A family at War
In the beginning
The outbreak of war in 1914 would result in the four members of the Digby family of Neutral Bay scattered across the globe for the length of the war. Similar stories other families could be told in many homes across Australia, of people dealing with uncertainty, fear, and death, neighbours and friends caring for and supporting each other and everyone growing desperate for the war to end.
The military was no stranger to the Digbys. Everard was commissioned, on May 14th, 1896, as a Captain of the newly formed Irish Rifles in Sydney, part of the New South Wales Voluntary Infantry in which he served from that time until 1900, when he was placed on the Reserve of Officers. The photo above shows a group of officers, including Everard, front left, of the Irish Rifles 5th Regiment.
His sons, John (Jack) and Gerald (Gerry), were cadets at school, Sydney Church of England Grammar School, after which John continued at Sydney University where he was a medical student, and Gerald at Hurlestone Agricultural College.
H.M. Shelley Esq.
P.R.N.C. Mch 3, 03
Sir, As I shall be away from Sydney until after Easter, I now request you grant me leave of absence from parades and drill until the middle of next month.
Your ob'dt servant
J.L. Digby A.L.
The disappearance of the Digby men from Sydney, one by one, began with yet another sorrowful loss - the death of Everard's last remaining sister, Mary, in Dublin where she had been living since the death of her sister Caroline in Roscommon on March 12th, 1897.
With Mary's death the last link with the family in Ireland was broken, leaving Everard to tie up all the ends of what remained of the family estate in his homeland, for none of his siblings married or had children. To this end he set out from Sydney, and was on board ship, in the Suez Canal on his way to Ireland, when the First World War began.
There would have been no doubt in his mind where his duty lay, the only possible question was where he would join the war effort - stay in England or return home and then join up? He did not make a move immediately, but on arrival in England proceeded to Dublin. While in Ireland he took the opportunity to visit Roscommon and catch up with people from his past, those who had a link to his family home, Drumdaff. On return to England he was taken in to the newly formed 7th Bedfordshire Regiment and promoted to the rank of Major at Aldershot, west of London.
According to a British Military Gazette , Captain Everard Digby, reserve of officers, Australian Commonwealth Military Forces, has been promoted to the rank of Major during the period of the war. When the last mail came Major Digby was at Mandora Barracks, Aldershot, and expected to leave shortly for the front. Sydney Morning Herald 20.11.14
An officer at Aldershot, writing to his wife
in Sydney, gives the following sample of the
8 a.m. Breakfast of porridge, bacon and
eggs, marmalade and toast.
9.30 a.m. Parade
1 p.m. Lunch of roast lamb and green
peas, cabbage and potatoes, suet pudding,
golden syrup, biscuits and cheeses.
2.30 p.m. Parade
4.30 p.m. Afternoon tea of bread and butter
8 p.m. Dinner of soup, fish, roast beef (and
roast duck and green peas on Sunday),
cheese, fruit, a glass of port and coffee.
"And after that," he writes, "bed is a good
place. We have eight hopurs of parade daily
when incidental attendances at the orderly-
room, interviews with the quartermaster, and
making plans of daily work."
So they are not starved and not idle
at Aldershot. This officer mentions sleeping-
bags as a great boon in camp. It seems that
we have overlooked them.
John Digby was almost to the end of his medical degree when the war broke out. As soon as he qualified, in March 1915, he too left for the front as a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC).
Everard and John's departures left Gerald and Edie in Australia, but not for long. By this time Gerry had finished his studies at Hurlestone and taken up a position of station hand in western New South Wales. In the Easter of 1915 he received a letter from his great mate, Colin Bull, hoping to soon see his friend in Sydney.
…Well old boy, I don’t know whether I have told you I have joined the Light Horse - when I went in the Citizen’s Forces [Army Reserve] and as soon as the war started they called us out to do patrol duty along the coast…we were away about three months…and we were only home a fortnight when we had to go out again for another month & a half. Well this time we were fed bully beef & biscuits & I was trying to open one of these bloody tins of beef when the bayonet slipped & ran through my hand…I have had a bloody bad time of it and Dr Cosh thought I might lose my hand but it’s still here thank Christ…I have been trying hard to get away but Mother won’t hear of it but I think she’ll listen to reason now as the old man says I can go…I hope you will come down again at Easter, anyhow I’m looking forward to seeing you..
Your old cobber, Manhatten Cocktail
Gerry arrived Sydney on Friday April 9th and spent part of the following week at Colin’s home at Ashfield. One can only speculate on their conversations but the following week he was accepted into the army. For this he had to fulfill the criteria of being between the ages of eighteen and forty-five, standing at least five feet and three inches tall and having a minimum chest measurement of thirty-three inches. History does not relate how poor skinny Colin expanded his chest to the required size for the first record shows his chest at 32 inches, resulting in an initial though short-lived setback in which time he was miraculously able to expand to 37 inches, allowing his acceptance on May 6th. The start of Gerry’s training was delayed by his bad reaction to a smallpox vaccination but finally he and Colin were together for three months training to Liverpool camp, thirty kilometres west of Sydney.
While Gerry was in camp Edith kept herself busy, regularly writing to Everard and John, gardening, doing chores around the house and attending to her many interests such as meetings of the Dickens Fellowship. She couldn’t do enough for her son in preparation for his transfer overseas, but all the diversions she could muster did not put off the inevitable, with time moving inexorably towards the day Edith was dreading.
Towards the end of July a rough date had finally been set for the boys’ departure. Edith tried to prepare herself whilst never forgetting Everard and John, never missing a mail and carefully recording receipt of letters from them. Not only was she facing the prospect of living alone for the first time in her life, but also held grave concerns about John’s work doctoring on the Western Front.
Everard's creative urges were never restricted by his soldiering, and it is through his poems and war diary that we are able to get glimpses of his feelings and experiences. He missed Edie very much, thinking of her so far away, and trusting he would survive the war to see her again, as the first three verses of an unnamed poem, written on February 17th, 1915 in Surrey show.
The winds that blow over the ocean
Take for message the words I now say
With my heart's love, and deepest devotion
To my dear little wife far away.
Nor distance nor time shall dissever
The love that shall never decay,
That I've borne, and shall go out forever
To my dear little wife far away.
Though to danger and death I am going
On my heart will eternally stay,
This heart which I offer as haven
To my dear little wife far away.
Colin and Gerry sailed on the S.S. "Runic" on August 9th, 1915, as members of the 12th Light Horse, their mothers waiting all day at South Head to see them off, waiting for a last glimpse of their boys waving a red bandanna from the stern of the ship as they promised they would. The mates spent the first two months in Egypt, but in November Edie received a telegram that put her in bed for days, for Gerry and Col were going to Gallipoli. News from the peninsula, as Edie read it in the newspapers, was not good on any count. It was bitterly cold with snow, frost and torrential rain that filled the trenches, whilst drinking water and food were rationed, falling short of actual needs of the unwashed and lousy soldiers.
Four lives divided
The only remaining member of her household, Edith was in a situation entirely alien to her, with no company but the dog and cats, including the new kitten optimistically named "The White Hope". She now had to take on extra tasks normally done by the men, yet despite her capability she had not get off to a good start, almost chopping off the end of her thumb when cutting firewood with a tomahawk. To fill the time she increased her work with the Red Cross, where she had been volunteering since since the previous year and received support from friends who came to stay or visit, take her out and help fill in her already busy days.
From this time forward, through all the years of the war, letters flowed between them all, parents and sons. Letters of support, reassurance and cheer, of concern and hope, dread and fear were written with love and sent with prayers they would arrive at their destination. Many would go down with the ships that carried them, bundles of love sinking to the bottom of the ocean, lost in the chaos of the time. Edith would not always know where her men were, and when they arrived, Everard's letters were often full of disgruntled dissatisfaction with the army and not being at the front where the action was, but with a "bad" heart and at his age he had no chance of seeing fighting first hand.
Many letters and postcards did, though, make it to the door of "Suramma" in Neutral Bay, where Edith sat and wrote, every mail, to Egypt, Belgium, France, England, Scotland and Mesopotamia, with the sound of troopships lifting off the water and carrying to her ears as they headed for the heads and open water to the other side of then world. One of these was an account by John of aspects of life at the Somme, emphasising the brighter sides of his life.
SHELL-FIRE AND SPORTS
Lieutenant J. L. Digby, a young Sydney doctor, who is with the Royal Army Medical Corps, and whose father, Major Everard Digby, is also on active service, in a letter from "Somewhere In France" to his mother at Neutral Bay, thus describes the daily round in a part or the battlefield where, though fighting Is proceeding all the time, officials and men are entertained with a little social life and sports:
"Medical work on the field Is of the crudest. I took an appendicitis case four miles to-day over a rough road in a waggon drawn by two mules. When called out to see a sick men who cannot parade at headquarters you have to go Into a barn, where the light is awful. The cases aro mostly acute stomach aches from drinking the filthy water and eating the green fruit. There are several girls in the house in which we have been bllletted.
"We sometimes have afternoon tea In the garden, and If you turn round you can see the shell-bursts, while all the time the boom of the guns goes on. In the big hall we occasionally have a dance. We also dress for dinner at night, and there is port after dinner as though it were a peace mess. So much for the social side. The sporting side is not forgotten. One of the batteries brought out a soccer football, and the right section played the left. The other day there was an inter-battery match, and much wild excitement. Then each battery has sports - tugs of war, sack races, sprints. The officers all take part, too, and some are really top-notchers. Equestrian feats form a separate branch, and mostly officers ride. There are three jumps-a low brush, a three-foot rail, and a "bon"; the sides of which are formed of bundles of hay. My horse Is a bit of a jumper and I put him over to-day. ... A German aeroplane came over last week, and she did get shelled. I don't know if she was hit, but, anyway, Bosh dived back forr the German lines.
I combine the duties of Mess secretary and censor. Tho letters from the soldiers are nil cheery, whether sent home to parents,... or sweethearts. In them all are troubles that make you remember that below the surface we are human beings, and secondarily soldiers." Sydney Morning Herald 14.9.1915
This postcard from Everard shows he was in Rouen in October. Two months later he spent Christmas Day of 1915 at the Australian Hospital at Wimereux in France, writing an account of the day on December 30th when he was back at Greenock with the 3 Royal Scots Fusiliers. He submitted an account of it to the Sydney Morning Herald who printed it on February 9th, 1916.
Christmas Day 1915 at the Australian Hospital at Wimereux- France.
By Everard Digby
Coming down from the Base Camp at Etaples, I found myself in Boulogne at 5 P.M. on Christmas Eve …Remembering that there was a bit of home somewhere near … I looked for it and on Christmas morning I found it in the Australian Hospital at Wimereux…
(It) was set up by the Australians immediately on the outbreak of the War, and since that time 9300 patients have been passed through its 200 beds. The Staff is wholly Australian, of which every member has… given his or her time continuously to ministering to the wounded. ..there have been 366 patients in the wards at one time…and 200 beds, and on another occasion 198 cases were received after 11 P.M. and dealt with at once…
My welcome was warm as the Christmas weather of Sydney… The top floor…was hung with wattle and other Australian foliage … Peach blossom and such light foliage made the first floor like a garden…The traditional holly and red berries
gave the necessary display on the ground floor to make the wounded feel that there was a touch of their home in this foreign land.
Going round the wards, I found the patients as cheerful as sandboys, many of them sitting up in bed, with paper caps on their heads, looking over their Christmas Cards and playing with the toys they had got from the crackers they had been pulling. The hum of conversation was about, laughter was had, even these fine lads who were compelled to lie rigidly on their beds, had a twinkle in their eyes, and though the voices of many of them were not strong, it could be perceived that even they took enjoyment out of the day…I chatted with many of the patients, I heard their remarks about men
and things, shrewd remarks showing a knowledge gained of experience…gradually as darkness fell quiet brooded over the hospital. The evening duties to the patients were performed and save for the necessary members of the staff on night duty, all the rest prepared for the Christmas dinner…Christmas decorations showed all about the two long tables, each table was gay with flowers, and a merry crowd of fifty sat down to an excellent dinner, dined in a manner worthy of the Hotel Australia - save and except and only that the soup was served in mugs - an excellent idea… Crackers were pulled,
quaint paper headgear grew upon the heads of all, jokes flew about, the hum of conversation unsubdued filled the room, and all combined to make a merry Christmas.
So time wore on. After drinks there were cards, roulette and other passtimes until the clock struck eleven when then the guests went to their beds or duties; and the Christmas celebration at the Australian Hospital at Wimereux was a thing of the past.
On the back of these very Australian postcards Edith has written to her younger son as he turned 21 on the other side of the world, in conditions of great uncertainty:
I can't remember whether I put in a special wish for your 21st birthday. I do now my dearest. I am "putting away" £21 for your birthday present...Are not these cards funny - I sent John two called "Wattle happen after the war" and "Wattle happen next Xmas". The first represents lots of girls running after a soldier and the other a wounded Dr. proposing to a Red X nurse...Mind you tell me if you get your big parcels. Dad was in France when I last heard, but came back - he wants to get a fighting job in France. Tons of love to you and Colin. I spent yesterday with the Bulls at Ashfield. It was a frightfully hot day. I send papers every week, Mummie.
At the time Everard was at Wimereux Gerry was writing a letter to his mother, telling her of the evacuation of Gallipoli. News of the withdrawal reached her in Melbourne, where she was staying with Mrs Lucy Lloyd, wife of the late Charley Lloyd who had been such a great support to Everard from the time of his arrival in Sydney. Charley was eighty-two years old when died in September, 1908 at his home, Lissadurn, in the well heeled Melbourne suburb of South Yarra.
It was with Mrs Lloyd, as she was called by all the family, that Edith celebrated her Silver Wedding Anniversary on December 10th, the joy dampened considerably by the fact that none of her family was there to share it with her. But overriding all her thoughts were those of Gerry and Colin on Gallipoli, with frightening reports coming through of the dreadful conditions and lives lost, quite a number of whom she knew. As the days leading up to her younger son's 21st birthday moved by, she hoped and prayed all her waking hours that he would get through, then the wonderful news came - the retreat from the Peninsula. . Edith and Mrs Lloyd celebrated both birthday and evacuation in style, with a variety of drinks, toasting the soldiers and their escape from further freezing winter conditions and worse. Gerry wrote to his mother of the evacuation which she received quite some time later.
Letter to Gerry from Edith, written on his birthday, December 21st, 1915.
My own darling boy,
You will see by the date that this letter is your 21st birthday. How I wish you were here... It was all excitement here yesterday when we read in the press of the evacuation of the Anzacs. Now I am wondering where you are & all about your doings. It’s very hard to bear. Mrs Lloyd has been kindness itself to me & we are going to celebrate your birthday tonight & drink your health & that of all the absent dear loved ones…
Later. We celebrated your birthday tonight darling. After an excellent dinner we drank your health in several beverages, having your photo placed in the centre of the table under a huge vase of poppies. You seemed to be smiling at me…In the morning I had been into town early & as I passed the Cathedral went in & said a prayer for my boy & Colin, & the other mother’s boys. I have a happy feeling you & Colin will come back one day quite safe & sound when this ghastly war is over.
Letter to Edith from Gerry on the evacuation of Gallipoli, written Christmas Day, 1915
On the evacuation. Mediterranean Sea S. S. Flororate.
My dearest Mum,
I am commencing this letter to you on board here on Christmas morning - one scarcely feels that it is Christmas today - Things are going on around just the same, soldiers everywhere, smoking, yarning, gambling, & festivities of every kind. I expect we'll get "plum duff" for dinner or something of the kind. It won't be a very sumptuous repast though I'm afraid I won't be sorry to go ashore and have a good fare and square feed - after tinned stuff and biscuits. It must be some time now since you heard from me as no mail was taken for some little time before we left the peninsula & you couldn't post at Lemnos. I got your letter of October 17 at Lemnos on 21 December (my birthday) together with letters from Miss Syer, Ray Noland, G. H. M., Jim Stanton, Dad, John and a card from Jim Stanton. That was my birthday mail - no parcels or papers have come to light - I hope I still get them. While I was on the peninsula I never even received a single letter from you and in all only three letters, two from Dad and one from John. I was more than pleased to get a mail at Lemnos.
I suppose 'ere this reaches you - you will have heard of the evacuation of Gallipoli Peninsula by the Aust. and New Zealand forces; it's not a nice thing to know we've failed in our objective and after having lost all those men too. Still modern warfare nowadays demands many sacrifices and I suppose that is one of them - still 'tis hard. The only good thing was the efficiency shown in getting the troops off so well. About 48,000 troops were handled and only about 6 casualties occurred and none of them fatal.
Well, to proceed - Troops had been moving off all the previous week and our orders came through on the 19th of December to march out and leave our position that night at 9.45. The first L.H. (to whom I now belong) were forming part of the rear guard and had to remain til the last, covering the other's retreat with machine guns.
The Turks were pretty quiet all night before, so we expected to get off fairly easily - That night D squadron (mine) were holding out a half mile of front - from no. 1 outpost to Destroyer Hill. I was up on Camel's Hump on the watch across the gully in case any Turks showed themselves. Col, Dowling Brown and Cotes were with me. At last after silent waiting and watching the order came through to file out quietly. With socks pulled over our boots we sneaked back through the bivouacs, chucked on our packs & gear and stole quietly away through the saps down to the beach. The only thing that we were frightened of was if old Johnnie Abdul had taken a tumble he would have poured shrapnel into us while were embarking into the lighters.
Anyway, we got to the beach without any mishap and had just got off and got going when Beachy Bill dropped shrapnel on the beach. He only spoke once though. He couldn't have known that there were any number of men on the beach or things would have been pretty hot.
We embarked on the "Garron" which brought us to Lemnos, then on to the "Cardiganshire" and then ashore. This was on the 20th. Dec. We left Lemnos on Christmas eve on board this boat and I think our destination is Alexandria. While at Lemnos we had some rotten weather, wet & cold; I got out into the little village there with some other chaps though, and we had a feed of sorts, mostly fruit; the village is a quaint little place - very tumble down and inhabited mostly by Greeks. I don't know what their industries are but from the look of things it's some sort of agriculture . Personally I don't know how they all live. There must be thousands of troops at Lemnos - all sorts - Tommies - Indians - Aust & N.Z. etc. Also a lot of French troops – Zouavis etc. The French have some very striking and gaudy uniforms. Italian soldiers are very grand too! There are stacks and stacks of mail bags lying at Lemnos - I don't know if it will ever get sorted and delivered.
Another thing that strikes one as you enter Lemnos Harbour is the number of vessels there. There are hundreds of them - All nationalities, shapes, sizes etc. Tramps, liners, warships, every conceivable ship under the sun seems to be there. There is a lot of shipping hung up there in consequence of this war, which also must mean that there is a hell of a lot of commerce here too, stores etc. Well! I'll stop for the present now Mum darling but will continue later after dinner. So long for the present.
Later. Dinner is over - not a very sumptuous feed but not bad. The meat and vegetables were murdered; cooked to death; the plum duff was good and the wine which ran 3 bottles to 15 men (should be by the Colnek) wasn't too bad after Gallipoli fare.
Strange to say the day I got your letter and read about Alec Guthrie being in the 1st Regiment I went outside the tent and one of the first chaps I met was Alec Guthrie - Fancy. I had been with the Reg’t all the time we were on the Peninsula and only struck him on Lemnos. He is on board now and asked kindly after everyone at home.
Well dearest I'll have to close up now - Love to all and plenty for yourself.
Your loving son, Beau.
Will write as soon as we strike land.
It was a great relief to have Gerry back in Egypt in the sun and heat, while at the same time Everard's duties found him in a very different climate. On the back of this postcard he was written:
March and April 1916 were an emotional roller coaster for Edith. March brought John’s birthday and the first anniversary of his departure but she was able to distract herself for a time with preparations for the opening of the South Sydney Centre for Soldiers’ Wives and Mothers on April 13th, its purpose to provide support for less well-off wives, mothers and children of servicemen who were struggling with the situation they found themselves in without their menfolk. On the other side of the world, at Greenock, Everard was pondering on and writing of the importance of love and Edith, sustenance to survive separation from his wife, the mother of soldiers.
To his wife
The mother of soldiers
Space, dear my love, your lip from mine may part,
And only on the wind desire be cast.
As homing pigeon arrows straight this fast
Love flies to bear my heart beat to your heart.
Call Hope and Courage, with their brother Pride,
Gentle withal to soothe a gnawing pain
Give them a home nor fear but you will gain
True friends to stand in trouble by your side.
Mortals are foredoomed to mortal woes;
We need the love of loves to sustain
Our strength whereas dark cares about us close,
For love unselfish breaking bank sets free
Waters of kindness for our neighbour's pain
Send, dear my heart, a heart beat back to me.
Greenock E.Digby 2 4/16
Edith did not receive any mail from Gerry during this time but learnt that John had signed on for another year and had experienced some narrow escapes. She was, she admitted in her diary on April 24th, feeling the effects of the long separation and the strain of war very much. The next day, Anzac Day, evoked thoughts in her of “lonely graves on that historic hillside – and all in vain” and of those she knew who had lost their lives. Meanwhile, Edith wrote, Everard was "going up in planes at a military flying school, heaven knows what he will take up next", which query was answered in May when he wrote cheerfully that he was, to her horror, trying to get in to active service.
Without any of her men at home Edith had to make do with their photos. She had enlargements made of all three which she hung over her bed, Everard in the middle and the boys on either side. Each night when she went to bed she gave them a kiss, prayed to them all, and longed " in vain for peace to restore you all to me". As further asurance that they would survive the war, she kept all Gerry and John's things as they had them when at home, and Everard's the same.
Whenever she got the chance with days off from war work, Edith spent them in the garden which she loved doing above anything else, and as she planted her seedlings, thought of her loved ones, wondering what they were doing and if they were safe, hoping for them all to come home soon.
The War Orphans of France
La bienfaisance qu'un temp; c'est aujourd'hui!
Tend they rose garden with a loving care,
The rose-bush thrives - its sturdy graft will stand -
And glowing rosebuds yield a perfume rare
To sweeten life, and bless the grateful land.
So should thou then guard the children - buds of grace -
From sorrow shield them, still their every fear;
Full-opened blossoms soon to fill the place
Of those who fade and fall as leaves grown sere.
No matter in what tongue a mother's voice
Croons o'er her babe; all children cry their woe
In one same tongue, and in one tongue rejoice,
And speak their love to all who kindness show.
Hark to their cry! In wild despair it shrills -
"We're parentless; through cold and hunger weak.
And harsh neglect and cruelty that kills,
Life we our baby arms in vain? Oh speak!
"Guiltless of crime, frail victims of mens' greed,
And lust of power; small innocents we lie
Crushed by War's bloodstained feet, Come help our need,
And from thy store, give freely, or we die.
INCIDENTS OF THE BATTLE. SYDNEY DOCTOR’S STORY.
In a letter to Mrs. Everard Digby, of Neutral Bay, a captain who is serving as a medical man in France gives a graphic description of the Somme battle The letter is dated July 1, 1916. The captain writes:
"By now you have read of the British offensive on the Somme. Well, your elder son has been in it from the beginning, and is still all right, in spite of narrow shaves...This is what I've been waiting for for 12 months...
"To tell you in detail all that led up to things would keep me writing till morning. How we got the order to move at last; the joy of everyone when we knew that at last we were...for the 'great push.' How we lightened our kit for the advance; the cleaning of revolvers, and. on my part, the replenishing of dressings, drugs, splints, etc; the seven days' march through cold and rain and mud, alternating with sunshine; marching all the time by night; the meeting of fresh troops, everyone cheery...
"I can begin telling you in some detail the course of events from ...a week before the morning of the attack, July 1...our batteries were shelling Hans, preventing them from repairing their wire at night...day and night for a week, and I had remarkable luck, having only one man killed. The assault was timed for 7.30 a.m., and so at 7 a.m. you saw me, girt with glasses, smoke-helmet, and 'tin hat.' lying behind a parapet on the top of a rise in rear of the firing line. The whole front was a mass of drifting blue smoke, stabbed with the red flashes of the bursting shell and the huge 'splash' of earth made by…the heavy howitzers. The morning mist hung over everything, making observation difficult. However, with ray watch in my hand, and my glasses glued to my eyes, I watched the front line. At 7.30 I saw the boys go 'over the top,' the sunshine flashing on their bayonets...Farther to the north, where the smoke and shells were thinner, I could see five successive waves chase the Boche out of his four lines of trenches, and then our lads... dug themselves in like rabbits. It was here I saw a very pretty bit of bayonet work in which the Boche came off second best.
… I got back to my aid post … and all the morning the wreck and wastage of war, the walking wounded cases, trailed past my aid-post to the collecting station at the end of the valley... One man, hit in both legs and the head, came limping along. 'It's great, sir...to see half a dozen of these big ___ chucking up their hands to our little fellows.' He was sorry to be out of it so soon, and he passed on with one of my cigarettes…
"Then the prisoners started to arrive in batches of 10, 20, 50, 100, and in one case 260.... I had a good opportunity of studying them. They…were all men of about 40 or more...
"The prisoners were all marched into a barbed wire cage before being sent on to the bigger concentration camps…Most...had had nothing to eat for three days…One, standing close to me, asked me if I could speak French, and, on my saying I could, launched forth in a long yarn… all about the battle from his point of view... for about an hour, and I gave him my last cigarette. …
"Later on I went over the captured ground up to within a few hundred yards of our new firing line. Passing over 'No Man's Land,' where several of ' our lads were still lying awaiting burial, I passed into the Hun front line…I never saw such a wreck. The trenches were only a succession of crump holes. The German dead lay piled up in heaps, two, three, and four deep…I won't dwell in detail on the ghastly sights I saw at every step, but they were a speaking expressions of the horrors of war.
"The dug-outs are marvellous pieces of work-deep down under the parapet-and no shell made can reach anyone down there. I went into several in fear and trembling, (but) the ones I entered were only occupied by dead…
Sydney Morning Herald, September 16, 1916
Life and death at the front
1917 took its toll on both Edith and Everard, with their optimism fading fast and growing dread about the outcome of the war which, if it went to Christmas, would be her third year without her men. To face another Christmas alone was something she dreaded. She "fretted like an old hen", according to Jack, but not without cause. As a result of his being gassed her older son was suffering recurring bouts of bronchitis and the sorrow of other families who had lost loved ones weighed heavily on her mind. Everard, too, longed for the war to be over, quoting to Edie from a poem by Adcock:
There’s a little house in a little street
A little way from the sea
And oh! When I’m weary of all the world
It’s there that I lain to be.
The Battle of Beersheba took place on October 31st, 1917. Many accounts of the battle have been written, of the mad ride by the 4th and 12th Light Horse towards the Turks, of men falling, dust rising, and of disbelief then delight when the realisation came that the enemy troops had forgotten to lower their rifle sights as the mounted regiments rode over and past them and down into city. But of all this Edith knew nothing for she had put aside her trepidation and travelled to Cooma to teach spinning where she stayed for three weeks with no idea of the news that awaited her at home. When she arrived back in Sydney she learned from Colin Bull's family, with whom she had become very close, the devastating news that Colin had lost his life at the Beersheba shot by a rifle bullet in the Charge, half a mile from the Turkish trenches. There followed months of visits and letters to Gerry, who was grieving the death of his great friend, and it took its toll physically and emotionally on Edith who finally broke down, taking time off her war work to recover, which took some months.
Throughout 1917 letters from Everard had not helped her state of mind, as she read of his struggles with the war and his place in it, as the following extracts from his diary show.
from the A.S.C. Mess
'Tis many a mile from Abancourt
To Blighty far away.
Were I there now, I'm very sure
I'd never further stray:
I'd hang my cap upon the peg
My tunic I would sell -
I have no use for soldiering
In Abancourt - 'tis Hell.
In Abancourt there are no pubs,
Though liquor is in store:
In Abancourt there are no clubs,
Which makes life there a bore:
No theatres can there be found -
There's a Y.M.C.A. -
No circulating library,
Nor e'en a Kinema.
In Abancourt no ankles neat
Or thin waste glad my eye,
But Tommies everywhere I meet
And Kaffirs smelling high:
In Abancourt it's certain sure
No ??? can be found;
You stay there til you for there's
No means of getting round.
For life's not worth a button
When spent in checking jam,
Coal, timber, iron, mutton
Biscuits and salt and ham,
Or counting shells or fuses,
And working day and night
On hay and rails, overseeing
Black labourers and white.
A YMCA. singsong
Is welcome to our hearts,
'Tis opera, 'tis tres-bong-bong,
'Tis opera and art:
And when at our sports meeting
Our "crocks" are hobbling round,
We gammon we're at Newmarket,
Or at the polo ground.
At Abancourt a Fives Court stands
Fives cannot satisfy
The youth who earnestly demands
His won't - Lawn Tennistry.
'Tis ever true the old old said -
All work without alloy
Of play, but makes of earnest Jack
A dullish sort of boy.
The Base advanced at Abancourt
Like water from the ditch
In which I'd not condemn, I'm sure
A decent dog to "sitch".
But day and night I pray -
"The ??? take me from Abancourt
To Blighty far away!"
No. 1 Advanced Supply Depot
France 24 8/17
Extracts from Everard Digby's writings August to December, 1917
These jottings show a different side of the war, that of an ageing Major in the British army. They also reveal much of the character of Everard Digby. Unfortunately many pages of his diary are missing, perhaps having incurred the wrath of the censors.
For several months I have been doing duty with the 3rd Royal Scots Fusiliers as a Draft Conducting Officer between a training camp on the Clyde and different Base Camps in France. A serious riding accident had put me out of my Battalion and condemned me to act as a kind of Military Cook's Tourist Guide - a A job with which, in the month of May, I have grown "fed up"...
While making ready to take a draft...from Fort Matilda to France...the General in Command Clyde Defences informed me that news had come...directing me to proceed to France there to report for duty...on 14th...He relieved me of my duty with the Draft...This is excellent good news, cheering me up and rousing in me the impulse to action which cannot help but slumber under conditions of my duty in Greenock.
...it looks as if my appointment is to be of an inferior kind, without much responsibility. I anticipate that I shall find myself in another backwater...However it is bad to go out and meet trouble, I shall wait to meet the Devil before I hold out my hand to him.
The providing of camp kit etc takes a couple of days in London...and fills in four days before departure. After a year in good quarters in Greenock this bustling around...is a bit uncomfortable...But it is good to be sometimes shaken out of a groove of life.
I am writing today...at the Base Camp at Abancourt, France...evidently there is no duty (here) for me to perform. I left Greenock on the 8th...and I came to London...On arrival in Folkestone I was...hurried off to the Channel Transport - kits to follow by a later boat..some hours spent in Boulogne...getting papers checked.
At 8p.m. I attended the arrival of...the kits...about one hundred and fifty officers attended to claim (them). Each officer had two or three packages...a huge amount of baggage...A great crane came into play. A whistle was heard and there arose slowly from the deck high into the air, a great rope net bag filled with fifty pieces of luggage...when it was...lowered to the Quay...the contents poured out on to the muddy roadway. Officers...poured over the heap searching each for his own valise, or bag, or suitcase, swearing and pushing in the semi-darkness of the evening. Another and another net full was added to the heap...the clamour of the struggling men grew louder...
Yesterday I and Col. Lambart got through the day by going to Beauvais, about forty miles from Abancourt by train...the old fashioned town. The Colonel, who is a slow and stout man...could not walk much and lacked the energy to explore with me...He speaks French...with a wonderful accent, his vocabulary is good but in idiomatic work he has much to learn. He loves to do the talking which I allow him...he seems to think my knowledge of French is within very narrow bounds. I let it go - he is as pleased as Punch...
...without employment yet drawing my pay and allowances. Walks to villages and towns about...fill up my time and keep me fit... (at) Formerie...it was market day..clothing, vegetables, fish, fruit, meat, general stuff and soft drink.
I have done a caricature or two...and have written some verse of local interest...
My batman is a "bantam" - a Dubliner...he is, possessing that functionary's special quality...the abilityn to provide everything required without any consideration of honesty...
...I am still waiting idly till the C.O. at Abbeville speaks...Meanwhile I fill my time as best I can. I have been exploring on foot the country around...chatting with the people, gathering nuts, feeding on blackberries and taking similar simple pleasures. I found the prettiest nook...hedged by hazels and thorn trees, festooned with honeysuckle, clematis and crimson-berried creeper. A rich green carpet of grass (edged) by a tangle of blackberries, bushes in fruit, and blue campanula, harebell, daisies and other flowers...The memories it stirred made me a boy again...
Today I have been informed that I am to take charge of an Area Employment Co. which mean I am to look after clothing, equipment and pay of all the batmen, mess-servants and the general odd-job man...This is not to my liking and I feel the insult so much...I shall be compelled to request permission to retire from the British Army.
...The Commandant has hinted that I may have to take over the job of Camp Adjutant and to preside on Court Martial. I am to preside three cases tomorrow...I am to undertake other and responsible duties of a high kind. Yet, I receive the lowest pay of the officers among whom I am classed..It is a direct slight to me and my rank...I really marvel every day that England can carry on the War for £8,000,000 per day!
Very few letters find their way to me - I am feeling lonely.
...a visit by some "Brass Hats" next week...cleaning and tidying up will be in order in anticipation...(they) will no doubt see nothing of the place, but will report upon the little they will be shown.
Here is a specimen day of duties: See all correspondence; Selecting and ordering matters and papers for the Commandant who arrives at 10a.m.; Listening to the usual wailing of the (Quartermaster) in charge of ration store for 250 men; Inspecting meat and stores; inspecting cookhouses; attending to the bath house; telephone calls have to be attended to - Can the African ative Labor Battalion have the football ground on Sunday for match?...Two French soldiers caught entering the Ammunition area are brought to me under armed guard. I explain to them in their tongue that a permit is necessary...
There is an impression that an air raid is probable...increased nervousness is showing...there is enough ammunition...here which exploded would devastate a wide area. Not a soldier here could escape it if Fritz were successful in getting one of his bomb-dropping aircraft over the place.
There is unrest among the Kaffir labourers caused by the regulation that confines them within their compounds when not at work. - equivalent to imprisonment...Their contracts were for labor and treatment as soldiers...I hear trouble was arising
Between these entries and September 20th pages of the diary are missing but it seems that Everard took his complaint about a new job offer to "the great man" in charge, who, Everard claimed, was most offensive, causing the atmosphere to "become electrified with rapidly rising temperature."
The "Black and White Mess"
- a memory of France
I used to love the gentle coo,
Her milk is sweet and bland,
I loved the good potato too
That grows in Ireland
But I can't love them with each day
I see, without relief,
Cabbage and spuds in stern array
Beside the ration beef
To dine at noon each day we run;
The ration beef comes hot,
'Tis always roast - today well done
"Ere next day it is not.
It always floats in gravy black -
Which often proves a "dud" -
And close come following in its track
The cabbage and the spud.
'Tis sometimes hot, the cabbage green
At times it is grey cold,
In melted grease the spud is seen
Yellow as minted gold.
With haste we thrust the ghastly fare
Within our gaping maws,
As hurrying stokers shove the coal
Into the furnace jaws.
And so t'is done, the meal I mean,
Not so the ration beef,
For like the poor t'is ever seen
Truly a thing for grief.
We go to work when dinner's done,
Nothing our dark mind cheers,
For well we know at set of sun
The ration beef appears.
It comes in slices cold and red
It glares from out the plate,
It says, "With nought else you'll be fed,
You can't escape your Fate."
And cold the spud appears again
With onion mingled free,
It gives you very stomach pain
To view the deadly three.
Though beef comes hot at every noon,
Though cabbage comes likewise,
Though spuds also, the same old tune
Awakes our tears and sighs.
When cold the onion makes them worse
At Eve; naught brings relief
Except to sit and howl my curse
On cabbage, spuds and beef
9 9/17 E.D.
I asked him if he would...write in my resignation. He told me if I did not take the job, the only thing left to him was to send me Home to London. Later I wrote and sent in my resignation.
It seems to me my service in the British Army is at an end. I am waiting at Doullens in a very comfortable billet until my fate is decided...the best motto...with the Military Authorities is to sit tight and wait for the next move from then other side...
During a walk around the Citadel of Doullens I met an Australian Lieut,,,I had lunch with him at his billet in the house of a workman at the Electric Company...the whole family had the meal with us...Madam is a good housekeeper and provided a plentiful and appetising meal of sausages, ham, salad, potatoes, bread, butter and good pears. Cider and tea were the liquids.
Today...I was summoned to the presence of the A.A.G. who treated me so rudely...Surprise, surprise, he was gentle as a...dove, quite polite and courteous, and evidently anxious to please...unbent...enough to such an extent as to address me as "Digby" without the usual preface of "Major"...I strove to be formal and polite.
...on the afternoon I received a note asking me why I wanted to resign my appointment, and asking me to state what kind of job I want. So instead of sending me back to "Blighty"...The A.A.G. seems to want me to stay in France...
I have written...setting out the matters necessary for carrying on the work of A.E. Coy and setting out my reasons fully for having sent in my resignation...
The chef at our mess is not an artist. His idea of cooking is poached eggs for breakfast, baked ration beef and mashed potato for lunch. This is each...and every day! I got tired of this and on enquiry found he had rice, onions, oatmeal, tinned pork and beans and one or two other things...which he did not use as he did not know what to do with them. Yesterday I taught him how to make pastry...he gave us some good turnovers afterwards at tea. This afternoon I made a curry for his instruction, and advised him to eat it in order to know what it was like. I also showed him the art of boiling rice. He told me he would send up a curry tonight for dinner. He is a good lad, a pork butcher by trade, and very anxious to learn cookery
The ineptitude of the Army...was we'll illustrated today...It is necessary to carry on the work of the Gas School to have two field kitchens...tables...plates, knives etc...a dry hut is requires for the housing of 70 men. None of these things exist and the class is ordered to commence on Monday next...labor is not available nor...materials. I went to H.Q. today to inform the Director of Training...and to ask if the class could be postponed...He informed me that the classes must go on, that he can do nothing - only issue orders. Only issue orders!...
The Gas School buildings were unfinished when 10 officers (and 10 servants) and 60 men reported to me on Monday 29.10.17 for instruction. I had to find billets for them...the class has been going under great difficulty
It is good, I find, to abstain from strong liquors - for the idleness which is involved in winter quarters induces too free consumption of alcohol...I bless myself for my self-restraint. There's much tact and good humour necessary to enable men to live together under war conditions. Daily association with the same men breeds dislike and quarrels...makes men loathe one another...
The Boche airplanes still come over...At times a shell or so whistles overhead - or bursts close to one of our balloons floating high in then sky.
I am beginning to feel lonely...it is attributable, I think, to the fact of living here among men only, away from cities and women. I want to be at home in Australia, in the cottage at North Sydney, where is waiting for me my blue-eyed wife, the prettiest in the world, with whom I am in love as I was when I won her and she came into my bosom twenty seven years ago. I want to go home.
A visit to the Kinema on Friday evening...It is a bit strange to sit in barn with 300 men and officers and see Charles Chaplin and the drama of two men and a woman on the screen, the while the air is echoing around of the Boche guns, and the chance of a wandering shell coming through then roof is not remote.
This is a great war of waste of materials, of men, of horses, of money! No economy is shown...All about is waste, waste, waste...and no attempt to check it...The waste of animals is awful. After six weeks of very heavy work, [horses and mules] have been picketed in the open standing in deep mud and with only rugs to defend them from rain and cold. They have been so standing for several weeks, and only now are shelters being erected for them...Absurd it is to find a Major - a qualified Doctor - spending his time looking after the Canteen of his unit...Labor is badly distributed, improperly supervised, and supplied without system! Another point to be deplored is the way men in the higher commands cover up everything that may discredit them...
There was a heavy bombardment last night at 10.30p.m. and at 6a.m. today the guns were still speaking. There have been rumours of a push towards the Hindenberg Line, which is in front of this place, for some days.
There has been much movement here in Peronne during the last week. French troops of all arms are concentrating here. Nobody knows why...and civilians are coming back, and shops are being opened...
The relics of a fine library lie rotting on the broken floors, volumes strew the stairs and garden, children's toys lie about broken, and china and ornaments once the pride of a housewife are strewed in broken fragments amid fallen plaster...timber and iron. Amid the ruin I am snug in my billet, behind patched walls and windows, with a fire of wood taken from the wreckage roaring up the chimney...
9.30p.m. Lying snug in my valise and blankets at my billet I hear the big guns booming now in single shocks, now in salvos. The roar rises and falls and the earth here at Peronne as well as the air is shaken with vibrations. It is somewhere in the direction of St Quentin in the French Line...I shall now arise and trim my fire with portions of carved furniture...
Peronne is like a city of the dead tonight. (Five thousand) French troops left this morning at 6a.m....followed by...(artillery, medical corps, supply trains, cavalry and machine gun corps), a continuous stream until 3p.m. a sad,sad sight. For they were the funeral of somebody's reputation...lost at Cambrai...their failure meant the failure of 3000 men.
A cold day, the first of winter, the Cambrai battle is going on apace...I lunched with Col Coffey...all the rest of the Docs were scattered on the Front Line, one had been made prisoner and about twenty men had been lost. On arrival back at Peronne I found orders to proceed to (a place) about three miles from Peronne (after my) stay of eleven days...
On Sunday 2.12 I arrived here...It is easy to see there is a lot of work to be done...I was again fobbed off on to donkey work in a ruined village away from everywhere, without any direct communication to Peronne or HQ at Catelet...with twelve men of my staff. My clerk is shortsighted and has not the least notion of military clerking or solid work. ..The cook likes his meat cooked to a cinder. The rest of the staff asre labourers, handymen and such whose business it is to repair billets, clean...the billets are not marked, the watering points are disgraceful...and everything to be put right. While trying to see...where to begin work a full Cavalry...rode in...Nothing ready...
On careful consideration I have come to the view that the job of area Commandant lies in the backwater and it makes little demand of my powers mental or physical. It is soldiering not in the least and its duties are irksome to me.
...I lost all interest in soldiering...I began to long for my home in Australia, for my wife...and rest with her...I was evacuated by Ambulance train from Tricourt on December 10th, arriving at 8 General Hosp. Rouen the same day...evacuated...on December 12th, proceeded to Le Havre and and was carried by H.S. "Panama" to Southampton and thence to Exeter on 13.12.17..."Rest and treatment" was prescribed for me along the line but I found neither...was supplied at V.A.D. hospital.
It is a curious thing that my request...to resign my commission, prompted by my desire to get home now I have failed to reach the fighting line - should be so quickly followed by my return to England by medical order...This place is a dreadful place...unsuited for its purpose...patients do not have much attention...In my ward of 43 beds there is a room where cups and dishes are washed up in a sink, where the dust box and used dressings are thrown and where all the dirty linen is piled up...the whole place is dirty...
My travelling warrant was handed to me, the same day I left Exeter on 22.1217, arriving in London the same afternoon.
I dined yesterday with Mrs Lloyd...(who thinks) a lot of Mum and the two boys...I am taking things easy. I had a letter from Gerald dated 3.12 received on 24.12.17 from Palestine, removed some of the anxiety I was feeling on his account. He wrote in good spirits but felt very much the death of his pal, Colin Bull at Beersheba. Dear old chap, I hope he will come out all right. No word from Jack who left for Mesopotamia some months ago.
The following account of Everard's job as Draft Conducting Officer (D.C.O.) is undated, but it was in 1917 Everard wrote in mid August that he had, for some months, been D.C.O. taking troops from Fort Matilda, an army camp at Greenock, to France, but was about to have another change of duty. He details the last parade of British troops at the end of their training, then, accompanied by the D.C.O., the journey to their destination in France which takes them through "scenes not designed as background to a war." On disembarkation they were handed over to the Camp Sergeant-Major, at which point the duty of the D.C.O. is done and the men go off to meet their fate.
Conducting a Draft
One hundred and forty men in Khaki…each with a grey blanket beneath the outer straps of his pack, stand “at ease"in line in the brown parade ground. They carry neither rifles nor bayonets. The sky is grey, a light shower is falling, and in the distance the Heaven is partially blotted by thick driving mist. There is, however, a note of brightness in the picture. The faces of the men are shining with cheerfulness. At last their training is finished and they are detailed to proceed to France to take up the wild work for which they have been prepared. It is a draft for the British Regiment for the Front that is paraded for final inspection before departure.
“Detachment” – calls the Captain in charge of the parade.
In response there is a click of iron-clad heels brought together as the men Spring to “attention” to stand erect without a move, looking straight to the front.
“Open ranks – march”, follows; on which the rear rank takes one pace smartly to the rear and remains steady.
Meanwhile the Battalion Commander, the Adjutant, the Quartermaster and the Draft Conducting Officer meet and salute the General…who closely examines the clothing, the equipment and the personal appearance of the men, criticizing all, even to their hair.
There are fresh-faced lads in the ranks, men of middle age with grizzled hair, men bearing on their breasts ribbons of various colours showing that they have already fought in the Empire’s campaigns…there is one thing in common to all – a visible endeavor to look their best, with the satisfied expression of hope fulfilled…
The inspection is ended…the General speaks a few words of good cheer to the men and leaves the parade ground.
The draft is now ready to move at a moment’s notice. The Conducting Officer goes to his quarters to pack his kit ready for departure to await the order to march.
X X X X
It is 4.45 A.M. and a dark cold morning. On the windswept Parade ground the draft is drawn up, duly seen by the Conducting Officer as he approaches the Adjutant from whom he is to take over the men. An envelope containing a travelling warrant is handed to him – final instructions will be given at the railway station on entraining. He is now in command.
…”Quick march”. The band strikes up a quickstep and to its notes the men move off quietly through the darkness, past the silent Barracks rooms, down the hill and along the empty streets to the Railway Station. A few comrades accompany the march to say farewell to the lads departing. There is no delay at the station; the men are aboard quietly and smartly, final instructions are handed to the Conducting Officer, the whistle blows and the train steams out while a few cheers are sent up and the Band plays a merry tune.
The journey to the point of embarkation is tedious. The Conducting Officer with the N.C.O.’s must be continually on the watch that men do not get left behind at any of the stopping places. Men going to the Front are, at times, difficult to keep in hand - they will break for refreshment rooms if the chance is given. There is a warm meal provided for the men at some convenient stopping place in the forenoon, as breakfast is eaten at 4 A.M. and the men are hungry as hunters long before Noon. During a protracted wait at a large junction, the men are out of their carriages and "making tracks" for the refreshment rooms before they can be checked. Down rushes the Conducting Officer, helper-skelter after them. The refreshment room is full of soldiers clamouring for beer, but he shoulders his way through them up to the Bar. He does not stop to chose his words, but he pours out with emphasis and generosity a string of sentences which would scorch then paper if anybody attempted to write them down. Quickly the Bar is cleared: full and partially emptied glasses remain on the counter, and in "the wagging of a lamb's tail, the draft is formed up on the platform, numbered and checked off correctly, and back in the carriages with then doors closed. Again, the train stops at a siding in a cutting and before one can say "knife", the track is covered with the draft - careless of approaching trains - picking up apples which some well-meaning but ill-judging women have rolled down the cutting to the men. Out climbs the Conducting Officer, searching his vocabulary for and yelling out words suitable to the occasion. The men laugh and at once climb back to their seats carrying the apples, waving goodbye to the women and as delighted as boys with the adventure. These are the little wayside happenings which keep the Conducting Officer awake.
At 3.30 P.M. the train steams into a huge shed alongside a wharf where the transport is lying. Here the men are detrained and formed up on the place allotted to the draft, where they must wait until 5.30P.M., the time for embarkation...Equipment and packs are taken off and the men stroll about until the rations are ready to be issued for a meal before they go on board.
After the ConductingOfficer has completed the necessary formalities with the Embarkation Officer, he details a fatigue party to go to then A.S.C. stores...to draw ahalf-day ration for the draft. Later on this is issued and each man is provided with hot tea from a stall in the shed. There are many other drafts there from other regiments and when the men are again formed up to board nine hundred soldiers march out of the shed to the transport.
The steamer which carries us across to France is small without accommodation for passengers. She looks very insignificant beside a giant...hospital ship. Five hundred men would be a full and uncomfortable list for her capacity: nine hundred means careful packing with no space in which to move about...Lights are out as she gets away from land, the men are all below. An armed guard is posted and all is still. The Conducting Officer, in search of a place to sleep...cannot find a resting place...he has to pick his way through the closely packed bodies of the men lying in 'tween decks, lighted by the rays of a couple of lamps struggling dimly in an atmosphere thick with vapour that offends the nose and is stiffing to the lung beyond description. Failing to get through the press of bodies to a lower part of then ship where food may be obtained, he sits on the step leading to the hurricane deck and nods and blinks the while he stiffens with the cold. By this time the conditions below are such that the men cannot endure them any longer and the stinking 'tween decks spews out (and) carries with it the sentries in spite of their efforts to hold their posts. Again the Conducting Officer makes essay to get below, and succeeds, though the passage is not inviting. Only a table is available as a bed upon which he stretches himself, his head pillowed on a cork lifebelt and his British Warm buttoned up to his chin. Some sleep is won, 'till the engines slow down, and then on deck to see the lights go the French port, and to admire the skill of the pilot...He will take her from the river's mouth up the stream to her destination. Here the destroyer, which had convoyed the transport leaves us - a shadowy shape fading away in the still dark hour of midnight.
As the first grey of dawn shows in the East the transport runs into a thick fog which fills the river and forces a delay of a couple of hours opposite a picturesque village. It is worth the annoyance of delay and the discomfort of the cold to see the disclosing of the picture as the fog drifts away and the sun rises. A calm, broad, winding stream flows by the foot of a range of hills, with flat, cultivated wooded country on the right bank. Villages, churches and handsome private residences are passed...gardens and orchards...from time to time the inhabitants wave flags and shower good wishes on us. The changing view...makes a gallery of Turner pictures of unmeasured value - scenes which are not designed as the background to a war.
At an early hour a full day's ration is issued to each man. Hot tea is then made and they have a good breakfast. Tubs full of water are placed on the deck and filled with water to enable the men to wash themselves and smarten up. Ensues a busy scene : men crowding around the tubs with soap and towel lathering up and scrubbing hard. Some shave in front of little mirrors set up on a skylight or on the bulwarks: others, the more boyish, content themselves with a wash.Here a Highlander sings as he brushes his kilt and gaiters: There (one) polishes his buttons and rubs some paste on his boots the while he whistles a well-known music hall air. Belts and packs are adjusted and all is bustle and preparation for landing.
A camp of interned German prisoners on the bank draws jeers and sarcastic remarks from many: anon, the more gallant call out words of endearment to girls who throw kisses as the vessel glides slowly by. And so time slips into eternity. Soon the transport is fast to the wharf and nine hundred English soldiers disembark on the Quay of an historic French town. After the many formalities with the Officer in charge of disembarkation are completed, column of route id quickly formed and we move off to base camp. Our route lies across a fine bridge and through the city's streets, narrow and paved with stone setts, along tree shaded avenues, and finally past the racecourse to a huge camp covering several square miles.
The Conducting Officer halts his draft on the ground pointed out, and hands over to the camp Sergeant-Major the nominal roll of his men, having previously made sure his numbers are correct. Having shaken hands with his N.C.O'S and bade adieu to the men, the Conducting Officer proceeds to the Orderly Room, where he hands over to the Adjutant the conduct sheets of the draft and obtains for himself a permit to leave the camp.
This concludes then work of then Conducting Officer, who e're long is found sitting at a small table in a cafe enjoying the liquor of his choice, admiring the girls who pass by on feet bien-chaussé and criticising the French soldiers in the new light blue uniform. He is feeling well content and refreshed by the warm bath and the dejeuner provided by his Hotel.
By the way, the west rose window of the Cathedral is a superb blaze of colour what tune the Westering sun calls into vivid life, the flooring enflammé of then painted glass.
Edie's younger brother, John, joined up very reluctantly in 1918. He and his wife, Alma, lived in Western Australia, where he had moved to run his late father's business. Despite the distance, he managed a visit to Edie in Sydney in early 1918, before he shipped off to France. He had only been there a short time when Edie received news of his death, at 11.30 p.m. on June 25th when a bomb hit a wagon from which he was collecting rations. The following notice appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.
Macknight- killed in action on June 25, 1918 sapper John Macknight,
Western Australian Pioneers, third son of the late Alexander
Macknight of Neutral Bay, and beloved brother of Mrs Everard Digby,
Neutral Bay. Dulce et decorum est pour patria Mori.
In October, 1918, Everard, now sixty-four years and seven months old, finally began his journey home. During the previous couple of years he had changed his mind many times on whether to give up and return to Australia or stick it out and keep trying to get a job that gave him more dissatisfaction and less frustration. It seemed to Edie that he changed his mind every letter, so she finally gave up expecting anything, knowing that the decision for one week would probably be totally different by the next. The following is his account of the first part of his trip back to Australia. Written as a conversation with Edie, it is an account of his days as he travelled, first by train then ship, nearer and nearer to her and home after three and a half years absence.
It has been a very tedious journey, Mum, from London to Taranto, where I am at the present writing. The troop train arrived at the Camp here at 4.15 P.M. on Thursday 3 10/18, slept in huts that night and embarked next morning (4 10/18) at 6.30 a.m. on H.M.T. Ormonde (the new Orient liner). I have a single berth cabin all to myself. The feeding is good. We are lying here waiting for the assembling of the convoy sailing to Egypt, and expect to get away tomorrow evening (Sunday). There are about 250 officers aboard and other troops, including 750 Australians returning on 6 months leave. The Australian officers, as usual, kept to themselves, and do not speak to the British: and the British don't want to speak to them. There is an air of "we wonderful Australians" about the Commonwealth troops, which I fancy expresses itself in big talk when they get home.
I left London on 24 9/18 and crossed from Southampton to Cherbourg that night. A padre and myself shared a good cabin, where I slept well. There was no system in the handling of baggage, a condition of things that has marked every stage of the journey. It has been subjected to very rough treatment, so I am wondering how I will find my belongings when - if ever - I get them to Sydney. Tuesday night was spent at the Hotel de la France at Cherbourg (prices very high) which did not prove interesting.
Leaving Cherbourg at 1.15P.M. on Wednesday, I had two flying men in the compartment of a railway carriage. We had purchased food for the journey to supplement the rations issued. The latter consisted of bully beef, cheese, biscuit, bread jam, and we had two batmen (Driver Walter Stell and Gunner Tom Pithers to look after us - which duty they performed well. It is very tedious so travelling, and our meals were always cold - except when we got hot tea twice a day. The three of us got on very well but it was as if we were prisoners. Living, eating, washing, sleeping in the one constricted space. And this lasted until we arrived in Taranto on 3.10.18 - eight days in the train save one night camp at St Germaine des Mnt d'Or near Lyon, and twelve hours at Faenza in Italy. At St Germaine I added...three dozen chocolate bars (Kohlers Small) costing 5 fcs and 1/2 kilo...of butter at 8 fcs! 6/8 for about a pound of butter! Our stay at Faenza was on 1.10/18 at Rest Camp where I had a hot bath in the town, in a marble bath, clean towels...costing 2 1/2 lira (1 lira = 10pence), a good breakfast 1 1/2 lira and a good dinner 2 1/2 lira.
28 9/18 1.10/18
The country through the French Midi was interesting, and so was the mountain and water scenery in Northern Italy, but from Bologna down to Taranto, the flat, empty, poor country became abhorrent. Villages, corn, villages, cultivation giving variety in composition and colour marked the Northern parts, but the intermediate olive country, low scrub, infrequent houses and flat expanses made the southern part hateful.
...I suffered diarrhoea which lasted to Taranto so that at present I am taking medicine on board this ship. Three days of this complaint, two of them in the train - have made me feel rotten. However, I am feeling better for the rest.
...I (was) in the carriage with two others, one of who was Lt. Col. Hunter A.S.C. a young man of about 25 years. I had placed my kit in the corner of the compartment before he arrived and went out to stroll about. When I returned later I found my kit had been shifted, and the gallant Lt. Col. occupying my place. I objected and he said he was going to occupy it, and that he had moved my kit. I told him I was not used to that, and that he should have asked my permission. He said something and I told him that if he were a gentleman he would first have spoken to me. He again muttered something, and I told him the occasion was not one for him to stand on his rank; I did not care about his rank and that I would have the corner. He quickly backed down and began putting my kit back. Having beaten him I then told him not to worry, as I did not intend to stay in the same carriage for a week with a man like him, and I took my things to the other carriage - to which (Cap't ) Andreni had invited me...Hunter pressed me to stay and actually held to my kit, but I refused. He has been inclined to be civil to me since, but I have no use for him.
The Italians don't care for the British - to judge by their demeanour. A straw is useful to show how the wind blows. At Voghera, Andreni told an Italian boy to move away from our compartment (stealing is not uncommon) and was answered, "You give no orders in Italy - you are not in England."
The weather kept very good during our journey, but not yet have I seen the blue of the Italian sky which is said to rival the sky of Australia...
There was two hours boat drill this forenoon - in view of danger from the Boche - very tedious it was and very badly arranged. The Army is not distinguished for brain, nor is system evident. Still, lying in Taranto harbour, life on board dull, but I am glad of the rest for it gives me a chance to recover from the bout of diarrhea...
The steward at my table is a North Shore lad named Barry Wolff...he is very attentive to me. There is a French Captain at my table - he knows not one word of English, so it has fallen to my lot to look after him. Another man speaks a little French, so between us we do the speakable to our ally. This reminds me that our allies don't care much for the English - I feel sure when the war is over England will not have a real friend among the nations. She will be reduced to a second-class power, her financial supremacy weakened, and the might of her fleet reduced. President Wilson's declaration in favor of the freedom of the seas cuts deeply into the strength of England. If America succeeds in bringing the financial centre of the world to New York, England will never regain it. Speaking of America, it is interesting to learn that General Castelnau (French) has been and is with General Pershing, so that while the latter gets the credit for American victories, it is really Castelnau who leads the U.S.A. Armies! Wheels within wheels.
8.20 P.M. I have just finished dinner which I fear will be my last good meal for some days, as we sail tonight! Sea-sickness is horrible! Goodnight my girlie, I am getting nearer to you.
The stupid English, impolite and selfish. The French Staff Officer complained to me that he had been overlooked when the officers were detailed to their boats - so he did not know what to do about it. Fancy the O.C. and the Adjutant (an Englishman and an Australian) neglecting a French Staff Officer! Can you see a solitary English Officer on a French troop-ship, being wholly neglected. Here on the H.M.T. "Ormonde" a lonely French Officer, ignorant wholly of English, is left unnoticed by the Staff in charge of the Troops. 1. None of them speak to him. 2. He is not provided with a place at the table. 3. He is forgotten in the posting of the boats. Out of 250 Officers on board, three only have spoken to him, two of them (myself and another man) sit at his table. I got him his table place, and I spoke to the Adjutant this morning about his place in a boat. I believe he is now provided for. Walking on deck with him today...this is the way to make friends with the French!
There is a crowed of Padres aboard- in variety fit to stock a menagerie. One of them, a Church Army man sits in front of me. An awful creature outwardly - no doubt he shines inwardly with the light of grace! I chance we will be sailing hence today, so getting nearer to you.
8.30 P.M. I have just now learned we may not leave Taranto before Thursday next; another three days here on the ship. It is rumoured that Italy has made a separate proposal for peace with Austria and that other complications have arisen preventing our departure. With Bulgaria out of it, with the Turkish towel "thrown in" and now with this arrangement between Italy and Austria, anything can happen. The Boche is retiring fast from France, so that it looks as if the end is very near. I hope so, but I fear the Empire will be badly "left". America, in one move, will become the Great World Power, with Japan a strong second. I wonder when I shall reach Australia! NaPooh!
We are still lying in Taranto Bay - eating, sleeping, talking, reading and generally bored. 10 P.M. A concert just over - of the "quality" usual of a mixed crowd. The rumours of yesterday contradicted today. Goodnight my sweetheart.
Up order at 7.45 A.M. and we are under weigh for Egypt. The morning lovely, warm and bright, the sky blue, and everyone glad. Japanese gunboats form the escort to our convoy which consists of the "Ormonde" and another transport the "Kaiser-i-Hind", a P&O boat. We have had no news of the outside world for a few days, so that all kinds of rumours get about as to what the belligerents are doing. Everyone hopes the Turks will be settled with by the time we get to Egypt- so that they may be able to return to England without delay. Nobody wants any more war, all are "fed up" with it.
4 P.M. The wind is rising a bit, suggesting increased motion in this packet - and consequently sea-sickness. I have only just got over my attack of diarrhoea and I don't feel too well. However, I am getting closer to you...
Weather fine, warm - sea smooth. Gun practice for the two ships of the convoy. The target was a smoke-box dropped overboard...range about 2000 yards. Shooting good!
An empty ship's boat passed about 4 P.M...
An Australian soldier asked me for something to read. The only thing available was "Little Novels of Italy" by Maurice Howlett. I wonder what he thinks of it!
I am growing more and more eager to be with you, Mum. I think I am craving for rest, which I can find only with you. I just want to put my head on your breast, and lie still, listening to all the pretty babble that falls from your lips, and soothed by the kisses you will use as punctuation. I am a weary traveller longing for a rest.
Two more empty boats were passed last evening and, during the night, an S.O.S. call was received - which pointed to Fritz being about, at his usual work. Today dragged heavily : perhaps because it was the last day of the journey or because we are getting tired of one another. Our arrival at our port is timed for 4 P.M. tomorrow. I got the Chief Steward to provide an omelette for the French Officer at lunch today. It came as a surprise to him - he was very grateful for my forethought. It is quite characteristic of the English to neglect the French, especially when the latter can't speak English. There cannot be friendly relations between Nations if civility is not shown to individuals, particularly by soldiers to soldiers. The French Officer will to like the English any more through bhis experiences of this voyage. I am feeding very well...If I get a good passage to Australia I shall be in splendid condition when I arrive in Sydney - notwithstanding my age. For, you must remember Mum, I am over 60 - and that my contemporaries are old men - most of them. If only I possessed a sound heart, my Popsey, I would be a young man in many aspects. I don't show any sign of decrepitude, physically or mentally, and I think my will power is as strong as that of a young man. You and I will be quite a young couple again - for you, my Ninon de l'enclos, can never grow old.
9 P.M. The S.S. "Rose" with troops for Salonika, that left Taranto one day ahead of us, was torpedoed yesterday - it may have been her boats we passed...
Everard's diary account of his journey stops here, but we know he continued to Egypt and from there through the Suez Canal on the transport ship, S.S. "Port Darwin".
From Edith's letters we know of the difficulty she and Everard had adjusting to their life together, under one roof after all those years since 1914 living apart. For months Everard refused to go out, often staying in bed during the day. Long periods of silence were interrupted by his harangues about the army and its incompetence, about the church and its hypocrisy. He found it very hard to settle, claiming that once the boys came home her would be off. All this was not helped by the restrictions on society as a result of the influenza pandemic that swept the world and found its way to Sydney. To have to wear a mask in many public places, such as on ferries, did nothing to encourage Everard to seek out friends. But slowly and surely he found his place again, mask wearing was relaxed then discarded, and he and Edith visited their many friends.
Evidence of Everard's return to public life was seen on August 8th, 1919, when an article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, announcing the formation of a new organisation to support returned soldiers with Everard Digby as its inaugural President. The Association for Imperial Service Men aimed to "secure comradeship among men who have served in the Imperial Army and render material assistance."
Tragically, Everard only lived for three more years, never again succumbing to his wandering gene. He had kept his name on the roll of solicitors until the war, but appears to have abandoned practice from that time, which may well have been due to progressively poorer health. His "bad" heart finally gave out and he died on 18 August, 1922, aged sixty-eight at St Ives Private hospital, North Sydney. His last note to Gerry, asking his son to take care of Edith, shows a frail and tremulous hand.
With the arrival home of Gerry and John later in 1919, their family was complete again. Following his discharge from the army Gerry Digby returned life on the land at Collarenebri but the intense heat brought on recurring bouts of malaria contracted in the Jordan Valley, forcing him to relocate to a cooler climate. Consequently in 1922 he took up a soldier settlement block on the New England Tablelands in northern New South Wales at Bullock Mountain which he called “Hazelgrove”, now “Boolabinda”. He met Frances Lydia McKee when resting cattle at her parent’s property “Marmadua”, west of Dalby in Queensland and they married in Toowoomba on October 9th, 1922, two months after Everard's death.
Gerry and Francie had four children. They worked hard, saved, bought other farming property and along the way became deeply involved in community life. Gerry served as mayor of Glen Innes for seven years. He rejoined the 12th Light Horse in 1927, going back to full time service in 1941 until his discharge in 1943 as medically unfit, by which time he had reached the rank of Major. His best known legacy is his initiation of the scheme to identify the graves of all ex-servicemen with the Rising Sun or Service Emblem and the provision of a standard headstone, which went on to be used Australia wide.
Dr. John Digby married Phyllis Stephens in 1920, a year after his return to Australia and took up medical practice in Tenterfield, NSW in 1923 where he stayed until returning to full time army service in 1941. He and Phyllis had a son and a daughter, but their marriage did not last and Phyllis moved to Sydney with the children. John remarried in 1951.
Edith stayed living at Suramma until 1931 when she moved to Glen Innes to be near Gerry and his family. There she built a lovely house, Rosecroft, where she lived for the next ten years.