Friday, 8 April 2011

Book Review - AIF Letters and Diaries Special

Records of an Australian Lieutenant : a story of bravery, devotion and self sacrifice 1915-1916 by John Alexander Raws

Published approximately 1931, private printing.

So far from home : the remarkable diaries of Eric Evans, an Australian soldier during World War I edited by Patrick Wilson

Published in 2002 by Kangaroo Press ISBN 0731810686

As may be gathered by looking at this blog, I have recently been engaged in a little reading of a military nature, for the purposes of some research I'm undertaking at the moment. I'm writing a double review here as these two books are quite fascinating, and worth hunting out if you have an interest in the first Australian Imperial Force (AIF).

Records of an Australian Lieutenant... is a slim volume - it is in many ways a memorial to J.A. Raws, published by his no doubt grieving father in remembrance of his son, one of two to be killed in WWI in the terrible battles along the Somme in 1916. The book is a collection of letters from J.A. to family and friends, and his father states in the foreword that, as they have been printed for "private circulation only, little editing has been done."

What they do provide is a fascinating record of not only the fighting in the lines in 1916, but of the behind the lines life in camps, trains and ships, which took up a lot of any soldier's time. Raws was in civilian life a journalist, so the letters are full of detail and are passably well-written.

The first third of the book, 30 pages or so, are letters describing the journeys and stopovers on the way to France. These letters, while brief, give a good picture of camping in the Egyptian desert, with dilatory efforts at training, and endless guard and piquet duty, quite often it seems guarding prisoners on their way to or from punishment. Raws mentions only having to use his revolver for "minatory purposes" once during these duties, but does not elaborate too much on the difficulties posed by keeping bored men in line.

From May to July 1916 Raws was in France, at the giant British training base at Etaples (being a good soldier, he doesn't disclose his location in his letters, but that is almost certainly where he was). He gives a good account of the boredom and work in a camp, describing doing the same training courses over again, the tedium of dealing with issues in camp when given the duty of Orderly Officer, and the disdain for Colonial forces from the British Officers, who he notes in (more than) passing are much better dressed than their Australian counterparts.

Raws has interesting opinions on his fellow men. He states in one letter, before he has seen the front line, "that there never was, I am sure, a more cynical army in the world than this Australian force. One never sees or hears anything of patriotic fervour. These camps....might very well consist of a force of men on some objectionable but well paid job, sticking to it, but not loving it at all." Of course Raws has had a middle class upbringing, and may not realise how close to the truth he might be in regards to the men who joined up. It certainly was a well paid job at that time, and it seems from this and other sources that it was the officers, generally of a higher socio-economic grouping, who had most of the patriotic fervour that existed in the AIF.

By July, Raws was in the trenches with the 23rd Battalion, where his letters take on a more fatalistic tone, as he is in the thick of the battles for the Somme (his brother Goldy was killed at Mouqeut Farm). There are other interesting statements here - a letter to 'a friend' on July 25 1916 reveals Raws' attitutde to conscription - "I'm glad to read references in the papers which suggest you have again been advocating compulsory service. You know what we feel about it. The old Gallipoli men reckon it's up to them to get a spell". The first conscription referendum, which was held in October 1916, rejected the notion by a slight majority, but the troops in the field voted 72,399 in favour, with 58,894 against, so Raws' impression that all troops were in favour of conscription is not borne out by the facts.

Into August, and the true terror of life in the trenches is revealed, this from a letter to his brother on August 12 1916 - "The Australian casualties have been very heavy - fully 50 per cent. in our brigade, for the ten or eleven days. I lost, in three days, my brother and my two best friends, and in all six out of seven of all my officer friends (perhaps a score in number) who went into the scrap - all killed. Not one was buried, and some died in great agony. It was impossible to help the wounded at all in some sectors...The dead were everywhere. There had been no burying in the sector I was in for a week before we went there." Or this - "My battalion has been at it for eight days....I have one puttee, a dead man's helmet, another dead man's gas protector, a dead man's bayonet. My tunic is rotten with other men's blood, and partly splattered with a comrade's brains."

"But many men fell to pieces...I felt fearful that my nerve was going at the very last morning. I had been going - with far more responsibility than was right for one so inexperienced - for two days and two nights, for hours without another officer even to consult and with my men utterly broken, shelled to pieces." Raws mentions on a few occasions the effect the constant shelling and fear had on his fellow officers and men - in the same letter he goes on to write "Several of my friends are raving mad. I met three officers out in No Man's Land the other night, all rambling and mad. Poor devils!"

Raws final letter was written to his brother on August 19th, 1916, and his rage and despair show through his words - "Before going in to this next affair, at the same dreadful spot, I want to tell you, so that it may be on record, that I honestly believe Goldy (Raws' brother) and many other officers were murdered on the night you know of, through the incompetence, callousness, and personal vanity of those high in authority. I realise the seriousness of what I say, but I am so bitter, and the facts are so palpable, that it must be said."

J.A. Raws was killed by shellfire on 22 August 1916.

So far from home is an extraordinary piece of history. Edited by Patrick Wilson, the book contains the diaries of 847 Sgt. Eric Evans from the 13th Battalion AIF. The diaries run from February 1917 on his re-embarkation to Europe (Evans was wounded at Gallipoli on 26 April 1915, and returned to Australia to recover) to March 1919 and his return to Manly. Evans was writing the diaries for his girlfriend back in Australia, and they are part description of what he was experiencing, and part love letter to his girl.

They are very detailed in places - it seems Evans felt solace in the writing of these diaries, and often did so in the trenches, just before or after battle. However, much of the diaries concern the activities of his fellow sergeants and men out of the line, their almost constant gambling, drinking and whoring earning Evans' disgust and shame, even though he writes how he can understand why men who are pretty much sure they'll be killed would do that in their last days on earth. Evans was not himself above the occasional bout of gambling, and got involved in a couple of fights too.

Evans was desperate to gain a commission, and he often mentions how disappointed he was that he didn't get promoted, or do anything that earned him a decoration. There are only really two instances in the diaries where he directly describes engaging the enemy himself.

Another big portion of the diary concerns Evans' recovery from wounds he received in battle. He was gassed once, and this led to hospitalization for a long period of time. Later in the war he was wounded again, and was convalescent when the armistice was announced.

He doesn't talk too much about patriotism, but this passage is interesting (24 September 1918) "...while waiting to disembark, had the following dished up to us: 'All British wounded this way.' Of course we Australians came forward. 'British' wounded, I said, not Australian.' This from a Tommy officer. 'What are we then?' I asked. 'Oh, you're Australians.' I felt like running amok. Are we not British, then, are we spilling our blood and fighting for a country of which we are not a part? Are we a bastard lot not to deserve the name of British?.....I was wild enough at the time thankfully to think that I was an Australian, not an ill-educated, unchivalrous Tommy such as that officer."

I don't know too much about the provenance of this work, or what sort of editing was involved, but it certainly is well written for someone who was an engineer's clerk.

There are some other odd things about this diary. I haven't been able to find the war records of several of the men he mentions by name in the text. One man he states died in hospital in fact survived and returned to Australia. There are other turns of phrase in the book that seem somewhat modern to my mind. There is also a passage where the impression is that Evans has seen lots of graves in the field before, which seems hard to believe if he only was at Gallipoli for one day - it would be interesting to see the original diaries, and compare them to the edited text.

Still, the book is well worth reading to get a flavour of life for an infantryman in the dark days of the Western Front.

You might want to try your local library for these books - Records of an Australian Lieutenant will be hard to find, but So far from home is actually available from Amazon.


Cheers for now, from
A View over the Bell

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