“This was the most welcome mail we have had for months – as we’ve lost some & only got part of other,” wrote Millicent boy “Rollo”, also known as Captain Harold Edwin Salisbury Armitage, of the letters and parcel he had received from his family in December 1915.1
At home, loved ones waited breathlessly for news from the front. Any subject would do. What they desired most ardently was the sight of a familiar hand that would tell them their child, sibling, cousin or friend was still fit to write.
On this occasion Rollo, a prolific letter writer, favoured his parents with an account of whipping his platoon into line with “pretty hard and hot” talk on the subject of their carelessness with the safety catches on their rifles.3 One would hope it was officer training, rather than his primary school teacher background, which helped him most in this regard.
A section of the parcels room at the Australian Base Post Office, showing redirection of Australian parcels.
What families dreaded was communication from official channels that informed them of illness, wounds or worse. Nevertheless, in many cases, hearing nothing at all was harder to bear. The voluminous enquiries made to the fledgling Red Cross desperately seeking news of sons attests to this. Officially established in December of 1915, the South Australian Red Cross Information Bureau opened its doors on 6 January 1916. By the time they had closed in 1919, the bureau had undertaken research into 7,910 cases.4
This isolation from information was by no means restricted to the home front. From Lemnos, Armitage wrote, “we are quite isolated here – no news at all from Anzac – or from any of the fronts except what we get from the English papers.”[v] Those at home too, gleaned much of their understanding of the war from the papers. Newspapers across the country published letters from the front, in amongst columns of enlistment statistics, and honour rolls of the fallen. This gave families a glimpse into the lives that were so wholly a part of their own and yet beyond their protective embrace.
The Express and Telegraph (Adelaide), Wednesday 22 December, 19156
For so many, as for Harold “Rollo” Armitage, killed in action in France on 3 April 1917, they would remain beyond that earthly embrace eternally.
Lest We Forget
1 Armitage, Harold, “Copies of Letters from “Rollo” or Capt. H. E. S. Armitage, 10th & 50th Battalion A.I.F. – 2.12.15 to 4.6.16.” Australian War Memorial Collections, accessed 04/11/2015, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/RCDIG0000397/. See also Rollo’s letters from the Western Front - https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/RCDIG0000398/
2 Australian Army, “How the Digger Gets His Mail: The Australian Army Postal Services at Work,” Australian War Memorial Collections, accessed 04/11/2015, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/F00020/
3 Armitage, “Letters from Rollo.”
4 Oppenheimer, Melanie, “A Short History of the South Australian Red Cross Information Bureau,” accessed 04/11/2015, https://sarcib.ww1.collections.slsa.sa.gov.au/short-history-south-australian-red-cross-information-bureau
5 Armitage, “Letters from Rollo.”
6 The Express and Telegraph (Adelaide), Wednesday 22 December, 1915
© Elsa Reuter, RSL Virtual War Memorial