John Raws

John Raws was born in London in 1883. A few years later his family emigrated to Australia. After finishing his education Raws worked as a journalist in Adelaide, Perth and Melbourne.

On the outbreak of the First World War Raws attempted to join the Australian Corps but failed to meet the required chest and height measurements. He tried again the following year and this time he was accepted.

In the summer of 1916 Raws was sent to France where he served on the Western Front. He fought at the Battle of the Somme and was killed in August 1914. Later a friend recalled how he died: "He went in for the second time and died on entering the firing line. A shell burst nearby, killing him and three privates. I am told his body showed no injury, so probably he died from shock instantaneously."

Primary Sources

(1) John Raws, letter to his father (12th July 1915)

I received your letter this evening, just a few minutes after I had passed the medical test for enlistment. I propose to go into camp in a week or two - probably Wednesday week, or Monday week - today fortnight. Meantime I shall study and drill.

If I had received your letter before, father dear, it would have made no difference. My decision has not been sudden. My mind has been practically made up for a month or so - before the recruiting boom to which you refer - but I was waiting to advise you immediately everything was fixed, and I was accepted. The reduction of the standard has enabled me to get through.

I hope that you will be proud to think that you have two sons - who were never fighting men, who abhor the sight of blood and cruelty and suffering of any kind, but who yet are game to go out bravely to a war forced upon them. There are many men, wealthy and strong, who should have gone before me, and have not. But can that excuse me? Not for one moment.

I do not go because I am afraid that my friends may think me a coward if I stay, but I do feel in going that in my small way I am conferring upon you and dear mother what should not be a crown of sorrow. You would not have your son, whatever else, a craven - one who would say that he thought others should go, but would himself hang back. If I prove unfit for service, well and good. But it has to be proved.

I said before that I claimed no great patriotism. No government, other than the most utterly democratic, is worth fighting for. But there are principles, and there are women, and there are standards of decency, that are worth shedding one's blood for, surely.

(2) John Raws, letter to his father (27th May 1916)

We whistled and sang the Marseillaise as we tramped. I was loaded with a pack (blanket, waterproof sheet, overcoat, two singlets, two underpants, six handkerchiefs, two towels and several books) a haversack (food, shaving tackle, soap, tooth paste, pocket field dressing materials and odds and ends) entrenching tool and handle for digging in; a large water bottle full of cold tea and my field glasses. And my word it was heavy walking! This is marching order.

(3) John Raws, letter to his brother (6th June 1916)

Somehow we Australians do not seem to mix with the Scotch and English officers at all, and I never see our men with theirs. I think they don't like us, you know, because our style is not so good, or it may be purely sensitiveness on the part of both of us. They rather ignore us, and put on a frightful amount of dog, and we on our side don't like to butt in. Our officers, I believe, compare very favourably with the English subaltern who is coming over now, except in dress and style. They lick us in that, but to us they appear to be absurdly mincing and effeminate, and to have an extraordinary desire to look foppish.

I think they really try to put it on, because whenever one scratches one of them he does seem to be all right inside. I've noticed when watching them together in numbers, how much cleaner and smarter they look than we do.

(4) John Raws, letter to his mother (9th July 1916)

The fortification consists of breastworks, built up high to the front, with just a little shallow trench dug behind. The reason is that drainage is so difficult. These breastworks are made of millions of tightly-made sandbags laid one upon the other, packed well together. Every eight yards there is an island traverse, a great mound of earth and sandbags strengthened by rivetting, round which the trench winds. This is to localise the explosion of shells or prevent an enemy who might reach the flank being able to pour fire right down the length of a trench. There are communication trenches back every few yards and innumerable succeeding lines for the main army. The whole network extends in most places for three or four miles. The dug-outs are all in lines, but mostly along the communication trenches.

When there is no excitement there are about two sentries to every sector of say 9 yards on watch, and one officer for the company. The rest are in the dugouts. When a bombardment comes or there is a gas alarm, everyone rushes out and takes what cover one can in the front trench, awaiting developments. Against the front breastwork we have a step, about two feet high, upon which men stand to shoot. When there is a bombardment nearly everyone gets under this step, close in against the side.

(5) John Raws, letter to a friend (20th July 1916)

I am no more in love with war and soldiering, however, than I was when I left Melbourne, and if any of you lucky fellows - forgive me, but you are lucky - find yourselves longing to change your humdrum existence for the heroics of battle, you will find plenty of us willing to swop jobs. How we do think of home and laugh at the pettiness of our little-daily annoyances! We could not sleep, we remember, because of the creaking of the pantry door, or the noise of the tramcars, or the kids playing around and making a row. Well, we can't sleep now because - six shells are bursting around here every minute, and you can't get much sleep between them; Guns are belching out shells, with a most thunderous clap each time; The ground is shaking with each little explosion; I am wet, and the ground on which I rest is wet; My feet are cold: in fact, I'm all cold, with my two skimp blankets; I am covered with cold, clotted sweat, and sometimes my person is foul; I am hungry; I am annoyed because of the absurdity of war; I see no chance of anything better for tomorrow, or the day after, or the year after.

One could go on and on. This, mind, is not weeping; it is just mentioning how absurd our old complaints seem to be now. And don't think I always sleep on the wet ground. I sometimes get a dry bit. And I had a hot bath yesterday, and am clean, for the time. By the way while I was having my bath, another officer of His Majesty's gallant forces was blown to pieces a little way in front. He had just come out of the trenches and was going to have his bath. I went into a hut just afterwards and had a couple of rubbers at bridge. One forces oneself to be callous.

For a while I am attached to an entrenching battalion, consisting of fighting men temporarily engaged on engineering enterprises along the front. From what I can see, the infantry spend five out of every six hours at the front in various labour of this sort - building up, repairing and pulling down here, there and everywhere, and carrying, carrying, carrying sandbags, timber and earth from morn till eve, and then till morn again.

And all the time a very remorseless enemy plugs us whenever he can see us and thinks it worth while. Almost always we are hidden from his guns, but they have countless eyes aloft and all our anti-aircraft guns and our own aeroplanes cannot keep them always closed. So gunners, way back behind the German lines, who have never seen us and our works, peer over maps all covered with little squares, and then turn handles, squirt out wonderful little instruments giving levels and directions, and then, pipe in mouth, just press a button or pull a string, and away comes a little token across the sky to us. We hear it coming with a great nasal screech, and if it gets louder and louder we just flop down in the mud, wherever we are, and pray or swear, according to our individual temperaments. Mostly, however, they don't trouble about small working parties, preferring to devote themselves to observation posts, high buildings, main roads and gun emplacements.

The aeroplanes are wonderfully fascinating. One would like to watch them all day - theirs and ours, darting about the sky amid storms of shrapnel. They spot for the big guns, you know, and each side makes frantic efforts to drive hostile craft away when they come over. The sky is pitted with the little black and white shrapnel shells when any come in range of enemy guns. The shells are coming from all directions by the thousand, ours and theirs, but I'm resting in quite a comfy little machine gun emplacement. We hope to be out of it in a few days, thank goodness. Our losses have been heavy.

(6) John Raws, letter to his sister (8th August 1916)

Just before daybreak, an engineer officer out there, who was hopelessly rattled ordered us to go. The trench was not finished. I took it on myself to insist on the men staying, saying that any man who stopped digging would be shot. We dug on and finished amid a tornado of bursting shells. All the time the enemy flares were making the whole area as light as day. We got away as best we could. I was again in the rear going back, and again we were cut off and lost. I was buried twice and thrown down several times - buried with dead and dying. The ground was covered with bodies in all stages of decay and mutilation, and I would, after struggling free from the earth, pick up a body by me to try to lift him out with me, and find him a decayed corpse I pulled a head off - was covered with blood. The horror was indescribable. In the dim misty light of dawn I collected about 50 men and sent them off, mad with terror on the right track for home. Then two brave fellows stayed behind and helped me with the only unburied wounded man we could find.

(7) John Raws, letter to his brother-in-law (12th August 1916)

Well, I've had my whack and enough to last a lifetime. I think one could call it a crowded time. Shells - millions of shells, shells all day and all night, high explosives. I want to put somewhere in here that Goldy fell when at Pozieres, or rather beyond it.

Shrapnel, minnewerfers, whizz-bangs, bombs, lachrymose shells, gas shells, sulphur shells - and thousands of gaping dead. The stench, and the horridness of it can but be mentioned. I have sat on corpses, walked on corpses, and pillaged corpses. I got many interesting German souvenirs and could have secured cartloads from their trenches, but I lost most that I took, and usually was too busy to pick up anything. I lost nearly all my equipment and clothes and with them my curiosities, but I brought back one bonzer souvenir that I did not expect to bring back — myself.

(8) John Raws, letter to his sister (27th June 1916)

I have also been gassed, but only experience. We use the German gas, and let it loose in trenches, where of course, we wear our helmets. They are abominably hot and uncomfortable, and make us look like imitation wolves in a pantomine show. They consist of heavy cloth masks, with a rubber tube for the mouth, and glass goggles for the eyes. The neck end is quite open and shapeless, but you tuck it inside the collar of your tunic. One has to be pretty quick with them as the Germans may be only 100 yards away and the gas travels about 25 yards a second with a favourable wind. It moves in a dense cloud close to the ground, and being much heavier than air, fills up all trenches and holes it comes to. You see how fatal it must be to be caught in a dugout below a trench. A man without a helmet might as well stand upon the parapet (the low breastwork in front of the trench) and risk being shot.

The peasant girls of this district haunt the camp selling fruit and chocolate. Many of them are singularly beautiful, with the warmest and richest of complexions. But, except when it is raining, their faces are usually dirty.

(9) John Raws, letter to his mother (18th July 1916)

During the first night I lay awake listening to particularly lively spasms of shelling - quite earthquaking - but since then one does not notice them. One is practically never without the booming in our locality, and unless anything comes pretty near at hand, no impression is made on the mind at all Indeed I am amazed at the quickness with which the mind accustoms itself to the shelling. Big shells were dropping in a field quite close to where a party of us were at work yesterday, and really, hardly a man bothered to look over. The fellows are most complacent about it all. Sometimes one sits on a grassy bank and has lunch, or perhaps a smoke, and a rest, while British and German shells go screaming overhead. It struck me yesterday evening how jolly awkward it would be if two met above my head.

(10) John Raws, letter to a friend (4th August 1916)

We do all our fighting and moving at night and the confusion of passing through a barrage of enemy shells is pretty appalling. You've read of the wrecked villages? Well, some of these about here are not wrecked. They are utterly destroyed, so that there are not even skeletons of building left - nothing but a churned mass of debris, with bricks, stones and girders and bodies pounded to nothing. And forests! There are not even tree trunks left - not a leaf or a twig. All is buried and churned up again and buried again. The sad part is that one can see no end of this. If we live tonight we have to go through tomorrow night - and next week - and next month.

(11) John Raws, letter to a friend (4th August 1916)

I write from the battlefield of the Great Push with thousands of shells passing in a tornado overhead, and thousands of unburied dead around me. It seems easy to say that, but you who have not seen it can hardly conceive the awfulness of

it all.

My battalion has been in it for eight days, and one-third of it is left - all shattered at that. And they're sticking it still, incomparable heroes, all. We are lousy, stinking, ragged, unshaven, sleepless. Even when we're back a bit we can't sleep for our own guns. I have one puttee, a dead man's helmet, another dead man's gas protector, a dead man's bayonet. My tunic is rotten with other men's blood, and partly splattered with a comrade's brains. It is horrible, but why should you people at home not know?

(12) John Raws, letter to his brother (12th August 1916)

The Australian casualties have been very heavy - fully 50% in our brigade, for the ten or eleven days. I lost, in three days, my brother and my two best friends, and in all six out of seven of all my officer friends (perhaps a score in number) who went into the scrap - all killed. Not one was buried, and some died in great agony. It was impossible to help the wounded at all in some sectors. We could fetch them in, but could not get them away. And often we had to put them out on the parapet to permit movement in the shallow, narrow, crooked trenches. The dead were everywhere. There had been no burying in the sector I was in for a week before we went there.

The strain - you say you hope it has not been too great for me - was really bad. Only the men you would have trusted and believed in before, proved equal to it. One or two of my friends stood splendidly like granite rocks round which the seas stormed in vain. They were all junior officers. But many other fine men broke to pieces. Everyone called it shell shock. But shell shock is very rare. What 90% get is justifiable funk, due to the collapse of the helm - of self-control. I felt fearful that my nerve was going at the very last morning. I had been going - with far more responsibility than was right for one so inexperienced - for two days and two nights, for hours without another officer even to consult and with my men utterly broken, shelled to pieces.

(13) John Raws, letter to a friend (12th August 1916)

The glories of the Great Push are great, but the horrors are greater. With all I'd heard by word of mouth, with all I had imagined in my mind, I yet never conceived that war could be so dreadful. The carnage in our little sector was as bad, or worse, than that of Verdun, and yet I never saw a body buried in ten days. And when I came on the scene the whole place, trenches and all, was spread with dead. We had neither time nor space for burials, and the wounded could not be got away. They stayed with us and died, pitifully, with us, and then they rotted. The stench of the battlefield spread for miles around. And the sight of the limbs, the mangled bodies, and stray heads.

We lived with all this for eleven days, ate and drank and fought amid it; but no, we did not sleep. Sometimes, we just fell down and became unconscious. You could not call it sleep.

The men who say they believe in war should be hung. And the men who won't come out and help us, now we're in it, are not fit for words. Had we more reinforcements up there many brave men now dead, men who stuck it and stuck it and stuck it till they died, would be alive today. Do you know that I saw with my own eyes a score of men go raving mad! I met three in 'No Man's Land' one night. Of course, we had a bad patch. But it is sad to think that one has to go back to it, and back to it, and back to it, until one is hit.

(14) John Raws, letter to his brother (19th August 1916)

Before going in to this next affair, at the same dreadful spot, I want to tell you, so that it may be on record, that I honestly believe Goldy and many other officers were murdered on the night you know of, through the incompetence, callousness, and personal vanity of those high in authority. I realise the seriousness of what I say, but I am so bitter, and the facts are so palpable, that it must be said. Please be very discreet with this letter - unless I should go under.