This past Tuesday the 13th of August 2013 I went to the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, Australia. I went because it was the 95th anniversary of my Great Great Uncles death in the First World War. He was killed in action on the 13th of August 1918, only 5 days after the great victory at Amiens. A victory the German General Ludendorff called "the black day of the German Army". From this point until the end of the war, only 3 months away, the Allies were constantly on the offensive. But my Great Great Uncle, Vernon Cyril Dawson was killed on an otherwise quiet day as the Armies prepared for further attacks. But I'll come back to Private Dawson.
The Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance is such an improbable thing, an Ancient Greek temple built in a City that was only settled in the 1830's. It was built as a memorial to the 19,000 Victorians who died serving King, Country and Empire during the First World War. It was financed by both public subscription and Government money. It was started in 1927 and finished in 1934, when 250,000 people were there to see it's dedication. Not bad when you consider that the population of Victoria was around 2,000,000.
"To the Glory of Service and Sacrifice this Shrine was Dedicated by His Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester 11th November 1934"
Inside in the centre of the Shrine is a stone upon which is engraved "Greater love has no man" and around which a service is performed regularly. Along the inside wall are memorial books with the name's of those who died in beautiful cursive script, you can request as I did that the book be turned to a specific page. The attendant was very helpful and turned to the page with Vernon Cyril Dawson's name on it. It was written in military fashion, surname first, then initials, so there in the book it read Dawson, V.C.
V.C. are the initial's holders of the Victoria Cross can put after their name, the Victoria Cross being the highest award for valour in the British Empire and which many of those countries continue to award when warranted. Private Dawson was not awarded the Victoria Cross, his medals were more modest, the British War Medal 1914-20 and the Victory Medal.
For someone I had never met it was quite emotional being in the Shrine and looking at his name on the anniversary of his death all those years ago. In that beautiful and improbable building, one of the great treasures of our City. With visitors coming in and out, with school groups being given tours, it remained quiet. Not totally but it is a place for the living to remember the dead, to remember their sacrifice on our behalf so it doesn't need total silence. It needs respect which is what I saw there. It is not my first time visiting the Shrine but it was the first time I had been there for personal reasons. Until last year I didn't know that Vernon had ever lived, a friend found him while doing my family tree for me. Something I'm very grateful to her for. Now I know quite a bit about him.
I know he was born in 1890 in a small town in country Victoria named Casillis, near Omeo in whats known as the High Country. I went there between Christmas and New Year last year and found an area that looked like it had always been farmland and bush, but when Vernon was born there were around 1000 people living there. A town that existed to extract gold and the old photos show large factory like buildings that were used to process the gold. The people lived in shanty's, bark and wooden houses that have long since disappeared. In fact there were only two solid buildings in the entire town, one of which remains, the other was moved to a nearby town. Vernon was the youngest of 12 children, 3 girls and 9 boys, although 1 girl died the year of her birth and 1 of the boys died at the age of 2. His oldest sister was 23 when Vernon was born.
His enlistment papers tell us that he was 5' 11'' and 174 Ibs, with blue eyes and brown hair and he worked in the mine. He enlisted in October 1916 and left Australia in November. He served with the 6th Light Trench Mortar Battery until his death in August 1918. Mortarmen, like Machinegunners and Flame Thrower operators were some of the most hated men during the First World War. Flame Throwers I think you can work out why soldiers hated them, machine guns killed alot of men and it was hard to fight back against them. But mortar's could do something that no other weapon could do, they could fire explosives directly into trenches. The reason the trenches existed was because they were the safest way to avoid enemy attack. But because of the trajectory that mortars fire on mortar shells can land inside a trench, something artillery shells seldom did. Just to make them that little bit worse they were hard to hear, so there was little defence against them.
In 1917 the gold mine in Cassilis closed down and the town died, there are now less than 100 people living there. There are now Farms, a Winery and some Artists living there. Some of Vernon's family stayed but mine moved to Melbourne. The life that he had known before the war wouldn't have been there if he had lived, I'm sure he would have got on with life but of course we can never know. He now lies in Heath Cemetery, near Harbonnieres France, just south of the Somme River and to the east of Amiens.
Lest We Forget
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