Brothers in Arms: The Great War Letters of Captain Nigel Boulton R.A.M.C. & Lieut Stephen Boulton, A.I.F.
Compiled and edited by Louise Wilson
Available from the author at http://www.louisewilson.com.au/
On reading the first of the Great War letters written by the Boulton brothers, Nigel and Stephen, it became obvious that this was going to be an emotional, poignant and at times, disturbing journey. The content of the letters will appeal strongly to anyone who has family who served during the Great War and in my own case, they echo the trauma experienced by my English grandfather in the letters he wrote to family from the Western Front. The letters in this book were written by the great-uncles of Melbourne-based author, Louise Wilson, and when letters such as these fall into the hands of an accomplished author and family historian the results promise to be outstanding.
An award-winning author, Louise Wilson brings to this work the meticulous research skills shown in her previous excellent publications, Robert Forrester, First Fleeter; Paul Bushell, Second Fleeter and Southwark Luck: the story of Charles Homer Martin, Ann Forrester and their children. Brothers in Arms is different in terms of subject matter, scope and style from any of Louise’s previous works and her experience as an author is evident in this well-referenced collection. A debt of thanks is due to the late Dora Mary Boulton for keeping her sons’ letters and having the foresight to distribute typed copies amongst family members, and to the late Julia Woodhouse, the author’s mother, for keeping the family photographs. The original letters are held by the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
The presence of Nigel and Stephen Boulton is strong in this book and it fills gaps in the historiography of the Great War. It is a valuable resource that allows us to discover what it was like to serve as an Australian doctor under British command in the Royal Army Medical Corps (Captain Nigel Boulton) and an artillery gunner, later commissioned as an officer in the Australian Infantry Forces (Lieutenant Stephen Boulton). What is exceptional about this book is the fact that this collection of letters has remained intact for at least one hundred years, to become a rich source of first-hand social history. They increase our understanding of life as experienced by the Boulton brothers during their years of military service during World War I and of life at home for Nigel and Stephen’s grandmother, widowed mother, sister and aunts.
Nigel and Stephen Boulton’s parents were both English and the brothers were educated firstly in England and then at The Kings School in Parramatta. Nigel, who was living and continuing his medical studies in England when war was declared in 1914, appears to be the more Anglophilic, espousing the strength of the British character in his letters to ‘Dearest Mother’, ‘how glorious it is to feel one is a Britisher at a time like this…I thank God I was born of English parents every time I think of it’. Despite Nigel’s obvious love of England and all things British, towards the end of the war he writes, ‘how I wish I could be with you again in dear old New South Wales’. By this time too, Stephen Boulton is ‘heartily sick of the whole business’ and writes that ‘everyone is living for the day they arrive back home again in Australia’.
Of course, Nigel’s attitude towards the Mother Country is not surprising for it was one shared by thousands of volunteer troops who enlisted to fight for Empire, King and Country. As Les Carlyon comments in The Great War: ‘To many Australians the prospect of war seemed exhilarating…Australians rushed to join up’. Although shipping and passenger services were greatly disrupted both in and out of England because of the war, Nigel is surprised that ‘a large number of Australians seem to be returning to Australia’. He considers that ‘Europe is a far more exciting place to live in just now’. In the census of 1911 close to ninety-six per cent of Australia’s population identified as British, thus Australians, on the whole, classed themselves as British. Testimony to this had been the introduction of Empire Day on 24 May 1905, on the birthday of the late Queen Victoria. Celebrations were held every year on this date, in schools, churches and universities, such as the University of Sydney where Nigel completed his medical training.
But in Australia on Empire Day after the landing on Gallipoli in 1915, the casualty lists revealed the dark side of Empire. By this time, Nigel Boulton had been transferred from the Section Hospital at Dover Castle in England to No 15 General Hospital in Alexandria, Egypt. He was under no illusions as to the appalling casualties expected during the war and observes that England estimated that the war was ‘going to be a short one’. In his opinion, England was slow to realise the seriousness and complexity of events unfolding at the front. As Nigel was treating hundreds of Australian wounded after their arrival at the hospital he comments, ‘our fellows have done splendidly and are doing all that is required of them…our casualties, however, have been heavy’. He comments further, ‘You can have no idea how shockingly mutilated some of our poor fellows are…’.
The doctors dealing with the horrific injuries caused by bombs, bullets and shrapnel were also dealing with a long list of illnesses and diseases. A large number of the Australians and New Zealanders contracted pneumonia and Nigel comments that this is surprising because ‘they are in the majority of cases superior physically to the English soldiers’. As well as pneumonia, the list of illnesses mentioned throughout the letters includes diphtheria, typhoid, dysentery, diarrhoea, boils, sores, rheumatic fever, enteritis (disease of the intestines), frost-bite and trench foot. The long-term effects of this war were to prove long-lasting and catastrophic to thousands of troops and their families.
By May 1915, Nigel’s younger brother, Stephen, had joined the artillery and was anchored off the coast of Gallipoli. Appearing to be quite the opposite of his brother, Stephen’s early letters to his mother ‘Dear Matee-Boos or Dear Matee’, feature down-to-earth comments on his voyage from Australia on a transport ship with four hundred Waler horses from Muswellbrook in New South Wales. His letters are easy to read and it’s impossible not to become excited and appreciative of the personal content because it is accurate and descriptive, although it could initially be upsetting for horse-lovers. He describes in detail how the horses were confined to stalls ‘just made big enough to hold them…they cannot sit down and have to stand the whole time…their legs get a bit puffed and swollen after a time’. The horses were well looked after though, as Stephen explains, ‘each man had seven horses to look after, feed, water and exercise’. The horses were ‘the whole business’ on a horse transport and their welfare came before anything else. The eighty-five men slept in hammocks slung from the ceiling in the foc’sle where they lived, dressed and ate. As an officer, Stephen’s brother, Nigel, had quite a different experience on his voyage to Egypt where he shared a stateroom with one other officer.
Considering the rigid censorship of letters from the troops to home, the amount of information contained in the Boulton brothers’ letters is surprising. Stephen elucidates details about his training, movements, equipment and military situations to the extent that one becomes emotionally caught up in his life as an artillery gunner. Nigel too, reveals information about hospital life and his war as a medical officer, with wonderful anecdotes and asides about his girlfriend and mother-in-law who travelled to England and then Egypt to be near him, the lack of discipline in the Australian troops: ‘they are undisciplined to a degree and are very reckless’, comments about the incompetency of some of his British senior officers and vivid descriptions of some of his surgical and medical exploits. Particular phrases, mainly in Stephen’s letters, are typical of Australian idiom of the time, such as ‘phiz’ for physiognomy, ‘la de da’, ‘some splosh’, ‘birthenday’, ‘raking in the spondoolicks’, ‘a veritable sollicker’, ‘worriting’.
The writing and receiving of letters and parcels in an uncertain world was crucial to the morale of the troops serving overseas. Throughout their letters, Nigel and Stephen constantly lament the fact that their letters and parcels have been delayed, lost or misappropriated. At other times they are over-joyed when they receive bundles of mail and newspapers from home in one delivery. Stephen was particularly thankful for a Christmas parcel received from the Red Cross containing a pack of cards, fifty cigarettes, chocolate, tobacco, writing paper and envelopes. For many troops, the writing of letters and diaries away from the fighting was a necessary temporary escape from the reality of the horrors of war and being able to share their thoughts and experiences with loved ones at home, even if they were written on the tiniest scrap of paper, was an important therapeutic escape.
Nigel’s letters are descriptive and largely self-explanatory while Stephen’s letters, although just as descriptive, leave one with the feeling that something deeper is implied. It’s necessary to read between the silences in Stephen’s letters because he often minimises the horrors of his experiences, especially on the Western Front: ‘We are extremely busy just now…the last fortnight up in the line was pretty hot…we had a pretty fair dose’ and ‘I had rather a narrow squeak’ when he was buried after a bomb hit the trench at Pozières. Stephen is definitely the brother for whom I felt more compassion, but this is most likely because Nigel seems a little more remote.
In the months before he was sent to France, Stephen suffered a series of illnesses and was sent to St John’s Military Hospital, Malta, then to Ghain-Tuffieha Convalescent Camp where there are ‘no sheets..after so many different men coming in one after another the tents and blankets are not too clean’ and ‘there are bags of fleas’. By this time too (December 1915), Stephen explains that the ‘Colonial’ troops are no longer to be sent to England to convalesce, so they will more than likely be sent to Egypt. It is difficult not to feel slightly angry as Stephen explains the treatment and conditions meted out to the ‘Colonials’. Later, it seems that Stephen can’t take a trick as he comes down with the mumps shortly before being transferred to Officer Cadet School in England.
To alleviate the constant stress of war and of writing about their experiences, each of the brothers escapes in their minds to home by writing and enquiring about different family members. Because of their close family ties with family in England and Australia, Nigel and Stephen regularly correspond with their mother, grandmother and younger sister (nicknamed ‘The Child’) a network of aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws and friends from school and university. The author constantly communicates with the reader with well-placed notes and footnotes, carefully explaining military terminology and family relationships, interspersed with historic detail. It’s not an easy task to decipher military terminology in unit and service war records, but Louise has achieved the inclusion of accurate information and maps with great success. Her inclusion of charts showing family relationships, along with well-placed photographs from family and Australian War Memorial collections creates interest, intimacy and intensity. It’s impossible not to feel emotionally involved with these two brothers, especially as one gets closer to the end of the book.
In 1916, Stephen writes of sending home a copy of The Anzac book, the contents of which were subject to censorship. As editor, the official Australian war correspondent, Charles Bean, called for submissions for The Anzac book knowing that he had to keep within the strict British War Office guidelines and those set by the Australian Defence Department. He therefore requested submissions such as ‘short poems and stories, pictures, jokes, topical advertisements, skits, limericks, cartoons and the Anzac alphabet’ and from these he selected those that did not criticise or ‘needlessly distress’ the people of Australia.
Despite the rigours of censorship, Charles Bean managed to capture the essence of why many of the Australians were fighting in a foreign country and convey that message in his writings. Bean has in the past been criticised for rejecting contributions from the troops for The Anzac book that undermined his ideal of the Australian fighting man or were detrimental to morale or too depressing, but the Anzac book which Stephen Boulton sent home to his family helped the Australian public realise the danger and conditions under which the men of the Australian Imperial Force were fighting. In a letter sent after weeks of fighting at Pozières, Stephen writes that the commanders are ‘making great use of the Australians and they are reckoned absolutely the best and not greatly over-exaggerated’. Australia endured great losses at Pozières and suffered as many casualties as in the entire Gallipoli campaign.
Each of the Boulton brothers at various points in their letters, praises the stamina of the Australian soldiers: ‘They are the very devil as far as fighting goes and fight till the last man…our chaps have behaved magnificently and are so cheerful and brave…the English chaps are positively amazed at the Australians…they are the most magnificent men they have ever seen’. But Stephen also adds his opinion of Billy Hughes 1916 Australian conscription referendum: ‘If he only gives the troops over here a vote, I know what will win’.
At different times, Nigel and Stephen manage to gain approval for leave in England which is a welcome respite from the ravages of war. They carry out whirlwind visits with relatives and friends before heading back to the Western Front. The uncertainty and constant anxiety felt by family members in England and Australia for the safe return of their loved ‘Nige’ and ‘Toots’ is shared by the reader as they experience life and turmoil with two brothers during one of the worst periods in the history of recent times.
Louise Wilson is to be congratulated on producing such a superb compilation of letters in this brilliant publication. Be prepared to shed a few tears.
Carol Roberts PHANSW, is an historian, researcher and cultural heritage tour designer working in the Hawkesbury area of New South Wales