Saturday, 31 January 2015

'Seven months on this desert is no joke'

Jim Swasbrick
Hello to all my readers and I apologise for having let a month elapse since my last post, but with a deadline looming I'm afraid I had no choice but to keep my head beneath the proverbial parapet in order to get my third book finished on time! I'm pleased to say that Weymouth, Dorchester and Portland in the Great War is now safely with the publisher (Pen and Sword Books - out in November 2015) and, for the first time in three years, my desk is clear of books to write!

My first two, Letters from the Trenches and Bristol in the Great War, were both published last year, and now that No 3 is off my hands I've had time to flick through the files of WW1 letters, diaries, photographs and postcards I've gathered during all my research and to marvel at (a) how much material from the Great War is still 'out there' in excellent condition, and (b) how sad it was that I didn't have the space to use it all.

But no worries! I now plan to let some of those letters and diaries run on this blog, as a sort of appendix to the stories told in my books. And who better to start with than a colourful Australian character called Jim Swasbrick who lost no time in enlisting when war broke out in 1914. Jim was part of a large farming family from the tiny town of Eskdale in the Mitta Mitta Valley in north-east Victoria. The farm wasn't large enough to support everyone so Jim took his horse team up to Queensland to work as a dam-digging contractor. And that's where he was when was when war was declared.

Jim enlisted immediately with the Australian Imperial Force, as a driver in the 1st Light Horse Brigade, and in 1915 he departed for Egypt. There he remained until 1916, becoming more and more frustrated at not being part of the action on the Western Front. 'Jim assumed, as they all did, that they were off to fight the 'dreaded Hun', but his unit was held in Egypt until after Gallipoli,' explained his great-nephew Richard Crispin. Jim Swasbrick did eventually get to France, but sadly he never made it back home again. His story is told in Letters from the Trenches, in Chapter 3 - 'Call to the Empire'.

Below are some of the letters Jim wrote to his sister from Egypt. They begin optimistically enough but it's interesting to see how soon frustration begins to creep in, about not being involved in the fighting, being out of touch with his family, and lack of money...

7th April 1915
Heliopolis, Egypt

My Dear Sister,

I received your ever welcome letter and was very pleased to hear from you. I wrote to you ten week ago and l was expecting a letter from you every mail. You stated in your letter that you had wrote before but l did not get it. Well Maggie I am having a good time in Egypt it is not a bad place to be in. I feel better now than ever I felt in my life. You will think l am a house instead of a man l am getting that fat, don’t be a bit surprised if l bring a little French lass back with me, there is some of the best looking girls ever I saw in my life in this place, there are no English girl here at all, they are all French, Greek and Italian. Very few of them could talk English till we came here but they soon picked it up ... There are some very pretty places here around this place, it is very interesting to see the different ways the people have hear [sic] and the way they do the cultivating, it is wonderful quite different to what we do it. I have met a lot of boys from different parts of Mitta [at home], Jim Larsen and Arch Drummond is hear with me so I am not alone. I will get my photo taken with my horse and send over to you all so you will have something to look at till I return again if l ever do ... Well Maggie l will close up for this time hoping you are keeping in good health as this leaves me in the best.
Goodbye Good Luck
Hope to see you all before long

7th July 1915

Dear Maggie,

Just a few lines to let you no [sic] l am still living in hopes and longing for the finish of this weary war. It will be twelve months next month since l joined the army and l am getting sick of it now. If they would shift us to England it would not be so bad but seven months on this desert is no joke. I think if l am hear [sic] another seven months l will go silly. I had a letter from Emmie on the 4th inst that she posted on the 14th Jan, as you can see that l don’t get all the letters that is written to me ... Well Mag we received great news from the front, our boys have captured Aaha baba [Achi Baba Hill at Gallipoli] the rotten hill and forts that cost us so heavily so you will soon hear of them taking Constanternople [sic]. Well Maggie l think l have told you all for this time so l will close with love to you all hoping you are all in good health as it leaves me in the same & if you can send that money l would be very pleased of it as we may be going to England when Turkey is finished and two shillings a day is not much to go their [sic] with.
Good Bye
I remain your Loving Brother

15th October 1915

My Dear Sister

Just a few lines in answer to your welcome letter. I was so pleased to hear from you again as l have only had two letters in three months from anyone at home. I can always get letters from other people regular every fortnight. So it is a bit hard, l wrote nine letters about three months ago, six was to my own people and the other to friends, the only answer l’ve got from home was your letter and three from friends, it makes me think l am still the black sheep but it won't matter, l will go through alright, what ever it be.
I did not get to the front the time. l left hear [sic], got down to Alexandera [sic] and l was pulled out. The OC [Officer Commanding] said he could not let me go as l was with the horse, men are very scarce over hear that no [sic] anything about horses so he said it is not possible for me to go to the front yet. So l have give up all hope of doing any fighting while their are any horses in Egypt.
Well Maggie l am very disappointed at not getting the money l asked you to send to me, l think it is a bit hard, if l did not want the money l would not send for it ... If you cant send it, post the money in the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, and ask them to forward it on, or any Bank manager can send it through with safety. Don't make any mistake about the address, just put:
Drv Swasbrick No 135
5th A.A.S.C.
Anglo Egyptian Bank Cairo
I hope you will send it through without fail as it is badly needed. If you can't send 10 pounds send twenty ... and send it Maggie like a good kid, it might be the last l ask for.
Good bye Merry Xmas to you all

NEXT POST: Jim's Christmas in Egypt

(Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline Wadsworth / Richard Crispin)

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