Review Blog

Dec 04 2018

Pens and bayonets : letters from the front by soldiers of Yorke Peninsula, South Australia during the Great War by Don Longo

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Wakefield Press, 2018. ISBN 9781743056103
(Age: 16+) Recommended for history enthusiasts and students. If I had to sum up this great book in one word, it would be 'poignant'.
Soldiers who grew up on farms and in towns on the Yorke Peninsula (and those who moved there for work) wrote letters from the First World War battlefields, from hospitals and rest areas. These letters were most commonly written to close family members but many were sent to newspapers, sporting clubs and social groups - as a means of informing the district about the exploits of local men but also to rally support for the cause.
I often struggle with epistolary works which lack the formal structure of standard non-fiction. These letters however have been carefully selected to provide a soldier's perspective to the campaigns and battles in which these local identities were involved. I'm certain that the editor would have been tormented at having to limit himself to including only two or three letters per battle or theatre but in doing so, he has created a highly readable and very interesting book.
The letters are introduced by short explanations of the historical background in terms of the First World War's momentous events, geography, and notable facts. The text from the soldiers' communications is followed by summaries of the individual's service experience and details of their lives following the war.
I found this touching and sometimes very sad. Considering that most of these young men were farmers, miners and manual labourers with education probably limited to lower secondary level, I was impressed at their usually high level of literacy. Given the circumstances under which the letters were written, the spelling and grammar are superior to contemporary communications. Above all, most writers were incredibly articulate and this is certainly not limited to those from the relative minority of officers who were presumably educated to a higher standard.
It is moving to read the words from men who were exhausted and traumatised, who clearly needed to confide in their loved ones but were simultaneously trying to withhold gruesome and frightening elements whilst attempting to reassure that they would be safe. It tears at the heart to read in the summaries immediately after the letter that they were killed a few weeks after writing. In contrast, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief to learn that laconic diggers, dodging shot, shrapnel and gas on the Somme or other, equally dreadful hellhole, returned to farm at Curramulka or open a shop in Moonta and died at the age of 87.
Sadly, these examples are in the minority and a frightening number of soldiers who survived the war and returned to South Australia died in their forties and fifties. Another confronting aspect which I didn't expect was that so many of these soldiers appeared to spend significant lengths of time in hospital, not from wounds but from influenza and presumably water borne diseases.
It was difficult to read this work without picturing the familiar towns such as Moonta, Ardrossan, Maitland, Minlaton, Port Victoria and the like. One hundred years later, these are still small, tight knit communities where individuals are valued and their achievements celebrated. I felt a profound sympathy for the families and friends of these soldiers who were so proud of their boys but must have been sick with trepidation. Sadly, all too often their worst fears came to pass when instead of receiving a longed for personal letter from their son or husband, a clinical telegram from the Army or Navy was delivered to inform them of the death of their loved one.
Rob Welsh

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