Herbie’s Private March: Salute to an Unsung ANZAC Hero
by Lorraine Cobcroft (the Rainbowriter)
He didn’t pin on medals and march on Anzac Day. He wasn’t honoured as a veteran on the day they laid him to rest. His sacrifice is not one the esteemed and revered would care to remember and his private march is one historians would be embarrassed to record.
I remembered it, briefly, in my book, “The Pencil Case”. I honoured the man as he deserved to be honoured: an ordinary bloke, who survived the persecution of the enemy to be brutally tormented and ultimately destroyed by the nation he suffered so much to honour and defend. A humble man who seldom complained, worked hard, cherished his family and always wore a smile.
We used to routinely rise in darkness on Anzac Day… his son and I…to pray and salute in the faint pink light before the dawn. We would watch the sun rise behind a wreath-covered memorial, listen to the bagpipes and the drums and watch the proud veterans lift their shoulders and stride to the beat. We laid flowers at the foot of the memorial and placed hands over hearts in memory of the fallen brave. Tears often welled at the mournful bugle call. Herbie’s son always played “The Last Post” with with such feeling.
As a child, I routinely donned a starched white dress and pinned my dad’s medals across my chest. I remember wondering, as I stepped into the lines, what he would have thought of me had he lived to know me. I wondered who he was, and what traits I might have inherited from him. His courage? His strength? His commitment to fighting to defend the values he held dear and the lifestyle he wanted his child to enjoy?
As a young mother, I lifted my children high to see their uniformed father, cornet at his lips, near the front of the march.
Today, we take no part in the celebrations. My husband does not join his veteran friends to toast a victory or salute the sacrifice of so many. For us, now, it’s a day of fighting down anger at the cruel betrayal of an unsung hero. It’s a day to remember Herbert’s private march and to grieve the awful message that his story carries.
Herbert Cobcroft wasn’t killed in war. The enemy killed neither his body nor his spirit. Not the shrapnel that shattered his legs nor the tuberculosis that scarred his lungs carried him to death’s door. Neither the bullying Japanese guards in the prison camp he dwelt in for three years, nor the maggots that gnawed at his wounded flesh, broke him.
After three years behind wire in a foreign land, he returned home to a lover and the life he knew before it all began. He wore long trousers to cover his flesh wounds and took an oath of silence to cover scars of another kind. He donned his bush hat, tied on his pack and rode out behind the cattle herd. He broke horses and wove whips and won applause as a gun shearer. He worked hard and drank hard and his wife toiled in his humble little cottage and the vegie garden out back to help him feed the beloved children who were his greatest joy.
Then the nation he fought to defend achieved what the enemy could not. The people he fought beside and for killed his soul.
Herbert’s private march was a week-long trek powered by a heart filled with hope, followed by a defeated week-long crawl nursing a heart battered and broken by the cruelty of the society he had fought for, and the heartlessness lies and hatred of so-called ‘’women of God’’.
Two years before his march, a bureaucrat came to visit the struggling veteran’s family. Herbie had hurt his back in a fall from a horse and hadn’t worked for a time. He’d moved his family to a humble shack and struggled to keep five small children clothed and fed. His means didn’t stretch to buying enough blankets to give each their own separate bed. But his kids were warm and happy. They were wrapped in thick layers of love.
The bureaucrat didn’t bother to tell Herbie he was entitled to veteran’s benefits to help ease his burden. He didn’t offer to help him fill in a pension application form. But he completed forms for him: forms that charged his beloved children with the ‘’crime’’ of being neglected. He relieved Herbie of the responsibility of caring for five by loading three into a black car and taking them far away. He took three children to a forbidding brick building where fearsome women in black robes would beat the devil out of “the fruit of scum” and society’s misguided charity would condemn them to a life in sterile dormitories, marching to the sound of bells and snapping to harsh orders, wearing the brand of the unwashed and unwanted, and never again experiencing the joy of a simple hug.
Herbie’s march was a mission to find the babies whose loss made his wife weep at night. He marched to find his son and daughters, and bring them home. He went to the right place. It took a week of walking to reach that huge brick tower. He knocked respectfully at the door.
The nuns had seen him lumbering wearily up that long drive. They had herded the children up the stairs and into dormitories where they locked them away for their safety.
“You must be mistaken,” the black-clad witch said, sneering at the grubby tramp. She’d opened the door just the barest crack and stood pressed hard against it. Her sisters were busy locking windows.
“No children by those names have ever lived here.”
Herbie’s nine-year-old son watched the departing shadow. He was nearly forty when he learned that had he called to the man, his father might have recognized his cry and turned back to him. His father loved him. His father had come for him. He was twenty-six before he heard from his father again.
The letters were all burned. The gifts they sent were set aside with cards removed. The boy received a little boat one Christmas. It was one of the few Christmas gifts the child was ever given. He was thirty-eight when he finally learned it was a gift sent by his mother.
The court said the lad should be sent home at age twelve, but the bureaucrat who interviewed the parents who so desperately wanted their son sent home signed a statutory declaration declaring he was unable to locate them.
The court said the boy should leave care at fifteen and fend for himself. The ‘’’Boss’’ at the Boys’ Home thought him too immature to be set free. He forced him to sign an eight-year contract with the army. The bureaucrat who visited his dad asking for parental consent claimed his parents were nowhere to be found. The boy’s brothers remember their angry father shouting that he’d never let his boy wear uniform; not after what this ‘’grand nation’’ did to him.
The boy went home when he was twenty-six. A brother found him, and he, in turn, found six siblings he had never known. He returned to the bosom of a mother who had cried for him for eighteen years. He returned to play the cornet for an adoring dad who, though loving and enjoying five younger sons, had never stopped longing for the return of his first boy.
Herbie toiled to past his sixtieth year, sick and scarred from those years in a war prison and broken by the loss of three of his twelve children, and the tragic death of one in infancy.
He never drew a cent of veteran’s benefits. Nobody ever told him he had that right.
He wore a happy smile most of the time. He laughed a lot. He taught his children that every day brought a fresh challenge, a chance to do a kindness for someone. Excepting in the small hours of the morning, when he confided in the love of his life, he never spoke of the tortures he endured.
Six sons carried Herbert to his final rest. His two eldest daughters came to grieve. That sad day saw the realization of his lifelong dream. They were all there together. His family was at last reunited. But Herbert was gone. The body from which the soul had long since departed had finally conceded.
We don’t rise before dawn on Anzac Day now. We don’t attend the march and we don’t join the celebrations. But we remember Herbie’s private march: the march of a soldier betrayed by his own; the march of an unsung hero.
Soon to be released, “The Pencil Case”, by Lorraine Cobcroft, is the slightly fictionalized biography of Herbert’s stolen son (Names have been changed in the book).
A heart-wrenching story, it tells how the memories of his dad’s optimism and spirit helped a child survive deprivation, abuse and cruel family separation. Finally reunited with his family at age twenty-six, he continues to struggle with the loss of his identity and self-worth. Now a prisoner of his own mind, he struggles against continuing injustice as his life’s journey teaches him acceptance and finally brings peace.