Darkness is our friend. So is dead ground, like the shell hole we now find ourselves hiding in. It’s full of water, stinks like Anzac soup, the rot of corpses, but darkness also hides any dead sharing our cover. We can barely see one another’s faces as we listen to rifle shots and machinegun bursts coming from all sides, bullets sporadically thumping into the crater lip.

I glance at Will, marvelling he’s still with us because only minutes ago I was sure I’d seen him take an enemy bayonet to his chest. But here he is, alive and well, rifle slung over his shoulder and training his Webley Revolver on our two remaining prisoners. Of the other three prisoners, one’s back in the trench with his head caved in, the other two managed to get themselves killed running through the cross-fire.

Will’s whispering an order to young Archie and when the bullets eventually cease Archie checks if the coast is clear, signalling for us to follow, and we scramble up the crater and across no-mans-land, our two prisoners protesting, someone nudging them with the muzzle of their rifle, hissing at them to, “Shut it.”

Archie leads us straight to our lines, identifying ourselves to the sentries as the team of body snatchers, the nightly raiders of death to the enemy who think they’re safe in their trenches, and the sentries mercifully do not open up on us with their Vickers, letting us jump into their trench.

It’s lighter now and we catch our breaths; Will’s over there examining his respirator which has a shattered eye piece where the sharp steel of the enemy bayonet caught on the metal rim, slicing clean through the rubber hose. Someone whistles, another calling him a lucky bastard because the blade must have stopped less than an inch from his heart. Archie takes the useless mask from Will for further examination and Will pats the young man on the back, thanking him for saving his life. Archie grins, teeth flashing white in early dawn’s darkness.

“Better find a new one,” I tell Will.

“Nah,” Will says with a wink, “I’ll keep this as a souvenir to show little Jack when he’s older.”

I know he’s joking, sure he’ll see the quartermaster, but still add another two pence. “Just get a new one, mate.”

“Yes, Papa,” he says, grinning, but he pats my shoulder and I’m confident he’ll replace his respirator.

Perhaps it’s later when the sky lightens with a new day, when Will’s returned from interrogating the prisoners and debriefing with the brass, and somewhere in the distance the Hun artillery, the daily hate, opens up, shells whistling overhead, landing close behind our lines, the cacophony of explosions deafening. In morning’s pale light a yellowish green fog approaches, about to envelop us and Will yells, “Gas, lads, get your masks on now!”

Men fumble to put on our respirators and Will’s yelling for everyone to check their seals, but I’m begging Will to put his mask on. He holds his useless mask, a look of acceptance in his eyes, saying, “Tell Mary I love her when you get back, won’t you, and make sure she and Jack are provided for.”

He says these words so calmly.

But we’re both choking and retching, falling, his voice is now harsh and eyes pleading, desperate, demanding, “Shoot me, Alfie, please shoot me!

Suddenly I’m swaying in mid-air in the dark heat of hell, heartbeat pounding like horses in full gallop threatening to burst from my chest, sweat pouring off me. It takes a few moments to orient myself, the soothing vibrations and low throb of the ship’s engines interrupted by a snuffle from a cabin mate, another calling out in his sleep, I think crying out for his mother. I’ve seen and heard even the toughest men on all sides of this war plead for their mothers.

Fuck the dreams, the nightmares, will they never cease?

Will didn’t call for his mother; he looked me in the eyes and asked me to shoot him. He also asked me to tell his Mary he loves her, and make sure their boy, Jack, is well looked after. Sometimes he yells at me to put on my mask, and sometimes all three. But mostly he begs me to end his misery.

Will said all these things in the moments before he died.

I’m not the only one awake, for few of us sleep well. Some men cry, often calling for their mothers or sweethearts and wives, while other’s call their long-dead cobber’s names, or lay silent in their swinging hammocks, all of us sweating, the heat below decks oppressive. Thus, many of us make our way top-side to sit by the rail, as I do now. I can tell the ship has changed direction since yesterday, for the night sky is lighter off the port side now betraying dawn’s sun hiding somewhere below the horizon, rather than off the ship’s bow like it was the previous morning when we sailed east.

I hear myself whisper, “Heading south again.”

For so long I didn’t think I’d see another dawn. And still, every dawn could be our last. A few have slipped over the rail in the night, the ocean taking their pain and suffering in her cold watery bosom. I shudder to think and gaze to my right, towards the bow. There’s a figure several feet away, and though I can’t make out his features in the dark, I can see the unlit pipe hanging from his mouth. Smoking is banned above decks between dusk and dawn, lest the glow from a cigarette or pipe gives away our position to any enemy vessel such as a raider or U-boat, as unlikely as the possibility sounds so far from Europe.

The man takes a deep breath, the sound of his inhalation matching the hissing water streaming by the hull below us, then proclaims, “I can smell her, maybe a day or two away.”

I inhale lightly, but my lungs burn, a searing pain sending me into a hacking coughing fit. Yet there she is among the salt laden air filling my nostrils! Barely perceptible, but the smell we all grew up with, a smell we took for granted all our lives is unmistakable, the smell we’ve long missed; the scent of the Australian bush, heavy with Eucalyptus oil.

I’m coughing again, gripping the rail, gasping for breath, lungs on fire.

“You alright there, cobber,” the man with the pipe asks.

“Chlorine gas,” I choke out between coughs, “Place called Passchendaele.”

“Ah, you unlucky bastard.” In the dark I can tell he’s nodding, then turns to face me, a crutch I’d not noticed holding him up where he’s missing his right leg below the knee. “I copped it at Messines.”

“I was there too, cunt of a stoush.”

“As they all were. Me leg’s still there with some of me cobbers, feeding the worms.”

They must be some of the best fed worms on Earth, and it’s all we need to say before turning to face the new dawn as more men appear at the rail; men missing arms and legs, or have terribly scarred skin, or like me, their lungs are damaged, some damaged in more ways than one. All of us have minds and souls damaged too, with unspeakable horrors still visiting us, even after all our time away from the front, even this close to home.


We put into Fremantle and the West Australians among us prepare to leave the ship.

“I’ll have a drink for yer all at the first pub I come ta,” says Cec Morgan, a sheep farmer from somewhere here in the west. “Reckon I’ll be pissed in about half an hour.”

“I hear ya can’t hold ya liquor any more, cobber,” I say with a straight face, holding out my right hand to his missing right hand.

Everyone laughs, especially Cec, and he places his stump in my palm and shakes it up and down, and laughs. “I’ll have to learn to use me left, but got other uses for me, ah, extra-large short arm here. The girls are gonna love it, it’s the right shape and all. Tried it out on a pommy nursing sister back at the convalescent home.”

“And she loved every inch of it, or so we heard a thousand times or more,” Dennis Burke says in a mocking tone, which is what I’m sure we’re all thinking, and Malcolm Byrne grins and winks, saying, “You’ll need that thing since Jerry shot your middle leg away.”

All of us are laughing, and our cabin-mate Cec grins and gropes at the bulge in the front of his trousers and shakes his head. “Jerry’s a lousy shot and only took me left nut.”

We slap him on the back and someone shoves a lit cigarette between his lips, and he grins again, hoists his kit bag, turns and heads towards the line of men waiting at the top of the gangway. A man with no legs is lifted over the side in a bosun’s chair, and as he swings by I can see the look in his eyes; the vacant stare, and no one’s laughing anymore. Someone does call out, “Good luck, Digger,” and he doesn’t even turn.

The rest of us remain aboard, unable to disembark for the short duration of the ship’s stay, and I spend a great deal of time with my own vacant stare, gazing out across the tops of the dock’s timber warehouses between us and the town beyond, the roofs of houses being the first hint of civilisation we’ve seen for a long time. It’s home, but not home as I know it because it’s much too dry and flat, and I’m not paying too much attention anyhow.

Our ship leaves in the morning and we don’t make landfall again for several days, skirting the south-west corner, then heading east across the rough seas of the Great Australian Bight, swinging in our hammocks at night, for there isn’t enough fixed berths for all of us, and later the morning sun rises off our bow again.

During a fit-full sleep several nights later, one of the boys starts banging on cabin doors, yelling, “We’ve turned north into Port Phillip Bay, lads!”

Noticeably, our ship is no longer rising and dipping and rolling, and mighty cheers go up, and a few curses too, telling the man to. “Bugger off,” and for the cheerers to, “Shut the fuck up,” because some people are still hoping for sleep, but we’re all heartened by the news. Some men light up a cigarette despite the rules, and some of us cough terribly and head top-side.

There’s a faint shoreline out there in the dark, the tops of trees betrayed by the silver moonlight and a scattering of shore lights. And there, dead ahead off the bow, are more lights; the lights of Melbourne.


“Where the fuck’s St Kilda?” one of the blokes, Pete, asks.

“And to think you were one of them fancy pilot officers,” another quips. “Dunno ya left from right.”

“They didn’t teach us much map reading in the Flying Corp, Digger,” Pete laughs, “We simply pointed our aircraft to the east, shot down any German bastards we saw, then flew back west and hoped we’d find a flat patch of turf to land, then pray to the Lord almighty.”

I only know Pete the Flying Corps Lieutenant by his first name, and most of us know under the bandages on his head are livid weeping burn scars from his hairline at his left temple, down his now mangled mess of fleshy tissue that was his ear, neck and shoulders.

We know his story well because he loves to tell it, how his Sopwith Camel caught fire after an epic dogfight with several Hun fighters, at least two of which he shot down, his own aeroplane burning as he flew back to our lines where he crashed in a muddy field. Despite his ordeal he’s one of the most jovial and upbeat fellows we sailed home with, but among more laughter Pete scratches at his bandage and the remains of his ear, and I see him grimace from time to time.

Soon a young Lieutenant approaches, looking fresh as a daisy and who we recognise as a brass hat who’d not yet left these shores. Everyone’s milling about the dock under the greying sky and no one snaps to attention like we might have back in the camps, having lost many military formalities in the trenches, and the young officer appears a trifle agitated.

“May I have your attention please,” he yells, and I suppose his voice carries enough authority because we all stand as ridged as possible, which is not overly ridged for many, especially those with crutches or in wheelchairs. “Thank you. I am Leftenant Turpie and …”

“Leftenant Twerpie,” someone whispers, resulting in muffled laughter.

The young officer’s face glows red, but he carries on. “…And I am instructed to lead the Queenslanders among you to the hospital. There your wounds and general fitness will be examined and an assessment on your further repatriation will be made. This process may take some time and therefore you will be billeted with families who have volunteered a bed in their houses for the duration of your stay. Are there any questions?”

“Will there be nurses there?” someone asks without raising their hand, and before the officer can answer, someone else calls out, “You wouldn’t know what to do with a nurse, Morrie.”

“Can we go via the pub on the way?”

“Do you know if there’s somewhere we can meet girls?”

“I haven’t seen a girl since London, can’t remember what they look like, but I can imagine this handsome Leftenant Twatie looking pretty in a dress.”

Amid roars of laughter, the Lieutenant loses his temper, yelling, “Attention, men! Fall in line, now!”

Eventually the racket settles and we slovenly stand to, and soon a Major arrives and we straighten up quick-smart, and he orders us to, “Hurry now, men, you don’t want to be standing about all day.”

We hoist our canvass kit-bags and begin marching from the docks, where men who can’t walk are carried in the back of carts, the horses lazily clip-clopping down the road. The rest of us follow behind in columns two abreast, some pushing other men in wheel chairs, others hobbling along with the aid of crutches, all of us dodging horse’s dung.

People watch our slow procession from the porches and verandas of their terraces and cottages; men leaning against railings with pipes or cigarettes in mouths, some tipping their hats, and women in rocking chairs, many with the look of pity etched on their faces.

The march is perhaps a mile, or maybe less, but my lungs burn like fire, causing me to hack towards the end.

“You alright there, Dig?” Pete asks me. “Not gonna die on us are you?”

“Don’t think so, sir,” I reply, managing a smile. “Jerry didn’t kill me in France or Belgium and he sure ain’t gonna kill me here.”

The man slaps me on the back. “Glad to hear it, lad, and dispense with the sir, I’m not a wanker brass hat like these fellas leading us.”

I laugh and cough terribly some more, my lungs on fire.

Arriving at the hospital, we wait until called up. Typical army life; hurry up and wait.

“Corporal Alfred Graham?” I look up and the pretty young nurse is searching the room with her vibrant blue eyes. Her eyes remind me of Will’s, and I try to block him from the forefront of my mind, his face contorted as he screams at me, Put your fucking mask on now, Alfie! And the yellow-green cloud swirls in over us…

“That’s me,” I say, standing.

She smiles and waits patiently for me to cross the room, ignoring the other men’s attention, ever asking her to meet with them when they are discharged, offering to take her to a dance or the theatre, and they whistle and yell at me too, making innuendo about where she’s taking me and what I’ll get to do with her. They carry on exactly like this for each and every nurse who enters the room and every soldier the nurses call away.

“This way, Corporal, quick now, follow me please.” Her voice is sweet and polite, and she’s the prettiest girl I’ve seen in a long time, and thus for a moment I consider asking her to a dance or the theatre, but I’d be useless to her, coughing and spluttering all over the place. Anyhow, I’m sure she’s seeing one of the physicians or fancy officers and not interested in the unruly damaged Diggers she has to deal with on a daily basis.

“Please wait here.” We are in a small waiting room and she gestures to a chair. “The doctor will see you shortly.”

“Thank you, sister.”

Hurry, wait…

She’s left me again and soon a door opens and Pete the pilot officer from earlier exits clutching some papers, a fresh bandage wrapped around his wounds. He smiles when he sees me. “They won’t let me go for at least another few months. Bastards don’t think our doctors up in Queensland are as good as their fancy Victorian ones.”

I smile, because the doctor, a middle-aged man in a suit, is immediately behind Pete and of course he’s heard every word the pilot speaks. Pete winks and walks off down the corridor, and the doctor motions for me to enter, mumbling something about Queenslanders.

He closes the door behind me and we go through the routine I’ve been through in hospitals since London. Except this physician is concerned my cough might be tuberculosis, despite my protests and explanation chlorine gas scarred my lungs. He looks me in the eye and tells me, “We can’t be too careful.”

And he’s overly concerned with examining my privates, asking if I’d visited brothels or met with loose women in either France or England. I lie, of course, and I’ve been checked for venereal disease by several military doctors, all who are obsessed with the ailment. And I’m not going to mention how we’d come to procure Miss Ettie Rout’s preventative kits and thus were protected when we did visit such establishments. The mere mention of Ettie’s name has a tendency to cause disgust among the powers that be.

Eventually the man is satisfied I don’t have TB or a VD and he tells me what every doctor tells me. “You need plenty of rest and recuperation. I’d like to examine you again in a month, so please stick around.”

I know this is an order, for I am still in the army, and we must not leave until formally discharged. I thank the man, who hardly looks up from his note writing, then he sends me out and ushers the next bloke in.

Another nurse, a large woman with orange hair spilling from the edges of her white veil and a no-nonsense demeanour on her freckled face, instructs me to follow her, taking me to another station in the rabbit warren of corridors, where a corporal hands me a set of papers. “This is the address and a letter of introduction for your billeting family where you will be quartered for your time in Melbourne. Remember, you’re a guest, so please be on your best behaviour.”

The man shares the same rank as me and his uniform is crisp and never seen battle. If I were to guess, I’d say he’s in his thirties, and he wears a wedding ring on his left hand. He looks up, because I’m staring, his brown eyes meeting mine. “Yes, do you have a question?”

“War’s been comfortable for you, hasn’t it?”

“Excuse me?”

“Sitting here, safe in Melbourne…”

Someone lays a hand on my shoulder and when I turn it’s the nurse, the fierce looking one with the orange hair. Unkindly, her face makes me think of a bulldog, and by the looks of her I wonder how she’s so well fed in these hard times, but when she speaks her voice is soft and understanding and full of care. “Come, please, Corporal Graham.”

Without giving the administrative corporal another glance, I follow the nurse out. At the front of the hospital she turns and faces me, her face softening with big green eyes falling on mine. “Don’t mind the corporal back there, he’s just doing his job. Not all the returning soldiers are being polite with the locals, especially in respect to women, so he’s under instruction to inform you all to behave nicely. And, just so you know, by all accounts he joined up with the intention to fight, like you did, but because he suffered polio as a child his fitness wasn’t deemed up to standard to be posted overseas. Which he’s probably lucky for too. I lost my own dear brother at Gallipoli and would give anything for him to have not left our shore.”

I see pain in her eyes, breaching the gap between us, lodging deep into my soul, leaving me ashamed. “Sorry for your loss, sister.”

She smiles. “He was like you probably were, young and eager, wanting to fight. Here, show me your papers, I’ll send you in the right direction.”