It’s such a small item. So easily disposable. A tiny orange, fading paper rail ticket. Yet what a treasured possession!
Why is it so special?
Well, it’s stood the test of time. It’s 103 years old and it belonged to my great grandfather Harold Stanley Butler. The ticket made it all the way back from the hell of the Western Front trenches in a small leather wallet. Sadly Harold never did.
From the innocence of Newcastle to a bloody Western Front trench, from a walk to the beach at Merewether to the horror of No Man’s Land in “The Strand”, from a Glebe Road grocery store to a Belgium grave. What a tragic journey for Harold and so many young ANZACs.
A young greengrocer and a new father, Harold left Newcastle bound for Sydney on a one-way rail ticket. Yet like so many he never got to buy the return; one of 62,000 Australians killed in WWI.
I like to reflect on some snippet of Harold’s story each Anzac Day – he was on my mind as I stood outside my house at dawn today. It’s good for my soul to ponder his story each ANZAC Day – in many ways a stranger to me – but family – and his courage, his sacrifice, his loss, challenge me to look afresh at all I take for granted. His story – the ANZAC story – spurs me on again in the service of others.
Harold’s diary shows he left Sydney in September 1916. He and his wife Edith had celebrated the birth of my grandfather Thomas Harold only seven months earlier. “Tom” as my beautiful grandfather was affectionately known to his grandchildren never got to experience life with his Dad and Anzac Day was always a bittersweet occasion for him. Having lost his dad in his infancy Tom lived for his family for his 93 years on earth – he treasured simple pleasures and nothing was better than a packed kitchen table or lounge room celebrating family.
Hard to fathom today, but it took seven months, from when Harold was issued his railway ticket in the Hunter Valley, before he made it to the Western Front.
Imagine the emotional rollercoaster of that journey by sea and land heading to a battle he knew so little about. I will never understand what he and his mates experienced. The hell of trench warfare was brought home again as I recently watched “1917” and was reminded of the loss of so many young lives.
Harold's handwritten travel log shows on 21 April 2017 he "left for front line". Just over four weeks later he was killed in action in a battle in an area known as "The Strand" near Ploegsteert in Belgium.
A letter to Edith spoke of his courage and dedication to his mates.
In 2008 I made a special pilgrimage. I had the honour of visiting Harold’s grave in a well-kept rural military cemetery. So many times I had sat my with grandparents and spoke about this special man and yet in reality he was an “an unknown soldier” to my living family members.
I know a little of the back story. I’ve heard second-hand stories of how people spoke well of him and read some brief, warm tributes. Like all of us, he wouldn’t have been a perfect man; I’m sure no saint and in our family we never saw him as a “hero” in a way that would glorify war. Rather we spoke of an ordinary man, who like so many other Australians, paid the ultimate price for the sake of others.
And so finally on 2008, after 41 Anzac Days in my own life, I stood before this ordinary man’s grave. There it was – his name and dates that were etched into my memory from sitting watching Anzac Day marches on the TV in my grandparents’ humble home. To this day the emotions still catch up when I remember this visit. I sat, wept and talked to my great grandfather, reflecting on his courage and a life cut short. Most of all I wanted to tell him all about “Tom” – the son he never got to grow up with, the beautiful grandfather I had been blessed with.
Today, we don’t celebrate war in any way at all! No, war is and always will be horrible! As my grandfather said “we never learned from WWI” and we still haven’t learned. Today, are challenged anew to seek peace on earth – to seek peace in relationships – in neighbourhoods, in nations. We are called to be reconcilers in a hostile world.
As many of stood outside our houses today on an Anzac Day that looked very different to normal, hopefully none of us were glorifying war but rather we were reminding ourselves that courage and sacrifice lay behind so much of we value and possess in Australia today.I look again at Harold’s one-way ticket and I am struck today that in many ways I got to cash in on the “return”. I have had the privilege and opportunity to live in this special nation and benefit from so much that so many around the world can only dream of. In a world of COVID-19, perspective, gratitude, acts of service and kindness and appreciation of simple time with family have been amplified.
But more, as I held a candle in the darkness of the dawn, I was also challenged afresh that there is so much more for us, “the free” to do, for those who lack the freedom I take for granted. There is so much more to do to foster justice and be a voice for the voiceless, the stranger, the dispossessed, those that cry for help and equity in our world.
Too many today live in the new horror of refugee camps and detention centres. Too many still live in poverty. Too many live in slavery. Too many still experience racism and discrimination. Too many still live with violence each day. Too many still don’t have a roof over their head in Australia. Too many First Australians still live with disadvantage. Too many cry out for all that I can take for granted today.
So as we commemorate #AnzacDaytatHome this year, let’s pause again and remember sacrifice and service. Let’s remember all Australians who have laid down their lives for our sake. But’s let also allow the ANZAC spirit to again rattle our cages – to call us out of slumber and self-focus to a world desperately needing men and women committed to servanthood, justice, humility and kindness. For me, this is the way of Jesus.
Two weeks on from Easter these words echo richly on my mind: "No greater love has any man that to lay down his life for his friends".
A young soldier farewelled his wife and baby boy – only seven months old – and headed for the other side of the world. He would never come home. I am so thankful for all I have at home today.
“God may I not take for granted all I have at home today, all I can take for granted. And more, take my eyes again of all that the world says I need more of, and help me see the needs of so many who have so little in this beautiful, but broken world.”