Australians on the Western Front: Voices from across the miles

IN TOUCH: 5th Australian Machine Gun company Sergeant Peter O’Connell reads a letter from home at Vendelles on September 17, 1918. Sergeant Arthur James Stewart (l) died of influenza six weeks later. Picture: AWM E03266
IN TOUCH: 5th Australian Machine Gun company Sergeant Peter O’Connell reads a letter from home at Vendelles on September 17, 1918. Sergeant Arthur James Stewart (l) died of influenza six weeks later. Picture: AWM E03266

Private Harry Whiting is one of many thousands of Australian soldiers whose letters and diaries, hand-written a century ago on the Western Front, survive in the digital age.

A letter from Harry, a teacher born in Adelong, NSW into a family of 18 children, gives an insight from a soldier who stayed in France while others sailed home.

Harry and his younger brothers Merv and Stan volunteered to join the Australian Graves Detachment, a 1100-man unit drawn from all Australian Imperial Force battalions, tasked with locating, exhuming, identifying and reburying Australian war dead.

In a letter dated 17 April 1919, Harry tells friend Hilda Prowse he is working at Adelaide Cemetery outside Villers-Bretonneux.

“We started on Monday last and I can assure you it is a very unpleasant undertaking. Nearly all the men we have raised up to date have been killed 12 months and they are far from being decayed properly.

“I have felt sick dozens of times but we carry on, knowing that we are identifying Australian boys who have never been identified … we will feel that we have completed our duty when this important job is finished.”

Harry said he had seen the graves of his brother Walter and cousin Henry, both killed in the Battle of Amiens in 1918, and was “thankful (they) will not have to be raised again.”

Letters from the Western Front took about six weeks to reach Australia.

They left in sacks by motor van and railway truck to Boulogne, crossed the English Channel to London and left the Liverpool docks by steamer via the Suez Canal.

During the war, the Australian Base Post Office in London had more than 700 employees, mostly women, sorting and despatching millions of letters, parcels and newspapers.

A 1918 army film said each load of mail from Australia contained about 500,000 letters, of which 57 per cent had to be redirected as soldiers changed locations or became casualties.

Mail was precious, its arrival bringing ‘more excitement than payday’ for soldiers separated from family for years.

Australian War Memorial (AWM) historian Dr Aaron Pegram says regular letters from home were vital for morale.

“For soldiers fighting in an extremely desolate, violent, tumultuous existence on the Western Front, letter-writing was important because it gave them an opportunity to stay connected to a sense of normality on the home front.”

The soldiers’ heartfelt letters, scrawled in muddy dugouts or when behind the lines, gave reassurance to anxious loved ones.

Officers censored the letters to remove any detail that could be helpful to German intelligence if intercepted.

Consequently, Dr Pegram says, the soldiers’ letters “say a lot but they also say very little. But what is constant is the longing for home and the longing for contact between those at home and those at the front.”

Historian Bill Gammage’s classic book The Broken Years, first published in 1974, was a landmark study of letters and diaries of 1000 front-line Australian soldiers.

Among its most poignant are two letters from South Australian soldiers who died in August 1916 shortly after writing home.

Lieutenant Bert Crowle told his wife Beatrice and son Bill: “It is no use trying to hide things.  I am in terrible agony. Had I been brought in at once I had a hope. But now gas gangrene has set in.

“I got two machine gun bullets in the thigh ... I could write on a lot but I am nearly unconscious.”

Sergeant David Badger, 20, told his parents in Peterborough: “When you see this I’ll be dead; don’t worry … try to think I did the only possible thing, as I tell you I would do it again if I had the chance. Send someone else in my place.”

Among the AWM’s digitised collection are 45 letters from Rockhampton bank clerk Corporal Denver Gallwey telling his family about fighting at Bullecourt and Messines in 1917 and the shell shock and trench fever that led to his evacuation to England.

Mail was precious, its arrival bringing ‘more excitement than payday’...

Of Messines, he wrote: “Even as I start to explain this battle now I am like a madman. All my nerves are taut and my blood is surging through my veins. I feel inclined to run and kill everything I see. You have no idea how it all comes back to me.”

Letters were important to all who fought in the First World War as highlighted by the experience of Captain Percy Cherry VC, a Tasmanian orchardist killed at Lagnicourt in 1917.

At Pozières in 1916, Cherry and a German officer fired at each other from shell holes. Both were wounded.

Cherry approached the dying German who asked him to post a bundle of letters. The Australian agreed and the German then died.

  • The Road to Remembrance is published by Fairfax Media in partnership with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.