Following in the family footsteps

Name: Arthur Boyden
Date: 1942-1945
Unit: 1/12th Royal Australian Engineers
Location: Malaya

Cpl Arthur Boyden had a big family reputation to live up when he served in World War II. Four of his brothers had fought in World War I. Now, here he was with the 1/12th Royal Australian Engineers in Malaya waiting for the Japanese to attack.

He would have known that all four brothers wrote amazingly detailed letters back home giving descriptions of fighting from Gallipoli and France and it was clear from his own letters that he had inherited the family trait.

With sounds of battle all round him, including the occasional aircraft raid, he still managed to write a long letter dated 14 January 1942, describing the situation to his wife Dagma.

"At last what we have been expecting for months has actually come to pass. The 'balloon' has gone up & war has come to Malaya," he wrote. "You probably know a lot more of the details of events from your own papers than I do.

"We got a movement order to proceed to our battle station 15 days ago & we arrived at our destination about 4am the following morning after a tiring drive under 'blackout' conditions on roads so narrow and treacherous, that the greatest care had to be exercised to avoid collisions & already a couple of our trucks, have been smashed up, but are now on the road again.

"The next night Singapore was raided & since then everyone is on alert at the slightest sign of aircraft approaching. So far our section has been fortunate & we have no casualties.

"Our position is practically a 'front-line' one, if one can define such a thing as the line in this country. Anyway we have plainly heard the gun fire from naval engagements & are expecting hourly the attack which must come to our section sooner or later. How we will react no one knows, but everyone is certainly very cheerful & calm at the moment & for my own part the only thing I really fear, is to be caught unaware in a gas attack. The Japs have already been reported to have used 'mustard gas' in their first few raids, but provided we are on the alert our anti-gas equipment, which is proof against all known gases, should reduce casualties to a minimum.

"Needless to say we have been extremely busy & will continue to be more so; so there is little time to write letters & at night time, the lights which have to be shaded and not too bright are too poor to see by for long, so we have to scribble a few lines whenever we get the chance.

"This is the last of my air-mail letter paper & stamped envelopes, so in future I will only be able to send letter cards, which are the only thing available to go by air-mail.

"The sudden change to this 'prepare for action' life has meant giving up a lot of comforts. Gone are our beds & pillows & sheets & even one blanket. We have had to leave all our kit bags & personal gear behind & are carrying only our war equipment, a change of clothes, a ground sheet & a mosquito net.

"We are now in a malarial district & anti-mosquito precautions are rigidly enforced. The mossies here start to bite about sunset & they don't go home until 8 o'clock in the morning; so every night apart from wearing long trousers & sleeves down, we rub all exposed parts with mosquito cream which is greasy & smelly. A further precaution is the nightly dose of quinine which everyone takes & which most of us heartily dislike. (A 'plane was just approaching but it was one of ours, so we can breathe freely again).

"But all these mosquito precautions do not keep the sand flies away & he is so tiny he gets through the nets & although harmless enough as far as fever goes, he certainly keeps one scratching & is most annoying.

"All unit canteens have of course, been closed & we are nearly 50 miles from the nearest place where anything can be purchased but even so, such things as tobacco are unprocurable & cigarettes are very scarce.

"As we have to move as light as possible carrying only the barest necessities, it meant leaving our tents & even our one & only blanket behind, so all the troops have to get what cover they can, & most troops are sleeping on the ground under cover of the trees with their mosquito nets stuck up on four sticks & if it rains which it does nearly every day or night, it is just too bad.

"But our section has been more fortunate & we have taken over a few native huts, which a couple of weeks ago were the homes of coolies working on the roads, but to us they are palaces. In spite of the filth & stench of some of them, we have made them reasonably comfortable & at any rate they are out of the weather: but one decent sized bomb would demolish the lot with a direct hit, so when an enemy aircraft alert is given, we have to grab our equipment, respirator & rifle & dive into our slit trenches (a slit trench by the way is a hole 6 ft long 2' wide & 4' deep which is dug by 2 men for their personal safety & unless a bomb shell should make a direct hit on them, they are comparatively safe from the effects of blast or shell splinters."

Arthur Boyden had noted the effect the war was having on the civilian population.

"What has brought this war home to me more than anything else is the wholesale evacuation of civilians, which has been going on for the last couple of weeks; literally thousands of lorries & buses have passed our quarters, taking tens of thousands of Malayans, Chinese & Indians to places of comparative safety; it is a pathetic sight to see hundreds making the trek on foot carrying what personal possessions they can, & many driving their live stock. Old men and women carrying loads which look as if they would break their backs.

"I saw one old women who looked about 80, carrying a child on her back, one strapped in front of her & leading two by the hands & the proverbial Chinese stick across her shoulders laden with what was probably all her possessions, jog trotting along the road for miles. We are not of course permitted to pick up civilians & so have become used to such sights by now; most of them are evacuated & there won't be a civilian for miles & miles in another few days.

"Many buildings in towns in this district have been blown up by the engineers & villages have been burnt to the ground to clear the decks for action. Nothing that could be of any use to the invader will be left. All goods, machinery. live stock etc has either been confiscated or destroyed. In the rush to evacuate, people have left a lot of things & we have all had a great time (scavenging).

"Although these things are serious, it is not possible to keep the spirit of the Aussie down & we all quietly adapted ourselves to our new surroundings, & many humorous incidents crop up to keep the boys smiling.

"Army rations are not quite as good as they were, but thanks to our own efforts we are living like kings. In the rush to evacuate, many people left their live stock and we started a drive to see what we could round up, with the result that every second day we have a roast pork, and last week our section of 60 sat down to a meal of poultry.

"We have at the moment about 30 head of fowls & ducks round up which we hope to keep safe for Xmas day & the night before last some of the boys brought in another 12 pigs - we have made a run for them & slaughter them as required.

"In addition we had fresh fried fish for ten last night which we netted in a jungle river, so we are doing alright."

Arthur went on to tell his wife that letters from him were likely to become few and far between but that he would write as often as possible.

What he didn't know at the time was that they would cease altogether for quite a while following his capture by the Japanese who took control of Singapore on 15 February 1942.

Arthur Boyden was one of thousands who were forced to work on the infamous Burma-Thailand railway but he survived to return to Australia at the end of the war.

The material for this article was supplied by Ron Boyden of the Australian Capital Territory and Mrs Elinor Walker of New South Wales

Last updated: 11 October 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Following in the family footsteps, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 August 2020,
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