Quinn's Post

Around nine each weekday morning in the winter of 1922, Old Bob Cozier's sulky left the Queanbeyan Post Office in Monaro Street. It carried sacks of letters and parcels for what was known as the Federal Capital Territory. Suburbs today, in 1922 Isabella Plains, Woden and Tuggeranong were stations and villages in the open sheep country to Queanbeyan's south west. Old Bob geed up his horse and it walked on up the street, past the site of what would soon become Queanbeyan's war memorial, and up the gravelled road running south out of the town towards Tharwa.

Among the postcards, invitations, postal orders, bills and birthday cards Old Bob carried were a succession of letters addressed to ''Mr C. E. W. Bean, Official Historian, Tuggeranong Homestead''. They bore the postage stamps of the Post Master General's Department, with the head of King George V in dignified profile, in dull shades of violet, bluish green and rose and in various denominations - sixpence or perhaps a shilling, depending upon their weight and the distance they had come. Many had travelled a considerable way, carried by coastal steamer and mail train across the Commonwealth. Most came from Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia, from what Charles Bean had described, in the first volume of his official history (published the year before) as the ''outer states''.

Old Bob's horse walked up the long road that climbs out of the valley of the Molonglo at Queanbeyan and turned along the motor road leading to Tharwa. By Jerrabomberra Hill the fields on its western side still sparkled with frost on many cold Monaro mornings. Four miles on the road ran over the railway to Cooma and then crossed Woden Creek. On the right were the blocks which had just been taken up by soldier-settlers. Five miles further, just before the bridge over Tuggeranong Creek, Old Bob turned off the road and onto the straight, tree-lined track that was the Tuggeranong Homestead drive. His horse plodded on, through the scattered gums in the sheep paddocks and splashing through Tuggeranong Creek before pulling up at the house.

The sheets within the envelopes came from all kinds of addresses. Some bore impressive letterheads - of the Resident Magistrate at Broome, the Adams Motor Company, Perth, the Drill Hall at Launceston. Some came from houses with names - ''Merimbah'', Drummoyne - and some from streets without house numbers. Many had been typed, some by militia clerks on machines and in time borrowed from making up returns and requisitions. Some had been scribbled on notepaper in the reading room of the Perth Club, others carefully written in ink on a kitchen table. At least one, sent by a man blinded, had been dictated. Many envelopes contained sketches or drawings to explain the burden of their contents.

When Old Bob and his mail cart arrived at Tuggeranong he would hand the letters over to Bean's assistant, Arthur Bazley, and perhaps stop for a smoke and a chat, catching up on news from the lodgers in the station homestead-turned historian's office before moving on to the stations and houses further up the valley. Bazley would then open and smooth their contents, annotating them in neat letters on the top edge before placing them before Bean in the study in which he worked, looking out into the bright sunshine and sharp air of Tuggeranong's paddocks, westwards towards the Brindabella Ranges beyond the Murrumbidgee River.

As they arrived through that bright, sharp winter, Bean turned to these letters with interest. He had written to many of their authors, but had also asked them to refer to him men who could answer his questions, and many opened with an explanation of who had sent Bean's questions on to them. The tone of the letters was as varied as were their origins and forms. Some presumed a long friendship - ''Dear Bean'' - others adopted the formality of the unintroduced. Some reminded Bean of meetings in billets and trenches in France: ''One time you interviewed a brother-officer and myself after the Hamel stunt. Probably you don't remember … '' All took him back seven years, to a place far removed from the silence of Tuggeranong, with its quiet broken only by the calls of the magpie and cockatoos, where the worst smells were of sheep droppings. They took him back to a place of evil memory, to a couple of hundred yards of dusty trenches cut into the side of a scrub-covered hill in Turkey, a place where the sounds of bombs bursting, machine guns rattling and rifles firing barely ceased for eight months, where the stench of dozens of rotting bodies lying in no-man's-land permeated the clothes and the mouths of all who served there. The letters that Old Bob brought to Charles Bean during the winter of 1922 took him back to a place they all remembered as Quinn's Post.

Charles Bean also remembered Quinn's, because he had served throughout the Gallipoli campaign, and indeed, the entire war, as the official correspondent to the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). He had lived on Gallipoli from April to June 1915, had been wounded there, and had visited the peninsula often from then until the evacuation in December. His diaries make frequent reference to the sounds of close fighting heard from Quinn's even when the rest of the line was relatively quiet. Though the Anzac area was a tiny place, Bean spent much of his time with the 1st Australian Division, the units of which were never sent to Quinn's. Its defenders saw him as a visitor rather than as an inhabitant: Monash grumbled that ''Charley Bean seldom comes our way'' and complained that he had neglected his own 4th Brigade, battalions of which for the campaign's first month formed Quinn's garrison. But Bean had been to Quinn's, and had written about it in his careful wartime despatches: indeed, shortly after the Turks broke into Quinn's on May 29 he narrowly missed a cricket ball bomb hurled into the support line.

In any case, it had been impossible for Bean to be present at every significant action, and when he came to write the official history of the Australian Imperial Force on Gallipoli and on the Western Front, he found that he needed to call upon the individual memories and records of those who had survived. For Quinn's, and for the Gallipoli campaign as a whole, Bean needed to redress the deficiencies of the unit records and war diaries. The war diaries, and the messages, orders and reports they contain, were sketchy compared to the massive documentation which he created for the Western Front. While they enabled him to establish what occurred, Bean needed other material. His vision for his history demanded an even more minute record. His two Gallipoli volumes, The Story of Anzac, document the service of a small force, often devoting pages to the minute-by-minute movements of small groups of men; no more than at Quinn's. To achieve this detailed account, Bean needed to enquire beyond the records that lay spread about him at Tuggeranong, marshalled and ordered by the faithful Bazley.

Almost as soon as he returned from the war he began writing to former members of the AIF. He put questions to them and soon asked them to read and comment on draft chapters. He asked them to send him extracts of their private papers and to suggest other ex-soldiers who might be able to describe what they saw at particular places, dates and times. By the time the final volume appeared, in 1942, he had developed a network of correspondents across the country whose recollections constituted a sort of collective memory of the AIF's war. Bean's papers complemented both the huge collection of unit war diaries that his assistants also collated, and the gathering of individual papers first made by Bean's colleague, John Treloar, the long-serving Director of the Australian War Memorial, the basis of the Memorial's still-growing Private Records collection.

The mass of the Bean papers, Australia's single most valuable collection of Great War records, testifies to Bean's commitment and energy in striving to understand the AIF's part in the war. He did not simply turn his notebooks - over twenty for 1915 alone - into chapters of a popular history (as many had expected him to do). Instead, for twenty and more years he gathered quantities of first-hand evidence. This lode he continued to check and amend: annotations in his frail handwriting appear in the margins of his notebooks into the mid-fifties. Much of the evidence he collected has still not been fully explored by the historians who decades later at last followed Bean's lead. Indeed, ironically, the sheer quantity of material he assembled meant that while he read and absorbed the mass of detail his correspondents gave him, neither he nor his successors were able to use much of it. The margins of the Quinn's Post letters collated during the winter of 1922 are marked in coloured pencil, indicating points and quotations which Bean incorporated into successive drafts of his history. Some passages have become familiar through repeated quotation, while others have been read only by a handful of scholars. As a result, while some passages are now repeated like a mantra, the bulk of the recollections they were taken from have long lain unused. For example, most writers on Gallipoli record that Quinn's was both the key to the Anzac position and that as a result of its position and the proximity of the opposing trenches, it was a scene of almost continuous fighting. Many quote a line from Bean's second volume to the effect that men ''looked upon it as they would a haunted house''. Always alert to the lively quotation, Bean took a line from the recollections of Edwin Little, though neither he nor any subsequent writer attributed the quotation. Little's memories of Quinn's are particularly vivid and poignant because on the morning of May 29 a jam-tin bomb he was about to throw exploded. It blew off his right hand and blinded him. But in response to Bean's invitation, even he had a friend record his impressions of the last place he was ever to see: no wonder he thought of it as a haunted house.

Edwin Little's memoir, like all of the letters that Old Bob delivered that winter, was placed into a folder which Bazley labelled ''Historical Notes - Gallipoli'' and filed with a growing archive of similar records. It was that file which, in November 2002, became the very first document I was to open in researching this book. But my journey in search of Quinn's Post did not begin in the cool and mostly quiet Research Centre of the Australian War Memorial. Rather, the journey began at Quinn's itself.

I had waited over twenty years to travel to Gallipoli. Despite having written and spoken about the Gallipoli campaign, and even having developed exhibitions about it, I had never visited the place except in my imagination. Though I had been successful in finding reasons and funds to visit many other Australian battlefields, I had somehow never managed to wangle a trip there. At last, on a fine, warm autumn day in October 2002 I puttered up the tarmac road to the Cove and parked my noisy little scooter. Shouldering a pack, shifting a map case to one shoulder and gripping a walking stick, I strode out to become acquainted with a landscape I already felt I knew. Having embarked upon preliminary research for a projected book on Australian winners of the Distinguished Conduct Medal on Gallipoli I wanted to see the places in which they had served. Apart from wanting to see the Anzac area as a whole, though, I realised that I had no particular place to find first.

Unthinkingly almost, I walked toward the mouth of Shrapnel Gully and turned inland. I followed the track toward Shrapnel Gully cemetery and then plunged into the scrub, making for the ridge I could see on the horizon just a thousand metres away. For forty minutes I followed the muddy creek bed eastwards, pushing through scrub, becoming tangled in thick, thorny bushes and even losing my glasses to a springing branch. But I was not lost. Not only had I packed a spare pair of glasses, I soon realised that I knew exactly what I was heading towards: Quinn's Post. Presently the ground began to rise and I climbed on, angling to the right. Soon I was pulling myself upwards, grasping bushes and standing on roots as the hillside became vertical. I emerged a few yards south of the Quinn's Post cemetery. A few steps up the road that now follows the old front line and I reached the cemetery.

By now hot, sweating and panting, I took off my pack, threw down my map case and stick, drank some water and began my lunch of bread and cheese. As I ate I took out a copy of Bean's The Story of Anzac and read again - but this time with great attention - his account of how Quinn's at ''the apex of the Anzac position'' was ''the key of the Anzac position''. For me too, I realised, Quinn's was the key of the Anzac position. I immediately felt the need to understand Gallipoli through the medium of this tiny patch of tortured ground, an area about the size of a school playground, for which hundreds of men had fought and died throughout the campaign. Walking about the small cemetery, looking back down the valley toward the beach and reflecting on what I'd read, I realised in a moment of clarity that I had reached the one place on Gallipoli that I really wanted to write about. This book is the product of that journey.

>>Edited extract from The Invisible Thread: One Hundred Years of Words, an anthology of writers from the Canberra region, edited by Irma Gold, published by Halstead Press. Available from bookstores and the publisher.

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