Why should you people at home not know the horrors of war

Name: John Alexander Raws
Date: 1916
Unit: 23rd Battalion, 6th Brigade
Location: Pozières, France

John Alexander Raws wasn't in the war for long but in the four weeks or so he was there, he saw and experienced the most horrific fighting of World War I.

As a 2nd Lieutenant he left Melbourne on 28 March 1916 on the Orantes in charge of reinforcements for the 22nd Battalion of the 6th Brigade. He was transferred while in Egypt to his brother's Battalion, the 23rd, which was fighting in France.

He was thrown into the thick of the fighting and witnessed all the horrors of war over the next few weeks but was killed by a high explosive shell near Pozières in France on 23 August 1916.

Writing to his mate, Leslie Thompson Cowan, just a week before he was killed, John Raws gave vent to his feelings.

Dear Old Les,

I've been through a hell of a time over here in the Great Push & haven't had opportunity for writing," he wrote. "But I have come through so far unscathed. In my last 10 days on the Somme I suppose we saw more fighting than many men have in two years at the War."

"We were terribly cut up and a great many friends of mine are gone forever. My brother was lost on July 29. I had just joined him in the 23rd Battalion. I am out for a short spell & then going in again.

"You have no idea of the hell and horror of a great advance, old fellow, and I hope you never will have. We fought and lived as we stood, day and night, without even overcoats to put on at night & with very little food. The place was not littered but covered with dead & as we were under continuous fire & were moving about a lot, and when still were in very narrow, shallow trenches, we could do no burying. The last meal I had was one I shook from a dead German.

"I won't give you my idea of war. But if I ever come back I'll tell you. Be content to know that it is bloody awful. I've stuck it all right so far, not lost my nerve, not gone mad & not fallen down on my job. And I've had some pretty rotten ones.

John Raws wrote some of the most graphic descriptions of fighting to members of his family. In a letter to his brother on 12 August he wrote:

"The Australian casualties have been very heavy - fully 50 per cent in our brigade, for the ten or eleven days. I lost, in three days, my brother and two best friends, and in all six out of seven of all my officer friends (perhaps a score in number) who went into the scrap - all killed. Not one was buried, and some died in great agony. It was impossible to help the wounded at all in some sectors. We could fetch them in, but could not get them away. And often we had to put them out on the parapet to permit movement in the shallow, narrow, crooked trenches. The dead were everywhere. There had been no burying in the sector I was in for a week before we went there."

John Raws wrote also about senior officers cracking under the strain.

"One or two of my friends stood splendidly, like granite rocks round which the seas stormed in vain. They were all junior officers. But many other fine men broke to pieces. Everyone called it shell shock. But shell shock is very rare. What 90 per cent get is justifiable funk, due to the collapse of the helm - self-control."

Writing to Mr Norman Bayles MLA on 4 August 1916, Raws described the scene around him.

"I write from the battlefield of the Great Push with thousands of shells passing in a tornado overhead and thousands of unburied dead around me. It seems easy to say that, but you who have not seen it can hardly conceive the awfulness of it."

"I've just read a letter from you dated May 16 and that makes me think of writing to you, absurd though it is to think of writing in this inferno. Your letters are such a comfort and by Jove it's good of you to write.

"One feels on a battlefield such as this one can never survive, or that if the body lives the brain must go forever. For the horrors one sees and the never-ending shock of the shells is more than can be borne. Hell must be a home to it.

"The Gallipoli veterans here say that the Peninsula was a happy picnic to this push. We've read of Verdun - they say this knocks it hollow. My battalion has been at it for eight days and one-third of it is left - all shattered at that. And they're sticking it still, incomparable heroes all. We are lousy, stinking, ragged, unshaven, sleepless. Even when we're back a bit we can't sleep for our own guns. I have one puttee, a dead man's helmet, another dead man's gas protector, a dead man's bayonet. My tunic is rotten with other men's blood and partly splattered with a comrade's brains. It is horrible but why should you people at home not know."

Writing to his sister on 8 August 1916, Raws described digging trenches under constant shell fire.

"We got away as best we could. I was again in the rear going back and again we were cut off and lost. I was buried twice, and thrown down several times - buried with dead and dying. The ground was covered with bodies in all stages of decay and mutilation, and I would, after struggling free from the earth, pick up a body by me to try to lift him out with me, and find him a decayed corpse. I pulled a head off --- was covered with blood. The horror was indescribable."

In a letter to his brother-in-law Norman, Raws described more of his experiences.

"Shrapnel, minewerfers, whizz-bangs, bombs, lachrymose shells, gas shells, - and thousands of gaping dead. The stench, and the horridness of it can but be mentioned. I have sat on corpses, walked on corpses and pillaged corpses. I got many interesting German souvenirs and could have secured cartloads from their trenches, but I lost most that I took, and usually was too busy to pick up anything. I lost nearly all my equipment and clothes and with them my curiosities but I brought back one bonzer souvenir that I did not expect to bring back - myself."

In little more than a month of fighting, 2nd Lt John Alexander Raws saw such horror and endured such privations that he could have been forgiven for going mad like so many fellow officers. Instead he died, struck by a high-explosive shell which killed him instantly on 23 August 1916.

His family back home at Malvern, South Australia, collected his letters together and published them in a booklet called Records of an Australian Lieutenant - A story of Bravery, Devotion, and Self Sacrifice. 1915/1916.

A copy of the booklet was given to Les Cowan who passed it on to his son Darcy. When he died in 1968 it was kept by his wife Betty until she died in 1998 and now resides with her daughter Jane Brooks.

The material for this article was supplied by Jane Brooks of South Australia

Last updated: 15 November 2022

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2022), Why should you people at home not know the horrors of war, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 28 May 2023, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/australians-wartime/why-should-you-people-home-not-know-horrors-war
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