Diary of a Sapper, the war-time diary of Henry William Dadswell (1894-1978), records much of the frontline action he experienced during World War One, but the diary and wartime letters also tell something of the quiet times of the war.
Australian soldiers serving in France and Belgium were often sent to England if they were wounded or sick, or for leave to recuperate from the stress of frontline battle.
Henry Dadswell enlisted in the Australian Army in September 1915 and immediately started army training. He found himself in Egypt in April 1916 and by June was in France. But much of the remainder of 1916 he was troubled by illness and for months he found himself in and out of hospitals, training camps and billets in England.
This time away from the frontline - this 'home away from home' - was not always the happy place one might imagine. Homesickness (for 'real' home) or a feeling of not supporting one's brother soldiers still on the frontline often led to restlessness. And to get news from home, in the form of letters, was a strong yearning.
The following information is taken from letters written by Henry Dadswell to his cousin Myrtle Dadswell [pictured as a young girl] who lived at Horsham in Victoria.
Parkhouse Camp, Salisbury Plains [south west of London], 3 September 1916 -
Dear Myrtle, Just a line to say I am getting on well but wont be sorry to leave here for this camp is deadly quiet and I would sooner be back in France among my mates than here.
We have very easy times and do very little drill but we will be sent to another depot next week and will have to work there. I hear the Major we had over us in Egypt is over the camp there, and he is a strict man about discipline.
I had a grand time while on my leave and am getting four more days starting tomorrow. I am very lucky to get it but I expect I wont be long in England, so might as well have a good time.
I have met several of my old tent mates over here. All have been wounded but are getting on well.
I got five letters from Australia this week. One was from Aunty Helena [Helena Matilda (Dadswell) Norwood] and was written last February, so it had taken a long time [seven months] to find me.
Dunstable [north east of London], 15 October 1916 -
Dear Myrtle, I received your letter of March 13th two days ago and was very glad to get it. It is the first I have received from you and (it) took seven months from when you wrote it to reach me. I was beginning to think that you had forgotten me or I had offended you somehow, for I have got letters from nearly everyone else. Still, better late than never and I am jolly glad it has come.
Well Myrtle, I have had very bad news today. The two Waldron boys whom I came over with are both dead, killed by the same shell. They are cousins of Edgar, and Bert [pictured] was my mate on the journey over. He left me in Egypt and I saw him in France. The two boys were together and both were splendid fellows. I am very sorry to hear it.
Another chap who was with us, a real fine fellow, was also killed. They left for the front the same week I was taken to hospital.
Stevenage [north of London], 17 November 1916 -
Dear Myrtle, I received another letter from you today, rather an old one too but jolly glad to get it. Within this last month, I have had about 60 letters. Got 28 one day. Thought it was Xmas that day.
I got a letter from Mother dated Sept. 28th today, telling me of Chas Dunbar's death [a cousin, killed in action], also Harry Bell [another cousin] being wounded ['Harry', or Henry William Bell, survived the war].
I sincerely hope Winnie's brothers [?] are still safe and well. It is rather an anxious time for you women folk at home.
I am awfully glad to say that it was a mistake about the Waldrons' death. I got a letter from Bert saying they were well when he wrote. They are in Belgium and say it is awfully cold, wet and muddy.
My cousin W. Lewin [probably Wilfred] also says the same and although I don't know what it is like there, it is fearfully cold here. The frost never left the ground all day today and the wind seemed to go right through us. My mates were out on a four days scheme and only had one blanket. I was on leave and so missed it, and I am not sorry for they had an awful time. It is freezing here and starting to snow, so you can guess what it is like. The ground ought to be white by tonight.
Hitchin [north of London], 19 January 1917 -
Dear Myrtle, Just a line to let you know I am alive and still going strong. I am keeping well and am back again in Hitchin, our old depot and concentration camp for signallers in England.
I have met a number of the boys I left Australia with here, and after being among British troops for a good while it is very nice to be back with them again. Some of my lot have never left France since we landed last June, but most of them are (in), or have been to, England.
There hasn't been many sent back yet, but they are all being brought into the one camp now, so I expect that as soon as spring starts, or before, we will all be rushed over.
The weather has been fearful lately, and for nearly a fortnight there has been snow every day. It was five inches [13 cm] deep one day, that was the heaviest fall we have had but it often has a couple of inches on the ground. It is very bad to be out in, and one is always wet.
We are just having ordinary work here at present and have not had any schemes camping out all night, and a jolly good job, for it is bad enough out during the day.
Hitchin, 26 January 1917 -
Dear Myrtle, I have had a letter from home and several from Bassetts lately, but have not had many. I got a parcel that Mother sent early last October and also a letter from Ciss [Henry's sister, Ethel] dated March 13th yesterday. The letter has taken a little while [10 months] to reach me, hasn't it?
I am still at Hitchin but am moving to an Australian camp at Shefford next week. I have no idea how long I will be there or of my next move.
Shefford [north of Hitchin], 12 February 1917 -
Dear Myrtle, I am keeping well and am still stuck in this mud hole called Blighty [England]. My two mates whom I was billeted with went on draft for France and are leaving Hitchin tonight. I have been with one of them ever since I was at Parkhouse and am very sorry not to have been able to get away with him.
Well Myrtle, this is a very quiet little place. I am going through a driving school now, and was in a riding school. I am working with the horses and have been ever since coming here. I was a mounted despatch rider at first, and am having a go at everything. We have had some fine fun riding and it is far more exciting than the rest of the work.
Shefford, 3 March 1917 -
Dear Myrtle, Just a line to say I am well and still in England. I don't know when I will get away and have almost given up hope. It is just over 12 months since we left Australia, and I have done pretty well nothing as far as real service is concerned. There are quite a number of the fellows who came over on the same boat as I did still here, coming across to England from Egypt.
I really don't know why we are kept (here) but we are in a reserve unit and only small numbers leave at a time.
Stanley [Henry's brother] is down on Salisbury Plains. I have heard from him but have had no chance to see him as I can get no leave. He may be able to get some soon.
I had three letters from home this week and they are the only Australian letters I have had for close on a month.....
[By the end of March, many of the troops in England were being mobilised for transfer to the frontline. Within a short time, Henry Dadswell found himself in heavy fighting and frequently coming under fire].
France, 28 May 1917 -
Dear Myrtle, Well Myrtle, we are out of action for awhile and all are glad of the rest, for it was very constant and terrible fighting, for we were in a part of Fritz's line that he didn't want to lose and was trying his best to get us out of.
I had a few narrow escapes but got through safely. I am a linesman and can tell you it is very exciting work. We were fired at by snipers and machine guns but they were poor shots, to say nothing of shells which seem to fall everywhere.
I am having as good a time as one can expect ...
Flanders, 3 September 1917 -
Dear Myrtle, I had a letter from Tom Dunbar [Henry's cousin, who was to later die from war injuries] who so far has got through safely and is out having a rest. I have seen Eileen's boy [Eileen Lewin and her son Walter] several times lately. He is looking well and is a fine fellow. Harry Bell [another cousin] is only a few miles from here and I have seen him several times. He looks years older than when he left and not too good yet.
Well Myrtle, we expect to be in action again within a very few days now, and the fighting is very heavy at present so we are not expecting an easy time. But we have been very lucky in having a good long spell out of the line.
Stanley [Henry's brother, who later was seriously wounded in fighting in France] was still in England last time I heard from him. He is lucky in staying there so long and I hope he stays a while longer.
We have plenty of air raids which are anything but pleasant but so far our little village has escaped. The weather is much better this last couple of days and is quite warm again. I hope it will keep dry but don't expect it will do so for long.
Your affectionate cousin, Henry.
No further war-time letters to Myrtle Dadswell have been found but a future article* will include diary extracts of Henry's wartime experiences.
Henry Dadswell The Months Leading Up to War
* Diary of a Sapper World War One Reflections of Sapper Henry W Dadswell
World War One Crisis for Dadswell Soldier
Generation 9, Henry William Dadswell
- Information compiled Jan 2007, updated August 2012
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