After 100 years people are still gathering to remember the patriotic spirit of a young Greek-Australian boy who died while throwing gifts to soldiers returning from World War I.
Hector Vasyli was fatally injured on June 9, 1918 when a vehicle carrying returned servicemen over Brisbane’s Victoria Bridge swerved into him to avoid ramming another car in the procession.
He was rushed to a nearby hospital for treatment but died before getting help.
The 11-year-old, a paper boy and dedicated altar boy, was among a crowd of people welcoming sick and injured soldiers en route to a military hospital at Kangaroo Point.
State Library of Queensland senior research librarian Christina Ealing-Godbold said Hector nearly reached saint status following the accident because of his actions before he was hit.
“Hector had a habit of collecting his pocket money and spending it on cigarettes, chocolates and flowers to give to the returning troops,” she said.
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“We might look back and think cigarettes weren’t good for these injured soldiers, and chocolate was probably worse, but in those days it was just a sign of respect and knowing the luxuries they missed out on during the war.”
Ms Ealing-Godbold said Hector’s parents ran the Queensland Oyster Palace in South Brisbane, only a short distance from Victoria Bridge.
Hector’s family home was opposite the Palace Hotel and quite close to the bridge. (State Library of Queensland)
She said he lived on a busy thoroughfare and would have been used to dodging trams, horse-drawn buses and the occasional car.
“He had, on many occasions, stood on the bridge and thrown cigarettes and chocolates at previous returned soldiers’ processions.
“I think it’s probably just a very tragic accident he was at the spot he was at the time.”
Visitors have had better access to the memorial since 2015. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Hailey Renault)
Symbol of patriotism
A century later, members of Brisbane’s Greek community still lay wreaths at a stone tablet commemorating Hector’s short life every Anzac Day.
The memorial, fixed on an abutment at the southern end of the bridge, carries a likeness of the boy’s face cast in metal and an inscription that reads:
“During his brief sojourn on Earth he devoted much of his time to patriotic work for Australian soldiers during the Great European War.
“In his veins ran the heroic blood of Greece, and in the breast of a child he carried the heart of a man.”
People still lay wreaths in front of Hector Vasyli’s memorial every Anzac Day. (ABC News: Luke Royes)
Hellenic RSL sub branch president Vlas Efstathis said the memorial was still a significant focal point of community celebrations.
“For as long as I can remember, for some 30 years, we’ve always been meeting there,” he said.
“It’s a story I like telling because he is a role model, and for a young kid to be doing all these things and have a tragic end … I think we need to remember him.”
Dr Efstathis said past and present members of the Greek community and Queensland’s former Consul of Greece, Alex Freeleagus, worked hard over the decades to preserve Hector’s grave and memorial tablet.
“When the decision was made to pull down the Victoria Bridge in 1969 it could have just disappeared completely,” he said.
“The tablet was taken down and put in storage and for a while nobody knew where it was.
“When it was found the bust part of Hector Vasyli was missing but fortunately there were enough photographs around that a sculptor could go back and do another bust.”
The Victoria Bridge abutment was heritage listed in 1992 and an access bridge to it was built in 2015.
The first metal bust made for Hector’s memorial was lost. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Hailey Renault)
Story reflects sentiment of WWI Brisbane
Ms Ealing-Godbold said Hector’s story showed how ready Brisbane was to rally around men returning from the war in 1918.
“We know how many [soldiers] we lost and the ones that returned were often in very poor repair,” she said.
“It really shows us the extent of fervour and goodwill and feeling in mid 1918 for the fellows returning from the worst possible engagements on the Western Front.”
Historical accounts also show evidence of a close relationship between people of different backgrounds and faiths in Brisbane at the time.
Ms Ealing-Godbold said the Anglican and Greek Orthodox churches operated out of the same space until 1929.
“This lovely story shows the feeling and cross-cultural interrelationships between the Anglican Church and the Greek Orthodox community in Brisbane at that time and the Anzac movement.”