As a writer, I’m always drawn on Anzac Day to the words of the men and women who faced the horrors of war. The real history lies not in the official records, but in the letters sent home by soldiers at the front.Where to find ANZAC letters
Many of Australia’s State Libraries hold large collections of soldiers’ private records and diaries. As does the Australian War Memorial. But if you want to read Diggers’ letters without trekking to a library, there are plenty to explore online.
The NSW state library has an extensive collection on its First World War commemorative site. You can read the letters and diaries of more than 200 people in the Australian War Memorial’s Anzac Connections project. Or you can listen to these recordings of memorable letters by some of Queensland’s Diggers, read by current servicemen.
Letters from Indigenous ANZACs
Some of the rarest ANZAC letters are from Aboriginal men who served during the Great War. These include “Charley” Blackman’s letters in the Australian’s War Memorial’s online collection.
According to historian Philippa Scarlett, we still have a great deal to learn about the role of indigenous soldiers in WWI. Letters like Blackman’s are crucial to the story of Aboriginal service, which is only just coming to light, 100 years on.
What the ANZAC letters reveal
The tone of the Diggers’ letters shows how their feelings changed as the war progressed. Early letters were full of stoicism and bravado. But this was quickly replaced with bitter truths about life at the front.
Censors toned down many of the soldiers’ shocking accounts to spare loved ones back home the brutal reality of war. One of those censors, Lieutenant Colonel Percival Fenwick, is quoted on The New Zealand Herald’s Letters from Hell website:
“Some of the letters I censor describe the shelling and miseries, and I get the men to cut this out as it only adds needlessly to the anxieties and worries of their folk at home and is beastly selfish,” he wrote. “They have enough to bear without reading horrors.”
Despite the work of censors like Fenwick, many of the letters do record the full horrors of a soldier’s life in the thick of war.
In their letters and diaries, the Diggers laid bare their souls and share the truth they wanted to be heard. Their voices are calling out across the decades.
For me, there’s no better way to honour their sacrifice on Anzac Day than to stop and listen.