By Chris Oakley
If you weren’t consciously searching for it, or didn’t know where it was already, you might have walked right past it. It was one of the smallest buildings in Sydney, a two-story postage stamp of a building located in one of the city’s heritage districts; its boxy concrete shape made it blend in with the plethora of other two- story and one-story buildings with which it shared the district. Yet within its walls was a treasure trove of artifacts from a century ago, when Australia had exploded into full-blown civil war. Once it had housed the official newspaper of the long-defunct Communist Party of Australia; now it was a historical center documenting Sydney’s role in the bitter internal conflict which had ravaged the Australian countryside and many of Australia’s cities for four long years.
There were spent bullet casings from the CPA’s initial attack on the Australia Broadcasting Commission radio studios the day the war began. There was a tattered CPA flag which had flown over Sydney Harbor during the Communist insurgents’ three-week-long occupation of the Garden Island naval base. Under glass were preserved front page headlines from the Sydney Morning Herald that chronicled every major event of the war from start to finish. On both floors there were mannequins dressed in uniforms from both the government forces and the CPA rebel militia; the walls were hung with examples of pro-Communist as well as anti-Communist propaganda.
One of the building’s few concessions to the mid-21st century was a multimedia and computer center tucked into three backrooms on the first floor. At one of those terminals, Jonathan Simmons was trying-- without much success--to access an online biography of Lance Sharkey, the man who’d started the war and led the CPA insurgents until he was killed in an RAAF bombing raid on his headquarters in 1952. The host server for the site where the biography was posted had gone down for what seemed like the tenth time in as many minutes. "Bloody hell!" he snapped at the terminal screen, which was displaying the words every online researcher hates: The page cannot be displayed. He was a chubby son of a gun, with hair clipped down almost to the follicle and blackheads on his nose he would have done anything to get rid of.
For Jonathan, like most other Australians born after 2010, the Australian Civil War-- a.k.a. the Sharkey Rebellion --was largely an abstract event. There were very few people left in Australia who were old enough to have experienced the conflict first-hand, and those people were dropping like flies as age took its toll on them. The last surviving combat veteran of that war had died the day after Jonathan’s most recent birthday, and there were only a handful of civilians left who recalled the era, most of them living in New South Wales, which during the war had been a major CPA stronghold.
He hadn’t originally planned on majoring in history at university; for most of his school years, chemistry had been more his thing. That, however, had started to change around Year 9 when he had happened to turn on the History Channel on his family’s satellite TV one afternoon and see Peter Watkins’ old black-and-white movie about the Battle of Culloden. From that day on, he had become more and more curious about world history in general and Australian national history specifically; that put him in marked contrast with most of his classmates, who by the time they finished high school were heartily sick of anything to do with history, Australian or otherwise, and had sworn never to open another history book again as long as they lived.
By the time he started his first year at Sydney University, he had long since given up his old childhood ambition to be a chemist and decided to major in history. And that was how he came to be in the multimedia section of Sydney’s Civil War Memorial Center early in his second year, trying to supplement the half-dozen or so books that he’d checked out from the Sydney University main library with some online information about the CPA’s most notorious insurgent leader.
The macabre black and white photos he’d seen on the walls when he first came in the museum hadn’t helped his concentration much. They’d unnerved him something fierce, like those YouTube videos he’d seen as a kid of bodies being carried out of that Oregon fishing lodge after Mount Hood erupted. The black and white photos showed the aftermath of some of the war’s most hard-fought battles; you practically had to be made of titanium not to flinch when you saw them. Corpses stacked up like firewood, city blocks where buildings had literally been burned to ashes, soldiers from both the government army and CPA forces shorn of body parts to the point where they resembled horror movie ghouls. He’d had to fight like mad to suppress the urge to turn and flee from the museum when he first glimpsed those photos...Jonathan could only imagine how much harder it must have been for the unfortunate souls who’d been obliged to snap them.
While he waited for the site he was trying to access to come back online, he decided to return to the museum’s home page. He’d visited the home page twice already today, and he’d found out some interesting tidbits he hadn’t known before about the Sharkey Rebellion-- like who had actually conceived the plans for the original attack on the Garden Island naval complex. Before his death in an RAAF bombing raid on his headquarters, Sharkey had always claimed it had been his idea to seize the naval base; however, papers recovered after the Australian Civil War ended would suggest that it had been actually been a member of theCPA women’s auxiliary who conceived the battle plan. Jonathan tapped the side of the monitor, trying to coax himself to remember who that member was. "What was her name?" he asked himself, racking his brains six ways to Sunday. "McGuinness? Maclynnis? Glennis?"
Excerpt from the book The Multitudinous Seas: The Fight For New South Wales And Its Impact On The Australian Civil War, copyright 1985 Melbourne University Press:
Jonathan had visited the Garden Island Memorial Center on his way to this museum, and while they’d been considerably more informative on the subject of Miranda Glennis than the official archives of the long-defunct CPA, they hadn’t been able to fill in all the gaps about her role in the Garden Island siege either. Probably nobody ever would, he mused ruefully as he checked the timer on the terminal screen to see how much longer he could remain there. He remembered something one of his Year 10 teachers had once said about "the fog of war" and figured it probably applied to her one way or another.
To his relief, the homepage for Sharkey’s online bio finally came up on the screen. He just hoped he could keep it there long enough to download the PDF file of Sharkey’s diaries from the final months of his life. The last thing he needed was to have the site crash on him yet again while he was trying to access that PDF file....
Excerpt from the introduction to The Sharkey Diaries: Portrait of a Guerrilla Leader, copyright 1998 Sydney University Press:
It was in Jonathan’s estimation the longest PDF file he’d ever set eyes on. The first chapter alone easily took up fifteen pages. He was frankly surprised the computer hadn’t crashed like an overloaded hover bike. He could remember one time when he was a kid and his father had cursed a blue streak because a PDF file that was a measly three pages long had made his family’s computer go down for a week; he also had a disturbing recollection of a six-page PDF file infecting his laptop with a virus that effectively erased everything on his hard drive up to and including the laptop’s operating system.
He was up to the April 7th, 1952 entry in Sharkey’s war journals when-- sure enough --the Sharkey bio site went down again. It took a great deal of Jonathan’s self-control to keep himself from bashing the terminal to pieces at that point; as it was, he glowered at it with a seething hate one normally reserves for mass murderers, war criminals, or Adam Sandler movies.
Jonathan remembered hearing about that bombing attack during one of his Year 11 history courses at school; as his teacher related it, the RAAF planes had timed their attack to hit Sharkey’s base camp just before sunrise, when the alertness of its defenders would be at its lowest ebb. The RAAF plan had worked to near-perfection; figuratively caught asleep at the switch, the CPA insurgents hardly even had time to pick up their guns before the bombs started falling. One of those bombs had landed only a foot from Sharkey’s quarters and had literally blown him to pieces.
From that point on, the starch had more or less gone out of the CPA uprising. With Sharkey no longer available to unify the various factions within the CPA’s ranks, the rebels had turned on each other like hungry sharks and the government forces had been able to pick off the remnants of the insurgent army one by one, until by the time of the four-year anniversary of the outbreak of the war, there were only memories left of what had once been a fearsome guerrilla force. Barely a month after the fourth anniversary of the start of the Australian Civil War, the last ragtag squad of CPA insurgents surrendered to an Australian army infantry major in a farmhouse north of Adelaide...
Excerpt from Chapter 12 of Retreat: The Collapse Of The CPA Insurgency, copyright 2003 Sydney University Press:
Jonathan was abruptly jolted back to the present by a disembodied feminine voice from the museum’s PA system: "Attention patrons: it is now 5:00 PM and the Memorial Center will be closing in thirty minutes. Be sure that you return your admissions pass to the main desk before you leave and that you check to be sure you have all of your personal effects with you...." There was also a reminder about paying carpark fees, but Jonathan didn’t pay much attention to it; he just knew that he had to get things wrapped up in a hurry.
He fished around in his pockets for his printer card and found it buried under six ATM slips and his museum admissions ticket. With one deft motion he pulled the card from his pocket and slid it into a thin slot in the front of his terminal’s CPU housing; he then clicked the "Print" icon on the web page he was surfing, and from there he chose "Print All" from the list of options for the printer menu. Once the computer had deducted the appropriate amount of cash from the card the printer began to softly whirr and churn out pages of Sharkey’s biography and war diaries. The whole job took less than five minutes, and to Jonathan it seemed to fly by in an even shorter time.
Once the print job was finished, he took the printouts and slid them into his book bag. He then clicked the ‘Log Out’ icon down in the lower right corner of his terminal screen and walked out of the museum multimedia center to the first floor exits. As he left the museum and started walking down the street towards the nearest bus stop, he began to reflect on what he’d seen while he was at the museum. Until today, he’d had little idea of just how much Australia had lost during those long and grim years when the country was at war with itself; now that he had time to think about the horrific images he’d been confronted with and the tragic stories he’d read while at the museum, he found himself starting to feel a melancholy he hadn’t thought he was capable of. Back when he was eight, he’d heard a newsreader from Channel 9 say that Australia’s heart had been torn out by the civil war, and he’d wondered for years afterward what that meant. Now he knew, and it made him sad beyond words.Excerpts from Beneath The Southern Cross: The Australian Civil War 70 Years Later, copyright 2018 Simon & Schuster:
Depression hung over Jonathan like a fog on his bus ride back to Sydney University. He wished he’d never set foot in the Sydney Civil War Memorial Center; visiting that museum was like reading a suicide note from a friend, he thought, except in this case the suicide note had been written by an entire generation of his fellow countrymen. It could drive you insane to dwell too long on the contrast between how things were in Australia now and how they could have been if the civil war had never happened. Because of the Sharkey Rebellion, Australia had spent decades playing catch-up with the rest of the Western world world in a bid to recover the fruits of post-World War II prosperity which had suddenly been yanked from its grasp by the CPA revolt. Bile rose in Jonathan’s throat as he was getting off the bus...
"Why didn’t you stupid bastards arrest Sharkey when you had the chance?!" he abruptly burst out to a passing Sydney policeman, causing the policeman to blink in understandable bafflement.