Even the most ardent pacifist is probably feeling kindly disposed toward the Anzac centenary this year. With so many touching documentaries and a live broadcast from the landing site itself at dawn on 25 April, it seems that almost everyone was swept up in a sense of acute national sorrow.
In looking to make a lasting local memorial Newcastle was really smart. Our city has been blessed with a magnificent new coastal walkway; a sleekly designed contemporary structure which surely is one of the most practical of Anzac memorials and a unique way to remember the gut wrenching loss of life during WWI. With all the ceremonies underway it would have been churlish of me to have been waving the flag for the great (unknown) West End Anzac connection. But now it is a bit quieter – so it’s time.
Birdwood Park is the West End’s major green space and an under appreciated leafy gem. Originally known as West End Park its name was changed after the Anzac leader Field Marshall William Riddell Birdwood paid a visit to Newcastle in 1920 as part of his grand tour of Australia and New Zealand. He was a man with a platinum British military pedigree who saw active service in the Boer War and then fronted up again in WWI to become Commander of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps during the Gallipoli campaign. Birdwood seems to have engendered a genuine feeling of respect and fondness from the Australian troops, who called him ‘Birdie’.
Australian military historian Charles Bean recounts that ‘it was his [Birdwood’s] habit, despite the heat, never to accept water on the frontline because he knew just how much effort it took the ordinary soldiers to lug litres of it up the valleys and steep slopes to the trenches.’ He liked to go for a dip and on most days could be seen swimming off the beach at Anzac Cove, an informality which was markedly unusual in someone of his rank. A photo of him swimming at Gallipoli, possibly (or probably) naked makes a cheeky counterpoint to his many formal military portraits.
It’s hard to imagine now that a military leader’s visit could inspire a fervent outpouring of genuine devotion from ordinary people, but the Newcastle Herald’s coverage of his visit correlates with that of other media reports, showing that this was almost certainly true. Arriving by train on the morning of 28 April 1920 he was met by thousands of people waiting at Newcastle station. Government offices, banks and the GPO had strung up welcome banners, while out on Newcastle Harbour all the vessels were decked with bunting for the occasion. Birdwood said he was ‘touched very much’ by the gesture and asked specifically that his gratitude be conveyed to those responsible for the ships’ displays.
He went straight to a civic reception at the Central Methodist Mission Hall in King Street (now known as Central the building has been sympathetically renovated and is operating as a restaurant and bar) where he was met with tumultuous cheers and the audience rising en masse to sing ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’. There was another reception for Birdwood which the Newcastle Herald reported was hosted by ‘the ladies of Newcastle led by the Lady Mayoress’ at which he was serenaded with a ‘musical interlude’ including an organ recital.
Then it was off to visit a local high school, open a memorial hall, inspect a naval and military parade and give an address to soldiers in King Edward Park. When he was thanked for what he had done for ‘the diggers’ he responded that the boot was on the other foot, the diggers should be thanked for what they had done for him. He said that Australians were the best of fighters, the best of comrades, adding that the Australian soldier certainly ‘had a wonderful command of language’, an aside which brought laughter from the military crowd.
After a banquet dinner at the Sailors and Soldiers Memorial Hall Birdwood was back at the railway station, where he left on a train just before midnight. His whirlwind trip to Newcastle was over and he was off on a sleeper to the next stop on his great Australian trip, Armidale.
The rapturous welcome Novocastrians gave him wasn’t forgotten and shortly afterward, in a flush of patriotic fervour, the Council re-named West End Park changing it to Birdwood Park in his honour.
Photographs of William Birdwood are from publicly available sources online; the photograph of him swimming at Anzac Cove is from the Australian War Memorial collection and is used with permission: http://www.awm.gov.au
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