September 10, 2023

War widows and legatees gather where it all began

By Tony Wright
September 10, 2023 — 10.25pm
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“I don’t know what would have come of me if it wasn’t for Legacy.”

The words are those of war widow Maureen Matthews, but it was a refrain you could hear repeatedly in the South Gippsland town of Korumburra on Sunday.

War widow Maureen Matthews watches members of the Great War Association marching to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Legacy in Korumburra, childhood town of Legacy’s founder, Lt-General Sir Stanley Savige.

About 30 war widows and a small battalion of those generous men and women known as legatees gathered in the town to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Legacy.

The setting was special: Korumburra is the town where the founder of the organisation, Stan Savige, spent his childhood.

History remembers Savige as Lieutenant-General Sir Stanley Savige, much decorated hero of World War I who returned to uniform for more soldiering in World War II.

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But he was simply a pupil at Korumburra Primary in the early years of the 20th century. He left the little school, aged 12, to become a blacksmith’s apprentice, a back-breaking job known as a blacksmith’s striker.

His father was a butcher and there were eight children in the family.

Savige in adulthood turned out to be a natural leader who rose from lance corporal in Gallipoli to captain on the Western Front and eventually lieutenant-general in Bougainville in World War II.

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It is no stretch to imagine, however, that Savige took with him those childhood memories of his family doing it tough, with no social welfare to help out.

And so, when he returned to Australia from the carnage of World War I, leaving 60,000 fellow Australians in graves or without a grave at all, and countless thousands others ruined for life, Savige’s thoughts turned to the widows and children, many of them condemned to poverty, left with no one to look out for them.

War widows Dianne Holyrood, 91, Avis Tilley, 98, and Maureen Matthews, 85, commemorate the centenary of Legacy at Korumburra, south Gippsland, on Sunday.

Savige was persuaded by a wartime colleague, Brigadier-General John Gellibrand, to establish in Melbourne a club to help veterans find their way after the war – a club emulating one established by Gellibrand in Hobart.

In 1923, Savige set up Legacy Australia, which soon turned its attention to assisting the widows and children of servicemen.

Veterans flocked to become legatees – those willing to helping out families in the cause of keeping a flame burning for those who were lost.

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Tens of thousands of families were taken into the quiet care of legatees, and 100 years later, they still are. Legatees are rarely named or widely celebrated. Their mantra is service before self without acknowledgment.

Unsurprisingly, when legacy widows and their legatees – many of them women these days, and many who have not served in the military, but have pledged to keep the torch burning anyway – gathered in Korumburra on Sunday, emotions ran deep.

Candles were lit, a piper played a lament and members of the Great War Association wore the uniforms of World War I soldiers. Memories were shared everywhere.

Maureen Matthews remembered losing her husband Robert, a Vietnam veteran, in 1984. He was 48, suffering illness traced to his time in Vietnam, said Maureen, now aged 85.

“I became very isolated,” Matthews said. “I was looking after my mother at San Remo, I had two children and I was working.

“And then one day a legatee came and said ‘are you getting any help?’ He found I should have been getting a war widows’ pension, and arranged it for me, which made a tremendous difference to my life.

“He asked about my social life, and arranged to get me out of the house and to go to meetings with other war widows. I made many good friends.

“It changed my life. I don’t know what would have become of me without Legacy. It feels as if someone is always there, looking out for you.”

Avis Tilley, 98, a Korumburra widow of World War II veteran Robert Tilley, agrees with every word.

Her legatee is Vietnam War veteran Peri Neil, and she calls him “the finest man going around”.

“He is always there – he’s like a good son to me,” she says.

Dianne Holtrop, of Phillip Island, whose husband served in the Dutch Marines in Indonesia, has no family in Australia.

“My legatee has become my family,” she says. “When I needed to go to hospital, a legatee took me and brought me home. They are always there. They are fantastic.”

All three women will carry the Legacy Centenary Torch on a short stretch of its long journey across the world when it reaches the Gippsland city of Sale on September 28.

“I will be so very honoured,” says Avis Tilley.

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Tony Wright is the associate editor and special writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.Connect via Twitter, Facebook or email.
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