Ernest ‘Ern’ Morton (Service Number 439)
In this piece an archival recording, taken from interviews with historian Alistair Thomson (in 1985 and 1987), when he was around 90 years of age, Ern tells of how an encounter with a young English speaking German soldier changed his perspective on the war. Ern also speaks of the conviction that grew within him that war was a cruel unnecessary waste of life which could be avoided if people committed to working out their conflicts in other ways. The full recording of their interview is available on the Australian War Memorial website.
Ern Morton – Introduction Spoken by Jonathan Pilbrow
“But one of the most momentous experiences I had in the war, I think, in the whole of the war, was when we were going a hop over one day and there was a German officer. Only a young chap, be in his late teens, I s’pose, and he’d been mortally wounded, I had a pistol, and ah, he prayed to me to kill him. Put him out of his misery. He spoke English better than ever I’ll speak it in my life, probably educated in an English university.
We’ve been taught all these years about these heathens we’re fighting, and they’ve got to be exterminated at all costs, and here’s a man that can speak English and asking me to put him out of his misery. I turned against war. I was probably gradually drifting that way, but that was the end. From that time on, late in ’18 I think, I never did anything in the war that … all I did was kept out of it. I wouldn’t fire a machine gun, wouldn’t shoot at anybody. I thought to myself, ‘I’m not going to have anything at all to do with this.’
…we had a 24-Hour armistice, on Gallipoli from midnight to midnight, not a shot was fired and we went out on no man’s land. The Turks came out and we went out to bury the dead…They couldn’t stand the conditions, see all these corpses lying out in no man’s land. We went out and I was one that assisted. We exchanged cigarettes and spoke as much as we could to the enemy and I appealed on a broadcast I made on 3CB “If during a war we can have an armistice like that to bury the dead, why can’t the people now call an armistice of 24 hours peace, meet on no man’s land and decide to settle the war with no more fighting. If it can be done in an actual war why can’t it be done in peace time, and I still think it can too.”
“I think it was four years of wasted life. I just got to the stage where I should have been doing some study, some education, but that was all lost. For four years all I was taught was hate, hatred. Kill anybody at all if they’re opposed to you, wasted life, four years of wasted life. “
Ernest ‘Ern’ Morton (C. 1896) grew up at Dookie Agricultural College and was a farm worker when he joined the 6th Light Horse Brigade at the outbreak of war, out of a sense of patriotism and duty. Ern embarked in December 1914, and subsequently served at Gallipoli where, as a 19 year old, he experienced constant shell-fire, rifle fire and machine gun fire continuously for three and a half months. Early in his time at Gallipoli an egg bomb landed on a fellow soldier, right beside Ern, which blew the soldier’s head off.
Ern was later transferred to the machine gun company of the 2nd Battalion and fought on the Western Front until he was wounded in 1918. From his position on the Western Front he organised other servicemen to vote against conscription when it was being brought to a plebiscite in Australia in 1917.
As was common among returned soldiers, for years after the war Ern suffered from terrible nightmares. Finding work was not easy on return, with Ern having to survive on casual work out bush when he first got back, and after a number of dead end jobs, he got a job as a meter reader with Coburg Council, and later trained to become a town clerk in a number of Victorian towns.
Ern attended the first few Anzac Day marches in order to catch up with his mates who served with him and to remember the good times. He stopped going, however, due to his realisation the political use of the day conflicted with his own view of the war, and there was a significant gap between the public legend of Anzac and his own experience of the war.
For a time Ern was the Labor representative for the seat of Ripon in the Victorian Parliament. After he retired, Ern initiated pacifist group in Maryborough which was involved in active campaigning. The local RSL did not approve of Ern’s pacifist politics and would not allow him to speak at Anzac Day. Ern did however manage to find a national audience in an Anzac Day special for the ABC Radio’s Social History Unit.
Ern managed relatively good health in his latter years, still driving at the age of 90, and his 90th birthday was attended by notable state Labor and local politicians. Ern died in September 1991. He was 95 years old
(Source: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C88167 Copyright: AWM Licensed Copyright. Accession Number S01322)
Photos provided courtesy of the Morton family
Armistice Centenary – World War 1 Stories is a partnership between the Alice Springs Peace Action Think Tank and 8CCC Community Radio. This project was made possible through the support of the Alice Springs Town Council Community Assistance Grants, The Australian Government Armistice Centenary Grants Program and Produced with the assistance of the Community Broadcasting Foundation. Find out more at www.cbf.org.au