The letters of Captain Charles Edwin Gatliff

12 February 2019 by

Maria Purnell

Officers of the Australian Field Artillery in front of the Sphinx and pyramids at Giza. Sitting front right are brothers Major Vivian Harold Gatliff, No. 5 Battery, and Captain Frank Edward Gatliff, No. 6 Battery, who was killed in action on 6 August 1917 in Belgium, aged 22.

Officers of the Australian Field Artillery in front of the Sphinx and pyramids at Giza. Sitting front right are brothers Major Vivian Harold Gatliff, No. 5 Battery, and Captain Frank Edward Gatliff, No. 6 Battery, who was killed in action on 6 August 1917 in Belgium, aged 22.

I write – first, for Love’s sake and knowing how anxious you all are for news of us and our safety
- Captain Charles Edwin Gatliff, 4 Australian Light Horse Regiment and 5 Divisional Artillery.

Charles Gatliff was one of five brothers who served in artillery brigades on the battlefields of the First World War. For two and a half years he wrote to his father and mother every few days with detailed stories about life on the front line, and routines and simple pleasures away from the fighting.

The letters usually included news of his brothers, Frances (“Frank”) and Vivian (“Hal”), both of whom had been wounded at Gallipoli, and whose brigades were at times stationed near his own. Charles copied the letters to other family members, including his wife, Lillian, and intended for them to serve as a diary as well as to tell them about his experience.

Gatliff’s letters start on 5 March 1916, when the 34 year old finds himself in hospital in Egypt with the mumps: “that blooming child’s complaint”. They continue through his service in France, Belgium, and England until 14 September 1918, just prior to his return home.

Gatliff writes from gun pits and wagon lines, observation posts, ruined French farmhouses and chateaux, hospitals and training schools. Some letters are written just before going into action, as well as on his return to assure his parents he is “in splendid health”. Letters describe the strafing and shelling “blazing away all night”, having a “hot time” and losing men in his battery, killed and wounded “seemingly in greater numbers than the living”, and no man’s land strewn with bodies. He writes of the sea of mud, hundreds of British and German dead lying unburied where they fell, one wood “a perfect charnel-house”, the interminable mass of shell holes and shrapnel shell cases, and of a Highlander and a German, both dead, each with his bayonet in the other.

After some near misses he wrote, “I guess I am not going to be put out of action in this war by shell fire after the successful way in which I have dodged Fritz’s shells of late”. While describing the fear gripping his heart when hearing the “fluff-fluff” sound of pigeon bombs, he insisted that he would be alright. Despite the winter being so cold that all liquid froze, including condensed milk, ink, bread, and moisture on his moustache, Gatliff insisted that he was not suffering from cold feet “(in either sense)”, and took consolation in the fact that gas attacks wouldn’t work in freezing conditions.

Waiting to go into action, Gatliff passed the time writing about “little incidents and scenes since arriving in France”, and wondering how long it would be before he saw the “dear home faces again”. He saw beauty amongst the destruction: the sky “rather pretty” with “puffs of black and white smoke from heavy explosive shells ... and shrapnel”; swallows building in old dugouts, hearing larks, and seeing a few blades of grass on devastated battle sites; a field of sugar beets planted by “Fritz”; “dawdling back, picking up souvenirs like a party of tourists” and “strolling along as though there wasn't a war on”; and remarked “how wonderful it is at times - deadly quiet with the sun shining gloriously … the next minute it is pandemonium.”

Away from the front lines, Gatliff wrote of routines and paperwork, and of his roles and activities: from acting battery commander to organising camp moves, censoring letters, participating in courts martial, being “king of the wagonlines”. He also describes his social life and recreation, detailing events such afternoon teas, pleasant rides, playing tennis, going to the theatre in London, and having social contact with family friends and fellow officers from his training days in Australia.

His letters are written with warmth, affection and humour, particularly towards his brothers. Frank is described playing cricket and looking very well, but “too fat to run very fast after the ball when fielding”. A brigade dinner is described, with Hal, as a host, “looking very well” and “putting on condition”. At one point the three brothers come together: “It was grand the three of us being together again - it is the first time we have been since Frank’s birthday on Sept 6th at Fleurbaix. He is looking well and feels it – Hal and I are the same”. As the war took its toll, however, Frank had a nervous breakdown, and Charles encountered problems with his legs that put his service in doubt. There is a short gap in the letters that occurs at the time Charles learnt of Frank’s death in Belgium in August 1917.

When Charles’s younger brother, Tom, reaches England in 1918, Hal and Charles are keen for him to join them as soon as possible, as they were then in a “quiet part of the line”. Charles notes that Tom, who resembles Frank, is “looking well and broadened a lot”, and that he “seems to treat the war as a huge joke and is always smiling … but he is young and fresh and has not seen the horrors of war like we older soldiers saw at Ypres last year – Ypres and Hell were synonyms in those days”.

Charles, Hal, Tom, and Wilfred (who enlisted in May 1918) returned to Australia. By 1923, Charles was working as a clerk and living in Mosman in Sydney’s lower north shore. He died in 1959.

The Australian War Memorial is creating a comprehensive digital archive of the Anzacs and their deeds. The letters of Charles Edwin Gatliff form part of the Memorial’s new digitisation project, which runs between 2018 and 2022. This project will help preserve the original collections from the First and Second World Wars, and make the collection more easily available to researchers.

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