Memories of War: Letters From the Front – the Nepean Times at War

Presented at the Makings of a City History Conference
Foundations of a Settlement

Presented by Penrith City Council and Library Saturday 27 March 2004

Jan Herivel – Penrith City Library

During research into the WW1 soldiers from the district who were killed during WW1 and are commemorated on our district war memorials, it soon became obvious that the Nepean Times coverage of events during WW1 was a largely untapped source. The Nepean Times readership encompassed a wider geographical area than the current Penrith local government area, with coverage of soldiers extending from Toongabbie to Hazelbrook and out to Richmond. For the purposes of this discussion, I will focus on the soldiers and nurses who lived in the current Penrith local government area, expanding on the Memories of War website.

To set the scene, I would like to commence with a quote from the Nepean Times after war was declared in 1914:

It will no doubt be a bitter and terrific conflict – this Armageddon of the Teuton against the Briton, the Frank and the Slav…Australia’s battle cry will be On! On for true liberty, for democratic progress, for the sacred rights of hearth and home, for the glorious restoration of the arts of Peace, as the ultimates under God’s Divine Will of this great Titanic struggle.[1]

With these stirring but prophetic words, Alfred Colless, editor of the Nepean Times, signalled the newspaper’s support for Australian involvement in the Great War. Colless, along with the majority of Australians, supported the decision to send troops in the fight against the Germans. The Nepean Times faithfully recorded enlistments, correspondence from Penrith district soldiers and nurses on active service, news of the wounded, missing, prisoners of war, returned soldiers and deaths, providing an invaluable resource for future researchers. The personal accounts from the troops at the front line contained many unfamiliar names: Gallipoli, the Somme, Pozieres and Mont St Quentin, now part of our national consciousness. However, the Nepean Times also provided another important function. The newspaper, sent to local soldiers on active service, provided them with details of home news and news of mates serving overseas. Private Arthur Valentine Steel, then serving on Lemnos, wrote to thank the Nepean Times for their kindness in sending the newspaper which arrived regularly each mail and kept him up to date with the news from St Marys.[2]

Just after the outbreak of the war, Stella Colless, Alfred’s daughter, volunteered for nursing service along with two other nurses with links to the Penrith district – Rachel Clouston and Constance Neale. Stella, along with the other nursing staff, left Sydney on the hospital ship Grantala, as part of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF), tasked with the capture of the German colony of New Britain. In a letter sent from New Britain, Stella describes a brief visit the nurses paid to Rabaul when they were invited ashore for afternoon tea with some officers. Stella mentions Rabaul as being a pretty place, with find broad streets and hundreds of natives strolling around, dressed in little more than a scriptural fig leaf and a price of red cloth.[3]

Stella enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS), after returning from Rabaul in December 1914. After serving a period of time on hospital ships and in military hospitals in England, by 1917 Stella was serving at a Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) on the Western Front in very different surroundings. In a letter home to her parents, Stella describes an attack on the CCS:
As you have probably heard Fritz has been paying a great deal of attention to CCS’…Once he managed to drop a bomb in our camp…one night we were working in the operating theatre when we heard guns and rushed out to see what was happening…the next thing I knew I was being hurled to the ground by one of the Medical Officers and a steel hat put over my head…Last Tuesday he (the Germans) commenced putting some High Explosive shells into our compound…during the morning we were working in the theatre with pieces of shell flying around.[4]

As troops travelled overseas to various destinations, their letters spoke of new experiences. Letters, from a diverse range of places: Rabaul, Egypt, Gallipoli, Salonika and the Western Front, often mentioned others from the district. William Joseph James Starling, a telephonist at the Penrith Post Office, left Australia in December 1915 bound for Egypt. In March 1916, the Nepean Times published a letter from Starling describing his journey through the Red Sea:
We sighted land for the first time last Friday…after three weeks at sea, it comes as a relief to see something…all being well we will land at Port Said next Thursday, just 28 days after leaving Sydney, and without a break too”.[5]

Starling would not make the return voyage, as he would be killed in action during the battle of Pozieres in July 1916.

Extracts from Private Jack Bereford’s letter to his mother include the following:
We are still on the trackless waste. We are a fair crowd, two thousand souls aboard…You know the state I was in about losing the watch you gave me. Well a fellow in Liverpool must have got it for the other day I suddenly saw it on a fellow’s wrist. I knew it at once by the mark I had put on it. I walked up and demanded it, and with a sickly smile he handed it over…it is a great experience for a boy to come and see the world like this. I shall have lots to tell you if I return; and if I don’t, well – there are worse things to die for than one’s country.[6]

In 1916 Private Oscar Thompson of the 50th Battalion described training life in Egypt as being:
Interspersed by athletic meetings of the troops, music by regimental bands and visits to Cairo and the Pyramids as more agreeable than irksome…However, Cairo is really the dirtiest place I have ever seen and if entered in the most malodorous pigstye competition, would win hands down…it is a wonder fever hasn’t got a mortgage on every house in the villainous native quarters where whole families of niggers share a so called tent with half a dozen goats and a few hens.[7]

Private Wes Collum provided an eyewitness report of the landing at Gallipoli:
We left Lemnos for Gallipoli on 24 April 1915, arriving there about 3 am on the 25th (Sunday). At 5.30 we started to get ready for action, and about 7.30 were right in among them. When we were within a few yards of the shore the lead began to fly, all around us. Hundreds never left the boats as they were killed or wounded by the Turks’ bullets before landing. As soon as we got ashore we charged them with fixed bayonets and when we were within a few yards of them, they ran. We charged them for a mile up a hill…and then forced our way to the top. It was at this place that we met with such heavy loss there were many killed and wounded from the bullets of their machine guns, rifles and shrapnel shells.

Collum went on to describe the losses of the next few days, the counterattack by the Turks on 18 May and the armistice called for nine hours on 24 May (Empire Day) to bury the dead.[8]

Sister, later Matron Adelaide Maud Kellett sailed with the first contingent of the AIF in September 1914 and saw service in Egypt before transferring to the hospital ship Gascon, used to transport the wounded from Gallipoli to Mudros. Kellett described a trip to Gallipoli:
Our orders arrived to proceed to Anzac Cove, which we reached the same evening, about six hours trip from Mudros harbour…our patients began to arrive about 6 pm in barges, mainly medical cases…I feared from the terrible firing, especially about 3 in the morning, there would not be a single soul alive, and was greatly relieved and surprised in the morning, when the barges arrived, to find so few wounded.[9]

Soldiers dutifully reported chance encounters with others from the Penrith district. Imagine the surprise of Reg Rawson, a sapper who was leaving his position in the trenches when he came across an artillery battery. He stopped in briefly to enquire about a friend, Marshall Kellett, when another Penrith soldier, Hilton Barrett walked in. Reg continued:
No doubt by the time you read this you will have read an Australian casualty list in France which will include members of our company. We had a rough time… It was my first experience of being in a charge. I cannot describe the sensation. I might say that the battery Hilt Barrett is in masked our advance from our trenches to the Germans.[10]

Private Will Cook from St Marys described how he was wounded:
I was in a dug-out with some other chaps, and somehow we got between a German high explosive and safety; rather the old dug-out stopped the shell and a bit piece of it got me.

Will then mentioned a number of St Marys soldiers in his letter: Fred Desborough, wounded and now in England, and George Beacroft, Clarrie Gersbach and the Garner brothers Athol and Will, who he had recently seen. After mentioning at a friend Jack Cook was to be married to a nurse in a military hospital, Will send his regards to all friends – not forgetting the girls of St Marys![11]

As soldiers went on leave, reports came home about the various places they had visited and their observations of life in Britain. George Hughes sent details of a trip to Belfast:
We have been here four days now. We called in at Dublin but did not like it much. I have met some very nice people and they cannot do too much for us…this morning we intend going through the dockyards and rope works; and it we have time we will have a look at the distillery…I had a few days in London before coming here, and had a good time, but it is not to be compared with Ireland.

I have just arrived back in camp after a fortnight’s leave, and I am feeling OK. It is dreadful to see the thousands of young me walking about London and not enlisting; I would not like to be one of them.[12]

The Nepean Times also proudly reported honours awarded to the local soldiers. Stanley Colless, Alfred’s nephew, enlisted in June 1915 and served on the Western Front. In 1916, during the Battle of Fromelles, Stan Colless was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his bravery during the battle in keeping the guns working on the enemy lines, and when finally being driven out of his position, covered the retreat of the company preventing many casualties. Colless was later commissioned and after a period of time spent as an instructor at the Lewis Gun School, returned to the battlefields of France. In March 1918, the newspaper published an account written by Gordon Gilmour on Stan Colless:
I have a vivid first hand description of the previous night’s raid by NSW men…A young Penrith officer, who earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal as a Sergeant at Fromelles, chose a score of boys from the unit, all of whom volunteered. The effectively dealt with the pill boxes…the officer worked around behind and shot two [Germans] with his revolver…the most exciting incident of the raid occurred when returning with the real work completed. A German rushed up and dealt the officer a blow in the face, knocking out his teeth. The officer shot him with his revolver in the stomach; while the boys bombed the remainder in three seconds…the party is elated at their exploit and declare they will follow their officer anywhere.[13]

Stan Colless, awarded the Military Cross for his part in the raid, was killed in action at the Battle of Mont St Quentin in September 1918.

The Nepean Times also reported the awarding of a Military Medal to Kingswood soldier Cpl Edward Boots of the 7th Field Company, Australian Engineers. Boots received the medal for gallantry during an attack on 8-9 June 1918 near Albert in France. Boots was in charge of six wagons containing engineering material being moved close to the front line in readiness for an attack. After one of his team of horses was wounded by machine gun fire, and another team blown up, Boots made extra trips to deliver the wire, pickets etc needed for the attack.[14]

An examination of the Nepean Times during WW1 would not be complete without mention of the regular articles submitted by Arthur Gates, a member of the Australian Medical Corps (AMC). Gates had served in the Boer War and while in South Africa, had supplied some interesting material to the Nepean Times. On his return, Alfred Colless presented Gates with a nickel-plated revolver for services rendered. Although Gates later moved from the Penrith district, he remained in contact with the Colless family. On the outbreak of war, Gates served with the AN&MEF in New Britain, before enlisting in the AIF and serving in the Middle East and on the Western Front.

After a travelogue of his journey on the Mooltan to England, Gates arrived with his medical unit on the island of Lemnos a few days before the Battle of Lone Pine took place on the Gallipoli peninsula. On 6 August Gates reported that they could hear the guns at the Dardenelles (approximately 50 kms away) and as all of the war and hospital ships had left the previous day, assumed that the British were making a fresh attack on the peninsula. Within a week Gates reported that the wounded evacuated to Lemnos totalled 800, putting a tremendous strain on medical resources.[15]

After the evacuation of Gallipoli, Gates served in Egypt and regaled the Nepean Times readers with his off duty activities – visiting the pyramids by tram, shopping in the native bazaars and general sight seeing. After being ill for some time, Gates returned to Australia briefly before being posted to the Wareham Military Hospital in England. The last article by Gates was published on 4 August 1917, the suspension of his articles probably due to the downsizing of the newspaper due to paper shortages.[16]

The sombre side of the war was revealed in the Nepean Times as the number of casualties began to mount. In August 1915, the Nepean Times began compiling its Honor List to highlight ‘the good number of young men who have gone (and are preparing to go) from Penrith and District to the war – in the Light Horse, Infantry, and AMC. We will be pleased to have the names of any omitted; also additional names as volunteers are accepted to go to the Front.’[17] Each Honor List detailed district and ex-district soldiers and nurses who had volunteered for active service. Separate lists were compiled of those wounded, killed, captured or invalided home, a testament to the unselfish sacrifices being made for King and Country.

The last Honor Roll appeared in the Nepean Times on 27 July 1917, with no indication that publication of the list had ceased. What was the reason for this? Initially, I thought the list had been quietly dropped due to the ever mounting death toll and the growing disquiet in the Australian community about the casualty rate. In June 1917 Australian losses during the Battle of Messines were about 7,000 while in 1917 on the Western Front, over 20,000 Australian soldiers were killed, more battle dead recorded than in any one year of war in Australian history.[18] However, close examination of the following issue revealed a more pragmatic reason – shortage of newspaper due to the war. An article named NT reduced in Size[19]contained the following comment from Colless:
Though obliged to make this temporary reduction in the scope of the “Times”, every effort will be made to facilitate and forward the interests of our clients and district; and to maintain that policy of progressive advocacy and clean journalism which the paper has heretofore observed.[20]

Colless was true to his word. The obituaries and reports of memorial services that began to appear in the Nepean Times soon after the start of the Gallipoli campaign, continued until war’s end. The newspaper made no distinction about how a soldier had died – whether killed in action, died of wounds or by illness. All deserved the laudatory comments such as heroic and gallant because they had done their duty, volunteered to serve King and Country, and had paid the ultimate sacrifice.

One of the first memorial services held was that of Private George Taylor, notified as being killed at Gallipoli. Details of the service were reported in the Nepean Times on 26 June 1915:
The late Private Taylor’s death conveyed a sense of personal loss to others than the deceased soldier’s kindred; and many will regret his passing, as that of one whose buoyancy of spirit, and geniality, typical national tenacity of purpose, and honourable sportive doings, made him a generally popular favourite with young and old.[21]

However, after the memorial service had been held and the article typeset for publication, notification was received from the military authorities that Private George Taylor was wounded, not dead. What was Alfred to do? The memorial service took up almost half a page. Colless’ solution was to insert a small article on the previous page headlined ‘Private Geo Taylor still a Living Entity’[22]which noted several instances in which cables had erroneously listed the names of soldiers killed. One wonders how George Taylor viewed the coverage of his memorial service when he arrived home a few months later. After a period of convalescence, Taylor returned to active service at the end of 1916 and survived the war.

In May 1917, the Nepean Times reported the unveiling of portraits of several soldiers killed in action who had been employed by the NSW Railways Department including John Clare Collum, Reg Cheesman, Robert Paxton and William le Sueur.[23] The Nepean Times was kept busy reporting on the growing number of honor rolls being unveiled by churches, schools and community organizations to honor the sacrifices being made by local soldiers and nurses. Of considerable interest was the Honor Roll unveiled at St Stephen’s Church, which included the details of nurses from the district who were serving overseas on active service.[24]

Local soldiers also wrote about fallen comrades. While serving on the Gallipoli peninsula, Roger Moore wrote that Harold Pye’s grave was a stone’s through away from where he was camped adding that he couldn’t find the graves of Fred Messer and Jack Syme killed during the same campaign.[25] In December 1916, the Starling family received a letter from Stan Newman about their son Will’s death during the Battle of Pozieres:
First of all I must tell you how and where Will met his death. On July 22 (Saturday night) we moved up to the front to prepare for the charge around midnight. When the order came to fix bayonets, Will came to my side and wished me good luck; we shook hands but when the order was given we were separated until early on the Sunday morning when someone clasped my hand and said “Thank God, we’re both alive.” It was Will. We were together all day Sunday and Monday. Sunday was very quiet; but Monday – Good God! It was awful. It was in the supports that Bill was hit in the back, just below the shoulder blade by a piece of shell. He fell by my side. We quickly bound up his wound, gave him water and passed the order along for stretcher bearers; but unfortunately were all at work bringing our wounded from the front line…However, after an hour’s spell, Bill felt well enough to walk to the dressing station…I heard no more of Bill until his death was reported to the Battalion…Try to be brave and remember Bill died a hero, and I will do my best to avenge his death.[26]

Charlie Werner also wrote to the Starling family:
I can assure you that if was a blow for me to get word that Bill had been killed, and especially to know but not at the time, that I had been so close to him…But I can assure you he is resting in comfort for I never miss a week but that I go to his grave…the Sergeant in charge is very considerate; he allows us to keep the place nice. I have also made arrangements for a photo of his grave to be taken and sent on to you.[27]

During the Battle of Pozieres, the medical services would be stretched to the limit with over 5000 Australian soldiers being killed, including my great grandfather who was serving with the Victorian 8th Battalion AIF.

Probably the most difficult obituary written by Colless was that of his nephew Stan, killed at the Battle of Mont St Quentin just two months before the Armistice was declared. On 21 September 1918, the Nepean Times reported the death of three brave men from the district: Stan Colless, Frank Abbott and Henry John (Jack) Burrows noting that the war continued to take a heavy toll of victims amongst the brave boys of the district, the most promising of our young manhood. The obituary continued:
We trust it will a consolation to the deceased soldiers’ parents and family circles in their anguish of spirit at their demise, to know they have died heroically, serving the cause of their God, their country and civilization, and that their names will be immortally engraved on the glorious annals of Australia’s noblest heroes.[28]

In the same edition of the newspaper, a letter to the editor from Edward Burrows, brother of the late Jack Burrows mentioned above, was published complaining about the manner in which the family had been notified of Jack’s death. While Edward had received notification of his brother’s death at 9 am, Burrows’ parents at Penrith did not receive notification until 4.30 pm due to the indisposition of the clergyman who should have passed the telegram onto a colleague to deliver. Burrows further stated that news had spread through Penrith by midday about his brother’s death, indicating that someone had leaked this information.[29] This letter drew a sharp response from Alfred Colless who stated:
The facts revealed in the above communication are deserving of severe criticism. If delays of this kind are going to continue, and the news is allowed to leak out before relatives are advised, it would be far better for the Military authorities to forward the wires directly to relatives. There have been other cases of delay similar to this one referred to, and where the contents of telegrams have been known by many before relatives had been apprised of the fact. It is hoped, in future, there will not be a repetition of this sort of thing. – Ed N.T.[30]

On 11 November 1918, an armistice was signed signalling the end of the bloodiest conflict involving Australian troops. Colless marked the end of the war with an article titled ‘The Victory of Right’ in which he stated:

As in most disputes of gigantic proportions, it was ended in a complete victory of right over wrong, of Liberty over oppression, of Justice over deception, and intrigue and vileness. The result of four years of bloodshed unheard of in previous history, and in the minds of military experts…has been a complete triumph of civilization over brutality. Maybe it was that the Germans battered and exhausted after 4 years of strenuous effort and felt themselves compelled to accept any terms…but this great tragedy should only finish by the fitting punishment for the criminal callousness of those responsible for the outrage they inflicted on humanity. The suffering of thousands of our aged and sorrowing fathers and mothers, whose beloved boys can never return to them…there are many in our district as well as everywhere – demand this punishment upon the guilty as a matter of simple justice.[31]

Although the victors in the war, Colless’ unforgiving sentiments were widely held in the Australian community.

Victory Day celebrations in Penrith, duly reported, included an effigy of Kaiser Bill hanging on an improvised scaffold. An address by the Mayor noted that while citizens were celebrating victory; he sympathised with the bereaved parents and relatives of the fallen.[32] Soldiers began the long trip back to Australia albeit at a slow rate. Headlines throughout 1919 were dominated by the soldiers’ homecomings: Boys Come Home, Public Reception in Penrith and Welcome to Returned Soldiers as Australia and the Penrith District struggled to come to terms with the extensive loss of life during the four year conflict. For many the joy of homecoming was often tinged with sadness. Three Collum boys enlisted during WW1 and only two returned. The Clissold family lost father and son, the Tingcombe family 2 sons and the Pye family two sons at Gallipoli.

In January 1919, the Nepean Times contained a report on a reception held for Harry Matthew Lack (known as Vallie). Lack had enlisted in March 1916 and after a period of training in England, was transferred to the Western Front. Lack was seriously wounded in the arms and chest in early 1917 and in July 1917, Lack’s parents received notification that he would be shortly invalided home as the result of his injuries precluded further military service.[33] Despite this assurance, it would be more than a year before Lack finally arrived home in Penrith.

After a formal welcome was extended by the Mayor, a procession headed by the band marched through the town to Thornton Hall, Lack’s home. While Lack was serving overseas, he had celebrated his 21st birthday and he was presented with a gold watch and chain to mark the belated birthday. Rather poignantly, the report finished with the brief statement that Vallie had lost the sight of one eye while on active service.[34]

Some soldiers brought home souvenirs of the war – take the case of Driver Rockley Boots from Kingswood who returned to Australia with a Scottish bride described in a speech by Mr J Vivian (ex-school master at Kingswood) as a grand present all the way from bonny Scotland. The Mayor of St Marys, Alderman K Campbell presented the bride with a silver pickle jar adding that she was the first bride from the Old Country to arrive in his municipality! The Mayor later added that 8000 of the returning soldiers had married English and Scottish girls and he suggested that it was up to us to open up a subscription list to send 80000 Australian women to England and Scotland to bring back some husbands.[35]

Few of the soldiers and nurses that embarked for overseas service could have foreseen the depth and breadth of Australian losses during World War 1. The Nepean Times provided a valuable link between the war front and home front as they reported on enlistments, troop movements, casualties and fatalities. The soldiers serving overseas provided additional information for the families at home about their loved ones. Poignantly, details were also provided about the resting place of the dead, places that most family members would never have the opportunity to visit. For the family historian and researcher, the Nepean Times provides an invaluable resource that encapsulates the Penrith district during this turbulent period.

[1]Australia at War. Nepean Times, 8 August 1915, p4 c2
[2]An Appreciative Letter, Nepean Times, 11 December 1915, p2 c2-3. On 5 November 1916, Steel, a 2nd Lieutenant with the 1st Battalion AIF, was killed in action on the Western Front.
[3]News from Rabaul, Nepean Times, 24 October 1914, p8 c7
[4]Sister Colless under Fire, Nepean Times, 24 November, 1917, p2 c4
[5]Soldiers’ Letters, Nepean Times, 11 March 1916, p8
[6]Soldiers’ Letters, Nepean Times, 2 December 1916, p6 c4’. Beresford left Australia on 7 October 1916 with the 21st reinforcements, 13th Battalion AIF. Beresford (6473) was captured by the Germans in April 1917 and was interned at Limburg. He returned to Australia in 1919.
[7]From Egypt’s Desert Sands, Nepean Times, 29 July 1916, p3. Private Oscar Norman Thompson was wounded in action in July 1916 and October 1916. He returned to Australia in 1919.
[8]Soldiers’ Letters, Nepean Times, 14 august 1915, p2 c1-2. Forbes Edward (Wes) Collum enlisted with the 1st Battalion in Oct 1914 and returned to Australia in December 1918.
[9]AWM 41: 1072. Interviews containing accounts of Nursing experiences in the AANS [Australian Army Nursing Service]. [Index to interviews of members of AANS included in file].
[10]Soldiers’ Letter, Nepean Times, 7 October 1916, p2
[11]Letters from the Front, Nepean Times, 12 May 1917, p2
[12]Soldiers’ Letters, Nepean Times, 5 February 1916, p7
[13]Raid by Australians: Penrith Boy Mentioned, Nepean Times, 16 March 1918, p3 c4
[14]A Kingswood Soldier Honoured, Nepean Times, 12 October 1918, p4 c2. Edward James Boots enlisted on 28 August 1915 and returned to Australia in May 1919.
[15]From Cpl Gates, Nepean Times, 8 January 1916, p7 c4-5
[16]Budget from Sgt A Gates, Nepean Times, 4 August 1917, p3 c3
[17]Our Honor List, Nepean Times, 19 August 1915, p6 c3
[18]Reid, R. He is not Missing. He is Here: Australia and the Menin Gate. Department of Veterans Affairs: Canberra, 1997.
NT Reduced in Size, Nepean Times, 4 August 1917, p2 c3
[21]Memorial Service, Nepean Times, 26 June 1915, p6
[22]Private Geo Taylor still a Living Entity, Nepean Times, 26 June 1915, p5
[23]Unveiling Portraits of Fallen Heroes, Nepean Times, 12 May 1917, p 2c1-3
[24]Unveiling Roll of Honor, Nepean Times,26 March 1916, p4. Additional details on Honor Rolls can be accessed on the Penrith City Council website:
[25]Soldiers’ Letters, Nepean Times, 6 November 1915, p6 c1
[26]Late Private W J J Starling, Nepean Times, 23 December 1916, p1
[28]Fallen Heroes: Lieut Stanley Colless, DCM, MC, Nepean Times, 21 September 1918, p2 c2
[29]Correspondence: Telegrams to Fallen Soldiers’ Relatives, Nepean Times, 21 September 1918, p3 c6
[31]The Right of Victory, Nepean Times, 16 November 1918, p3 c1-2
[33]Private H M Lack, Nepean Times, 21 July 1917, p4 c6
[34]Soldier’s Reception, Nepean Times, 11 January 1919, p4 c2
[35]Loyal Kingswood – Welcome to Returned Soldiers, Nepean Times, 19 July 1919, p1 c1-3