16 February 2016

Brothers in Arms, WW1 - a book by Louise Wilson

We know what the senior politicians and military men thought about WW1. But what did the ordinary Allied soldier think? Undoubtedly most British, Belgian and French soldiers saw the German threat as very real. For ordinary soldiers in 1914, few really thought that the war would be over quickly, at least after the first few months. Many served to protect their famil­ies, to show loyalty to their country or to earn a regular salary. But soon the soldiers began to despise the flag-wavers and white-feather brigade back home.

It was only with hindsight that Erich Maria Remarque and the war poets were proved correct. The horrors of the trench, rotting horseflesh, mud, poor food, shoddy weapons, poison gas and the sheer terror of waiting for death, these were the Big Lie futilities of the Great War. [Perhaps read How Did Soldiers Cope With War by Matthew Shaw at this point].

Ordinary soldiers were too cold, too hungry, shell shocked in trenches, too illiterate or too wounded to write detailed analyses. And in any case, mil­itary censorship would have deleted any proper information that soldiers wrote. Yet as Louise Wil­son wrote, many WW1 soldiers did send postcards home. What is diff­erent about her book, Brothers In Arms (BookPOD 2015) was that this long and literate set of letters from the Boulton brothers survived intact.

Nigel (left) and Stephen Boulton in army uniform

The author’s great grandmother, Dora Dolly Boulton, had two soldier sons who wrote home regularly. a] Captain Nigel Boulton (b1888) did his medical degree at Sydney University. In Aug 1914 he was in London doing post-graduate medical training in paediatrics*; he went on to serve as a doctor in Royal Army Medical Corps of the Brit­ish Expeditionary Forces. B] Brother Lieut Stephen Boulton (b1890) had worked in a Sydney bank, going on to become an artillery gunner with the Australian Imperial Forces.

The two men’s connections to Britain were very strong. Firstly their parents were British. Secondly when their young father died in Melb­ourne years earlier, the British relatives educated the orphan lads in a charity boarding school in Slough. Thirdly by mid-1914 Aust­ralia was already reaching a fever pitch of patriotic support for the Motherland.

The publishers say that the Boulton brothers’ letters swept broadly across: outbreak of hostilities; Egypt & Gallipoli; Fromelles & Ypres; Pozières & the Somme. But the letters were actually far more insightful and personal than a mere list of battle grounds would suggest. In Aug 1914 Nigel feared Dolly would be upset when he announced that he had married his girlfriend Mona by Special Licence in London. Nigel ex­pl­ained that his army pay would provide a nice nest egg post-war. And Mona would be able to stay in Britain.

Nigel was anxious to get to the Continent. In every letter in Aug-Sep 1914, he described going to the War Office, to hurry them up. He was very angry that other coll­eagues had been given military medical positions, even though he was more qualified. By October 1914 Nigel was already aware of German prog­ress, taking Antwerp, Ghent and Ostend. Britain would soon be bombed by German air ships, espec­ially Dover Castle where Nigel was working as a doctor. And the deluge of pitiful Belgian refugees would continue.

Why was Nigel so terribly anxious to get into the war? He did not say. But I can quote German artist-soldiers who wrote down their feelings. “War simply had to bring us grandeur, strength, dignity. To us it seemed a masculine act, a merry shootout on blossoming, blood-bedewed meadows (Ernst Junger)”. Franz Marc expected the war to bring a worldwide catharsis and a spiritual purging of humankind. Karl Schmidt-Rottluff looked forward to the chance to create something as powerful as could be (Norbert Wolf, Expressionism). Did those passions typify Allied soldiers as well in 1914?

In January 1915 Nigel was still waiting anxiously to go across the Channel. So why did he horrify his mother by writing about death, saying how many young men had died already? And why did he describe the anti-aircraft guns in Dover and the Zeppelins off Calais, to her?

British and Australian wounded soldiers
in a military hospital in France, 1916

By October 1915 Nigel was writing from the General Hospital in Alexandria. He was at that stage hoping that the war would be over and that Egypt would be a fixed British Colony with Alexandria as the main port. He hoped to become the principal medical officer of health in Alexandria, dealing presumably with dysenteries and typhoids. But Nigel was not sure what Mona would think of settling in Egypt*.

In May 1916 Nigel wrote a letter from Alexandria then the book did not mention him again until Sept 1916, suffering from malaria in Malta. He said he was waiting for Mona to leave Egypt and join him back in London. Then there was another gap until Oct 1916 when Nigel’s next letter was from a field ambulance service in France. Then another gap until Jan 1917 when he wrote a letter about trench warfare, laundry, footrot and sanitary engineering in France.

Nigel and Mona’s first baby was joyously born in November 1916 near Bournemouth.

Stephen enlisted as an AIF Gunner in Jan 1915. His first published letter was written at sea in March 1915 - about caring for the horses on board, the other Australian soldiers and the food. Then quite a number of letters followed from Suez, Alexandria and Cairo.

Stephen missed the disastrous landing by ANZACs at Gallipoli in April 1915, but was there in time to move ammunition from Anzac Cove to the trenches. The Turkish island of Imbros was then under Greek administration, so when he became very ill, he was hospitalised first in Imbros (Sept 1915) and in Malta (Oct 1915). He must have plenty of times on his hands because he chatted happily about the doctors, nurses, dysentery and scarlet fever, medication, learning Fren­ch and receiving Australian Red Cross Christmas pres­ents. He discussed the war in Bulgaria, Greece and Romania.

Stephen returned as a Bombard­ier in Egypt in Mar 1916, before the Australian artil­lery moved to the Western Front and the infamous Pozières battle in July-Aug 1916. But why would a person who survived Pozières want to return to the Royal Field Artillery School to go up the ranks? App­ar­ently two years of dang­erous military serv­ice was not enough!

My favourite letters from Stephen were not from the battle front but from the Officer Cadet School in Lord’s (Jul-Aug 1917). He talked about his British aunts, his beloved baby nephew, meeting pretty girls, going to church and sitting for military examinations. He also discussed heavy Australian losses in Ypres. Stephen became an officer in Nov 1917 and served on the Western Front in a Field Artillery Brigade throughout 1918.

Nigel discussed military awards in his letters a number of times, but were the two brothers awarded any medals? The Victory Medal issued within the British Empire was awarded to ex-servicemen in 1919. On one side was the winged figure of Victory and on the other were the words The Great War For Civilisation 1914-1919, surrounded by a laurel wreath. Victory? Yes. Civilisation? I don’t think so!

The letters were complete in their own right and would have been totally understood by a contemporary reading public. But 100 years later I greatly valued the added maps and editor's comments.

*Thank you to the author for this book. Part of its personal fascination was because my husband also did Medicine, also at Sydney University, also went to London to specialise in Paediatrics and also had two sons, exactly as Nigel Boulton had done. We too wondered where would be the best city for his medical career and how our parents back in Australia would react.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Nigel's anxiety that others were promoted over him reminds me of your comments that women doctors were not ideally deployed during the war. It seems that maximum benefit and utility is only one martial consideration.

Wilson's account underlines the importance of preserving letters and keeping them together. Today, the letters would likely be broken up and sold individually, perhaps benefiting certain pointed areas of interest or research, but totally eliminating the possibility that an entire, coherent story, like that of the Boultons, could be related or recreated.

Student of History said...

Is the book in the CAE library?

Hels said...


re your second point, what is the chance of correspondence within a very ordinary family (not royalty where everything is archived) staying together and being preserved for 100 years? Close to zero, I would have thought.

Wilson noted that the brothers' letters were typed in the early 1920s and a copy was presented to the Australian War Memorial which promptly requested the originals. The typed copies were later scanned with OCR (optical character recognition) to create a Word document, and the OCR mistakes certainly needed to be edited. But the entire collection of letters home to mum had survived. That left a relatively simple task in 2015: to interweave the letters chronologically and to add some brief introductions to help the story flow.

Hels said...


The State Library of Victoria certainly has a copy of Brother In Arms. When the new semester starts, I will ask the librarians if we can have a copy of the book permanently in the Flinders Lane branch of the library.

Andrew said...

Most were very enthusiastic to serve in WWI until the reality hit them. Northern Europe must have been so so bad. Such letters are intriguing because they never tell the whole story and gaps must filled in, perhaps just in the mind if facts are not available.

Mandy said...

I love this. I'm becoming increasingly interested in the accounts of real people (in other words, not fictional) from the time of both world wars.

Hels said...


very very enthusiastic to fight in 1914! They expected to go over to the Continent, clear Europe of the dreaded enemy before Christmas, then come home safely and without fuss. I understand young men's excitement about getting off the farm, travelling the globe and earning some income. Nigel was certainly itching to Get Into It in 1914.

But how long did that last? Once the young men discovered they were merely canon fodder to be killed or maimed in 1915, were they still volunteering by their tens of thousands? Why did the White Feather Brigade at home treat young men abominably and why was conscription becoming more and more urgently needed? I don't think the Boulton brothers gave a proper explanation.

Hels said...


My experience is in the other order. In the past I read many serious historical analyses of the Great War, but never fictional works. Since finding the War Poets during the last few years, my reading is now expanding rapidly :)

Louise Wilson said...

I'm sorry to be a late arrival at this discussion. To begin, thank you Hels for taking the time and trouble to read and then write up your thoughts about 'Brothers in Arms'. I'm intrigued that the discussion is revolving around the survival of these letters as a set. In compiling this book, at first I didn't realise just how unusual this is, for WW1. Shrine of Remembrance staff have told me they've seen nothing else like it. Finally, I'm glad feedback comments support this as an entire, coherent story as that's what I set out to achieve - hence the research to introduce the letters and add brief footnotes, although nothing beats the power of the words penned by my grandmother's brothers.

Hels said...


your grandmother was a very brave woman. Since her letters to her sons did not survive, is there any way of knowing how she felt about her sons going to war in Europe? conscription? the peace movement etc?

Hels said...

I meant great grandmother. Your grandmother may have been very brave as well.

Louise Wilson said...

Hello again, Hels. The only written indication of my great grandmother's views is contained in the letter she wrote to Nigel on 28 Oct 1928, on p 405 of the book. Her boys both volunteered, but knowing the family 'ethos' and the service by my mother's generation in WW2, I expect she fully supported the notion of duty to one's country in times of trouble, no matter what the personal cost. Seeing how many young men around her were not at the war, suffering like her sons, she may have been pro-conscription. Nigel's comments in the para at the bottom of page 331 hint that she voted 'yes'. But who really knows?