Why do we tell stories?

Storytelling is another way we remember. The Memorial preserves countless stories of Australian families, which we recall through the objects we collect. Here is one such story.

The Christensens

Ernestine Julianne Schwarz was a young woman from a town called Rendsburg, in Germany. In 1886, Ernestine moved to Australia—to a little town in Queensland called Tiaro. She was only 28 and it was a long way to travel.

The lush, tropical landscape of south-eastern Queensland would have seemed so strange to someone from the cool parts of northern Germany, but for Ernestine, life in Australia quickly became a happy one. Soon after she arrived, she met a man named Poul Christensen. Poul had also come a long way to Australia: from Denmark, not far from where Ernestine was born. One month later, they were married. Poul and Ernestine set up home in their small timber town, where Poul worked as a carpenter.

Very soon Poul and Ernestine had a big family, with two daughters and three sons. The sons, Andrew, Dan, and Victor, finished school and began working around the town. The eldest daughter, Victoria, left home to become a nurse in Brisbane. She worked in the Children’s Hospital for five years.

When the First World War broke out, Victoria was the first in the family to go and help. She was one of more than 3,000 Australian nurses who joined up during the war. These nurses knew they were doing some very important work, but for them it was also a way to be closer to some of their friends or family who had also joined up and were far away. Victoria left Australia in 1915, and worked in hospitals in England and India for the whole war.

Staff Nurse Victoria Christensen (right), with another nurse, are about to leave Australia, July 1915.

A ward at No. 2 Australian Auxiliary Hospital, England, where Victoria served.

The Christensens were a close family, and no-one wanted to be left behind. Very soon all three brothers had joined up too. Andrew was the oldest, and he became a soldier. He was sent to France and Belgium. One day in 1917, however, his leg was badly hurt in the fighting and he had to go to hospital. After getting better, Andrew was allowed to go home. He soon found his leg wasn't the same as before, though, and for the rest of his life it was difficult for him to use it.

The middle brother, Dan, was living in Bundaberg with his wife Margaret. Dan and Margaret had only been married for two months when Dan left to become a soldier with his brother Andrew. Dan and Andrew were in the same group of soldiers, the 15th Battalion, but Dan had a special job: he was a stretcher bearer. Life as a soldier was very hard: the men were often knee-deep in cold, wet mud. Dan became very sick. He was ill for a long time, but eventually went back to the fighting. In a letter to his sister, dated 28 March 1919, Dan described how much he was looking forward to coming home to see his family. Later that year, he finally did.

Members of the 15th Battalion band in Belgium, March 1918. Band members often worked as stretcher bearers.
Dan Christensen is in the front row, third from left. He played the tuba.

Victor was the youngest son. He was only 20 years old when he went to war, just three months after Victoria. First he went to Egypt, and trained as a soldier. By 1916 he was off to France as well.

Sadly, Victor got sick too. In fact he was sent to hospital several times. His mother Ernestine was very worried, and in 1917 she sent a letter asking for news:

A little more than a month ago, I had a telegram from you advising me that my son Corporal Victor Christensen was seriously ill with bronchitis, pneumonia … since then I have heard no news. Please can you tell me anything, or what may be likely to be the reason?

By the middle of 1917, Victor was well enough to go to the front line, at a place called Messines in Belgium. It was a place that had been fought over for a long time, but no-one was getting anywhere.

Charles Wheeler, The Battle of Messines (1923, oil on canvas, 137 x 229cm).

Just before dawn on 7 June 1917, the soldiers detonated 19 enormous bombs under the German defences. The explosion was so big it could be heard in England. It left such a big hole in the German defences that the British, Australian, and New Zealand soldiers could all come rushing through. They were able to capture the area, which was great news for everyone back home. But there was still lots of fighting going on. Only a few weeks later, on 31 July, Victor and his friends were attacking a position nearby when Victor was killed.

News of Victor’s death was reported back in Queensland in the local newspaper.

The news that Private Victor Christensen had been reported killed in action somewhere in France was received at Tiaro with many expressions of regret. Private Christensen was a native of Tiaro and was well known and respected by the residents of the district.

Victor and his sister Victoria had been very close. They too often wrote letters to each other. In June 1917, Victor had said he wanted Victoria to receive his belongings if he didn't come back. And so, after Victor died, a package was sent to her at the hospital she worked at in England. Inside were some photos, a mirror, a scarf, a balaclava, and some mittens. In August, Victoria wrote to a friend and told her how hard it was to accept that her young brother was really gone.

Victor's name is now on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial, in Canberra.

Location on the Roll of Honour

Victor Christensen's name is located at 135 in the Commemorative Area at the Australian War Memorial (as indicated by the poppy on the plan).

Plan of Commemorative area showing which panel the name Victor Christensen's is located

Activities

Ask a family member some questions about their childhood. For example, what games/sports did they play? What was their favourite food?

Do people still play that game today? What's your favourite food?

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A Very Special Day