Whilst going through some old family papers and photographs I stumbled upon a small wooden box and in it found a real treasure: a letter, dated July 6th 1918, from my grandfather in France to my grandmother in Australia. It was dog-eared, the ink faded and the paper thin and fragile after ninety-nine years and obviously many readings. So I decided to transcribe it, eager for insight into the mind of a man writing from his camp on the Western Front, after years in a war zone, separated by time and distance from his loved ones. And as I worked, it was as if his voice reached out over almost a century and spoke to me.
I found it very sad because it is obvious that at this point in the war, my grandfather believed that one of his brothers had been killed and that he himself would most likely not survive to come home. He was not in a very positive state of mind and also felt the need to go into battle and avenge his brother’s death.
It is interesting to note that this was at the height of the escalation of World War I because the Germans had come back from the Eastern Front after the surrender of Russia and were concentrating their might against the Allies on the Western Front. No wonder he felt that it was never going to end!
I also found it a point of interest that the United States Army clearly looked after their men a lot better than did the British. So, good on you, Uncle Sam!
Here is the letter, faithfully transcribed, except for a few personal items that can have no meaning for anybody but the writer and recipient:
July 6th 1918
Just a short note in answer to your three letters I received yesterday and the snapshots of Ernie (21/2 year old son).
They are very nice. He does look well in those photos. He ought to be good company for you. I wish I was back. I would take him everywhere. You say he is a hard case and my word he looks it.
It was a great day here on the fourth of this month. The Bakers that were here, the Yanks I mean, did not work at all that day. No matter what Holiday we never get a day off.
I could go out every night here but it don’t suit me. I have made my promises to you and I will keep them. There (is) only one I will break and that is staying with the Bakers. I am only waiting for a letter from Len (brother) and then I will put in my transfer to the 19th Battalion. I think poor old Ern (brother) has been killed and I must get even for it. I have not heard from him for over three months. I am going to write to Headquarters today about him.
This place gets terrible monotonous. No wonder people go mad here. We have sent two men home mad.
I got those two snapshots of Ernie, the dear little fellow. He is a fine Boy but I don’t suppose I will have the luck to see him again. I don’t think this war is ever going to end. It seems to be getting worse instead of better.
I wrote to you last week asking you to send 5 pounds to the Bank in London. I expect to be going on leave in about two month’s time. 5 will be plenty. I am not drawing any money here at all so you can see I never go out of the camp. I am sick of this place.
Well, Dear, I will close with the best love and kisses to yourself and Ernie
Fortunately, things improved for my grandfather after he went on leave in September. To his great joy and relief he found his brother Ern recovering from serious shrapnel wounds in a hospital in England. His transfer to the 19th never did eventuate, perhaps because he found his brother alive; was needed at his field bakery; or because the war ended a short time later (11 November 1918). However it was, he was still the Temporary Sergeant in charge of his bakery on Armistice Day and until they went home in 1919.