Wounded soldier pleads for young nephew to stay out of war
Name: Walter Wells
Unit: 9th Field Coy, Australian Engineers
Location: France, Belgium
The horror of war was the subject of many a letter back home from Australian troops to their families during World War I and Walter Wells was no exception.
Writing to his sister-in-law May from hospital in London after being wounded in France, he expresses sorrow that her older son William had come to the war and beseeching her not to let her younger son Ern enlist.
He also expressed the view that conscription would be bad for Australia.
"I am going along as can be expected," he wrote. "I have been in hospital nine weeks. I was pretty bad. I only get up for a couple of hours a day, but don't think it will be long before I am well again.
"I was sorry to hear Will came to the war. I wrote to him and told him it was no good. What ever you do May, don't let young Ern come here, no matter how much he wants to. It is for his own good. I have had 18 months in the army and I often wish I had never seen it. I was in France 7 mths and seen enough to satisfy me. You have no idea what it is like. I am sorry to hear things are not too good over there. It must have been a bad winter to spoil the fruit but I hope you will have better luck next year.
"It is very cold over here, snowing every day. There is no place like Australia and I only hope both Will and I will be back for next Xmas. I often long to be home again dear May. It was very good of you to send me a parcel. It hasn't turned up yet, the chances area that it has gone to France, but I have a mate there, he will send it over to me.
"I expect I will be back in France for the Spring. I might see Will over there. The third division are at a place called ArmentiÃ¨res, in France. I was there for about 4 months, but was on the Somme the rest of the time. It is pretty rough down there.
"So now May I think I have told you all for this time, thanking you once again for your kindness. With best love to you and all at home, I remain your Bro. Walter. Give Tops a kiss for me.
PS. What does Joe [Walter's brother] think of Conscription. Hardly any of us boys voted yes, it would ruin Australia. WW.
Friend calls on all eligible men to enlist
In sharp contrast to Walter's pleading not to allow Ern to go to war was a letter from A.J. Shakespear to Joe [Ern's father] in which he appeals to all eligible men to answer the cause.
Writing from training camp in Seymour, Victoria, he thanks Joe for a wallet he had sent and for Bill's address in France.
"Very pleased to note by your letter that Bill is getting along alright. I often think of him, wondering how he was getting along, wishing him every success and a safe return home again. Once again thanking you for his address. I am also writing him tonight hoping shortly to be over with him doing my bit towards bringing this cruel war to an end.
"Just feeling fit now, it's marvellous the difference it makes in a man after a month or so solid training. It makes a man of one I can assure you. I am getting along tip top went through a test of bomb throwing the other day which I was very successful in passing which entitles me to wear a small grenade on my arm.
"Had a little experience yesterday while firing a shell out of a stokes gun in a dug out. Fired one shell out alright, second one put our gun out of action completely, blowing the base of the gun clean off, shell falling about fifteen yards ahead of us instead of about two hundred yards. Luckily enough no one was injured. I tell you it gave me a bit of a shock for a few minutes. They had an inquiry into the matter to day, board sitting of course it must be me called on to give evidence to what occurred made a thorough examination of some.
"It appears to me to have been fractured for some considerable time, when one is firing the guns you are ordered to keep your mouth wide open so as to take the shock otherwise you think your head is knocked off. Sounds peculiar.
"Very pleased to hear poor old Snowy has returned back safely again & getting along alright. Its to be hoped he is quite himself again by this and I wish him every success for the future. Kindly give him my kindest regards next time you see him. We are just beginning to get some fine weather over here. For the past its has been very unsettled hardly a day passing without our great coats on.
"What a shock it must have been to J Patterson seeking employment to get turned down. It's a great pity we hadn't many of yourself. I have placed myself in a position and by this know what it is. If we don't get the reinforcements to assist our brave lads at the front its going to be a bad lookout for our mothers and sisters in the future so I appeal to all those eligible and have no ties depending on them to come along. There's nothing to be afraid of for we are fighting for the most free and true flag in the world. Kindly remember me to good old Ern so will close with best wishes and good luck to yourself and family.
Son apologises for enlisting without telling parents
William (Bill) Wells answered the call much against his father's wishes. He enlisted without telling his parents and eventually wrote to his mother to apologise.
[His original spelling has been left intact]
"I received your letter Friday," he wrote. "I have been carring a letter about in my pocket a week or more and had forgot to post it. Will write more offner in futher. I landed back all right, the only thing we had to sleep on the bricks for a few days, when we left to go up at Easter we had to burn all the straw & when we returned they hadent got it in, so we had to put up with the bricks. It was cold and hard, the first night no one hardly slept, but we have a good bunk now a bit to comfortable to get out at 6 o'clock.
"We fare pretty good here for everything, bar the uniform they havent gave us it yet but I believe we are getting it Mon or Tues. Well Mum, I hope Father has gotten over me leaving him like I did. I am sorry I left him like I did, but I felt I had to go as I thought it was my place to go and do my bit with the others. It used to hurt me to see other boys going and me staying at home. It may seem hard of me leaving you, but you just put yourself in my place and I guess you would like to go too. But I will admit that I should not have come down like I did, but I got too anxious.
"One thing I have struck a good camp. I believe Bill Agland is at Liverpool in the Inf. So he's not what they have been making out. Well Mum, I believe we are going to sail about the end of the month. So the officers will tell us. I think myself it is pretty true but we will have to spend some time training somewhere. I don't know if we will get any leave or not, but I will have to get a few days off before we go. Will let you know when I am coming. Kiss to Tops. Am sending her a little book.
"I hope father has got a good man by this. Alf was saying he was getting old Bill Medris. I hope he does well Mum. I say goodbye for the time hoping all are well with love to Scot, gran, Bub Tops, Father & self from loving Bro & Son, Bill."
Last letter written the day before his death.
Bill lasted just over a year in France before he was killed during fighting in Belgium.
He wrote to his mother on 3 October saying how fit he was after a period of rest.
"It was just what we needed," he wrote. "We had a very trying march coming up. We had three days of it on the track in all it was about 60 miles with full kit up. I tell you we were pleased when we got to our destination.
"Well you have old Snow back with you all again. I hope I will not be long before we are all back with you. The old boy is getting all he wants now that we've got him on the move now and alls in our favour too. Good weather which is the main stay. I hope it continues and we will give him all he wants.
"I had a letter from old Bert a few days back. He's going ok and is expecting to leave any day for home. He's going crook about his cousins setting up opposition to him. He says he will shake them when he gets back. His losing his right arm will make it very awkward for him but he thinks he will be able to manage the old car for all that.
"Well Mother I just received papers with Tops gum which was thankfully received. I must try and get her some little thing for Xmas. I hear she is getting quite a big girl. It was sad about poor Mrs Lewis. She must have had great trouble over his work. I got quite a surprise with tonight's mail. I had a letter from old Shaky. He seems to like the game. Yes camp life is not bad ask Snow but this side is a bit different which he knows.
"I also had a letter from Lizzie tonight she spending a few days with Auntie. They are all patiently waiting for my leave to come off, which I hope to come off shortly. Don't forget to send that money Mum. If it comes off before I think you get that other letter I will get Cliff to cable for it, that is a bit of pat for you but you will understand when you get this.
"I struck Murphy, Sams and Herb Ridings their up hear at it too. They are not too good on it, very thin on it they are fed up with it. We will all ways have a good laugh over the times we had together. It wouldn't do to say in this you will compris (French) when you hear the tale.
"Well Mother we have got a good residence here posted little dugouts in that great-noted town where there has been some great fighting, all the Aussies, all here. I am in hopes of meeting Tom Price and Claude Ash also a few of the other boys.
"I think they are going to keep all the Aussies together now. I hope they do for they will be more contented & will do much better. They have made them special storming troops. They are putting in some good work up here."
William had a different perspective on conscription to Walter Wells.
"It seems a great pity to see so many young chaps coming away! That's where conscription would give justice and make a few of the elder come over, but otherwise it is up too putty.
"You say Ern has had a falling out with the girls and taken on to roller skating. The only fall with that game, a man has too many ups and downs. I see they have gave Snow a welcome home and presentation of a gold medal. Well, all I hope he hasent got to come back to this place again.
"Well Mother those parcels of yours has not turned dup yet but I am living in hopes of them coming any day now. Some of the lads got some to day They are a mystery to me where they go too. I seem to have had bad luck with all my parcels.. Yes Auntie, Ern and the girls there are sending one Look. Mum do not outlay too much on them for I am as you see not too shore of getting them.
"Well Mother now is just about to a finish and it is getting late so I must conclude for the time. Give my best wishes to all the folks with fond love to all and kisses, From your ever loving son Will."
Will never did receive those parcels for he was killed the day after he wrote that letter. His name is recorded on Panel 7 at the Menin Gate memorial at Ypres, dedicated to the men who were lost without trace during defence of the Ypres Salient.
Powerful call from cousin not to join the war
Meanwhile, Ern's cousin Harry wrote a long letter from France describing the horrors of war and pleading with him not to get involved.
(His original spelling has been left intact)
"My dear little Earn, I have been waiting this flaming long time for a letter from you but I think all hands have turned me down since I left Australia," he wrote. "Well Earn this will be about the last letter you will get from me now, as one doesant know the day his number is called and fritz has a bad habbit of trying to put a mans light out. I am shore he will kill some one yet before he is done and tell you the truth I am expecting him to get me.
"My word Earn the part I don't like is when a chap has to sling his cobber in a whole and say fairwell to him, it is a hard thing to see your mates that have had all good times with you drop dead a few feet from you, & you never know what shell or bullet is going to cut through you. But on on you have to go, half mad, half dead, yelling, shouting, through a hell on earth, picking your best track through the shell torn & bettered ground, mud in places up to ones knees & deeper, with bullets passing & whisling over ones head & on every side & see them cut the ground in front of you then frits waiting with a glittering 18ins of cold steel.
"It is then one thinks of a dear little spot so quiet so peaceful, a place called Emu Swamp, it is then when one thinks of all his wrong doings & says many a silent prair (I will own up to it). When gass shells land & poison the little air that one breaths, I have to where a gass resperator for eight hours or more & feels like smuthering & can't touch it. It is then when one thinks of his little grey home in the west.
"Well Earn you will have to excuse my bad writing as I am some shaky & half mad. Well Earn I am going to try & get this posted in England if possible for the censors here are very strict here. Well Earn, you can take a hint out of this letter if it suits you for I can't tell you strait out but I would give you some little bit to be home with you.
"Take care of your parents & never give them any trouble. Earn I will regret all the trouble I have giving my mother. Give me my chance again, I have a bonzer little French girl over here for you. She will suit you (Parley vew Moncer las de France) right up to the handle. Well Earn time is scarce & I have duty to do & I must say fairwell as I don't expect to last long & by the time you get this I might be knocked rotten. So far I have been very lucky indeed.
"Well Earn Stewart Buesnell might not have long now to get his wish, But some day he may meet me in the field. I then will have revenge. How is Elsie doing with (?) He is a dam dope that fellower & I pity Elsie if she marries him. The dopy Ba----d. How are you doing with your (?) Earn. Good Work I suppose. But be careful & suppose you have been putting in a run with my girl whilst I have been raming bullits into my magisene rapid firing scarcely knowing which one to pull on & seeing them flow up quicker than one can cut them down & throwing hand grenaids into them. The best part is when he sais Mercy comrade me no soldier.
"Well Earn I have to go now have a good time & do stay at home, don't leave home, quite a little prair . But for your good soney. Do they ever have any dances now I am gone. Hoping this will reach you & hoping you are in the best of health. Remember me to all, Tell Elt (?) I will try & write shortly. Best of wishes till I return that will be in 1954 for Christmas dinner. We will get boosed up then & Remain your loving Grandfather, Harry. [Harry was, in fact, Ern's uncle. Why he called himself Grandfather may have been a family joke]
"As I write this note the ground is jumping under my feet & airplains buzzing & humming over head shells bursting & a regular hell on earth, unexplainable, so keep on smiling K.O.S. We are taring hell out of Frits now - I really think another 5 years will end this war. I call it whole sail slaughter Earn this last battle taught fritz that we couldn't be plaid with. Our company went in two hundread strong & we lost nearly or more than half to get across at him, but we did give it to him when we got there. But after that stunt there were only 43 of us to answer our names & tremble in the legs now when I think of it.
"A little wooden cross over my head back a little from the trenches & used to be expecting a bullet at any moment to tare through me. I felt the wind of several bullets pass my face that day & whistle as they passed. But that only makes one thirst for their blod but every step you go you wounder when your work (?) is coming & expecting it every second & woundering where you are going to get hit. All this goes through your mind in two seconds."
(No changes have been made to the spelling or grammar of the original letters)