Australian Biography

Jack Hazlitt - full interview transcript

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Jack, could you tell us a little bit more about what you actually did in France. What your job was and what you had to do there as a soldier?

Well, I was in that signal company and their job was to keep up communications from where the actual fighting was going on to people further back, who were directing things. There was a Battalion Headquarters right on the front line, then back a bit was Company Headquarters, all in dug outs of course. And then it went from there back to brigade headquarters and then right back some miles back, [to] divisional headquarters. Well, the signals job was ... theoretically it was done by telephones but they were very unreliable because they were only laid across the dirt and easily broken and constantly being mended. That was our job: to go out and find where they were broken and mend them under fire. And when everything got desperate, at different times, we became the runners. We had to take the messages through by hand from base back to the front line.

Was this as dangerous as it had been in Gallipoli?

Oh, yes and no about that. The ... the nature of the country of Gallipoli was very semi-mountainous and you were able to hurry along, because you couldn't get down into the saps and the communication trenches. That would have taken too long with an urgent message. But there was more natural protection for some of the time, but in France, particularly around the Somme, it's undulating country but you're completely unprotected once you got out of the communicating trenches and the Germans, I always reckoned, kept up much heavy fire. They had more machine guns and there were more guns behind the line, so it was a toss up between one and the other, and which was the more dangerous job, I've never been quite certain of that.

What was it like being there? What did you see? What did you hear? What did you smell?

Well hearing was almost at a standstill because, more so in France, the shelling never stopped twenty-four hours a day, from both sides. It was a continuous roaring noise and I suppose one's ears got a bit tuned to that.

Could you describe what it was like, being there in France?

Oh you do set me some problems. [Laughs] The best way I can answer that I think is to compare it to Gallipoli in regard to the ... we are all human bodies and so on with wants. In France we were only kept in the front line or near a front line for ten days at a time, and before everybody was starting to get a bit looney we were pulled out, and taken back to behind the support ... In the case of the Somme, we were taken back to near what was left of a quite big town called Albert and there we could get a bath and quite good food. We could get new uniforms because the ones we'd gone in a few days ago, were generally in a filthy condition. I think some of them might have been dry-cleaned but we generally got new ones, and so on and then ... we were never out of the sound of the guns though. We couldn't get relief from that for our ears but it wasn't as heavy as when you are up in line. And then of course we went back and relieved somebody else to do another ten days.

And when you're out there, what did it sound like?

Out where?

When you were at the front line in action, what did it sound like?

Well you've still got that roaring noise of continuous gun fire and I suppose one of the sounds that was very sharp were the sounds of dozens of machine guns, you know that rat, tat, tat, tat, tat that's very sharp sound from both sides because most of the trench lines were very close. Sometimes the Germans had their trench line only perhaps twenty yards, sometimes fifty yards, from ours. And of course they had their machine guns banging away and our side were banging away at them. It's a bit hard to give you a copy of the sound but it's a wonder that any of us every had any hearing left, I reckon, afterwards. It must have subjected our ears to continuous strain.

And what about the sights and the smells?

Oh well ... [Laughs] I haven't been asked that question for a long long time. It could be, sitting here in this comfortable room, you could only say it was quite ghastly most of the time because there was no chance to bury any of the people who got killed. If they were wounded but not dead, they tried to get them back with stretcher bearers out of the line of fire, but if they were dead, there was no time for burials or funerals or anything. A lot of them simply fell down in the bottom of the trench, where it was full of wet mud and we were forced to carry on our work treading over people, who were alive the day before. That's not very exciting. And, I think I mentioned to you previously, you become very callous. It's just as well or you'd go mad. We used to try and hang our telephone lines - I think I mentioned that to you the other day - because there was a bit of bony leg sticking out from where he'd been buried perhaps a week or two before. We used to loop our lines along their toes. Well I don't think anybody in peace time would want to do that. But that's the way we were. We just simply lived in a, I suppose, false world really.

While you were in France, did you have any other job beside the job in signals of mending these telephone lines?

Oh yes. The need for improving communication was desperate, and all sorts of experiments were being carried out. Radio was starting to show up but extremely unreliable. It was always breaking down. It wouldn't work at a time when an attack was on and then they had to resort to older methods. So very briefly, being in a signal company I took part in experiments to communicate with our planes, going overhead, who were spotting for the position of German guns, very vital information, so our artillery could try and blow them out, before they blew us out. Well, with unreliable radio, which didn't work more often than it did, one of the attempts, which is rather comical now, they produced a large green and white stripe thing like a huge venetian blinds, which used be set up on the ground behind a knoll of a little hill or somewhere where they were not in direct sight from the Germans. And it was so worked that it could send dots and dashes with a lever and that could be read from a plane if it wasn't more than two or 3,000 feet above, directing information, which would be received on the ground and then passed onto the artillery nearby and so on, about how to aim their guns. Well that was, I took part in that. I don't think it was very successful though. And then other times, of course, I went up in the plane as an observer to send the information down to the ground.

Was that more dangerous than being on the ground?

Well ... oh I think it about fifty fifty, because planes flying along near a front line, when they're only a couple of thousand feet up there, are very vulnerable from the other side, whereas the fighter planes - they always flew at much greater height and it wasn't as dangerous a job I don't think.

Were you ever shot down?

No. Plenty of bullet holes in the planes, though. They were only made of wood and wire then, you know. They weren't metal. Plenty of bullet holes in them. Near misses no doubt.

Were you excited, getting on the plane and going up?

No I was frightened. In a Blue Funk most of the time, but I kept my head about it, as the others did, but none of us were whistling. [Laughs]

The excitement of war, that whole side of it, that makes young men feel excited at the start, did you experience any of that?

Well, not when you're there. No. No, you're fighting off a feeling of the next lump of shell of the next bullet could be yours. A dismal thought, but you can't get rid of the idea because you can see what's ... some of your mates ... what's happened to them around you.

I'd like you to tell me again because you told it to me the other day, but I like you to tell me as if you haven't told me the story of the encounter with your brother in the dug out. Could you ... could you tell me what happened? Just tell that whole story of what happened the night you saw your brother for the last time?

Yes. He was in a different unit to me and I hadn't seen him for weeks. [INTERRUPTION]

Start the story again and say 'my brother Richard was in a different unit'.

My brother was in a different unit and I hadn't seen him for quite some time, and this was down outside of a position there, just near Possiers in the Somme. Deep ex-German dug out, which our side had captured. It had been turned into a signal station quite deep down, about forty feet dug down into the soft ground that was down there, and we had a switchboard there where we used to connect up the various lines going from Brigade Headquarters into the front line and I happened to be on duty on one of these switchboards one night, and there was a first class battle going on up ahead. You could hear it coming down. And steps came down and it was my brother. I hadn't seen him for many many weeks and he was in charge of a bombing squad and was on his way into the front line to relieve another unit. So we had a few minutes talk. He wanted to get extra directions. It was pitch dark outside and that was it. He went off and as far as I can tell - I didn't know for a long time afterwards - he was hit by a shell in the line and they got him out on a stretcher and then - this will give you an idea of how intense that shell fire can get - the stretcher was hit and one of the stretcher bearers was killed, that was carrying him, and he got another wound then on top of the one he'd had previously. Anyhow, they'd finally got him out and they got him into a casualty clearing station near Albert and then they got him over to England, and he was put into a Military hospital near Cambridge and he died three weeks later because they couldn't deal then, in those days, with gangrene and that's what got him. They couldn't stop it. They took one leg off I believe, but it had gone too far. So he died after three weeks. And then I heard all about this later, because we didn't get much information about what was happening to any of our ...

Were you still in France when you heard about it?

Hmm?

Were you still in France when you heard about it?

Oh yes, I was still in the trenches.

How did you feel?

Well I ... Well I tried to get leave because he'd been buried by then you see, but it must have been rather a fateful thing I think too. It wasn't long after he must have been killed that I got into that thing on the front line that you already know about, and I went bonkers myself. So I really ... I was taken back to England not too long after he'd died.

When you saw him that night, unexpectedly, did you feel a great deal of emotion?

Oh yes. I had some of it left then. Yes I did and we would have liked to have been together longer but he was on a very vital mission. He knew he couldn't ... He went down to get directions and he had to go on his way. So we didn't say much but what was there was pretty emotional. That's remarkable that I ever saw him there. See normally he wouldn't have come down and found me and I wouldn't have seen him for months before he got killed. As it was I at least saw him a short time before.

Did you miss him?

Yes, well we always got on well together and ... it ... I think out of the three boys in the family, I think he was slightly the favourite with my mother.

Not you?

Oh, I think I came number two. He was the one. Not that that matters but ...

Did it matter to you?

Oh, I don't think, I can't remember. It's too ... We didn't fight. At least we did throw stones at each other once when we were on holidays on Haileybury from school and I had threw a stone at him and it was a bit too big and it hit him on the top of the head and knocked him out. That was about the closest casualty we had to injuring each other.

But you still felt very close to him yourself and missed him a lot when he went away?

Oh yes, yes.

Now when you came back, after you were invalided out of the army, and you came back to Australia, was your mother waiting for you on the wharf when you landed?

No, because she was in Melbourne. She had left Western Australia where I originally joined the army, as I think you know. She'd come back to Melbourne because that's where her mother was still alive and she wanted to be near her and her sister Gertrude too. They all lived in North Brighton, a suburb of Melbourne. Well the ship that I came back on, the Nestor, after it left Durban in South Africa ... See the war was still on. This is only early 1917 and so they, to miss German raiders - submarines, mines and other things, the captain took us right around even below Tasmania. From Durban in South Africa, a tremendous way off the beam and the first we saw of Australia was we sighted land at Green Cape, just on the South Coast. That's the first we saw from leaving Durban in South Africa.

So where did the reunion with your mother take place?

Well my eldest brother - he was married and his wife lived in Sydney. He was a Master at the Kings School and I was unloaded off the Nestor. I wasn't ... I was groggy, but I could walk and I went and stayed with her for a week or two and then ...

His widow ...

In Manly we stayed. And then I got a pass from the army department and went off to Melbourne of the train and that's where I met up with my mother then ... It would have been about two weeks after we landed in Sydney.

Was she pleased to see you?

Oh that's a bit hard to put into words.

Could you describe that meeting?

Hmm?

Could you describe that meeting with your mother. Do you think she was disappointed that it was you and not Richard?

Oh well ... I think she ... She was already, I think, quite knocked about by Richard having being killed, and although I arrived back in rather battered condition she was very glad to see me. And she ... My eldest brother had died then too you see, so she had no children left except me. So that really she was clinging to me. That's why - you can just stop me on this if we get off the beam - but when I went out to Qantas, when it was starting in Longreach, she was still in Melbourne but not happy and she kept putting pressures on and in the end I got her brought up there, which was a mistake for a woman like that, because of the climate out there, and the housing was dreadful. And I'd hoped it would work. We got a little battered old piano that she used to be able to practise on but it was obviously not going to work after a few months. That's when I had to resign from Qantas.

When you got back from the War, seeing your mother like that, how did you feel about it? Had you ... Did you feel very strong emotions at seeing her again, knowing you were the only one of her sons left?

Yes. Your inquiry there has made me think of something. When I left Qantas and went up with another aircraft company ... it was located at Hay in Riverina, I stayed at the hotel there, boarded there, and the school teachers from the War Memorial High School boarded there too. That's where I met one of them afterwards that became my wife. Well, she and my mother never got on. Later, when I went ... left aviation finally in 1926 - I didn't see any future in it frankly then - and I had a house at Lane Cove, a big house, I rented it, and my mother was living in a little bit of a flat down near Dee Why, and I got her back and gave her a big bedroom there, to live in the same house as my wife, and then I had two kids I think. They never got on. They ... I'm certain it was a deep-seated possessiveness on the part of my poor old mother. She wanted just me to be around as long as she lived.

How did you manage this? How did you manage this situation between your wife and your mother?

Well, they were never bad but there were squabbles, you know, and in the end I got her another little house down near Curl Curl down on the coast, and transported her down there. She was still able to get around but she wasn't teaching music anymore. She was just living a very quiet life and from there her health failed and she finished up ... I put her in a little nursing home down near Narrabeen.

Looking back at your mothers life, what ... how would you sum up her personality and what she meant to you?

I didn't respect her or think of her ability anything like in those days that I do now. The burden she carried in a failed married life and very, very limited income and she always was a real mother to us. I find it hard to give a description now. She did have a lot of personality. That's what made her so successful as a music teacher. She used to form these amateur concerts, get all the young people around the neighbourhood and put on these plays and so on. She used to train them. She couldn't have done that, if she hadn't had go in her.

Did she have a big influence on the sort of person you turned out to be? When you were small did she have a lot to do with giving you values, giving you guidance about how to live your life?

Oh, I think the main ... That kind of education, I reckon, came from the school that I boarded at, not from her.

How did she get you into this school?

Well, this was down in Brighton Beach, where we had a little, wooden cottage there near the station. And she was earning a little bit of money, because the income owed to us sent by my father every month, frequently didn't turn up and the house had no money in it and no food. And she, on a whim I suppose, walked up the mile or so of South Road to this school, where it was located then and asked to interview the headmaster. And she put up a proposition to him that she was a pianoforte teacher and had papers to that extent and would he consider three boys to be admitted to the school and she would teach music there and that's what started it off.

And was that a good scene from your perspective?

Oh well it simply made our lives, see, because without any income or any background there and there was no government help of any kind. You were on your own. And really boarding at that school became like our second home. We ... The discipline was very strict there. It taught me a lot about the need for discipline in life too.

What form did the discipline take?

Well, of course, starting with the headmaster, then there were the other masters, they all lived in the school. Then there were the prefects, and the prefects could take ... penalise a boy if he had committed something he shouldn't have. And they could even cane them, but only one ... one cane from ... There were twelve prefects. But if you were going to be caned by the prefects you got twelve stripes on your bottom. But they were never dangerous. They were just little flicks with a thin cane. Then if the offence was more serious than that, I was paraded around to the headmaster and if he thought it needed, he'd give me another go. To this day I haven't got any hatred or any dislike of that - why they did it, because it was only done when it had been a fair trial.

Do you still believe in it? Do you think that the cane was a good thing, or are you glad to see that it has mostly gone now?

Well, I don't like to open up too much on that because I know the public opinion about this is that in a school the teachers must never lay a finger on their pupils, no matter how they're playing up, how they're mucking up the class, and I do know now that a number of teachers have a very bad time because they've got no control over some of these more rebellious kids.

Were you a rebellious kid?

Yes.

And do you think that the cane did you any good?

Yes.

Did it make you behave better, do you think?

Well, it established in you a respect for what: if you mucked up again you'd get another lot. That kept you going along the way the teachers wanted you to go. It's as simple as that.

So did you reach a point at the school where you weren't getting the cane anymore or did you manage to deserve the cane right through?

Oh I'd listen. I was at my worst when I was quite a kid. You see I went there when I was about seven or eight. Yes. But by the time I'd got to twelve I had learned how to avoid anything like that.

What sort of things did you get the cane for? Could you give me an example?

Well, it sounds funny to say it now. I got it over my brother, the one we talked about a while ago. He was a pretty good footballer too and he ... his team were having a ... playing at another college, Caulfield Grammar School, and I was watching the game at the time and I thought he'd made a great mistake and I yelled out to him, 'Dick, you dammed fool', and that was heard by a master. You couldn't say 'damn' at Haileybury. Oh No. And as far as some of the more trenchant language, one or two were expelled from that school while I was there because they just kept playing up. It was very strict.

And 'damn' was considered very bad language?

Oh yes.

But you didn't stop using it outside of school?

[Laughs] Aye?

You'd still use those words outside of school. You just knew not to use them at school.

Well you had to be careful, because if you were overheard by a prefect or a master you were for it.

Now tell me about your relationship with the headmaster. He took a particular interest in you.

Yes, well I think he ... for a start is what helped my mother cause he was a very musical man himself and he, I think, felt some concern knowing the circumstances of how she was battling along trying to raise three kids.

[end of tape]

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