Linking the Past with a Current Movie

1914 Cyril Hughes thumbnailThe latest Russell Crowe movie, Water Diviner, demonstrates a significant bond between one of our WWI footballing diggers and his story.

Central to the early core of the film is the character, Cyril Hughes (pictured), played by Jai Courtney.  Hughes, after entering the army in January 1915 in the 1st Light Horse as a trooper, was whisked away to the Middle East two weeks later.

He was a Tasmanian born in 1890; after serving four years as an articled engineer/surveyor with the company, C M Archer, he moved to Sydney probably in about 1912.  Because of limited employment opportunities at the time in Australia, it is reasonable to assume that Hughes was one of a wave of young men who travelled the country in search of work.

Cyril Hughes was a footballer, but not one of particular note, it was his brother Eric who inherited those genes.  But Cyril had the brains and by 1913 was secretary of the South Sydney club and the following year, assumed the responsibility as delegate to the NSW Football League.  At 1.83m he was tall for the times but weighed in at only just over 68kg.

A surveyor and single, he volunteered to survey the league’s major new purchase of a 10 acre former racecourse in Botany Road at Mascot and spent his spare time organising earthworks and other structural duties at the site.

It is quite likely that Hughes’ professional work included surveying duties in the adjoining model suburb of Rosebery, which at the time and from 1912 was being divided into building blocks.

His unit, the Light Horse, were initially considered unsuitable for the Gallipoli operation, but were soon deployed without their horses to reinforce the infantry. The 1st Light Horse Regiment landed on 12 May 1915 and was attached to the New Zealand and Australian Division. It played a defensive role for most of the campaign but mounted an attack on the Turkish position known as ‘the Chessboard’ as part of the August Offensive on 7 August.  Two hundred men were involved, 147 became casualties. Hughes was part of all this.

Someone realised his ability and in October 1915 he was transferred to the 4th Field Engineers.  Like many, he was in and out of hospital suffering pyrexia, diarrioeha and finally malaria. By 1917 Hughes was in Egypt and given administrative duties.  At one time he was promoted to the unit’s quartermaster. By February he was elevated to commission rank and later began survey duties.

At the very end of the war Hughes was asked to ‘soldier on’ and was given the onerous task of surveying the battle and grave sites at Gallipoli.  He was part of the Graves Registration Unit.  His promotions slowly continued however he was finally discharged as a captain in England in July 1919.

In the same year he went back as part of a British unit where he and his men began the task of locating cemeteries, marking graves and burying the unburied dead.  And that is how his character had a part in the movie.Hughes @ Gallipoli thumbnail

During the Gallipoli campaign at Anzac many battlefield cemeteries were constructed. With war’s end in 1918 and the defeat of Turkey, British units were dispatched to the Gallipoli peninsula where they began the task of locating cemeteries, marking graves and burying the unburied dead. This work was carried out initially by British Graves Registration personnel and in the Anzac sector it was overseen by  Australian Gallipoli veteran, and now Lieutenant Colonel Cyril Hughes following his appointment as Inspector of Works and Supervising Engineer at Gallipoli

The image shows Hughes mapping out a grave at Gallipoli with Sergeant Woolley.  click to enlarge

Under him was a mixed labour force of Turks, Greeks and White Russians, none of whom spoke English. Hughes, in his own words, communicated with them in ˜a mixture of Arabic, Turkish, and Greeks. He found that ˜the fact that I’m an Australian is better still. Hughes was also impressed by their capacity for work and remarked ˜Thank goodness all my fellows can do about fifteen things.

For the building work Hughes developed a Turkish quarry on Gallipoli at Ulgardere. According to one authority, the stone there was of ˜that same class as that of which the Homeric walls of Troy were built. Some of this stone was brought in by lorry but the rest was transported by sea to North Beach where an aerial ropeway was constructed to take it up on to the ridge and down to Lone Pine. As construction work proceeded, the peninsula received its first visitors, although the intention was to keep them firmly away until all work was finished. In April 1920 Hughes wrote of someone who may have been the first Anzac pilgrim:

One old chap managed to get here from Australia looking for his son’s grave; we looked after him and he’s pushed off to Italy now.

For his contribution to the war effort, Hughes was awarded a British Empire Medal in the military division in 1919.  The following year he was awarded a CBE by the King and the British Government for his work with war graves etc.

He never did return to live in Australia.  Hughes married the daughter of a British Government Official in Egypt after WWI and lived there for the majority of his life, working for the War Graves Commission and as Australian Trade Commissioner in Egypt.  He returned for brief visits to Australia in the 1930s.

Hughes died on 2 March 1958.

So if you have seen the movie or intend going, you will see the handsome young man who portrays someone who played a significant part in Sydney football and accordingly will receive appropriate recognition in our forthcoming book.