In 2013, Malcolm Quekett began an 18-month research mission for The West Australian to plan the newspaper’s coverage of the Anzac Day centenary. Mark Hooper writes about his journey.
When the editorial bosses at The West Australian decided in 2013 to comprehensively cover the Anzac centenary, they didn’t have to look hard for the journalist to take command of the project.
Malcolm Quekett was the go-to man. A former political roundsman, interstate correspondent, deputy chief of staff and deputy editor, Quekett jumped at the chance to convey in print and online WA’s massive contribution to Australia’s first world war effort, most notably at Gallipoli.
But even Quekett, a veteran of 30 years at the paper, was unprepared for the deluge of material from the public once The West flagged its intentions to commemorate the Anzacs with weekly articles and occasional liftouts and wraparounds, including the centenary of the departure of troops on ships from Albany and, of course, the numbing and haunting Gallipoli offensive in Turkey starting on April 25, 1915.
Q, as he is universally known, was there for each of the commemorations. And fittingly so, not just given his devotion to the Our Anzacs series in The West over the past year. He joined the paper in the 1980s after completing an honours degree in history at the University of WA, and has an abiding interest in Australia’s involvement in wars, not to mention a family history.
His parents, Bill and Nicky, were involved in civil aviation in Europe and Africa, including during war time. Among other tasks, Nicky, now 96, packed parachutes for the air force. But more striking for Q was the discovery of the headstone of a great uncle, John Quekett, in a war cemetery in Ypres, Belgium, last year.
A remarkable cornerstone of the paper’s coverage was a picture taken of the WA 11th Batallion – about 700 of the 1000-strong force – sitting on the Cheops Pyramid near Cairo on January 15, 1915.
The ambition, after an approach from the WA Genealogical Society, was to put a name to every soldier, and a request was made to readers to help with that undertaking. Every Wednesday the paper ran a story about one of those soldiers on the pyramid. And every Tuesday the Our Anzacs series ran, featuring readers’ tales of relatives who went to war.
“We started planning a long way out, about 18 months,” Quekett said. “Brett McCarthy (editor) and Bob Cronin (editor in chief) realised this was going to be important.
“They organised a meeting of various senior staff to discuss how we would commemmorate the centenary of Anzac Day. A lot of ideas were discussed.”
One of those ideas was giving Quekett the task of coordinating much of the editorial content.
“There were four or five key projects involved, and somebody was needed to take carriage of it,” he said.
“We wanted to tell the story of the ordinary West Australians who went to war. I had a hunch that across the State, in old boxes and photo albums and diaries, there were stories and links to blokes who went to war.
“To kick it off we ran excerpts from a diary. We asked readers to tell us more and after a couple of weeks we had been deluged with material, and we have not been able to run it all.”
He said much of the work was done by family members but various facts had to be checked. In this task, Q was helped by The West’s long-time military affairs writer Rod Moran.
“They made my job easier and I’m proud that we could keep these stories alive,” he said. “The articles encouraged lots more people to make contact.
“I relied on Rod Moran’s invaluable knowledge and also his library of books to help put it together.”
The West has produced two of a planned five special posters relating to significant dates, including the start of the war and Gallipoli. It also published magazines and wraparounds about the centenary of the convoy of troop ships that sailed from Albany in November 1914 and the Gallipoli centenary.
“I loved that we wrapped the paper on August 6 2014 with the copy of the August 6 1914 paper, though in the 1914 paper we announced on page seven that war had been declared!” Quekett said.
“It was always the view that the conclusion of the whole exercise was to be there (at Gallipoli) for the centenary, subject to getting approval through the Department of Veterans Affairs, and we had to be quick because of the intense interest and vast number of people and media who wanted to go.
“It was a costly exercise and I’m glad the paper saw the importance of being there.
“I believe our coverage was equal to or better than other media in the country.”
Quekett and another West veteran, photographer Steve Ferrier, flew to Turkey. They filed regularly to thewest.com.au as well as producing articles for The West Australian.
“It was an amazing experience and I felt lucky to be there. There were 8000 Aussies and 2500 New Zealanders,” he said.
“The morning of April 25 at Gallipoli was incredible … as the sun rose, a group of ships led by a Turkish vessel glided silently past Anzac Cove.”
Quekett was also moved by the number of people whose father had landed at Gallipoli and fought there on that first fateful morning exactly 100 years earlier.
After the dawn service, Turkish soldiers lined the 3km walk from Anzac Cove to Lone Pine, where the second service was held on Anzac Day.
“The Turkish people were very welcoming and there was a great generosity of spirit,” Quekett said.
“The Our Anzacs series was a brilliant thing to be involved in. What I enjoyed was the enormous interest and delight when we ran the relatives’ stories.
“The photo of the soldiers on the pyramid generated lots of phone calls from people who recognised a relative. It created links between families and got strangers together which was really rewarding.
“The newspaper’s leadership and following through with it (production of wraps and magazines) have been outstanding.
“It was a really important project. It was a privilege to be involved.”
Moran, who has been at the forefront of The West’s coverage of anniversaries such as Anzac Day and Remembrance Day for two decades, also valued the paper’s commitment to the Our Anzacs series.
“It had a profound human dimension,” he said.
Mark Hooper is a sub-editor at The West Australian and former reporter for The Australian and Melbourne Herald.