Duncan Chapman: an accidental hero

Saturday, April 25, 2015 Permalink

One hundred years ago today, the first ANZACs landed on the beaches of Turkey to engage in a battle they would not win. Twenty-six year old Queenslander Lieutenant Duncan Chapman was the first ashore.

To me was given the extreme honour of being actually the first man to step ashore on this peninsula, to lead a portion of the men up the hill in that now historic charge.

What a living hell it was too, and how I managed to go through it from 4 o’clock in the morning of Sunday, the 25th April, to Wednesday, the 28th, under fire the whole time, without being hit is a mystery to me.

Part of a letter from Duncan to brother Charles.

I’m sure Duncan had no idea when he set foot on the soil at Gallipoli in the early hours of 25 April 1915 that a century later he’d be immortalised in bronze in the town of his birth.

However at dawn on Friday 24 April 2015 a statue commemorating his achievement was unveiled in Maryborough, Queensland.

Duncan Chapman statue

Source: Fraser Coast Chronicle

Duncan Chapman was my great great uncle. Born and raised in Maryborough, he was my father’s great uncle and my grandfather’s (maternal) uncle.

Duncan was living in Brisbane (in Albion) and working as a paymaster when he left to serve his country in the war to end all wars.

Maryborough peeps have worked long and hard over recent years to confirm Duncan’s achievement and raise funds for the $60,000 statue. I have to confess I’ve struggled a little with the occasionally OTT fanfare.

Although chosen to be in the covering group; it was pure chance his towboat was the first ashore and that he happened to be in the bow at the time. For this reason I’ve felt* a little uncomfortable with the hero-status afforded him and… I suspect he would be too.

Source: Anzacsightsound.org

Source: Anzacsightsound.org

Indeed, comments on the local newspaper’s website indicate others are a bit frustrated that Duncan has attracted so much attention, when MANY young men from Maryborough formed part of his 9th Battalion.

Naturally however, I’ve wondered about Duncan the man. Although he wasn’t married I wondered if he left behind a girlfriend. Or two.

I’ve read some of his letters and found myself thinking I’d like this man who lived 100 years ago. His letters are well-written. I can only assume he was relatively well educated and articulate. He’s obviously overly fond of punctuation and the occasional adverb… so I feel I can blame my genes for my own predisposition in that respect.

I attended the dawn service yesterday for the unveiling of Great Great Uncle Duncan’s statue. Extended family from interstate had travelled and formed part of the official party. Given my mixed feelings I was happy to stay in the background rather than meet his other great nieces and nephews and great-great nieces and nephews.

I was relieved when the service itself however, while honouring Duncan, paid tribute to other Maryborough men who fought alongside him. Many of whom (like so many Aussies) died on Turkish soil.

Despite my natural cynicism I found myself tearing up when I learned that rocks and sand had been provided by the Turkish Government (from the beaches and cliffs of Gallipoli) which were used in the surrounds of the statue. In fact, the sand was fashioned into footprints and set into the concrete to reflect those who followed Duncan across the beach at (the now) Anzac Cove. *sob*

I realised—perhaps for the first time—that it wasn’t really about Duncan or a town desperate for some fame and fortune. The celebration was about what (and who) Duncan represented. It was the war which coined the term ‘digger’ and—although we didn’t walk away victorious, our fighting spirit became part of our national identity. Sure we’re larrikins who sometimes have little concern for authority, but we’re tenacious bastards.

Duncan was promoted to Captain the day after arriving at Gallipoli. Unlike so many of his fellow ANZACs Duncan survived the Dardanelles, serving in Gallipoli until the evacuation in December 2015.

He did not, however return home. Serving with the 45th Battalion and promoted to Major, Duncan died on the battlefields of Pozieres in August 2016, like so many of his countrymen.

** You may recall the clip I shared recently of this tragic episode in our military history—during which time we lost 23,000 soldiers in just seven weeks. Only to gain 10km of ground. If you haven’t watched that video I’d recommend you do**

In that previous post I talked about the futility of war. I realise today is not a time for such discussions and I have great respect for those who’ve fought and/or died for our country. I do believe it’s an opportunity (however) for some reflection.

The local TV news interviewed a former WWII soldier a couple of nights ago. He doesn’t attend ANZAC day ceremonies, he said. He believes the day should be spent educating young people. His lesson: “There’s no glory in war.”

Lest We Forget.

* I’ve also inherited my father’s EXTREME sense of ‘fairness’.

  • Jo
    April 25, 2015

    Beautifully written.

    • Debbish
      April 25, 2015

      Thanks Jo. I’ve had something drafted for AGES… initially trying to get in his head and create something fictional around his experience, but (as I said in the post) I struggle a little with the accolades for an achievement not (necessarily) earned but awarded through circumstance.

      • dianne
        April 25, 2015

        Hi Deb,
        I second that, well written.
        Deb i hope you dont mind me asking , but my maiden name was Chapman .
        And am wondering if there may be a connection, as i am doing my family tree.
        If this is not appropriate i totally understand.

        • Debbish
          April 25, 2015

          I can send you some info if you like Dianne as I have some additional info on Duncan’s large family. I’ll dig it out but I know he had at least two brothers (who would have handed the Chapman name down—Charles and Fred. My great grandmother was obviously a sister (who married a Cook).

          Extended family from most ‘arms’ of the Chapman family were involved in some way and I think about 50 travelled to Maryborough for the weekend.

  • kimbacaffeinate
    April 25, 2015

    Oh thank you for sharing your Uncle’s story and yours. It’s wonderful that he was immortalized but as you said he represents something more.

  • Michelle Weaver (@pinkypoinker)
    April 26, 2015

    You are amazing Deb. I loved this… so humble. Just like your great great uncle methinks. The statue is a symbol of respect and gratitude to all the men and women who fought and I’m sure he would be proud to be the immortalised face of that symbolism.

    • Debbish
      April 26, 2015

      Yes, the symbolism was what I appreciated on the day because I’d felt uncomfortable in the lead-up. Listening to some of the other speeches was interesting as well. I hadn’t realised we landed in the wrong spot and why we were called Diggers etc. There’s not a lot to celebrate in war, so it was good to be able to focus on the bravery of our men. Just turning up says a lot.

  • Lisa@RandomActsOfZen
    April 26, 2015

    Deb, this is a beautiful tribute to your Great Great Uncle Duncan, and I have no doubt he would be proud to be a part of your family tree xx

  • Char
    April 27, 2015

    You’re absolutely right in saying that war is futile and it’s taken me years to get past that idea to realise what Anzac day is truly about. It’s not a glorification of war. It’s a reminder of all those who died. It’s a sad and sombre occasion which is a reminder of the value of peace.

    • Debbish
      April 27, 2015

      I read a lot of online stuff on the weekend and people commenting on our role in past battles etc. I’m really not sure we learn from the past although we’re very fortunate our losses are nowhere near what they were in earlier wars.

      I’m constantly struck by stories about soldiers halting proceedings to reclaim and bury the dead and then getting back down to business. Surely that says something about our deeply etched (or not) our anger / commitment to the cause actually is.

  • Jess
    April 28, 2015

    What an amazing story and wonderful commemoration to be a part of. I still think your great great uncle was pretty brave and deserving. It would take extreme guts to be first, even if it just happened by chance. And you are right his statue and story is symbolic of so much more! Beautiful post!

I'd love to hear your thoughts