Henry Lanser's story of First World War service

Running time
8 min 36 sec
Date made
Place made
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

CC BY 4.0 Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

Henry Miller Lanser was born in Paddington, New South Wales, in 1890. He volunteered to enlist in the AIF on 2 September 1914. While training with the AIF near Cairo, Henry paid to record a message for his family on a pressed shellac disc and posted it home. In 1915, he was wounded in the Gallipoli landings on 25 April and the Battle of Lone Pine. In November 1916, on the Western Front, Henry was killed near the French village of Flers.


Well, dear Mother and Father, Ethel, Edie and Basil ... this is rather a novelty to come to Australia this way. But here I am, can't see and can't be seen, or welcomed in the usual way with a hug and a kiss ... I wish you the compliments of the season with any amount of good luck. My thoughts are very often on the friends in Robinson Street. Well, Father, I was pleased to get that souvenir of the Australians who volunteered to keep the flag flying, and we're going to do it.

In this scratchy recording made in Cairo, we hear the voice of Lance Corporal Henry Lanser speaking to his family and friends at home. It was a rare moment of connection, allowing his family to hear his voice from the other side of the world. Henry was with the Australian Imperial Force training in Egypt. In the brief recording, he shares some news of training, sends a Christmas greeting and reassures them he's enjoying himself. The message lasts only a few minutes, but it would no doubt have been treasured by those at home. Connections with home was central to the experience of service overseas – for those serving, and for loved ones in Australia. 'Home', historian Bart Zino tells us, 'remains the touchstone' of soldiers' experience – 'transforming and changing its contours, but never receding in their experience of war'. Australian servicemen and women maintained some connection with home through letters, which flowed back to Australia, tracing their journeys through Egypt, Lemnos and Gallipoli. They also took countless photographs, often with an eye to showing those at home the landscape and cultures they encountered in these places. Then, at Gallipoli, the photographs and letters reveal their early experiences of war as the realities of battle, illness and death set in. When the Australians first arrived in France in 1916, they were again impressed by the landscape, sharing impressions of the countryside with those back home. Geoffrey McCrae reflected,

This is a most gorgeous country. I always thought Australia was the only place on God's earth until I came here. It is a place well worth fighting for.

Fred Carthew was even more glowing, in a letter to his sister.

Springtime is France at her best, and I can assure you that her best is very hard to beat. The whole place is like a beautifully laid out park, with its green fields, orchards and vineyards, hedges and beautiful old slate-roofed houses that age seemed to have given a charm and a softness unknown to our too-new and too-modern homes of Australia.

Postcards offered people at home a glimpse of the landscape in which their loved ones served. They also offered reassurance of well-being and a reminder that thoughts of home were never far from the minds of the men and women serving. But not all news from the front was reassuring. Despite the censor's pen, soldiers and nurses also wrote of the harrowing nature of their experiences. Conveying these stories through letters or diaries was one way that those serving could begin to come to terms with their experience. One soldier wrote,

God, the whole chaos is too terrific for my pencil. It has been the most ominous time in our lives ... We have been playing 'tig' with death for seven days & nights ... it has been too terrible, too fiendish ... God, I have seen the most gruesome sights, the most awful, tragic scenes that has been my cruel lot to witness. However, take it from me, none of mine will ever tackle this job again. If men refuse to fight all the world over, war will cease.

Under the pressure of battle and life on the front line, news from home was keenly anticipated. Even from a distance, families found ways to commemorate missed milestones. Bert Reynolds' loved ones sent him cards for his 21st birthday and for Christmas. Postcards and photographs also gave a glimpse into how life had changed at home. Violet Smith sent Bert a postcard with a photograph of her and their son, writing that it would 'give you an idea of how Vin has grown'. Some sent mementos home in addition to letters or postcards. Jack Buttsworth sent a brooch and other gifts home to his fiancee Millicent. Jack was mortally wounded in April 1918, and Millicent never married. She continued to treasure the mementos that Jack had sent from the front. Death on the Western Front could be sudden, abruptly severing the connection to home. But some who were mortally wounded had the opportunity to write home one last time in hospital. A final chance to share their love and thoughts with their people. Herbert Crowle was mortally wounded at Pozières in August 1916. In a letter home to his wife and son, which was likely dictated, he prepared them for his loss.

Dearest Beat and Bill, just a line – you must be prepared for the worst to happen any day. It is no use trying to hide things. I'm in terrible agony. Had I been brought in at once, I had a hope. But now gas gangrene has set in, and it is so bad that the doctor could not save it by taking it off, as if it had gone too far, and the only hope is that the salts they've put on may drain the gangrene out. Otherwise, there is no hope.

He closed the letter with assurances to his wife and perhaps himself that his family would be okay without him.

I'm very sorry, dear, but still, you will be well provided for – I am easy on that score. So cheer up, dear. I could write on a lot, but I am nearly unconscious. Give my love to dear Bill and yourself, and do take care of yourself and him. Your loving husband, Bert.

Bert died only a few hours after the letter was written. Others died in battle with no chance to explain their fate. After his training in Egypt, Henry Lanser served at Gallipoli where he was twice wounded in action. He recovered from his second wound on the island of Lemnos and rejoined his unit in Egypt in early 1916 for service on the Western Front. On the 5th of November 1916, he was killed in action. His loved ones were left with a collection of postcards he had sent, filled with good wishes and photographs of his experiences overseas. His personal effects were sent home, giving them some connection with his last days. Photographs of his grave – one taken in 1920, and another taken a decade later of his permanent headstone in Grevillers British Cemetery, provided a link for his family to his distant burial place. But perhaps the most treasured keepsake was the recording that Henry had made in Egypt, giving his loved ones the chance to hear a precious final farewell and have a lasting memory of his voice.

I can't leave this instrument, I can't jump out of it, so I think I will have to close now and wish you goodbye, for the time being anyhow. Well, goodbye, everybody, and good luck!

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