Most of the 330, 000 soldiers who went abroad preferred to write letters or postcards if they wrote at all. But thousands kept a diary, not of the introspective or confessional kind, but rather a spectator diary, a record of travel and war, of tourism and duty done, something to be sent home, or to carry home; to be read by family and friends or, perhaps, to be consulted later, to confirm a memory or fuel a reminiscence.
Australians are privileged to have a wonderful collection of these diaries at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney. The collecting began before the war ended. As events at Gallipoli seized the nation’s imagination, the Principal Librarian, William Ifould, was formulating an acquisition policy in haste. Ifould was determined to collect first-hand accounts of battle written by the front-line men. With the approval of his Trustees, he placed advertisements in newspapers around Australia and in Britain, offering to buy diaries and letters in original form. The Library’s Letter Books for 1918–22 reveal that some diaries subsequently offered to Ifould were rejected on grounds of being insubstantial or in some way rewritten or overwritten later. Authenticity was at a premium.
By 1919 the collection was already a valuable one. By the mid 1920's the total number of war diaries in the Library had reached 236, complemented by collections of letters and in some cases photo albums, artworks and maps. Today the collection stands at around 550 diarists and over 1, 100 volumes.
These diaries take many forms. Some were written on odd sheets of paper or in memo books or signal message books. Others were cloth or leather bound. Occasionally the narrative begins in a hefty gilt-edged volume but inevitably continues in any kind of notebook that comes to hand. Most diaries were pocket-sized and fit for purpose.
The variety of bindings complements the range of writing styles. Some are terse and random: ‘Getting warmer. Glassy sea with strong under currents. Dance for nurses and officers. Commenced growing a moustache.’ Some are prolix and strain for literary effect: ‘The sun as it arose threw a golden glory over the distant horizon and finally appeared in a great white disc in all its glittering heat.’ Some don’t strain at all and achieve a lyricism that seems effortless.