TORMENT IN THE TRENCHES
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