From the Top of the Hill
by Kevin Peoples

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From the Top Of the Hill  – Finding Private Jack Peoples - by Kevin Peoples
Product details
Paperback: 76 pages
Publisher: Kevin Peoples
ISBN: 9780994570307
Trim size: 153 x 229 mm
On winter nights, when we were small children, we gathered around the open kitchen fire and urged our father to tell us stories about his growing up on Wooriwyrite, a sheep and cattle station on the Darlington road some ten miles from Terang in the Western District of Victoria. One story related to the day that Dad’s brother, Jack, went to the war in 1915. Our father, aged eleven, walked with Jack to the nearest hill and watched him walk across the paddocks to Mortlake, never to return. The story had a beginning but no end. It simply faded away and left the three of us sitting on the hill with Dad, hearing the silence and watching Jack disappear. This booklet is the story of Jack that we never heard. It is my story too. I have searched for Jack for much of my life and here I honour him on the centenary of his death, along with the 11,000 Australians who died with him and whose bodies never found a grave.

Finding Private Jack Peoples: an Australian quest

Tony Wright
Published: December 9, 2016 - 12:49PM

Big old Monterey cypress trees, 191 of them, line the highway into the town of Mortlake, screening out the sun.

If you were to pull up and hunt around, you might find tree number 64. It is dedicated to a soft-eyed boy who never grew out of his teens.

His name was Jack Peoples.

If you continue down the avenue of honour, which is the purpose of this handsome, melancholy boulevard, you will find his name inscribed on Mortlake's war memorial, a monument in granite topped with the figure of a soldier sculpted from white marble.

Jack Peoples was no one unusual: a station hand from out on the volcanic plains of western Victoria who signed up at the age of 18 and sailed away to World War I.

Like tens of thousands of other young Australians who did the same sort of thing, he never came home. His is just one of 42 names of the World War I dead on that single monument in that one little town.

Aged 19, he was blown to oblivion almost exactly 100 years ago, on November 24, 1916. The only trace to be found of him was an identification disc.

What is unusual about Jack Peoples is that a nephew who never knew him became haunted by the story of his vanishing and dedicated himself to finding the essence of this short life.

Kevin Peoples, a retired teacher with a fine spare story-telling style, has written a book tracing his search for young Jack.

It is called From the Top of the Hill, inspired by the fragment of a story told to him as a child by his father, Jack's brother.

Kevin's father was only 11 when in August, 1915, his older brother, Jack, set out to sign up, walking the 10 miles to Mortlake from the sheep and cattle station on which his family lived and worked, a big squatting property called Wooriwyrite. Jack was 18 and had never travelled more than 10 miles from home.

He asked his little brother to walk with him to the top of the nearest hill, and there the boys parted, the younger brother watching Jack until he was out of sight. The story of that last walk became a sort of soundtrack to Kevin Peoples' childhood. "Tell us about the day Jack went to war, Dad," he and his brother and sister would ask of their father as they snuggled before the fireplace in the evenings.

"We would wait and eventually dad would begin, but the result was always the same," Kevin writes. "The story made its way to the top of the hill and simply faded away and I was always left in the centre of something I could not understand."

And so he sets out a near-lifelong quest to "find" Private Jack Peoples, 58th Battalion, No 4288, whose disappearance had forever cast a shadow over his father's life.

Kevin Peoples' quest for Jack's spirit finds him visited by something else lurking in the deeper gloom of Australia's history, too. He travels to the old family home, long demolished, and feels himself brushed by "a cold shadow, a presence of sorts...warning me off".

"Perhaps the ghosts are of another people, here long before my own people," he writes.

In fact, he was close to the place of another violent Australian vanishing; 35 or more Indigenous Djargurd Wurrung people were consigned to oblivion in 1839 barely more than a mile from the home where Jack Peoples was raised. No avenue of honour nor memorial for these victims of massacre, though. Just a place name whispered. Murdering Gully on Mount Emu Creek, Glenormiston.

His search takes him to a lecture at Melbourne University in 1969 where he witnesses the senior lecturer in Australian history, Lloyd Robson, falling silent, his shoulders shaking, unable to continue his story of his recent field trip to the Western Front of France. Robson is weeping for the men whose blood and bones lay in the fields of Pozieres, Kevin Peoples writes, but "I have never wept for Jack". The lecturer understood something about the war that Peoples did not.

Two decades later, Kevin, by then an Australian history teacher himself at Canberra TAFE, teaching a course on the Great War, had learned so much he was shocked to find himself weeping before his own students.

It is the raw honesty of Peoples' telling of his story, his hatred of the war, his disdain for nationalistic flag-waving and his findings about his lost uncle and his own country that set his little book apart from many war histories. Those of us who have travelled to old battlefields know how unexpectedly a weeping jag might descend, but a lot of us conceal it.

When eventually he finds the field in which he believes Jack Peoples, aged 19, was blown to smithereens by an artillery shell outside the French hamlet of Gueudecourt, he simply kneels, takes a handful of the chocolate French soil and allows the silence to embrace him.

"For a moment I hold Jack in my hand," he writes. "Then I place him gently back with his mates along with those who might have killed him."

One hundred years since the slaughter of 1916, here is an Australian story for the ages.

'From the Top of the Hill: Finding Private Jack Peoples', by Kevin Peoples

This story was found at:

At the launch of his book, From the Top of the Hill, on Saturday 13 August at the Bentleigh RSL Club, the author, Kevin Peoples, made the following address.
Sometimes, if we are to understand highly complex human tragedies like WWI, we begin by reducing them to the personal. And sometimes, because of our interest in a single person, we are driven to discover a bigger and more abstract context; one that helps us understand what happened and why.

So I start with Jack, my father’s older brother. Because of the story my father told us as small children, about the day Jack, aged 18, enlisted in the AIF, I have been drawn into the bigger context.

The photograph of Jack, above my father’s chair in our kitchen in Terang, was a constant reminder of the war. When our young friends asked us, Who’s that? we replied, That’s Jack, he died in the war. He was nineteen. That’s all we knew. We never asked what war. For us there was only one war and that war was Jack’s war. Like many Australians of our generation, we grew up with the dark presence of WWI sitting on our mantelpieces and hanging on our walls.
Because of my father’s story, WWI became personal. On the Saturday morning that Jack enlisted, he asked my father, aged 11, to accompany him to the top of the nearest hill. My father sat on the hill and watched Jack walk across the paddocks to Mortlake - never to return. All my life I have harboured safely that image. It’s that image that brings us together tonight.

It would be fair to say that I have come to abhor Jack’s war. In particular I abhor the actions of those heads of state who initiated it, and the actions of their military leaders for the manner in which they conducted it. Perhaps because of this passion, I have developed something of an obsession with it.

I still remember the first serious history examination I sat for as an adult student. It was in 1963. The only essay I remember writing on that day was the one on Jack’s war. I even remember the question. It involved a quote from the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix.

In 1917, Mannix said that the war was nothing more than a trade war. The Bulletin magazine had said much the same in 1914. Being who I was, I naturally agreed. Ironically, I got it right or nearly right. I knew little in 1963. There was no one simple answer to explain the causes of WW1, but economic and political power was at the heart of it.

The war was not fought over any great general principles. There was no great moral cause. This view is not shared by a recent Prime Minister. In writing in The Age (July 28, 2016, p18) he claimed that Jack and his cobbers were fighting for things worthy of sacrifice: the right of all countries to live in peace and the right of small countries not to be bullied.
That is what the political class told Jack in 1915. To hear that argument repeated again, one hundred years on beggars belief.

By 1914, a general unease and an atmosphere of fear permeated European nations. Failing to recognise the signs, Europe’s leaders sleepwalked into war. The hard-nosed men, those who had more to lose than most, thought war was inevitable. Economic gains had to be protected. Colonies had to be protected. Profits had to be protected.
But what would my Uncle Jack, a station-hand mustering cattle and fixing fences on the flat grassy plains around Mt Emu Creek between Terang and Mortlake, have known about such things?

Australia entered the war with all the joy and enthusiasm of a young boy flying a kite. But when the war turned sour in 1916, the kite broke away and Australia broke its heart. For many people, life would never be the same. The magnitude of the tragedy made it difficult for people to comprehend. How could such a thing happen? It was the efficiency, the scope and the industrial scale of the killing that shocked Australia and the world. Approximately eleven million soldiers and seven million civilians were to die in the war. Total casualties equalled around 38 million.

In the battles around the River Somme in northern France in 1916, the British military elite, incompetent nineteenth century men, all born in the decade 1860-1870, rarely endured the smell of death. These men, isolated in their chateaux miles behind the trenches and the mud, the rats and the lice, the machines guns and the barbed wire, the gas and the putrid decaying bodies, these same men could have been fighting Napoleon at Waterloo.

That these men fought the war without counting the human cost says little for their humanity. In later life, these same men became Knights and Lords. These men, callous and reckless, offered up their men as sacrificial lambs to the new mechanised gods of war.

In Australia, the fun went out of the war in 1916. In the final six months of 1916, Australia suffered just over 40,000 casualties. 12,000 were killed. Australian towns and regions were devastated. Families struggled to pronounce the names of unknown French villages where their loved ones had died or were missing: Fromelles, Pozieres, Gueudecourt. It was as if in naming them some meaning could be found. Jack was just one of the 12,000. He was killed at Gueudecourt in his first visit to the front line.

In 1916, many men in the trenches came to believe that life had lost purpose and meaning, but their sardonic humour never deserted them: We’re here, because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here…
For those reflective men in the trenches, the idea of a loving God, guiding and controlling earthly events, fell and died somewhere in the mud in no man’s land. If there was a God new definitions had to be found. After 1916, if the men in the trenches believed in anything, it was in each other.

In 1916, the war took on a life of its own. It broke free from those supposedly in control and became an alien thing, gathering up men and hurling them into a giant mincing machine, much larger than my mother’s small silver one, which I screwed tightly onto the kitchen table and then slowly turned its handle as she fed in the cold meat left over from Sunday’s roast.

Jack died in possibly the worst conditions experienced by Australians in the war. Standing in mud over their knees in the freezing cold, their senses assaulted by screaming shells and decaying bodies, unable to sleep and lacking warm food, suffering trench feet and drinking water tasting of kerosene, the Australians cut niches into the sides of their trenches to escape the mud. Jack was lucky to escape death when his trench caved in on him and two of his mates. He was dug out in time only to be hit by a shell some weeks later.

Jack is one of us. He belongs to all of us. He is representative of a generation. He is one of the 62,000 Australians who died in the war. He is one of 11,000 Australians who died without a grave and is remembered at the Australian National Memorial at Villers Bretonneux. Australia lost 38 dead for every day of the war. In the decade after the war another 60,000 soldiers died. Proportionally, Australia had one of the highest casualty rates of all participating nations. Some two out of three of all Australians who went to the war became casualties.

So read about Jack. Take him to your hearts, along with your own loved ones who have died in all the unnecessary wars this nation has raced to embrace. In the eyes of the world Jack was just an ordinary boy. He was unexceptional, but then, he never had the opportunities in life that his nephew had. One hundred years on his death still rests uncomfortably with me. Remember him in this the centenary of his death.
Name : John Murphy
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Review : I have read your book and skimmed through it three of four times as well. Both you and Jack seem to slide into the reader’s world and life – well at least, mine. Contrasts and contradictions abound in the tale: gentle pathos; an older man writing of a young man; war and peace; unsolved mystery yet closure of sorts. Your journey and Jack’s short life constantly make inroads into one’s consciousness. Darting from past to present and back again seems seamless and logical. I like your eye for detail, your observations of people, places and possibilities buttressed by photos, documentation and historical asides, such as Keating, Hitler and Hughes. The family theme is always there along for the ride. And after all this? I know this might not sit easily with your professionalism but…I kept thinking of your word skeletal. Could it become a work of historical fiction where your imagination and speculation couples with research, family and social history, and context? Maybe honouring Jack in another way or on a different level? Having finished the project doubtless you will wonder why I suggest his but it’s my abiding and residual response to an emotional work.

Name : Monica Murphy
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Review : Congratulations on your new book. I enjoyed the gently and emotional story. Well told from the inside out. Especially the wet sodden ground the rain and bleakness that so beautifully mirrored the days of death on the fields of Gueudecourt. Thanks for putting Jack’s chocolate soil back where it belonged.

Name : John Molony
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Review : I kept thinking of you while reading your lovely book. It came so often to me that you were there heartbroken as you watched him go over the hill never to return. But you didn’t do that. You did much more. With love, pride and longing in every line you brought him home where he belongs. Well done cobber. I bet Jack used cobber instead of mate. Cobber is a genuine Aussie greeting. But what a story it is of a life given up on an altar erected in honour of the gods of money and power. It is the dinkum short story packing in a life full of poignancy. Please God it will gain a wide readership.

Name : Barry Oakley
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Review : Thanks for the book, which I’ve just re-read. Your final paragraph was especially moving and eloquent. Not the false eloquence of so many Anzac Day ceremonies, but an eloquence that comes from deep feelings and simplicity. And within that overpowering paragraph there’s one marvellous sentence: “The silence breathes and embraces us.” Congratulations. You’ve given a memorial to Jack far stronger than stone.

Name : Jim Ross
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Review : I have just finished reading your book (reading any book is very unusual for me on a Saturday). Since I last read your story, it seems more personal in a reflective way, as well as more historical and more poignant. I became so absorbed in it that I missed the first leg of the quadrella…that, of course, is high praise. It is a significant story and, as usual, told in prose that is also poetical. Well done.

Name : Ray Scott
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Review : It took me some time to read this book as I frequently had to break off to consult accounts of the two battles concerned in 1916, Pozieres and Gueudecourt, on the Internet. I have learnt much about these two campaigns on reading the book, the casualties were horrific, but each was a young man in his prime, like Jack Peoples, the subject of this book. The most symbolic touch is the reaction of the 11 year old as he stood on the hill and watched his older brother walk away and slowly recede in the distance. Ultimate symbolism, from the moment he left his young brother’s side he slowly reduced in size until he vanished, never to be seen again, a lesson in poignancy. Even more poignant is that Jack never had the time to fire a shot at the enemy before they killed him. Perhaps a blessing in disguise, he never killed anybody but maybe doing so would have been anathema to him. As I read I felt my emotions being stirred, books on this subject must affect most of our generation, we all lost uncles, as I did, and some lost parents and grandparents who never came back. This book is required reading for us all, many of us are totally unaware of what war really means.

When will this book be re printed please? I'd like to buy a copy. Sally Kendall Gippsland

We will have stock on Monday. We have updated our system, and you can place an order or call us on Monday on 03 9803 4481.

any chance of this being reprinted before christmas?

Yes, we will have stock on Monday. You can place an order as we have updated our stock levels. Many thanks, Sylvie

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