What it was like to be a dad fighting in World War One

Postcard to father: ‘Lots of love and fond kisses to dear father at the front.’
Postcard to father: ‘Lots of love and fond kisses to dear father at the front.’ Photo: State Library Victoria

It's 1915. Dad's away at war for a few years. There's no telephone, no Skype, no endless stream of happy snaps shared on Facebook or Instagram. The only way for a child growing up in World War I to keep in touch with Dad was to send a postcard and hope for a reply.

Millions of postcards with inspiring pictures and messages were printed and sent to soldiers at the front. Many carried news of children left behind.

Edna sent this postcard to her father with a personal message on the back: "To Dear Daddy, wishing you a happy birthday and hope you will be home with mummy and me next birthday big heaps of love and kisses from xxxx your little Edna xxxx."

Some campaigns weren’t as wholesome as others.
Some campaigns weren’t as wholesome as others. Photo: State Library Victoria

Although the fighting happened thousands of kilometres away, the Great War was very real for Aussie kids. Back home, daughters and sons helped the war effort by featuring in campaigns to inspire the troops and holding fundraisers - cake stalls, concerts and sports days were popular.

Boys had compulsory military training from their 14th birthday, which was great if you loved four-hour marching drills and shooting practice. It wasn't for everyone. Between 1912 and 1914 more than 27,000 schoolboys landed in court and 5,732 were thrown in jail for refusing military training.

The loss of dad's wage was hard on family finances. In November 1914 the Everylady's Journal reported that a young mother and her two children had to abandon their home and rent a room in a friend's house:

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 Photo: State Library Victoria

'My husband left good employment to go to war, but nothing would stop him. He thinks it's good fun; but I'm not sure about it. I'd rather he didn't go, because what shall I and the children do without him, if he should be killed?'

Parenting continued from afar. Kids still drew pictures for dads. Dads still hung them up with pride - on sandbags in the trenches. Wilfred Cove left two young daughters behind to go to war. On 4 December 1916 he wrote this Christmas letter to his daughter from the battlefield:

My dear little Marjorie, 

I have only just received your little letter that Mamma sent with hers on Nov 19th. Do you remember that you asked me to be home for Xmas? I only wish I could but there are many more soldiers in our Battery who are more entitled to the Xmas leave than I am, so am afraid you will have to do without Daddy this Xmas. Santa Claus will come just as usual. Will you tell Mamma that I will remember the old family custom at 2oc on Xmas day. I think your writing and dictation just splendid, and your drawings are getting funnier than ever. I have pinned your crayoned tulips on the wall of my dug-out bedroom just beside your photograph. I wish you could see Daddy's bedroom. I'm sure you would laugh very much. It is dug out of the ground. The walls are made of filled sand bags. It has a nice wooden floor, the roof is iron & on top is earth with grass growing on it!

Writing home from ANZAC Cove.
Writing home from ANZAC Cove. Photo: State Library Victoria

Write again soon, dear, & send another crayoning to help cover the sand bags.

Heaps of love & kisses, which you must share with Mamma and Betty

From your ever loving

Daddy

Wilfrid was killed in 1917. A photograph of his daughters, Betty and Marjorie, was found in his breast pocket.

Some letters were written by fathers in advance, to be given to their children after their death. Captain John Coull wrote a final letter to his son in April 1917. It was delivered to Fred after his dad was killed in action on 30 September 1918, just weeks before the war ended.

My dear boy Fred,

This is a letter you will never see unless your daddy falls in the field. It is his farewell words to you in case anything happens. My boy I love you dearly and would have greatly liked to get leave for a few days to kiss you and shake hands again, after a few months separation, but as this seems at the moment unlikely, I drop you these few lines to say 'God bless you' and keep you in the true brave manly upright course which I would like to see you follow....

...Goodbye dear boy and if it is that we are not to meet again in this life, may it be certain that we shall meet in another life to come, which faith I trust you will hold on to and live up to. I remain ever

Your loving Daddy 

J. F. Coull

More than 60,000 Aussie troops never came home from WWI. Every one of them was somebody's son. Plenty of them were also someone's dad. Lest we forget.