Shakespeare, soldiers and the First World War

2016 marks 100 years since Australian troops arrived on the Western Front and suffered extraordinary casualties in their first battle at Fromelles. It is also the 400th anniversary of the renowned English playwright William Shakespeare’s death.


The coinciding of these two seemingly unrelated anniversaries had us thinking if there could be any connections. Before television, the internet, or smartphones; soldiers deployed to the front lines relied upon more traditional forms of communication and entertainment. To assure family and friends back home of their safety, or to keep a daily record of their experiences, many men would write letters or keep a journal. What remains of these items 100 years later paints a picture of how, even through the harshest of conditions, soldiers fought hard for their country and survival. In comparison, the works of William Shakespeare have been in publication since the 16th century. His plays and sonnets are some of the most well-known pieces of English literature around the world, recognizable for their unique language style and dramatic flair.

The State Library of New South Wales has a robust collection of first-hand accounts of the soldiers’ experiences in war. We searched their writings to see if Shakespeare had any influence on the men. The results of the research returned an intriguing array of references within the soldiers’ writings to both the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare, with no definitive pattern emerging within soldiers of a specific age, rank, or occupation.

Some of the men turned to Shakespeare to describe their experiences. Because what many soldiers encountered on the battlefields would be unfathomable to those back home, passages from well-known literature could form a mutual point of reference between the author and the reader. Sydney B. Young, a bandsman and stretcher bearer, used a line from As You Like It to describe his relief when the wind picked up and carried the noxious fumes from the mustard gas away.

‘He mixed H.E. and Mustard gas and we were coughing and vomiting with red eyes and cursing lips until the wind took charge of it. I now understand what Shakespeare meant when he said "Blow Blow thou Winter’s Wind"’ 
Item 06: Sydney B. Young war diary, 2 February-1 September 1918

A naval lieutenant, Clarence Hansby Read, quoted Twelfth Night when recounting the rainy weather experienced at night and copying Shakespeare’s unique writing style.

‘"The rain it raineth every day", wrote Shakespeare. Here it raineth every night and stoppeth during the day (usually).’ 
Item 01: Clarence Hansby Read diary, 17 August 1914-19 February 1915 - Page 106

Much older than many of his fellow soldiers, Lt. Colonel John Brady Nash employed the words of Shakespeare to contemplate current events, as well as conclude his letters. In a letter from 12 October 1915,  Nash compared Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra to the situation the Queen of Greece was supposedly facing in 1915 in deciding whether to support her brother (the German Kaiser) or her husband (the King of Greece) whose government was neutral until 1917 when they joined the Allied powers. Series 03: John Brady Nash letters, January 1914-December 1915 - Page 588

He again references Antony and Cleopatra when signing his letter from 13-10-15:

‘Please give my best wishes to M. M Dominic and her colleagues. May fortune of the best be always with you, her and them. "Farewell my dear child, fare thee well, The elements be kind to thee, and make Thy spirits all of comfort! fare thee well."’
John Brady Nash letters, January 1914-December 1915

In addition to including quotations in their writings, soldiers relied upon the life and works of Shakespeare to provide a bit of entertainment to break up the seriousness of the situation. When on leave, many men would travel to London and even Stratford-upon-Avon where they would tour Shakespearean attractions or see live productions of a play.

Lance Corporal Oliver L. S. Holt, a school teacher, had the idea to start a literary society and collect books for a library which could be used as a basis for meetings and discussions. 

Item 06: Oliver L. S. Holt diary, 5 January-8 April 1918 - Page 22

The purchases were funded by the men, and in the back of his journal, Holt kept a record of the books in their makeshift library.

Item 06: Oliver L. S. Holt diary, 5 January-8 April 1918 - Page 142

William Ambrose Cull, taken as a prisoner of war and recovering in a prison hospital wrote home:

‘In four days ’twill be two years since I was first wounded. It’s awfully difficult for one to concentrate ones mind on a thing for any appreciable length of time, here. I’m doing my best to learn French, but I’m afraid my best is not exceedingly good.
At present I’m going through a french edition of ‘Shakespeare’. I am beginning to write and read moderately well.’
William Ambrose Cull letter diary, 1915-1918

Familiarity among many of the soldiers with the works of Shakespeare would not have been uncommon, nor would it have been unusual for them to have access to a copy at the time of their writing. Shakespeare was incorporated into many schools’ English curricula, and his plays were popular choices for local school or community productions.

Furthermore, during the war, several Shakespeare societies throughout Australia posted ads in newspapers requesting donations of his works to send in care packages to the men overseas:
SHAKESPEARE FOR SOLDIERS. (1917, May 11). Daily Post (Hobart, Tas. : 1908 - 1918), p. 4.  
THE WHISPERING GALLERY. (1917, May 17). Punch (Melbourne, Vic. : 1900 - 1918; 1925), p. 7.

As one Melbourne newspaper article from 1916 points out, Shakespeare’s writings promoted patriotism and a sense of duty, both of which are characteristics the ideal soldier would have:
Theartres and Movies (1916, September 20). Winner (Melbourne, Vic. : 1914 - 1917), p. 12.

Life on the Western Front battlefields ranged from dull to dangerous, boring to busy. The collection of soldiers’ letters and diaries for WWI at the State Library of New South Wales shows that the Australian troops sometimes recalled or re-read Shakespeare to help them describe, survive, and make sense of their wartime experiences. Although there have been many changes since the authoring of these journals, the soldiers’ use of references is timeless and a valuable tool for our attempts to understand the past.

Article written by Megan Kovel
Intern, Research & Discovery Branch

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