A war of words: Letters from the World War I trenches

Old photo of soldier from the first World War.

Gary Tippet

Posted April 25, 2017

Soldiers’ letters live on, 100 years after one of the worst years of the worst war. Read some of the letters from the trenches here.

On those quieter autumn nights in 1915, a young South Australian, Herbert Keith Furguson, would find a little time to be alone, climbing to a high, protected spot, to forget for a moment the hell around him and enjoy the simple beauty of the sun going down.

He told about it in a wonderfully eloquent letter to someone back home: “Since leaving Australia I have seen many sights, some glorious and beautiful, some squalid in Egypt, and some here I wish to forget.”

Here being Gallipoli.

Furguson was a private in C Company of the 28th Battalion of the AIF and as he scribbled those words he was on Russell’s Top, a key, bullet-crossed high point in the failing battle for the peninsula. Sunrises there were just a colouring of the sky, hidden behind the impassable ridges, he wrote.

The rattle of murder

“But the sunsets I have seen I haven’t the power to paint a word-picture good enough to describe. They are beyond description; magnificent: To use an Australianism, ‘It has me beat’. I have stood whilst stationed at our highest and furthest point inland, 40 yards from the Turks, and watched the glories of a Mediterranean sunset in front and heard the rattle of murder behind.

“Therein lies the difference between nature and human nature. I am not alone in this. We watch, we wonder, we smile, then we pick up the rifle and have another shot.”

Over recent years, I have researched the battles and battalions of the First World War for a series of books charting the journeys of individual Australian soldiers. In between the dry unit diaries and the dense official histories is a treasure of first-person reportage, recorded in letters home, passed on and published in the Anzacs’ local newspapers.


Soldiers rise from the trenches and into combat.

"For in peace children bury their parents, and in war parents bury their children".

Heartbreaking honesty

Many are written with the same sort of poetry, power and perception – and often, heartbreaking honesty – as Furguson’s lovely letter. These farmers’ sons, clerks, teachers and navvies sent home unvarnished truths – and sometimes, you have to suspect, outright reassuring lies – about how they and their mates lived and fought and died on Gallipoli, in the desert and in the mud and blood of the Western Front.

The great war poet Wilfred Owen – killed one week before the war’s end – said: “My subject is war and the pity of war.” That pity seeps through so many of these letters, such as Light Horse Trooper Hamlin Carrol’s rumination on the future from Egypt in 1916: “I suppose we must expect big casualty lists from now on – for in peace children bury their parents and in war parents bury their children.”

You have to wonder what those in Australia – and particularly the authorities – thought when the Adelaide Advertiser ran this, from Private Arthur Tame on Gallipoli: “People do not know what this war is like: it is next to hell”. Or this in the Maitland Daily Mercury from Private Nugget Bell of the 20th Battalion near Armentieres, following an artillery barrage in 1916: “I don’t call it war, I call it scientific murder.”

The writers – and editors – spared their readers none of the horror. Edwin Floody, a wounded 6th Battalion private, wrote back about what he experienced while delivering “tear producers” (letters from home) at Gallipoli: “The moans and groans, the entreating cries of some to be released from their agony, the dreadfully mutilated bodies of the hopelessly wounded, and the corpses of those who have given their all for their country’s cause, all contribute to the ghastly pageant of bloody butchery – the thing that you at home call war.”

Then there was the stench of the dead lying everywhere, he added. “It is like a stage scene, with the dull crimson setting of blood.”


Futile sacrifice

On 7 August, 1915, the generals sent four waves of men from the 8th and 10th Light Horse in the futile, sacrificial feint at The Nek. The Turks knew they were coming, were waiting with machine guns and, said Major Alan Love of the 10th, “there was no living against them”.

In the first two lines, 154 men of the 8th were killed and 80 wounded, nearly every one of them within metres of the trench parapet. Yet twice more the West Australians of the 10th filed in and jumped off at the signal. Of the 138 more who were lost, 80 were killed. Yet they went, running like hares into the bullets.

“Our poor chaps went down like flies,” trooper George Horace James wrote in a letter to his mother from hospital. “They talk about VCs, but I reckon no man needs more courage than he who knows as soon as he hops the parapet of his own trench he is going to his death.”

In 1916 the Anzacs were hopping the parapets in the industrialised slaughter of the Western Front. Initially, some claimed to be itching for it: “When the order is issued we shall be into it like a pig into porridge,” wrote Sydney boxer Bill Rudd in a letter to the sporting paper The Referee. “There will be skin and hair flying, and it will be a case of the first in first served …”


The ruins of a war ravaged building.

The first World War was the ultimate sacrifice for all involved.

Murderous toll

But reality bit. Fromelles on 19 July was “the worst 24 hours in Australian history” with 5533 casualties.  At Pozieres 6800 died, a toll comparable to the entire Gallipoli campaign. And so it went, at Bullecourt, Villers-Bretonneux, Passchendaele and more for the next two-and-a-half mass-murderous years.

The letters kept coming too, unflinchingly describing what it was like in the midst of it. George Warnecke, a 19th Battalion corporal and later founding editor of the Women’s Weekly, wrote of “the silent, stealthy death – a sniper’s bullet through the brain”.

More often it was a cacophony. “Bullets thick round us like wasps, while all along the front of us machine guns crackle like little spitting devils,” wrote Private A.W. Brain of the 60th Battalion. Or this from Signaller Harley Matthews: “Some go past making a noise like a mewing kitten. Others have quite a musical note. You would think someone was hitting a telephone wire rapidly with a stick when a machine gun plays on your trenches.”

A private of the 17th used a striking simile to describe the dread of artillery bombardments: “Iron foundries are coming at you.”

And they came with a cost. “War is a thousand times worse than I thought it would be,” wrote Private T. J. Graham in November 1916. “It’s not war at all, men just simply get blown up, without seeing one another.”

But too often it wasn’t anonymous. George Warnecke’s letter described a corpse-littered German trench at Flers: “There were very many of them, you couldn’t walk a yard without walking on them – all dead, fair-faced, blue-eyed men, eyes that never winked.”


He was only a boy

West Australian Private John Smith wrote to a friend about one pitiful encounter. At Pozieres in the enemy trenches he made a “bulldog-rush” at an enemy, just pulling up when he saw the German was wounded. “I looked close into his face, and he was only a boy; I’ll swear that he was not more than 16. Poor little beggar, I did pity him.”

He left him, returning at daylight, “… and saw young Fritz lying in the trench dead. Someone had got him during the night. It was bad luck for him – but anyhow, war is war and it is all in.”

And so it was for Herbert Kroeger Zelling, the South Australian who changed his name to Furguson because of anti-German sentiment at the outbreak of war. HK survived Gallipoli, transferred to the 51st Battalion and was with it when it launched the iconic attack to free Villers-Bretonneux on 24 April, 1918.

He remains there still, killed in the “rattle of murder” in No-Man’s Land. In one more letter, Lance-Corporal W.K. Orr told an inquiry of the Red Cross: “… he lies buried in a fighting soldier’s grave in the bloodiest part of France that the Australians have ever been over.”


Visit the battlefields

These significant sites in Australia's World War One history have facilities that tell visitors the story.

Gallipoli: The Anzac Walk at Gallipoli is a two-kilometre circuit that visits 14 significant sites of the doomed campaign, including Shrapnel Valley, Lone Pine and The Nek.

France/Belgium: The main Western Front sites form the Australian Remembrance Trail. These include the Australian Memorial Park at Fromelles, new walking trails and displays at Pozieres, Mouquet Farm near Pozieres (scene of heroics by, among others, revered Victorian VC recipient Albert Jacka), and Villers-Bretonneux, a village where the school playground carries a sign saying: "Do Not Forget Australia.”