He lived up to his regimental name, that’s for sure — the “Devil’s Own”.
When young Aussie soldier George Jones, a member of the renown 13th Light Horse Regiment, met French waitress Flavie Belair, it was love at first sight, or at least love at half light.
The devilish streak in the young Jonesy, and his knock-about regimental mates, was well entrenched. After four months in France they had mischief in mind and they were out to find it. The pretty teenage waitress had been serving them alcohol most of the day at her family’s remote cafe on the banks of the River Somme, then just as the sun was fading all hell broke loose. They tried to scatter, knocking over tables and chairs, upending bottles and plates. The military police had arrived and those young 13th light horse devils were definitely not suppose to be there.
Flavie, however, not only fed and watered the young Aussies she also hid them from the MPs. Of course they were going to fall in love that day. The tall, sandy haired Jones — the so-called quiet one in the group — didn’t stand a chance.
Jonesy didn’t talk much, even before the war, but what he and his mates had been through since leaving Australia had squashed all desire for anything but small talk. It was better to leave the reality unspoken. In such a short time he had been through such a lot.
He left Australia three years earlier a shy adventure seeking 22 year old accountant. He was to return with all the adventure beaten out of him. Weekend work shovelling hay at his uncle’s thoroughbred stables was the only connection he had to horses but that was good enough for the imperial forces.
In June 1915, Jonesy and the rest of the 13th Light Horse disembarked in Egypt. With just a few days to get over their sea sickness and absorb the strange and colourful chaos of such a foreign land, the boys were again back on a transport ship, heading straight to Gallipoli.
Forced to leave their beloved horses behind in the desert, Jonesy’s regiment landed in Gallipoli amid it’s full blown horrors. Shocked at the sickness, the heat, the flies, the open wounds, the smell and cries of dying men, the young Aussies soon realised they were fodder for the unbending British command. Within the week they were ordered to man the trenches at the notorious Lone Pine — one of the most heavily contested parts of the sacrificial ANZAC front line.
For three months these innocent young horsemen trudged and defended the mud-filled trenches. Eating out of cans, desperately drinking dirty water, sleeping in the mud, often forced to piss where they stood. Nothing could have been further from their expectations. One by one, or more realistically dozen by dozen, they saw their mates blown to bits.
Davie Brown got shot through the ear as he swigged on his canteen. The bullet went in and out almost in perfect line, ear to ear. The only sign something had happened to young Davie was the blood spilling down his canteen which was still stuck in his mouth. Davie’s body stayed standing upright for a few seconds before suddenly crumpling.
Larry Bilkin was ordered over the top to replace Kiwi Johnston in one of the shallow advance dug outs, in no mans land. They’d all done it many times before but when Larry got there Kiwi was already almost dead. His body ripped open from a shell, intestines exposed, surrounded by a pool of muddy blood. He was just lying still, looking up blinking slowly. Larry had landed heavily, in his haste to get down out of sight, half on top of him. But Kiwi didn’t complain, he just grinned, happy not to die alone. Trouble was, the Turks had tracked Larry’s zig zag path and used it to lob another shell. Bullseye, both were gone.
Cry Baby Christian Smith just couldn’t cope right from the start. He was knick-named “baby” almost immediately when he arrived at Lone Pine because his 15 year old hairless young face belied his fake application form. The crying started within the first week, and the name shifted to Cry Baby. Just as Cry Baby couldn’t cope with the war, the other soldiers couldn’t cope with him. Shut up, shut up, shut up, didn’t have any impact no matter how many times they screamed at him, shock him, bashed him, even. One night, however, at last, the crying finally stopped. Relief, they all thought. His crying had become a target in the quiet black nights, an aim for snipers and shells. In the morning their relief, however, changed to shame. Cry baby’s throat was slit, his head forced backwards in the mud, a puttee stuffed in his mouth. Those bloody murdering Turks they all muttered among themselves, not wanting to look anyone in the eye.
Then out of the blue, Christmas came early for the light horsemen. On December 20 their regiment was sent back to Egypt. Finally, out of the rain and mud and reunited with their horses. Desert polo games, tandem rides for the swarms of street kids and short exotic nights, helped speed their recovery. The Gallipoli dysentery was notorious, lasting months but the skin diseases, infections and malnourishment usually started to come right within a few weeks.
But then, as if they hadn’t already been through enough, the young devils were ordered to yet another deadly hotspot, the dreaded Western Front. From the fire in to the frypan.
The only consolation was this time they had their horses.The long list of battle honours attached to these men, riding hunched and frightened across Europe, is evidence of just how much they were in the “thick of it”. Somme, Pozieres, Bapaume, Ypres, Albert, Flanders, to name just the major battles. Jonesy, Bluey, Simmo, Crank, Wilfie, Albie, Jack and all the other 13th devils also helped chase the Germans back to the Hindenburg Line and they were back there again to capture the outpost in 1918, finally clearing the way for the Australian Corps advance as the long end to the carnage began.
These were experiences and images, the silent matters, that a half drunk, half happy Jonesy didn’t need to talk about on a starry evening on the banks of the Somme. So, the fact 19 year old waitress Flavie couldn’t speak English and Jonesy couldn’t speak French was no barrier. The Aussie soldier and the French waitress fell in love without words.
Her family were delighted, encouraging the relationship. A pock-marked French landscape, broken and torn, villages destroyed, lives in limbo, hopes lost was no place for a young girl to try to make a life.
They married in her home town of Abbeville, the service was all in French but Jonesy didn’t care. He wrote his parents about it but didn’t hear back. Often the letters took months to get through. Their honeymoon was squeezed in to 36 hours leave, spent in the attic room above the cafe.
Almost before she could believe it was real, Flavie was aboard a war bride ship destined for Melbourne, escaping the devastation across Europe for an exciting new life on the other side of the world. Oh, what a life she would have. A home of their own, living in a city, no animals to tend, bread to bake or tables to wait. This new world would be perfect. Her husband, you see, was educated, an office man, not a farm worker or a labourer. He would soon be back at his old job, working with numbers and money and wearing smart clothes. She would have dresses and ride around on trams and her kitchen, oh her kitchen, would have a gas stove — no more wood to chop.
But nothing could have prepared Flavie for the harshness of this new land. She swapped a slow, rural French life, working in the family cafe, seeing the same people, sharing the same history, for the shock of Melbourne’s dirty, bustling cramped inner city Collingwood slums.
Their life was immediately hard. Like many of the returned, Jonesy was a changed man trying to fit back in to an old life. He got his job back at Dentries Department Store and he and Flavie soon moved out of the boarding house in to a rented cottage. Surrounded by more people in a day then Flavie had seen in her 19 years, she was overwhelmed. No one liked her. They weren’t friendly. She couldn’t speak English and they couldn’t speak French. The fact that handsome George Jones, returned hero, light horseman, educated man, white collar worker, now had a foreign wife was a point of jealous gossip among people desperate to find something good about themselves. How did this foreign snippet with her funny cooking and strange ways stake a claim to one of their golden sons, they wondered.
Increasingly reserved and sullen, Jonesy became one of the 6 o’clock swill men. The salons and snugs were no different to the public bars, full of men looking for male company and beer. It was only then that he could walk the rest of the way home to Flavie.
Baby number one, thankfully, arrived within the year and became a turning point and t life began to improve. The surprising love Jonesy felt for this little dark haired girl sucked the emotions back in to his soul. Cradling that warm, smudged-faced bundle, born at home with the help of a midwife, he realised what life was really about. For the first time since returning from the war he started to believe the death, the misery, the horror of Europe would fade.
“The baby”, as she was known for almost three months because they couldn’t agree on a name, also opened doors for Flavie, a new mum among thousands of other new mums. Despite the language gap the other young mothers soon realised they had to be there for each other.
Struggling to make life normal and happy was their battle ground as they slowly nurtured both their new babies and their broken men. Poverty, sickness, drunken husbands, absent husbands, lost dreams, new dreams. Motherhood also gave birth to sisterhood as, like a regiment, they grew to love and look out for each other.
And Jonesy and Flavie certainly did their bit for the country’s latest call to arms — the baby boom. Australia, like the rest of world, needed more babies. Population growth, equalled consumer demand, equalled jobs, equalled economic growth and the little Collingwood house was soon bursting at the seams. Despite 11 babies, however, only six lived, a fact that everyone at the time had to push through. And although Flavie never returned to France, or saw her family again, she found her own daily reminder of home rural French home. The war of wills between husband and wife about the name of their first child was one battle Jonesy lost. Eventually giving way on the issue to his uncharacteristically stubborn wife, all six children were given French names, much against the fashion of the times. Camille, Madelaine, Gorges, Marcel, Henri and Jacques. Flavie felt as if she was back in Abbeville, loudly calling their names her a sing song voice, despite the paper thin walls of the cottage.
Jonesy was a happy hard working father. His career, however, struggled to re-start, as the business world tried to recover from the war years and then only to be hit again, this time financially, by the 1929 sharemarket crash. The Great Depression was a hardship that many returned soldiers could just not believe. They had suffered through the war with the thoughts of returning to their old lives often the only thing that kept them going. Now, back home, they couldn’t even provide for their families. Men were out of work by the thousands, households had no income, no social security, no food. Swathes of men left their homes and families to travel to the large work projects, often moving on to the next and the next. Seasonal work was another option, with the men often sheltered, barely, in farm buildings or make shift orchard camps.
Jonesy, however, stuck to home, slowly, secretively, eating through their savings, while surrounded by the worst poverty either had ever seen. Their nest egg was for a home deposit, but when the depression struck the repercussions reached every bottom draw, every coffee tin, every nest egg. The department store Jonesy worked at before and after the war had closed. Shop girls, delivery men, window dressers and accountants, alike, all lost their jobs. No customers, no stores, no jobs. Along with thousands of others, Jonesy signed up for the work lists, educated men, accountants were not so common, so he stood out to the list keepers and he usually got work every couple of weeks. On the off days, he queued along with every other man for council work, mainly lugging bluestone blocks on carts from the quarry depot to pave the inner city laneways of Melbourne.
Work for food schemes were common.
While the men, of those times, thought they carried the burden, the loss of self respect, the faces of hungry children and disappointed wives, in reality it was the women who shouldered the real weight. Flavie counted herself lucky that her husband wasn’t a violent drunk like many of her neighbours, counted herself lucky that he loved his children and that he was a clever man in mind and money, having always put something aside for their dream fund, as he called it.
But within just a few months their luck came in. Queued, as usual along Melbourne’s bustling Flinders Street, Jonesy was noticed by a passing councilman because he was reading amendments to the Tax Assessments Act. Questioned briefly by the local politician, it was less then a week later that he got a knock on the door from a boy with a lettergram asking him to report for work. Finally, he was back on a regular payroll, although at a much reduced income but it was guaranteed, government money.
Thanks to that chance intervention, Jonesy was hired as a project accountant, the money man as everyone would later call him, for one of the government’s unemployment-busting public works projects, The Great Ocean Road. Already the biggest employer of returned soldiers, the long and winding road would become the world’s largest official war memorial. Jonesy couldn’t believe his luck, he was not only doing what he knew best, keeping the budget on track, keeping the men paid, but he was also helping to build a permanent salute to all those who had fallen, died beside him, died miles away from him, died in that hell that was war.
Their lives, like all who lived through the times, improved as the years ticked over. And as the world moved once again toward another war, Jonesy was thankful to be out of it this time. He had landed a steady job after the great road was finished, working for the government’s Board of Works — an essential service that would keep him, safely, out of round two.
Jonesy died aged 73, grandfather to many. His only regret was leaving “My Cherry” as he always called her in a larrikin nod to Flavie’s language. Despite being plagued for the rest of his life with the fear and the flashbacks of those dreadful war years, he learned not to totally regret them because that’s how he had found her.
Despite their intentions to buy a home and move out of crowded dirty Collingwood to fresher, greener suburbs, they never did make the break. Reluctantly at first, then slowly, then more willingly, they had became part of the fabric that wove together their fractured community. Mutual times shared and hardships halved, they all held each other together, as each family, each household needed to be held, in turn. So when the time came and they could afford the deposit, they couldn’t leave. Instead Jonesy purchased the house they had rented all those years earlier, modestly extending, building-in the front verandah as a bedroom for the boys, expanding the kitchen lean-to and making a covered walkway to the dunny outside. Flavie, as frugal as always, was left comfortable, of course, he’d made sure of that. She lived on alone for almost 25 years in the timber cottage in the centre of Melbourne. Their children, long moved on to their own homes and their own families, kept in constant contact and she watched from a distance of language and age as they got on with their lives. When Flavie died aged 94, she was happy to be finally passing. She’d outlived three of her children, something that tore at her heart almost daily. Isolation, frailty and creeping blindness had taken their toll. It was her time. For those who would listen or try to understand, she would whisper in half French, half English, how much she was looking forward to seeing Abbeville and her handsome sandy haired soldier again.
By Kaz Kilmore from Australia