Think Piece: The Family Never Forgets

paul-sykes_2Last week I bought a poppy at the RSL Field of Remembrance on North Terrace. I tied it to a cross and shed a tear for a man I have never met, and to whom I am not directly related. But this man’s family has been a large part of my life.

His name was Lance Corporal Ronald McPherson. He was Killed in Action at El Alamein on 17 July 1942 aged 27 while serving with the 2nd/43rd Australian Infantry Battalion. Uncle Ronald’s death was mourned back in Adelaide by his big sister Mrs Dulcie Edna McDermott (nee McPherson), her husband George and their two young children, Elaine (then 5) and Kevin (then 2).

I started dating Kevin’s daughter Jane, just over twenty years ago. Jane adored her Grandma and we often went to visit Dulcie at her home in Castle Street, West Croydon. The first time I met her she said to “call me Grandma dear, everybody does.” I was then given a key to the shed, invited to pick lemons and encouraged to do weeding in the garden, if ever I felt like it!  These invitations were all signs I had been accepted. Grandma liked to make everyone feel welcome and gave us all jobs to do whenever we visited. It was a strategy that worked well, as we not only felt appreciated but also as though we’d earned the delicious three course lunch that was always a part of any visit.

One of the first times I visited Grandma she showed me a photo of her brother Ronald. It was proudly displayed in her cabinet of keepsakes along with two small wooden carved camels, positioned either side of his portrait. I was to learn these had been sent home to his young nephew, Jane’s father, while he had been in Egypt. This all came well before I worked at Veterans SA, and so at the time it didn’t leave an enormous impression on me as a young twenty year old.

About 6 years ago, I was driving Dulcie home from a family gathering when she commented on how nice it was to be taken for a drive. “Ron used to take me on drives,” she said, at which point she went quiet. I snuck a sideways glance at her to find that her eyes had welled up with tears. Here we were 68 years after Ronald’s death, and the grief was still only just below the surface.

Grandma passed away peacefully in May this year. She was 102. On one of the last occasions we visited her, she was convinced she had seen her brother Ron in the corridor a couple of times, but she had not been able to catch up to him. The sentimental members of our family believed it was a sign Ron had come to escort her into the next life.

To me it also showed the impact of loss on the families of those killed in war. The loss of Grandma’s beloved younger brother Ronald, 74 years earlier, was a loss Dulcie had never gotten over. Her whole life, she deeply missed the brother/sister relationship they would have had, had Ron not been killed in war.

I simply cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like for George and Clara Weaver of Rosewater. They had five sons who served in World War One, four of whom were killed in action over the course of the war. Imagine receiving the news as each one died.  How would they have coped with the hole this undoubtedly left in their lives? One son returned. It’s like the story of Saving Private Ryan, only it happened here in South Australia.

The way we remember those we have lost is what has impacted me most during the Anzac Centenary period of commemoration. From the Boer War to the present day this means more than 102,000 Australians have left a hole in the lives of those families from which they came. Their families and local communities will never forget, nor do we collectively ever forget this loss. It is literally a part of what it means to be an Australian. We remember in our traditions and customs around Anzac Day and Remembrance Day and we all study this loss as part of our school history curriculums.

Earlier this year, my wife Jane’s Year 9 History Class was the recipient of the Commonwealth Government’s State Prize for the Anzac Day School’s Award. They won this national prize for a project they undertook in partnership with the Henley and Grange RSL Sub-Branch. It involved collaborating with a French School to research two local Henley and Grange men who had been Killed in Action in France during World War One.

As fate would have it, Mr Bill Corey OAM, who had served alongside Jane’s Uncle Ron in the 2nd/43rd Battalion at El Alamein, presented Jane and her class with their prize and associated medallions. Our son Harrison and I were able to attend the ceremony and he, Jane and Mr Corey were photographed together holding Grandma’s precious photo of her brother Ron.

jane-harrison-bill-corey-with-ronald

Mr Bill Corey OAM alongside Jane and Harrison Sykes, awarded a Commonwealth Government’s State Prize for the Anzac Day School’s Award.

Meeting Bill was a wonderful experience for Harrison as well as for the St Michael’s College Year 9 students who were part of Jane’s student group.

Bill is a 99 year old bridge between several generations. His words of wisdom about his father’s generation, who fought in World War I, and then his insights into his own World War II generation were both fascinating and inspiring.

When I was driving Harrison back to school after the service, he asked me the following question. “Did Uncle Ronald die fighting against Hitler Daddy?” When I answered yes, his response summed up my own feelings – “I’m so, so proud he is my Uncle. Today is the best day ever.”  In my witnessing this moment of realisation on Harrison’s part I myself understood that my son was now part of a generation who will never forget.

A member of our family will always place a poppy on a cross at the RSL Field of Remembrance to honour the sacrifice Ronald made back in 1942.  This is an act of remembrance that we are deeply committed to. One day we may even make our way to the El Alamein War Cemetery in Egypt to see where it was that Ron fought and died. Grandma would have liked that.

Lest we forget.


Paul Sykes is the Ministerial Liaison Officer within Veterans SA. It is a position he has held since the agency was established in 2008. Paul is also an elected Councillor for Findon Ward in the City of Charles Sturt where he has lived for more than three decades. He is married to Jane, a school teacher, and has two sons, Harrison (8) and David (5). Paul has a keen interest in history and was taught Modern European History by Professor Trevor Wilson AM; one of Australia’s leading authorities on World War I.