SERGEANT RONALD CAMPBELL ROSS
8TH LIGHT HORSE REGIMENT (1889 – 1948)
The following quotation is from the “Dedication Page” of the book The All-Australian Memorial (Victorian Edition) – Australia’s Roll of Honour 1914-1916, British-Australian Publishing Service, Melbourne, 1917:
Ronald Ross’s ancestors were Scots who migrated to Victoria in 1853, driven out of northern Scotland by the Hightland Clearances. They became farmers at Bulla, 30km north-west of Melbourne, where Ronald’s father, Thomas Ross, was born.
Ronald was a relatively short man – only 165cm (5ft 5in) tall – with blue eyes and a fair complexion His trade is variously described as blacksmith, toolsmith and striker. There is no record of where he worked before joining the army at the age of 25.
Little is known of his life over the 29 years after he returned from the war and as far as can be ascertained, he spent the rest of his life in Melbourne. He never married.
At the outbreak of World War 2, he enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces on 4 October 1939 as Corporal No V80697, saw active service in Australia for 869 days and was discharged on 30 August 1944.
By 1948, at the age of 59, he was living with his brother Thomas at 173 Ballarat Road, Braybrook.
A newspaper report of 28 July 1948 reads:
FOUND DEAD IN FIRE
Thomas Ross told police that at 6.15am today, his brother complained of pains in the chest and went to his sleepout. At 7.30am, he saw smoke billowing under the door and found his brother dead on the floor beside an overturned spirit stove.
His clothes had been burned from his body and the flames had spread to the floorboards and curtains of the sleepout.
It is believed Ross was dead before he fell and overturned the stove.
During his World War 1 years, he kept diaries in which he made entries almost every day. The eight original diaries are now lodged with the Australian War Memorial in Canberra together with a transcription into book form by the author of this article.
Depsite the conditions under which he wrote (a tent in Egypt, a trench on Gallipoli, a bivouac in the Sinai Desert), Ronald Ross maintained an extraordinary standard of neatness in his diaries. He is particular about dates and invariably notes the day of the week. He appears to have an obsession with times: the time of reveille, the exact time of departure from camp and arrival at his destination, with the intermediate times of rest breaks and meals frequently recorded. He gives the results of football and cricket matches played in camp in Egypt and mentions many other seemingly insignificant details.
He also records the names of his companions, of the officers over him, and of people (sometimes relatives) he met int he varous theatres of war in which he found himself. The Index to Persons in the transcription volume contains over 700 names, including that of Major Billy Hughes, a future Prime Minister of Australia, whom he was at a race meeting in Cairo.
Similarly he is particular about places: any place, however small, which had a name was recorded and the Index to Places contains over 370 references.
The slope of his writing suggests that he was left-handed and his letter formation has in places caused difficulty deciphering certain words. He was not particular about punctuation, spelling or capital letters There is a great deal of repetition, which is only to be expected during periods of routine camp life.
Even with over four years of diaries at our disposal, it is difficult to form a clear picture of Ronald Ross as a person. His diaries are full of facts – times, places, persons, weather, casualties – but remarkably thin on expressions of opinions or emotions. He has not used his diaries as an outlet for his inner thoughts: his hopes for the future, fear in the present, grief over dead mates, disillusionment with leadership, irritability with living conditions. Such things were too private even for diaries. Rather, he was recording a chronicle of events, apparently for his own use in the future in jogging his memory as he relived his army years.
He writes of the famous charge of the 8th Light Horse at Lone Pine, Gallipoli, on 7 August, 1915:
Into the firing line again, this time the last for some of us. Heavy bombardment in the Turks trenches that we were to take. Artillery opened up with more firing at 4am-4.30am. Then we attacked. Very few came back. Colonel White was killed. Major Redford, Howard Anderson, Earnsaw Woods, Ackel Bothwick, Crawford wounded and Capt Hore wounded. Dale killed. Grant killed. Wilson killed. Robertson wounded. When I crawled back, started carrying wounded doctor. My mate Griffiths first man hit in left thigh. Section leader killed, Beckett . . . What was left of us came down the hill.
So matter-of-fact! No mention of fear, no questioning of the wisdom of the orders to engage in a futile and disastrous operation, no dwelling on the agony of the wounded and dying, no reference to his own exhaustion or the conditions in the trenches.
On 14 July 1915, he records: “Doctor Captain Campbell had his legs shot off while bathing.”And the next day: “Captain Campbell died 1 o’clock this morning.” On 27 November 1915, he notes: “Very severe cold weather . . . reported at YMCA hundred frostbitten, 13 drowned in trenches.” On 7 August 1917, he writes: “Bothwell . . . shot himself through the head”, and on 3 January 1918, “Patton tries to cut his throat”. In neither case does Ronald offer any explanation of the circumstances that led these men to suicide, nor express any opinion on their actions, nor make any reference to his own reaction.
He enlisted as a private, and in due course became a lance corporal, corporal and finally sergeant. But promotion appears to have come as a matter of course through his hears in the service, rather than through any ambition. In a rare expression of opinion, he writes in a letter to his mother on 4 February 1916:
The band was playing at the boxing contest the other night. Hicks in the band too. He also has a stripe, acting lance corporal. He does not get any extra pay for it, but it is a start if you intend to rise from the ranks. Stripes are not hard to get if you have no influence behind you, and if you have not got that one has to do things that is against my grain if I wanted to start, but as I have said before I did not come away for money, stripes or anything else, it was experience and I got it. A private will do me, a private is a man that can hold out his hand without it shaking when getting his money, he was the only man that did his job properly on the Peninsular, it was not his fault because they had to evacuate.
Such sentiments are completely absent from his diaries, but he apparently had a poor opinion of the army hierarchy and of the “system”. He was particular in doing his duty, but was reluctant to report a subordinate (“I . . . don’t want to crime anybody”).
He was never wounded, but spent periods in army field hospitals with such complaints as influenza, sand-fly fever, diarrhoea, scurvy, ptomaine poisoning and varicocele.
Despite his limited education and his training in the non-literary occupation of blacksmith, he was a conscientious writer, corresponding regularly with his mother, relatives and friends at home, although few of those letters have survived. He received and answered letters from several young ladies in Australia, one of whom sent him her photograph, but he never suggested that anything might come of these overtures. And of course he made daily entries in his diaries, sometimes only a few words, sometimes a detailed description of an event such as a foray (or “stunt”, as he called them) by his Light Horse Regiment against the Turks in the Sinai or Palestine.
At the end of the war, he chose to take leave in Britain and be repatriated from there. He thus had the opportunity to visit Kincardine in the north of Scotland and Glasgow from where his ancestors had migrated to Australia in the middle of the 19th century.
Consistent with his reticence in expressing emotion, the diaries lack any display of nationalistic sentiment, but as a patriotic Australian, he was not slow to enlist in the Citizen Military Forces at the outbreak of the Second World War.
Ronald, it seems, was an ordinary chap, content to remain an ordinary chap, with little ambition to rise in the world, who enjoyed the company of his mates, but was equally content to wander alone in whatever strange land he might find himself. He enlisted, he says, for the “experience”; no doubt that experience was far different from what he expected.
His diaries finish abrubtly at the Maidsone Welcome Home Party, and there is no record of him ever writing anything again.
ARTICLE BY LANCE SPENCER