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  • Claire Jordan

The Silver Boomerang

Meet the steady, blue-eyed gaze of Cecil McFarlane.

When he enlisted into the ranks in May 1916, he was a 26 year old ledger-keeping clerk from New South Wales, married to a girl made of very strong stuff named Daisy May.

Cecil was bright and keen, and though he had not sought a commission straightaway, the Army soon recognised his potential. He’d already served three years in his local militia and so by August 1916, he was promoted Sergeant, passing his Officer’s Exams in October and finally commissioned Second Lieutenant in the first weeks of 1917.

He embarked at Sydney in May 1917, a year after his initial enlistment, and finally reached England two months later.

A month after that, Cecil was attending courses at Tidworth in the technical handling of Lewis guns (light machine guns) and by mid-October 1917, he was embarking once again, now at last for the Front. Though he perhaps had assumed he’d was bound for Somewhere Hot, he was destined instead now for the Ypres Salient, with the 36th Battalion AIF.

Among his papers is a terribly brief official account of what happened to him eight weeks later.

“At about 9am, 20th December 1917, Lt McFarlane with the Sergeant of the watch, was on his rounds in the front line [in the Houplines Sector]. The enemy began shelling the front line with ‘Pine Apples’ [German trench mortar shells eight inches long].

Lt McFarlane and the Sergeant both took cover in a vacant bay, and a pineapple landed in the bay, killing Lt McFarlane and the Sergeant.”

A look at the burial register at the CWGC’s Cite Bonjean Military Cemetery on the outskirts of Ypres tells us that two graves along from Cecil lies Sergeant Fred Charlton, also of the 36th Battalion AIF.

Fred himself had already been to hell and back by the time he met his end with Cecil.

Two years older than his Lieutenant, Fred was a railway porter who had enlisted two months earlier than Cecil. In the June 1917 battles of Ypres, Fred was wounded in action by multiple gunshot wounds to his arms, legs and buttocks; it took five months for him to be healed sufficiently to be returned to the front, re-joining 36th Battalion in Flanders on 22nd November where he found a new Lieutenant, Cecil McFarlane, had joined during his absence.

At this point, the two men had a month left to live.

Some time after the official notification of Cecil’s death had reached her, on 18th April 1918 Daisy wrote to Senator George Pearce at the Australian War Ministry:

“Dear Sir, I am writing to enquire as to what can be done re my late husband’s effects. When he left England for France, he left his tin trunk in care of Chaplin & Co. Carriers and now his brother-in-law’s sister had been there to try and get it for me and she cannot, as they have written to her telling her that there is 6/- remittance to be paid, and they want his signature, which is impossible for them to get now, owing to him being killed in action on the 20th December 1917.

I am quite willing to pay the 6/- but wanted to know if the military authorities would give me any assistance to have them brought back to Sydney, as there are souvenirs that he had put away with the intentions of fetching home, so if you could advise me what method to take, I would deem it a great favour.”

I guess the ridiculous agonies of Red Tape were just as much of a problem then as now.

But the authorities were ahead of her, for on 16th April 1918, the AIF Kit Store had shipped a uniform case belonging to Cecil which he had deposited there before he left England for the Front the previous autumn.

Through his collected precious things, left in storage with the idea of one day taking them home to Daisy, I think we get a glimpse of Cecil’s organised, well-prepared nature. He had clearly kitted himself out with great forethought, but realised once he knew where he was heading that a certain amount of his carefully-assembled Officer’s kit would be of no use in the Flanders mud.

Cecil’s tin trunk contained: “Books, 1 Holy Bible, Brushes in Case, Socks, 1 pr Leggings, Collars, 2 Ties, 1 Sword Frog [the leather strap which secures a sword’s scabbard to a belt], 1 Leather Belt, 1 Cigarette Holder in Case, 1 Fly Whisk, 1 Souvenir Dagger, 2 Porcupine Quills, Photo, 1 Leather Writing Wallet, 1 Muffler [a sort of woollen scarf to keep you warm], Postcards, 7 Shirts, 1 pr Service Dress Slacks, 3 pr Shorts, 1 Khaki Drill Tunic, 3 Pugarees [a sort of Indian head-wrap adapted by the British to be worn in hot, sunny regions], 1 Waterproof Cape (damaged), Letters.”

But Daisy was still not satisfied. She’d had meantime a letter from the Red Cross.

On 27th September 1918, she wrote again in frustration to Senator George Pearce, still a prominent member of the wartime government:

“Sir, I received a parcel containing clothing belonging to my late husband, Lt C.C.J. McFarlane, 36th Battalion and I was greatly disappointed, for a young chap had notified the Red Cross that he took the valuables off my late husband’s body and placed them in the orderly room headquarters, so they were what I was expecting to be sent back to me, not his clothes, for it was very hard to know he had paid the supreme sacrifice without those belongings sent back to me. Trusting that you will investigate into the matter and awaiting a reply… Ps – The name of the young cha who informed Red Cross: 1951 R Wilson, B Company HQ, No.9 General Hospital.”

Though she could not have known it, just as before, this parcel, it seems, was already on its way to her.

Back in June, a sealed parcel set sail about the SS Barunga, bound for Daisy in Sydney.

It contained the things taken from his body after his death and carefully placed in the Orderly Room HQ by the kindly Private Wilson.

It contained: Disc, Wallet, Photos, Note Case, Whistle, Metal Cigarette Case, Metal Wristlet Watch (damaged), Cigarette Holder, Military Certificate, Silver Boomerang.

Perhaps his good luck charm, perhaps given to him by Daisy before he left Australia, his silver boomerang had finally found its way back to her.

Maybe, if she couldn't have Cecil, this is what she had been trying so hard to get back all along.

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