Joy, loss and relief: digitised collection reveals the stories behind Armistice Day

The Australian War Memorial project is bringing diaries and letters from the first world war to new audiences

Pte John Henry Llewellyn Turnbull, an engine driver from Geelong, wrote six diaries over his four years of service with the 5th Divisional Ammunition Column on the western front during the first world war.

In his final diary, Turnbull records that on 11 November 1918 he and his battalion were marching to their next destination in France when they stopped on the road for their midday meal.

“We saw a motorcar coming along flying a staff general, flag over the bonnet,” he wrote.

“One of our men had the nerve to stand in the middle of the road and hold up his hand a[nd] cry ‘halt.’ He had a tin of bully in one hand and a slab of concrete biscuit in the other.

“The chauffeur had to halt or run over him. He halted. This bird of ours inquired of a General, who was becoming blue or purple in the face, if the armistice was signed yet.”

One of the scanned letters.
One of the scanned letters. Photograph: Australian War Memorial

After the general inquired who the man was, he “completely recovered his shock and replied, ‘I might have known you are an Australian. The Armistice was signed at 11 o’clock this morning.”

More than a hundred years ago since such accounts of the end of the first world war were penned by Australians on the battlefields, a major digitisation project led by the Australian War Memorial is bringing these eyewitness stories to new audiences.

More than 14,000 digitised collections, including archival records, photographs, film, maps, art posters and objects, are being progressively published online. And today, as we pause to remember those who fought for us in this great battle, Guardian Australia shares some of these Armistice Day stories from the front.

“In the past, people had to travel to Canberra and request to view these items … but now you can access these historical records from home and, unlike paper, you can zoom into the text and bring up the content in detail,” the head of the memorial’s research centre, Robyn van Dyk, said.

Beyond the official facts, the letters and diary entries from soldiers and nurses allow readers a rare glimpse into the lived reality of war – the agony and the ecstasy.

Eighteen at the time, Pte Wilfred Denver Gallwey wrote his mother back home in Australia: “London has gone mad and I am intoxicated with joy. My leave is up long ago but I cannot leave London yet. It is all a blazed of light. Women have never been so free. I have mobbed and kissed and hugged to death. The happiest day I have had for years.”

But for other soldiers, like Lt Sydney Traill, wounded at Gallipoli and Pozières and whose brother-in-law had died at Estrées only a month before, Armistice Day came with a more muted response.

“It was officially announced late tonight that hostilities have ceased as from 11 o’c a.m. today. We knew early in the morning, though. No one displayed the slightest enthusiasm and it doesn’t matter a tuppeny dump to me now, whether it goes on or not, the war has done its worst for our family,” Traill wrote in his diary.

The words of Australia’s official correspondent and historian, Charles Bean, also “carry a sense of numbness as he describes the sights and sounds of Lille when the people there heard the war was over”, Van Dyk said.

Robyn van Dyk carefully handles one of the documents digitised for the Australian War Memorial collection.
Robyn van Dyk carefully handles one of the documents digitised for the Australian War Memorial collection. Photograph: Australian War Memorial

Bean wrote in his diary of there being “a few gruff cheers, a few people strung out on either side of the road and the sound of an occasional bleating of a child’s tin trumpet”.

Gunner Alexander Sutherland Mackay wanted to celebrate but found himself “situated in a deserted village & can’t even buy a bottle of soda water to celebrate the joyful news”.

“We are about 12 hours behind Aussie time so it would be about 11pm tonight out there. However I suppose nobody would be in bed yet all waiting to hear the fateful decision,” he wrote.

Over the next few days he noted they “have had beautiful weather since the guns closed up. It’s a relief [at] night using uncovered lights, no necessity to get down below ground for fear of bombs.”

And yet he noted it is “almost impossible to realise the war is over”.

For Joseph Patrick Byrne, of the Australian Imperial Force’s 7th Field Artillery, his diary entry on 11 November revealed the way in which ordinary routines had to carry on, even on the most extraordinary of days.

“Fine, dull. Inspection in morning by O.C,” he wrote. “Just before dinner heard news officially Germany has signed peace terms and war was over. Great cheering and rejoicing. Wrote home and to Dot. Had parcel from Pat, pipe, pencils etc.”

Sister Alice Ross-King.
Sister Alice Ross-King. Photograph: Australian War Memorial

Sister Alice Ross-King, who was awarded a military medal for rushing to save patients from tents during an attack by German aircraft in 1917, described how she found herself with a new companion by the end of Armistice Day.

“Yesterday was a wonderful day – There has been an Armistice … One very drunk Aust soldier came up to me leading a white draught horse he pinched from a frenchie’s cart. It had a red collar on it. He said ‘Here you are Sister, I won’t want this horse again. I’m going back to Australia’ I said ‘Is it your horse?’ He said ‘No! but you can have it.’ And I was left with a horse!”

In his letter to his mother the day after Armistice, Capt Lionel Gordon Short, acknowledged the pain of those who had been left waiting for the return of their loved ones.

“Now that the armistice is definitely settled I must send you word of recognition for the many months of suspense that you have had. We may have had our dangers and hardships but they have been relieved by the many changes of our life.

“For you it has been a monotony of uncertainty. It is wonderful that we should all be with you still and so I send you my sympathetic appreciation of your trial and the joy that must now be yours.”

For more letter and diary entries, search the collection.


Natasha May

The GuardianTramp

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