Letters & diaries

After World War I, institutions like the Australian War Memorial and the State Library of Victoria offered their services as receiving archives for families who wished to have the letters and diaries of their relatives preserved for future generations.

Relatives encouraged members of their families who fought to compile their reflections and diary entries into bound volumes or submit the original pocket diaries of their time in the war. The State Library of Victoria holds hundreds of records related to individual soldiers.

Historians who have read the letters and diaries like Patsy Adam-Smith, Bill Gammage and Bart Ziino have compiled large works that try to reflect the soldiers’ experience of war. As Gammage states in his work The Broken Years:

Soldiers […] wrote for varying purposes. Some were writing home, others deliberately recording the climax of their lives. Some hardly mentioned the war, others rarely ignored it. Some minimised their discomforts, a few exaggerated them. Many, when it came to the point, described just what they saw and felt, because the tumult of the hour denied them an alternative, because they wanted an exact account for themselves if they lived or for their relatives if they died, or sometimes because they realised that the thoughts they wrote down might be their last on earth.

- Bill Gammage

Gammage, B 2010, The broken years: Australian soldiers in the Great War, Melbourne University Publishing, Carlton, Vic.

In these records, the words of the soldiers take on a power that few secondary sources can match. One example is Arthur Taylor’s Gallipoli diary of a night on the front line:

A pitch dark night and you standing in a narrow trench just wide enough to stop your shoulders from rubbing the sides, you can only see a handsbreadth in front of your face you hear the hiss of bullets passing overhead you cannot strike a match as the flare might cost one of your mates his life you move silently along pass the Officer on Duty he is muffled up to the eyes for the cold is bitter you look on one platform and there is the machine gun stripped of his outer casing ready to deal out death to any Turks that try to rush our trench we were only 40 yards apart.

- Arthur Taylor

Taylor, A H Manuscript held at the State Library of Victoria MS 12286

Matthew Stanton Sharman, who was the Principal of University High School during the war wrote to dozens of graduates and teachers who were fighting in France and collected their responses. One teacher wrote back to his classes sparing them most of the details and claiming the censor would edit anything gory anyway.

Former students wrote to Sharman describing successful 'stunts' with more eager voices. One described the clearing of a German support trench with the words: ‘There is nothing in the wide world with such persuasive power as a Mills hand grenade.’

Some returned soldiers would become authors too. There they would have the chance to tell their story without official censorship. But the voices of most soldiers end abruptly, often in the last hours or even minutes of an upcoming action. As Patsy Adam-Smith describes:

[S]uddenly as we turn the page it has ended, they have crossed the gap, not the step all pass from boyhood to manhood, but a gap no man who was not with them can ever span […] The worst of working with the diaries is all those empty pages. You turn back one page from the one you find empty and re-read: “Flanders, Fri. 22 Sept: stand-to. Usual rum issue. Fritz lively. Wrote letter home. Received Bulletin, Table Talk, Punch. Best morning's rest we've had for a long time.” And then nothing.

- Patsy Adam-Smith

Adam-Smith, P A 1974, 'All Those Empty Pages' The La Trobe Journal, No.14 October.

Letter from a soldier to his family, World War I.
Letter of an ex-student to his high school principal, written in 1916.
Letter from a high school principal to an ex-student, now a soldier, in World War I.
Censored letter form a soldier, 1915.