24 April 2015
'When war broke out in 1914 I wanted, like most other young men, to be 'in it'.' Long before Gerard Kennedy Tucker founded the Brotherhood of St Laurence in 1930, he was, in his own words, committed to the 'great struggle against tyranny and oppression'.
This struggle was not so much against the tyranny and oppression of poverty, for which he would become known, but rather against forces in lands far from Australia.
On the outbreak of World War I, Father Tucker – who had just been ordained an Anglican priest in Melbourne – asked Archbishop Lowther Clarke to be posted overseas as a chaplain. The 29-year-old Tucker was denied on account of his youth.
'In the early days of that war, only older men were sent as Chaplains', says Tucker in Thanks Be, his 1954 autobiography.
'I tried to point out that although in the rank I could do spiritual work. The only reply was a snappy, 'No, Tucker. No'.'
The young priest, in a sign of things to come, showed stubbornness in the face of defeat: he would enlist as a soldier.
'My friends who wish to be kind say that I am persevering. Others say I am obstinate,' writes Tucker in his autobiography.
'It is not for me to say which term is correct, but after several months of pestering on my part, the Archbishop gave in, and I joined up with the Ambulance Corps.'
Off he went alongside thousands of other young Australians, boarding a boat in December 1915 for the battle raging in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
Proving there are many ways to skin a cat, three months after arriving Tucker was appointed as a chaplain to the Australian Imperial Forces. He served in Egypt and France until late 1917, when he returned home because of ill-health.
In 1919 after the end of the Great War he published a book of letters, As Private and Padre with the A.I.F., to honour his fallen mates and comfort the loved ones who mourned their loss.
The letters are addressed to 'Mother Dear', of whom he undoubtedly was very fond.
'My mother was first before everyone else,' he would write later.
There is a lightheartedness that comes through his letters, particularly when he arrives in Egypt and is preparing for the front lines of France. One night, owing to the inadequate roofing in the sleeping quarters, there was a mad scramble of soldiers as they tried to secure a dry spot to sleep. Tucker tells of the colourful language and banter between the men as they jostle for the best 'possie'.
'I have learnt to laugh at such times, in fact it is the only thing to do. The war is teaching me such!'
Even after he'd been on the ground a few months his optimism remains, though dimmed, as the 'madness, horror and sin' of war seeps into his daily life.
In the letters to his mother, Tucker appears to draw on the strength and courage of those around him. 'We have got a splendid fellow in the wards at present,' he writes on New Year's Day 1917.
'A young Tasmanian officer. The case is almost hopeless, and the poor fellow is in great pain, but always greets one with a cheery smile, as if there were nothing the matter with him. He has no idea his case is so hopeless. I do not know how I am going to tell him that such is the case.
'That is a part of the work to which I can never get used. I do not always tell the fellows when the M.O. (medical officer) says there is no hope, but I do as a rule. If I myself should be going out, I should like to be told.'
A few days later he writes to his mother: 'There is just a chance that he will pull through... I don't think I have seen a braver chap than he, although in the life out here one sees so many brave fellows.'
In his autobiography, Tucker is quick to point out he had it relatively easy compared to many.
'My hardships were small in comparison with colleagues serving with combatant units.'
He says he 'only experienced two narrow escapes from death'.
He also mentions how much he gained from serving alongside the medicos.
'I learnt how much can be done when priest and doctor work in close co-operation... It was merely the realisation on the part of both priest and doctor that there is a very real connection between the physical and the spiritual.'
In the preface to his book of letters, which he compiled en route to England to continue his religious education and help in the healing of returned soldiers, Tucker reflects on what would become the legacy of the ANZAC.
'In reading [the letters] over I feel that I have failed to do justice to the many heroic qualities of our fighting men, and especially those qualities which were brought so often before me when ministering to the wounded and dying. It would take, though, more than human pen to tell of their fortitude and courage.'
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