‘But Why Should You People at Home Not Know?’: Sacrifice as a Social Fact in the Public Memory of War
Lieutenant J. A. Raws, a 33-year-old journalist from Melbourne, Australia, describes here his experience of one of the greatest conflagrations of the Great War. It was 4 August 1916 and Raws was nearing the end of his own personal involvement in the battle for Pozieres on the great Somme battlefield. Australian success in capturing this important strongpoint in the German defensive line created a narrow salient which enabled the enemy to concentrate its artillery on the assaulting forces from three directions. Shells falling short from British support batteries far behind ensured their complete encirclement. The failure of the push on both flanks also meant that most of the enemy’s available artillery could be brought to bear on that one small French village and the gentle ridge that turned its immediate surrounds into a strategic objective. The shelling at Pozieres is often described as amongst the most sustained and concentrated bombardments of the First World War. In seven weeks of fighting here three Australian divisions suffered 23,000 casualties. Thirty per cent of these were killed or died of wounds; the majority of them – Raws and his younger brother Lieut. R. G. (‘Goldy’) Raws included – received no known grave. The two men are commemorated on the Australian memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, 25 kilometres away to the south and west, in the Books of Remembrance at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, the Roll of Honour in the Australian War Memorial in the national capital Canberra, and on a small honour board in the Flinders Street Baptist Church in Adelaide, where their father was minister (Figure 1.1). I write from the battlefield of the Great Push with thousands of shells passing in a tornado overhead, and thousands of unburied dead around me. It seems easy to say that, but you who have not seen it can hardly conceive the awfulness of it all. I’ve just read a letter from you dated May 16th, and that makes me think of writing to you, absurd though it is to think of writing to you in this inferno. Your letters are such a comfort – and by Jove it’s good of you to write. One feels on such a battlefield as this, that one can never survive, or that if the body lives the brain must go forever. For the horrors one sees and the never ending shock of the shells is more than can be borne. Hell must be a home to it. … My battalion has been in it for eight days, and one-third of it is left – all shattered at that. And they’re sticking it still, incomparable heroes, all. We are lousy, stinking, ragged, unshaven, sleepless. Even when we’re back a bit we can’t sleep for our guns. I have one puttee, a dead man’s helmet, another dead man’s gas protector, a dead man’s bayonet. My tunic is rotten with other men’s blood, and partly splattered with a comrade’s brains. It is horrible but why should you people at home [not] know?
Trauma and Public Memory
Australian Literature (excl. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Literature)