‘Tell them who I was’: a sketch of Gordon Iles’ family

In the World War One letters I have posted on this site we have encountered members of Gordon Iles’ immediate family, his parents Arthur and Margaret and his siblings Florrie, Sarah, Elvie, Cliff and Tom.

In this post I will try to describe who these people were and what their lives were like. This helps us understand the culture and values that shaped the Iles’ family correspondence. It also helps answer the question, if Gordon had lived what life might he have led?

Fortunately, we have both first-hand and documentary evidence about the lives of Gordon’s family members. My main source of first-hand history is my mother Beverley Croome who was the daughter of Gordon’s younger brother Tom. The written evidence consists of photographs, official documents and a multitude of articles about the Iles family in local newspapers such as the the Burnie Advocate and the Launceston Examiner. Thanks also to Florrie Iles son, Neville Smith, Sarah Iles granddaughter-in-law, Noelle McArthur, and Sarah’s great granddaughter, Anita McArthur, for some of the family photos.

Let’s begin with three photos of the Iles family probably taken in 1917 and sent to Gordon as postcards.

The first is a family portrait taken in front of the family home in Thirlstane. This may be the photo Gordon refers to in his letter to his brother Cliff where he writes “And I can see a big change in you all in that photo. You and Tom seem to have grown [into] such big roosters. I will only be a little fellow beside you when I get back”.

The Iles family outside their home at Thirlstane, circa 1917.

Gordon’s father, Arthur, wrote the following message on the back of this card:

“You will know where this is taken. Irene Iles from N.Z. is standing between Sarah and Elvie and you will know Tom by his curls. A.H.I”

The reverse of the Iles’ family photo.

The second photo of the family shows them around their new car. It is probably taken the same day because Tom (standing behind the car) has the same clothes on. This is likely the car Florrie refers to in her letter to Gordon in early 1918 when she writes “I wish the war was over and you was home again. it would be lovely. I reckon you will be driving the car when you come home”.

The Iles family with their new car.

Arthur’s message on the back of this card was:

“You will see this is the car that you will have to drive when you com(e) home. you can see the shed I built for it where the old Blacksmiths shop was. it is a good car, electric lights, self star(t).”

Reverse of the photo of the Iles family with car.

“Self start” refers to a starter motor, as opposed to ignition through the use of a hand crank. Starter motors were invented in 1896 but the commercial manufacture of self starting cars didn’t begin until 1912, and they didn’t come to dominate the market until 1919 when starter motors were first installed in the Model T Ford. The Iles’ car is most likely an Australian Holden body on an American or British chassis. In 1917, war-related restrictions on foreign luxury goods allowed the importation of many more car chassis than car bodies, giving Holden a market opening. I assume starter motors were also a Holden contribution to cars assembled and sold in Australia.

The third photo is of a team of horses. The man on horseback may be Cliff Iles. The man standing may be Arthur. Nothing was written on the back of this card.

Iles family members with their work horses.

What follows are notes on the members of Gordon’s immediate family featured in these photos, and then notes on the family’s social and political activities. Following that are reflections on Gordon’s family and what life he might have had.

Who were Gordon’s parents and siblings?

With the first photo as our cue, let’s have a look at Gordon’s immediate family. Gordon’s parents, Arthur and Margaret, are seated on the left. Arthur was born in Colebrook, in 1867, and was the grandson of convicts. He moved with his family to the North West Coast when his father, Henry Iles, acquired land at the eastern end of Thirlstane, not far from the Rubicon River, an area traditionally owned by the indigenous Tommeginne people. The only artefact I’m aware of from this time in Arthur’s life is the atlas he had at school, in which he traced the borders of the British empire in thick red pencil.

Arthur and Margaret Iles on their wedding day at Thirlstane in 1893 surrounded by Margaret’s many siblings. Arthur and Margaret are seated (centre left) next to Margaret’s parents, George and Margaret Aitken (centre).

Arthur took over Henry’s farm when the latter moved to New Zealand in the early 1890s. He further increased his holdings further when the major local landowner, Robert Stewart, was hit hard by the depression caused by the collapse of the Van Diemen’s Land Bank in 1891 (for more on this see Charles Ramsey, With the Pioneers, 4th edition, 2015, p53). Arthur was an Anglican, a freemason and a prosperous farmer. Algerian oats and potatoes were his cash crops (Gordon refers disdainfully to growing oats in this letter to his brother, Cliff). In the early 1920s the Mersey Oil Company bored for oil on Arthur’s farm. Thanks to a £10,000 reward for payable oil deposits offered by the Commonwealth Government there was oil drilling up and down the Mersey Valley with lots of headlines about imminent “gushers”. Nothing came of it.

Reaping oats on the farm of Arthur Iles, published in the NW Advocate and Emu Bay Times, 1909. Arthur Iles is the figure closest to the camera on the right, partly obscured by sheaves. The boy in front of the horses is probably Arthur’s son, Tom Iles, then aged nine. Note how carefully this photo is composed. There is a roughly equal number of figures on each side. They form two lines pointing to the central figure who is also the farthest away. This adds a symmetry and depth to the photo that focusses the viewer’s attention.

Arthur had a forthright manner, but he was also renowned for his generosity to families with less than his. He was heavily involved in community and public life, as we shall see directly. He had a temper when his patience was stretched but was also sentimental. When twin girls, Pat and my mother Bev, were born to Arthur’s son Tom, Arthur was blind. He felt the babies’ faces to know what they looked like. He only lived a few more months. When he gave each new-born twin a shawl, he said to their mother Amy, “tell them who I was”.

Margaret, nee Aitken, was the daughter of Scottish immigrants who settled at the western end of Thirlstane. She had nineteen brothers and sisters which may explain why she was known as uncommonly kind, patient and loving. Tom’s wife Amy remembered her as “the most beautiful lady you will ever meet”, high praise from a daughter-in-law. Margaret loved to hitch up her skirts and head down to the beach to play with her many nieces, nephews and grandchildren.

Arthur and Margaret Iles’ farm house in Devonport in the 1920s.

Arthur and Margaret retired to a fifty acre farm on a hill overlooking Devonport where they built a house similar to the one they left behind (their new home was named “Highfield”, I assume because it was on the highest field in the district). Arthur died in 1936 and Margaret in 1944. They were both buried with their forbears at the New Ground Church of England cemetery near Thirlstane (sadly, the New Ground church is among those many Tasmanian Anglican churches currently scheduled to be closed). The story of Arthur and Margaret’s ancestors is directly relevant to how Gordon saw himself and how his parents saw his war service and death. I will tell these stories in another post.

Standing in the back row of the Iles family portrait photo, from left to right, are Gordon’s siblings, Tom and Elvie, his cousin Irene from New Zealand, then two more siblings, Sarah and Cliff. The girl in front is Gordon’s sibling, Florrie. Her cheeky grin shows she was not one to do what was expected, but more about that in a minute. The woman seated on the right is probably Margaret’s younger sister, and Gordon’s aunty, Marion. Gordon and his siblings were born over a decade. His one older sibling, Sarah, was born in 1893 (according to her birth certificate she arrived in the world on Boxing Day, but family tradition says it was Christmas Day. It was common at the time for a child born on Christmas Day to have their birthday discreetly moved, for the sake of the child and Jesus). Gordon’s youngest sibling, Florrie, was born in 1903. The Iles children regularly attended the New Ground church. There were no high schools on the North West Coast until 1916, so they all left school after Grade Six, aged around twelve.

Tom took over part of his parents’ farm when his parents retired. Newspaper reports from the 1930s indicate he was growing flax, a crop that would prove profitable during World War Two when it was used to make everything from machine lubricant to parachutes. Tom lived on this property with wife, Amy, and their six children, including Bev, until he and Amy retired to Latrobe in 1950. Three of Tom and Amy’s sons, Laurie, Kevin and Barrie, farmed in the Thirlstane district. Tom’s farm and home were taken over by Kevin. Tom and Amy’s home is now owned by their great grandson, Daniel Iles. Daniel’s parents, Wayne and Michelle Iles, still farm at Thirlstane.

Amy and Tom Iles

Tom was my grandfather so I could write a great deal about him. For brevity, Bev’s recollection is of someone who was forthright, like Arthur, but also empathetic and emotional like Margaret. Like Arthur he was involved in community life and was generous to others. After he died in 1984 people from the district told Bev they don’t know how their families could have survived the depression without meat and vegetables left for them by Tom Iles. Tom was always on the go. Years before my parents were born my other grandfather-to-be, Norm Croome, bought skins off Tom. Norm recalled that the only way to keep up with this purposeful Thirlstane farmer was to run. Later in life, when Tom was diagnosed with angina, his response to his doctor’s advice to rest for an hour after lunch was “bugger that”.

A news report of Cliff Iles and Mattie (Martha) Elphinstone’s wedding, Burnie Advocate, May 8, 1922

Tom and his older brother Cliff we’re close in age and according to family lore they had their own childhood language incomprehensible to everyone else. Like Tom, Cliff farmed part of his parent’s land after they retired. But he was unlike Tom in many other ways. Bev remembers him as handsome, affable, talkative, with a twinkle in his eye and joke always at hand. My sister Sharon recalls hearing a story about Cliff scaring attendees at a local dance by running around the venue, dragging a stick along its outside walls. Bev can’t recall that particular story but says “it’s just what he would do”. Bev does recall the differences in outlook between Cliff and her father, Tom.  As Tom strode back to the plough, Cliff would string up a hammock until the midday sun had passed. He was relaxed about public life as well as farm work. Apart from a news report of his wedding and a letter he wrote about dairying, Cliff’s name barely appears in the papers of the day. Bev remembers Cliff to be less social than Tom in later life, a paradox given their personalities. Whereas Tom’s home was always open to visitors, Cliff and his wife, Mattie, kept more to themselves. Cliff and Mattie named one of their sons, Gordon, after the boy’s late uncle.

Elvie Iles

You may remember Elvie and Sarah from Florrie’s letter in my first post on this site. Florrie wrote that Elvie was to be Sarah’s bridesmaid when she married Alec Dawson. Bev remembers Elvie and Florrie as kind and loving like their mother. Sarah was steelier. Sarah’s granddaughter, Josie Dawson, says Sarah was in New Zealand sometime before this photo, but Arthur called her home.

Alec Dawson and Sarah Iles’ wedding photo.

Florrie was also called home. She had moved to NSW with her husband, Dalton Smith, but she returned to care for her parents in their final years and then inherited their Devonport farm. As the township of Devonport marched up the hill, Florrie sold off some of her land to developers. She had converted to Catholicism when she married Dalton which is why she gave the rest of her land to the Catholic Church to build what is now St Brendan’s Shaw College. Christian Brothers lived in the house Arthur and Margaret built. Sadly, it was demolished a few years ago to make way for school administration blocks raising the need for the old farm houses dotted across suburban Devonport to be better protected. Like her parents, Florrie lost a child. Her son David drowned in the Mersey River. St Brendan’s football oval is named for him.

Dalton and Florrie Smith

If you’re wondering whether having a Catholic daughter and grandchildren was problem for an Anglican and mason like Arthur, the answer is yes. Anti-Catholic sentiment ran deep in Tasmania in the early twentieth century. Catholics were looked on with suspicion because of their “superstitions” and “divided loyalties”. They routinely faced discrimination in employment and housing. For all their generosity to others, the Ileses could also be sectarian. I recall my grandfather, Tom, saying he disapproved of inter-faith marriages, at least before Catholics “changed” after Vatican II. This will give you some insight into the stress Florrie’s conversion caused. That the family remained close despite this shows how deep their bonds ran. 

Florrie and Dalton’s son, Neville Smith, shows Bev and Sharon Croome the lay out of his parent’s farm before it became St Brendan’s Shaw College. The garden and interpretation board in the background honours the Smith family.

Returning a final time to the family portrait above, I have no information about cousin Irene from New Zealand. She doesn’t appear in any other photos. Bev has no recollection of Gordon’s aunt Marion, although cards she sent Gordon have survived, perhaps indicating a special relationship. Bev does remember Marion’s twin sister, Agnes. Because Agnes was a twin she was Bev and Pat’s godmother, a role she took quite seriously. She regularly delivered the young twins into Latrobe, in the back of her horse-drawn cart, for piano lessons from the nuns at the convent. It seems Catholics were at least good for teaching music.

Arthur’s granddaughters and Gordon’s nieces, Pat and Bev, circa 1943

The social life of the Iles family

If you only knew the Ileses from newspaper articles you would assume they partied constantly. Between the 1910s and the 1940s there are dozens of newspaper reports of social events that involved Gordon’s immediate family members, many of which were held at their house or granary. These events included birthday parties, wedding receptions, wedding anniversaries, parties for the arrival or departure of relatives, Red Cross fundraising dances and dances after ploughing competitions. There would be dancing, live music provided mostly by a piano and accordion and maybe a fiddle, singing, games and performances. The revellers would often enjoy “a sumptuous supper” which Bev says involved a lot of cakes with a lot of whipped cream. Obviously, these events punctuated weeks of hard and repetitive farm and housework so it’s easy to image why they were “thoroughly enjoyed by everyone in attendance”.

NW Advocate and Emu Bay Times, Sep 28, 1917

Old-style country dances were a resilient tradition in rural Tasmania with Tom’s son Rex and his wife Betty (who farmed at Barrington) travelling up and down the NW Coast to play at them right up to the 1970s (Betty’s birth family fielded a band that she also played in, “The Banfield Orchestra”). Recent research into Tasmanian country dancing before 1950 shows it was essentially an Anglo-Celtic repertoire of jigs, reels, waltzes, polkas, square dances and progressive dances like the Barn Dance, Pride of Erin and Gay Gordons. But sometimes the phrasing, playing styles and dances were specifically Tasmanian. According to Tasmanian folk music experts, Steve and Majorie Gadd, endemic dances included “the Huon Valley’s own Broom Dance and the Frog Dance, an extremely athletic dance from the North and East of the State that looks like a cross between Cossack dancing and Irish Step dancing and a local form of clogging or tap dancing”. Photos of Margaret’s large Aitken family, usually taken on celebratory occasions, often include a bagpiper. Outdoor dancing accompanied by the pipes was a Scottish tradition that clearly continued in Tasmania.

Burnie Advocate, Oct 22, 1920

The Iles family’s social events would often run into the small hours of the morning and almost invariably ended with everyone singing “God Save the King”. As you can see from the news reports above and below, that was the finale of my grandfather, Tom’s, bachelor party and of the kitchen party held for Tom and his fiancé, Amy, the night after. From this we gain a small but important insight: the Ileses saw themselves not only as Tasmanian farmers and citizens of a new nation called Australia, but as subjects of a global empire, an empire that then saw itself under the greatest threat since the war with Napoleon a century earlier, an empire less confident than the one Arthur traced in red when he was a child. “God Save the King” was a song of defiance, solidarity and hope at a time of crisis, as much as a song of loyalty and ethnic identity. When I was a child, my immediate family and I would spend Christmas evening with our extended family at my grandparents’ home. As the time came for the Queen’s Christmas Message my many uncles, aunties and cousins would hush. When the anthem began my grandfather would stand, not in a pompous or showy way, but because it had been deeply significant to him and his family at a formative time in his life.

Launceston Examiner, Oct 23, 1920

A note on language: the bachelor party news report above uses the term “boy friends” to mean men who are friends in the same way women still use “girl friends”. At some point in the last century “boy friends” lost its connotation of friendship and took on an exclusively romantic meaning in a way that “girl friends” didn’t. Maybe this was because prejudice towards male relationships made any term that even remotely connoted such relationships impossible to use any other way. “Girl friends” did not go though the same transition because prejudice, backed up by the law, was fiercer toward male relationships than female relationships. If I’m right, the question is what events triggered the shift? Were they local or global? Hopefully, a future student of language will reveal the answers.

The public life of Iles family members

The other impression you get from the newspapers is that members of the Iles family were involved in every local committee and issue of their day. The tradition began with Arthur’s father, Henry, who petitioned for more government spending on education and infrastructure, including a bridge over the Mersey River. Arthur’s name begins to appear with his father’s in the early 1890s. But Arthur really hit his stride in the decades before and after World War One. He was on, and more often than not chaired, committees that lobbied for, or oversaw, schools, roads, bridges, halls, churches, sports carnivals, ploughing competitions, irrigation systems, agricultural cooperatives…the list goes on. He was what we would call today a “community organiser”.

Launceston Examiner, May 8, 1899

In 1908 Arthur was elected to be one of the members of the first Latrobe Council. His public career peaked when he became Warden (Mayor) of the Latrobe municipality immediately after World War One. While Warden he was also made a magistrate under the Commonwealth’s Invalid and Old-age Pension Act. When it was passed in 1908, this legislation put Australia at the forefront of the global movement to provide vulnerable people with a safety net. It also imposed strict conditions on pension recipients. As a magistrate Arthur had the duty to investigate pension claims and accept or deny them. In Arthur’s role as Warden he also directly oversaw the erection of the municipal war memorial in Gilbert Street. Its foundation stone still bears his name, below that of his dead son.

Burnie Advocate, Oct 5, 1921

Like every public figure, Arthur suffered some slings and arrows, mostly from his neighbour Arthur Lade whose wife once threatened to douse Gordon (or so he tells us in one of his letters). The two Arthurs engaged in heated public disputes about everything from pigs polluting their shared stream and the route of a proposed tramway to the very Tasmanian problem of the best way to grade potatoes. More seriously, Arthur Iles was accused of using his prior knowledge of which roads were due to be macadamised to successfully bid for the contracts. Some family members think there may have been some truth to this, although there’s no documentary evidence I’m aware of.

Of all Arthur’s children, Tom did most to carry on his father’s public work, particularly in regard to organising sports carnivals, ploughing competitions and events for the masons. He was also elected to the Latrobe Council.

Arthur Iles’ certificate appointing him a magistrate under the Invalid and Old-age Pensions Act, 1920.

A place to belong

What do you see when you look back a century at the Ileses, their lives and their community? It can seem as if they were people with great stability, continuity and predictability in their lives. They appear to be very closely tied to each other, their community and the land. There is some truth in this. Farm life follows patterns of growth, maturity and decay set by the seasons and by the passage of the years. In small rural communities there are many links. It’s also possible that the stability and interconnection we see in the life of Gordon’s family is a reaction to the traumatic disruption associated with migration two or three generations earlier. Margaret and Arthur Iles grew up among people who had been displaced from everything and everyone they knew, often forcibly. This would have been a strong incentive to make a place in the world that was safe, secure and theirs; a place where, to use Bev’s phrase, “they could belong”.

We shouldn’t overplay this. Thirlstane was not a bucolic paradise. There were politics, division and conflict, and not only because of the War. There was also an embrace of change and a belief in progress. Automobiles, oil rigs and old-age pensions were all new to the Iles family and all easily assimilated into their daily life. While we look back and see a certain timelessness about their world, they would have looked forward to a world of ever more rapid technological and social innovation.

I said at the start that knowing Gordon’s family helps predict what course his life might have taken. Most likely he would have farmed, married, raised kids, attended dances, church and lodge, and retired to Latrobe or Devonport. Over the years I’ve heard many family members express their regret that he didn’t have the opportunity to do these things and leave a family behind him. As Gordon’s great niece, Josie Dawson, said in the Advocate in 2015, “[Gordon] has got no family to carry on his memory and I think it’s important [for us] to carry it on”.

But when we consider the history of Gordon’s family we can see there’s something else to regret about his early death. His letters show him to be curious, thoughtful, energetic, engaged and good with people, someone who could carry on his father’s social and political leadership and build on it. It’s not hard to imagine him becoming Warden or even an MP. It’s very hard to imagine him being content with growing oats.

Of course, plenty of returned soldiers wanted to do the exact opposite and withdraw from society, especially if they had what we today would call post-traumatic stress disorder. Kathy Gatenby’s book about the life on South Maria Island of WWI veteran, Viv Robey, and his wife Hilda, provides an excellent insight into this. But Gordon’s letters show someone whose experience of the frustration, futility and horror of war was propelling him towards greater interest in people and events, not less.

Some historians lament the mediocrity of European leaders between the wars because so many good future leaders were lost on the Western Front. In its own small way Tasmania was the same. Every death in war is a tragic, unnecessary loss. But having seen Gordon’s family in their social and political context, it feels like there was something particularly regrettable about his death. It feels like his fate was to lead, and that we are all the poorer for that fate never being fulfilled.


Here are the obituaries of Arthur and Margaret Iles. They are a fitting conclusion to this post.

Arthur Iles obituary Burnie Advocate, Jul 1, 1936.
Margaret Iles obituary, Burnie Advocate, Sep 5, 1944. The Gordon Iles mentioned here is the nephew and name-sake of Gordon Iles who fought in WWI.

‘To Say Goodby’: cards, cousins and airplanes

Posting the World War One correspondence of Gordon Iles and his family has put me in touch with relatives I didn’t know I had and uncovered correspondence I didn’t know existed.

I was recently contacted by Noelle McArthur who lives in Melbourne with her husband Tony. Noelle and Tony have silk embroidered cards Gordon Iles sent from the western front to his family in Tasmania. Their daughter, Anita, scanned the cards for me. I’m posting the scanned cards to mark Mothers Day because two of the cards are to Gordon’s mother, Margaret.

Below the scans, I have included some information about silk embroidered cards and some thoughts about the cards Gordon sent. These include observations Tony and Noelle have made about one particularly moving and mysterious card. But first, here’s how Noelle and Tony came to have the cards and how I came to know of it.

Sarah Iles was Gordon’s older sister. You might recall the letter transcribed in my first post in which Gordon’s youngest sister Florrie wrote to him about Sarah’s upcoming marriage to Alec Dawson. Alec and Sarah’s daughter Joan married Bill McArthur. Their son, Tony, moved to Melbourne and married Noelle. Sarah was close to Gordon and we assume she inherited the embroidered letters when their mother, Margaret, died. Joan inherited them when Sarah died and Tony when Joan died.

That was 26 years ago. Four weeks ago Tony’s cousin, Josie Dawson, who is another relative of Gordon’s, shared my new website with Noelle. Josie has a long-time interest in Gordon Iles that I’ll share with you in a future post. Noelle wasted no time getting in contact. We have since talked several times about the cards and about family history in general. Noelle has discovered a surprising link between all the people mentioned above that goes back generations before World War One. That will also be revealed in a future post. Meanwhile, I feel like I’ve made a new friend as well as finding new cousins.

One of my objectives in starting this site is to bring to light correspondence I am not aware of, revealing more about Gordon, his family and the impact of the war on them all. I couldn’t be happier that process has started already. A big thank you to Noelle, Tony and Anita for their generosity and help. Here’s a photo of Noelle with one of Gordon’s cards. After that are scans of Gordon’s cards followed by some notes about them.


Christmas and New Year’s card from Gordon to his mother, Margaret, and the rest of his family (front, centre then back)



New Year’s card from Gordon to his family (front then back)



Card from Gordon Iles to his mother (front then back)



Embroidered cards

Souvenir cards embroidered in silk first emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. But they reached peak popularity during World War One. French and Belgian women who had fled the war zone embroidered pre-set messages and scenes at home, then sold their handiwork to factories that specialised in setting their embroidery in cards. As you can see, the cards were well made. The stitching is still intact and the colours still vibrant.

Up to 10 million cards, featuring thousands of different designs, were manufactured and posted home from the western front. Cards posted to Australia were sent in the military mail which is why they weren’t stamped, franked or dated. One explanation for the popularity of these cards is that they were an easy way for soldiers to express their feelings without touching on the horrors of war. But that doesn’t explain why some cards featured war scenes including cities in flames.

Gordon’s cards

The cards Gordon sent home would be relatively unremarkable but for two interesting features.

Airplane over pine trees

This is an unusual design. It isn’t found in the Australian War Memorial’s collection of over 1400 embroidered cards from World War One. There are other airplane designs but not this one. Also notable about this design is the rarity of monoplanes in World War One. Biplanes and triplanes were considered more manoeuvrable and reliable. If the monoplane in this card is based on a real plane it is probably the Bristol M.1 Monoplane Scout, the only British monoplane manufactured in World War One. Only 130 were built, compared to tens of thousands of biplanes.

The first ever powered flight was in 1903, little more than a decade before this card was sent. The first powered flight in Tasmania was not until 1914 and the first flight across Bass Straight not until 1919. Given these dates, it is unlikely that when this card was received by Gordon’s family any of them had seen an actual airplane. Powered flight would still have been a marvel to many rural Tasmanians.

It is interesting to me how Gordon’s cards juxtapose an airplane with more traditional heraldic and floral motifs. This is a reminder that Edwardian gentility and sentimentality were about to be swept away by all those high-powered machines whose promise of unprecedented speed, convenience, freedom and destruction shaped the twentieth century.

‘To Say Goodby’

On one of his cards, sent from France, Gordon wrote simply,

To Dear Mother

to Say Goodby

xxxx Gordon

Why was he saying goodbye? Tony McArthur has observed the handwriting on this card is less neat than the handwriting on the other cards, suggesting it was rushed. Tony and Noelle have often wondered if Gordon sent this card fearing it would be his last. It’s an interesting possibility and the best hypothesis we have. But it is impossible for us to be certain. As I noted above, we don’t even have a date to guide us. The sure meaning of the card died with Gordon’s immediate family, or possibly with Gordon himself. All we have left is a precious scrap of paper, made all the more valuable because it impels us to keep asking questions despite history’s reluctance to answer.

‘Somewhere in Thirlstane’: girls, guns and chocolate soldiers

In the first post on this website you can read the letters and cards Gordon Iles held in his breast pocket when he was killed on the Western Front on April 5th 1918, including a letter from his young sister, Florrie.

Now, let’s hear from the man himself.

To commemorate ANZAC Day a century after Gordon’s death, here’s a letter he wrote to his younger brother Cliff Iles in September 1917 from the front line in Belgium. Gordon writes about the fighting he has been in, the girls he met on leave in Scotland, news from home and the difference between a chocolate soldier and the real thing.

This post begins with a transcript of the letter, then scans of the original letter. After the scans I have included notes about the battle Gordon describes, the Tasmanian people and places he refers to, and the language he uses.

Like Florrie, Gordon was inconsistent in his use of capitals and full stops, so I have inserted full stops where the meaning requires it. Gordon used parentheses (thus), so text that is missing or indecipherable is indicated [thus].

A transcript of Gordon’s letter to his brother Cliff, September 1917

Somewhere in Belgium

Sept 26th, 1917

Dear Cliff

Yesterday when the mail came in I was a happy man as there were four letters for me from home and one was from you, you cannot imagine how pleased I was to hear from you all and that you are all doing well. my mail seems to be coming much better now. The only thing I do not get is papers as you say you send them. of course they are not important as the letters and parcels and as long as I get them I do not mind. I wrote to Sarah a few days ago and told her I had received the last parcel in good condition.

Gee wiz you are flash heading your letter Somewhere in Thirlstane. [Of] course it is such a big place. we could pull [the] battery of 18 pounders (and they are the smallest ones) up on the cross roads at Moriaty and we could blow it off Tassie in half a day. Never-the-less it would do me to be there now as small as it might be. I could help you manage your girls.

2/     You seem to [be] going to have a good time this year, not doing much […oping]. you ought to do well out of the […]. It will be better than sludgeing about in the mud trying to get a few oats in. You are about right, I guess I would not know the farm now. two years makes a big difference in a place. And I can see a big change in you all in that photo. You and Tom seem to have grown [into] such big roosters. I will only be a little fellow beside you when I get back. It must be good having all the stumps […] to do some good ploughing. I don’t think I could manage a plough now. I will have to learn it all again when I get back. I will bring the old gun and a few shells back and plow the ground up with that. It would be great sport with it in the backyard bombarding old Tommeys pub. we would make the beer and bricks fly By jove […].

I often wonder to my self how the Miss Lades are getting on. It is about time some of them were married. Poor Mrs Lade, I wonder could she dip my head in a bucket now as she once said she would like to.

3/    Well you had a big glass of cidar while you were writing to me. I have a cake of Toffe to chew at while I am writing this. It is gift stuff from Lady Mayoress’s Patriotic League Melbourne. real good of her to send the troops Creamy Toffee. we often get some gift stuff. I often wish I could get hold of a decent apple. They seem to be able to grow them here and what they do have are very […]. grapes are awful, dear here also, one would think they would be dirt cheap as they grow them.

[…] you to have such fun on the phone it must be handy. Yes there are some nice girls in the old Port. I did not know to many there but you will have to introduce me when I get back. I had a great time while I was on leave in Blighty. I was in Scotland most of my time. The girls are good up there. I write to several. one of them is extra good. she sends me parcels (not to bad Ah). It was a great ten days. The fact of having English people to speak to was something. the first time I had been among English speaking people for two years.

4/    I am looking forward to that trip over again which may not be many months now. I sent home for some more money. I hope dad will not mind me sending for it. One must have it to go over there. It is only a short holiday and it is just as well to have a good time when one knows he has to come back here.

You take my advice and stay at home as long as you can. There is no place like it when you have been through what I have. It has been a great experience for me, but I have had enough of it (fed up with it all). It is nice to be a chocolate soldier but when you come to the real thing it is no joke. But never-the-less I am glad I came away. It does seem funny to me when you talk about rideing Minnies foal as it was not born when I left. You want to look after that […] horse of yours. He ought to be a good thing.

I sent you back that photo of those three girls. I expect you have got it by now. I hope dad will get those photos I sent him.

5/    You said in your letter you had put one of mine in the paper. I was wild when I read it. for gods sake, don’t put my letters in the papers. everyone reads them and they think that a man is booming himself or something. I would never get any peace if the papers got over here among the lads. I know they are not good enough for anything like that.

I will now try to tell you how things have been going of late. There has been another big battle or stunt as we call it. we were going out for a spell but suddenly got orders to go back into the line again. of course every one was swereing about it as we have not had a spell from the line since March and been in every stunt. It is about time we had a few weeks rest. Well we pulled our guns into a new position. I did not go up when the guns went in. I remained in the horse lines. There are two crews of us (or we work it that way) and we do ten days on the gun and then ten at the horse lines. Well my crew went up to the guns two days before the stunt started.

6/    So we were right in it for the stunt. old Fritz used to shell us like hell but we had a big dugout to run to about 30 feet under ground so we were safe. but he got three of our guns one day (luckily no one was near them). they were smashed to pieces. just as well we were not fireing. we would have all got it. one cannot run away when we are in action. we have to stick it. no matter how thick the shells fall around us . Of course we were giveing him more than he cared about. The roar of all our guns was deaf[…] at times. Well at four oclock one morning the stunt started. our guns were poundering away at him while our Infantry were going over the top and very soon after the prisoners started to roll in. well we were at this for eight hours and then things quitined down a bit as our chaps had got what they wanted. Of course we were just about out of range (of) them so our guns had to go forward. we had to go forward and prepare gun pits and when we were ready our horses came up and away we went with the guns. we had a bit over a mile to go.

7/    That morning old Fritz put over a lot of gas which was not to pleasant as we had to go through it. but for all that we got going and every thing went well till we got to within about 100 yards of the new pits and then there were horses and guns boged in a big shell hole. It was a great mix up but after a bit of struggleing we got out of it all and had our guns in their new positions by day light ready to start fireing again. I was only in the new positions one day and we changed over with the other crew and I am now in the waggon line again for a few days. I was glad to get away from the noise of the guns for awhile and get a nights rest. Yesterday two of our chaps were killed and four wounded and two gased. we have lost a lot of men lately. Things have been pretty warm. It is a real soldiers life (no good to me). Well Cliff I will have to ring off as you will be getting tired of it all. I will close with love to all at home.

Your affectionate Brother,


Write again soon.

The original letter from Gordon to Cliff


Notes on the letter from Gordon to Cliff

Which battle does Gordon write about?

The battle Gordon describes is probably the Battle of the Menin Road between September 20 and 25, 1917 (the photo at the top of this post is of wounded men from that battle). This battle was fought to take ridges east of the ancient Belgium city of Ypres. As well as the date of his letter, there are two other indications that Gordon fought in this battle. The first is his description of getting bogged. In September 1917 the weather was wet and made going tough. The second is his description of the strategy of leap-frogging the British and Empire forces used in this battle. Leap-frogging entailed heavy artillery fire followed by an infantry advance to consolidate a new line, and further heavy bombardment from that new front line. Many German prisoners of war were taken, but there was also a high cost in allied lives lost. Gordon alludes to both.

Menin Road was part of a much larger battle over several months. British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and Indian troops under General Haig had been on the offensive against German forces in Belgium since June 1917, in what was then called the Third Battle of Ypres, but is better known today as Passchendaele after the final ridge that was won in November. The object of this offensive was to push German forces back from the Belgium coast and relieve Ypres which was in a military “salient” (a projection of occupied land surrounded on three sides by enemy forces). The offensive was launched at a time when German forces were diverted to the eastern front by a renewed Russian offensive under the republican government of Alexander Kerensky. Another objective of the British offensive was to take pressure off the French army on the western front. It was close to mutiny because of a high loss of life. The wisdom of the campaign was questioned then, and continues to be questioned today.

While at war, Gordon trained as a bombardier. This is why his view of battle is from behind an artillery piece. Taking his cue from Cliff’s joke about being “Somewhere in Thirlstane”, Gordon thrice describes their Tasmanian home in terms of artillery: first he writes about bombarding Thirlstane until it is wiped from the map, then about ploughing up the ground with shells (reversing the much-quoted Biblical reference to beating swords into ploughshares), then he writes about bombarding a local pub and making “the beer and bricks fly”. Obviously, Gordon is joking, but it is a dark joke. Is Gordon so inured to war he actually enjoys this imagery, or is he trying to tell his brother just how destructive war is? I will assume it is the latter, given he warns his brother not to sign up because “when you come to the real thing it is no joke”.

Here is a map of the Ypres salient including the Menin Road (to the south east).


People and places in Tasmania

Gordon mentions his sister Sarah, brother Tom and father Arthur. He also mentions the Lades, a family that lived on the other side of the Thirlstane straight from the Ileses. My mother Bev, who was Gordon’s niece, recalls that Gordon’s father, Arthur, and Mr Lade were involved in a dispute over the creek that ran through their properties. This dispute may explain Gordon’s unhappy relationship with Mrs Lade. Gordon says she wanted to “dip his head in a bucket”. This may be a reference to Gordon being a naughty child who had missed out on, or who required, baptism. The Tasmanian word “nointer” meaning a naughty child, is a contraction of “not anointed”, meaning not baptised.

Moriarty is another farming hamlet, to the west of Thirlstane. I have found no other reference to “Tommeys Pub”. Again, according to Bev and her brother Barrie Iles, the nearest hotel to Thirlstane was at Harford, which was then a busy port with two pubs. They recall one was owned by the King family but not that it’s licensee was named Tommey. They say that beyond Harford, the closest pubs were at Latrobe and East Devonport. As a reminder of the sentiments of the time, the year before Gordon wrote this letter Harford changed its name from Heidelberg for the same reason Bismarck was renamed Collinsvale and German Town became St Marys.

This map shows Thirlstane (to the south east of Wesley Vale) and its proximity to Harford, Moriarty and Devonport.


Letters in the newspaper

It was common for parents, siblings and spouses of soldiers to publish letters from their loved one in the local newspaper. The Ileses were no exception. Unfortunately, the archives of the NW Tasmanian daily, the Advocate, for the early years of World War I, were destroyed by fire. We don’t know what letters from Gordon were published.

Gordon expresses unusually strong feelings about the publication of his letters. He seems angrier about this than he is with “Old Fritz”. He clearly valued the esteem of those he fought with very highly.

Some interesting words

Three words Gordon uses are worth commenting on.

The first is “wild” as a synonym for angry. “Wild” has been used in this way since at least the seventeenth century. But it was unusually common in Australia into the twentieth century. I recall it being preferred over “angry” when I was a child. This may be because of the related meaning of ungovernable and outside the law that was common in nineteenth century Australia, for example the Wild Colonial Boy, or Gordon’s own forebears, the Seven Wild Ileses. Among young Australians this use of wild has largely been replaced by the American “mad”, as in “I am very mad with you”.

Gordon misspells a number of words but “waggon” isn’t one of them. While the double “g” dropped out of use in America in the nineteenth century it remained common in Britain and Australia into the twentieth century, for example the Waggon and Horses Hotel in North Hobart.

But the most interesting word Gordon uses is “booming” to mean self promotion. That meaning is not recorded in the Macquarie Dictionary, Collins Australian Dictionary or Australian Oxford Dictionary. But it is cited by the Oxford English Dictionary where it is defined as puffing oneself up and forcing oneself on public attention. This is exactly what Gordon is referring to. The problem is that the OED only records this usage in the US, although it does trace the meaning back to the much older British definition of “boom” as a loud noise. There weren’t many American troops in Europe at this time so it seems unlikely Gordon picked it up from them. Perhaps it transferred into Australian English earlier, or evolved separately. There are words in the letters of other Tasmanian soldiers from this time that sound American to our ears, but only because they have since died out here. “Ain’t” is a good example. Another is “Fall” for Autumn. “Booming” may have a similar story but I cannot be certain.

100 years ago today

On April 5th 1918, on the Western Front in Northern France, 23 year old Australian bombardier, Gordon Iles, was killed by shrapnel from a German shell. On the 100th anniversary of Gordon’s death I have begun this site to bring together the letters Gordon and his family exchanged during Gordon’s time at war. The letters reveal intimate details of family and community life in rural Tasmania in the early years of the twentieth century. They speak to eternal themes of love, war and grief.

Gordon kept letters and photographs from home in his breast pocket, close to his heart. When the shrapnel that killed him tore through his chest it also tore through a letter written by his sister Florrie, a postcard from Devonport, some photographs and two birthday cards. Despite the passing of a hundred years, stains from Gordon’s blood are still just visible on the originals. I have chosen to begin with these items, not only because Gordon died with them, but because the holes in the fragile paper are emblematic of the gap torn in his tight-knit family by his death.

First is Florrie’s letter to Gordon, then a transcript of the letter. The postcard, birthday cards and photographs are below the transcription.

Florrie’s letter to Gordon, Jan 1918

This letter was written to Gordon by his youngest sibling, Florrie (Florence) Iles, then in her mid-teens. Florrie writes about the war effort and her family life, including a community fundraising event, an upcoming marriage, jam and wine making on the farm, the death of a neighbour’s son at the front and a failed recruitment drive at the Mersey Bluff. Other people mentioned in the letter are Gordon and Florrie’s father, Arthur Iles; their siblings, Sarah, Elvie and Tom Iles; Alex Dawson who became Sarah’s husband; the McGuire family who also lived in Thirlstane; and Pearl, Gordon’s fiancé. A transcription is included below. 

Florrie to Gordon 11011918 p1
Florrie to Gordon Jan 1918 p1
Florrie to Gordon 11011918 p2
Florrie to Gordon Jan 1918 p2
Florrie to Gordon 11011918 p3
Florrie to Gordon Jan 1918 p3

Transcription of Florrie’s letter

Thirlstone, Jan 11th 1918

Dear Brother

Just a few lines to let you know that I am still alive and well. hoping you are the same.

Well Christmas [is] all over [I am] waiting for next exmas. My word it was very quite this Christmas. there was two away for exmas dinner. I hope you will be home for next exmas.

We received your post cards all right and was expecting a letter every day. It was such a long time since we heard from you so we thought something had happened to you.

Auntie said she is sending you a birthday cake and hope you will get it safely.

I wish the war was over and you was home again. it would be lovely. I reckon you will be driving the car when you come home.

We had a dance last Friday night in aid of the O.W S and we took about £8 altogether. Tom sold the drinks and he took £1”8”0. I was raffling a Silver Tea Pot and got £1”8 […] for it. I think I [did…] well don’t you.

2/     Sarah and Elv have gone to Latrobe to today. Sarah and Alex Dawson is going to be married next Month and Elv is going to be Bridesmaid.

We are busy making jam and wine now. Dad is busy carting in. he will finish early next week I think.

Max Good is down from Wilmot. he is breaking in a young horse he bought from Dad. He helps Dad cart in, and after they finish work he goes to his horse till dark. They are going fishing tomorrow night. Dad is going to hire a boat at Squaking Point and fish with the net. There is a new house going up a Squaking Point and Murry’s are going to build I believe.

We have been having fine weather up till today. it is windy. We went to the Bluff on New Year’s Day and they had a recruiting meeting and only one man enlisted and that was a returned soldier. he said he was, so I suppose it was true. When he went up and started talking all the other young men all went away and would not listen to him. If you were only there to see the young men who was able enough to go to the war and wont go you would have something to grumble about. to think that you are fighting for the likes of Dan Collins and Bill. They ought to have been there long ago. They are afraid to show themselves.

3/     I was talking to Stan Collins one day in Latrobe. he was asking me how you was getting on and he wish to be remembered to you when I wrote the next time. He has been home a long time, long before exmas.

You know Jim Turner didn’t you. he is back too and young [Car…] from the Nook. Dad was talking [to] him on New Year’s Day and he also wishes to be remembered to you.

Poor Auther McGuire was killed on 28 December, his mother took it very hard. Les, Auther’s brother, is at Claremont now and is going away shortly. He is only sixteen this [Ma…] and he looks like a boy about [eighteen]. he signed for eighteen. His mother could not stop him. She stoped him once but [he] would not give her [peace] till she signed the paper. I forgot to tell you that Pearl was out here fore the dance. she came out on the night before the dance and Moss and some other girls came out and brought out a post card from you for Pearl and she wrote you a letter dance night the 4th of January. I wonder if you will [get it].

Well dear Gordon I think I have told you all the news for this time so I will ring off now with […] love from your loving and affectionate sister, Florrie […]xxxxxxxxxxx

Birthday cards to Gordon

Gordon’s 23rd birthday was only three weeks before his death. These birthday cards were from his parents, Arthur and Margaret, and his mother’s sister, Marion.

Birthday card from parents inside
Birthday card from Gordon’s parents, Arthur and Margaret
Birthday card from parents cover
Front of card from parents
Birthday card from Marion inside
Birthday card from Aunty Marion
Front of Marion’s card


It is difficult to know who these two photos are from or who they are of. There is nothing written on back and the faces have been torn away by the shrapnel that killed Gordon.

Postcard from Devonport

This postcard is of a bandstand on Victoria Parade in Devonport. The handwriting and signature are difficult to read. I have included a partial transcription below. If you are able to decipher the words in the gaps below, please let me know.

Postcard to Gordon frontPostcard to Gordon back

Partial transcription

Darling Gordon,

Just a [card] to let you know that I am still over […] and having a good time. I went to a play the [other] night and the pictures on Friday night, […] you want a […] future over here, they […], but I suppose they have to or it would […] pay them. To-day is Sunday and I will be going […] the beach this afternoon, here I […] you were here. You would be able to […] even if you were at Devonport. I could take a run once […] the day and can be back by the night train. I have such […] what is wrong […] it. […] so now will end with […]

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