After the war

08 February 2019 by Claire Hunter

Artist Frances Vida Lahey with two of her brothers, Noel and Romeo, during the war.

Artist Frances Vida Lahey with two of her brothers, Noel and Romeo, during the war.

When the Lahey brothers went away to war, their 32-year-old sister Vida was determined to join them.

The eldest of 12 children, Frances Vida Lahey, was working as an artist at her studio in Brisbane when the First World War broke out. 

She had studied at the National Gallery School in Melbourne under prominent painters such as Frederick McCubbin and had exhibited her work to great acclaim in 1912, but the outbreak of war in 1914 changed everything.

Her youngest brother Jack enlisted for active service in the wake of the Gallipoli landings and arrived on the Gallipoli peninsula in October 1915. He soon became dangerously ill with enteric fever, and was evacuated to Egypt and sent back to Australia. Not to be deterred, he returned to active service before he was fully recovered and rejoined his battalion on the Western Front.

When two of Vida’s other brothers – Noel and Romeo – also volunteered, Vida abandoned her artistic pursuits and moved to London to provide a home base for her brothers and cousins who were serving in the Australian Imperial Force.

Soon after arriving she volunteered for the war effort, tracing aeroplane parts, working at the Anzac buffet, taking servicemen on convalescent leave on outings, and helping with the Red Cross Society.

When the guns finally fell silent on 11 November 1918, Vida watched on as joyous celebrations broke out on the streets of London and euphoric crowds gathered in Trafalgar Square, but her own joy was tempered by the knowledge that one of her brothers would never come home.

Noel had requested a transfer to the 11th Field Company Australian Engineers to be with their brother Romeo during the war, and was wounded in action at Ploegsteert Wood, Messines, in June 1917.

He was admitted to the 9th Australian Field Ambulance suffering from multiple gun-shot wounds. His brother Romeo visited him, but he died the next day. He was just 25 years old, and was buried at Pont D’Achelles Military Cemetery, near Armentieres.

Several months later, tragedy struck again. Vida’s youngest brother Jack was shot in the arm, and evacuated to England. He was invalided home to Australia, but Vida and Romeo remained in Europe and continued to serve for the rest of the war.

A studio portrait of Vida Lahey's brother Jack.

A studio portrait of Vida Lahey's brother Jack.

Romeo fought at Zonnebeke, Passchendaele, Villers-Bretonneux, and in the final advance to the heavily-fortified Hindenburg Line. He returned to Australia in May 1919, but Vida stayed on in Europe, travelling to the Netherlands and France, and rekindling her passion for art.

She returned to Australia in 1920 and became a respected artist, but the conflicting scenes she witnessed at the end of the war never left her. Years later, she created the moving painting, Rejoicing and remembrance, Armistice Day, London, 1918.

The work, which features groups of women mourning and rejoicing at St Martin's in the Field in Trafalgar Square, is now on display at the Australia War Memorial as part of the exhibition, After the war.

Developed as part of the Memorial’s commemorations of the Armistice that ended the First World War, the exhibition looks at the aftermath of war over the past 100 years.

Covering conflicts from 1914 to the present day, it tells the personal stories of hope, love and loss of ordinary Australians whose lives have been touched by war.

For assistant curator Dr Kerry Neale, the exhibition is particularly special.

“I’ve worked at the Memorial for 15 years now and this is the exhibition that I have always wanted to see here,” she said.  “The consequences of war are immense, but what I think the Memorial does really well is tell the human side of conflict and the personal stories of those who served and the loved ones they left behind.”

Vida Lahey's Rejoicing and remembrance, Armistice Day, London, 1918.

Vida Lahey's Rejoicing and remembrance, Armistice Day, London, 1918.

She said the end of the First World War brought a mixture of relief and heartbreaking loss, and for many these feelings would remain for decades after the guns fell silent.

“The mass celebrations of war’s end, the tender moments of families reunited, and the struggle with grief and mourning are experiences that have always marked the end of warfare,” she said.

“For a lot of people the war is one part of their life. It may be a significant part of their life, but there is still so much more that comes after that is coloured and influenced by their experience.

“Even if that person doesn’t survive their war experience, it is their families that carry that burden and their story.

“It’s all about those ripple effects that go through the immediate family and down through the generations … and I feel that it is really important to acknowledge as well; what the consequences are for the individuals, for their families, and for their communities.”

Covering conflicts from the First World War to Iraq and Afghanistan, the exhibition features a range of objects, artworks, letters and documents, predominately drawn from the Memorial’s own collection. Many are recent acquisitions or objects that have never been on display before.

“For everyone involved, this exhibition has been a labour of love,” Dr Neale said.  “Everyone has had those stories that have really hit us close to the heart … and Vida Lahey’s story really highlights the duality of emotion that people felt at the end of the war…

“You can really see her as someone who is conflicted in celebrating a victory while at the same time mourning the loss of a loved one and she encapsulates that in this artwork, Rejoicing and remembering, when you see the mourners going into the chapel at St Martins in the Fields as well seeing the revellers and those celebrating just outside in the street. You really get that sense of the conflicting emotion.

“Australia has been very fortunate – we have been on the side of victory – but it always comes at a very high price and Vida experienced that through the loss of one brother and the return of the other two…  

“For Vida, it was victory at a cost, and that is what this exhibition is really all about – the cost of conflict.”

After the war runs until October 2019. For more information about the exhibition, visit here.