A Big Man Named Mack and What May Have Been But for War, The Chronicle, 5 May 2015
When World War I began, Malcolm Southwell was working as a forester, planting pines on the slopes of Mount Stromlo. Nearly 6 feet, he was tall for the era, with brown hair and brown eyes. Everyone called him ‘Mack’. He enlisted in 1915 – 100 years ago.
After his training, Mack was sent to London prior to deployment. He wrote back to his family about seeing the Tower of London, St Pauls, Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace. It was, he wrote, ‘a very enjoyable holiday’.
A month later, Mack was in the trenches of trenches near Flers when he left to fill his water bottle. At that moment, a shell burst behind him. A piece of the shrapnel struck him in the head, killing him instantly. Mack was 28 years old.
Had the tragedy of World War I been averted, Mack might have married. There could have been a handful of children. A brood of grandchildren. Mack’s great-grandchildren would have been about my age, and might have attended his 90th birthday in 1978.
But for the war.
I learned Mack’s story at an exhibition called ‘When Hall Answered the Call’, curated by Phil Robson and a team of volunteers from the Hall community. The exhibition told the story of the locals who enlisted, the impact on their lives, and the effect on those left behind. It contained everything from soldiers’ letters to a display of the kind of food that would have been provided at their homecoming (the first time I’ve seen a sponge cake made of real sponge).
Now that those who served in World War I are no longer with us, it falls to our generations to retell the stories and learn their lessons anew. We should recognise the horror of a conflict that killed nearly 1 in every 40 Australian men and the valour that saw 64 Victoria Crosses awarded. There are lessons, too, in the mistakes that led to the outbreak of World War I.
Around Australia, towns like Hall bear memorials to those who served in ‘the Great War’. Consistent with our egalitarian traditions, most memorials don’t mention rank. Service gave them all the right to the same great title: ‘digger’. And all have earned our everlasting respect.
Andrew Leigh is the Federal Member for Fraser, and his website is www.andrewleigh.com.