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‘In my spare time … I always think of you and home and at least have five minutes gaze on your photo I have it on my testament, you know the one I mean … first one you ever gave.’
Charlie Pike was 19 years old when he enlisted in the 17th Battalion in March 1915. He left his Leichhardt home, his work as a cabinetmaker and his pretty sweetheart, Violet Clapson, and sailed for Egypt, then on to Gallipoli. By mid-1916 he had been deployed to Northern France, serving in the trenches of the Western Front.
Throughout his service, Charlie (Idris Charles) Pike wrote some 160 letters to Violet, which have been recently donated to the Library by Charlie’s grandson. Violet kept everything Charlie sent her, including postcards, photographs, pamphlets and a silk embroidered souvenir from Egypt with a personalised message worked into the fabric.
Despite his letters passing through the military censor, (many have been stamped ‘passed field censor’), Charlie wrote detailed descriptions of life at Gallipoli and his interactions with Turkish forces:
‘We had some fun in the trenches this morning, as you know only a few yards separates us from the Turks, so we threw some tinned beef and jam over to them, they soon raked them in to their trenches, and in return they threw tobacco and cigarette papers. A couple of the parcels had notes in them written in French, one ran something to this effect: Our Friends the Enemy. We received your preserved meat and send in return tobacco — would be pleased if you could send souvenir, and we will do the same, could you spare a good knife we would be pleased. Your soldier Friends Turks. We threw them a knife and got some more tobacco and papers. … By the way they write you can see they have a great respect for us.’
The reality of warfare quickly took its toll on Charlie. Writing to Violet while still at Gallipoli, he admits himself quite changed by the war:
‘You would find a great difference in me now I am not the same and easy Charlie you used to know. I look on the serious side of life more so and have learned more in the time I have been away than I would have done in fifty years otherwise.’
Despite these sombre observations, Charlie’s photographs from this time show him to have a bit of swagger about him. An image of him in a heavy greatcoat with its collar turned up, holding a cigarette and wearing a monocle suggest a confident, laconic personality. Another, posing between two friends, hands in pockets, is an iconic pose of the Anzac. When he had the opportunity to have his portrait taken, he visited a French studio in Vignacourt, and along with hundreds of other Australians, posed for posterity.
Charlie Pike survived the Western Front and returned home to Violet in 1919. A year later, they were married. His collection of letters and memorabilia have been kept in the Pike/Murphy family for over a century until his grandchildren decided to donate it to the Library.
Senior Curator, Research & Discovery