In Stand Easy, the final volume of the Australian Military Forces series of accounts published during the Second World War, a poem entitled ‘Reverie of a Soldier’ included the following lines:
There were old days before the time when we
Cast off the tattered remnants of our youth
And donned our manhood, when our lives flowed smooth,
Unrippled by the tempests of war.
Those days are done. There only now remain
Dear memories in our hearts of long-lost loves.
These words could probably be applied to almost every man, and woman, who served their country during the conflict many still simply refer to as ‘the war’.
I am fairly certain the words apply to Private W.F. Schuberth, one of 23 Australian service personnel buried in the Taukkyan War Cemetery in Myanmar, although he and his comrades would have breathed their last calling the country Burma.
Administered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), the Taukkyan cemetery is just north of Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar. Schuberth would have known the city as Rangoon.
The hushed comments of many who visit these memorials to the fallen usually revolve around the youth of the dead. “He was only 19,” they murmur. The youngest I saw in Taukkyan was 17.
Yet for me it’s the older men, in their thirties and some in their forties, who strike me as just as tragic. The graves of the teenagers bare the heartfelt sorrow of a mother and father as well as sisters and brothers.
For the men who reached their third decade and beyond you can usually add a wife and children as well, compounding the tragedy and extending its reach beyond a single generation.
Anyone who tries to tell you the horrific events of the Second World War are so far in the past as to be all but irrelevant today is blind to the long-term impact of that conflict as my encounter with the grave of Private Schuberth revealed.
I first spotted a cluster of small Australian flags fluttering in the low-cut grass behind one of the graves. They were placed at the final resting place of the faceless man I now know as Private William Forbes Schuberth of the 2/30 Infantry Battalion, a part of the ill-fated Eighth Division of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).
Schuberth’s battalion staged arguably the most successful ambush of the Second World War: defeating the Japanese at Gemas, in Malaya. After attempting to defend Singapore he was among the thousands who surrendered to the Japanese and became prisoners of war in the loss that marked the beginning of the end of the British Empire.
The grave plaque in Taukkyan revealed that Private William Schuberth died on 30th July 1942, aged 35. According to the records of the 2/30th battalion, Schubert (who was originally from Sunderland in England) was ‘executed at Mergui, allegedly for attempting to escape.’
Four notes written on white paper with the words ‘Lest We Forget’ stenciled along the bottom were laid in front of the grave and held in place by small plastic flowers. From the look of the flags and the notes I would surmise Private Schuberth’s graveside visitors had been just a couple of days earlier.
I knelt down and read what I could of the notes, not wanting to disturb the arrangement.
On one was written, ‘To Dearest pop Bill, Today is one I will treasure forever’.
On the other, ‘To Granddad Sorry myself and the children didn’t get to know you Love you…’ The note was torn at the bottom edge and only two of the three names on it were clear: Travis and Greg. I suspect the first name, and the author of the letter is a female.
The CWGC website indicates Private Schuberth was married to a woman named Mary, from Ballina in New South Wales. From the handwritten notes at his gravesite it seems it was his grandchildren and great-grandchildren who made the long journey to Myanmar to pay their respects and grieve for a man they would only have known from faded black and white photographs and the words of those who knew him.
The tragedy that was the Second World War still possesses the power to impact the lives of many who have come long after the guns were silenced. Visit any war cemetery anywhere in the world and the evidence is right in front of your eyes.
At any one time there are hundreds of handwritten letters and notes, wreaths, crosses, or flowers marking graves recently visited by the wives, the sons, the daughters, the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren of those who never made it home and lie in foreign soil. ‘Lest We Forget’ was never more appropriate.