by Zev Ben-Avi (Vietnam veteran)
I would like to tell you a true story about a Gallipoli veteran that I met.
The year was 1984 and I had been out of the Army a year, trying to “find” myself after too many years of having been a professional soldier. I had never been a “civvy” and adjusting to being something I had never been was a real problem.
I had always had motorcycles and had subconsciously exchanged a green uniform for a black one. I had my 1982 Moto Guzzi which I still have, and my red heeler cattle dog, who rode on the tank. We headed for the horizon to see what we could find.
In Melbourne I heard about a ride along the Reefton Spur - a great winding, twisting, mountain road -starting from a pub in the Dandenong Ranges. That’s where I turned up. I fronted the bar and was accosted by a very ancient bloke who had no hair on the top of his bead, a beard in four plaits down to his belly button and thick working men’s hands. He introduced himself as "Claude" and got into me with "You’re the cheeky young pup from Queensland? They tell me that you’re a veteran. Why aren’t you wearing your medals?"
I responded that wearing medals on your bike jacket was a bit flash but he stated that he wore his and promptly went off to get his jacket to show me.
My first thought was that I was going to hear all about Tobruk and Kokoda all over again. Wrong! Claude came back with his jacket and the medals were World War 1 - Gallipoli and France! I was astonished and asked how old he was. He was 94. That’s right - NINETY-FOUR.
I told him that I was amazed that he still had a bike and he responded that he didn’t, he had FOUR bikes! He had ridden from Bacchus Marsh, about 60km west of Melbourne, across the city, up into the Ranges to the pub - all on a 1949 Matchless 500cc long stroke single cylinder bike that he had owned since new. He also owned an A7 BSA 500cc twin, an early Norton Dominator 500cc twin and a recent Honda.
I said the Honda was a bit out of character, and he told me that he didn’t like his old British bikes getting wet or dirty anymore so the Honda was his "hack".
When we took off on the ride Claude declared that we should leave first as he would be a bit slower! When we stopped 80km along the spur road, we could hear the thump, thump of Claude’s Matchless. He arrived about five minutes after us. A younger bloke told him he was a bit slow. Claude told him that the bike was only a 500cc long stroke single, 35 years old and that he had to take it easy on the old girl and that it wasn’t he that was slow! It was still quite an amazing ride for the day from a man of 94!
Later whilst having a cleansing ale or two, Claude took me aside and grilled me. He asked me to name the causes of World War 2. Easy, Japanese imperialism and German fascism. He then asked me to name the causes of WW1 and I wasn’t too sure, nor that anybody actually knew.
He then asked me to name the reason why we were in Vietnam and I wasn’t too sure about that except perhaps to defend the Dow Jones Index on the Wall Street stock market. He then astounded me by declaring that WW1 and Gallipoli in particular had a lot in common with Vietnam. I couldn’t see it, but he was patient and asked me a few more questions -like a backward child.
He asked me to tell him a few battles that Australians were in where we won in WW2. Again easy, Tobruk, Mersa Matruh, El Alamein, Milne Bay, Kokoda, Buna, Gona, Balikpapan - on and on. He then asked me to name some battles where Australians had won decisively in WW1 and I was stumped because I was not too sure that anybody actually won anything - apart from say the final push at Mont St Quentin or the Light Horse charge at Beersheba.
He then asked me what we Australians actually "won" in Vietnam and again I wasn’t too sure that anything was. Sure, Australians didn’t lose a battle in Vietnam but we didn’t win anything either. We used to joke about it afterwards along the lines "We were winning when I left".
I could see a pattern emerging. He said at Gallipoli it was a total cockup at the top with the British General-in-Command never actually stepping ashore but "commanding" from a battleship at sea. The top "leadership" was a complete balls up and that the heroism in the ranks was astounding - just like Vietnam.
He said that the cause of Gallipoli was another imperial power and its strategic power play - just like Vietnam. He drew parallels with the lack of antipathy of the ANZACs towards the Turks, about whom they knew nothing, and with whom they had no fight and the Viet Cong about whom we knew little apart from a determination to defend their territory.
Claude was landed at ANZAC Cove on the first day and he was there for almost the whole time and was wounded slightly on three occasions. From there he was sent to France where he fought in the mud and blood of the trenches.
He was gassed and I could hear his chest still rattle. He said that he wasn’t gassed by the German shells but by British gas that was fired at the Germans without the weather reports being taken into account, which is why many Australians were gassed when the winds blew it back - similar to being poisoned by Agent Orange by the Americans in Vietnam.
Claude was adamant that there was no real "welcome home" as the Spanish influenza outbreak occurred as the troops were coming home and that more Australians died of Spanish Flu than the 8500 at Gallipoli. He said that just about every town, village and suburb got a memorial with an honour roll to remember but that the returning soldiers had to battle on without much support - just like Vietnam.
Claude said that there was no Veterans’ Affairs in place to look after them. They had to agitate with government to even get a disability pension system. Claude eventually got a soldier settler block in what he said was in the middle of nowhere on marginal land with no technical or financial support. The dust bowls blew it all away in the 1920s and the banks took it so he carried a swag for six years because he couldn’t get a job due to being “off his head” - just like Vietnam veterans - a hermit and a nomad.
During the depression he built a wattle and daub hut in the Lerderderg Gorge, 22km north of Bacchus Marsh, and lived on fossicking for gold and rabbits - selling the skins. He and his wife Ivy had three children whom they walked to school on Mondays, left them with his brother in town, then picked them up on Friday afternoons when they carried their week’s supplies home in sugar sacks.
Claude was a truly lovely gentleman, although he would deny this. I don’t know what happened to him and I don’t want to know. I want to remember him as a truly marvellous example of what ANZAC really means. He said that all his mates had gone and that they had ended up in old folks’ homes dribbling down their chins and piddling in their trousers and that he was not going to let that happen to him as he had too much pride.
I don’t know what happened to him but I do vividly remember a truly decent and open man who took me under his wing to let me have the benefit of his experience. Claude found me, pointed me in the general direction and sorted me out. He probably didn’t know it, but he truly sorted out my head and has been my role model ever since.
If Claude could keep riding bikes at 94 then so can I. If Claude could get his life into perspective and become a truly decent man, then there is hope for me yet.
Lest We Forget.
Editor’s Note: The author of this story did not have any further contact with Claude. Efforts to find out what happened to him have been unsuccessful.