Life Interrupted: Personal Diaries from WWI

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5 Jul 2014 – 21 Sep 2014 
Exhibition Galleries, State Library of NSW

I saw this wonderful exhibition at the State Library of NSW a few weeks ago.

From 1918 the State Library of NSW began collecting the WWI stories of servicemen, doctors, nurses, stretcher-bearers and journalists so that future generations would know about their experiences.

This extract from the exhibition program gives an insight into the Library’s collection:

By 1921 the total number of war diaries in the Library had reached 247, complemented by collections of letters and in some cases photo albums as well. Today the collection stands at around 550 diarists and over 1100 volumes.

A small number of diaries were acquired from the families of men killed abroad but the majority in this collection were purchased from men who made it home, survivors, many of them diarists over two, three or four years.

The diaries take many forms. Some were written on odd sheets of paper or in memo books or signal message books. Others were cloth or leather bound.

The soldiers, airmen, sailors and nurses who kept a diary, knew they had a big story to tell. For some their diary was a way to connect to home. They were writing for an imagined audience, for the family and friends they left behind. The importance of a  ‘conversation’ with home can hardly be overstated. Along with letters and postcards and sometimes photographs, the diaries were the Facebook of their day.

Last but not least, these wartime chroniclers wanted a record of duty done. They wrote of hard times, of battle and death and ruin everywhere. There are lines, hastily scrawled upon the eve of battle, by soldiers who knew this entry might be their last.

These are voices full of life and fun and fear; and resolute purpose. They are voices from the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century, a tragedy that engulfed an age.

Peter Cochrane – July 2014

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Over 500 World War I diaries on display at the State Library of NSW.

The exhibition Life Interrupted: Personal Diaries from World War I is beautifully curated by Elise Edmonds. The chronicle of the war is highlighted by the captivating personal accounts of those who enlisted – farmers, doctors, nurses, photographers and artists – and is supported by newspapers, photographs, artworks, maps and ephemera.

Many of the photographs in the exhibition are by Private Henry Charles MARSHALL (1890-1915) who enlisted in Sydney in the same week as my grandfather Ernest Clive BUCK (1895-1974).  My grandfather’s service number was 571 and MARSHALL’s was 577. They were both in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), 1st Infantry Battalion, E Company. They served together throughout training billeted at the racecourse at Kensington. They embarked on HMAT Afric out of Sydney for the Middle East.

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Henry Charles Marshall (1890–1915). Kensington to Cairo and from Cairo to Gallipoli: Album of photographs, 1914–1915. [State Library of NSW PXA 1861]

Henry Charles MARSHALL photographed his journey from the military camp at Kensington in Sydney, to Cairo and then on to Gallipoli. He captured the daily lives of the 1st Battalion setting up camp and pitching their tents at Mena in Egypt near the pyramids.

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Pitching tents in sight of pyramids, Henry Charles Marshall (1890–1915). Kensington to Cairo and from Cairo to Gallipoli: Album of photographs, 1914–1915. [State Library of NSW PXA 1861]

MARSHALL photographed the 1st Battalion rowing towards the enemy shore at Gallipoli on the afternoon of 25 April 1915. He captured candid scenes of his mates from E Company in the trenches and relaxing with mugs of tea during a lull in the fighting.

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Uncaptioned photo of Australian servicemen at Gallipoli, Henry Charles Marshall (1890–1915). Kensington to Cairo and from Cairo to Gallipoli: Album of photographs, 1914–1915. [State Library of NSW PXA 1861]

 On 5 June 1915, both Henry Charles MARSHALL and Ernest Clive BUCK were severely wounded in fighting. Henry received a gun shot wound to the chest and died aboard a hospital ship and was buried at sea. Ernest was shot and bayoneted in the chest. He was evacuated to a hospital ship and then to the base hospital on the island of Malta a fortnight later; and then on to England to recover from his injuries. Ernest was one of the few who survived such severe injuries.

Private MARSHALL’s, films, photos, letters and equipment were sent back to his family in Devonport, Tasmania. His father and sister organised the photos in chronological order and created an album using information in Henry’s note books as a photo index.

I believe the Marshall family offered copies of the photos and albums to the ex-servicemen of the 1st Battalion. My grandfather Ernest had an album, Kensington to Cairo, but not the Cairo to Gallipoli volume. Maybe he did not need photos to remember the horrors of the Gallipoli campaign.

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This is why we wear our hats turned up on the side, Lieut PV Ryan (1881-1950). Sketchbook purchased by the State Library of NSW in 1919.

The exhibition doesn’t only focus on Gallipoli, it gives a voice to all the brave servicemen and women, from the beginning of the war in Ausust 1914, through all the desert campaigns of the Middle East and the muddy trenches of France.

One of the diaries featured in the exhibition is that of Anne DONNELL, a nurse stationed near Ypres, France. On New Year’s Day 1918 she sat on her bed and wept, homesick and exhausted. She had been away from home for three years. Sister Donnell was working in the acute medical ward. Her patients were mainly suffering from gas poisoning and there were lots of pneumonia cases. As she wrote in her diary, she could detect the smell of sickly sweet pineapple in the air – the tell-tale sign of poison gas:

‘10 p.m. Will this restless life never end. As I write the shelling is going on again – heavier too. I am not undressing – It’s a terrible life this’.

The Life Interrupted exhibition at the State Library of NSW is free and runs until 24 September 2014. I recommend you block out a day in your diary to visit the Library, and reflect on the personal accounts of these extraordinary men and women of the global conflict a century ago, which profoundly affected and shaped Australia and its people.

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SOURCES: State Library of NSWKensington to Cairo and from Cairo to Gallipoli: Album of photographs, 1914–1915. Henry Charles MARSHALL [State Library of NSW PXA 1861]; Kensington to Cairo: photo album, 1914–1915. Henry Charles MARSHALL, Buck/Brooks family collection; WWI service records of Henry Charles MARSHALL and Ernest Clive BUCK.

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susanah’s journal – light of the lord

An extract from the journal of Miss Susanah WELLINGTON (1819-1838) of Yeovil, Somerset. Susanah attended Mrs Eason’s School in Yeovil, she was 12 years old when she transcribed the following letter into her notebook.

Letter from Charlotte Bowles to her students, dated Yeovil 7 February 1832.

Letter from Charlotte Bowles to her students, dated Yeovil 7 February 1832.

The transcript of a letter from Charlotte BOWLES (possibly a head teacher or a scripture teacher) to the young students in her charge.

Yeovil Feb 7th 1832

My dear children

I wish to remove from your minds all embarrassment and reserve that we may derive both pleasure and benefit from our intercourse though it is but newly established. You are aware that my wish is to improve your understandings and to extend your knowledge but this cannot be done merely by the communication of my thoughts. I also need access to yours.

Be as candid then as you please when you dictate your letters for my perusal; ask any questions which you think important and I will endeavour to furnish you with a reply.

And you must not be surprised, if in my turn, I make a few enquiries now and then because by this means I shall readily obtain an insight into the stores of your information and into the readiness with which you can discriminate and apply. Do you think you comprehend me? If not, I will try to be a little plainer.

If you remember that the other day you were reading me that part of Exodus in which Aaron was commanded to light the lights in the tabernacle. You recollect too that I told you I apprehended these lights to be symbols of Him who is always and especially present where His honour dwelleth, and as God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all, so, in the holy places the shades of night were not suffered to seek because the scripture makes the following enquiry: What communion hath light with darkness?

Though this was the information which you had previously received, perhaps you can recall it to your minds that it was in the following way: If God be always in His house ready to meet us, should we not be desirous to meet Him? And should we not prove the sincerity of our desire by an early attendance, whenever the doors of the temple are opened for our admission?

Now I hope this rehearsal of your lesson will illustrate my meaning with respect to the application of your knowledge.

I shall be very glad of your several answers to this short communication and till then, believe my dear children that I am

Your sincere friend
Charlotte Bowles

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This is the first entry in Susanah’s journal. She may have received the small red leather notebook as a gift for Christmas 1831 and used it to record important lessons when she began school in the new year.

We can speculate that Charlotte BOWLES had only recently been appointed to teach at Mrs Eason’s School, as she wrote that her ‘intercourse’ or communication with her students was ‘but newly established’. Either the teacher was new to the school or the students were new to the teacher. Possibly Susanah was one of the new girls in the junior class eager to learn her lessons.

Susanah and her family were devout Christians, they lived very near the parish church of St John. Susanah wrote that she attended sermons at the church and various other Christian meetings within Yeovil. Scripture lessons formed a large part of the teaching curriculum in schools in the 19th century.

Parish Church of St John, Yeovil. Its large arched windows let in so much light it was called ‘The Lantern of the West’.

Parish Church of St John, Yeovil. A church has existed on the site since at least the 10th century. It was rebuilt in the years 1380-1400. Its large arched windows let in so much light it was called ‘The Lantern of the West’.

Charlotte BOWLES appears to have been an enthusiastic teacher and keen to engage the minds of her pupils by encouraging them to enlighten themselves. She invited them to ask questions so as to advance their journey from the darkness of ignorance.

A quote from the former British Prime Minister, Sir Winston CHURCHILL is very apt:

‘If you have knowledge, let others light their candles with it’.

Do you think that Charlotte BOWLES, as a teacher, would be pleased her lessons are still being read 181 years after they were first written?

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Sources: Susanah Wellington’s Journal, Hastings family collection. You can read more about it here: susanah’s journal – somerset to sydneyJournal transcription by Terry HASTINGS.