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