Sapper horrified by public reaction

Name: Charlie Clark
Date: 1916-1917
Unit: 3rd Field Company, Engineers, 1st AIF
Location: France, Belgium

Public reaction to the death of enemy troops is not always predictable. Sapper Charlie Clark, for instance, witnessed the shooting down of a Zeppelin in London during World War I but was horrified at the reaction of the press and public. He wrote in a letter to his mother.

"You can't know what a blood thirsty delight the people here took in describing the death in (a burning airship) of the crew."

"Now I am pretty hard and I have seen a few men killed in all sorts of horrible ways but it fills me with utter disgust to read of a daring and really brave crew of airmen (in a reputable daily paper) 'Large crowds attended the funeral of the baby killers, all interested but none sympathetic'.

"I think that the man who wrote that and the people who read it and gloat over it are not of the gallantry and bulldog pluck that we have read of," he said.

"Certainly the capture was a great thing but as a feat of war, not as the people here would have it - a destroyal of baby slaughterers. I call such terms ridiculous, mean and savage and absolutely cowardly."

Charlie Clark was certainly not obsessed by the war. He'd already fought at Gallipoli and had spent time in hospital in Malta. He had shared a trench with L/Cpl Jacka who earned the VC [the first Australian to win a VC in World War I] for his bravery in repelling Turks who'd captured part of their trench. So he knew what he was talking about.

In a letter to his father in August 1917, he reflected on the war and what would happen. He also proved to be a thoughtful and accurate forecaster of what lay ahead.

"Though I can't bring myself to think that the war will end for some time; Surely the great brains that lead the warring Nations will realise before many years that it is at a deadlock and that as the Pope says in his Peace Note a real & lasting Peace could be arrived at by arbitration if it were really desired by all.

"Although I, when I am at the front (which I will be again before long) will & have put my full heart into the work that is there to do, I cannot bring myself to think that the German people, as a whole, wish for conquest & glory rather than peace & civil prosperity.

"However, we should leave that to the aforesaid great brains & to the Civil Population. I think we can well place our confidence in such men as Lloyd George & Sir Douglas Haig.

"It would be a glorious thing to win the war by force of arms & I think that with great sacrifices & hitherto unheard of Bloodshed, it might be done.

"In my opinion there are three alternatives:

  • To go on as we are going and string the war out over another decade or two & reduce half the world to a state of semi starvation & misery & eventually win by a small margin that would not be worth while.
  • To put another ten or fifteen million men in the field (from America & China) & make an all round offensive that would entail frightful losses but quickly win the war.
  • To Arbitrate, arrange things status quo & form an International Arbitration Court after reducing Armaments. This last would need & would in my opinion surely gain the consent of Germany.

"The world is far too highly civilised to countenance the Military domination of one Nation, be it Germany or England & surely the Powers that be must recognise this ere long. The time is coming when all international disputes will be settled by a League of Nations, why not now?"

[No changes have been made to the spelling or grammar of the original letters.]

The material for this article was supplied by Rolf Hoppe of the Australian Capital Territory


Last updated: 31 May 2019

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Sapper horrified by public reaction, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 25 September 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/sapper-horrified-public-reaction
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