‘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,

Gordon.

Write again soon.

The original letter from Gordon to Cliff

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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).

30A96557-3678-4E81-B796-5F3D2BBE4E94

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.

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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.

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