'Men of Mont St. Quentin'

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Stephen Whiteside
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'Men of Mont St. Quentin'

Post by Stephen Whiteside » Sun Nov 28, 2010 8:18 am

At the Toolangi CJ Dennis Poetry Festival this year, I read my poem, 'Sunnyside', which had received an Honourable Mention. (I have posted it on the Poetry Forum.) At the end of the afternoon I was approached by a local historian, Yvonne de Lacy, from Kallista, in the nearby Dandenong Ranges. Yvonne asked me to join her table, and introduce me to two of her friends.

My poem tells the story of Gary and Roberta Roberts, and their artists' colony at their South Sassafras property, 'Sunnyside'. Put briefly, Gary Roberts was a senior executive with the Melbourne Tramway & Omnibus Co. The Roberts lived in Hawthorn, a suburb of Melbourne, but 'Sunnyside' was their weekender in the Dandenongs. The Roberts were passionate about the arts, and many artists visited 'Sunnyside' for succour and companionship. Roberts arranged for many of the superannuated tram cars to be deposited around the paddocks of 'Sunnyside'. Dennis was living in Toolangi at the time, but was finding life hard and lonely. A friend, writer and bushwalker Robert Croll, introduced Dennis to the Roberts. The Roberts decided to do up one of the tram cars so that Dennis could live in it. The Roberts agreed to pay Dennis, so long as he continued to write on a regular basis. He lived there comfortably for many months, and it was here that he completed 'The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke'. Details can be read in Alec Chisholm's biography of Dennis, 'The Life and Times of C.J. Dennis', Angus & Robertson, 1946 (first published as 'The Making of a Sentimental Bloke').

'South Sassafras' is now Kallista. Yvonne de Lacy knows the story well, and had been relating it to her friends on the way to the festival. She was very surprised (and thrilled, of course) to hear the story related in my poem. She then went on to tell me of another Dennis-related story that I had had no idea about, related in a book she has recently read, 'Men of Mont St. Quentin', by Peter Stanley (Scribe, 2009). I have since read the book myself.

This book tells the story of Frank Roberts, oldest child of Garry and Roberta, and his fellow WW1 soldiers. It's a long, fascinating (and very sad) story, but I'll try to summarise it here - at least the parts that relate to Dennis. Frank originally trained to be a clerk, but did not like office work, and underwent a 'tree change'. He decided to be a berry farmer in the Dandenong Ranges, near his parents' property, 'Sunnyside'. He was much happier here, and eventually proposed to, and married a local girl. Dennis met Frank, of course, through Garry and Roberta, and they became good friends. Dennis was about ten years Frank's senior. (Dennis also called Gary and Roberta 'Dad' and 'Mum'.)

A berry farmer's life was pretty tough back in those days. They took their berries to market in Melbourne three days a week. This required an overnight journey with horse and cart, and a sleepless night. Dennis was fascinated by it all, and accompanied Frank once on one of his market excursions. (He was very disappointed when they stopped at midnight for a 'cuppa', but Frank produced a vacuum flask instead of a billy!) Dennis wrote an article about the trip, 'Haggling in Filth', and it was published in the Melbourne Herald in 1913. Dennis was also shocked at the unhygienic treatment the berries received once they arrived at the market. He said it made him a sworn carnivore for the rest of his life! It should not come as a great surprise, then, to learn that the 'Sentimental Bloke', Bill, becomes a berry farmer!

(If you're interested, you can find the article here: http://www.middlemiss.org/lit/authors/d ... filth.html)

Bill also tells the reader much of his feelings on fathering a son for the first time. Dennis had no children, however, so how did he really know? The answer is that Gary Roberts confided in Dennis the details of his feelings of the thrill of becoming a father for the first time.

Another artist who visited 'Sunnyside', and became a good friend of Frank Roberts, was the sculptor, Charles Web Gilbert. More of that later.

After World War One had been going for some time, Frank Roberts decided to enlist. He felt it was his patriotic duty. He was now in his late twenties, and his wife was pregnant with their first child. Frank spent some time in London before arriving at the Western Front. Gilbert was at this stage also living in London, and Frank and he spent a good deal of time together at this stage. Gilbert was subsequently commissioned to make a number of memorial statues related to the War.

'The Battle of Mont St. Quentin' took place in the final stages of the War, as the Allies finally penetrated the famous Hindenburg Line. Monash later described it as the greatest achievement of the Australian forces. By this stage, most battalions were very depleted, but the invention of the Lewis gun was providing some compensation for this. Mont St. Quentin, being situated on a large curve of the River Somme, commanded 360 degree views, and was of great strategic importance. Its capture from the Germans by the Australians was of crucial stategic importance. Sadly, though, Frank was killed during the battle, only a matter of weeks before the Armistice was signed.

Garry was, naturally, utterly devastated at the news of the death of his son. He devoted most of the rest of his life to trying to come to terms with it, and finding out as much detail as possible about the nature of his death. Garry urged all of Frank's comrades to record their own version of the battle, so that he could piece it all together. The information was recorded in numerous scrapbooks that are now in the public domain, and essentially allowed this book to be written.

Web Gilbert (remember him?) was asked to create a statue to commemorate the Allies victory at Mont St. Quentin. He cast a bronze figure of an Australian soldier using his bayonet to kill an eagle - symbol, of course, of the Central Powers. Gilbert told Gary Roberts that he planned to use Frank as the model for the face of the statue. (Peter Stanley, though has his doubts about whether this actually happened.)

In World War Two, the Germans reclaimed Mont St. Quentin, and destroyed Gilbert's statue. In the 1970s, a soldier adopting a rather more muted pose was re-erected on the site.

It's an amazing interweaving of events and personalities - Dennis and the 'Bloke', Garry and Frank Roberts, Web Gilbert and the First World War.

Also available on the internet is Dennis' letter of condolence to Garry upon hearing the news of Frank's death. He explains that he missed the announcement in the newspaper, and first heard the news in a letter from Robert Croll. You can find it here: http://www.middlemiss.org/lit/authors/d ... 80921.html
Last edited by Stephen Whiteside on Tue Nov 30, 2010 9:57 am, edited 1 time in total.
Stephen Whiteside, Australian Poet and Writer
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Maureen K Clifford
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Re: 'Men of Mont. St. Quentin'

Post by Maureen K Clifford » Mon Nov 29, 2010 8:24 am

Wow that is a story and a half Stephen and very interesting - I have never heard it before. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Like the idea of CJ living in a converted tram writing his poetry. It has the common touch to it and proves that obstacles can always be overcome with the help of friends.

Shame about the original statue being destroyed but the German armies destroyed or stole a great many works of art during the war so I have heard. But then wars by their nature destroy many works of art as in whole towns destroyed and beautiful buildings gone along with their history - not to mention the great and priceless works of art by the mothers of the world - lost forever.

Cheers

Maureen
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thestoryteller
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Re: 'Men of Mont. St. Quentin'

Post by thestoryteller » Mon Nov 29, 2010 9:21 am

Always interesting Stephen to understand the background of some of our Poets and their associates. I enjoyed reading more about Henry Lawson in the book, Stranger On the Darling.

http://www.robynleeburrows.com/background_lawson.htm

The Storyteller.
Some days your the pidgeon and other days the statue.

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