PODCAST: Standing in Jack’s footprints

Heather Rohde never met her grandfather. John Edwin Ball, known to those who knew him in Bendigo as Jack, died in the mid-1940s, a few years before she was born.

But as a soldier in the First World War, Jack left behind his war diaries, which he passed down to his son-in-law Clement, Heather’s father.

And it was through those diaries, after they were again passed from father-in-law to son-in-law, this time from Clement to Heather’s husband Michael, that she really got to know her grandfather.

More podcasts: 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, as a veteran himself, it was Michael who devoted the most time to the diaries, spending hours painstakingly transcribing them, and it was through him that Heather picked up most of what she came to learn about Jack.

“With mum being in care also I've spent a lot of time there over the last five years and Michael's been able to devote time to this whereas I just have not, sort of, devoted the time that – certainly nothing compared with what he's done. He'll call me up to the room occasionally or bring something down to me and say 'Can you figure out what this word is?',” she says.

“I must say that I haven't been doing, putting in the time like Mike has been, it's just been relentless really what he's been doing.”

And Michael of course never knew Jack either, but after spending so much time in the trenches with him, via his diaries, he says he now feels as though he does know him.

“Just reading through his diaries, he was a very quiet unassuming man, a very sober man, I don't think he drank, he never mentions that he drank, he mentions a lot of the guys getting 'inky' and a few other things when they go out and get a bit excited but he never mentions that he went with them,” he says.

“He goes to church every Sunday and said it was a good stamp of a man that he met because he said his prayers every night before he went to bed, so I think he was a very church-going, devout man, he was a very sober man in his habits.”

Through his research, Michael has pinpointed the exact locations on the battlefields where Jack fought, and tomorrow the couple will return to the Western Front to join the Australian commemoration of the Battle of Passchendaele.

But perhaps the most poignant moment will come when they join the New Zealand service on October 12, to stand in Jack’s footprints exactly 100 years later.

“I'd just like to stand at the stepping off point at 5.25am on the 12th and just know that that's where Jack stepped off from,” Michael says.

Download the podcast to hear Michael and Heather’s story in their own words, along with extracts from Jack’s diary.