A Ghost Story of World War One
by Anne McCosker
Set in Charters Towers, written in 2000.
Taken from SOMETHING OVER THERE, a collection of ghost stories.
The coach left Townsville at 8 AM, its first stop ChartersTowers. Frances sitting in her favourite seat towards the back of the coach relaxed. She felt she was going home, returning.
All through her childhood Frances' mother had talked about 'The World', the name given by locals to ChartersTowers, once one of the most important and richest towns in Australia. The daughter of a school teacher, her mother's family had moved much around central and northern Queensland, their schoolhouse home gradually becoming larger and the towns more important as their father slowly climbed the teaching profession ladder.
At ChartersTowers, the father was Head Teacher. Their home, perfectly suited for the climate, had wide verandahs, high ceilings, French windows, and a kitchen separated from the main building. Built towards the outskirts of the town, with countryside around from the verandahs open views towards the west. In the town and centre were fine public buildings - often of architectural importance. Many of the private residences were also spacious and elegant, set in gardens full of brilliant sub tropical shrubs and trees. Frances' family felt at ease here in a society, which reflected their background - energetic, practical, cultured, part of Edwardian England and Empire.
In 1914 war came. The only son of a family of six children was 19. He joined up in ChartersTowers. On Good Friday 1915 the family gathered outside the schoolhouse for a family photograph, a photograph that would imprint forever, a time, a place, a family. That family - the only son in the centre dressed in military uniform complete with feathered slouched hat - stood and sat with the verandah rails behind them. They sat and stood and looked at the camera, faces showing little emotion. Beyond the lens lay the west and the rolling countryside of Queensland, a Queensland that was rolling towards the Outback and a new century of possibilities.
The next day the young man left for war Overseas. Gallipoli, the Western Front, a military medal, a commission, were the bare facts that followed. In September 1917 he disappeared somehow into the Polygon Wood mud during the monstrous Passchendaele Campaign. His body has never been recovered.
His second youngest sister, Frances' mother, a girl of 14 at the time he left home would carry his memory and her loss throughout her life. And Frances inherited that pain and that sense of loss and longing, a loss and longing centred on ChartersTowers. It was no wonder Frances felt she was returning home.
The coach pulled into the ChartersTowers stop. Frances, a middle aged woman of medium height and built, wearing a sky blue cotton dress and white cotton hat atop fair hair, was the only passenger to alight. Most were travelling on to Mt Isa many hours drive away. The main street was deserted. It was Sunday morning.
Frances was soon in a hotel bedroom whose windows looked onto a park of palms and subtropical trees. They looked too onto a delicate wrought iron Edwardian kiosk, built in the early 1900s as a memorial to the men of the area who had served in the Boer War. Its flowing graceful lines made it easy to imagine the Edwardian world that had conceived it. A generous, cultured world Frances felt, in spite of all its undoubted pioneering problems. How close that world seemed to the woman standing there. One could almost hear the rustling of long dresses over leaves and the sound of clapping as the music died away from a band that had surely played in the park.
Time now to explore and take photographs of ChartersTowers.
The main street of the town was still deserted but the buildings on each side of the road populated it with imaginary figures clothed in the world of the early 1900s. This street was dominated by the Post Office with its clock tower built in 1898. It had changed very little during the intervening years. In 1914 it had stood there watching men and women hurry round to tell each other that war had been declared. Not just a war in Southern Africa, but a war in Europe, war close to England. War between two different ways of living, war that must be won, war of Empire. Time past and present in one clock face as hands ticked round making seconds, months. In the following years how many men, including Frances’ uncle had glanced up at that face, felt it watching them as they marched away, many never to return.
Frances’s camera was not an expensive one but she was an experienced photographer using her instrument as a painter used his brush. She liked to experiment, capture a little if she could the spirit behind the sighted form. As she observed the clock tower through her lens a face seemed to filter through. The features were blurred but familiar. Her first photo here in ChartersTowers would be the post office with its clock tower.
Still not 12 noon but the sun was high and it was hot. Frances took off her hat and wiped her brow, then took of her sun glasses and wiped her eyes. A few people were walking along the pavements sheltering from the sun under the old fashioned awnings. A slight heat haze blended these figures into a pattern of pioneer buildings. One figure broke from the pattern and crossed the street moving slowly towards her. She continued filming the main street and its buildings. Taking one last photograph of the post office tower she saw the figure walking towards her stop by the post office steps, look up at the clock, then entered the camera lens.
Frances turned towards the Stock Exchange Arcade. Near it was the old Bank of Commerce building that now housed 'The World Theatre'. This building recently renovated and opened as a theatre, captured the very essence of that pre Great War culture Frances had already felt stirring around her. She could imagine her mother excitingly watching a matinee and her grandfather enjoying an evening performance as if he were in London’s Covent Garden Opera House. And as Frances soon found out the dead also seemed to enjoy 'The World Theatre' complex. A ghost was said to move through corridors, boardroom, stairs.
After a leisurely look at this brilliant achievement the traveller wandered through the elegant Stock Exchange Arcade to a mining museum. There in one room were displayed photographs, maps and mining equipment from an era of vigorous activity. She leant over one picture to study it more closely. This showed the main street in ChartersTowers around 1915. She looked up quickly eyes alert. Someone had come into the room. No, there was no one else there.
Frances turned back to the picture. There was the Post Office and clock tower in its central position. Perhaps this photo had also been taken on a Sunday morning for there were no people in the picture. Oh yes perhaps there was. Looking more closely she thought there was a small shadowy outline near the entrance steps looking up at the clock tower.
She moved around the room looking at the mining exhibits and the maps of the town and surrounding area. It was the photographs though that fascinated her. Would there be photographs here of her grandfather’s school, would there be? Which one had been her grandfather's? With a sharp sense of concern she realised she could not remember its name. Frances thought of that family photo of Good Friday 1915. She saw her uncle standing there between his sisters, a boy still, going innocently to war. Could that photograph help her remember her grandfather’s school. How could she have forgotten its name.
A slight movement in one corner of the room disturbed her. Was there some one else here after all? No, there was no one. No one could be seen. Frances heard a voice softly calling her uncle’s name. It was her own voice and she was speaking softly, very softly but it seemed to echo out into the room, out in the street, out to all of ChartersTowers. She realised she was appealing to her uncle for help to remember the name of that school. A name she should never have forgotten.
That photograph taken on Good Friday 1915 seemed so clear in her mind it was almost as if it was one of the photographs on display here in this room, a photograph that had imprinted in paper forever a family, a time, a place. Time and place and family drifted about until Frances herself was gathered into that group facing the camera. She felt the force of lens capturing features Time would not change. Then she remembered. The school was Richmond Hill. That family photograph had been taken outside the Richmond Hill schoolhouse.
The parents sent their soldier son a copy of that photograph. Had he kept it in his breast pocket? In mid 1917 he sent a photograph to them from the Western Front taken when he was on leave. This was a studio portrait of a young lieutenant recently awarded the Military Medal, dressed in the uniform of the Australian Imperial Forces complete with broad brimmed hat. This photograph showed a mature man, a man who had lived a lifetime in just two years. The trainee teacher of 1915 had become a battle hardened soldier used to fighting in perhaps the most horrific war of all time. His future was in that lens. His gaze was steady, calm. Within Time he faced the world. The camera held his life.
That was the last sight his family ever had of him, an image, taken by a stranger, developed and touched by strangers and then sent 12 thousand miles across seas. Faded paper could become a person if the will was there.
Those two photographs in a sense became to the family more real to them than reality itself, the one taken in ChartersTowers a private shrine, the other of the young lieutenant, a public shrine. That portrait in a quarter life size enlargement was to dominate his mother’s house for the rest of her life. Carefully moved wherever she went and placed in the most prominent position, it was obviously the centre of her home and heart. Frances' childhood had been overlooked by that portrait. Her uncle could almost have been alive so often was his face seen by the child.
Frances left the museum. She wanted a cup of tea and some food. The past was overwhelming her. And it was so hot.
The small restaurant in the front of the Arcade was decorated in colonial style. Sitting in such a place Frances could easily imagine the shop window opposite filled with early 20th century goods and advertisements. With so few cars about it was not difficult either to visualize ChartersTowers before the Great War. It must have been a place of energy and bustle, elegance and humour about a core of hard pioneering. 'The World' indeed.
Refreshed the traveller set off again, turning right outside the Arcade. She began to walk away from the town centre. A colonial building caught her attention. She must take a photograph of that. The woman reached for her camera, fumbled in her handbag, took out all its contents. Her camera was not there. She leant against a convenient window sill, took off her hat, wiped her brow then cleared the dark glasses lenses.
Frances had never lost a camera before, she would retrace her steps. Back to the restaurant, back to the mining museum, back to Theatre. Then back to the main street. She was trying to remember. Here she had taken her last photograph, of the Post Office and its clock before entering 'The World Theatre'. The familiar face was still there, watching.
The woman stood looking at the clock. She was trying to remember. Whose camera had taken that photograph of the family on Good Friday 1915, probably her uncle’s had been used. He had been interested in cameras.
No one Frances asked had seen the camera. No one had handed it into any of the shops or tourist attractions. It had not been handed into the police station. Surely it had not been stolen, here in ChartersTowers. There had been so few people in the street when she took her photographs. The street had been mostly sun and shadows. Finally Frances bought one of the latest photographic innovations. A camera already loaded with film that was thrown away once the film was developed. Cameras had certainly changed since 1915.
Back at the hotel opposite the elegant Edwardian kiosk with its thoughts of leisured Sunday afternoons, Frances started to search carefully through all her belongings. At least it was cool here under the ceiling fan. She knew she had taken the camera with her, knew she had taken all those photos but she still searched. It seemed impossible that one of those few people about that Sunday morning could have stolen it from her. She had never lost a camera before whilst travelling, hardly ever lost anything.
So perhaps somehow it was still at the hotel. It must be somewhere. Objects could not just disappear, come and go like people. Or could they? It had been a curious morning. Here in ChartersTowers she had felt neither a traveller nor a tourist. Time had been all over the place and she suspended within a movement of figures. The heat had made shadows live along the streets and faces dance about the post office clock.
Frances continued to search her belongings desperate for some explanation. She came to her book, recently published, in which her uncle was mentioned. She read again the copy of the original form supplied by her grandfather to the nascent Australian War Memorial in 1919. This document stated beside the words ‘DATE OF DEATH 20th Sept 1917.'
Frances walked to the window. She glimpsed her reflection in the glass, a double focused image dancing in the light. She turned her head, the image turned .It looked like her didn’t it? At least it had fair hair - or was it reddish? These features seemed to shimmer beneath a feathered slouched hat. Behind this living portrait stood the elegant Edwardian kiosk where a band might play. Had the band played that day his body broke?
What a day that had been, that particular 20th September. Today was the 20th September. Eighty-one years ago today, to the very day, his uniformed flesh had vanished. Good to have returned to ChartersTowers. He had been nineteen when he left this place, his home.
A slight smile hovered about a face within a magic lantern pane. The form moved away from the window.
In the late afternoon as the sun lessened its fire over the land Frances found the schoolhouse and stood where her family had stood on Good Friday, 1915. Eyes looked out to the rolling plains of Queensland. Although hands had circled the post office clock through a century, Time now had been rolled back, or had it ever moved? A young man stood within his family. Queensland lay peacefully around him, light every where. The guns were silent, kookaburras chuckled. Man was youth again. In that grave second of ‘dying’ this vision filmed over his pain.
It was fun to see himself through a modern lens, return to the place of that 1915 image, let Frances speak his name. Her coming today, on the right date, was well planned - and with a camera. How easy it was to understand and how quickly it worked. Could not one catch a spirit in it, sketch out at soul at play. And it was so small.
Frances and he had a lot in common. They were close in blood as well as in their Being - her fair hair could even in some light look a little like his! He had enjoyed a few carefree years here, before Flanders. Oh how he loved this place. Now photographs could be taken again. His sacrifice well made.
© Anne McCosker, 2000.
This story is based on my experience at Charters Towers, North Queensland, in September 1998. The main facts: losing the camera, arriving there on the anniversary of Fred Martin's death, the visit to the museum, and Richmond Hill School House, are correct.
These events were experienced and the story written many years before I read my uncle's letters, and began to write Lieutenant Martin's Letters. I did not know then, as is obvious from his letters, that he was interested in photography.
See my poem The School House at Kolan South, written after my visit there (to central Queensland) in 1013, and to be published in my book Light.