They are written in pen or pencil, on simple sheets of lined paper, sometimes headed with the insignia of the Australian Imperial Force, or on the reverse of picture postcards.
In an incredibly neat hand, considering the circumstances, the tone is always polite, invariably opening with something along the lines of “hoping this letter finds you in the best of health, as it leaves me at present”.
These are the personal messages from a young Les Harrison, fighting on the Western Front during World War I, to his mother Jessie, father Bill, younger brother Aub and sisters Phyllis and Myra back home.
Preserved by Les’s family over the past century, the letters and postcards are remarkably intact and mostly legible.
As we approach 100 years since the end of the Great War, the correspondence provides a fascinating insight into the experiences of a twenty-something lad from country New South Wales fighting for King and country in a foreign land.
The battles on the Western Front, through France and Belgium, were some of the most brutal of WWI. More than 46,000 Australians died and 132,000 were wounded during the campaigns around Fromelles, the Somme, Bullecourt, Messines, Passchendaele and Villers-Bretonneux.
Descriptions of the conditions in the trenches, where the soldiers faced a quagmire of mud in the European winter, infestations of rats, and the constant threat of being maimed or killed by enemy shelling, are horrific.
Yet, Les Harrison’s letters and postcards to his family remain full of hope and humour.
There are thanks for news and parcels, an appreciation for gifts of socks, lollies, cake and honey, but more for cigarettes; exchanges about friends who are also in the fighting forces; concern about the weather and business at home, and dreams of shooting rabbits and foxes when he returns.
Les Harrison, a 21-year-old carpenter from Aberdeen in the Hunter Valley of NSW, enlisted in the Australian army at Maitland in September 1916. Apparently he wanted to sign up earlier but his parents wouldn’t allow it. At 21, he was an adult and could make his own decision.
He became a private in the 56th Battalion of the AIF, arriving in England on the troopship HMAT Suevic in late January 1917.
His first taste of action came in the middle of the year. His 5th Division was the last of the 56th Battalion to be called across to France as reinforcements. Already thousands of soldiers had been lost.
Les escaped serious injury although had a couple of stints in hospital with illness and suffered from exposure to mustard gas. He writes of one friend Fred Hughes who was blinded and another Archie Dodds who died in an attack at Peronne in August 1918.
Les returned home after the war in May 1919 and resumed his carpentry career, establishing himself as a well-known and respected builder around Aberdeen.
He married Dorothy Taylor and they had seven children – six boys and a daughter. Les died in Aberdeen in 1956, aged 61, from a heart attack.
Hurdcott Camp, England
Well mother, I am nearly a full blown machine gunner now. I have been through the school and have to pass the exam Sat morn which I think I will flying. If I pass I will send you home the badge they give us to wear. I like the gun very much. It is called the Lewis machine gun. One of the latest and best we have got, fires 800 rounds a minute. We do not join up the machine gun section till we get to France. The 7th Rein[forcement] of 56 Batt left for France last night so I suppose we will soon follow. I think we will knock Fritz to the devil soon now.
My Dear Mother, I received your very welcome parcel safely yesterday. My word I was glad of it. I was broke and never had a smoke for a couple of days … You bet I had a good smoke when I got them Three Castles cigs. They are a lot better than the English cigs. The lollies were just the thing too … Well mother, we were reviewed by King George on Tuesday 17th. It was a long time coming off but it came off alright. On Tuesday we marched from Hurdcott to a camp called Rollestone, a distance of about eighteen miles. We had full packs up too and it rained nearly all the way over. We camped in tents for the night and marched to Bulford next day. It is six miles away. We had to go through Lark Hill camp on the way.
I had a good look at George as we marched past as I was near the end of the line. He is not a very remarkable man to look at. We marched back to Rollestone and camped there for the night and came home to Hurdcott on Wednesday ... My word it was a great sight to see all the Aus troops. There was nearly forty thousand men there and the sun shining on the bayonets made it a great sight.
My Dear Mother, I received your letter sent in May, also the one from Aub. Campbells stores seem to have a habit of being burnt down. I also had a letter from Alice W and they had a house burnt down alongside them too. So things must be a bit startling about the district. It’s a bit more startling over here where we are. Fritz’s planes have been coming over pretty often, dropping bombs. He was over here in the daytime and the shells were bursting all around him but he got away all right. It looks all right to see them shooting at him of a night, about a dozen searchlights searching the sky and see the red flame up in the sky when the shells burst. I was nearly getting a Blighty [a wound serious enough to require recuperation away from the trenches, but not serious enough to kill or maim] last Friday. I was up in a village and Fritz started lobbing Jack Johnsons [a heavy, black German artillery shell] over. One hit a three-storey house and sent bricks and everything up in the air about a hundred yards from where I was. I tell you we all got out as quick as we could.
It seems funny when I was at Liverpool [Sydney camp] and first got a pack. The overcoat nearly weighed me down, now we carry 150 rounds of ammunition, shirts and socks, blanket, 24 hours iron rations and everything we want and sometimes we march for days and think nothing of it with our steel lids on too … We will be able to carry our swags well when we get back and want to move up the country … We are still in the same billets amongst the cows and pigs, a fellow won’t be very particular where he lays down to camp when he gets home. We are right on the main supply line to the front line. The trains are going up and down all day, see great guns coming back smashed up, trainloads of Fritz prisoners coming in and the Red Cross trains full of wounded coming down one after the other … I pity the poor French civilians getting their homes blown down on them and the Germans sent gas shells into one village and gassed about five hundred women and children and I think gas is the worst thing of the whole lot. We carry two respirators to wear to protect us from gas and they are good ones too. Our gas is worse than Fritz’s gas and Fritz gets his share of it too when the weather is suitable.
We came out of the line last night and we are in some decent huts now, different to living in the ground like rabbits. We had fifteen days in altogether, we might be out now for a couple of months. I received the parcel Phyllis packed from the Aberdeen Friends while I was up the line, was very glad of it. I wished there had been a few more smokes in it … We are getting paid today, we have not been paid for a month now so we will have a double pay and will be able to have a good time for a while.
I met a fellow I knew in Aberdeen the other day, he is in the same Batt as me. You may have heard of Jack Broad. Phyllis may know him, he used to go to all the dances. He worked at Bill Stevens’ place. Fred Hughes is still getting on alright, he is in an institution where they learn the blind a trade. It must be a terrible misfortune for him, he type writes his own letters, he says he thinks it’s a punishment on him but it seems a miracle that anyone comes out from the hail of shot and shell in a hop over … Tell Dad to look after my little rifle and don’t let it get rusty. I may want it to go shooting foxes some day if I have luck. I suppose Aub will soon be learning to shoot now. Well mother, it’s a pity the war wouldn’t end, it’s been going long enough and I don’t think the war will ever end by fighting.
Dear Phyllis, I received your welcome letter dated 19/12/17, was very glad to hear you were all ok as everything in the garden is lovely, even the turnips and there are plenty here, some of them as big as buckets. I think they have been growing since the start of the war. That’s about all a fellow sees up here amongst the shell holes is turnips.
Edmonton Hospital, England
You will see by this letter that I am in hospital here about nine miles from the middle of London or to be correct we are in the suburbs of London. I got crook in our little dugout on the 20th and that night they took me up to see the Medical Officer of our Batt and he had a look at me and took my temp which was 102.6 and sent me to the Advanced Dressing Station and I went from there in an ambulance to the Main Dressing Station. I must not forget to say I was pretty lucky to get away for while I was at the Dressing Station, Old Fritz started a barrage at half past eleven which he kept up for eight hours and hopped over on our Batt and took the front line off them and belted them back … I am sorry losing my pack and belongings, I never brought anything out of the line with me, but get plenty more when I get out of hospital. I am feeling pretty fit. Influenza and something wrong with the lungs is what marked on my card. It’s nothing to a shipwreck. I will soon be back with the boys … We was up in the line between Ypres and Messines, opposite a town that was in Fritz’s hands called Commines … Fritz is doing some great pushing down about Bapaume on the Somme, he will come a terrible thud sooner or later … All leave is cancelled from France now till the big push is over.
Sand Hill Camp, Warminster
Well Mother, you will see by this letter I have left the Hurdcott Front once again. I am in the overseas training battn here. They will keep me here three weeks training and then we will get pushed across to help keep the Cruel Hun back again. I feel a dinkum Anzac now, we have our rifle, steel hat and gas helmet and equipment, everything we need on the battlefield. When I went over before we never got our rifles or tin hats till we got to France. They must have the wind up and expect Fritz to meet us coming off the boats … I know he will have the wind up me for a start, a fellow knows what he is going into, not like last time. A fellow had no idea what it was like, in fact I thought it was fine right till they started lobbing close to me.
Well Mother, we came out of the line about a week ago after we had went through Fritz’s Hindenburg line on the left of St Quentin, and now we are out among the French people again for a bit of a spell. The people about us don’t seem to think the war will last too long now. I hope they are right. I made Myra a little Fritz aeroplane, I am sending it to her for a Xmas present. I am also sending Aub a Fritz belt and a cap. The words on the buckle mean ‘God with us’. I gave the cap a wash and have been wearing it myself. I took it off a live Fritz and gave him one off a dead one.
I have got a few Xmas cards and am enclosing one in this letter … the places where we have been fighting is on the card but the nearest I have been in was Peronne. I can tell you I was thinking when we went in there on the 1st and 2nd of September I never want to see anything like it again and poor Archie Dodds getting killed made it worse but I think the war will soon be over now.
- Aub’s son Geoff Harrison and Les’s son Neville were instrumental in collating the letters and postcards that Les sent home during WWI and researching Les’s war service.
- Joanne Crawford is an editor with Fairfax Media. Her husband Graham Harrison is Les’s grandson.