“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.”
(Laurence Binyon, “For the Fallen”)
Lest we forget.
My great-grandfather, Harold Williams (pictured above), was born in 1893. In his memoirs, he wrote that when war broke out in 1914, ‘I was 21, single and generally unencumbered so without any particular emotional or spiritual upheavals, I decided it was “up to me” to join the AIF [Australian Imperial Force].’ Williams sailed out of Australia in 1916 on a troopship named the Argyllshire as a corporal in the Ninth Field Ambulance, Third Division.
As a young man, Williams was a keen sportsman as well as a keen singer. He sang frequently in concerts for the troops. The ballad, ‘My Pals are Calling’, became a favourite with the soldier audience.Williams went to France and experienced the harsh winter of 1916 but was transferred at General Sir William Birdwood’s request in January 1917 from the Ninth Field Ambulance to Albert-sur-Somme and the ’Anzac Coves’, the famous entertainment unit made up of artists drawn from the whole of the Australian and New Zealand Corps. The Anzac Coves was the first field theatre troupe to be established in the AIF and was originally financed by the Australian Comforts Funds (ACF). The profits made from their many performances went back to the ACF for the purpose of purchasing comforts for the Australian soldiers in France. The Controlling Officer of the Anzac Coves was Major Jack Churchill, brother of Winston Churchill. In this company, Williams discovered for the first time ‘grease-paint, powder and all the other trappings of the fully professional troupe.’
Despite enjoying these discoveries and the performances he did for the troops, Williams longed to return to his old unit. He employed ‘irritation tactics’ that finally, after eleven weeks, caused Major Churchill to lose his patience. So by contrivance, Williams rejoined his previous much-loved base and he saw action at Passchendale, Messines and Armentières. In December 1917 he was promoted to regimental quarter-master sergeant and transferred to the First Australian Auxiliary Hospital at Harefield, Middlesex. There, he met Sister Dorothy Mason of the Australian Army Nursing Service. He had been told to ‘watch out for Nurse Mason, she keeps lollies in her pinny.’ They were married in 1919.
Over 60,000 Australian troops perished during World War I. My great-grandfather was one of the lucky ones who survived.
After the War, he settled in London to pursue a career as a professional singer. On 4 December 1919, he gave his debut performance at the Wigmore Hall. Williams wrote of the experience in his memoirs:
To this day, I cannot understand why the Wigmore Hall has not long ago exploded. Its walls have for so long enclosed such a bubbling cauldron of concentrated emotions! Within them, night after night, for decades of years, have mingled such running tides of hope and despair, fear and joy, triumph and defeat as surely to burst the heaviest stone. To all of this I was about to add my own measure of anxiety and hope—and it was no small measure. Just for the record, I should note that the old Wigmore took it and absorbed it with the rest without so much as a tremor!
Following his debut, Harold Williams went on to become one of the most respected baritones of the twentieth century – particularly known for his performances and recordings of oratorios. The image above shows him in the title role of Hiawatha, in Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s oratorio, The Song of Hiawatha. This work became something of a phenomenon in the musical life of London in the 1920s and 30s. It was performed every year between 1924 and 1939, when the second World War ended its extraordinary career. Williams wrote in his memoirs: ‘I played the original Hiawatha and I played the last Hiawatha, and I played all the Hiawathas in between.’ It was said that ‘Minihahas came and went with practically every season, but Hiawatha Williams went on forever.’
You can hear his extraordinary voice here. This one is fun too – a duet with marvellous Australian bass singer, Malcolm McEachern.
I listened to him singing on an old 1930 recording of Mendelssohn’s Elijah, as I made Anzac biscuits on Anzac Day.
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This recipe comes from Matthew Evans’ book The Real Food Companion and I like it because it includes honey rather than golden syrup, which is perhaps more traditional. We are blessed in Tasmania with our honey producers. In the south of the state, my favourite honey is made by Yves Ginat at Miellerie – I love his Prickly Bush honey. In the north of the state, I love Ian Hewitt’s creamy leatherwood. He is very local to me, producing his honey from Deviot, in the West Tamar Valley – and this is the honey I used in the recipe below.
Honeyed Anzac Biscuits
100g rolled oats
135g plain flour
200g caster sugar
70g shredded coconut
2 tbsp honey
1 1/2 tsp bicarb of soda
Preheat the oven to 180C and line two baking trays with baking paper.
Mix the oats, flour, sugar and coconut together in a large bowl.
Melt the butter with the honey in a saucepan over medium heat and stir to combine. Add the bicarb – it will foam up.
Pour the honeyed butter mixture into the dry ingredients and mix to combine – add a tablespoon of water or two if it is too dry to come together.
Form small balls from the biscuit dough and place on the baking sheets about 5cm apart.
Bake for about 10 minutes, or until the house smells of honey and the biscuits are golden. I like a bit of colour in my biscuits and I also like them crunchy – but if you want them paler and chewy, just bake them for a shorter length of time. Store in an airtight container. Makes 40.