When war was declared in August 1914, it began a period of great upheaval for the lives of Australians. The young nation of just over 4 million sent 330,000 men to foreign lands such as Turkey, Egypt, France, and Belgium with the newly formed Australian Imperial Force (AIF). Most families had at least one member – or a friend or neighbour – in the fight.
These men had volunteered for war; in turn, their families and friends mobilised to support them. Socks and vests were knitted, treats were baked, and committees were formed to raise funds for other comforts. But perhaps most importantly, people wrote letters.
Letters were a lifeline for soldiers, who longed to hear news from home and to know that they were loved and missed. Letters provided an escape from the reality of war, which was brutal but also often boring. Whether in the trenches, on a break behind lines, in hospital or in training, the men of the AIF keenly awaited the arrival of mail. It gave them something to do and something else to think about. Letters were treasured by those back home, too: a note from a loved one would be passed among families and friends, and perhaps even given to the local newspaper to be published.
Phyllis Lynch was one young woman to pick up her pen as part of the patriotic movement. Born in Dubbo in western New South Wales and later moving with her family to Pennant Hills in Sydney, Miss Lynch had several relatives, friends, and acquaintances who volunteered for the AIF. She knew how important it was for them to receive letters of support, to give them news from home and generally keep their spirits up. During the course of the war she corresponded with some 15 men who served across the various theatres, as soldiers in the infantry or with the Australian Light Horse. Her letters would often include photographs of herself or others they might know, as well as comforts or small items of clothing she had made. Miss Lynch received around 200 letters in return, and the collection is now held at the Australian War Memorial.
The letters to Miss Lynch are indicative of what most soldiers were writing home about: their travels and the people they encountered; the good times they had while on leave; their experience in the trenches (often served with bravado to make it sound less terrifying than it was); the weather; and the progress of the war – usually expressing hope that it would end soon. They would almost certainly ask about happenings at home, comment on how long it had been since they had received mail, and implore Miss Lynch to write again soon. Their letters expressed optimism, confidence, frustration, fear, anger, sadness, desperation, relief, and gratitude. Men who were starting their war adventure were excited about what lay ahead; those who had experienced trench fighting revealed their weariness and the desire to be out of it as soon as possible.
The letters are scribbled notes written by candlelight just behind the line; tourist-style postcards sent from soldiers on leave or in training camps; official postcards from the trenches with scant detail, save to say the soldier was okay; and much longer missives written when the soldier was in camp or laid up in hospital. Sometimes the men would enclose a photograph or a souvenir picked up in Cairo or London, or in a French village where their battalion was being rested.
One of the main themes to come through the letters to Miss Lynch is the conditions the men endured, particularly on the Western Front. Miss Lynch’s cousin Sam Greer served with the 20th Battalion. He had been wounded on Gallipoli but later returned to his battalion and served in France until August 1916, when he got trench fever (spread by lice) and rheumatism. From his hospital bed in England on 30 September he wrote:
Things are pretty hot out in France now. Our battalion was 3 months at Bois Grenier, over on the Somme, and when I left were at Ypres – all the hottest corners going. The Somme is “hell itself”, artillery going the whole time; the men are running the whole time digging some unfortunate out who has been buried by shells.
Greer was eventually discharged on medical grounds and returned to Australia in August 1917. He died in June 1919.
Signaller George Davey of the 2nd Battalion wrote Miss Lynch while on the Somme, in November 1916:
[I have] cold feet, wet clothes and ... Bill is holding the candle while I try to write between my coughs; every now and then I stop to warm my fingers in the flame. It cannot burn them because it is so cold.
A few weeks later, Davey wrote from his hospital bed, where – similar to Greer – he was laid up with rheumatism and trench foot:
It was awful just in the part of the line where we were (where the big push was on). The mud was up to our hips and when we got wet we stopped wet, but they say mud keeps one warm. It does when we get a big issue of rum and some “tucker”. When I got down to the field ambulance you never saw the like, I was mud from head to feet, hands and face included. I had not had a shave or wash for about 10 days. I could hardly walk and Fritz had been putting as much mud on me as he could with his wiz-bangs 5.9 and 9.2 bursting all around. I think it was only the will of God that kept me as several times his high explosive shells fell “duds” just behind me.
Private Vincent James McGarry of the 1st Pioneer Battalion wrote often to Miss Lynch, and his letters make up the bulk of the collection. The 32-year-old butcher from Wongarbon, New South Wales, had enlisted in November 1916 and arrived in England for training in March 1917. He didn’t get to the front until October that year. His letters from camp tell of German prisoners, leave excursions to London, cricket matches and snowball fights. He became obsessed with the often patchy delivery and arrival of mail: “Many of the boys are afraid that a great number of our letters are not reaching home, through absolute neglect somewhere.” But his frustration really lay at being kept from the action. On 23 June he wrote:
I am disappointed at being held back from France. This part of the world has no beauty for me. I have no desire whatever to stay here and wish for a chance at the Hun. I have to smile to myself at times – as if I would make a difference in this great struggle. Still I feel if I was there it would be a step nearer home.
McGarry did get to the Western Front and his battalion was at Ypres in Belgium. Later, in a long, detailed letter written from an English hospital on 7 April 1918, he describes his early experience there:
My first few days in the line made me feel awfully sick but I soon got used to the sights which at times were awful. I got my first punch in after being in the line about a fortnight. We were sent up to strengthen some new position and in the early hours of the morning Fritz tried a raid on us … we were soon busy with the rifle which became hot in my hands. I often wonder what you women think about men killing men. Do you ever picture any one of your friends drawing a bead on a German and killing him with a feeling of satisfaction. I found myself hesitate when I levelled my first sight on a Hun that morning but I couldn’t fire fast enough after accounting for my first.
McGarry was diagnosed with nephritis – inflammation of the kidneys – and never returned to the front. He was discharged on medical grounds and left for Australia at the end of June 1918.
It is not known what happened to a number of the men that Miss Lynch corresponded with as their service records could not all be traced due to a lack of personal information in the letters. But at least one did not survive the war – her uncle Lew, killed on the Western Front – and it is likely that others were killed, too. A number of others returned in poor health.
Details are also sketchy about what happened to Miss Lynch after the war, but to the men to whom she wrote repeatedly during those long, hard years she was surely fondly remembered.