Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Home-town Heroes

The Rosbif family spent the Easter long-weekend in Benalla visiting Grand-Mere Rosbif and while there I actually took notice of my hometown's little war-memorial garden.

The gardens sport the obligatory obsolete artillery piece (in this case a WWII vintage 25-lber) and the Mourning Digger statue commemorating all the town's war dead from WWI right through to Vietnam (a lot of dead men for a town that has not quite reached a population of 10,000), which all Australian towns seem to have. These statues are an indication of the incredible number of men who answered the call to enlist to protect the Motherland, as Britain was still considered in those days. 418,809 men enlisted out of a total population of 4 million, which works out as 38.7% of the total male population aged 18-44 (figures from the Australian War Memorial). Considering there was never conscription in Australia, that is an incredible number. No city, town or village seems to be without one of these melancholy reminders of war. While we can think ourselves fortunate that we never had our towns and cities razed as armies swept back and forth across our countryside, the sheer numbers from such a young country with such a small population volunteering to fight on the other side of the world still staggers me.

Benalla's Memorial to the Fallen

As well as the memorial to the fallen, there are two other memorials to  two extraordinary men who claim Benalla as their hometowns; Edward 'Weary' Dunlop and Hector 'Hec' Waller. The first I knew of while growing up, as he attended Benalla High School where I also went although about 60 years later. He also was   a living legend right up until his death in 1993 with his championing of medical services to the poor and disadvantaged especially in South-East Asia. His fame, however, came from his time as the commanding officer of Australian POWs on the Thai-Burma railway where his care of the men under him and his resistance to the Japanese brutality raised him up to the level of a secular saint in the Australian popular imagination. His nickname, by the way, comes from his surname Dunlop, as in the famous international rubber manufacturer, renowned for making tyres, which sounds like....tired, as in weary!

The 'Weary' Dunlop statue

One of the plaques commemorating his life

Hec Waller is someone I grew up knowing nothing about, even though there is a Waller street in the western part of town. The name only came to my attention recently after watching a TV report about the lack of recognition for members of the Royal Australian Navy during WWII who gave their lives in acts of conspicuous bravery, which ordinarily would have resulted in nominations for the Victoria Cross, the Commonwealth's highest decoration for bravery in wartime. Waller was one of two cases illustrated as deserving for nomination for the VC (the other being Ordinary Seaman Teddy Sheehan) for his part as captain of HMAS Perth after it was sunk at the Battle of the Sunda Straight in 1942. He made sure all that could be done to save his men was done even at the cost of his own life.

The 'Hec' Waller memorial.  It's not obvious in the picture, but  the sculpture is of two navy caps floating in a  whirlpool

The Benalla Memorial Gardens has a memorial to each of these extraordinary men right next to the bridge over the Broken River, which was designed and built by that other giant of Australian military history Sir John Monash in his pre-war life as an engineer.


  1. Hoi Rosbif,

    Great post, as I stated in my blog recently remembering is needed to prevent more wars and that´s why we as a school visit the Ypres area each year. Last two years I have discussed Hill 60 and the Australian Tunnelers with the groups I´ve taken there and have emerged myself into the ANZAC history. In Ypres it is actually possible to do a historical tour of the battlefields in the uniforms of the 8th Australian Infantry regiment )the one portrayed in the series ANZACS) one day I will make that tour.

    For now just lest we forget!

    Cheers Sander

  2. Nice post Ben. All these years and I had never known how 'weary' got his name. If you ain't learning something you is dead!

  3. Gosh I never realised the percentage of population that the Aussies gave to the war effort. Great post.

  4. I'd not heard about these two man before, its great that they've both been honoured in this way, sounds like Benalla's very proud of them.

  5. We will remember them. Another great post Sir!

  6. Thank you for sharing the photos and stories behind them. And seconded, 38% volunteer rate is remarkable!

  7. Hello,
    Very interesting your post!
    In Italy you know enough about the participation of Australians in WWI, but not much is known about them in WWII, especially in the Pacific War.
    Of course I know that Australians have fought in North Africa and Tobruk, I know that in Italy there were the New Zealanders in the 43-45, but not if there were Australians.
    It would take a good movie!

    Molto interessante il tuo post!
    In Italia si conosce abbastanza la partecipazione degli australiani alla WWI, ma non si sa molto di lonro nella WWII, soprattutto nella guerra del pacifico.
    Naturalmente so che gli austragliani hanno combattuto in Nord Africa e a Tobruk, so che in Italia nel 43-45 c'erano i Neozelandesi, ma non se c'erano anche gli australiani.
    Ci vorrebbe un bel film!

    1. Hi Simmy,

      By the end of 1942 most Australian forces had been withdrawn from North Africa to fight the Japanese. The first arrivals were sent to Singapore just in time for it to fall, so we lost a lot of experienced troops as prisoners of war. The rest were sent to Papua New Guinea just in time to prevent it from falling to the Japanese.

      You're right about the New Zealanders; my great uncle fought with them all the way to Venice!

  8. Great post Rosbif. Even more remarkable were the percentage of casualties we suffered in WW1. Of the nearly 500,000 in uniform, about 400,000 served overseas. Nearly 300,000 casualties including nearly 60,000 killed. Appalling for a young country with a total population of just under 5 million. I believe the percentages were even marginally higher for the Kiwis.

    The effect must have been devastating - as you observe, there are memorials in nearly every town in Australia and the names of them can outnumber the local population! One wonders what this country would have been like had we not lost the flower of our youth in that dreadful war.

    Great blog BYW - thoroughly enjoyed it.



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