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Absent Without Leave
The Private War of Private Stanley Livingston
By Paul Livingston
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2013 Paul Livingston
All rights reserved.
Three men walk into a bar
'We were both in before the bugler's lips were moist.' Colonel D. Goslett (on enlisting in World War II)
In May 1942, Pte Stanley Livingston was midway through a seventeen-month 'stunt' in the Middle East. Military campaigns were often referred to as 'stunts' or 'shows', laconic understatement being the diggers' trademark. Intensive training was up and running. Just what they were training for was a mystery to the infantrymen. Those first across the line were generally the last to know what line they were to be first across. But something was up. After marching from Latakia in Syria to Tripoli in Lebanon, the 2/17th Battalion of the 9th Division of the Australian Imperial Force arrived in Jabal Tourbol, a mountainous region in northern Lebanon.
Before long the troops commenced mule training. 'Mule School' was compulsory for all companies, who were put through the handling and loading of mule teams before embarking on a two-day bivouac, complete with mules, a few of the boys no doubt, and perhaps even the odd wog. Twenty-seven mules were attached to the unit, and the official war diaries confirm that all personnel had become thoroughly proficient in leading and handling the animals. Perhaps it was here that Stanley was snapped mounted on a mule? When I showed the photograph to William Joseph Pye, known as Bill, a 95-year-old veteran of the Middle East and Pacific campaigns (who'd been at times within spitting distance of Stanley Livingston, although their paths weren't to cross), he told me he would have sworn it was taken in Palestine. A clue.
* * *
Armies tend to recruit individuals to be trained in flying, sailing or, in my father's case, walking. The infantry is the perfect place for the walking man. Military nomenclature can be confusing, so here are some basics. A division is a grouping of brigades commanded by a major general. A brigade is a grouping of battalions commanded by a brigadier. A battalion is a grouping of companies commanded by a lieutenant colonel. Each company contains around a hundred and twenty men commanded by a major or a captain. Companies contain platoons of thirty or so men commanded by a lieutenant. These men are collectively called the infantry.
Individually, infantrymen are described as 'foot soldiers who engage the enemy in close quarter fighting with the aim of destroying their capacity to wage war'. I doubt this was how they advertised the job in 1939. I imagine the 'Call to Adventure' would hold more allure for a working-class boy from the inner-Sydney industrial suburb of Zetland. The sound of adventure calling gets a lot of attention in the history books. Legendary tales of soldiers born for battle and chomping at the bit in World War I had already taken a firm hold at the start of the second stunt. Bit-chomping may have been true for some young adventurers enlisting in that first Great War, but many more were acting on a sense of duty, to empire, to country and to community. It wasn't so much that young people in 1914 listened more to their elders as that their elders didn't much listen to them. The 'me' generation was decades away; this was the 'us' generation. Individuality was not the norm. Sticking to the norm was the norm. Dr John Connor puts it succinctly: 'Family responsibilities generally loomed much larger in a young man's life in Australia in 1914 than it does today. In a time before pensions, superannuation, retirement villages and nursing homes, parents required their children to keep and care for them in old age.'
At the beginning of World War II, the norm still stood, unchallenged. In his memoir of that war, The Reluctant Volunteer, veteran Peter J. Jones admits to having been morbidly fascinated as a child by the events of World War I. It was this fascination mixed with horror that struck the boy when his father took him to see the original film version of Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front in 1930. He also shared every little boy's fascination with the maimed, and was deeply curious about the men with empty sleeves and trouser legs who limped through the streets in the 1930s. 'Shell shock' was the term his father used to describe these destitute veterans of the Great War, and these strange creatures induced in the boy no immediate desire to go to war himself. With the onset of World War II, Jones recalls it was a sense of duty, and the example of his friends, that prompted his reluctant enlistment. Jones also had the example of his father, who had enlisted without question and was one of those who landed at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. Jones sums up his philosophy: 'Like the bulk of humanity, I was and am a peacelover — but never a pacifist imagining, in spite of promptings of commonsense, that non-resistance is suitable in all circumstances. Practicalities have a way of overawing wishful thinking.'
While the cause was common, and the call to duty shared, nevertheless the ranks of the newly enlisted consisted of a diverse range of characters from all walks of life who were not shy in exhibiting their own peculiarities. G.H. Fearnside, former sergeant with the 2/13th Battalion, remembers this diversity. There was 'Harry the Knife' from the Redfern slums, a Rhodes scholar, a pimp, ministers of religion, barristers, clerks and drovers. Fearnside notes that the army 'accepted anyone who had two arms and two legs, and the requisite number of heads'. From the relative safety of his St Kilda apartment in 2012, former Rat of Tobruk Eddie Emmerson recalled, 'We had one bloke, Bobby Fink — he was a bloke who worked the boats between London and New York playing poker. You ... had criminals and you had blokes dodging wives, dodging the law, but they were a good mob, you know.'
William Pye was in 1941 a 24-year-old evening student in the faculty of economics at Sydney University. His father had fallen upon hard times and gone AWL from the family, leaving Bill to support his mother and his sister, who was still in school. Bill had intended to enlist, but the pressures of family kept him occupied until an opportunity arose when an employee the university wanted to retain was in danger of being recruited. Someone was required to take his place in the army. Bill Pye was their chosen man. Bill joined a good mob too, the 4th Anti-Tank Regiment, and he was in charge of many of them, having attained the rank of lieutenant by June 1941.
* * *
On 4 June 1940, Stanley Livingston walked through the gates of the Sydney Showground to join a stream of men duty-bound for enlistment. What prompted his decision? Rumours of a war in Europe had been building for some years. In January 1939, the world-renowned science-fiction writer H.G. Wells was visiting a complacent Australia, and his predictions for the country's future did not go down well. Wells had a predilection for prediction. Some of his hits were lasers, nuclear weaponry, wireless communications, answering machines and, in his 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come, World War II. Wells didn't hold back. From the safe distance of Australia he slammed Hitler, calling him a certifiable lunatic and putting the boot into Mussolini at the same time. No-one took much notice of Wells' comments, and the prime minister at the time, Joseph Lyons, publicly rebuked Wells for rocking the boat. Australia had no reason to make waves. H.G. Wells would not be silenced, ominously warning that the absence of the British Fleet would leave Australia isolated in the Pacific and that 'the so-called Japanese menace to Australia is no bogey'. After Wells' departure, Australia maintained its 'no worries' policy until a couple of months later when Adolf Hitler invited himself unannounced into Poland.
Another Wells, a local with the initials H.D., walked into a milk bar near Waverley Oval in Sydney at around 9.30 p.m. on 3 September 1939. Harry David Wells stopped and listened as the voice of a new Australian prime minister, Robert Menzies, crackled over a radio: 'It is my melancholy duty to inform you that, in consequence of a persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her, and that, as a result, Australia is also at war.' Those with memories of the previous stunt felt dread, while the youngsters felt a nervous rush of excitement, but on the whole, the opening act of World War II failed to impress. Many dubbed it a phoney war and thought it would be all over soon enough without too much fuss. But by 3 June 1940 it was clear to Harry D. Wells that this war was not going to disappear overnight, and so he headed to the Sydney Showground to enlist, where he was promptly photographed, X-rayed, vaccinated and given a number, NX27792. He then joined another group of fresh diggers, all bearing their issue of the only belongings they would be needing for the journey ahead: a knife, a spoon, a dixie (cup), a palliasse and two blankets.
It was the very next day that Stanley Livingston ambled through those same gates. He was not alone; Stanley had recruited two of his best mates, Roy Lonsdale and Gordon Oxman, to enlist with him. It is not too far a stretch to imagine that the decision to join up would have been conceived over a few beers in the pub where they had all first met as thirsty young men in the year leading up to World War II, the Tennyson Hotel on Botany Road, Mascot. It had been love at first sight. Gordon had his eye on Stanley's younger sister Lilly; Stanley had his eye on Roy's younger sister Evelyn; and Roy had his eye on a schooner of Reschs Pilsener. Roy's was the greatest love, and one that all three shared. Roy lived directly across the road from the pub at the back of a barber shop run by his father, Ernest Arthur Lonsdale. Stanley lived up the road in Tramway Street, while Gordon had to stumble back to Wollongong. It would become a familiar regime: with Gordon claiming he had no money to get home, Stanley had no choice but to let him camp at 77 Tramway Street, within close proximity of Lilly Livingston.
On 2 June 1940, the trio had been celebrating Stanley's twenty-second birthday at the bar of the Tennyson Hotel. They had something else to drink to that night: all three had committed to enlisting in the AIF. On this their second-last night as civilians, the boys ingested as much false courage as possible. They had to be quick — like all pubs at the time, the Tennyson closed at six o'clock. The idea was to get the men out of the pubs and back to their families; in reality, the measure created a culture of binge known as 'the six o'clock swill', which had men knocking off work and heading straight for the bar, where they drowned as many sorrows as was humanly possible before six. Alcohol was possibly a major contributing factor in much of the volunteering for the military, and not just in Australia. One American volunteer recalls acting on an alcohol-induced impulse only to suffer an overwhelming sense of imprisonment once he sobered up. Alcohol remained this soldier's main means of coping with the next four or five years of service. Alcohol would also become Stanley Livingston's main weapon of choice, not only in his army years but well into civilian life as well.
Two days later, while the rest of Australia were going about their business, life was set to radically change for the three men. There's no way of knowing if they had time to grab a newspaper on the way to the showground, but had they picked up a copy of The Sydney Morning Herald they would have been met with a half-page advertisement boasting, 'Fitness Wins! Drink a daily glass of Tooths Sheaf Stout.' That's the kind of order these boys were happy to obey. On the fashion page, the English correspondent reports that 'Stalin and Hitler at their worst never did a more thorough job of purging than the war has done to fashion', and if you looked hard enough, one tiny paragraph states that the new recruit reception depot at the Sydney Showground received its first drafts of men the previous day. One thousand men were drafted.
* * *
On 4 June 1940, Roy, Gordon and Stanley joined a further thousand men as they endured a seven-hour process of poking, probing, doctoring and dentistry, until eventually, around 9 p.m., they were marched to the Anthony Hordern Pavilion where they were to make themselves at home along with hundreds of other new recruits, including H.D. Wells, Peter J. Jones, Harry the Knife, a Rhodes scholar, a pimp, ministers of religion, barristers, clerks and drovers. These men would eventually find each other in another hemisphere, in the same brigade of the same division, the 20th Brigade of the 9th Australian Infantry Division. For the moment, the call to adventure would be limited to the inner walls of the showground, where they bunked down on straw-stuffed palliasses in haylofts, pigsties and horse stalls.
The army officially recognised Stanley Livingston as NX20181, a native-born 22-year-old Australian factory worker, five feet nine inches tall, with brown eyes and fair hair, Roman Catholic and single. Roy 'NX20180' Lonsdale was a five-feet six-inch machine-fitter residing at 1187 Botany Road, Mascot, single, Church of England, aged twenty-two and five-twelfths. Gordon Grant 'NX20277' Oxman was the youngster at only twenty-one and three-twelfths, a single Roman Catholic labourer from Wollongong. At six feet and more with blue eyes and fair hair, he towered over the other boys, garnering him the nickname 'Storky'. Those first weeks in the showground proved far from adventurous, and the monotony led Pte Oxman to absent himself without leave on 5 August at 1330 hours. He was back by 2330 the same day. Gordon hadn't been able to resist the temptation to pay a visit to Lilly Livingston in Tramway Street, a short march from the showground. For this he was confined to barracks for three days — a punishment most felt they had already been suffering for months.
In September, the three privates were moved to a training camp in Tamworth. Gordon wasn't too pleased with this arrangement and embarked on his second AWL, this one lasting five days. He was fined five pounds. Not to be outdone, Pte Livingston took a break from training in Tamworth and went AWL the day Gordon returned to camp: he lasted a week. After being admonished for the offence, he decided that this AWL lurk was worth the effort. He was reported missing again on 27 December: having spent his first Christmas away from his family, Stanley had decided to bring in the New Year in Sydney. He reported back to camp on 7 January 1941. This time he was fined five pounds and confined to barracks for fourteen days. Pte Lonsdale, meanwhile, had been behaving himself. It had been a shaky start to army life for Roy: he'd been ill for the first two months as a result of a bad reaction to the vaccines he'd been given on enlistment day. This did not bode well, but little did he know that his battles had barely begun.
On 27 June 1941, the three men departed Sydney for a destination unknown, but it didn't take too much reflection to hazard a guess at where that might be. The situation for the Allies had deteriorated. The Germans had attacked through Crete and Greece, sending thousands of Allied troops into retreat. Over six thousand Australians would not be coming home. The troops were also feeling the heat in North Africa, especially in Tobruk. Reinforcements were obviously required. Apart from recent excursions to training camps in Tamworth and Dubbo, Stanley's travels had thus far extended from Zetland to Mascot, a distance of 3.3 kilometres, and to my knowledge Roy's travels were mainly to and from the Tennyson Hotel. Gordon was by far the most seasoned traveller, hailing from Wollongong.
Excerpted from Absent Without Leave by Paul Livingston. Copyright © 2013 Paul Livingston. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Table of Contents
Contents... and how was your war, Dad?,
Introduction: Two of the boys, a wog, a donkey and myself,
1 Three men walk into a bar,
2 One small step for a Zetland boy,
3 Hole sweet hole,
4 Mayhem was only a part of it,
5 Three men and a barber shop,
6 A nip in the air,
7 The home-front line,
8 Evelyn's war,
9 Run for your death,
10 Gaps in the ranks,
11 Absent friends,
12 From the Pimple to Scarlet Beach via Dead Man's Gully,
13 Destroy all monsters,
14 Present and accounted for,
15 The ordinary trenches,
16 Memoirs of a pacifist smoker,
17 Don't give an old digger the gripes,