Place of vines a respite from war

Haidee VandenbergheCountryman

Henry David Mountjoy was just 24 when he left his young wife and beloved Swan River for the mud and horror of the Western Front.

His enlistment card described him as a vinegrower from Westleigh Vineyard, Guildford, and born on the Swan River.

Henry had learnt the tricks of the trade tending the vines with his father at Houghton Winery.

The duo had plans to grow their own grapes and worked to clear another property in the Swan Valley.

But war was to intervene and following the footsteps of two brothers and two uncles, Henry left Fremantle just two days before Christmas, 1916.

The youngest, John, just 20 years old was the first to depart and was killed at Lone Pine on June 28, 1915 — just one day before his brother Richard and uncle Charles left Fremantle to join the war effort.

The remaining Mountjoys were to spend the war in the trenches and mud of France and Belgium, where Henry was runner.

Riding his motorbike along the duckboards, the young man from the Swan spent the war within shouting distance of the battlefields of some of Australia’s worst military losses.

With his two brothers and uncles, Henry returned to WA, albeit suffering from mustard gas exposure, but his grandson Karl Sturtridge said the war turned their beliefs upside down.

“When they went they were Church of England and when they came back all four were atheists,” Karl said.

“They didn’t really believe that there could be a God with what they went through.

“(Henry) said the horses used to get to him more than anything else, seeing the horses being wounded and killed, and screaming for days.

“A lot of Australians got killed trying to put them out of their misery.”

There was little relief from the relentless suffering of war, aside from designated rest areas, where soldiers would retire for a few days before returning to front lines.

Sitting behind the front line of the Somme, Vignacourt — or ‘place of the vines’— in northern France was one such rest area.

And when Henry was finally able to return to his beloved vineyard in WA, he renamed it Vignacourt in honour of his time at war.

As a child, Henry’s daughter Olga would listen in on her father’s talk of war and loss with his returned soldier mates and today, aged 90, still vividly remembers those snatched moments of eavesdropping.

“I heard everything, about people being blown to pieces and things like that,” she said.

“They had no time for the British officers because they would send their men over the top even if they were going to get mowed down.

“But he and my and uncles loved Belgium and France.

“The people were wonderful to them.”

Olga was born at Vignacourt vineyard, where Henry was one of the first WA growers to pack table grapes in sawdust, sending them to London by ship.

By any means he lived a remarkable life, organising what is believed to be the first strike action in WA, starting up union movements for workers’ rights and finally instigating a WA branch of the Communist Party.

His life always centred on agriculture, particularly horticulture, and he lived one of the last chapters of his life on an orchard he established in Morley.

It was there that his grandson Karl got to know the “nice, polite bloke who believed everyone was equal.”

For Olga, war has punctuated her life, serving as a background for almost all of her youth.

The Mountjoys arrived in WA in the mid-18th century and just 50 years later, Henry’s father’s generation had signed up for the Boer War.

Henry, his brothers and uncles followed in their footsteps.

Olga’s generation grew up in the shadow of the Great War and a country coming to terms with its first military action as a nation, only to watch their husbands sign up for World War II and their children conscripted to Vietnam.

When World War II came, a new bride Olga waved goodbye to her childhood sweetheart Percy Sturtridge.

When Percy left for the war, Olga first went ‘landgirling’ to look after sheep before returning to Midland where she worked in the munitions factory.

“I couldn’t make enough bullets and enough bombs, ” she said.

“If you were young and just got married what would you think?

“It was dreadful. I got ulcers. I couldn’t sleep but everyone was more or less in the same boat.”

After years of suffering as a prisoner of war working on the Burma railway, Percy returned but for Olga, Anzac Day remains the greatest day of the year.

“It should always be remembered, people made such sacrifices, ” she said. “That’s what I’ve got against war, it kills people too early.”

Today the Vignacourt vineyard is known as Jane Brook Winery, in Middle Swan.

Beverley and David Atkinson run Jane Brook and in the 1990s made a Mountjoy vintage to recognise Henry and his family’s connection to the vineyard.

Pictured is Henry Mountjoy's grandson, Karl Sturtridge, with a bottle of Cabernet Merlot named in Henry’s honour.

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