - [in the] days before movies and those sort of things and he ... and the theatre was the thing and J.C. Williamson had theatres all over Australia and New Zealand, Africa and my father was away all that time, organising the production and when he was back in Australia I was too young then but he and my mother weren't getting on even then and I was only about two and he finally had a blistering row and left the family home and never came back.

Did you see him again?

I never saw him again - no.

So he really left?

Hmm. He still went on with J.C. Williamson's of course. He finished up ... when they built that big theatre in Sydney which I think was the Theatre Royal in Pitt Street I believe it was the biggest theatre stage they ever had. It is now Woolworths. [laughs] Well he finished up as a manager of that.

How did your mother manage?

Well only ...I think we'd have starved. In those days there was practically no State run dole or anything like that. If you didn't have any money you just ... that was it.

Your father didn't send any?

Well he was supposed to send her a money order about every month for, I think, eight pounds. More times it didn't come than it ever came, so what saved the day was she was ... Before she came out from England she had done very well in the musical studies. She had ALC and a couple of other things over there and she was able to teach mainly piano and singing and that's what put butter on the bread.

She was still very young wasn't she, with these three boys to raise?

Yes, well of course I was the youngest. The eldest one was then about twenty-four I think and the other one was twenty or twenty-one.

Oh, so I see, so you were very much the youngest.

Yes.

They were grown up when you were born.

Yes, well, semi yes.

Right.

Now you were the youngest of three boys.

Yes.

Your mother had to raise you all. How did she manage?

Well, by teaching music. Where we lived was in a little ramshackle cottage down in Brighton Beach. I remember the rent was twelve shillings a week. I remember that later. And about three quarters of a mile up the main road - it was South Road at Brighton Beach - was a school, which had then been founded about ... it was founded 100 years ago this year. They're having a jubilee. Haileybury College. It was founded by an Englishman, who came out with ... he was teaching at Alwin College in Melbourne University first and then he left there and started Haileybury in 1892. And I think ... You realise that I'm trying to think of something that I was only a two year old kid but I've got to use some imagination in places. But I knew that she was earning just enough teaching piano around private homes and so on, but one time - she must on a whim, walked up South Road and went into the College and asked to see the Headmaster and he ... She interviewed him and when he found out that she was a professional, young professional pianist, he warmed up quite a bit apparently cause he was very fond of music himself. In fact he wrote music in his spare time. At that time Haileybury only had about twenty boys attending. It was a boys' school. And my mother put up the idea to him that would he permit her boys to attend Haileybury College if she gave music lessons and singing lessons, so that's was agreed to and that's how we got there, because it wasn't a free school by any means but this was in lieu of fees you see. She used to teach some of the boys, and this went on for quite a long time. Then occasionally she used to organise concerts and at various suburbs and anyhow, I don't want to stay too long on that except to mention that they're having a tremendous jubilee year down there now. I wish it wasn't so far away - I'd like to go down and attend it. 'Cause I'm the oldest living old boy. I know that.

You ... How was the household? Were you short of money? Did she manage?

Continuously. It was desperate.

What did you go without?

Hmm?

What did you have to do without?

Oh, well, I suppose the main things were bread. I don't remember ever anything in the way of biscuits. Bread and a very limited amount of butter and a lot of dripping was used in those days. Dreadful stuff. Beef dripping to keep down using too much butter, and I think the food was enough to keep us going but very, very scarce.

Do you remember being hungry?

Oh yes. And of course what ... In order for her to keep up this income from teaching, she had to go out to private homes and I was nearly finished off there. She used to have a little fifteen-year old girl came in for a few shillings a week to look after me while she was out teaching music, and one day she was heating up some milk for me. We had milk and she - this girl - was pouring it out into some receptacle. I was sitting up in an ordinary chair and she bumped her arm in some way and the scalding milk went all over my front. And that nearly finished me off. And what didn't help was - my mother told me all this later - she lost her head and went screaming outside instead of doing anything to try and get rid of this boiling milk all down my front and that wasn't a happy occasion, but anyhow I survived that. And then she ... I don't know how much you want to go on with those early days. You catch me up if you ...

I'll do that yes. So you just tell me what you want to tell me and I'll interrupt you.

Well it was a hectic time there, because ah my eldest brother having being accepted into Haileybury for mother teaching lessons and then my second brother, I was too young to go there then so my mother took off and went up to an engagement teaching music in a little town called Tatura. It's up in the Goulburn Valley in Victoria nearly up on the Murray River. A tiny little village it was then and I would have been about three, or perhaps four, and so I was looked after by my mother and the other two older boys were already gone into ... it was a boarding school at Haileybury/ There were no day boys, so they were given board too, so that solved that problem for a while. Let me see now, where are we?

I was just thinking that your mother in this situation: having to look after you, leaving you at times with help that she couldn't have been very happy with - it must have been very difficult for her. What sort of a woman was she? How do you remember her?

Well I ... the older I get, the more I appreciate what a tremendous personality she was. She must have been, not to give up, or lose her reason and so on because I can't emphasise too strongly that in those days, the amount of help from government and so on was always nil in these situations and it was only after many, many years that all sorts of schemes, welfare schemes, well, you know, were introduced - baby bonuses and all these things. There was none of that and I think this thing would have been finished off if she hadn't had this musical ability because she also started to have ... organised concerts with musical plays like Miss Hook of Holland and those little old plays and she ... I'm thinking now where ... I think I'll have to take a long leap forward there because a lot of the intervening years ... I went to Haileybury when I was ... She managed to get me to start there. I started there when I was ... in 1905. It made me just almost eight. Before that - I prefer, I think, not to deal with those intervening years, but they were pretty desperate, starting in that little place at Tatura. Then she finished up in New South Wales in Wagga. Started a musical connection there. So it goes on and then finally my second brother, Richard, he ... when he left Haileybury he went up to Hawkesbury Agricultural College as a student and when he graduated from there his father was still alive - I suppose I could say our father, but I never saw him from the day he walked out you see. And he knew some Minister of Agriculture over in the Western Australia Government and my second brother, Richard, went around by ship and was given a job to start there. My mother was then back in Melbourne with her mother, who was still alive, and who's also a pianist - used to give concerts in the Melbourne Town Hall, and her sister, Gertrude, was a violinist. They were all musical people, which helped to provide a bit of income for them. So I got very restless. I was supposed to stay at Haileybury until I finished my education, what they called was the Leaving Certificate, which is the entrance then to university and the headmaster had practically adopted me - C.H. Randour - and he wanted ... he decided that I'd make a journalist. Apparently I used to write fairly good essays and that sort of thing. So my mother tootled off to Western Australia because she wanted to follow her favourite son, which I think he was anyhow, Richard. And when he had left the Eastern States, my eldest brother was at university, Melbourne University, and I got so noisy and rebellious that I wanted to go over to Western Australia and follow where my brother had gone with my mother, and after a lot of objection to this by the headmaster, who didn't want me to leave, away I went. I was put on a ship and shipped off over to Perth, where my mother had again started up a musical connection. No problem to her - amazing how she got the pupils around her and then concerts. And I joined my brother down in the ... out of Perth in a little place called ... near Bunbury, where the Government had established what they called an experimental irrigation thing. Irrigation then was practically unknown in Australia and that's where my brother was working and I joined him. Now we get into 1914. and the War broke out as we know in August and my brother hopped on the train and went up and enlisted about a month after the War broke out.

So you were over in Western Australia with your brother working on the land when, in 1914, War broke out. Now what effect did this have on your life?

Oh I can't think of an adjective strong enough to describe it. It's a ...

At the time when you heard about it.

Well I didn't take much notice of it. I was then only just barely ... I hadn't turned seventeen I don't think - late sixteen. But when my brother went off up to Perth and enlisted, I wanted to go too. Now there was nothing very brave about either of us. In the early part there, when the War had just started, there had been no casualties. It looked like a wonderful way of getting around the world. That's what got him all excited.

Travel and adventure.

Then of course I followed on. So he got into the army fairly quickly. There was no bother there, but of course I was seventeen and they're not supposed to take them till they're nineteen, so I put me age up, and I was fairly big and fat, strong, so I went in after him. Meantime, he and his unit went off the Egypt, in ... I think it was December 1914. He was in the original 11th Battalion.

Did they take anybody who wanted to join up?

Everybody wanted to go. They were very choosy then. They didn't know what this War was going to do to the population you see, and they even chose six footers, when we used to march through Perth you know. They were all big men, but as soon as the casualties started to really rock, that soon changed. But I was just on six feet then, and so I said I was nineteen and they didn't ask for a birth certificate so in I went into the army. But he'd gone to Egypt in the meantime and I went into Blackboy Hill Camp in February. We lived in Bell tents there. I was with the 28th Battalion, which was a unit formed over in Western Australia. I think you made a comment a while ago that what sort of a change did it make to things. Well I think I would have finished up for the rest of my live in Western Australia - I always liked it but I never saw it again until years later. Because when I came back on the hospital ship, it never stopped there, it came right around and dumped me in Sydney.

So when you took off and you went and you joined up and you set off overseas with this feeling that life was a big adventure and you were going to travel and see the world, when did you first realise that it wasn't going to be all fun?

Well, when we ... we did get some news there in Egypt where we were training when the first casualty lists [came on] after the landing. You see I wasn't at the landing. My brother was there at the original landing at Gallipoli and local newspapers started to give increasing lists of 'killed in action', 'died of wounds' and 'wounded' and so on. I think that was when I realised that there was no fun in this, but you couldn't just walk in and say I'm leaving. [Laughs]

Where did you do your training?

In Egypt, out in the desert.

Was that well organised?

Oh yes, we had ... slept in tents, twelve to a tent. Boer War type of tents they were, with your feet to the pole in the centre and your head out near the flap and if you were the last one to go to bed you'd avoid treading over a lot of recumbent bodies, which were already asleep on an oil sheet on the ground. There were no beds, no such things as mess huts in those days. We just fed in the front of the tent and cook used to bring around the stew and stuff and serve it out to us in our little dixies, just outside our tents.

When did you hear that you were going to Gallipoli?

Well, we didn't know where we were going. There were all sorts of ... When the landing took place there was still a strong expectation we were going to then go across the Mediterranean and into France, where the fighting was, of course, roaring along. Gallipoli hadn't been even heard of. And anyhow, then my brother went off, as I say, in the landing and I got a scribbled note from him, what had happened. Of course it was all very heavily censored and we knew we were bound to go there when our unit moved up - the 28th Battalion, the 7th Brigade. We were taken up to a island called Lemnos, first for more training. That's only about forty miles off the Turkish coast. And we trained there and then I heard that my brother had been wounded. He had been there about a month and a piece of shell hit him in the left leg, so he went off in the hospital ship back to Egypt and I never saw him there at all. My unit got there at the end of July, and I don't know how much you want to discuss that - what happened there. I ...

I want to hear your account of how you landed and what happened when you arrived and whether you'd felt properly prepared by your training for what you were about to encounter.

Well all right. The only way they could land any fresh troops after the original landing had to be done in the dark. The Turks held all the high country. They had it all under observation, except for the little valleys close to where ANZAC Cove is now. So it all had to be done in the dark with all its difficulties. And my unit, the 28th Battalion - I was a Signaller in that, there was twelve of us responsible for the communications side of it. We landed on the beach and tramped up into a little valley. Shrapnel Valley it was named, with good effect too. The Turks had that constantly under shell fire. However, in the dark it was fairly quiet. We could hear a lot of rifle and machine gun fire going off further up the hill, but we just lay back on our packs and our first casualty occurred. It must have been a stray bullet. I don't think it could have been a direct shot from long range but one of the fellows in the next tent to me ... I heard him call out and he'd got hit in the groin and by the time they could stop the flow of blood, he was dead, you see, because one of the main arteries was cut through. So that made us realise then that things were really getting serious. [Laughs]

Were you very afraid? Were you afraid?

Oh yes, yes. Oh well, it was ... You had to really get ... making yourself harder and harder in your attitude. You know, it's perfectly natural for any of us males or females, if you see a dead body with blood running out and so on, after these road accidents, it's always a shock, but by goodness I can tell you what we had to see, the survivors, you do become used to it. It seems strange but in the tent ... There is a picture here of me in the tent [that] Lesley [has] got somewhere here in that camp at Blackbore Hill. There was twelve in the tent and most of them never came back out of that twelve. Those earlier battles - the slaughter rate was terrible. And another thing was, of course, the water supply. There was no natural water or rivers on Gallipoli itself. It was all just rocky mountain ranges and so on and they used to bring tanks of water in from the ships moored out in the sea. But it was never enough and we used to try and augment our supplies through ignorance, as we knew later. There were little creeks running down various parts of the ranges there and we used to go and scoop up water there and we didn't always boil it. What we didn't realise was that water was trickling down through thousands of corpses, which were still lying there unburied, and of course it was just a forerunner for dysentery. So a lot of us became casualties but unless we were absolutely in the last stages, there were so many demands for troops there, that we were kept going on our job as long as we could make it.

Now tell me about your job as a signaller. What did you have to do?

Well, firstly, there was no radio. It was in its infancy. We never saw any radio. It would have made a big difference to the whole picture if we had. So communication from where our front line was, whichever part of that Gallipoli Peninsula you were behind - it was never more than about a mile to a mile and half in from the landing where the cove is a very narrow strip and [we were] all down in trenches of course. So the only communication was ... We were given field telephones - Stephens phones they were called - and we used to reel off insulated land lines up from the front line: Battalion Headquarters back to Brigade Headquarters, to keep in touch. Well the Turkish shell fire was so terrific that the lines used to get busted up with bursting shells, then the only communication was ... that's where the runner was born. I was a runner. Yeah. You had to take down an urgent thing about demanding some more help or re-enforcements or more ammunition, or come up and bring back some of the wounded. It's all done by ... mostly done by runners. Now the runner's life wasn't a happy one because, you see, you couldn't make time for following down zig zag trenches to protect yourself. You had to hop across the top and you were in full view of the Turkish snipers and the average life of a runner in those days was about twenty-four hours before he was knocked. I got missed so many times I couldn't name it. The noise like ... It sounds like a bee flying past, a whizzing sound you know. Of course the one that hits you, you don't hear. Well, that was the life down there and then I was getting ...

How long were you a runner?

Oh well, I was there from July to ... I think they carted me off in the last stages of dysentery about November, just before the evacuation.

That was a bit more than twenty-four hours?

Oh yes, oh yes.

Now how do you think you survived?

Youth, mainly I suppose. We were all well trained and very strong and well it's a hard question too. Because we didn't even get ... I never saw a loaf of bread all the time I was at Gallipoli. We had tinned beef, very salty, which made you thirstier than you wanted to be, and so called apricot jam, which you didn't even need to open the lid because you punched a hole in it and it would run out like syrup - dreadful stuff from some rascally English contractor no doubt. It gave it a bit of a flavour anyhow and army biscuits, which are just like the biscuits I have here for these dogs. We used to try and vary the thing by getting an empty shell case and putting a number of these hard biscuits in and then pounding them down with a handle out of your trenching tool, break it up and then tip a bit of this so called apricot jam in it and a bit of water and make a sort of a dessert, if you like. Then you ate the beef, Fray Bentos - another rascally contractor from South America - where they took all the goodness out of the beef there and tinned the rest. That's what the army fed us on.

And that was it?

That was it. I remember I was on a mission down on the beach there and there was a sailor off the ships there and he had a tin of condensed milk and I somehow got wind that he had it, poked in his tunic and I gave him ... I was so desperate I think I gave him a pound or two pound notes - I had a bit of money on me - for that tin of Nestles Condensed Milk and that was absolute luxury. But the food there was dreadful.

Did you ever get anything fresh?

Never, never once. And another thing is of course we got absolutely lousy because we hardly took our clothes off for weeks and weeks and weeks on end. We slept in the ground on side of the little dug outs we dug, and when we had to go on duty we just got up with the same clothes on.

Why didn't you get out of them?

Well there was nothing to get into. See, we didn't have pyjamas or anything like that, and anyhow there were no barracks there.

[end of tape]

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