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Letters to Dorrie

The Library has recently acquired a lovely collection of correspondence between First World War soldier William Daniel Brown and his family, including letters, postcards and photographs. The majority of the letters are from William to his daughter Doreen, the donor’s mother, who was 6 years old when her father left Australia.

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A selection of material William Brown sent back home to his family during the First World War.

A selection of material William Brown sent back home to his family during the First World War.

William Daniel Brown enlisted in 1916 to serve in the First World War. He served in France as a corporal, and later as sergeant, with the 26th AIF Battalion. During his Western Front service he sustained combat injuries including a leg wound and gas inhalation, and in 1917 spent time recovering in hospital in Birmingham, England. He returned to Australia in 1919.

When he departed for active service in 1916, William, aged 37, left behind his wife and four children in Burnie, Tasmania. He was already serving overseas when his fifth child, daughter Lorraine Mae Brown, was born. William’s letters home indicate he was writing from ‘somewhere in France,’ as well as from London and Birmingham. His love for his family, and his sadness at being separated from them, is apparent in his correspondence.

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‘To my dear Girlie,’ a silk embroidered postcard from William to Doreen, from ‘Somewhere in France.’

‘To my dear Girlie,’ a silk embroidered postcard from William to Doreen, from ‘Somewhere in France.’

Having not met baby Mae before his embarkation, William wrote to her,

My own Dear Darling Little Baby May

How are you my Darling baby whom I have never seen Mummie tells me you are a little rascal and will not let her write to me. My word look out for yourself when I come home, ever your loving Daddy. Xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx [sic]

William’s letters contain a number of references to Mae, the daughter he would not meet until the end of the war. He wrote home often, and his letters to his eldest daughter Doreen show his tender affection for her, whom he referred to as ‘my dear sweet Womie’ and ‘my dear little Doreen.’

Dear Little Doreen,

Just a little letter from Daddy to tell you how much he loves you dear and to send you a photo of all the boys that are going to France with Daddy. I am sitting on the side of our Lieut: [sic] that is him with the stick. Ask the boys to pick me out before you tell them where I am… I must tell you again I love you all dearly and daddy wishes he was back home with you for Christmas. I miss my letters from home very much and hope to soon get some more again.

Being so far from home made regular correspondence with his wife and children a necessity for William, providing comfort and a connection with those he missed.  For many AIF servicemen stationed overseas during the war, letters and photographs from home were vital for maintaining wellbeing and morale. A regular cycle of mail provided a semblance of normality during war and kept home and family close to heart; corresponding with home was, therefore, an important part of the soldier’s daily routine.

William’s letters to Doreen are a poignant reminder of how families dealt with the difficulty of separation during war, and attest to the importance of regular correspondence for both those serving in the field and their families at home. Having heard that Doreen was unwell, William wrote,

My own Dear Sweet Little Womie Dorts

My own dear Sweet Little Girlie

How are you keeping dear are you quite well again dear. When Daddy heard from Lennie Reading that you had been ill he nearly went mad and I have not had a letter once to know how you were dear but I asked God every night to make my dear little Girlie well again. [sic]

Anxiously awaiting news from home could take its toll on a soldier’s mental wellbeing. William’s correspondence, however, indicates that he was frequently in contact with his family, also writing to the boys in separate letters. This constant flow of mail connected William to his old life back home. While he was serving overseas, William received photographs of the family, some of which are included in this acquisition. These photographs kept William abreast of the changes taking place at home in his absence, including the moments he was missing, such as the birth of his newborn daughter, Mae.  

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William’s wife and children. Back row, left to right: George Brown, Clarence Brown; front row, left to right: Kenneth Brown, Doreen Brown, Lorraine (Mae) Brown, Adelene O’Connor Brown.

William’s wife and children. Back row, left to right: George Brown, Clarence Brown; front row, left to right: Kenneth Brown, Doreen Brown, Lorraine (Mae) Brown, Adelene O’Connor Brown.

Photographs had a unique ability to present a snapshot of life back home. Pictures of the children playing at the beach told William that the family was happy and healthy, and allowed him to watch his children grow up, albeit from a distance. 

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The Brown siblings, left to right: Doreen Brown, Kenneth Brown, Clarence Brown, George Brown.

The Brown siblings, left to right: Doreen Brown, Kenneth Brown, Clarence Brown, George Brown.

William’s desire to know of the everyday happenings of his family consumes his correspondence. Unlike many of the existing diaries and letters in the State Library’s First World War collection, where soldiers describe detailed daily life on the battlefield, William’s writing provides only brief descriptions of the war.  His foremost concern appeared to be with the wellbeing of his young family back in Australia and how they were getting on with familiar routines:

My Dear Dear Little Womie

Daddy got your beautiful letter to day and was so pleased to see by it that you were quite well and looking after Mummie for me till I come home again.  Dear little Girlie and so your chookies are laying you some nice googies for your breakfast and you also have a garden well that must be nice and I shall always dig it for you when I come home but until then you ask Clarence to dig it for you. Well darling it is only a month to Christmas now and I shall not be with you this year but next year better luck perhaps. [sic]

William’s correspondence, though largely focussed on his family, also provides some insight into the life of an AIF soldier. After suffering a leg wound and gas inhalation in 1917, William was hospitalised in Birmingham, England. From hospital he wrote to Doreen of his invalided condition:

You would laugh at your old Daddy if you could see him now dear hobbling about on a stick and dressed all in blue clothes blue trousers blue coat and then a blue overcoat with a red neck-tie over. When daddy gets some pay dear I shall send you some Postcards of Birmingham and a small birthday present for your birthday just past.

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William’s letter to Doreen from Birmingham Hospital, dated April 21, 1917.

William’s letter to Doreen from Birmingham Hospital, dated April 21, 1917.

As well as writing from hospital in Birmingham, William’s letters describe time spent in London, where he noted that the ladies were not so fine as his beloved wife, or his little girl Dorrie. His postcards to Doreen from the Tower of London, and promises of more from Birmingham, indicate that William enjoyed some popular tourism during his leave from the battlefront. His accounts of travel, though limited, tie into a broader narrative of the Australian soldier-traveller during wartime. William also sent postcards from Cape Town, South Africa, where he stopped briefly on his way to France.

Historian Peter Cochrane notes that, for many servicemen, sight-seeing and wartime tourism during leave helped remove them from the horrors of war, if only for a short time. For William, sharing these travel experiences with his family offered another opportunity to write home also.

In addition to William’s letters, postcards and photographs, the acquisition includes several other family letters. Two of these were written by William’s son Clarence in 1951. Clarence served in the Second World War and was captured by the Japanese during the fall of Singapore in 1942. He subsequently was sent to work on the Thai-Burma Railway. Despite surviving the war, Clarence suffered long term health effects caused by his experiences as a prisoner of war. Both of his letters refer to his ill health, possibly related to his war service.

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A family portrait at their home in Burnie, Tasmania. Back row, left to right: George, Clarence; front row, left to right: Kenneth, Adelene, Mae, Doreen.

A family portrait at their home in Burnie, Tasmania. Back row, left to right: George, Clarence; front row, left to right: Kenneth, Adelene, Mae, Doreen.

One of Clarence’s two letters refers to the death of his daughter Jeanine, who died aged 22. In the file accompanying the donation, the family has noted Clarence’s lament at having not seen ‘Jeanie’ during her teen years while he was a prisoner of war. This collection of family letters is particularly interesting as it spans two world wars, with two generations of men from the same family fighting in successive global conflicts.

 

Nicole Sutherland, Intern, Research and Discovery

 

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