It is almost 100 years since the Gallipoli landing. Many Australians are taking an interest in the history of the First World War, even if they haven't done so before, and I am one of them. The commemoration of Anzac Day later this month feels particularly significant to many because of the century passing.
For myself, it is only in the last year or two that I have taken much interest in my family history, and in the last months I have been reading some family letters and diaries from World War One.
Here is my great-grandfather, Francis Maitland Woods, who went with the Light Horse Brigade into Gallipoli as reinforcements.
In a letter home from Gallipoli, dated the 14th of August 1915, he writes about a family friend:
"Really I don't think he is strong enough for this life, it's alright for a chap who can stand it but it would pull some chaps down very quickly."
From what I've read, I think that is quite the understatement. He reports to his family about a number of men they know: some killed, some still "doing A1". I looked some of them up using Trove and found an article about a church play (Cinderella) that featured quite a few of those names. The childhood acquaintances, once the Prince and the Herald, now fighting and dying together on the other side of the world.
"One does get tired of this place, never a change of scenery or life. When I get back I believe I shall live on Roast duck etc. till I'm broke."
Here is Francis with his father, The Reverend William Maitland Woods, who was a Chaplain, also with the Light Horse Brigade. He joined up after his son, and they managed to end up together for large periods of the war. We have a lot of letters from him, a photo album, and part of his diary from Gallipoli. In addition to this, the State Library of Queensland has a collection of letters he wrote to his friend Canon Garland, and they recently digitised the entire lot, including a typed copy of his diary from Egypt. He was evidently an unstoppable letter-writer.
I'd like to share some of the most interesting, and affecting, parts of his diary. In his letters and his diaries he writes everything, and jumps back and forth between humour and horror without pause. He was devoutly religious and dedicated to his position as Chaplain, taking his responsibilities very seriously, but with wit as well. He writes about keeping his white collar clean by storing it wrapped in newspaper and bringing it out on Sunday so the men he visits in the trenches know what day it is. Gallipoli, however, clearly took its toll on his spirit, as it must have done to them all.
"I must say here that I was surprised that all this blood and misery
and heart-ache should be caused by a desire to hang on to such a slim hold of
terrain. We could almost throw a biscuit into the sea from any part of our
trenches on Gallipoli."
"The cold is now intense and I am glad of the blanket coat which I
obtained in Alexandria. The Colonel in charge, when I asked for a great coat
for Gallipoli, said that there was not one left in the whole city. All had been
taken for Gallipoli. "But," he added, "I'll have a look in dead
men's kits, I see no reason why they should be sent home when you want one so
badly." So here I had one. A man had evidently been shot in it owing to
certain evidences. It was made of felt an inch thick, fastened with toggles
instead of buttons, and a trooper whom I passed when it was snowing turned
round suddenly to me and said "If you get pipped, can I have your
"I remember one lad, he could not have been more than fifteen years
old, showing the dead body for which he was responsible. What the effect was of
this slaughter on so young a lad I hardly like to imagine. I had some
difficulty in repressing a sense of disgust."
Nothing comes close to how powerfully the words of your ancestors can make history - and the appalling nature of war - seem real. I often feel lucky to have such amazing pieces of family history to reflect on. More than that, I am lucky to be alive at all.