THE recently released World War I movie 1917 has had a stellar awards season, claiming seven British Academy Film Awards (Bafta), numerous Golden Globes and three Oscars.
The epic war film was directed, co-written, and produced by Sam Mendes, who drew inspiration from a tale shared by his paternal grandfather, author and World War I veteran Alfred Mendes.
But the movie's story line could also so easily have been based on a letter home from Nowra man Ulric Walsh.
Walsh rose to the rank of Lieutenant and was also awarded the Military Cross for heroism at the Battle of Morlancourt in the Somme at Hangard Wood in April 1918.
He was also a prolific letter writer.
His letters were later published in the News Leader newspaper in Nowra between 1940 and 1942, under the heading 1914-18 Memories, attributed to A Local Digger.
It was Nowra's worst kept secret at the time - they were Ulric's words.
A collection of the published letters has been presented to the Shoalhaven Historical Society at the Nowra Museum.
In total, 143 letters were published covering a variety of topics including one entitled The Runner.
Runners were soldiers who carried orders between Allied troops in the trenches and an army's commanding officers at the rear.
Another letter from the then Sergeant Walsh was published earlier in Kalgoorlie's Western Argus newspaper, now available on Trove, on January 9, 1917, where he also lauds the runners efforts of the runners.
How that letter came to be published in the WA paper is also a mystery.
It was written from Horton War Hospital, Surrey, England.
And it has striking similarities to the plot of 1917, which follows two British runners, Lance Corporal Schofield and Lance Corporal Blake (not named after actual runners), who receive seemingly impossible orders.
In a race against time, they must cross over into enemy territory, through the trench-pocked field and mud of the Western Front, to deliver a message that could potentially save 1600 of their comrades - including Blake's own brother.
In Walsh's first letter, the then 20-year-old describes how the "runner must naturally be an athlete".
"Stout hearted" men, capable of navigating a maze of trenches while under a "barrage of fire" and poisonous gas.
"The risks are so great that the message is generally duplicated and the men sent in couples so that if one is hit the other may get through," the letter reads.
And, as in the film, "the fate of a regiment" could depend on receiving the message.
"The distance to travel may be a mile or more, and during the whole time his nerves are strained to the utmost pitch, and his thoughts are bent on reaching his destination and in avoiding danger," he wrote.
Sgt Walsh, who enlisted to fight in 1915, compared the acts of heroism by runners to those performed by messengers for Caesar and Alexander the Great.
Of course, "the fate of a regiment" could depend on receiving the message.
He described the runners' often perilous journey ... "At times a figure may be seen to rise up from one of the endless chains of shell-holes and make a short bound forward into another; sometimes he is forced to remain in one shell-hole for a considerable time by the shower of projectiles hurled from the other side of the line, but as soon as the storm lifts he goes on again, bounding from hole to hole until protected by the natural contour of the ground; where he may stand up without fear of being seen."
"Some runners escape untouched. Others crawl back wounded to the starting-point, while some never return." (* the full letter is below).
In his News Leader letter (which is a bit battered and missing some portions - * in full below) he again extols the virtues of runners, who do everything they can to ensure their vital messages get through.
"His mind concentrates on his job and to a small extent overcomes the full sensibility of the danger he is in," he writes.
He describes how one runner during the first battle of the Somme "was blown up by a shell" and after "recovering consciousness, he found his left leg had been almost severed".
The runner then used his jack-knife to cut off the rest of his leg before "crawling to headquarters. Men going up the linesaw him and the message and man reached their destination. Five days later he died of gangrene.
"Just an ordinary soldier; no glamour, but a sense of grim determination and realization of duty - the message MUST get through."
Walsh's letters home covered a variety of topics - stretcher bearers, Easter 1918, tanks, pillboxes, the Army Medical Corps, being in Belgium, the Driver, the March to the Somme.
Of course, there was also news included of locals he encountered during his time at the front.
Walsh went on to be awarded the Military Cross for heroism at the Battle of Morlancourt in the Somme, during operations at Hangard Wood in April 1918.
His efforts were recounted more than 100 years later when commanding officer of the Parachute Training School at HMAS Albatross, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Bushby, gave the address at the Greenwell Point dawn service address in 2017.
"Lieutenant Ulric Walsh, of Junction Street, Nowra was fighting with the 17th Battalion in Belgium," LTCOL Bushby said.
"Walsh had joined the AIF in July 1915 and arrived in France in mid-1916 where he joined the 17th Battalion as a Lance Corporal. A year later he had been appointed as an officer and was leading his men in action.
"For his gallantry he would win the Military Cross, his citation reading in part - While under an intense enemy barrage, with great coolness and a fine disregard for personal danger this officer skilfully controlled the fire of a creeping barrage from the mortars which contributed largely to the success of our counter attack. His prompt action and close operation with the infantry in organising the counter attack displayed fine qualities of initiative and leadership."
LTCOL Bushby said Ulric Walsh's story was instructive.
"The things that he was decorated for - coolly controlling a creeping mortar barrage, cooperating with the infantry and organising a counter attack are not only technically difficult, but were simply not possible at earlier points in the war," he said.
"The equipment and the techniques had not yet been invented.
"Secondly, Australians were not born with the natural ability to do these things. Walsh learned to perform these skills at one of the officer training courses established in France and England that newly commissioned officers were made to attend.
"Walsh was typical of the type of officers that increasingly came to lead the Australian Diggers from 1916. Older pre-war militia officers who had led the troops at Gallipoli were increasingly either promoted to more senior appointments that suited their age and experience or relieved and sent home.
"In their place a younger cohort of combat hardened veterans like Walsh would lead the 1st AIF to final victory in 1918."
He returned to Australia on June 19, 1919 and went on to play a major role in Nowra's history.
Just who was Ulric Walsh?
Ulric Kerwick Walsh was born in Nowra on November 30, 1894, the youngest of four sons born to Peter and Ellen Walsh (nee Kerwick).
After being educated at St Ignatius College, Riverview he served several years in the NSW Justice Department.
He was single and aged just 20 when he enlisted on July 13, 1915. He joined the 17th Battalion 9th Reinforcements, embarking from Sydney onboard the troopship HMAT A54 Runic on January 20, 1916.
He saw over four years' service, gaining a commission in the field, rising to the rank of Lieutenant. He was awarded the Military Cross at the Battle of Morlancourt in the Somme in April 1918.
The citation in the Commonwealth Gazette of February 4, 1919 explained why the award had been made - "For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. During a hostile attack, this officer was in charge of a section of 3-inch Stokes mortars; while under intense barrage, he skilfully controlled the fire, contributing largely to the success of a counter-attack. His close co-operation with the infantry was a great encouragement to them. His work throughout the operations has been consistently good."
He returned to Australia on June 19, 1919 and for a short period farmed on 'Corallie', the property at Pyree his father had left him.
He married Edith Minnikin and they had two sons, John and Brian.
He set up estate agency Walsh and Monaghan with fellow farmer Stan Monaghan at the site of the Walsh's building in Junction Street, Nowra in 1923.
Stan left the business in 1933 and Ulric carried on as sole practitioner, moving the office to a side lane-way, still in the Walsh's building. He continued here throughout the 1930s and '40s, holding auction sales in the backyard of the shop.
During World War II, Ulric became a member of the Commonwealth Institute of Valuers and built up an extensive valuation practice.
His son, Brian, joined the firm in 1953, bringing with him real estate experience. He, too, became a valuer.
The business would later be taken over by Col Bice, Ken Leonard and John Austin.
In 1992, the real estate sales and leasing component of Walsh and Monaghan was sold, allowing the company to focus exclusively on property valuations, as well as developing more specialised consultancy roles for government bodies, public organisations and in property-related court proceedings.
Today, 97 years on, the Walsh and Monaghan business remains, having survived the test of time and continues to serve the Shoalhaven and the greater region, run by directors Murray Allen, Darren Austin, Adam Hopcroft, Andrew Kelkert and Neil Menzies, with a staff of 27 and officers Wollongong, Mittagong and Bega.
Walsh stood for Federal Parliament in the mid-20s and although he acquitted himself quite well, it was not well enough to unseat the firmly-entrenched member for Eden Monaro, Sir Austin Chapman.
Walsh maintained contact with the army, commanding the Light Horse Regiment. He was also heavily involved in the Volunteer Defence Corp during World War II, and with a rank of major he had about 1600 men under his command. Some of them were on full-time duty, and they came from an area roughly bounded by Moruya, Goulburn, Crookwell and Shellharbour. His headquarters were in a double-storey Nowra guest house, "Illyria", taken over by the army, which he attended every day.
Remembrance Day (or Armistice Day as it was originally called in 1918) was particularly special to Ulric Walsh, and he wrote his memories of it in the Shoalhaven and Nowra News at the anniversary of 1957.
"I was on Etaples (France) Railway Station as the bells of the 10th century church of the town chimed out the victory at 11am. An old French rail porter turned to me, and with a grin, said: 'Fini la guerre, Monsieur'. I nodded and said: 'You are an old soldier?' He replied: "Moi, je suis un vieux de la guerre soixante-dix'. ('Me, I am an old soldier of the 1870 war!') But he added: 'Toujours la guerre'. ('There will always be wars.') And so it has proved."
He was one time president of the Nowra sub-branch of the RSL and chairman of the St Vincent de Paul Society.
He died on October 26, 1963, aged 68.
Ulric Walsh letters
BATTLE RUNNERS. THE BRAVEST OF THE BRAVE.
January 9, 1917
Sergeant Ulric K. Walsh, of Nowra, N.S.W., writes the following interesting letter from Horton War Hospital, Surrey, England:-
"In the present war, with its unparalleled. conditions of fighting, many different types of soldiers have been developed to cope with the new order of battle, a battle that has shattered many of the fundamental principles of pre-war text books: Not least among these new types is the soldier who owns to the title of 'runner.'
He is the man who maintains communication between the troops in the brunt of the fighting and officers commanding at the rear.
"On battlefields like that of the present offensive the land around the front-line trenches is a desolate zone, except during the brief period when the infantry are attacking; the earth may be continually churned up by falling shells, but the agent and author of all this havoc is invisible.
"At times a figure may be seen to rise up from one of the endless chains of shell-holes and make a short bound forward into another; sometimes he is forced to remain in one shell-hole for a considerable time by the shower of projectiles hurled from the other side of the line, but as soon as the storm lifts he goes on again, bounding from hole to hole until protected by the natural contour of the ground; where he may stand up without fear of being seen.
He is the present-day runner.
"On the Western Front the telephone has superseded both of the heliograph and the flag as a means of communication, but for a telephone it is necessary to have a wire, yet no wire can withstand the incessant bombardment that cuts and digs up everything.
"The message, therefore, must be carried. The runner is only occasionally able to travel down the communication sap, where he would be afforded some protection. That is generally crowded with men either going or coming from the front line; or by a fatigue party with rations, or again by the wounded being carried back on stretchers. To follow his trench with its frequent blockages would mean too much delay, especially if his message is urgent. He must therefore take his chance of being seen, and go out on the open ground.
Some runners escape untouched. Others crawl back wounded to the starting-point, while some never return.Ulric Walsh
"The distance to travel may be a mile or more, and during the whole time his nerves are strained to the utmost pitch, and his thoughts are bent on reaching his destination and in avoiding danger. The most formidable obstacle to cross is the barrage of fire. The enemy's field guns are directed on a certain sector in rear of the front line, and create, as it were, a barrier of steel, but this must be gone through before reaching the rear. Different instances have occurred where the runner, after successfully passing the barrage, ran into a cloud of poisonous vapour, but with his gas helmet handy this danger is reduced to a minimum.
"Gas is now often sent over in shells, hence its presence so far back with the air clean up at the front line. The risks are so great that the message is generally duplicated; and the men sent in couples so that if one is hit the other may get through. Some runners escape untouched. Others crawl back wounded to the starting-point, while some never return. The runner, besides being acquainted with the whereabouts of battalion and brigade headquarters, must know all the trenches in his sector like a map.
"On the arrival of a relieving force at the front line it is he who guides them to the sector they are to occupy and points out its particular peculiarities.
"Naturally the runner must be an athlete, for this continual going to and fro requires extraordinary strength and staying powers. Again, the fate of a regiment may depend upon the receipt of a certain message, hence only reliable and stout-hearted men are picked for this responsible duty.
Naturally the runner must be an athlete, for this continual going to and fro requires extraordinary strength and staying powers. Again, the fate of a regiment may depend upon the receipt of a certain message, hence only reliable and stout-hearted men are picked for this responsible duty.Ulric Walsh
"It would be useless to attempt to narrate individual acts of heroism performed by runners in carrying out their work. The deeds of despatch riders fill many pages of military fiction, but their work is not done in such close proximity to the enemy as that of the runner. Therefore, the life of a runner tingles with dramatic episodes. It is often written that the new types of soldier recently developed are not innovations at all, but are the improved methods of olden times.
"That is partially true. Alexander the Great kept up communication by his angelos; Caesar by his huntias, but all fade into insignificance when compared to the deeds of the messenger of modern warfare - the runner."
1914-1918 MEMORIES - THE RUNNER
By A Local Digger
(The copy is a bit battered and missing some portions hence the .... )
During the progress of a battle, the staff directing general operations from the rear must be kept informed of how the plan is working. In modern warfare, the signal service with its telephones and wireless carry out the greater part of the duty of communications, but in the initial stages of an attack - apart from flare signals and observation planes - the first transport of a message to battalion or brigade headquarters is entrusted to that very gallant soldier known as a runner.
Centuries have elapsed since the spent runner, the first famous soldier of a message corps, hurled himself through the ancient gates of Athens in 490 BC and with his dying breath....out news of the success of the Anthenians against the Persians .... Marathon. Yet in these days, the odds are more fearsome still, similar deeds of his modern prototype .... so common, that they have come .... regarded as just one of the .... roles incidental to the operations .... of present day battle.
.... thought to yourself a newly captured dugout some 20 feet .... near the headquarters .... attacking battalions . .... quickly air with the smell .... and sweaty man and by .... .light of candles, battalion headquarters is at work. On the staircase in any odd corners, worn-out runners and orderlies in all attitudes, snatch a few minutes sleep before the next job of work. Outside above the dugout, the enemy's barrage pounds the earth and threatens to put out the candles below as the earth trembles from the hammer blows of an extra heavy explosion. Presently the Adjutant calls out "Runner" and the next messenger on the list, after receiving his message, climbs the dugout steps and goes out to face the storm.
Watch his progress! Shells burst near and around him and he is sometimes blotted from sight. The smoke clears, and there he is - still going forward. The message must be got through, as the fate of many of his comrades may depend on it safe reception. His mind concentrates on his job and to a small extent overcomes the full sensibility of the danger he is in. Sometimes the concussion blast of a near explosion will throw him down temporarily but he grits his .... Teeth - and on.Ulric Walsh
If there is a communication trench leading towards his destination, he will make his way along it; if not, he must simply go forward in the open through a churned-up morass of shellhole sand battle ruin without any shelter from machine gun or shrapnel.
Watch his progress! Shells burst near and around him and he is sometimes blotted from sight. The smoke clears, and there he is - still going forward. The message must be got through, as the fate of many of his comrades may depend on it safe reception. His mind concentrates on his job and to a small extent overcomes the full sensibility of the danger he is in. Sometimes the concussion blast of a near explosion will throw him down temporarily but he grits his .... Teeth - and on.
.... minutes later perhaps, .... from the smoke of shell .... the might - if he lived - stumble .... Dry of throat, and almost ....off into another dugout - his .... and after delivering his .... Down, and snatch .... Sleep before it is his .... Repeat the job.
For days probably whilst the battle continued, no telephone lines could be maintained unbroken, and consequently runners had to be the usual means of messages under these nerve-breaking conditions. Frequently the casualties amongst the runners were so heavy that three or even more were sent at intervals, with the same message, in the hope that at least one of them would get through.
The casualties amongst the runners were so heavy that three or even more were sent at intervals, with the same message, in the hope that at least one of them would get through.Ulric Walsh
The deed of the Athenian runner at Marathon was no more heroic than the following authentic story of the Australian Digger.
"A runner a company of the 56th battalion was sent with a message to his unit's headquarters during the first battle of the Somme. On his way, and when very near his goal, he was blown up by a shell. Recovering consciousness, he found his left leg had been almost severed. With his jack-knife, he cut off the rest of his leg and started to crawl to headquarters. Men going up the lawn saw him and the message and man reached their destination. Five days later he died of gangrene."
A runner a company of the 56th battalion was sent with a message to his unit's headquarters during the first battle of the Somme. On his way, and when very near his goal, he was blown up by a shell. Recovering consciousness, he found his left leg had been almost severed. With his jack-knife, he cut off the rest of his leg and started to crawl to headquarters. Men going up the lawn saw him and the message and man reached their destination. Five days later he died of gangrene.Ulric Walsh
Just an ordinary soldier; no glamour, but a sense of grim determination and realization of duty - the message MUST get through.
Picture the position on the battlefront at night. Verey lights and shall explosions appear in the bewildering maze so that he is uncertain of his direction. The darkness is intensified between flashes. Shell-holes have distorted communication saps and destroyed any cover they might afford. The frequent dull thud of gas shells is heard, and the runner is forced to put on his gas mask. The sweat pours down his face from the heat of the gas helmet, but still he holds the valve between his clenched teeth, breathing in through the nose, and out through the mouth. Physical weariness grips him, and he whimpers feebly, just like a child again, as the burst of high explosive sends a mass of earth crashing down on his legs and back up and half burying him.
The utter loneliness of an individual duty in the battlefield inferno! There is a roaring in his ears and lights dance before his eyes; then all of a sudden he arrives at the required dugout, and half stupidly hands over his message.
His job done, he flops down too exhausted to care. Even the thought that in his turn it will have to be done all over again, does not affect him. All he wants is sleep - merciful sleep. And so we leave him.
There are, and will be many epic tales told of the heroic heroism of our boys at the front, of deeds of valour savouring of the spectacular, but for service of grim determination in the fulfillment of his task, remember the runner.
Red more: Shoalhaven History