70 years since VE Day: Letters from World War I

On Friday night in Europe, solemn ceremonies were held to mark 70 years since VE day, the day victory was declared over Nazi Germany. And as they did so, leaders warned of modern day threats such as the war in Ukraine and Islamic extremism. So today we want to go back and enjoy a blog written by one of our Starts at 60 Community, Nan Bosler, a historian, who has collected some beautiful and heartaching letters written by young soldiers on their way to World War I.  


I collected some letters written by young soldiers on their way to war while researching a book on World War I. Let me share excerpts from some of those letters with you.

Aboard one of the ships plowing her way through the Indian Ocean in November, 1914 was a young Australian, Arthur Keppie. The letters he wrote to his mother in Patterson, NSW could have been written by any of those eager, earnest young men. The stark realities of what lay ahead seemed to be far off and quite unreal! His letters were written from the Euripides.

“Dear Mother,

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Just a line, I know how anxiously you have been waiting, as you know I am unable to write as much as I would like to at present, however, mother you can all rest assured that so far I have had a splendid trip. The weather has been alright and I am feeling fit and well, never felt better.”

In his letter dated 5 November 1914 he writes “…On Monday last we were told of England declaring war on Turkey and on Wednesday were informed that word had been received by wireless that the German warship Emden would be likely to pay us a visit in a few days.  So we may see something exciting before we arrive in port…”


Christmas 1914

You’ll see that so far we’ve had a real good trip. During this hot weather in the tropics we only parade in the mornings. It’s lovely and calm tonight, but very close. The sea to-day was like a sheet of glass, scarcely a ripple, there are scores of flying fish here and they look like a flock of sparrows as they skim over the water .. very pretty. Well I hope all of you folks have a real happy Christmas and a bright and prosperous New YearDon’t worry about me, I am alright and feeling splendid, never better so far. Must say aurevoir now Mother, trust you and father are well, God bless you all. Give my kindest regards to all friends over in town, will write again from England, Hope to be in England for Christmas but cannot say for certain. We are considered to be in safe waters now. Fond love from your affectionate son, Arthur.”

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It had been planned to take the seven mile long convoy to England but Sir George Reid, Australian High Commissioner in London at that time sought permission for the A.I.F. and New Zealanders to train in Egypt. The proposed training camp in England was a cold bleak location on Salisbury Plain and he felt that the climate in Egypt was far more suitable.

Arthur Keppie celebrated that Christmas in the shadow of the pyramids of Egypt. He did not survive the landing at Gallipoli.


Seeking a great adventure

Private Fred Murray wrote to his Mum on 26/6/15 from Troopship A40. As yet the stark realities of war had not dampened the enthusiasm and excitement of many sons as they set out for ‘great adventure’.

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Dear Mum and Dad, we are very comfortable on board, the food and quarters are fine. We are all sleeping in hammocks, I had a bad night in my little hammock. I’ll sleep on deck in future. This is a great seaboat, hardly anyone sick so far. I got up this morning feeling much better. [He had earlier described a hangover he had after too much celebrating prior to embarking!]  All looking forward to a great trip… Love Fred

Fred died in the trenches at Lonesome Pine just 2 months later.

I cannot imagine the anguish Mothers felt as they watched for letters, dreaded the telegram boy and prayed for their sons’ safe return.


The Landing

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Lance-Corporal Henry Miller Lanser was 25 years old when he gave up his job with the Cooper Engineering Company of Sydney and left his Paddington home to fight for the country he loved. Part of a letter he wrote to his parents in June 1915 reads as follows

“We were first of all in destroyers which went inshore as near as they could. Then we were transhipped into lifeboats. At the time this was going on shrapnel, machine gun and rifle fire were being dealt out to us in large quantities killing 16 on one destroyer and many more after we landed. We stepped from the boats into the water; the water came up to our armpits, and one of my mates went under altogether, rifle and four day’s rations…The fighting kept on from Sunday morning continuously until Wednesday evening, when unfortunately I was shot by a sniper in the back of my left knee.”

Lance Corporal Lanser recovered from his wounds and fought on at Gallipoli but did not survive long enough to be part of the great evacuation.


Lest We Forget.

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Have you got letters in your family from the war era?  Tell us about the family members in yours that fought in World War I today.


Excerpts from this article were first published in April 2013 on Starts at 60.