“Steel Your Heart” – Anzac Letters

Next week on 25 April, Anzac Day commemorative services will once again be held all over Australia, New Zealand and in many other parts of the world. We will be acknowledging the service and sacrifice of the men and women who joined the armed forces in all the wars and conflicts we have been involved in.

Families left behind always fear for their loved ones and are grateful for any letters they received from them. In the 1914-1918 war, many of these letters were published in the newspapers for everyone to read.

The letters of two correspondents, George Cowell and Bert Meager, are particularly poignant. George’s letters tell of the fun and adventure but the reality of the war does start to hit home. Bert wrote of the glory he saw in the simple heroism of the men and how he hoped to prove himself. Only one of these men returned home.

Private George William Cowell, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Brigade
(The Daily Advertiser, 28 November 1914).

George was a 24 year old railway shunter who had enlisted on 17 August 1914, about a fortnight after the declaration of war.

“I am aboard the SS Suffolk at Albany, lying at anchor waiting the arrival of the remaining troopships and escorts to form our fleet. At present looking round the harbour I can count 24 boats, all conveying boys of the Bull-dog breed and there are about 15 or 16 boats still to come…

“We were at the wharf yesterday (Sunday) getting water aboard and we had all the town down in the afternoon to see us. Positively no one was allowed off the boat and all the boys went half silly with fun. The band was playing on board and there was much ragging and singing. The girls threw us bouquets, handkerchiefs, gloves, photos, their names and addresses written on paper, fruit and lollies. Altogether it was the best time we have had for a long while…

“So far it is all like a holiday, quite different to what we had for a few weeks in Sydney. It was hard, very hard, training from morning till night, week in and week out. I tell you it was no joke marching nine or ten miles without a stop with our full kit up  (about 70lbs) before lunch. Then after lunch out skirmishing for two or three hours – that is the hardest work of the lot.

“Tas Douglas is just across the harbor in the Afric. I haven’t seen him since we left Kensington. I know he likes the game, and so does Jones. Speaking for myself, I wouldn’t be out of it for the world. I enclose address. A letter sometimes will come as a pleasant surprise to a ‘bloke’ on the other side of the globe. Kind regards to Wagga friends from all the boys. I hope we get a chance of popping a few Germans off.”

Writing from Gallipoli a few months later, Private Cowell described his early experiences on the peninsula (The Daily Advertiser, 25 June 1915).

“No amount of description could make you understand what this war is like – you must be actively in it to realise. I have had some miraculous escapes, a whole series of them, and I sincerely hope they will not be “continued in our next.”

“We had a terrible experience for the first three days, but the boys were tip-top, and after a terrible struggle, won the position. We get a liberal shrapnel bath every day, but it doesn’t do much damage. The bark is worse than the bite. The Turk is treated with a certain amount of pity, but pity help the Germans if we get at them and there are a number scattered amongst the Turks.

“Explosive bullets are the devil. You should see some of the sights we have witnessed. I have seen things I cannot mention, even to my most intimate pals. The loss of our Colonel (McLaurin) was a great blow to us all. Of my twelve good mates only two now remain.”

George received a bomb wound to his left thigh in August that year while still at Gallipoli and was medically discharged in July 1916.

He applied to re-enlist just four months later and became a Sapper with the 1st Wireless Signal Squadron. He arrived home safely and was discharged in October 1919.

Second Lieutenant Hubert Richard William Meager
(The Daily Advertiser, 25 June 1915).

Bert was 31 years old when he enlisted in the 3rd Battalion on 20 August 1914. He had previously been a wholesale and retail fruiterer in Fitzmaurice Street, where he also lived with his wife, Maude, and baby, Winifred.

AWM C01780 Lt HRW Meager, Jul 1915
Lt Meager in July 1915, in the trenches at Gallipoli, holding a periscopic rifle [image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial, C01780].

“I have the opportunity of writing to you [his wife] at last from the trenches, to the accompaniment of shrapnel and snipers. I do not know how much I shall be allowed to tell you about what we have done, so I shall be very non-committal, in order to escape the censor.

“Let it suffice that the Australians have covered themselves with glory, paying of course the toll of glory in the currency of blood. I could, and will some day tell you many a tale of simple heroism, of agony borne with a smile or passed over with a merry grin.

“Shrapnel was strange to us all, and we were nervous of it at first. Now we combat it in the most simple way – by means of a spade – and we sit and smoke whilst it bursts and scatters all around us, as if nothing mattered, excepting the quality of the tobacco…

“I have been promoted to Second-Lieutenant, and have charge of a platoon of “D” Company…  We get plenty of sniping. The boys with me are splendid fellows; they take to it like shooting rabbits, and are absolutely fearless. The plains and gullies on our right and flank testify to their marksmanship.

“Night is the anxious time. One little incident which may pass the censor deserves to be known in Australia. Our brigade was very hard pressed, and one battalion had retired. Colonel Owen was ordered to retire, and his reply was: “The 3rd Battalion never retires,” and neither they did. “We hung on,” the other battalion made up their lost ground, and now our old father should be known as “Never retire Owen”.

Bert was killed in action on 6 August 1915 – Lone Pine.

He sent a letter to his mother which she received in very close succession with notice of his death.  The heartbreaking letter included the following sentences (The Advocate, 6 November 1915):

“During the next few days we shall be facing death every minute. If I am taken, do as the Roman matrons of old – keep your tears for privacy; steel your heart, and try to get a dozen recruits to fill my place.

“Pray hard for me, and if God wills it I shall see it through. I have seen the priest, and will go into action with a clean heart, and if I emerge I hope I shall have proved myself as a man and as a leader, and thereby have justified the confidence of my commanders.”

There is no known burial plot for Bert and so the name of Hubert Richard William Meager is inscribed on the Lone Pine Memorial.


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