Inner thoughts and private conversations
Wartime love letters in Keepsakes
27 January 2015
It is easy to forget that until quite recently, most people wrote handwritten letters to loved ones when they were apart. It was no different for many Australian service personnel and their families during the First World War. Letters and souvenirs were sent home, while many of those left at home sent care packages, knitted socks and even pressed Australian flowers overseas. After the war, these mementoes were often treasured.
Reading other peoples' letters, even those a hundred years old, can feel like eavesdropping on private conversations. You can learn much but not necessarily understand everything. You can also feel you are getting close to what people really thought. You can be taken aback by the rawness of the emotions expressed, and alternately worried and reassured by the language used. Reading letters between lovers can be like a rollercoaster ride.
This is how it was for me when reading the extensive wartime papers of Sir Cyril Brudenell Bingham White (1876-1940). Highlights from White's papers are on display in the National Library of Australia’s current exhibition Keepsakes: Australians and the Great War.
A Boer War veteran, White was chief of staff to General Birdwood during the First World War, regularly promoted and highly regarded for his administrative and tactical abilities. While serving overseas, he and his wife Ethel, who stayed in Australia, exchanged letters. Their letters survive. They used expressions of endearment for each other. He frequently signed off 'just yours'.
White was a sensitive, extremely capable man and, like millions of others, was subjected to an extraordinary test of endurance. In his letters to his wife, he is candid about his feelings and his opinions of those around him, perhaps to an extent he never was in person. Letters were lifelines to former lives and hopes for the future.
A highlight for me is the letter his wife sent him in July 1915, part of which you see below. She enclosed a piece of wattle, which has stained the letter. She writes: 'The first of the wattle is out here now, I must send you a bit for remembrance—only being the Cootamundra species it has no scent like the silver & other varieties.'
The letter and wattle are on display, the wattle still in excellent condition. She signs off 'Well my dear old man I must stop now & go to bed—all my news seems exhausted. I wish I could see you—if I had no small 'nippers' I would go to Egypt to be near you. All my love my darling old man is always with you. Ever your old woman Ethel'.
White clearly longed for the reunion of his young family. A month after the Armistice, he wrote to his young son: 'Lots of love and plenty of kisses for my littlest mate. Daddy is looking forward to seeing Pat and sends him a big kiss'.
This collection of keepsakes from the First World War is just one rich example that allows us to examine the private person and family behind a public figure. We see both how they coped with the war, and how they wanted to remember it.
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