An ANZAC story: My great-grandfather’s war diary

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Written By Melita Rowston

As Anzac Commemorative Ceremonies for the Battle of Gallipoli are held throughout Australia in 2015, Melita Rowston (The Copy Collective contributor and journalist) explores an intimate perspective of the war from her great-grandfather’s recently discovered war diaries. A true ANZAC story.

My great-grandfather, Arthur Vaughan, a gifted pianist and graduate of the London College of Music, was one of only four young men left in the country town of Heathcote, Victoria in 1916. A sensitive soul never cut out for battle, he was shamed into enlisting. Locals would loudly whisper that he was a coward and cross the road when they passed.

His diary details the day he enlisted and the enormity of saying good-bye. On hearing the news, his aunt collapsed, his mother was engulfed in tears and his father broke down. They believed they’d never see their son again.

For my mum, reading Arthur’s diary, she feels as if these scenes are coming alive before her very eyes. This was a man she knew, but a very different man back then.

Private AJ Vaughan was twenty-four when he sailed on the Runi in June 1916 for Armentières. He was enlisted as a stretcher-bearer for the 38th Battalion. He had become engaged to his sweetheart Flossie just before setting sail. It was Flossie’s image that got him through the dark days to come.

Perhaps the diaries of ordinary men and women resonate more for my mother’s generation because this was the world she was born into. A world where the wounds of both wars still haunted every aspect of society.

Discovering the handwritten torment of war

When my grandmother died, mum found garbage bags full of her grandfather’s war diaries that she never knew existed. She finds it hard to put into words the importance of these diaries. To be given access to his most intimate thoughts, meant that much of the past now made sense.

“I was utterly moved, there were things I didn’t know about him and my grandmother, experiences he went through. The way he described being wounded and lying on a stretcher for two days on a train journey from Paris to London… The way his writing shifted after shell shock took hold.”

“Hell while on the Somme. The battlefield is like a volcano of fire. On one occasion the ground shook for miles as though in an earthquake. Terrific explosions and flames of death to 300 feet high. Fellows being blown to pieces. Never thought my turn was to come next…”

On December 29, 1916 Arthur was hit by a Minnie (German mine thrower). Blown up, then buried alive, he was deprived of oxygen. His mates dug him out just in time.

The broken return from the battlefield

When Arthur returned to Australia he was a broken man, a shell. Something was gone. The doctors advised Flossie not to marry her sweetheart. They warned her he’d be a cot case, their children would be idiots, she’d be weighed down. But she was not a woman to go back on her word.

My mum reflects on her grandfather…

“Never once did he talk to me. I was born in that house. I lived there for 22 years. He never took me down to the shop for lollies or for a walk in the park like most grandfathers do. I never had that. For 22 years I saw what war had done to him. It left a mark on me. They’re empty men. No one could talk about it. It was too awful. He was meant to just pull up his socks and get on with life.”

In those first years back, Arthur couldn’t work. Most nights he stood outside and threw rocks on the roof. When Flossie gave birth to their two children, he got worse. A simple thunderstorm sent him crazy – it reminded him of the battlefield. Flossie sent him back to his parents in country Victoria where he worked for his dad as a house painter and sent money back home to support the family. He was away for six years.

Arthur’s first day on the Front line is described with youthful jocularity,

“In we went. Mud and water! We were that scared we shrivelled into out boots and looked out of our lace holes…”

The tone soon shifts. In one postcard Arthur explains why he has taken up smoking…

“I had to shovel the remains of five of my comrades – bits of bones and flesh and their heads all smashed in and blood all over me. Shells bursting around me. One of my mates, a St Kilda boy, got blown to pieces while helping me. The cigarette smoke takes the smell of blood away. So excuse me writing this awful thing. Burn this card as I do not want to hear of it again.”

After that fateful day, Arthur’s diary entries become sparse. The diary ends on May 26th 1917 with an entry stating he’s about to receive electric shock therapy.

Mum has submitted a photo and brief story about Arthur Vaughan’s experience of the Great War to

“I want his name up with all the others… I don’t want this to fade away into nothingness… Future generations can better understand where they came from.”

Not that the future was something Arthur thought of…

“You ask me, do I ever dream of the future? No darling. I cannot get the sight of the battlefield out of my head. I hope never to be able to picture to you this terrible hellish furnace I have been through.”

Explore the ANZAC stories

This Anzac Day you can explore the stories of men like my great-grandfather Arthur at one of several exhibitions:

World War I: Love & Sorrow at The Melbourne Museum

Life Interrupted: Personal Diaries from World War I at the State Library of NSW

Anzac Voices at the Australian War Memorial until November 2015