Kathleen O’Connor lived through two world wars, and war profoundly affected her life and her career as an artist. There were also close family losses in both wars—two nephews in the Second World War and a brother in the First.
Kate’s younger brother Corporal Roderick O’Connor was killed in action, aged 36, on 15 April 1917. In peacetime a civil engineer, like his father C.Y. O’Connor, he enlisted in March 1915 and served in the 17th Battalion, C Company, in Egypt and Gallipoli and at the Western Front. Three campaign medals—the 1914–15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal—honoured his service.
A private who had served with Corporal O’Connor wrote to the family:
He was liked by all and the best pal I had through this dreadful conflict which has broken so many homes throughout the world, still I feel certain the sacrifice will not have been in vain and peace will shortly be with us combined with complete victory over this beastly tyrant.
The letter left me wondering about the conflicting emotions that might have been felt by families bereaved during what H.G. Wells predicted, erroneously, would be ‘the war to end war’. Grief, of course, but did patriotism provide comfort? Did pride hold despair at bay? Was there bitterness towards the military machine that turned young men into wooden crosses and names on rolls of honour?
Kate was in Paris, far from the rest of her family, when she received the news of the death of her one-time tennis partner, Rod. With no surviving letters from that time, I had to look further for clues to her response to his death, and to the war:
A poem dedicated to Roderick, dated the year of his death, survives among Kate’s papers—less an emotional response to the loss of a beloved brother than a romantic tribute to ‘Australia’s Men’. Kate was no poet, but she worked on the lines, and it’s difficult now to determine which is the final version of her several drafts…
I examine each line of the spidery scrawl, and the words speak to me in spite of their awkwardness, their self-conscious striving for rhyme and meter, their emotional lack. Here they are, the traces of Kate’s experience of the war in its fourth year, as casualties climbed and families mourned and she absorbed the blow of loss. Telling is the poem’s glorification of the Australian soldier’s ‘beauty’ and ‘grace’ and ‘light’, the spirit perceived in the ‘hat’s recline’, at the expense of patriotic notions of bravery and militaristic might and the senseless sacrifice that lies behind the Anzac legend. It is people she wants to honour—individuals, men—not the dehumanising forces that marshal them for war. And the men she exalts are victims, not victors. It is the closest she comes to allowing us a window into her grief at the waste of her brother’s life.
There is no known grave for Corporal Roderick O’Connor, but his name is recorded on the roll of honour at the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial in Picardie, France, as well as on a brass plaque in St George’s Cathedral, Perth, Western Australia.