Sol­diers’ let­ters bring the truth of war home in a way of­fi­cial ac­counts can’t


The Aus­tralian War Memo­rial is home to mil­lions of pages of doc­u­ments. For­mal war records, hastily scrawled bat­tle­field mes­sages and, per­haps most in­ter­est­ing of all, per­sonal diaries and let­ters.

No other source can give you a bet­ter in­sight into a per­son’s thoughts, feel­ings and ex­pe­ri­ences than their own words.

Through­out the war, Lieu­tenant Syd­ney Stock­ham wrote long, af­fec­tion­ate let­ters to his mother and fa­ther. He de­scribed writ­ing next to a cricket oval while his mates played, the blue sky stretch­ing over­head. He de­scribed bat­tle and wish­ing to be home while his mother darned socks and his fa­ther played pa­tience in the cor­ner by the fire. He wrote home of an English girl, Fanny, who was clearly be­com­ing more and more spe­cial in his eyes.

Let­ters and diaries are a unique way of un­der­stand­ing the sol­dier’s ex­pe­ri­ence of World War I. Alec Raws begged his fa­ther to un­der­stand his rea­sons for en­list­ing: “I must ask you not to worry, but rather to be proud that I your son am pre­pared to aban­don all my com­forts, all my life, all of ev­ery­thing, to fight for prin­ci­ples which I hold mean ev­ery­thing to the mod­ern world.”

Months later Raws him­self would be left in no doubt what fight­ing for those prin­ci­ples would cost him. Ar­riv­ing at Pozieres the day af­ter his brother was killed, he wrote from the front­line, “we are lousy, stink­ing, ragged, un­shaven, sleep­less … I have one put­tee, a dead man’s hel­met, an­other dead man’s gas pro­tec­tor and a dead man’s bay­o­net. My tu­nic is rot­ten with other men’s blood and partly splat­tered with a com­rade’s brains. It is hor­ri­ble, but why should you peo­ple at home not know?”

There was no aver­age Aus­tralian sol­dier. They were in­di­vid­u­als; some funny, some coura­geous, all of them at dif­fer­ent times prag­matic, afraid, bored, home­sick and as­ton­ish­ingly hon­est. They wor­ried about fam­ily and formed close friend­ships. Stock­ham’s let­ters re­veal a per­sonal grief. His brother Will was killed in ac­tion near Bul­le­court in May 1917, and Syd wrote to his par­ents that he was “fairly stag­gered” by the news of his brother’s death. “It took all the heart out of me,” he said. Syd made a point of search­ing out Will’s grave on be­half of his fam­ily, and wrote with grat­i­tude of his mates’ sup­port as he grieved.

Mail was cher­ished on both sides. Fam­i­lies of­ten pub­lished let­ters from a sol­dier son in the lo­cal news­pa­per, to share their sto­ries with as many friends and fam­ily as they could reach. Sol­diers car­ried pre­cious bun­dles of cor­re­spon­dence with them and read and reread them.

In many cases, their writ­ing re­veals car­ing and en­gaged global cit­i­zens, on one page con­cerned with Aunt Sylvia’s health and on the next dis­cussing the po­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions of Rus­sia’s with­drawal from the war. Oth­ers were more con­cerned with their im- me­di­ate prob­lems, such as the young ar­tillery­man who one day, af­ter months of wran­gling pack an­i­mals, could only write: “Mules. Dam them.”

Re­mark­able mo­ments re­main frozen in time in fad­ing ink. Keith Dowling was writ­ing a long let­ter to his mother about what he’d been do­ing, and news he’d had about friends and fam­ily, when he in­ter­rupted him­self, writ­ing: “By Jove!!! Crikey!!! What shall I say? We’ve just had a breath­less bom­bardier of the Guard rush in to the dugout, fall over the bed at the end and shout out some glo­ri­ous news.” It was No­vem­ber 11, 1918, and Dowling had just recorded his per­sonal re­ac­tion to news of the ar­mistice.

Keith Hick­man was on leave in Paris when word came of the Ger­man sur­ren­der. He wrote: “Paris was in an up­roar … I col­lected more kisses in half an hour than in my life be­fore.” Oth­ers filled the sar­donic car­i­ca­ture of the Aussie Dig­ger many of us ex­pect, like Cap­tain Reg Hey­wood of the Aus­tralian Army Ve­teri­nary Corps, who wrote on No­vem­ber 11, 1918, that his mate “woke me with the news that we are out of a job and that Fritz has caved in. Good­ness knows how the news got through.”

The pri­vate records of the AWM give us more than some kind of clin­i­cal or aca­demic in­sight into the ex­pe­ri­ence of the Aus­tralian sol­dier dur­ing World War I. They give us an emo­tional con­nec­tion to the past. The reader look­ing at digi­tised records on­line, or hold­ing cen­tury-old folded scraps of pa­per in the memo­rial’s read­ing room, can­not help but find them­selves smil­ing at care­fully recorded anec­dotes. Or shar­ing some­one’s grief.

Stock­ham’s let­ters end abruptly in Au­gust 1918. Af­ter three days sec­onded to an Amer­i­can unit, he was shot in the ab­domen. Nurs­ing a wound about 45cm long, Stock­ham was taken to a ca­su­alty clear­ing sta­tion, where he died of his wounds sev­eral hours later. His col­lec­tion of let­ters con­tains one at the end.

A let­ter writ­ten in a very dif­fer­ent hand, dark, bold let­ters slop­ing to the left. It is a let­ter from Fanny to his fam­ily at home, with news she was able to glean of Syd’s death. Her sor­row is pal­pa­ble, and if you look very closely you can see the faint re­mains of her tears that splashed on to the pa­per as she wrote. And sud­denly it is no longer pos­si­ble to walk past the cold in­scrip­tion “Stock­ham SC” on a memo­rial with­out feel­ing that loss. Meleah Hamp­ton is a his­to­rian with the Aus­tralian War Memo­rial. She is the author of At­tack on the Somme: 1st An­zac Corps and the Bat­tle of Pozieres Ridge, 1916, and The Bat­tle of Pozieres, 1916.

‘It is hor­ri­ble but why should you peo­ple at home not know?’ ALEC RAWS IN A LET­TER TO HIS FAM­ILY FROM THE FRONT­LINE


Sol­diers queue for mail at a field post of­fice, Gal­lipoli, 1915

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