Monday, 13 April 2015

Let's not forget the poignant pleas of desperate mothers

Exhausted Anzac troops take a rest at Gallipoli
The First World War Centenary, which made such an impact last summer, is beginning to stir again in readiness for the 100th anniversary of the Battle for Gallipoli. This ill-fated Allied campaign was launched in the Mediterranean on 25 April 1915, but ended in humiliating defeat just nine months later.

It is still commemorated with reverence, however, and nowhere more so than in Australia and New Zealand where the anniversary is known as Anzac Day (after the abbreviation given to the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps). In 1915 both countries were cutting their teeth as new nations and, according to one historian, 'Gallipoli was the crucible from which the Anzac legend was forged'.

The fighting on the rocky peninsula of Gallipoli was ferocious and the Turkish enemy proved tough and dogged. Disease also thrived in the stultifying heat and claimed huge numbers of lives. Descriptions of the horror of battle are plentiful, with many gruesome accounts sent home to families, like this one written by Australian Private Henry Wright:

'We saw a poor chap staggering towards us ... A machine gun had made a horrible sight of him. The bullets entering his mouth, cutting away the bottom teeth then passing through his neck breaking the collarbone and making a nasty gash in his shoulder. He could not speak but wrote down on a piece of paper that he was not downhearted and that he was satisfied when he saw our boys had taken the position.'

Susan Butters and son Les
How unimaginably awful it must have been for the recipients of such letters, especially for families who lived on the other side of the world. While researching my book Letters from the Trenches, many Australians got in touch with me to share correspondence that reflected just how helpless those in the Southern Hemisphere felt during the Great War - particularly mothers. Many were not well educated, but they wrote polite and poignant letters to army officials in Melbourne begging to know what had become of their sons.

Below is one written by Mrs Susan Butters, of Lismore, Victoria, whose two sons, Les and Jack, both fought in the war. Les had been taken ill in Egypt, and would eventually died of dysentery in 1918, just after the Armistice had been signed. Jack Butters had been captured in France and was being held prisoner in Germany. Desperate to find out what had happened to them, Susan wrote this letter to the Melbourne Records Office in October 1917:

Dear Sir, I wish to trouble you once again to answer me a question: can Australian Prisoners of War in Germany still receive letters from their relations in Australia and their letters be forwarded from them to Australia. I noticed a paragraph in the ‘Age’ [an Australian newspaper] about a week ago where all mail through Switzerland to Germany was to be stopped ... Could you also inform me if there has been any further word come through concerning my other son who was reported ill in Egypt ... we are very anxious about him. If any other bad news should have the misfortune to have come through concerning either of my boy’s [sic] ...would you be kind enough to forward it c/o The Church of England Clergy or to Dr Paton Lismore, Victoria, as I have had a few shocks already, and urgent wires and telegrams are handed here to me as ordinary letters. Sorry for troubling you so much. 

Jack Butters (third left) pictured in German prison camp
This year, when we remember those who lost their lives at Gallipoli, let's also spare a thought for the mothers (and fathers) who had no choice but to wait at home, dreading the arrival of bad news with no idea what had become of their sons. You can read more of their moving correspondence in Letters from the Trenches.

Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline Wadsworth, Ken Wright & Helen Lang


  1. Loving your pictures and the genuine and poignant way you have put your story across - you're an inspiration and I am following your journey - awesome work!