Monday, April 24, 2023

A Viking at Gallipoli - The Diaries of Capt. Nikolai Theodor Svensen of 15th Battalion (Australia)

A Viking at Gallipoli

I have always felt that the broad notion of 'allies betrayed' has bound Poles, Australians and New Zealanders together in spirit however complex and many-sided the actual historical truth.

The husband of my great-aunt Lillian was my great-uncle Major Nikolai Theodore Svensen ('Theo' to the family). She was the sister of the subject of my most recent published biography entitled 'The Pocket Paderewski: The Beguiling Life of the Australian Concert Pianist Edward Cahill'.' He was a glamorous yet forgotten Queensland concert pianist of international distinction in 1920s and 1930s London, Paris and French Riviera. She was also a fine pianist.

Originally from Norway (born in the coastal port of Larvik), he emigrated to Australia as a child and completed his schooling in Brisbane and became a survey draughtsman. Major N.T. Svensen (his final rank) was an incredibly eccentric and talented gentleman. I use the word advisedly as he was descended from a distinguished Norwegian shipping and ship-building family who fell on hard times and emigrated to Australia when steamships supplanted sailing vessels.

One of the Svensen family sailing ships drawn by Major N. T. Svensen in 1897

He first served in the Boer War with the 1st Queensland Mounted Infantry and had over ten years service with the Queensland Rifles Regiment. At the outbreak of the Great War he enlisted in 'A' Company 15th Battalion AIF on 30 September 1914. His unit embarked from Melbourne on board the Transport 'A 40 Ceramic' on 22 December 1914. He was wounded in the face and chest at Gallipoli on 10 May 1915. Evacuated from the peninsula in November 1915 with enteric (Typhoid) fever he was repatriated to Australia in 1916. Svensen retired with the honorary rank of Major.
Portrait of Captain Nikolai Theodor Svensen (1878-1966) of 'A' Company 15th Battalion (Australia) wearing the Queen’s South Africa (Boer War) Medal and 1914-1915 Star, the British War Medal and Victory Medal.
When landing at Anzac Cove he kept a meticulously detailed diary in minute handwriting in two small volumes covered in dark green leather (which I treasure). He described the formidable event in fine detail even during the very moments it was taking place. 'A bullet has just landed eight inches from my foot.' he coolly scribbled during the very landing itself with the grace under pressure of a Nelson. An extraordinary document.

Captain J F Walsh (left) and Lieutenant N T Svensen (right) leading files of 'A' Company, 15th Battalion during a march through Melbourne, 17th December 1914 shortly before embarkation for the front. Two children are in the right foreground.

A page from Volume 1 of Lieutenant N.T.Svensen's meticulously kept Gallipoli Diary in which he describes in unflustered terms an operation on a severe chest wound

Business Cards from Dragomen in Cairo

[A dragoman was an interpreter, translator and official guide between  Turkish, Arabic, and Persian-speaking countries and polities of the Middle East. He was engaged by Europeans embassies, consulates and trading posts. A dragoman had to have a knowledge of Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and European languages. They were often engaged by officers during leave or recreation activities.]

Svensen was an obsessional and perfectionist professional soldier throughout his long life. He played exciting table-top war games of Napoleonic and Great War battles with me lasting weeks. We used detailed painted regiments of paper soldiers pasted on cardboard and tacked to a small green block of wood. Moves were according to a throw of dice with small cannons that fired tiny wooden pellets. 

Each battle was written up in a ledger and soldiers that had distinguished themselves were decorated accordingly and promoted. I have a framed collection of his precise watercolours painted in 1899 of notorious moments of Empire action in say The Charge of the 21st Lancers at the Battle of Omdurman which give you an idea of his exquisite draftsmanship of paper soldiers. He told me blood-curdling stories late into the night of 'Johnny Turk' (as the soldiers referred to the enemy) when I stayed with he and Lillian as a child over a period of years whilst my father was studying medicine at Queensland University.

[Below are some fine  examples of Svensen's meticulous and outstanding draughtsmanship concerning military uniforms and Empire battles. The miniature soldiers were painted with a similar attention to detail. A number of these remarkable original watercolours adorn the walls of my study in Warsaw.]

Major and Mrs. Svensen lived in a small Queensland weatherboard house called Larvik after the town of his birth. The verandahs still stand. It was numbered 12 Buranda Street, Buranda. At the time I knew it there were two tall, very large palm trees with clusters of palm nuts in the front garden but they have now gone. By modern standards the house was quite primitive – a wood-fired copper and mangle for washing clothes under the house, a small bathroom with an alarming rumbling old gas water heater. Bath only no shower. Outside lavatory under the house. A tank for rain water. 

I remember the rooms being rather dark and oppressive inside. The front room was a ‘Music Room’ with French doors opening onto the verandah (they were never opened) and furnished with an upright C. Bechstein piano and old uncomfortable furniture. Straight-backed chairs lined the walls as in an eighteenth century ‘salon’ and there was a vitrine containing ‘precious objects’.

I used to play duets with Lillian each morning and gave concerts for occasional guests when I lived there. Schubert’s Marche Militaire for four hands and such things. The main bedroom was also at the front of the house. I used to sleep in a smaller bedroom behind this on an iron bedstead. There was a chamber-pot under the bed as the lavatory was under the house in what seemed to me an evil-smelling cupboard. I was terrified of the notorious red-back spiders that lurked there.

Towards the back of the house there was Theo’s ‘Study’ with a large table heaving with documents or open stamp albums and Stanley Gibbons reference books on stamps. The room was packed with trunks and suitcases containing his thousands of soldiers, books on stamp collecting and soldiering, war memorabilia like swords, petrified dog biscuits from the Boer War and Great War, even old bandages in classified boxes from his wounds on Gallipoli and of course the vast Australian Specialist stamp collection.

On the walls there were old sepia-coloured photographs of Norwegian fiord and port scenes. At the rear of the house there was a sunny ‘Breakfast Room’and kitchen with many of his perfectly accurate draughtsman drawings of Norwegian ships. There was another piano in there too – a cream baby grand piano by the American maker Baldwin inherited from Lillian’s brother the concert pianist Eddie Cahill when he left for Europe never to return. Like many houses in Queensland it stood on stilts and there were many creepy crawlies living in the large damp musty-smelling space underneath.

There was an aviary in the garden containing their beloved budgerigars or love birds ‘Tulla’ and ‘Teddie’ that were extremely tame and intimate with their owners who brought them into the house. He also kept tortoises in the luxuriant garden and butterflies in a type of aviary. All this was wonderful stimulation for the imagination a young child. Many aspects of my adult character I now realize were formed at this significant time away from my parents. Lillian once asked me to call her 'Mummy' that sent my natural mother into furious rage - rather like contemplating an approaching cyclone. I stayed less often after that.

'Uncle Theo' and his wife Lillian ('Lilliana') Cahill in the Buranda house garden.

 She was a sister of the concert pianist Eddie Cahill of whom I have am completed a commissioned biography
('The Pocket Paderewki'

She was also a fine pianist. On his shoulder their two tame beloved love birds (budgerigars) 'Tulla and 'Teddie'

They led a quite regulated life. Theo would rise early around 6.00am and make tea and biscuits (invariably Arnotts Milk Arrowroot ovals) that would be brought into Lillian and I who were in the big double bed in the front room. I would creep in there after waking up.

As a young child (around 4 or 5 years old) I was rather lonely as my parents were preoccupied with financing my father’s medical studies at Queensland University. My mother was a trained nurse and midwife and ran a maternity hospital. She also opened a women’s accessory boutique (she was very gifted artistically) to finance my father through medicine. A powerful force in the family indeed. It was a tough time financially and they had to work terribly hard. He became a doctor on the Australian Rehabilitation Scheme after WW II began when he was about 29 I think. During the war he was in the Royal Australian Air Force in Papua New Guinea as a flight instructor on Tiger Moth aircraft. As I grew older and stayed less often these early morning chats stopped of course.

Then we all rose about 7.00 am for breakfast – all meals taken formally around the kitchen table. Before breakfast he would always have a shave with a cut-throat razor, take a bath and spend time tending his moustache in which he took enormous old-fashioned pride. He waxed the ends with Pears soap and would give occasional blood-curdling shouts as if on the battlefield. He was exceptionally clean in his personal habits. I remember he always ate a tablespoon of Black-strap Molasses at breakfast without fail. The budgies would then be played with for an hour or so, the cages cleaned, cared for (he carefully clipped their wings), kissed them on his finger where they perched fearlessly and fed. Most amusing.

The modest address of the Svensens at 12 Buranda Street, Buranda, Brisbane 2014. 

As a child I remembered it as a mansion with huge rooms. 

I notice the tall picturesque palm trees that were planted in the front garden have been cut down to accommodate a car port. 

What fierce and bloody British Empire battles were fought once again within the confines of this small house!

Theo would then disappear into his study to deal with correspondence. He was a superb calligrapher and had the most beautiful handwriting. I loved his pens and draughtsmen’s instruments. I would then be taken to school unless I was spending school holidays with them or practice the piano with Lillian. During the day I would often work with him on his famous specialist Australian stamp collection (he gave me a huge number which I kept and recently discovered had been stolen). Or we might set up a complete Napoleonic battle with the soldiers (this took a couple of days) and then fight the battle a few hours each day or in the evening which might take a week or even two. 

If his regular partners in war games were not available he would fight against himself in solo games which he wrote up in similar obsessive detail. He lived entirely in his soldiering imagination and memories. Extraordinary when you think of it. Entire battles written up move by move, maps drawn in a ledger which I have retained. He talked to me often about his war experiences and killing the Turks in a very dramatic, theatrical fashion late at night before I went to sleep which terrified me no end! 'And the blood ran down the gutters as I drove the bayonet in.....'

I continued to fight 'Little Wars' occasionally with him into adulthood until he died in 1966. Both the vast specialist Australian stamp collection and the all the soldiers disappeared without trace from his home in a theft after his death having been promised to me. A tragic outcome as I knew and appreciated his extraordinary personality and knew the collections intimately and would have preserved them intact. Where are they now?

Soldiers set out for a battle with village terrain in the background

From the ledger the opening of the account of the 1st Battle of Tiaro Village 14th May 1963.  French and Allied Force commanded by Lt. General Ney [Red Force N.T.S.]  and an enemy force under Major General Subov
[Green Force Michael Moran].

From the ledger the account of the 2nd Battle of Tiaro Village fought 15th May 1963 between the French and Allied Force commanded by Lt. General Ney [Red Force N.T.S.]  and an enemy force under Major General Subov [Green Force: Michael Moran]. This battle lasted two days.

On ANZAC Day he would dress carefully, put on his medals and go into his club in Brisbane before the March. Lillian and I would watch the procession of veterans with enormous pride. He adored that day and would relive his experiences for a week afterwards with me. He had a complete gentleman’s social life ‘in town’ which as a child I was naturally ignorant of and I cannot remember the name of his club.

A portrait of the old Boer War and ANZAC veteran Major Nikolai Theodor Svensen taken on Anzac Day 25th April 1959 Age 80

          Early in life he had also belonged to the Albert and Logan Rifleman Club and was a crack shot. 

Albert and Logan Rifleman Club 1909. Svensen was a crack shot.
He is standing in the rear row, fifth from the left

I was surprised to recognize Theo in this picture while I was researching Eddie Cahill. 'Theo' is standing in the back row second from the right. Beenleigh, Eddie's birthplace, is not far from Brisbane.

There were very few visitors to the house I remember. They were not particularly ‘social’ in old age. I have even saved some old letters I wrote to them as a child. Quite sweet and full of affection. I remember going to church with Lilian (she was a staunch Irish Catholic) but I seem to remember that Theo was not at all religious (or not Roman Catholic) but I have a vague feeling his family belonged to some Norwegian Protestant faith. He became a Mason later in life.

I lived with them on and off for at least six years as a child when at Primary School and then visited them often while growing up after my father graduated. We moved to Melbourne in the late 1950s where I attended Burke Hall Jesuit Primary School and then to Sydney so contact was limited. My father joined the Diplomatic Service and the UN in the early 1960s and we were posted abroad in my early teens to Rome (FAO and WHO) and The Hague for at least four years where I attended International Schools. I returned to school in Sydney (St. Joseph’s GPS School at Hunter’s Hill) for my Matriculation in 1964, attended University of NSW studying English, Drama and Philosophy and then went to live on Norfolk Island in the South Pacific for some years. I moved to be with the family in Central London in 1973 where my father was practising medicine in Wimpole Street. I began studying music and working as a college lecturer in British Cultural Studies which I did for 25 years. I moved to Warsaw in Poland 2004. I have been a professional writer since 1998. I pretty well lost contact with Lillian after going to live on Norfolk Island.

Norway was a constant preoccupation and love and he never stopped talking about it or showing me photo albums, drawings of flags he did when a child, crammed with sepia photographs of ‘Old Larvik’. There were many Norwegian flags scattered about the house and I came to love the design of this national flag above all others!

Major N. T. Svensen prepares to fight a Napoleonic battle. He was a pioneer of  international Table Top War Games and as a child I was drawn into this world. Hence my love of the 1993 ITV series Sharpe one of the finest television series ever made on any subject. I have retained a deep fascination with the detail of military uniforms because of this early exposure. This stood me in good stead when writing about the military garrison on Norfolk Island during the period of  convict transportation described in my historical novel Point Venus (Sydney 1998). 

Major Nikolai Theodor Svensen (1878-1966) 

During these memorial years of the Great War, I have decided to write up the unique account of his personal campaign at Gallipoli which as a commissioned officer was of an intensity of detail unrivaled in my experience. On the new blog I shall lodge photographs and extracts from the diaries as I discover pictures and decipher his writing during my researches.

A number of articles appeared in various Queensland newspapers about his extraordinary collection and his own eccentric personality.

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