Forget Me Not: Western Australians and WWI

BA718/4 From Basil (Herbert Basil) Abraham to his sister Olive from France 1915.

BA718/4 From Basil (Herbert Basil) Abraham to his sister Olive from France 1915.

This month, many thousands of Western Australians took part in dawn services and parades to mark not just Anzac Day, but the centenary of  Anzac and the Gallipoli landing.   “Mum do we have any Anzacs in our family?” my eight year old daughter asked expectantly in the lead up to Anzac Day.  “Sorry, no Anzacs” I answered.  The fact that her Canadian grandfather flew bombers in WWII, and her Italian grandfather fought Austrians in the Dolomites in WWI was of no consolation.  “How come all the other kids at school have a Gallipoli hero in their families.”

I think I may have asked my own mother the same question decades ago when I was a kid. I don’t remember Anzac Day being as big a deal when I was young, but I do understand my daughter’s disappointment at feeling somehow left out of this important and sacred occasion as others proudly parade their family stories, photos and medals.  Decades on, and many millions of non-British migrants later, I wonder how many  other Australians with no family link to Anzac wonder about their place in a nation that holds the Anzac legend so dear.

Historians, journalists, film makers and writers have long argued over what ANZAC means and has meant to Australians.  Debates rage hotter than ever between those who see WWI as the crucible of nationhood fought for a high and noble purpose, and those who argue our nation was forged in peacetime, not on the battlefield of a dreadful, futile war.   History is never cut and dried, and understanding that there are different perspectives on our involvement in WWI doesn’t denigrate Anzac or diminish respect for those who have served Australia.    Now, with the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli behind us, and with three more years of the Centenary of WWI ahead, it’s a good time for a deeper contemplation of what Gallipoli means to Australians. We owe it to our servicemen and women to reflect on why and how they fought, and to understand the impact of their service on civilian life in Western Australia during and after the Great War.

If you want to read what others have written about Australia’s involvement in the Great War, a good place to start is our WWI subject guide to materials held in the State Library of Western Australia.

A quick overview of what some call the Anzac ‘history wars’ is also available online:

Anzac Day to VP: arguments and interpretations, Joan Beaumont.

Political Rhetoric Makes a Parody of Remembrance, Bruce Scates.

The Past is Not Sacred, Peter Cochrane.

Assault on Anzac, Mervyn Bendle

Letting go of Anzac  Henry Reynolds and Marilyn Lake.

If you’re looking for a more personal and immediate perspective on the Great War, the State Library holds a wealth of soldier letters, diaries, postcards and photographs.  Whatever your opinion on the justness or futility of the war, you can’t help but be moved by the first-hand accounts of bravery and fear, drudgery and humour, longing and loss.

These letters, diaries and photographs are so vital to understanding the human perspective of war.  For those of us with no personal connection to the Anzacs, we are grateful to those people who have generously shared their family’s WWI stories with the wider Western Australian public by depositing their treasured diaries, letters or photographs with the State Library of Western Australia.

Among the more recent WWI treasures to come into the State Library’s collections is the diary of Beresford Everett Bardwell.  Born in Melbourne about 1890, Bardwell moved to Western Australia with his family and grew up in Geraldton working as a Solicitor’s Clerk before enlisting.  He started out as a private in the 11th Battalion, and was among the 704 soldiers pictured in the well known photograph of the Battalion taken at the Great Pyramid of Giza at Cheops in January 1915.  He took part in the Gallipoli landings and fought in the trenches until August 1915 when a shrapnel wound to the thigh saw him evacuated and sent back to Egypt.  After convalescing, he was promoted to Captain and returned to active service in 1916 as part of the 51st Battalion in France, where he fought until the end of the War in 1919.

SLWA BA 780/37 Captain Bardwell seated on ground , 1917

SLWA BA 780/37 Captain Bardwell seated on ground , 1917

After the War, Bardwell returned to Western Australia and worked with his brother, Bernard, in the pearling industry and went on to become the Broome Harbour Master.  He married in 1921 and had two children and six grandchildren before he died in 1961, aged 71.

His diary was loaned to the State Library for copying by grandson John Bardwell. Spurred by the WA Genealogical Society’s wonderful project to identify the soldiers in the famous photograph of the 11th Battalion at Giza, John came forward to identify his grandfather.  He thought we might also be interested in a copy of his grandfather’s war diary.  The generosity of individuals and families like the Bardwell’s means that future generations of Western Australians can share this first-hand account of Gallipoli.

Bardwell’s diary doesn’t cover his entire war service, just the period from 11 April to 16 September 1915 after his wounding at Gallipoli and recuperation in an army hospital in Egypt.  Before you even begin reading the 66 pages of diary entries, the script itself gives clues as to how war can change men. At the start, the diary entries are legible and dated neatly.  After months of fighting in the hills and trenches of Gallipoli, the calligraphy is scratchier, reflecting the hardship and chaos around him.   The script also mirrors the tone of the diary, which begins in a relatively light hearted fashion prior to the landings, and then quickly darkens.


You can read the whole diary in Bardwell’s original script via our State Library Catalogue here.

We will also be a adding an easier to read copy transcribed by volunteers from the WA Genealogical Society.   Here are just a few snippets from the diary transcript…

Sunday 11 April 1915….Great amusement was caused today when one of the boats came back from the shore with some of our men aboard among whom were two who had got hold of some Koniak and got rather drunk.  While coming alongside one of them first threw his hat overboard and then picked up his rifle and before anyone could stop him threw it after the hat, of course it was lost.  Of course they could not come up the rope ladders, so when the Colonel heard about it he ordered them to be securely bound and hauled up by the winch. As horses were being loaded at the time a horse sling was made use of. The first man, the worst of the two, was swung up into the air where he looked quite happy and caused a lot of amusement among the onlookers, then was lowered onto the deck and taken charge of to await his trial.

17 April 1915…The harbour is now very full and we hear there are any amount of others outside. It is also said that we are going to be here a week or so yet. One has to develop a great deal of patience these days on account of our long waits. Some of the fellows wonder why we don’t rush right into things. They don’t seem to realize that we have been waiting for a concentration of very large forces here and that the heads have to await favourable times to begin operations…Once they are into it I reckon there will be a very large percentage who would rather be back on board ship again.

20th April 1915…Went ashore today and took part in a rather severe but short route march over the hills down onto the beach on the other side where we had lunch. Everywhere one can now notice the arrival of spring.  One crop we passed over was simply beautiful, although only a foot high it was a beautiful shade of green and all through it bright red poppies thrust their heads above the carpet of green.

25th April 1915….We got close to shore near daybreak + soon after heard Turks open fire on first half of Brigade as they were landing + then we heard our men cheering as they charged up hill + took a trench. We landed immediately after in life boats amid a perfect hail of lead, a great many of our men being hit in boats  + on shore. As soon as we got ashore we flung off our packs and lay down on the beach. There seemed to be a hopeless mixture of Coys and Battalion’s boats from different ships landing at same place. Several boats landed further round to the left upon which machine guns played cutting up the men dreadfully. In the meantime the  ½ B’gde had driven the enemy immediately in front well back over the hills, and what hills! rising very steeply up from the shore to a height of some 300 feet.

28th April…Got word 3rd B’gde reorganising on beach, boiled my first dixy of tea, alongside a dead fellow this morning, since Saturday night. Then went onto beach where I joined what were there of Batn.

2 May… Heard on Friday there were 176 killed 900 odd wounded + 700 odd missing of whom many will yet turn up + remainder may be put down as dead or prisoners…

9 May…Went out in front of trenches one day while some of our men buried dead Turks, they were not pleasant sights, especially one Australian who was wholly unrecognizable  and was an awful sight.  Puckle had previously taken a piece of poetry from his pocket written most likely by his sweetheart, but as his identity disk had been removed he could not be recognised. The stench was awful…

 13 May…  Tuesday morning Reg Clark of Geraldton, a really fine chap who was boiling tea for trenches when a shrapnel burst , a pellet of which went through his brain from which he soon died. The same shell also hit Greenwood passing through thigh and then through foot, all three of “D” Coy, 2 former of own Platoon and my section. Later in day, we of Geraldton, his friends held his burial service which was read by Louch.

If you are interested in reading more of Bardwell’s diary, or other WWI diaries and letters, including the papers of the Geraldton soldier Thomas Louch mentioned in Bardwell’s diary entry, please visit the WWI collection highlights page on our website.

We’re seeking your support to digitise more WWI material like Bardwell’s diary through our ‘On the Homefront’ appeal.

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