It’s a tough gig, even just walking the half event of 50kms and though the women were all enthusiastic at 10.45am when we met up with them at the historic WWI Sphinx Memorial for this photo at the 7km mark, only two, Sophia and Rhoda, were able to complete the walk at 2.42am this morning. Two of the team, Katie and Vanessa, had to withdraw at 10.27pm when they reached the checkpoint at Ararat Reserve, at around the 40km mark. Their team name is CAN for Concord Anaesthetic Nurses, Team # 655 and they have raised $3,075 so far but you can still donate until 8 September.
It’s not the first time I have been part of a support crew for the tough Oxfam Trailwalker event. Three times I have been involved with teams who have walked the 100kms event and managed to complete it….but it is a punishing endurance trial. What is so special this time for me is that the walk takes all the entrants, over 700 teams of four, past this wonderful WWI monument.
I didn’t know it existed until I was checking out the route Sophia and her colleagues would be walking. The Sphinx and two small pyramids is a surprising memorial carved out of the local bush sandstone by Private William Thomas Shirley while he was a patient at the nearby Lady Davidson Home for veterans.
Private Shirley joined the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) on 11 January 1916 at the age of 39. Born in the Lake District in the north west of England, he was by trade, a stonemason and builder.
He served as a private with 13th Battalion in the trench warfare on the Western Front in France at Pozieres, in August and September. He would have experienced heavy German shelling and seen many of his comrades killed and injured. On 11 April, 1917 his battalion was involved in the first battle of Bullecourt and just three days later he was evacuated to Rouen suffering debility after being gassed. No doubt the same hospital my grandfather Harold Lilja was taken to in October that same year.
Suffering with pleurisy Pte Shirley was evacuated to London and eventually shipped home to Australia in October 1917 suffering senility and debility. He spent a further time in hospital and was discharged in November with a fortnightly pension of 15 shillings, in today’s currency $1.50. In August 1922 he received the Victory medal, Star medal and British war medal.
Then in 1924 he was one of 85 patients in Lady Davidson Home suffering with tuberculosis. As part of an occupational therapy program, Shirley began enthusiastically carving a sphinx out of a rock in the nearby bushland. Using chisels, hammers and a mallet, Shirley had been working on his replica of the giant Egyptian sphinx at Giza and working just a couple of hours each day, eventually completed the sphinx and pyramids 18 months later.
The 4th Infantry Brigade, of which Shirley's 13th Battalion was a sub-unit, had been based originally in Egypt. Shirley’s sandstone sphinx and pyramids were to serve as a memorial to those soldiers, his 'glorious comrades' of the Australian Imperial Force and all those who did not return from the battle fields. But his memorial also validates the death of those who, like Shirley himself, died or would later die as a result of injuries caused by their war service.
Jim Low writes of Shirley’s story and this remarkable monument on his website Simply Australia and I quote directly from his website in the following paragraphs:
In his book Sacred Places, K.S.Inglis states: "The making of Great War memorials in Australia was a quest for the right way, materially and spiritually, to honour the soldiers."
Shirley successfully accomplished this "quest" without the aid of committees, fundraising or divisive debate. Commenced as a project to help repatriate a broken soldier, it took a new direction as Shirley realized the potential for his sphinx and pyramids to become a memorial.
He worked in a beautiful, bushland setting where consideration of the memorial's prominence or accessibility would not have concerned him. Over the years, the seclusion, serenity and quiet of the memorial's location would provide visitors with a place for contemplation and acknowledgement of the service and sacrifice of the A.I.F. soldiers. Shirley's memorial shines a modest light on the horrific, violent and impersonal nature of warfare and gives us cause for serious reflection. He thus created a special space for generations to come.
You can read more about Private Shirley and the Sphinx at the following websites:
Private Shirley carried out the work on the Sphinx between 1926 and 1928, and died not long after in 1929 leaving an unusual legacy in stone to be contemplated by the many bushwalkers who enjoy the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. You can find the Sphinx Memorial just inside the park at the end of Bobbin Head Road in North Turramurra.
Oxfam Australia works with local communities to help them create their own sustainable solutions to poverty. Together they promote education, ensuring access to clean water, teaching skills to grow food and advocating for basic rights. By supporting Oxfam Trailwalker you can make a significant difference to people living in poverty around the world! Sydney Trailwalker 2017 has raised $2,762,834 so far.