Sunday, July 24, 2016

What did Australian soldiers on the Western Front write home about?

A century ago Australian soldiers were in France and Belgium fighting on the Western Front. It is worth remembering that these young men were facing a much more imminent existential threat than most tourists who visit Europe today. They would probably be inclined to brush aside our concerns about the current threat posed by terrorism, and would almost certainly be amused by alarmist reactions to the EU’s ongoing existential crisis.

This post focuses on what two of my relatives wrote about in their post cards. Readers who are looking for a more representative answer to the question might be interested in Miss Lynch’s letters.

In May 1916, Harry Bates (my father’s uncle) wrote a card to his sister-in-law, Jessie, who was the local school teacher at Dobie (a township near Ararat in Victoria, that has since ceased to exist) and the Bates family’s letter writer. Harry, shown in the photo, was 35 years old when he sent the card.

At the front of the card is a picture of the cathedral in Marseille, which looks much the same today, so I haven’t reproduced it here.

Harry’s card to Jessie was mainly about the weather. That is not surprising because Harry was a farmer, and like a lot of other farmers in Australia, had been affected by the Federation Drought (1911-16). Harry mentions that in an earlier letter Jessie had told him that the preceding harvest had been good, which is consistent with the good seasonal conditions in Victoria during 1915.

It is interesting that Harry writes of France: “This place is all the world like home”. As I watch the Tour de France, I can see why he would say that. Much of the countryside does look similar, except for the castles and the villages.

The second card was written by Frank Lowe to his cousin, Ethel Vernon, my grandmother, who lived at Crowlands (a township north-east of Ararat). I am grateful to Tom Grieves for his help in identifying Frank Lowe as the author of the card and helping me to decipher the writing. The card was probably written in the latter part of 1917 (following the battle of Messines in June 1917). Frank mentions that he “got through the Messines stunt alright”. Frank would have been 22 when he wrote the card; Ethel was 17.

Frank begins by writing about the card itself: “They have some very pretty things in this line over here.” The card is embroidered with a pocket at the front.

Much of Frank’s card is about relatives and friends who had also enlisted, including Ethel’s brother, Arthur Vernon and Bill Croft, her brother-in-law.

The card asks Ethel to convey a message to her sister, Margaret and brother-in-law, Ivan Frost: “Tell Mag and Ivan never to let their son go to the war if he ever grows up as it is a very poor sort of a game”.

Sadly, Frank’s message was not heeded. Margaret and Ivan Frost’s two eldest sons, Ted and Henry, died as prisoners of war of the Japanese at Sandakan POW camp in north Borneo in 1945.

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