On Active Service

Train Windows, Books and Parting Crimson Curtains

In my early teens I used to buy an excursion ticket at Padstow Railway Station. A return ticket to Sydney Central cost one shilling (ten cents). Saturday morning I would go to a world of high adventure, the aptly named 'Forum Theatre' on Broadway. I had always been an avid reader of history and this place was as close as one could get to living history. 'Quo Vardis,' 'Ben Hur,' 'Spartacus,' 'The Fall of the Roman Empire,' 'The Vikings,' and 'Henry the Fifth' were just a few. Hollywood history it is true, but oh! The sound and colour of Panavision! These films could take me to a different world than the one I inhabited.... out and away from the struggle. That cauldron of emotional distress that was my mother's life with my five siblings at Starr Street Padstow. I think watching all those wonderful scenes of wars and adventures of long ago, planted the seeds of my wanting to join the Army; to be a warrior in distant lands. It was more than just a way of escape that suited the times, for the idea had been growing in my mind since about 12 years of age, and within days of my 18th birthday, I enlisted.

When I think back now, I realise, that though it was but a short time in my life, I did follow a road taken by generations of my forefathers before me. I wanted to 'Go a Viking', and I did ... in a way.

The Army was the defining experience of my life; like the water that tempers steel. It quenched the willful spirit of my nature, and was responsible for defining my self image. With discipline it achieved what the public school system could not. It inoculated with self-esteem and added like tungsten to my character, an iron self-confidence that I possess to this day. The Army was, (and probably still is) one of the few organizations that still believed in elitism. It gave me something that had been denied me all my life to that point. Pride!...pride in myself.

I found myself belonging to,  what I felt, to be an elite organization -- The 5th Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment. My self-esteem went from being almost non-existent to, by the time of my discharge, an arrogance born of a feeling of superiority. There is something intoxicating about the crash of boots on pavement, to the beat of trumpets and drums, and the skirl of bagpipes echoing around the city streets. Building self-confidence ... nine months of physically and mentally intense combat training; a searing experience that changes attitudes of anyone who endures it to, "get up, get over or get out! and march or die!" Many failed. It taught me what could be achieved, and more particularly what 'I' could achieve.

On leaving the service, after twelve months as a combat infantryman in Vietnam, I can remember looking at the completely disorganised shower of civilians in the streets of Sydney, with feelings of contempt ... for I now knew, in common with others who have gone through this defining experience of war, knowledge that is given only to those few; and an amazing truth! That the whole of our society is a thin veneer that can be swept away in an instant of time and space by war. That those masses of people lived from day to day on the brink of chaos, and never knew it. But also in common with combat veterans, I possessed a sort of unbreakable confidence that life could only be an anticlimax from here on. I left the Army like an Albatross that had spent 17 years in a cage. The world looked so different now, compared to just three years before. When I think back now, I realise that although it was only a short time in my life, like many young men before me, I did follow a road taken by generations of my forefathers.

I wanted to 'Go a Viking', and I did ... in a way.

Echo of our Forefathers

We peered in deathly silence, down steep green highland valleys,
patrolled the homeland valleys ... of primitive men.

We looked to find 'the Others, those 'solders belong em Indon'
on the borders of New Guinea ... near Marprik in '65.

We leapt from steel prow'd longships, like Harald 'Finehair's' Vikings,
in eager warlike fury, battled constant ... brave foreign men.

We drank on beer hall benches like Bearwolf's Saxon warriors,
our weapons racked, war wearied, closer ... than brothers then.

We hurried back to the whale-road, left behind the fallen,
who had stood with us in the shield wall to escape ... Our Stamford Bridge.

We heard the voice of battle, the Roman Legions footfall,
and drums and trumpets echo on city streets, returned ... from foreign lands.


© Bob Cavill
C Company & Assault Pioneers

Scroll to Top