When World War One broke out, Jessie Bonnett, who lived on her parent’s property at Mepunga east along the coast from Warrnambool, was seventeen. As the war progressed, Jessie amassed a heap of newspaper cuttings about the war experiences of the servicemen and women from the Warrnambool district, as revealed in published letters they wrote home to their families and friends. She also collected occasional pieces about local efforts to support those away at the war and some instances of the welcome home they received as they returned.
Very occasionally, when she couldn’t resist it, and she was a farmer’s daughter after all, Jessie would include something unrelated to the war such as an account of a giant cabbage. This monster vegetable, grown by a Mr James Donnelly at Lake Gillear and measuring 0.91 metres across, was put on display at Messrs Swintons department store in Warrnambool.
We don’t know when, but at some point Jessie began carefully sticking this growing pile of neatly trimmed cuttings into an exercise book. Unfortunately she didn’t date any of them or reference the cuttings to particular newspapers. But this remarkable collection has now been made accessible by the work of Jill Heathcote, a Warrnambool and District Historical Society volunteer, who typed up the whole collection.
Fields of war: letters home, a society publication made possible by Jill’s work, and that of other volunteers, takes us into the lost world of young men from a place like Yarpturk. During the war the Yarpturk ‘correspondent’ of the Warrnambool Standard was a Mr D Bruce. From one of Jessie’s cuttings emerges the sad news that his son Robert, involved in the Battle of the Somme in faraway Pozières in France, was wounded and had to have his hand amputated. Many of the men’s letters take the expected humorous attitude towards the ups and downs of war, but even a cursory reading of these letters shows how the reality of loss and the terrible effects of shell and bullet were being conveyed to the local community through its newspapers. Jessie Bonnett’s scrapbook brings all this home to Warrnambool in the 100th anniversary years of the Great War.
Fields of war: letters home, transcribed from the World War I scrapbook of Jessie Bonnett (available for sale from the Warrnambool and District Historical Society).