by Elizabeth Lhuede

Another in our series of posts on works published in 1924 (or authors who died in 1924). The following looks at the ways in which Anzac Day was remembered one hundred years ago.

As April is when we remember the Anzacs, this month I’ve chosen to focus on Anzac- or war-themed poems published by Australian women writers in 1924. Several can be found via Trove, and I also tracked down a few at the NSW State Library. A few were published in collections, reprints of earlier poems published during wartime. Others were apparently new, remembrance poems written to keep the memory of the Anzacs alive. One or two capture grand themes of war, while more focus on the impact of conflict on the women left alone to wait or to mourn. Some support and even glorify the war effort, while others are critical or a mixture of both.

One poet to glorify the Anzac effort was Constance Gittins (1875-1963), a Queensland poet who was a founding member of the organization that became the Queensland branch of the Fellowship of Australian writers. Gittins’ poem, “Those rugged steeps: our stones of remembrance – for Anzac Day”, was published in the collection, All things needful: verse for quiet moments (1924). Its opening stanza sets the tone:

Again, and once again, their proud day comes,
And we who listen hear the muffled drums,
The sea-wind rising by that Aegean shore,
Where, in the early dawn, they’ll climb no more
Those rugged steeps!
Those tide-worn steeps!
Our men, on Anzac Day.

The poem imagines “us” cheering on the soldiers who march towards their death, fighting back tears, “lest tears should shame our pride”. The soldiers’ encounter with death is couched in epic language, showing them doing battle with hell and the furies, making of them heroes who enter eternal life, enshrined in our remembrance, “They could not die, for hero-souls live on/ Undaunted, marching still…”

American-born poet, L M D O’Neil (1892-1974) also glorifies the Anzac experience. O’Neil was born in Pennsylvania and arrived in Australia in 1920, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that she takes a noncritical attitude to the war: she is unlikely to have been personally affected. Her poem, “Anzac Day at Wynnum” appears in the collection, Dinkum Aussie and other poems, and is unapologetically nationalistic, even imperialistic, referring to “Those Anzac dead who gladly died/ Beneath the April sky;/ Who asked of England but one old/ Proud privilege to have and hold –/ The right for her to die.”

A more personal approach is taken by the young New Zealand poet, Una Currie (1904-1965), who must have been only twenty when her poem, “Anzac Day”, was published in The Australasian. (She is included as she later emigrated to Australia and died here.) In “Anzac Day”, Currie evokes images of what the soldiers lost in dying, the beauty of nature:

All these we loved; the stars, and friendly lights
Through evening mist; wet trees and paths, still nights,
The salt-flung breeze;
Shadows, and sighing pines, and rain; and pear-trees
Thick with blossom; small shining pools, and bees
In old-world gardens; birds, and the sob of seas.
We loved all these!

Once they were ours — the swell of rain-wet earth,
And winds in song-filled sails; dusk, and the birth
Of moon’s clear tide;
Pale sunlight splashed on quiet hills; the beat
Of waves, and gorse, and grass about our feet, —
And friends; all these were ours, and they were sweet, —
Before we died!

It’s a powerful evocation of loss, and the poem doesn’t glorify war, but it does glorify – perhaps seek to sanctify – the men’s sacrifice. It also minimizes the grief of those left behind: “Your hearts…still keep/ Our name, and they can never hold regret/ For us; we proved our manhood nobly met”.

By way of contrast, Florence Hayward (1858-1939) is the oldest poet to have war-themed work published in 1924. Born Florence Burden in Reading, UK, she married a ship’s surgeon and emigrated to South Australia in 1878. She and her husband had nine children, at least one of whom, Bernard William, fought in WWI. In 1924, she published the collection, Vagabond verses, a section of which, titled “Peace and War”, contains a dozen war-themed poems.

“Motherhood”, the opening poem of the section, uses formal language to elevate both women’s experience as mothers, as well as their anguish at their sons’ suffering. It begins with a dramatic exhortation to “Mothers of Men!”, then segues into an intimate image of breastfeeding, “Can we forget that holy ecstasy of life,/ When tiny fingers wandered, aimless, on our breast…?” This intimate, domestic scene is contrasted with the horror and grief of war:

Now, when War’s crimson flood sweeps fierce and swift,
It seems a thing impossible that this must be
The end and high reward of woman’s agony:
To bear our Sons, watch them grow straight and fine and brave
To manhood’s dawn, and then… God’s sunlight on a grave;
Or a dear shattered body brought us from the strife…

The mothers’ anguish is made even more immediate in the poem, “Severely Wounded”:

Severely wounded
The day fell dark, and all my sky grew grey,
When those few words told all there was to say…
Son of my heart! … And I so far away…
Too far, Beloved, to do aught else but pray.

Just pray and wait… Then pray and wait again…
But, oh, the steady ache, the leaden pain;
The useless, helpless whirl of heart and brain:
The “If” and “Maybe,” of hope’s grim refrain.

If you were brave, Beloved, I dare not quail…
My soul must mate with yours, my pride prevail:
Nay, Son of mine, my courage cannot fail
While honour’s knights still seek their Holy Grail.

And, if Death proudly claim your fearless soul,
And write your name upon his Silent Roll,
My pride, Beloved, shall win above earth’s dole…
My love shall greet you, as you reach the goal.

In this poem, the phrase, “honour’s knights” suggests Hayward doesn’t question the nobility and heroic quality of the men’s endeavour, but nor does she minimise the toll taken by war.

Two of the shortest poems among Hayward’s collection are more overtly critical of war. Interestingly they are both from an imagined soldier’s perspective. One, titled “Gone West”, a euphemism for death, makes no attempt to glorify the experience of battle:

Gone West
“God…for a rest…”
Pain-wracked and heartsick, weary with the strife,
His nerveless hands had lost their grip on life
And War’s mad quest.
His drooping eyes yearn to the sunset sky,
And through the crimson blaze, with tired sigh,
His soul goes West.

Another, “The soldier’s requiem”, fits with an Australian “mateship” tradition, and imagines the hasty burial of a fallen comrade, and the disillusionment of the survivor:

The soldier’s requiem
“Poor Devil… Poor old Devil… Curse the War…”
The Soldier’s Burial Service, on the field of death,
His hurried requiem, muttered with quickened breath,
Friendship’s unpolished tribute to a mate… gone West.
No time for leisured grief, in decent mourning drest …
“Poor Devil… Poor old Devil… Curse the War…”

Nettie Palmer (1885-1964), in her poem, “The Mother”, shows a similar tension between the desire to express loyalty towards the soldiers’ efforts, and a need to admit the horror of war and its effects. Published in The [Oxford] book of Australasian verse, the poem portrays the tension of survivor guilt, with the persona reflecting as she sews in preparation for the arrival of a new baby:

In the sorrow and the terror of the nations,
In a world shaken through by lamentations,
Shall I dare know happiness
That I stitch a baby’s dress?

Nancy Francis 1938

Another remembrance poem is, “I wait”, by prolific Far North Queensland Nancy Francis (1873-1954), writing as “Black Bonnet”. Published in The bulletin, it depicts the long anguish of the soldier’s lover left to grieve alone:

I wait
Deep in the yellow earth, under the sod and the stone!
There is nothing to fear in the grave but being alone —
Nothing to hear when the mattock and shovel have gone.

I looked for his coming. I waited and watched till the light
Died on the hilltops; I lay on my bed through the night
And prayed for his life, that he might return to my sight.

Years passed. (Was it years or ages that passed? I forget.)
In Gallipoli, Egypt and France the foemen he met
And fought for his country—loving me, loving me yet!

They said, “It is done”; and I watch for my love at the gate.
The wind blows chill from the river; my lover is late.
I have prayed and waited for years. It is easy to wait.

Ella McFadyen (1887-1976) takes a more epic approach in her poem, “Remembrance (Anzac Day)”, which steps away from the personal experience to reflect on the soldiers’ experience in the context of the transience of all life. In keeping with its lofty sentiment, the poem is replete with formal, even archaic, language and literary allusions:

Remembrance (Anzac Day )
How is the world crammed with forgotten things?
Lost provinces, cold shrines without a name
Innumerable gods and fallen kings –
A wasted flame?

And shall the dear dead, that today calls great,
Escape oblivion’s doom? Time wipes away
Great hours like scribbled ciphers from a slate,
Troy’s yesterday

As vague and fabled as Atlantian themes,
Whereof conjecture prates, but knoweth not;
Imperial cities vanish like the dreams
Of Camelot.

And when our day is dust with Babylon,
Shall bronze perpetuate, or marble stand,
Though graven deeply? Luxor’s tombs anon
Are crumbled sand.

Yet was there something added to the whole
Of brave endeavour whence new faces spring,
New virtue grained to steel some virile soul,
Statesman or king.

For brave tradition shapes the race of men;
The virtue of high deeds outlives their praise,
Like fountains in the sand, to rise again
In later days.

This is remembrance – that the spirit strong
Of the old deeds survive, when men forget,
In the far hence, who strove – to right what wrong
Their arms were set.

Matters it then though names like shades depart
If, at the common need, the generous flood –
In these far years leaps in one manly heart
The Anzac blood.

For me, the stirring ending both reflects and rouses the “Anzac spirit” which has yet to diminish in over a hundred years.

Philadelphia N Robertson, OBE (1886-1951) had two Anzac- or war-themed poems published in 1924, both appearing in her collection, Shreds and patches. “For Anzac Day” is a both a prayer of thanks for the soldiers’ sacrifice and a plea to the Almighty to see this sacrifice in Christian terms, as the highest gift a person can give: to lay down one’s life for others:

For Anzac Day
O God, we thank Thee for this precious day –
This day of aching pride, or ardent pain,
Lord of the nations, hear us when we pray
That this great heritage be not in vain.

Show us the splendour of self-sacrifice,
The beauty of the soul through suffering tried,
Help us, above all laurel wreaths, to prize
The thorn-crowned glory of the crucified.

As always with pleas or prayers, the perceived need for them suggests the very opposite: thus the line, “we pray/ That this great heritage be not in vain” suggests the existence of a fear that the war was in vain.

Robertson’s scepticism about the war’s worthiness is even more evident in her poem, “A woman’s prayer in wartime”. This prayer combines the personal and domestic, the occupation of knitting socks – presumably for the soldiers – with the unspoken, but feared, possible outcome of war. It neither shies away from emotion, nor does it sentimentalise the grief, rather it shows how the anguish of those left at home can be transmuted into useful action which staves off terror. It’s a good one to end on, as it hasn’t aged. It’s also my favourite among the poems discussed here.

A woman’s prayer in wartime
I am so placid as I sit
In train or tram and knit and knit;
I walk serenely down the street
And smile on all the friends I meet;
Within the house I give due heed
To every duty, each one’s need,
And when it’s dark, and lamps are lit,
I take my sock again and knit.

Sometimes the newsboys hurry by,
And then my needles seem to fly
Through purl and plain, row after row
They flash, until the fire burns low.
I am so tranquil as I sit
Till bedtime comes, and knit and knit.

And when the house has grown quite still,
I lean out on my window sill –
Lean out to the velvet night,
Gemmed with all its points of light,
And pray to God to see to it
That I keep sane enough to knit.



“Constance Gittens”, AustLit entry: (limited access; available via library membership)
Currie, Una, “Anzac Day”, The Australasian, 3 May 1924: 965.
“Florence Hayward”, AustLit entry: (limited access; available via library membership)
“Florence Hayward”, Wikipedia entry:
Francis, Nancy, writing as “Black Bonnet”, “I wait,” The bulletin, 6 Oct, p6.
Gittins, Constance, All things needful: verse for quiet moments, Constance Gittins, Stanthorpe [1924]: p36.
Hayward, Florence, Vagabond verses Florence Hayward, Adelaide [1924].
“L M D O’Neil”, AustLit entry:
McFadyen, Ella, “Remembrance (Anzac Day)”, Sydney mail, 30 April 1924, p. 6
“Nancy Francis,” AustLit entry: (limited access; available via library membership)
O’Neil, L M D, Dinkum Aussie and other poems, 1924 pp. 53-54.
Palmer, Nettie, “The mother”, in A book of Australasian verse, chosen by Walter Murdoch, Oxford University Press: London, 1924, p247.
Robertson, Philadelphia N, OBE, Shreds and Patches, Veritas Publishing Co., Melbourne: 1924.

Elizabeth Lhuede has a PhD in Australian Poetry from Macquarie University. In 2012, she instigated the Australian Women Writers Challenge, as a contribution to overcoming gender bias in the reviewing of works by Australian women. More recently she has focused on bringing to light the life and works of forgotten Australian women writers.