S: LOVE LETTERS FROM THE SAND- Military History of J.A.H.T Varty
FC: LOVE LETTERS FROM THE SAND | Military History of James Alfred Henry Thomas Varty by Hugh Murray McAlister
1: THE FOG OF WAR Many authors describe the battle fields as somewhat akin to a perpetual fog - with heavy mists shrouding the area. The smell of death, the water filled trenches with sour surroundings all combined to contribute to the "Fog Of War". The 8th Battalion served at Gallipoli, Suez and ANZAC, as well as Somme 1916-18, Pozieres, Bulle Court, Ypres, Passchendaele, Amiens, Hindenburg line, as well as several other noted 'battlefields' | This battalion became one of the most honoured of World War One.
2: Little did he know, but successive stints on the Western Front were even more trying, with places such as Passchendaele, Belgium where a soldier's world was reduced.... "to a near-unbearable slot through sucking ooze and flooded shell holes that swallowed men and horses and mules." Writer Tony Wright in the Sunday Age 24 February 2014 expressed it this way: | The Impact Of War My grandfather James Alfred Henry Thomas Varty rarely let on how deeply the western Front haunted him. As the years stretched on, he sometimes confided a story of his time on guard duty in Africa, where a changeover resulted in his replacement being blown to smithereens. This incident was to cause him lots of nightmares.
4: So how did a young man from the Shire Lillydale come to find himself as a volunteer in such a hostile environment? Here are some of the principal reasons! 1. To even suggest that Australia would not enter the war in support of England would have been seen by the overwhelming majority of citizen as an act of extreme treachery. 2. Most were very optimistic, and thought the might of England would quickly bring German into line. Again, many though the war would end - Xmas. Pessimism grew as the war years rolled on. 3. One of the first men to enlist at Geelong was the 20 year old Bill Groves, who later recalled the event: "We were having tea when I told m Mum "I'm going over". She pleaded with me not to go but I said, "Well I'm out of work and I'll get paid seven days a week." So she gave in. | AUSTRALIA | 4. Many Australians still thought of themselves as Victorians or Queenslanders, rather than Australians, particularly as Federation of the Colonies had only occurred in 1901. 5. The spirit of adventure - some saw this as an opportunity to see the world. 6. Recruiting for the forces took on an increased pace when news of the stirring deeds and the landing inspired others to follow. However the battles of May on the peninsula at Lone Pine and the Nek managed to discourage others because of the long casualty lists.
5: VOLUNTEER | 6. cont. In June the Victorian enlistments had waned behind the other states and the STate Government was asked to make a special effort by creating level recruiting committees in every district. In the Shire of Lillydale the State Parliamenty Recruiting Committee contacted the Shire President asking for co-operation in a monster effort to encourage recruits. | LILLYDALE SHIRE | The week of July 5th to July 12 was fixed as a special effort with a large public meeting organised to promote recruiting. The meeting was held at the Athenaeum Hall which was decorated with flags and recruiting posters and the attendance on the night was quoted as being "filled to the doors" The Shire was the first to speak and he urged: "all men who were free and able to enlist! It is absolutely necessary for those who can to go and it will be the finest action you ever do in your lives. Although a strong nation with right and God with use we are fighting a strong nation which has been preparing for 10 years to rule to rule the world". The next speaker was Jas Rouget M.L.A who told the crowd: "volunteers will be joining the most righteous war ever entered into by Britain. I believe this war is in God's hands and out of it would be evolved some great and lasting good for the benefit of the world. | Private | Unit 818th
6: The Shire of Lillydale held an extensive campaign to extend recruitment and Monash conducted a camp for citizen soldiers, which was held where the present lake now flows. About 3000 men were held within tents at this time. | An atmosphere like this was hard to resist. Pressure also built up, and feathers were issued to those perceived as guilty of cowardice! Community cricket teams, football teams were unable to field teams and some cancelled competitive activities because of this. | Infantry Camp at Lilydale, saturday 7th February | Recruitment rive throughout the Lillydale Council
7: It was not until 16th July 1915 that James enlisted at Broadmeadows. The Shire of Lillydale issued a Certificate of Appreciation to all volunteers: | ENLISTMENT | We can only guess as to which reason was the most compelling for James' enlistment. We believe the care of his mother was uppermost.
8: James Alfred Henry Thomas Varty
11: Training Drills The troops usually returned to camp by 5pm, the cleaned up and had their evening meal. Each man was only entitled to have leave in Cairo one night a week, the problem of how to keep the troops occupied for the rest of he week caused some concern. Concerts were often held and boxing tournaments proved popular but increasing numbers of men went AWOL. | ARRIVAL IN CAIRO
12: TRENCH DIGGING From late December onwards, the train focused on trench digging, outpost duty and defensive exercises. A number of night bivouacs were held, but these were not particularly popular as the men found it difficult to sleep in the desert without blankets. Private Cyril Bryant spoke of the hard training: "I have been out all this week in the trenches at night, and it has been very cold, but it gets hot at day and it is very hard marching about 15 miles a day over sand". Although the battalion had not seen action there had already been several fatalities. One man had fallen from the top of one of the pyramids and the spread of influenza throughout the Camp took a steady toll including "Possum" Davis who died on 30th December. | Training Drills cont. The fact that the 8th Battalion Lines were the further most from the tram terminus often meant that those men going on leave were the last to leave camp. The situation within 2nd Brigade became serious just before Christmas, when it was found that in one battalion 900 men were AWOL. This problem was not resolved until leave was granted to the battalions on a weekly basis. In a letter to his cousin Edith, four days before Christmas, Charlie Traill wrote of the general feeling among the Australians at being forced to bypass the fighting in France: We are of course all bitterly disappointed that we were not sent on to France, but we are playing the game quite as much by our being here in the capacity that we are... This is a splendid body of men that I am with and the physique of the troops has been greatly admired by the citizens of Cairo. I am sure they will give a good account of themselves... They are a rough devil may care lot.
13: Trench Digging cont. It is generally thought that the term "Digger" was not applied to Australian soldiers until they went to France, however, Colonel Bolton recalled a parade in Egypt at which he was questioned by General Sir Ian Hamilton, about the men of th 8th Battalion. "Ah", he said, "so they come from those mining centres. By Heaven, I should feel safe anywhere with them - and just think how they could carve out a line of deep trenches!" After being paid such a compliment, Colonel Bolten often referred to his men as "Digger soldiers" and the 8th Battalion cherished the belief that it had originated the famous nickname. When the Australians reaching Fran, members of trenching parties were usually referred to as 'Digger'. The term soon achieved popular acceptance as a very Australian alternative to the English 'Chum' or the more intimate Australian terms of 'Mate' or 'Cobber.' | 'I found the remnants of the company lining shell holes facing the enemy; the trench that they had dug had been obliterated by German shell fire and all the officers in the company had become casualties, as had the Company Sergeant Major and every N.C.O. except one, a sergeant. German shells were falling all around. One burst close by just after I had jumped into a shell hole and as I was talking to the Sergeant. He went to investigate and came back saying, "Three more gone, only fifteen of us left now" (out of a strength the night before o 150 0/ranks and five officers).
14: TYPICAL TRAINING The train arrived in Cairo at about 8.30pm midst heavy rain, and the troops were given a cup of cocoa and a cheese filled bun in lieu of an evening meal. Arrangements had already been made by the brigade staff for each of the units to take the tram out to Mena Camp, which was some 12 miles to the west of Cairo and nestled at the foot of the famous pyramids. | However, the logistics of moving a brigade of some 4000 men overwhelmed the tramway system, and the 8th Battalion had to wait for some hours before being tightly packed into the trams and taking the journey to what was to be the battalion's new home for several months. The trams did not reach the outskirts of Mena camp until early morning, and the tired men were immediately surrounded by natives with donkeys an push carts offering to cart the mens' baggage the two miles into camp. | Once the troops arrived at the sandy inhospitable camp site, the men rolled themselves up in their great oats as protection against the cold desert night and went to sleep on the sand. When the sun arose a few hours later,the battalion was found spread over about for acres of barren sand. The men were awakened by the bugle call and quickly formed up into companies. Wagons arrived and the battalion was soon at work unloading stores and equipment. Tents for kitchens, orderly rooms and latrines were soon erected. The company lines were also laid out ad tents for the troops were erected, though some platoons did not receive their tents until five days later. From the 8th Battalion lines could be seen a 100 feet high perpendicular cliff which arose abut 200 yards to the east, and behind that could be seen the tops of the three pyramids.
15: Within a couple of days, the battalion had settled down into a training routine which consisted of drill, musketry practice, and tactical training ranging from section to company level. | These ancient pyramids were over the next few weeks to be scaled by thousands of young Australians eager for a challenge. After work had been completed on the company lines that day Peter Lay and his tent mates took a short stroll and climbed to the top of the nearby Great Pyramid of Cheops. | In addition, a series of desert route marches were conducted in an attempt to harden the troops for the battles that lay ahead. The first route march was held on 12th December, and Percy Lay commented that he "found it rather hard marching in the sand." | No doubt the men thought the training too severe....It was no wonder that men were ill, after marching through heavy sand breathing in small particles of dust. It was the usual thing after such days for the men to return to camp with a mask of yellow dust and d=clothes saturated with perspiration.... At times the food itself was permeated with sand, especially on such days when great clouds of it blew across the desert for several hours at a stretch.
16: Overseas Experience | James' Statement of service reveals that he was posted to France on 27th July, 1916 in the 6th Company of the 9th Battalion.
18: Observations of Overseas Experience 1. Many of James' letters are quite optimistic and up-beat. Clearly they do not reflect the injuries of war. 2. James' letters tend to question why they were asked/directed to kill enemy. 3. Injuries to James are described as "slight". A shot through the instep and a bullet reversed to increase damage to the maximum would rarely result in a "minor injury." 4. The 8th Battalion played a major role in Gallipoli. James did not take part in that action due to injury and timing of enlistment. | The men were introduced to what was to be the bane of their lives in France - gas. The entire battalion was issued with gas masks and each man was sent through a trench filled with gas. The gas masks at this stage of the war were rather rudimentary articles consisting of a cloth mask with two eye pieces. In order to absorb the poisonous substances in the gas, the masks were soaked in a chemical. Unfortunately the eye pieces used to quickly cloud up, and the propensity for reinforcements to remove the mask and thus expose themselves to the gas continued throughout the war. | Having suffered "slight wounds" in action, he was returned to Bethlehem Hospital in Leicester for treatment. (Note that "slight wounds" was an understatement of the seriousness of injury. In his case, a gun shot wound through the small of the foot.
19: Transcription of Post Card from James to his mother dated January 4th 1916 My Dear Mother, Just a few lines to let you know that I am getting on A1. I hope you are all well, I am sending some views of this joint Egypt, there is no names on them? there to on other side. we have been dismissed for the afternoon. I though I would write a line to you, it is raining a bit today, Well Mum I think we will be here for a while yet, I don't known where they will be sending us, PAGE 2 Well Mum how is Charlie old Boy getting on and Liz hopefully they are alright, and Billy. | James' letters home are reproduced here. Some have sheets lot, each has been transcribed where possible so that a better understanding can be arrived at. | LETTERS TO LOVED ONES | We are still at the same old thing, squad drill in the bally sand, there is nothing doing much, we are out drilling at 5.30 so they are socking it into us, we went to the Pyramids on Sunday, I had a go at getting to the top but failed, by jingo it is a marvelous bit of work, worth seeing but I would sooner be in Australia.
21: Christina White James' Mother
24: Rosena Emily Willard
26: After a three-hour rest, the battalion, or what was left of it, reassembled and at daybreak marched to a rest camp a day's march away, myself leading all that remained of "A" Company. We were all half-dazed and in a sort of stupor with weariness and fatigue and shell shock.
35: Medals awarded to the soldiers who served in the First World War: Left: The Victory Medal Centre: The 1914/15 Star Right: The British War Medal
39: Christmas Day 1917 No extra Christmas rations had been served out to the troops but the batmen had scrounged some tins of bully beef from the Quartermaster's Store and with this as a basis, together with some German sausage and potatoes found in a German dugout and some biscuits, had made a sort of stew. They also made a souvenir of a jar of rum. The brand of the rum marked on the jar in big letters, S.R.D., was nicknamed by the Diggers "Seldom Reaches Destination' - meaning it never got to the troops in the front line but was collared by the line of communication troops on the way up!
42: These two pages are the only pages found of these letters. The dates written and received are unknown.
43: James eventually married his "girlie" Rosina Willard and raised a family of four children in Monbulk and later in Belgrave. Below right is a photograph of his second home in Belgrave. One of those children was Jean Dorothy Varty who married Hugh Murray McAlister SNR who are my parents. James became a Totally Impaired and Incapacitated (T.P.I.) soldier, suffering from exposure to gases, and of course the wounds which are outlined elsewhere in this account. | "Lover's Lane", in Belgrave which was a laneway that gave access to the Belgrave oval from Pa's house. I remember walking this laneway with him to go and watch the football. | References: "Cobbers in Khaki - The History of the 8th Battalion" 1914-1918 Ron Austin "Saving The Channel Ports 1918" W.D. Joynt VC 1975 "Monash's Militia Camp" Lilydale February 7-14, 1914 A.J. McAleer