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Art from a war diary

Tuesday, 25th September, 2018

Artist Peter Osborn with one of his paintings. PICTURE: Callum Marshall Artist Peter Osborn with one of his paintings. PICTURE: Callum Marshall

By Callum Marshall

An exhibition commemorating Broken Hill residents who fought in the Western Front of WWI will begin this Friday at the Regional Art Gallery.

The From Railway Town to the Western Front: Got Mittens Too exhibition is comprised of a collection of sculptures and artworks documenting the lives of those who fought.

The artist behind it all, Peter Osborn, said the exhibition is based around his grandad William Osborn’s WWI diary.

“He and his family lived in Railway Town. He went to the Western Front in 1916-17, and he wrote a diary which was written in very fine handwriting,” he said.  

“It really wasn’t until we scanned it and could read it clearly that we realised what a unique document it is.”

Thanks to the efforts of his uncle and cousin looking over the family’s extended history and scanning his grandfather’s old diary, Peter was able to use a lot of the information contained within to form the bulk of the exhibit’s work.

“The diary tells about his time (over there), particularly in the Battle of Ypres which was also known as Passchendaele. It was a really terrible battle with something like 620,000 casualties in 12 weeks, both Allied and German,” he said. 

“It came to symbolise the absolute futility of the war. There was a time in 1917 where everybody was war-weary and wondering when it would finish. 

“The English and Allied command wanted something decisive after the Battle of Somme the year before which saw terrible carnage. They wanted to really hit the Germans hard but they delayed, through various supply issues and so on, the battle. 

“It really didn’t start until the autumn when the rain came in, (with) the heaviest rainfall the region had seen for forty years. The ground became incredibly muddy which made it very hard to move guns and supplies around. 

“The Australian and New Zealand forces were part of that battle alongside the French, the British and the Allied. Their objective was the village at Passchendaele which was close to the town of Ypres. They made the assault and eventually, I think it was the Canadians particularly at the end, gained the village and five kilometres after heavy cost of life.”

A big part of Peter’s fascination with his grandfather’s history was how he was able to adapt to life after war, and reintegrate into the family’s history of mining work.

“What was of great interest to me was how my grandfather, who lost his younger brother in that battle and was also from Broken Hill, found the strength and resilience to then come back to Australia in 1919 after the Treaty of Versailles and build a life,” he said.

“He continued with Broken Hill South Mining Company right through his life, although soon after he came back he moved to their head office in Melbourne. 

“His older brother stayed here, who I think worked in the stores for Broken Hill South most of his life. The other brothers and sisters moved to various parts of Australia, predominantly Adelaide but also Sydney.”

Like many who have dug deep into their family’s histories, Peter was able to glean interesting and sometimes sad insights about his family.

“My great-grandfather Francis, whose grave is in the cemetery here, came here in 1888-89, and my grandfather was born in 1890 here. 

“My great-grandfather was a pit carpenter and worked in the mines and unfortunately, like so many of them, contracted lead poisoning and died in 1914.

“It’s a fairly grim story and some of the correspondence of my great-grandmother Elizabeth reflects this. She loses her husband and father in the same year in 1914, and then her two boys enlist in 1916.” 

There was lots of interesting information in William’s diary though, said Peter. 

“Some of the things that came out of the diary were that my grandfather and his brother were in the sappers which were the engineers,” he said.

“They were responsible for putting out a lot of the barbed wire around no-man’s land, so incredibly dangerous work. It appears that’s how my great uncle was injured and then died of wounds.

“My grandfather was also a keen sportsman and there’s a lovely little extract we’ve got when he was at Bourke Ward School, writing a story about a local football game. He loved the sport.

“It (also) appears he was given the task of runner which meant, like [the characters] in the Gallipoli film, he was running from the front line back to the headquarters which was exposing himself to a lot of danger. 

“The dairy is very succinct, it’ll have just ‘runner’ and then things like ‘mud’, ‘bombs’, ‘shells’ and ‘gas’, and occasionally he records some of the Broken Hill men who were his friends who died.” 

As for the title of the exhibition, Peter said there was a great bit of history to that as well.

“The Germans had on their banners and standards, particularly the Prussians, ‘Gott Mit Uns’ which means ‘God is with us.’ From what I’ve read it started with Cockney regiment men turning the ‘Gott Mit Uns’ into ‘Got Mittens’ and making a joke of it to deflate the whole thing,” he said. 

“My uncle said that ‘Got Mittens Too’ was the sort of story he told about the war, that it was a joke.

“The Australian sense of humour, which no doubt came a lot from the Cockneys and also the Irish, made fun of that sort of thing.”

While the exhibition has funny anecdotes and stories about William and his fellow comrades, Peter said that the main theme behind the works was one of the ravages of war and how it affects families.

“It’s obviously of interest to understand what you’re family’s been through and where you’ve come from. But there’s [also] a real sense that you would never want anybody to go through this again,” he said.

“At the same time, you’re turning the television on at night and looking at Syria and it’s just unbelievable. So it makes you very strongly anti-war. The glorification of war is very mythical, I don’t think there’s any glory in it at all. 

“I had one experience which was very significant with my grandfather. I was called up right at the end of the Vietnam War and I told him about it and he broke down and told me to have nothing to do with war at all. All this was inside him but he never really told it or expressed it. 

“Art provides a way of getting very strongly involved with your subject. It creates a conversation, a whole engagement and your emotions become quite strong. 

“My grandfather died when I was about 22 and I visited him every week for many years. I had a very strong memory of him and my grandmother.”

The From Railway Town to the Western Front: Got Mittens Too exhibition begins this Friday at 6pm at the Regional Art Gallery and will run until November 11th. Peter Osborn will be giving an artist’s talk at the Gallery on the 29th at 1pm.


* Did you have family members in World War I? The BDT is collecting stories to help commemorate the Centenary of Armistice. Contact us by phone at (08) 8087 2354 or via email at editorial@bdtruth.com.au

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