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These original letters from the Gallipoli trenches show life as an Aussie digger 100 years ago

Eric Whitehead.

When Eric Whitehead left the family homestead in Victoria and joined the 8th Light Horse Regiment, he did not know he was bound for Gallipoli.

But 100 years later, he’s left his family an astonishing insight into life in the trenches of the Dardanelles.

Diana Halmarick still has the original letters from her great uncle and Anzac hero, written in pencil from the frontline, as well as his medals and death certificate, stored in the homestead the family still owns a century later.

His letters epitomise what the life of an Anzac in Gallipoli was like.

Whitehead grew up on the family farm and loved horses. That love saw him join the Australian Armed Forces’ Light Horse regiment in 1915.

He trained with his cousin and their horses at Broadmeadows, and was shipped to Gallipoli to fight at The Nek against Turkish troops.

In one letter addressed to his father he detailed that just securing paper was a luxury.

I was very lucky getting this writing paper- Harry Ryan has gone off to the hospital with piles and gave me his paper before he left. If it’s as precious as gold over here. The weather is still awfully hot and the flies abominable and at present nothing but very light clothes are of any use – my every day dress is a light vest cut off at the armpits and a pair of light khaki trousers cut off above the knees.

Being a typical Aussie larrikin, Whitehead often joked in his letters back home. After cutting up his uniform he said: “The first thing I’ll do when we get back is buy the best pair of silk pyjamas I can find and go to bed for a week.”

He described, in great detail, how close he’d come to being shot by the Turkish troops.

“I’ve had several blasts too damn close to me to be comfortable- one hit the top of the trench within two feet of my head,” he wrote, adding “I got covered with dirt and knocked over.”

He writes he was getting “use to the shells and bullets every day” but was still a little nervy.

His insightful nature shines through in the letters when he details the importance of good health on the battlefield.

Have come to the conclusion that to keep fit here you must take an interest in your cooking and eat a lot. I have noticed that any man who gets a bit seedy and won’t eat or bother about anything soon goes off to the hospital but the ones who stick to it and don’t let themselves go are right in a day or two at the most. The better I get at cooking and the more I eat the better I keep. Everyone here gets bad in the tummy at times but I keep on taking an interest in tucker and am always right in less than 24 hours and never too bad that I can’t do my turn on duty. Haven’t had any trouble for some time now and wouldn’t be surprised if I don’t ever again.

He told his father in another letter he was working 19 hour days and had little time to write.

“Sometimes we do as much as 19 or so hours work in a day but it’s not hard at all- usually looking after houses- cleaning saddles and other things. We have so much damn gear it’s a day’s job in itself to clean it all.”

This is one of the original letters.

Dear Dad,

I got your letter yesterday. There’s very seldom time here to write at all so please tell the others I’ll write when possible but it won’t be very often. Sometimes we do as much as 19 or so hours work in a day but it’s not hard at all- usually looking after houses- cleaning saddles and other things. We have so much damn gear it’s a day’s job in itself to clean it all.

Several men get hurt nearly every day by the horses but I think most of it is carelessness although some of the horses are pretty wild and buck like the devil but tuckers is plain but quite good and the horse feed is splendid. I’ve never seen such good chaff, oats and lucerne hay as they have here. We give the horses a good deal of work but most of them are much too fresh?

I’ve haven’t been able to get into town yet since I came out here and think it will be quite impossible to get leave to come home before we sail. As far as we know now we’ll be going pretty soon – perhaps in less than a fortnight, but if I can’t get home I expect you’ll come down if I let you know in time. In any case if I don’t see you could you arrange some time with Dalgety’s to get me get some money at their London office in case we get to England. I think I had better have 100 pounds there in case anything happens and then I’ll have enough for a fare home.

I know plenty of fellows in camp especially many other officers. Tommy Redford is captain of B Squadron and Lionel Gowell is adjutant to the 8th Light Horse.

I’m quite well and hope to get into town on midday to get my teeth properly guided and pay some bills.

The military saddles we have are very comfortable to ride in but not much good for bucking and when a man gets a fall with all his gear on his about some to get bucked about. But the medical part of the thing seems very well organised and he’s got every chance of getting well again. Taken all round the Light horse are a very decent lot especially the 8th Regiment but the infantry are very rough and there seems to be millions of them here now.

I don’t think I have any more to say at present and am supposed to be at work now but came over to this tent to write. These people with their name on the paper supply by marques where anyone can write or read the papers.

Well good bye Dad- please give my love to all the others.

From your loving son.
Eric
P.S I may want a horse but expect if I wire you can send me one – it must be a brown or black though as they are all that colour in my squadron.

Whitehead’s story tragically ended when he was wounded and killed by shrapnel at Lone Pine in August 1915.

Sadly, the letter below arrived back to the family after they had heard of his death.

This is a partial transcript of his last letter.

22nd July
Dear Dad- It is a long time since I heard from any of you I last received a letter from Ray a few days ago but it was written on 6th of May and as and a good many men have got letters written as lately as the 10th June it was over a month overdue. I got your cable yesterday dated 10th but don’t know whether you sent it on the 10th of June or July. Can’t remember exactly when I sent mine but we left Egypt in the middle of May and I think I must have sent it a good while before 10th of June. Of course they are sent by boat to and from there to Egypt and so there are plenty of chances of delay.
So far I haven’t heard how you are getting along since the rain but have seen by the papers that things are muchly improved. The prices fat stock are buying reads like a page out of the Arabian Nights but I don’t suppose you have a thousand fat bullocks on Berry ___ going just at present.
I wish an up to date letter would come from one of you- it seems queer not knowing how things are going at home but there’s not much chance of another mail for a fortnight now.
I was very lucky getting this writing paper- Harry Ryan has gone off to the hospital with piles and gave me his paper before he left. If it’s as precious as gold over here. The weather is still awfully hot and the flies abominable and at present nothing but very light clothes are of any use – my every day dress is a light vest cut off at the armpits and a pair of light khaki trousers cut off above the knees. It’s quite sufficient for the day time and a tunic as well is all that’s needed at night if you are on duty. If there’s nothing to do at night I take everything off and put my blanket over me – it’s a bit rough but a change from sleeping in your clothes. The first thing I’ll do when we get back is buy the best pair of silk pajamas I can find and go to bed for a week. I was on a job last night water touks and could get a good view of our destroyer down in the bay- every night they come in- switch on their beach lights and paste hell into the Turkish trenches. It’s awfully fascinating watching their shells burst under the search lights and we enjoy it immensely – of course it’s quite a different matter when they start pasting us but they don’t do much damage compared to the number of shells they fire. I’ve had several blasts too damn close to me to be comfortable- one hit the top of the trench within two feet of my head but the corner of the top stopped it from hitting me – I got covered with dirt and knocked over by the concussion but even got a scratch at all. Am getting ___use to shells and bullets every day- my nerves went a bit jingly after one bombardment they gave us, I wasn’t too good in the tummy at the time, but now I’m perfectly well in both places again & have been to for ___time. Have come to the conclusion that to keep fit here you must take an interest in your cooking and eat a lot. I have noticed that any man who gets a bit seedy and won’t eat or bother about anything soon goes off to the hospital but the ones who stick to it and don’t let themselves go are right in a day or two at the most. The better I get at cooking and the more I eat the better I keep. Everyone here gets bad in the tummy at times but I keep on taking an interest in tucker and am always right in less than 24 hours and never too bad that I can’t do my turn on duty. Haven’t had any trouble for some time now and wouldn’t be surprised if I don’t ever again.
Have heard that our blokes are doing splendidly over in Egypt but personally I don’t care if we never see them again- there doesn’t seem to be much use for mounted men in this trench way are except patrolling Captured country and that would only be sold off playing second fiddle to the boys actually at the front and although I’d like a good spell night away somewhere, I’d Like to go to the front in preference to doing a police job somewhere.
Well Dad it’s now about 10 am and I have to go on a job at 1pm and must have a swim and cook my dinner before then.
Please give my love to Ruth? And all the kids. Good bye for the present.
Your loving son.

Today is Thursday and the mail doesn’t go till Saturday or Sunday so I won’t post this now as I might have some more to say before then and it seems an awful waste sending all this blank paper when very often I can’t get a bit of writing paper at all.

23rd July- Nothing more to tell you since yesterday – mail goes tomorrow and I’ll take this.
Love to all

* Eric Whitehead’s story comes courtesy of Ancestry.com, which currently has 12 million newly added WWI records free to search, until mindnight on Sunday 26.

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