Letters from the front tell an ANZAC’s story

Retired Flinders biochemist Dr Daphne Elliott has published a book of letters describing her father’s experiences in the First World War

Like many children of war veterans, Daphne Elliott knew little of her father’s experiences in the First World War until the discovery eight years ago of a cache of 120 letters written by ANZAC soldier Arthur Davison to his parents in Sydney.

In retirement, Dr Elliott, a former biochemist at Flinders University, has turned historian, cross-referencing her father’s correspondence with official accounts of the 17th Battalion’s actions and other military history sources to produce a fascinating account of his experiences at Gallipoli and on the Western front.

Her book, Arthur James Russell Davison: From Private to Captain in the 17th Battalion 1915-1919, has been published with support from the Association of 17th Infantry Battalions, Flinders University’s School of International Studies and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

Dr Elliott said the letters generally skirt around the details of the fighting as well as the squalor of life in the trenches, partly for reasons of security and partly to put on a brave face for the family back home.

But she said that reading between the lines, the shocking loss of life at the First Battle of the Somme was clearly a low point for her father: one of the letters mentions the horror of treading on corpses or body parts in the pitch blackness of the trenches at night.

Away from the front, Davison made the most of his leave with trips to London or Paris, dining out and making frequent visits to the theatre.

“He was usually broke by the time he went back to duty,” Dr Elliott said.

He even found time to romance a young Frenchwoman named Madeleine, although the relationship did not survive his return to Australia.

Davison kept up a strong interest in affairs back at home, peppering his letters with questions about local and domestic matters, and was forthright in his disapproval when his brother, who was working on the coastal steamers plying the southern coast of New South Wales, joined a strike against conscription.

Wounded once at Gallipoli and later in France, Davison carried an inadvertent souvenir with him, a piece of shrapnel in his shoulder that was only discovered by an X-ray late in his life.

Dr Elliott said that unlike some of his former comrades who suffered shell-shock and were left mentally scarred by the war, Arthur Davison returned to civilian life with comparative ease. He joined the RSL and led the ANZAC Day ceremony at Dee Why for several decades.

Dr Elliott will travel to Gallipoli for the 100th anniversary commemoration next year, visiting the hilltop battlefield where her father and his comrades found themselves on the front line, a mere 15 metres from the Turkish trenches.

Copies of the book are available here.

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