It is Easter Sunday and a sunny day for a drive.
A lunch-stop in Berridale. Across the road a memorial to service and sacrifice. It is difficult to miss, not only because it commands a prominent position on the corner of Jindabyne Road and Myack Street, but the memorial is not topped by the usual soldier leaning on his rifle or simple stark cross, but it is a crucifix and it is, Easter Sunday.
The townspeople fought hard for that. It was unconventional for a country town memorial and frowned on by those in Sydney with the final say, but Berridale residents believed their memorial should reflect those erected in the battlefields of France where their boys fought and died. The townsfolk won and the Berridale Memorial was officially opened on 10 November 1935. Sixteen trees were planted in memory of those killed and a further 46 planted for those who volunteered in WWI. Each of the names carved in stone below, offers a story of a life lived too briefly.
How does a bloke from a tiny town in the Snowy Mountain region of New South Wales, decide to travel thousands and thousands of miles to fight a war in places on the other side of the world he has never, or barely, heard of?
The lure of adventure to far away places at government expense? The chance to escape a mundane life with an unexciting future? Or was it patriotic sentiment coupled with the attraction of falling in step with the recruiting drive and those marching to the beat of the drum?
Herbert Ellis Flanagan was likely victim of all these. Herbert came from a family which well fitted the Australian vernacular, ‘battlers’. He had little schooling, little of anything, and found occasional work as a farm labourer. The nineteen-year-old was small for his age, just 1.6m and 57kilo. He was just another country lad caught up in the ‘Cooee’ march of December 1915 which started in the town of Gilgandra with 20 and swept up army recruits throughout the Snowy Mountains.
The uniform, steady pay, comradeship, imperial zeal and adventure were enticing, and Herbert signed on the dotted line in Goulburn in December 1915. By the time he and the other 299 men from the Snowy Mountain region arrived in Sydney in January 1916 their khaki uniforms were ready.
The success of this and other recruiting marches had caught the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) by surprise, and they hurried to catch up with training. A later march from the Snowy Mountains started in January from Delegate to march beneath the banner ‘Men from Snowy River’, through the Monaro district. Known as the ‘Snowies’, the 144 men arrived in Sydney on 28 January 1916. Of the 144 strong second group of Snowy Mountain recruits, 39 were later to be killed in action and 75 became casualties.
Of the first 300 the statistics are unknown. All joined the 4th reinforcements of the 55th Battalion, AIF, and were sent to the Western front. Private Herbert Flanagan proudly posed for the camera in Sydney before he sailed on the transport ‘Port Sydney’ in September 1916.
Untouched by war his life was suddenly all the things he had fantasized about. Disembarking in ‘The Mother country’, England, was the stuff of dreams and landing in France did nothing to dampen his spirits.
The terrible trenches of the Western Front could never have been imaged by a teenager from the bush. Private Herbert Ellis Flanagan was shot in the abdomen on 2 May 1917. He died in hospital on 10 May 1917 and was buried in St. Sever Cemetery Extension, Rouen. Herbert was 20.
His sister, Eleanor, requested that on his tombstone the words ‘Until the day breaks’ be engraved. She was advised that she would receive the next-of-kin badge and possibly some money from a war fund. She replied: ‘Money is not everything, it cannot bring back my little brother, only 19 when he went away, poor boy.’