The Bitter Truth

Australian soldiers wrote openly in their letters home about the horrors of warfare, and the tone of letters and postcards dramatically indicated the Diggers’ changing attitudes to their predicament. Early letters were characterised by a spirit of bravado. Lieutenant H.P. Malpas wrote to his family in June 1916: “At last the day is near when Australia’s boys will once again be given an opportunity to show the world what we are made of. Today you should have seen the look of determination on the faces of all. I am sure the Hun will be sorry for the day when Australia sent her sons to France.”

The bloody fighting soon began to dampen this enthusiasm and letter writers became increasingly frank about their fears. Major W.G.M Claridge admitted, “I am not going to tell a lie and say I wasn’t afraid, because I was. And who wouldn’t be, with Death grinning at you from all around and hellish 5.9 shells shrieking through the air. I don’t know how I stood it so long without breaking.” Words such as “hellish”, “massacre” and “suicidal” recurred in these letters, each soldier having his own story of personal terror and narrow escape.

With characteristic honesty, many Australians anticipated death in forthcoming “stunts” with a brave farewell to their loved ones. Lieutenant W. H. Crowle knew he was dying from his wounds when he wrote to his wife and young son: “You must be prepared for the worst to happen any day. It is no use trying to hide things. I am in terrible agony. I was hit running out to see the other officer who was with me, but badly wounded. I was in the thick of the attack at Pozieres, and had just about done my duty. I am very sorry, dear, but still you will be well provided for, for I am easy on that score, so cheer up, dear.”

Though initially eager to see the Mother Country and to serve her cause in France, disillusionment was expressed in letters in a nostalgic home-sickness for Australia. One soldier pined, “I hardly realised what a great country Australia is until I left it.” With sprigs of wattle or gum preserved in their wallets or notebooks, the Diggers would have heartily agreed with one soldier’s half-joking reply to an English lady’s query, “How often do you get to leave Australia, my man?” He answered, “Once every war.”

© Time-Life Australia Pty Ltd 1998
(from the series Australians at War)