A Family at War

Part 4: After Passchendaele

(last updated: 27 January 2015)

10 MG Coy at Neauve Eglise

From the Australian War Memorial database, this photo was taken on 13 April 1918 and is of 10 Machine Gun Coy at
Neuve Eglise in Belgium. Sam is sixth from the right in the second row. His 'old cobber', Sgt Francis Kelly (see below),
is seventh from the left in the front row.

After Bert was reported as missing in action his family were duly informed by an official telegram, contained in a pink envelope and borne to the home by the local minister. Although fearing the worst, they would have hoped that he was still alive and had become lost, or was lying wounded somewhere or, even, had been captured by the Germans. Sam, too, clearly hoped that his brother had somehow survived although his own experience would have warned him not to expect too much. This was clear from a card he sent to his mother from Renescure on 28 October. After informing her that he was 'back in comfortable quarters again and doing fairly well', he added 'Now mind what ever you do don't worry about Bert. He is only one of the noble thousands doing their bit and if God in his mercy spares me to come back, your lot will not be so bad, some have lost all you know'. In a later note sent on 3 November 1917 Sam told his parents that 'I have not heard anything of Bert yet so my fears are pretty well confirmed'.

Hoping that Sam may yet be mistaken, the family wrote to the Australian Red Cross requesting its Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau in London look into the matter. This yielded a letter from a Private G. L. Dennan who confirmed that Bert had been 'wounded with a machine gun bullet', but little else that was not already known. 'He was left behind as we advanced', Dennan added, but 'nothing was heard of him afterwards ... all kinds of enquiries were held but with no result'. The strain of not knowing exactly what had happened to Bert would have been compounded by the receipt, on 11 February 1918, of a letter from an officer in the AIF Base Records in Melbourne. This stated that 'no further official news has yet been received' on Bert's fate and asked if the family had 'any news of the soldier from any other source' (emphasis added). If so, the letter continued, could they forward details plus any letters and post cards from 'the soldier' since he was posted missing. While entitled to be angry and upset by the impersonal nature of the letter (and its implications), Samuel replied simply and honestly as follows:

I have received no further news than officially reported missing. I am forwarding one of Pte A. E. Free's letters and one of his brother's letters. His brother was in the same company as he so you may get some information about the soldier that was with him when missing. I hope you will do your best.

This prompted the authorities to cable France for further information. A reply was received on 25 February stating there was 'nothing to prevent finding deceased'. This appears, however, not to have been passed on, and the family was not officially informed of Bert's death until a Court of Inquiry, conducted after the war on 18 November 1918, ruled he had been killed in action on the day of the attack on Passchendaele. Even then Samuel had to write to Melbourne requesting formal notification of Bert's death in order that he could finally settle his long-deceased son's affairs. As it did for the family of W. K. Hancock - whose eldest son and brother was reported missing after the battle of Pozieres - the failure or reluctance of the authorities officially to confirm Bert's death is likely to have prolonged and compounded the Free family's grief (Hancock, 1954: 65). Not knowing exactly what had happened, it is possible that some among them would also, like the English poet Anna Gordon Keown, have clung to the belief that their son and brother had in fact not been killed:

Scornful I hear the flat things they have said
And all their piteous platitudes of pain,
I laugh! I laugh! - For you will come again -
This heart would never beat if you were dead.

(Keown, 'Reported Missing', 1919)


Postcard sent by Sam to his father from Renescure on 28 October 1917. On the back is
written: 'We passed through this place on the way down here, well I stayed a night
there. There have been hundreds of places like these blown to pieces in France.
Well I may say thousands so you have an idea of how long it will take to rebuild ...
Well Dad old man keep your spirits up, I see another good year so that
takes troubles off your shoulders one way'.

The anxieties and fears of the family now settled on Sam. They would not have been helped by news that Herbert Adler, who had enlisted with Sam and Bert and sailed with them from Australia on the Port Lincoln, had been killed in action near Passchendaele on 17 October. By then 10 MG Coy was back in the now relatively quiet Messines sector in order to rest and prepare for Haig's coming Spring offensive. Sam was clearly upset by the loss of his brother and spent a further period in hospital before, with his 'Melbourne mates' (shown in the photo below) taking a well-earned week's leave in Paris in December 1917. He also occasionally met up with his old section commander, George Piggot Holmes, who had moved to another section when he was promoted to sergeant, and with whom Sam got on well.

As Sam and his colleagues eyed the Eiffel tower, Haig and his generals sat in their chateaux preparing their coming offensive. The Germans, too, were planning an attack of their own which was aimed at knocking England out of the war before the Americans arrived, and was made possible by the release of thousands of troops from the Eastern Front following the overthrow of the Czarist regime in Russia. The German offensive, code-named Operation Michael, began on 20 March 1918 and fell on the British forces located in the area around the Somme valley in France. In light of the initial German successes, Monash's 3 Division was ordered to move from Belgium to Arras in France where it would join its sister divisions and the New Zealanders in seeking to block the enemy advance. Sam and his colleagues in 10 MG Coy were part of the divisional advance party which was initially deployed by train to Mondicourt on 27 March 1918. As the official history described:

... here as elsewhere on that day, the unloading Australians found themselves unexpectedly plunged into an atmosphere of panic ... French civilians and British troops - largely of labour corps and railway companies, mixed with stragglers and wounded men - streamed continuously rearwards along the road from Pas, two miles away, which they said was now threatened by the German advance.

melbourne mates paris photo

Two photos sent home by Sam. Neither is dated. We first thought they may have been taken while Sam was on leave in Paris
but now think they were taken in England before he and Bert proceeded to France on active service. On the back of the photo
on the left Sam has written: 'Corporal Heathcoate, sitting down, Private Smith my Pal. Corporal Eldridge all Melbourne lads'.
On the other photo, which was sent to his sister Hilda, Sam notes: 'Phyland on the left'. This is probably Sydney John Phyland
from Balranald in NSW who sailed from Melbourne on HMAT Berrima on 4 July 1916, joined 10 MG Coy in France in
January 1917, was gassed in September 1918 and RTA in January 1919. Cpl Heathcote is probably Gordon Roy Heathcote.
An optician from the Melbourne suburb of Kew, Roy sailed with Sam and Bert on the Port Lincoln as part of the reinforcements
for 15 MG Coy. He was promoted to Corporal at Perham Downs, allocated to the 24th MG Coy and proceeded overseas on
active service in September 1917. Like Bert Adler, he was killed by a shell burst at Zonnebeke during the third battle of Ypres.
Sam's 'Pal' may have been Pte (later Cpl) William David Smith who also sailed from Melbourne on the Port Lincoln and was
with the boys at Perham Downs before being posted to the 12th Machine Gun Company. He was awarded the Military Medal for
bravery under fire at Zonnebeke, and RTA in 1919. Although still to be confirmed, we think he married Marjorie Olive Neyland
in Melbourne the following year and died at Prahan in 1967.

The guns of 10 MG Coy were hastily deployed to defend Mondicourt until the rest of the brigade arrived, and soldiers were sent forward on bicycles to try and ascertain exactly where the enemy's leading troops were. No sooner had the leading battalions of 10 Brigade detrained, then they were ordered to move to a position some two hours march away from where they embussed at around 3am and were driven further southwards. Two hours later, in the cool dawn of France in early Spring, 'they found themselves bumping into the dusty village of Franvillers on the Amiens-Albert road, high on the edge of the Somme country which was so familiar to the four other Australian divisions, but in which theirs, the youngest, though experienced in great battles in Flanders, had never yet served' (p. 154). Once again Sam and his by now exhausted colleagues were confronted by scenes of panic and pandemonium:

As far as the eye could see, especially along the road from the south-east, came carts lurching with towering loads, precious mattresses, bedsteads, washstands, picture frames, piled together with chairs, brooms, sauce-pans, buckets, the aged driver perched in front upon a pile of hay for the old horse; the family cow - and sometimes calves, or goat - towed behind by a rope or driven by an old woman or small boys or girls on foot (p. 174).

Intermingled with this retreating stream were withdrawing British artillery and transport units some of whose soldiers warned the Australians that they would soon become 'Jerry's souvenirs'. Undeterred, the soldiers of 10 Brigade dug in across the Bray-Corbie road and, along with a number of other Australian formations to their north and south, awaited the German attack.

villers bretonneux

Back home the family would still have been engaged in the process of coming to terms with Bert's probable death while simultaneously coping with now-sharpened fears for the continuing safety and survival of his older brother. It is likely they would have received messages of condolence and support from friends, relatives and even strangers who had seen Bert's name in the casualty lists published in the newspapers. These would have expressed shock and sadness at the news, appreciated the anxious times the family was going through, and prayed that God would bring their other son and brother back to them. It is likely, too, that the local minister would have returned on various occasions to offer spiritual support and comfort. While such visits would no doubt have been appreciated by some in the church-going family, others may have reflected with some bitterness on the role their religious leaders had played in pressing their loved ones to enlist and so place them in harms way. For by this time the Wimmera and many communities and families within it were bitterly divided over the war and its consequences.

This was reflected in the passions and vitriol generated by the government's second attempt, made in December 1917, to introduce conscription - or as it was marketed by Hughes and his ministers, a referendum on the reinforcement of Australia's front-line soldiers. This second referendum was defeated by a larger margin than the one held in 1916. On this occasion the majority of Victorians also switched from 'Yes' to 'No' leaving only Tasmania, Western Australia and the Territories in favour. Although the majority of voters in the Wimmera again supported conscription, the number voting 'Yes' was much reduced. Significantly almost three quarters of the soldiers at the front also voted against the proposal partly because they were not prepared to compel others to go through what they themselves were enduring but also because 'they did not want the freemasonry of volunteers to be polluted' (Inglis, 2001; 116).

Thus while most Australians continued to support the war and the soldiers fighting in it, the majority also it seemed, were not going to be brow-beaten by the bellicose Hughes and his government into sending those who did not wish to go to serve in France and Belgium's charnel-house trenches. It is tempting to think that this outcome represented a sea-change in the nation's popular consciousness, something akin to the shift in mood observed in England by Vera Brittain in the wake of the stupendous losses on the Somme. By then she felt the majority of her fellow countrymen and women 'have passed beyond our blatant, loud-voiced "patriotism", our want of realisation, our irresponsibility, our inappropriate indifference, and are quiet and resolute, weary but tenacious, confident of the issue and determined that come what may, it shall be' (cited in Bishop, 2000: 243 italics in the original). But would a civilisation based on displacement and denial, with its politicians divided and at war with each other, be capable of recognising let alone learning such a legacy of loss?

machine gun positionThe German attack on the Australian positions on the Somme took place in early April to the south of 10 Brigade's positions and near the town of Villers Bretonnneux. During the battle there, which involved 9 Brigade as well as a number of British units, Sam and his colleagues in 10 MG Coy alternated between occupying positions on 10 Brigade's front line near Mericourt and providing barrage support from the 3rd Machine Battalion's headquarters at Ribemont (on 3 March 1918, the 9, 10, 11 and 23 Machine Gun Companies had been concentrated at Bournonville and reorganised into the 3rd Machine Gun Battalion. In spite of this move, its companies and sections continued, often, to be deployed in the direct support of the infantry battalions). This pattern was maintained until 10 May when 10 MG Coy was relieved by 5 MG Coy and, with the rest of the 3 Division, withdrew to Allonville for rest and recuperation. While in Allonville, Sam and his mates, all dressed in fighting order, were reviewed by the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces, Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, as part of a divisional parade.

On 21 May 1918, 3 MG Battalion's war diary showed that 10 MG Coy returned to the front line where it relieved 4 MG Coy and resumed its previous duties there. The diary's next mention of 10 MG Coy occurred on the 25th May when it noted that the company had sustained 'casualties from shell-fire [and] 5 ORs were wounded'. One of these was Sam. A few days later, an urgent telegram was despatched from Victoria Barracks in Melbourne to Lalbert's 'Methodist Clergyman' asking him to 'inform father S. Free' that '415 Pte S. J. Free died 26/5/18 gunshot wounds abdomen at 47 Casualty Clearing Station'.

We can only imagine the effect on the family of the reappearance of the minister and the devastating news he conveyed. We do know that they again sought to deal with the shock by finding out exactly what had happened. They wrote to the Red Cross which wrote, in turn, to Sam's unit and the officer commanding the casualty clearing station. Before receiving replies to these requests, a letter arrived from Sam's former section commander and comrade-in-arms, Sergeant George Piggot Holmes. It had been written in France shortly after Sam's death and was posted from Scotland on Holmes' behalf by a Corporal H. Peart who was able to add some details that would otherwise have been removed by the censor. The letter contained a group photograph which included Sam - 'the last and latest photo of him ... [which] I thought you would very much like to have ... even though it will bring much sadness to you all'. Holmes began by apologising to Fanny for not earlier writing about 'poor Bert's death' (about which he felt 'Sam could tell you much better than I'). Now that Sam as well as Bert were gone he thought he 'should write ... a few lines and tell you about both of your boys'. After praising their bravery, friendship and good humour, Holmes then related the circumstances of Bert's death:

... then came Oct 12.17 over the top we went to take Passchendaele. It was in this battle poor Bert became separated from the team somehow and was not seen again as far as I know he certainly was not taken a prisoner for he never got up to us in the front but the German barrage was a particular "hell" and nothing could live beneath it. Bert was last seen to my knowledge on or very near the barrage line.

While Bert was thought to have been an inevitable casualty of the intense German bombardment at Passchendaele, Sam's death was said to be a matter of 'very hard luck':

One evening he [Sam] was on duty going out of the line with one of the Coy's limbers and while he was riding in this limber almost out of the shell area a shell from the enemy burst right underneath the vehicle and Sam received a piece of shrapnel in the abdomen. The dressing station was not more than 100 yards away and all haste was made thereto. The doctor done all possible for the boy and Sam was [..] with his wounds dressed in 1/4 of an hour after he was hit so you see medical aid had done all possible to save his life. He was shortly afterwards conveyed to the 47th Casualty Clearing Station where the sisters had charge of him and also medical attendance of the very best. He never rallied I am told but gradually sank and died at 2.15 pm the next day. I have not heard just where he is buried; but I am trying to find out and should I be successful I will do my best to have the photo taken of his grave and send it on.

We don't know whether Sam's friend and former railwayman from Geelong succeeded in this last task. For on 29 September 1918 he, too, died after being wounded at Peronne near Mont St. Quentin. His sister's response to the War Memorial's subsequent request for information for its Roll of Honour shows that Holme's own brother, Private Frederick John Holmes, had been killed in action at Pozieres on 16 August 1916, around the time George was involved in the assault on Messines. Three of his cousins also died in the war: Lieutenant Percy Earle died in England after being wounded at Bullecourt, and Privates Norman and Charles Layton were killed in action at Gallipoli and in France respectively.

Letters relayed to the family by the Red Cross underscored just how unlucky Sam was. It seems that he had bumped his head in the company billets in Villers Bretteneux and was ordered by the unit's medical officer to go back out of the line for a rest. That night he hitched a ride on a ration limber driven by a Corporal A. J. Goddard (a station overseer born at Creswick in Victoria, Archibald James Goddard left Melbourne on the HMAT A38 Ulysses on 25 October 1916 as part of the fifth reinforcements for 10 MG Coy. He joined his unit in June the following year and was wounded in action in October 1917 and again in May 1918. He returned to Australia in July 1919). According to Goddard, 'while coming out of Villers Bretonneux ... a shell exploded alongside the limber and Free was struck by two pieces, one in the side and one in the chest. I was also wounded. We were both taken to the 47th Casualty Clearing Station at Crouy and Free died the next morning at about 3 o'clock ... I should reckon he was buried at the soldier's cemetery'. It seems likely from the other information obtained by the Red Cross that, just as Roland Leighton had in 1915, Sam 'went out of life without knowing it', and without leaving a message or a sign which would have helped sustain those who had loved him and would live only with his memory through 'the long dreary years ahead' (Vera Brittain cited in Bishop, 2000: 338). The family was now confronted with the awful and final reality that they would never again see or hear from their beloved sons and brothers. In the poignant words of Henry Bourne Higgins, who had earlier fought to prevent Australian soldiers from being sacrificed for the imperial cause, and had lost his only son, Mervyn Higgins, at El Magdhaba in Egypt two days before Christmas 1916: 'No mail now brings his cheery lines to read; No message breaks the silence of that grave' (cited in Damousi, 1999: 9).

The reality for the Free and a number of other families in the district was further underlined by a number of community events concerning the war which took place at Lalbert in July 1918. As reported in the Quambatook Times on the 24th of that month, these included, first, a tree-planting ceremony at the local school:

A fine number of residents of Lalbert and district gathered at the Lalbert school on Wednesday afternoon, 17th inst, for the purpose of planting memorial trees for each soldier who has enlisted from the Lalbert district. Working bees on the two previous Wednesdays had dug the holes and the trees selected for the purpose were Cootamundra wattles. Pride of place was given to the two teachers (Corp C. Allen killed in action and Capt W. B. Campbell, returned). Relatives and friends of the other soldiers planted their respective trees. Altogether 47 trees were planted. Each tree will have a copper plate, with the name and rank of the soldier, and thus a memorial to our brave lads will be provided. The chairman of the school committee, Mr J. Robson, explained the reason they were there, and hoped that the children and people would prize the trees. Short speeches were delivered by Mr A. Lee and Mr W. J. Kirk, in which the importance of the day was brought out. The ladies kindly provided afternoon tea, which was fully appreciated. The residents and children of the school have undertaken to look after the trees, which will be an ornament to the schoolyard and a beautiful reminder of our lads so far away from their beloved wattle. Many of them have found soldier's graves in lands beyond the seas.

Four days after this, the paper also informed it readers,

A memorial service was held in the East Lalbert Methodist Church on Sunday 21st inst to Ptes S. J. Free, A. Free and H. Alder, who have been killed in action in France. Mr A. E. May of Ultima preached from the text 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends'. The hall has been very tastefully draped in white with purple and black interwoven. The Union Jack was a central emblem of unity, love and justice. The hall was packed to the doors, friends from all parts of the district being present to express their sympathy. It was very fitting that the service should be held in the hall which the deceased soldiers had attended from boyhood, both for school and church

The Army did not officially advise the family of the circumstances of Sam's death until 16 October 1918. This letter, which referred to the 'regrettable loss of your son', also stated that 'the utmost care and attention is being devoted where possible to the graves of the soldiers', photographs are being 'taken as soon as possible, and these will be transmitted to next-of-kin when available'. No photographs arrived at Lalbert until March 1920. When they did arrive they showed the grave to be that of Bert rather than Sam. This was eventually rectified and a series of new photographs were finally sent to the family on 25 August 1921, more than three years after Sam's death.

sam record of buriel

Photo of Sam Free and record of where he is buried

In the interim, the family received, on 15 March 1919, a package containing the effects of 'the late No. 415B Private S. J. Free, 3rd MG Btn'. This contained a wallet, a safety razor, an electric torch, a metal cigarette case, a handkerchief and some photos and postcards. Among the former was a photo of a Private F. Kelly in France who described himself as an 'old cobber' of Sam (see below). The cards included one sent from Lalbert in October 1917 by Agnes and Annie Hasty promising him a letter in the next mail. Another was a Christmas card sent from East St Kilda and containing a single first-class ticket to Australia on which Molly, the card's author, had written 'don't be long before you use this'. A third card appeared to have been sent from Great Britain possibly from someone Sam had befriended while training on the Salisbury Plain. Signed by Sam's 'loving little friend Curly' the card stated that 'Mother had a letter from you on Monday and in it was that card you sent me. You sent me one before but still it does not matter as mother would like to have one for herself. I am looking forward to you getting leave and coming to stay with us ... We have had a lot of snow this week and last'.

private kelly sgt jack bouchier

The photo on the left was among Sam's effects which were sent to the family after his death in May 1918. We think
it is Pte (later Sgt) Francis Kelly, a farmer from St Arnaud, who served with Sam in the 10 Machine Gun Company.
He survived the war and returned to Australia in April 1920 after marrying Jane Hardiman at St George's Cathedral
in Southwark in London on 30 March 1919. Francis later farmed land at Gowar East near St Arnaud and died at
West Wyalong in NSW in 1953. The one on the right has written on the back: 'One of our Section Sergents [sic]
called Jack Bouchier'. It is probably John Leonard Boucher a coach-builder from Dunolly who sailed to England
on the ASCANIUS in May 1916 and RTA in May 1919.

annie hasty agnes hasty

Annie and Agnes Hasty who, along with their sister Alice, wrote to the Free brothers while they were serving
in England and on the Western Front during the First World War. According to Jan and Janine Power's
Lalbert Reflections, from which the two photos are taken, Alice and Annie were the post mistresses
at the Lalbert Post Office at the time while Agnes managed a shop in the township. Their younger brother,
James Baden-Powell Hasty (1900-54) married Sam and Bert's sister, Pearl Amelia Free (1899-1972)
at Lalbert in 1923.

In the years following the receipt of Sam's effects, the family received for each boy the British War Medal and the Victory Medal (April 1921), a pamphlet on 'Where Australians rest' (19 May 1921), a memorial plaque bearing the inscription 'he died for freedom and honour', and a memorial scroll (November and December 1921). The arrival of each item would have triggered afresh the memories of the two boys and the sense of loss their deaths in war engendered. These memories and the hurt felt would have been reawakened, too, by the news in November 1918 that the war had finally ended. This sparked enthusiastic celebrations and a sense of relief across the country with Lalbert being no exception. A school friend of the younger Frees, Frances Meehan, later recalled that upon receipt of the good tidings, the children were given the rest of the day off from school and 'roamed around the township singing patriotic songs'. A bonfire, topped with an effigy of the Kaiser filled with fireworks, was built between the hotel and the Lalbert railway station. As night fell, Sam and Bert's younger sister Hilda was given the honour of setting the fire alight. As 'the flames reached the Kaiser it exploded in a shower of sparks [and] the crowd cheered wildly'. Did Samuel and Fanny, we can only wonder, take part in these triumphal celebrations, or did they, like Vera Brittain in England, 'listen to the merriment with a heart that breaks and ears that try to keep out the mirthful sounds'? (Vera Brittain cited in Bishop, 2000: 209)

We can only wonder, too, how after the war members of the family coped with their grief and sense of loss. It is possible that some may have been comforted by the message, repeated in pulpit orations, newspaper editorials and the polemics of their political leaders, that Bert and Sam had done their duty, served their King, and nobly sacrificed themselves for the sake of the nation and the empire. Some may have put their own loss into some kind of broader perspective by acknowledging to others and themselves that they were merely one of many, many families who lost loved ones (11 of the 47 residents of Lalbert and its surrounding district alone who had enlisted for active service in the Great War did not return). The women in the family may have sought to express their loss by dressing in mourning black and wearing mourning rings, ribbons or unit broaches to show they had lost loved ones in the war. They may also have ceased, for a time at least, participating in community activities and events Š other than attending church Š seeking comfort and consolation in the private routines of home and family life and the treasured memories these would have engendered (home was also a space where they could give vent to their true feelings, unencumbered by societal expectations).

We don't know whether Fanny, like so many other mothers, wives, sisters and sweethearts confronted by loss, fell ill, was haunted by hallucinations, premonitions and nightmares, talked or whispered aloud to herself, blamed herself for allowing her boys to enlist, or sought to contact them in seances or via spiritualists. We don't know whether she and Samuel attended the Anzac and Armistice day celebrations, were present at the unveiling of the memorials and honour rolls for those who had served, or visited places that held special memories: the Lalbert railway station where they last farewelled Bert and Sam, the recruiting depot in Swan Hill where they first enlisted, or the wharves at Port Melbourne from where they left Australia. We do know that Fanny kept her sons' effects sent back from the front as well as the letters, photos and cards posted or returned from Belgium and France. After her death in Lalbert in 1927 these were passed on to her eldest daughter, Frances Hickmott, who had sent her brothers on the front lockets of her second-born's hair. Frances stored the mementoes in an old tin trunk on her and William Hickmott's farm located on the northern outskirts of the Mallee township of Ouyen. Most of the letters and a number of photos and cards were destroyed by one of the plagues of mice that swept through the area during the depression. The few remaining items were collected by Frances' daughter, my mother Elsie Hickmott who, after her own mother died, passed them on to me.

It is likely Fanny and Samuel would have been helped in their grief by their strong religious convictions and by expressions of sadness and sympathy from relatives and such friends as Jack and Ruby Oliver who wrote to them from their back block at Day Trap North via Chinkapook expressing their sorrow over the boys deaths, and the hope they 'had not died in vain'. They were probably particularly comforted by contacts with, and messages of condolence and support from, the boys' former comrades-in-arms. As Joy Damousi (1999) describes, these were cast by the political and social contingencies of the war into the important role of being the principal nurturers and counsellors of the bereaved. As we have seen in the boys' case they sought to comfort the bereaved by sharing their private anguish with the families and providing them with details of their loved ones' deaths and final burial places, details the state was often unable or too busy to provide. It was a role they were ill-prepared for and uncomfortable with. As Pat Barker explores in her 'Regeneration' novels, the war forced them to experience feelings towards their comrades that did not sit well with either societal expectations at the time or the masculinist tenets of the new Australian nationalism. Struggling to understand and put into context their own feelings and experiences, they tended to fall back on the stylised arguments and oft-repeated clichˇs they themselves had responded to when they had enlisted. This can be seen in the final passages of George Piggot Holme's letter to Fanny:

... Now Mrs Free ... I ask you to bear up through this terrible trial and try to console yourself as much as possible by the fact that both of your boys were regarded as brave soldiers and were the friends of all in the camp. Their loss is mourned by all. I am especially sorry that one son could not return to you again; but we all came here of our own free wills, the only army of volunteers the whole world knows today and are regarded as the best fighters on the Western Front. I will do all in my power to send you any information which you might think fit to ask and ask you in return to look upon them proudly with a calm and steadfast eye for they were soldiers not afraid to die. I have a brother who has given his life for the land we call home, the best land in the universe 'AUSTRALIA'.


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