Alice Gore-Jones

Alice Gore-Jones (1887-1961)

A woman’s perspective on war. 

The one volume of verse which Alice Gore-Jones left for us shows that even during the first World War, Australian civilians were questioning its purpose and its human cost.

Alice Gore Jones was born at Toowong, near Brisbane, in 1887. She was educated in Queensland and New South Wales, and worked for many years as a journalist on the social pages of Brisbane newspapers, most notably the now defunct Telegraph. Colin Bingham, a co-worker at the Telegraph, and himself a published poet, remembers her as an innocent character. He recalled telling her about the need to rearrange the tour program for the forthcoming visit of the Duke of York:

‘whereupon, without raising her eyes from a list of official engagements…… she said sweetly, ‘”Oh dear, that means they’ll have to take out one of his Balls."'[1]

She never married, but was much loved by her extended family. She passed away in the early 1960s.  

She published poetry as early as 1904, and was still publishing as late as 1940. However, her only collection of poetry, Troop alice gore-jones Trains was published in Adelaide in 1917. It’s a diverse book, with a number of more or less conventional workings of conventional poetic themes such as the urge to wander, the seasons, places and people and a series of poems about pierrots that are not to our tastes today.  There is even a nicely executed light piece about a dog on a windy day.  From these, more conventional poems I have selected ‘Brisbane’ for this website, because it is one of the first poems that I know of which tries to capture the languid, somnolent quality of Brisbane, which is so much in evidence in later writing.

However, the most interesting poems in Troop Trains are, I think, the war poems. These begin in a conventional way with the kind of jingoistic outpourings that were common enough for poems of that time. So, Anzac begins ‘Undying honour shall your name possess’ and ends with the thoroughly conventional statement:

‘For there amid the battle-dust was born-

Mocking disaster, undismayed by fears’

Star-white and radiant our Southern soul’.

However, as the war progresses its truth begins to come home:

‘When the sap in man and nature feels a swift and sudden stir,

And the pipes of Spring are pulsing through the perfume laden air,

Ah! the pity of youth’s pageant that the young dead may not share.’

From Spring, 1916.

In most of these poems there is no doubt about the value of the fight. In The Lists  she says ‘Honour, not death,/Has sealed their accolade’. But in some of the more powerful poems, an element of skepticism and religious doubt creeps in. For example, in The Soldier Gore–Jones mixes grief with tropical imagery in a way that is utterly unlike Rupert Brooke:

‘ “Somewhere in France” to-night he lies,

Paying the bitter price,

“Somewhere in France” to-night he sleeps

There, ‘mid the mist and murk of war,

On the blood-red field of pain,

Can he hear the stirring banana-palms

With their patter like drifting rain?’

She concludes that he might not hear any of this at all and that ‘perchance, he sleeps too well’.

When read as a whole these poems have more elements of apprehension than of patriotism. The title poem ends:

‘Troop trains, troop trains,

Hear the bugle’s note,

Flags, and cheers, and music, and…..

A touch that grips the throat.’

                     From Troop Trains

The war poems in Troop Trains end with Carnival, where there is a ‘painted clown’, ‘tinsel streamers’ and where ‘Trade waxes brisk’. It concludes with a pitying look at a returned soldier:

‘But on the pavement, where the shadows lie,

A maimed and wounded man goes limping by’. 

Troop Trains was not intended to be read by some kind of intellectual elite. It features poetry that had been published in mass-market magazines and newspapers such as the Bulletin and the Sydney Daily Mail. But it recognizes the war and the fighting as involving shades of grey.

Now that the soldiers from the first World War can no longer speak for themselves, their story has been reinvented to suit the current times. The message of the struggle has become more black and white. So, to take one out of many examples, on Anzac Day 2002, the first Anzac Day after the September 11 attacks, the then Prime Minister John Howard appropriated the Anzac tradition for the Australian troop commitment in Afghanistan:

‘Our young soldiers, sailors and airmen stand today as their Anzac forebears did more than three quarters of a century ago – willing to serve their nation and eager to defend its freedoms.’

Some of the soldiers who fought in the Great War no doubt thought they were fighting for freedom, some fought for England, some joined up because their mates did and some because they needed a job. Some didn’t want to be seen to be cowards. Everyone had their own reasons. But many of those who came back were profoundly transformed by, and ambivalent about the experience.

Troop Trains shows that the one simple thing we can say about Australian involvement in the war is that there are no simple messages.  

 

Best Book to buy: Gore-Jones, A, Troop Trains, Adelaide, Hassell, 1917.

Further reading: Gammage, B, TheBroken Years, Australian Soldiers in the Great War, Canberra, Australian National University Press, 1974.

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[1] Bingham, C. The Beckoning Horizon, Melbourne, Penguin, 1983, p138.