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Some of the ways we commemorate ANZAC Day – Spotlight on Roma and the bottle trees

Image: ‘Avenue of Heroes’ Source: Australia’s Guide Queensland

If you visit Roma, be sure to take a drive along what is known as ‘Heroes Avenue’, which extends from Station Street to the Cultural Centre at Bungil Street.

It is impossible to miss the majestic bottle trees that line the heritage listed avenue.

Why were the bottle trees planted?  At the end of World War I, the people of Roma planted 27 bottle trees to commemorate the men of the district who enlisted to serve, but never returned home.  There are now 140 bottle trees planted along Heroes Avenue and various other streets, each tree complete with a brass plaque bearing the name of a fallen soldier who came from the Roma district.[1]

Why the bottle tree?  It has been said that the choice of the bottle tree was a practical one, being a native and hardy tree that would resist damage from feral goats that roamed the district at the time.  Easily transported, bottle trees grow well in Queensland’s outback, and have a long life span of around 70 years.  Perhaps there is more to it – some say the bottle tree’s special attributes are symbolic of the promise to the fallen soldiers that their memory would live on.[2]

The legacy has been kept alive by Roma’s Adopt-A-Tree Program, whereby people are invited to ‘adopt’ or ‘sponsor’ a bottle tree.  Families, individuals, businesses, community organisations and schools in and around Roma are among the program’s participants.  The adopter’s main responsibility is to ensure there is a wreath or tribute on their tree every ANZAC Day, Remembrance Day and similar occasion.  What’s more, is that the trees can be ‘inherited’.  For instance, older couples who, for health reasons, are unable to continue adorning the trees often pass their tree down to their adult children who are in the position to faithfully keep the legacy alive.  If their children aren’t around to adopt the tree, the tree would come up for re-adoption.[3]

Image: Cathie, her husband and sons at Alex’s tree.

The Adopt-A-Tree Program has been so successful that there is unlikely to be a single tree without a wreath on ANZAC Day 2021.  There is even a waiting list for people wanting to adopt a tree.[4]

A few years ago, Roma lawyer Cathie Tucker put up her hand to adopt a tree.  She was assigned to the tree planted in memory of Alexander McDonald.  In addition to making him a special wreath, Cathie and her sons took to the National Archives of Australia to learn more about Alexander’s service history.

‘My boys and I found it both interesting, and very sad, to read through Alex’s service records,’ shares Cathie.

She explains that ‘reading through Alex’s records and patching together a little of his life story, made him more “real” for us, and certainly inspired the boys to ensure we always remember Alex by placing a wreath on his tree each ANZAC Day.

Through their research, Cathie and her sons unearthed letters Alex’s mother wrote to the Army after his passing enquiring about his war medals.  They also found a letter from Alexander applying to transfer to the infantry written on 8 March 1915, in what appears to be his lovely cursive handwriting.  Unfortunately, there was no photo of Alex in his digitised service record.

 

Image: Alexander McDonald’s enlistment document.
Source: National Archives of Australia

Are you wondering about the life of Alexander McDonald?  Well it turns out that Alexander was a shearer who joined the Army on 16 February 1915 at Roma’s recruiting office, at the age of 34.  An older soldier (compared to most soldiers who enlisted at the time), Alexander was a widower who left behind a son and a daughter when he went to war.

Upon enlistment, Alexander was shipped to France, where he was wounded in action on 5 August 1916.  He was transferred to England to recover, before returning to duty in France on 7 January 1917.  Within days of returning to battle, he was fatally wounded, and died in the field on 10 January 1917.

Alexander McDonald was buried in an unmarked grave at Villers-Bretonneux, France.  Sadly, he was among 2,473 Australian casualties[5] that died at Villers-Bretonneux, a key village to the Western Front which served as the gateway to the city of Amiens.[6]

The real tragedy of Alexander’s story is the loss suffered by his children.  Upon his enlistment, the children lived with his mother in Sydney, presumably so he could move around for his work as a shearer, and while he went to war.  His mother was still alive after the end of the Great War, hence her letters to the army about his medals.  However in 1923, only 6 years after the loss of their father, Alexander’s mother, passed away.  She was Alexander’s last surviving parent.  This was revealed in a Statutory Declaration written by Alexander’s son requesting claim to his father’s war medals as the next of kin.[7]

 

Image: Cathie’s sons at Alexander’s plaque

It is a certainty that the bottle trees have made a lasting impact on the people of Roma and beyond.  So much so, that in 2018, Heroes Avenue was officially recognised as the first of its kind in a special centenary commemoration attended by local and state dignitaries and Light Horse Regiment representatives.[8]

The Maranoa Regional Council are instrumental removing bottle trees when they come to the end of their lives and replacing them with new bottle trees, thus ensuring the spirit of the tree memorials will be preserved for generations to come.

If you are interested in learning more, perhaps a visit to Roma’s Heroes Avenue is in order, where you will be sure to feel the spirit of the ANZACs this year.

We are proud that many of our team members from Hede Byrne & Hall take the time to pay tribute to and commemorate our fallen soldiers on dates of national significance such as ANZAC Day.  While participating in last year’s driveway dawn service was an incredibly special and memorable experience, we are also grateful that COVID-19 related restrictions have eased to enable us to gather in person.

Among the services our team members and their families will be attending for are the Toowoomba City Dawn Service, the Withcott Community Memorial  Service, the Yangan & Emu Vale Service (near Warwick) and the Roma Dawn Service.

We hope to see you there.

Lest We Forget.

 


[1] Gall, S., (2018), ‘Centenary of Roma’s Heroes Avenue recognised (25 September), Queensland Country Life, accessed on 20 April 2021 at https://www.queenslandcountrylife.com.au/story/5667085/a-hundred-years-for-heroes-avenue/

[2] Thompson, V., (2020), ‘Living outback memorial turns streets into boulevard of memory to fallen soldiers on Remembrance Day (9 November)’, ABC News, accessed on 20 April 2021 at https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-11-09/roma-heroes-avenue-outback-memorial-to-fallen-soldiers/12856424

[3] Thompson, V., (2020), above.

[4] Thompson, V., (2020), above.

[5] Bean, C. E. W., (1941) [1995]. ‘The Australian Imperial Force in France During the Main German Offensive, 1918’, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, V(8th ed.).,  Sydney: Angus and Robertson. OCLC 17648469.

[6] Gall, S., (2018), above.

[7] Per a Statutory Declaration from Alexander’s son dated 25 September 1923, declaring that Alexander’s wife and parents were deceased.  The son was claiming his war medals, and provided the declaration in support of his claim to medals as next of kin.

[8] Gall, S., (2018), above.

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