David preserves the stories behind the names

AS a horse-mad 12-year-old, David McGinness listened riveted to his grandmother’s tales across the kitchen table about his great-grandfather’s wartime exploits as a mounted soldier.

“The story was that he was in the Light Horse in the First World War and he had a horse blown away from under him,” David recalled.

It would be some time before he acquired the research skills to distil the facts from the family folklore of John Ambrose McGinness’ military service, but the story was enough to light the fuse of a slow-burning passion for local military history.

Now, that self-confessed obsession is on a certain collision course with the approaching centenary of Australia’s World War I involvement.

Officially, David will be involved in his various roles including vice-president affiliate and memorabilia officer of the Warrnambool RSL sub-branch, founding member of the Corangamite Light Horse re-enactment troop and Flagstaff Hill Garrison Gun Crew volunteer. 

Unofficially, as the keeper of stories of the south-west’s service men and women, he feels duty-bound to record and preserve for future generations their feats of heroism, sacrifice, tragedy and triumph.

He has embarked on a personal project to produce five books over the five years of the First World War centenary.

Beginning with the account of the district’s Gallipoli soldiers, aimed for release in time for this year’s August 4 anniversary of the British/Australian declaration of war, the books — one for each year of the war — will chart the local involvement from Turkey to the Western Front and, for the fortunate ones, back home again.

For David, 42, it’s a quest that has taken on a life of its own.

“I can’t stop. I feel obliged in a way to make sure we preserve as much of our military history as possible, and that’s what drives me,” he explained. 

“It’s a challenge, but it’s another way of honouring these men. I keep thinking there’s possibly 60,000 World War I soldiers looking over my shoulder urging me to ‘keep going son’.”

While he concedes there will be a likely avalanche of Gallipoli publications in the coming year, his will focus specifically on local involvement.

David, whose Warrnambool day job is driving buses, is also preparing for his first role in April as driver and assistant battlefields tour guide to Shrine of Remembrance education officer Tim Whitford. 

The 17-day tour will take 14 Victorians on a Western Front pilgrimage through Belgium and France. 

Then there are a couple of television productions in the mix. 

He and his fellow volunteers in the Flagstaff Hill Garrison gun crew will fire the 80-pound cannon later this month for an episode of the ABC Open program, My Crazy Passion. It is due to screen in May or June.

“I don’t know who dobbed me in for that, but I’ll find out,” he said.

A crew is also due this month to film a documentary for the History Channel next year on the Framlingham McGinnesses — among them World War I hero and Qantas co-founder Paul McGinness, a cousin of David’s great-grandfather John Ambrose.

As it turns out, unlike Paul, who was a decorated Light Horseman before joining the Flying Corps, John Ambrose did not serve in the Light Horse, but with the field artillery on the Somme with his brothers Richard and Leslie. 

There, it seems, he was forced to put his horse down after it took an artillery hit.

Regardless, it was the image of the fearless Light Horse soldier and his faithful steed that first inspired David to form a local Light Horse re-enactment group which, 20 years on, has evolved into the present-day Corangamite Light Horse Troop.

A regular sight at local Anzac and Remembrance Day commemorations, the troop has also taken the salute at Melbourne’s Anzac Day parade and from former prime minister John Howard in Canberra at the Boer War and Australian Army centenary parades.

Re-enacting was one thing, but for David, walking the ground on a battlefields tour for the first time in 2005 at Gallipoli where his ancestors and their mates fought and died was something far more profound.

Again and again he was drawn back to the site, and then on to the Western Front battlegrounds of Belgium and France. Together with his wife Tracy, they began photographing the headstones of the final resting places of south-west soldiers who didn’t make it home. 

Those images will be included in the centenary publications.

David also initiated an email program between Warrnambool College students and their French counterparts at Villers-Bretonneux, the town which continues to honour the Australian soldiers who liberated it from the Germans nearly a century ago. Two subsequent trips by the college to the French village, David said, have helped to further strengthen the bonds and understanding between the countries.

His venture next month into tour-guiding brings an opportunity to take his interest to the next level and one he is optimistic could become an annual event for at least the duration of the centenary.

“It’s taking my passion from research in an office and giving talks to people, to actually taking them and walking the ground of the battles. It’s the evolution of the journey,” he said.

“It changes your perspective — it enlightens you more, it saddens you more, but it makes you think, they did this for us.”

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