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July 15th 2018 print

Alistair Pope

The Long Hill Home

Our paths crossed briefly, just long enough for me to recognise in Sergeant Tom Birnie a good man, soldier, father and husband. It would not be until decades later that I came across one of the poems he wrote between patrols in Vietnam

tommy IIThere are many fine war poets and I particularly like reading those writing about WW1.  Curiously, in equal measure I enjoy reading both the war jingoists such as Rupert Brooke and Jessie Pope and, conversely, the dark, stark realism of Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Rudyard Kipling and Robert Graves. Kipling was very much an enthusiastic supporter of the war and the ‘greatness of the British Empire’, at least until his only son was killed at the Battle of Loos, his very first action.

Rupert Brooke was always an ‘Empirist’ and enthusiastic warrior, probably because he never experienced a battle.  However, his poem, ‘The Soldier’ contains the memorable sentiment:

If I should die, think only this of me
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.

Ironically, Brooke got his ‘wish’ as he died either of sunstroke or, more likely, of septicaemia from an infected mosquito bite on a hospital ship off the Greek Island of Skyros, where he remains buried.  His death on April 23, 1915, came just two days before the bloody Gallipoli landings in which many more staked out their Australian corners of a foreign field.

Robert Graves (I, Claudius, Goodbye to All That, and much more), Wilfred Owen, (who was killed just seven days before the war ended) and Siegfried Sassoon recorded in their poetry the horrors and ugliness of war.  Sassoon went from being a reluctant supporter of the war, but willing to do his duty, to being anti-war to such an extent he came close to being tried for treason.  Yet, paradoxically Sassoon displayed such outstanding courage it appeared he was trying to be killed.  Instead, he was an invincible super hero who survived every suicidal encounter, killed many Germans and was awarded a Military Cross.  He also wrote great poetry while doing so.

Australia has a long history of producing both bush balladeers and war poets, with even our most infamous war criminal, Lt. Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant, penning some enjoyable stanzas.  Probably his most poignant poem was the bitter verses he wrote before his imminent execution, a poem that was published in The Bulletin after the event. It begins

In prison cell I sadly sit,
A damned crestfallen chappie,
And own to you I feel a bit–
A little bit—unhappy.

It really ain’t the place nor time
To reel off rhyming diction;
But yet we’ll write a final rhyme
While waiting crucifixion.

george mansfordToday, retired Brigadier George Mansford (right), a soldier of 41 years infantry service, is probably our leading military balladeer.  His poems, collected here, capture the essence of the soldier’s lot in the modern world.   Two stanzas from his Casualties of War encapsulate the effect and impact of war on those who fight them and also on their families.

Casualties of War

‘In the bloody arena, the fight at dawn was won
Alas, in the red stained snow; a fallen husband and son
Satellites and modern tech spread the word as never before
Thus in a world far away came a dreaded knock on the door.
Politicians heard the news and ensured their eyes were wet
Made appropriate noises and vowed they would never forget
To a weeping mother and sedated widow as the media looked on
A final hug, a smile, hurried words of comfort then were gone.’

 

I ATTENDED a demolition course at Wallangarra, on the border of Queensland and New South Wales, in the wintry July of 1969.  Who knew that anywhere in sunny Queensland could be that bitterly cold?  It was a small course of just half a dozen enthusiasts keen to learn about how to blow things up that were supposed to have gone  ‘bang’ but had failed to perform as advertised.  It would be our job to exact revenge on the recalcitrant ordnance and make them do their explosive duty.

The course involved both classroom theory and the fun side, extensive hands-on practice.  To speed things along we were paired off to work in teams.  My partner was Sergeant Tom Birnie, an Irishman from Belfast with a Hibernian’s wry  humour, a quick wit concerning the limitations of junior officers like myself, and a competent, confident approach that made every task look easy.  It was an enjoyable, professional course with a lot of satisfyingly loud noises.  On completing the final tests we were certified to destroy malfunctioning ordnance, an achievement we celebrated with a few beers and pies before returning to our units.  Tom went back to tropical Townsville and I returned to Brisbane.  We did not meet again.

birnieSergeant Tom Birnie on patrol in 1971.

Tom had already served one tour with D Company, 2RAR, in 1967-68 (during which he was wounded).  He was at that point scheduled to return for a second tour in 1970-71 as one of the ‘old hands’ providing operational experience to the battalion. In the short time that I knew him, Tom did not mention his war poetry, so it came as a surprise when, in August of 2017, I happened upon the poem reproduced below.

Tom wrote it on February 13, 1971, some nine months into his one-year of operational service with 2RAR in Phuoc Tuy Province. His words capture the weariness and strain of infantry operations in a war zone and his longing for the tour to end so that he can be home with his wife, his young son and his friends. His view of the insincerity of politicians was true in 1971 and probably even more so today:

The Long Hill Home

I think of the long hill home –
Laid in the jungle’s thick brown loam,
Youthful lips long ceased to moan,
Shattered and tattered and so alone –
Never to walk the long hill home.

One of many, before and to come,
His life’s blood joined with the others to run
In a torrent of red to unsated seas
Empires are built on the bones of these
Never to walk the long hill home

What care they for their country’s fate
They who neither love nor hate?
Their bones are white, these posthumous great,
White as the Empire builder’s plate
Never to walk the long hill home

Their epitaph by quirk of fate
Stands dumb in country town and state:
The unknown soldier!  His gift was great,
Unknown they lived, unknown they died
Never to walk the long hill home

I stand atop the long hill home
With wife and son, we three alone;
And far away in the jungle’s mould
The bones of my youth lie stiff and cold
Never to walk the long hill home

On the morning of March 24, 1971, a little more than a month after putting those sentiments to paper, Sergeant Birnie was shot by an Australian sentry as he re-entered his platoon area. The sentry had not been not expecting the patrol to return from that direction, mistook Birnie for an approaching enemy and fired. The 31-year-old Birnie died of his wounds at 1st Australian Field Hospital in the early hours of the following day.

Sergeant Birnie never walked the long hill home to his wife and son.

Lest We Forget

Alistair Pope retired from the Australian Army in 1986 as a lieutenant colonel.