A young man goes to war
Eliot Gratton Wilson was working on a cattle station when the first world war began. He was 21, and, you can imagine, full of adventure, as only seven weeks later he signed up, enlisted in the Army and joined the 8th Australian Light Horse Regiment.
On the 25 February 1915 he boarded the Star Of Victoria and sailed to Egypt, and soon after his Regiment was sent to Gallipoli, where he led one of the first waves of attack in the infamous, and deadly, Battle of the Nek.
War correspondent and official Australian historian, Charles Bean, described the fact that anyone reached the enemy trenches in that initial assault, was a miracle. Yet two soldiers did exactly that, and one of them was Eliot.
‘On the other flank, near the seaward cliff, Lieutenant Wilson of the 8th [Light Horse Regiment] also reached the enemy’s trench and was seen sitting with his back to the parapet, beckoning to others to come to him. Shortly afterwards he was killed by a bomb from the Turkish line.’
Lieutenant Wilson died on the 7th August 1915, twelve days short of his 23rd birthday, in a battle that came to be known as ‘one of the bravest actions in the history of the war’. He died along with nine other officers in that charge, and by the time it was over, 154 of the 300 men in his Regiment were dead too. Gone too soon, every single one of them.
A father follows him
John Gratton Wilson was a doctor, politician, farmer, husband and a father, and he was 50 years old when he heard of his son’s death. And, while you never know what goes through a person’s mind when tragedy strikes, perhaps, the fact that he enlisted himself a couple of years later, even at that age, provides some indication of his mindset.
Doctor Wilson served, and survived two years of active duty in the war, and then returned home to build a humble beach house to honour his son. He went on to live a long and full life, passing on at the age of 85, and he’s buried in the Moonlight Heads Cemetery that you’ll also pass, on the Great Ocean Walk.
Now there’s no way you could know any of that, of course, and neither would we if it wasn’t for Georgie Beale, who spent her childhood running around Milanesia Beach, whose great grandfather built that little house, and who we’re very thankful to, for sharing her stories with us.
Growing up on the beach
Her family has lived there for six generations now. They’ve witnessed the changes through time, and often been active participants in the events that have shaped the landscape.
Growing up in a place like that, it seems, sends you in a certain direction in life. Georgie has spent most of her time in conservation and coastal management. She created education programs, bringing school groups down to the coast, showing them what there is to protect in this wild and rugged place.
And now she’s a guide for Auswalk. Taking people along the Great Ocean Walk, sharing the knowledge gained over a lifetime on the coast, and little bits of family history too.
“I feel like this is an accumulation of everything I’ve done, it’s just perfect and I love it.”
“The natural beauty of the place, and the ocean has a strong draw for me. Growing up we quickly learned to both read, and respect the ocean, as it could be very calm and soothing one minute, then wild and dangerous the next.”
The shipwreck coast
Of course, it’s been a wild and dangerous ocean since long before Georgie came along. When sailing to Australia from the ‘old world’, you’d head south along the coast of Africa to begin with, perhaps re-provision in Cape Town, and then prepare yourself for a wild ride as you drop into the roaring 40s, and fly east towards Australia.
When you finally popped out of this highway of the sea, if you were heading toward the east coast you’d be faced with a choice. Go north of King Island, or keep it to your port side and approach the continent further along.
Heading north became known as threading the needle, and it’s a decision that sent 638 ships to the bottom of the sea, that we know of anyway. Indeed Matthew Flinders, who’d seen a fair few things in his day, said he had ‘seldom seen a more fearful section of coastline.’
The Great Ocean Walk takes you along this particularly brutal stretch of water, and there are reminders of the shipwrecks all along, from place names and cemeteries, to actual anchors sticking out of the rock.
Once again there are stories behind it all, and you’ll discover many of them on your way as you walk the 104kms from Apollo Bay on the East, to Port Campbell on the West.
And, surprise surprise, Georgie’s family were involved too…