April 2023


War correspondence

By Jonathan Green
Taciturn letters to the author’s family, written by his grandfather on World War One battlefields, prompt consideration of intergenerational trauma

On one page in the small pile of my grandfather’s letters that survive from World War One, the handwriting changes entirely.

Through the seasickness and the tense languor of troop transport, the waiting in Egypt, his time in Gallipoli and the early weeks in France and Belgium, his notes home – “Dear Mother … love, much of it, Harry” – are written in now-faded back ink with a steady, almost meticulous hand. The paper is yellowing, foxed a little here and there and ragged at its edges, but the words form ordered ranks, eight or 10 to the line.

The change, when it happens, is abrupt. The note is a ragged and spidery single page, the script looser and double spaced, the upright letters falling back, then leaning forward, the normal regularity of line lost in little waves, the ink is thicker, as if a greater pressure has been applied to the nib. There are smudges at the top left corner and still, after these years, indentations in the page where the nib has been pressed, perhaps to dab a little ink. I can still feel the lines of those scrapes, half cut in the page.

I’m holding that single sheet, folded for the post in quarters, dated February 14, 1917, Valentine’s Day; the “14” begun, then scratched out and repeated with greater clarity. “Dear Mother,” he writes, in an uncharacteristically chaotic hand. One hundred and six years later I’m wondering at the change.

It’s suddenly obvious. Of course. He’d taught himself to write left-handed. Seven months after the Battle of Pozières, he was writing again with the only hand he had.

Friday Evening. SS Geelong
Dear Mother,
I’m writing this from nowhere, or somewhere, and under difficulties. The good steamship Geelong is rocking about and it is a bit hard to write.”

From this first letter the tone of these notes home barely deviates: a mix of reassurance, a trading of slight banalities, a quiet sense of both adventure and a yearning for a family life left behind. Each has a checklist of hellos, and notes on food, health and exercise.

Henry Green was only 20 when war came, so needed his father’s blessing to enlist. It was granted in four lines handwritten on notepaper printed with the seal of the South Australian parliament. Henry’s dad, Thompson, my great grandfather, was a boilermaker, a staunch unionist, United Labor MP and, to his eventual political harm, an eager conscriptionist. “I herewith give my consent that my son Henry Thompson Green may join the Expeditionary Force.” The note is dated March 8, 1915, a terse consignment to uncertain fate.

Henry joined the 27th Battalion, a unit raised in the suburbs of Adelaide, and shipped out on the SS Geelong, which eventually arrived in Egypt after a short stint as a hospital ship in Malta.

“We are here at last.”

And so, I read on. I only have this thin sheaf of pages, perhaps not all he wrote, and none of the letters that presumably came in longed-for batches by return. There’s a small diary too, as big as a playing card, two days to a page, that skips between years, beginning in 1916 on the journey from the Dardanelles to Marseilles, before backtracking halfway through to 1915 and that first sea voyage to Egypt from South Australia. On one of the last pages is a small grid titled “Letters Written at Heliopolis”, the battalion’s initial base camp near Cairo. “Mother” is top of the list with 25 letters. There are a dozen other recipients. All get at least one.

I ferret through the diary for April 25, 1916, wondering how a man who actually fought at Gallipoli might mark that first Anzac Day. The entry was written on a frontline somewhere in France on the Western Front: “Anniversary of the landing. Quiet day in the trenches.”

I’m trying to square this constant taciturn understatement against several things. The first is what I imagine must have been his wartime reality, of stress, sleeplessness, and absence. Of intermittent sickness – hospitalisations for mumps and repeated dysentery – set against the ominous tedium of war, one interspersed with the sudden proximity of death, dismemberment and loss. Was the fighting fierce? Ever hand to hand? Were there moments of incapacitating terror? Tears? Killing, pain, strength and courage? Henry never says.

The letters I have bracket his fighting experience in both Gallipoli and France, all written either in advance, between, or in the aftermath of frontline duty. They would have been censored of course, and tempered by a young man’s desire – I’m assuming – to reassure anxious family at home.

Henry Green’s war was always a presence in my life. Henry is my middle name. I still shave with the double-bladed Gillette razor he took to Gallipoli. As a small boy I’d play at my grandmother’s home in Adelaide, often with a favourite object – I shouldn’t call it a toy – the unexploded and defused hand grenade kept high in a walnut wardrobe in my father’s old bedroom. It was a war souvenir, smuggled home in Henry’s kit when he returned after months of hospitalisation and convalescence in 1918. I loved the weight of it, the loaded chill of the pineapple-indented steel, the fact, only dimly apprehended in my boy’s mind, of its lethality.

The bedroom was set out with two single beds, which I always thought odd. My father was an only child.

A telegram:


In none of the letters in my bundle does Henry write of what happened at Pozières, a patch of strategically commanding high land in the Somme Valley, that would eventually be taken and held by Australian troops. He fought there and was badly hurt. The single line entry on his “Statement of Service” simply reads: “Wounded in action, France, 5-8-16.”

According to the Australian War Memorial’s account, the 2nd Division, of which the 27th Battalion was a part, “took over from the 1st and mounted two attacks – the first, on 29 July, was a costly failure; the second, on 2 August, resulted in the seizure of further German positions beyond the village. Again, the Australians suffered heavily from retaliatory bombardments. They were relieved on 6 August, having suffered 6,848 casualties.”

The “retaliatory bombardments” were fierce, a constant – literally constant – rain of explosions and steel. The commander of the 48th battalion said it was “his worst experience of the war”. A corporal recalled “ghastly sights, scores of bodies had been partially buried in the soft earth, and bloody hands and feet protruded at frequent intervals”.

It was too much for some, including the remnants of Henry’s battalion: “At least one battalion of the second division, the 27th, fled even before relieving troops arrived.”

According to historian Peter Burness, “for several weeks Pozières became the focus of the Somme fighting and the worst place to be on earth”. In all, 42 days of fighting and 19 attacks brought 23,000 Australian casualties, with 6800 men killed on the field of battle or dying later of their wounds.

This is the account of Private Archie Barwick of the 1st Battalion: “All day long the ground rocked and swayed backwards and forwards from the concussion … men were driven stark staring mad and more than one of them rushed from the trench over towards the Germans. Any amount of them could be seen crying … sobbing like children, their nerves completely gone.” One man, mortally wounded, asked historian Charles Bean, “Will they remember me in Australia?”

Henry lost his right arm in the shellfire and was also injured in the right knee. Pulled from the mud, he survived. Twelve days later there’s a letter home: a single-page note in a very regular, sweepingly elegant copperplate. Not his hand.

Dear Mother,
I have been in England over a week and am progressing as well as can be expected. I haven’t had much pain in my wound, which is healing well. I have had my right arm taken off pretty close to the shoulder, and although that is bad enough must consider myself lucky to be alive. That must always be considered. An amputee, I am finished with war and expect I shall be home in a few months.

Henry was home in early 1918, his jacket sleeve pinned empty to the shoulder. Of the 330,000 Australians to serve overseas in World War One, 62,000 would never return. Another 60,000 died within a decade of coming home. Henry beat those odds.

His old job, a newspaper compositor, was now beyond him. In the hot-metal days of newspaper production, compositors worked at linotype keyboards, tapping in the words that were then formed in the machine as type from molten metal. Fast and accurate 10-finger touch-typing was required. Henry was moved to the editorial floor, eventually becoming an editorial writer. And there it is, I suppose: his son David was also a journalist. So am I. Not that Henry had a direct influence on his son’s career thinking. Henry married Linda in November 1932. David Thompson Green, my father, was born in April 1934. Henry died of influenza that August.

So, against the couple’s obvious hopes, only one bed in the children’s room was ever occupied, and my father grew up in the sad lingering shadow of his father – a man he never knew. My grandmother was quite strict, I think. Gritty by necessity, and probably willed too much of the man she loved into her only child, who would grow up a little burdened by that presence.

Henry, from his letters, was keen on family connection and unafraid of the expressions of love that grounded it. My father never had the benefit of that example. He would die, at 67, in bed in the dead of night, either unconsciously oblivious or in the sudden, solitary knowledge of his end. We can’t know. But reading these old words from his father, thinking on the hot horror Henry so calmly set aside in his writing, I wonder a little at the lingering, intergenerational trauma of the 1914–18 war, a sense of subtle sadness not conveyed in all the bellicose Anzackery of our moment. Detached so far now in time, we make of it what we will, or take from it what we need.

I can’t recall ever being held by my father. He would have been the same. I wonder sometimes at this absence of Henry’s caring example, and at a damaged man, a son caught a little in his shadow, and the war that lived in both of them.

Jonathan Green

Jonathan Green is a writer and ABC broadcaster.

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