Senate debates

Tuesday, 13 March 2012


World War I

7:43 pm

Photo of Don FarrellDon Farrell (SA, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Sustainability and Urban Water) Share this | | Hansard source

This is one of the last opportunities to speak before this year's Anzac Day. I would like to give the first of six speeches in the lead-up to the centenary of the outbreak of World War I on 28 July 1914.

Rarely do personal letters written almost a century ago survive the rigours of time, but in 1980 I received from my aunt, Jean Arbon, a treasure trove of letters written by my grandfather, Edward John Farrell, to his fiance, Miss Emily Jane McConnachy, who subsequently became Edward's wife and my grandmother. The letters were written over a 2½-year period spanning 1916 to 1918 and represent a priceless World War I family heirloom and a record of Edward's role as a member of the 32nd Battalion, AIF. They also offer a remarkable view of the war, both on the Western Front and in England, as seen by an ordinary soldier. I will refer to Edward as a sergeant, a rank he attained on an acting basis while in England and subsequently after the war back in Australia, although he was in fact a private in France.

Sergeant Farrell was not a recipient of one of the many Victoria Crosses won on the battlefields of the Western Front, and he may not have been a noteworthy or fearless warrior, but he was typical of the average Australian foot soldier, or digger, and he wrote about life in the army many thousands of miles from home. He was insightful and descriptive in his regular letters to Emily, a girl he simply addressed as 'Em'. His correspondence dates from late June 1916, when he departed from Adelaide's Outer Harbor by boat to England, until his final letter at the close of the war, written from London on 29 December 1918.

Many soldiers started out with regular correspondence back home, but their letters dropped off as time went by. Sergeant Edward Farrell's letters remained as regular as clockwork, and each Sunday night—sometimes more often—he would retell in clear prose the week's events. Often there was little to report, but he still wrote. Often he was sick but determined to disguise the fact, and he still wrote. It was not just to his fiancee that he wrote; he also corresponded regularly with his grandmother and an aunt in Jamestown, on the edge of the South Australian outback, and with his soldier mate John Malone when they were not fighting together at the front. One disappointment about this collection of Sergeant Farrell's letters is that not a single letter that was sent to him has been preserved.

Of course, Edward knew his chances of returning home were never very good. Death was a very real threat, and he often recorded the demise of a mate. His chances of survival were certainly improved when he was posted to an AIF administrative position near Knightsbridge, London, although of course he still had to contend with the air raids. But he eventually went to the front lines in France and Belgium, where he was injured and, following a lengthy stay in hospitals and recuperation, returned a second time to the front. He had a number of close calls, including a bullet or shrapnel hole punched through his water bottle and narrow escapes from bomb blasts. But there were compensations, including sightseeing in London and visiting rural England, Scotland and Wales and, of course, his beloved Ireland.

This is part 1 of Sergeant Edward Farrell's correspondence and covers his voyage to England, training on Salisbury Plain and his role in the London office of the AIF. The first letters detailed the voyage from Fremantle and on to England aboard the troopship Malakuta. Of course, while he was sailing to England the Battle of the Somme, the main Allied attack on the Western Front during 1916, was taking place. This battle was famous for the loss of 58,000 British troops, one-third of them killed, on the first day of the battle, 1 July 1916. But back to Sergeant Edward Farrell. As he approached Fremantle, he wrote:

The majority of the fellows had a very hard time, and many are still having it. Wednesday night was particularly rough and there was no chance of sleeping. With another chap, I've got a little cabin on deck just off the midships, but that night we were nearly washed away by the heavy seas, and the water on deck was, at times, over a foot deep.

The weather did not improve. On 16 July, over halfway across the Indian Ocean, he wrote:

Sea after sea came aboard and there wasn't much chance of sleeping, as I was bumped from one side of my cabin to the other. The climax came next morning between 6 and 7 a.m. when a big wave came in fair on top of me—and I looked like a drowned rat. I'm in the top berth, too, with an orderly in the bottom one. Of course, everything was swamped—most annoying—but I felt quite pleased that we were not washed overboard.

It scares the devil out of me when this old tub goes over on her side. Sometimes you think she's never coming back—but you sort of gradually get used to it.

But he and most of the others soon found their sea legs, and Edward wrote:

Sea sickness has gradually become extinct, and while most of the boys are taking to it better now, there are still some who have had quite enough of this voyage already.

Reveille goes at 7 o'clock in the morning, and the troops have to get up then, and all hammocks have to be slung. Breakfast is at 8 o'clock—and I very rarely tumble out of bed before then.

Some days later he reported:

One afternoon I got the fright of my life. The cook's galley right forward was in flames, and it looked pretty rotten, with the flames going up in the air and the ship jumping about like a cork.

I don't suppose it was really as serious as it looked—but it did to me. The water service is pretty good, however, and they soon had it under control—but not before the cooks shop and some fittings near by were destroyed.

But, if Edward had been looking forward to a warm welcome in Cape Town, he was bitterly disappointed. He wrote to Em:

There are some fine buildings and hotels in Capetown, and while we sampled some of the latter, the liquor mostly is rotten. Unfortunately, the Australian and New Zealand chaps are not very popular here in Capetown because they have made quite a bad name for themselves on previous occasions.

He added, 'The liquor is the chief cause.'

On 20 August they were within sight of England, and by the 27th they were ensconced on Salisbury Plain. Edward reported their landing spot, Devonport on the River Tamar, to be just what he had expected:

Devonport is a big English town—narrow streets, old-fashioned buildings, and big ship building works, and we had to march to camp through the countryside.

There are no fences—only hedges dividing off small fields. We stopped at lots of little villages and always made our presence felt. You can follow the route we took from a map—Tavistock, Okehampton, on to Exeter where the Mayoress gave us tea and cakes—then to Honiton, Sherborne, Wilton and Salisbury, where we joined up with a lot of New Zealanders before finally reaching Amesbury in Wiltshire.

From there we had to march a further 3.5 miles to the camp, which we reached at about midnight. Our camp is situated about a mile north of Stonehenge.

One morning we strolled over to Stonehenge, and the stones are all right I suppose—but how they got the ones on top I don't know—they're exactly as we saw the pictures of them at school. Soldiers in uniform are admitted to the enclosure for threepence, while civilians have to pay one shilling.

I will leave part 1 of Sergeant Edward Farrell's wartime experiences there, but at another time I would like to talk about the letters that cover his training on Salisbury Plain, his transfer to London and surviving the air raids.

Photo of Ursula StephensUrsula Stephens (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Farrell. Sounds like a great read.