Hugh Anderson's letters bring the horrors of war to life

Name: Hugh Anderson
Date: 1915-1917
Unit:1st Brigade AIF
Location:Gallipoli, France

Hugh Anderson was a prolific letter writer. Throughout his time in Gallipoli and France, and when in hospital, first in Greece and later in England, he wrote regularly to his mother and father and to other relatives with vivid descriptions of places he had visited and the horrendous fighting in which he had been involved.

Having been wounded in Gallipoli he later went on to France. His first letter, to his father, dated 12 April 1916 referred to being moved along the firing line about 12 miles just outside a small town.

"We are in a big barn on a farm. These farms are small, all of one pattern; the old fashioned house forms one side, barns, stables and sheds all round a bricked courtyards with a pit of manure in the middle. Outside a large pond for watering the animals. Here ducks disport themselves. The barns are full of hay and straw except the one where we soldiers are billeted. Hundreds of hens are in the courtyard, on the manure heap and in the barns. The cows are all in byres and bedded down. The roofs are mostly thatched with a few rows of tiles along the eves. The house may have a low picket fence to keep the stock off and generally has a pump near the door. The floors are paved with flagstones and the ceilings are low with huge beams and rafters.

"Longfellow's 'Evangeline' gives a very good description of these farms. The people are very clean and neat, beat our old cockie women in a cocked hat."

Hugh was a religious man with a strong sense of right and wrong. Writing to his mother a few days later, he continued his descriptions of the countryside.

"Everywhere there are icons of the Virgin and often a huge crucifix," he wrote. "Well that would not be so bad if they were kept in repair or removed when damaged but to have an arm broken at the shoulder and dangling by the palm or otherwise disfigured seems a dreadful thing if one honestly believes in this imagery."

A letter dated 26 April, again to his mother, tells her he had been up in the firing line on fatigue work.

"After the beautiful trenches we had at Anzac these are awful affairs. They aren't trenches, merely breastworks, they can't dig down because of the water which is all over the place. Everywhere there is mud and one gets wet through and coasted with this slimey clay."

"The wooden floorboards get very slippery and it is hard work going, especially when carrying anything. We all wear long rubber boots to save our feet getting wet. It is just the reverse to Anzac as far as water goes. Talking of Anzac reminds me that to celebrate Anzac Day 25th April we were issued a slice of current cake each. Quite a treat. I hope you are not thinking I have taken to drinking beer because I have quoted the price on several occasions. So far in France the food has been good, nourishing, well cooked and plentiful."

His sense of humour comes through in his letters. On 5 May he wrote to his mother again describing living conditions.

"I am in good health and full of fleas. The lice are appreciably less but the rats and mice are here in millions, gigantic species at that, and evidently breed fleas and give them to us in return for the tucker they pinch. The beggars."

After being wounded and sent to England for hospital treatment Hugh Anderson was keen to get back to the war.

"I am for draft for France next Friday," he wrote to his mother. "Say mother, of course you know there is always a possibility of my going out to it so in the event of it happening I want you to promise not to go into mourning or anything like that. I know you would have a sad heart but black clothes would not comfort it any so please don't put any on. Anyway it won't happen as I have no intention of going off just now anyway."

In November 1916 Hugh Anderson wrote to his mother about the future.

"I am all right and have just got some letters. When I come out of this I must stop roving about and settle down. I will have earned some money and must get a home. I saw our Captain about promotion and told him I wanted to put in for a Commission and he said he would keep me in view and do his best for me although just at present no promotions were being made."

In another letter he referred to the cost of war in both human and financial terms.

"The Big Push has a 12 mile front and a depth of 6 miles and a curved front," he wrote. "It has cost us half a million casualties at least and goodness knows how much money and animals. This is in six months. The German line is bent but not broken, at this rate to blow the Germans back to the Rhine, Britain will be broken for money and men. How it will end is very hard to say. I give him two years more at least. That's my opinion from what I've seen and read."

In March he wrote to his mother after receiving a letter from her expressing her sadness at events.

"Such letters, poor dear old Mother, one telling of the third son's departure and of a most unchristmasy Christmas, with no one at home, and later a further emptying of the nest and unwritten but standing there a poor lonely aching Mother's heart. Dear old Mother, it's awfully sad but someday we will be all back again, it's only a temporary absence."

On 3 May 1917, Hugh wrote his last, unfinished letter home. He referred to the fighting for the Hindenburg Line and said Fritz was fighting stubbornly for it.

He prayed God that the war might soon end. And for him it did. Hugh was killed two days later on 5 May at Bullecourt in France,

A colleague described the events that led to Hugh's death.

"It was about 8pm on the 5th of May that Hughie was killed. There were about 12 of us under his command in an advance bombing post. It was a communication trench running between the first German line, then captured, and the second German line. We had built a barricade across it for protection.

"We had just arranged the bombs and grenades and dug possies in preparation for the night. The trench was very crowded and I complained to an officer. He said we could move if we could find a place but he himself knew of none. I looked round and saw a large shell hole a few yards outside the trench and I and another chap hopped into it. We must have been in it only about a minute when a high explosive shell landed in the trench.

"When all the dust and smoke had cleared a bit an officer called out to see if anyone was left. I answered and both of us got back into the trench. We then saw Hughie stagger down to the machine gun post where Corporal Dawes was in charge, about 20 yards, and ask for the dressing station and then he collapsed. He lived about 10 minutes longer but remained unconscious."

In another report on the death, the writer said that:

"judging by the remarks that Hughie made the men gathered that he expected this to be his last stunt and it was therefore surprising with what cheerfulness and indifference he carried on under such heavy fire, at the same time encouraging others to do likewise."

Hugh's mother was devastated by his death. Hugh's younger brother Warren collected up all the letters Hugh had written, including those to other relatives, and patiently retyped them. He then had them bound in a book together with photographs of Hugh and his grave.

On the inside cover he wrote:

"To the Little Mother of Warren Anderson to remind her of "The Absent One" 13-2-18.

Mrs Anderson would have nothing to do with the book.
(Material for this article was supplied by Brian Anderson of New South Wales)


Last updated: 31 May 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Hugh Anderson's letters bring the horrors of war to life, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 August 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/hugh-andersons-letters-bring-horrors-war-life
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