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Walter Elkington 19

off to war 1916

Dear Father

My last letter concluded with a description of a bus trip to the time of arriving in Antwerp. was both inside and out and it is built.  Inside it is built on red marble with huge windows to let in light in like a cathedral.  From the platform the decent of about 20 stone steps to get into the ticket or booking hall there is a motley crowd of khaki and black soldiers and civil people all buzzing about arriving and departing, reminds me of a bee hive.  There was the usual sprinkling the centries of fixed bayonet’s to look after the interest of the army but British officers go anywhere without question, especially in Antwerp.

Leaving the station we went down a boulevard about 50 yards and found a very good hotel and booked a room and dumping our baggage.  Then we went and had lunch in the Café Wagner.  During the day in Antwerp we visited the art gallery and saw most of Ruebens pictures and many pictures of his pupils with their various quiffs.  All together I think the Antwerp Art Hall Gallery was the very best Ive seen both from the point of view from pictures to be seen there and from the point of view of the building.  They are shown in.  The light effect is reduced to a science and the building inside itself is built of marble.  A good many budding artists were painting pictures with more or less success when we were there.  I won’t attempt to describe the pictures it would be like a book but lets say that the collection is a beautiful one and one that many people would give anything to see.  Only having a day in Antwerp we did not attempt to see everything, just saw the main building etc.  We did see the cathedral and St Josephs in its unfinished tower, wood carved confession boxes and paintings etc and have come to the conclusion it was a very fine cathedral fit to rank with the best.  We also visited the Scene of castle of antiquities of which there are many ancient relics dating back to the 1500 when the Spaniards ran the show.  We had a good view of the river Sheldt but there was very little shipping there.  After we saw the house of Charles the 5th and the hotel de Ville and town hall and came to the conclusion that the latter was better, from an historical point of view, than the town hall of Brussels but the marriage chamber and council chamber were built of red marble in one room there is a marble piece of carved black marble which is beautiful indeed, the frescoes on the ceiling caught my eye and I caught a stiff neck looking at them.  The Flemish guide could ‘parlez’ a little English and showed us all there was to be seen but could take volumes to describe it.  We looked out of the train windows at the rest of the town but had a good look at any other buildings worthwhile.  Altogether I thought Antwerp was a very fine, clean, well laid out city.  The people are Flemish & French which makes it necessary for everyone to talk both languages and also necessary to print all notices in both languages.  The Belgians talk many languages and during the last four years and have learned German and English always spoken by the educated classes.  Generally speaking I have found the Belgian educated people to be lovers of all music but the lower classes are biggest thieves in the world.  I think I’ve found a chap the other day with 30 magnetoes and 6 motor bicycles in his possession which he had stolen.  Horses are disappearing daily from our horse lines and it is impossible to catch the thieves as in about 3 hours they are sold in the shops for horse meat.  Well we stayed the night in Antwerp and found that things were a little cheaper there than Brussels.  Next morning at 10am the remainder of the day we spent seeing more sights in Brussels and in the passing shops & estaminets & after another night of luxury in the Metropole we caught a train out of the field of the Battle of Waterloo.  The whole scene of Waterloo was described to us by a YMCA guide whilst we were on top of the 200ft mound from the centre of the battle field.  Everyone knows all about Waterloo so I will not describe it here.  The postcards will show you some of the sights of the field, which of course is now under cultivation.  The Belle Alliance and huge amount farm etc are all occupied and used today just as they were in days gone by.  The mount & Lion monument mark the spot which was the British centre and where the Prince of Orange was wounded.  The other monuments were erected by the various other countries who helped to fight the battle.  The mound took two years to build.  The earth was dug from surrounding fields and piled there by men and women handling along buckets in a sort of endless chain.

Well I finally arrived back in Chaleroi the same day by car after a very enjoyable trip which I am afraid I have not fully described.

With love to all from yours affectionately Walter 7/3/19.

Dear Father,

I think it is about time I wrote you.  My usual letter, the last one I had from you was written by you about the time when you had my cable about the MC.  I have not yet had the honor of being presented with it but am living in hopes of going to Buckingham Palace to get it. Some of our chaps have been fortunate enough to have cash to make the trip but should be able to manage it before I come back to Australia which will not be for some time yet.  Demobilization is going along steadily but not so fast as was expected at first.  Strikes in England have a lot to do with this also, congestion on the railways at present.  I am in the vicinity of Chaleroi doing nothing but eat and sleep as there is practically no work to do and thereby dozens of officers to do what little there is so that we just enjoy ourselves whilst we have any francs to spend ‘and with the cat’ when we are short. I am trying to see as much of this part of the world as possible so as to educate myself and give myself something to talk about après laguerre.  About a fortnight ago I visited the Abbey D’avene to which supposed to be the most interesting ruins in Belgium which I described in my last letter home.  I also visited the German military cemetery at Gozee about 4 kilometers away where the Germans buried their dead who were killed in the fighting around the vicinity of Gozee during the early part of 1914.  The cemetery is the usual style of German burial that is the graves are all set in rows like an orchard of trees and there is a separate place for officers with bigger and more classy headstones.  At one end like a guardian angel there is a huge pyramid built of granite and inscription in German in memory of the fallen.  The graves of the men have granite headstones and each grave is planted with a rosebush at the head of it.  When the roses are in bloom it looks pretty.  I always think that the Germans think more of the dead than they do of any race.  They don’t mind the expense and labour which in this case was the locals.  I have just arrived back with the battalion after 4 and a half days leave and left the battalion with three hundred francs in my pocket.  Boarded the train and went to Charleroi railway station where I caught the 2:15pm passenger train for Brussels and arrived at Brussels at 4pm.  My pal George Richardson another lieutenant and I decided to go steady as we did not consider we had too much cash.  So that we did not go in for the gay and giddy side of Brussels side of life and spent most of our time sightseeing.  We took a double at the Metropole hotel at 18 francs each per night and left our haversacks and coats in the room.  We then had a wash, shaved and perfumed ourselves, cleaned our boots and galloped sallied forth to see what could be seen before nightfall.  First of all we went for a stroll down the avenue Kayser which connects the Gare du Nord station with the Gare du Nord and then feeling peckish we got 10 francs of chocolate and cream puffs etc.  After this we walked back up to New street and looked at Duville House and corporation houses of which I have sent home some views.  It was then becoming dark so we went into a picture theatre for a couple of hours and after that had our dinner at the tavern Joseph.  This cost us 12 francs each, both 2 francs for a tip and it may be interesting to note that they had just meat, vegetables and beer.  We found most of the meals ran into 15 francs each as meals are fairly expensive but there is a good assortment of vegetables, although to have a big meal of 4 or 5 courses of wine would have run into 30 francs at least.  It is the same in all parts of France, Germany and Belgium and Normandy I believe.  Well after a meal we then took at further promenade through the streets during our preamble visited some of the dancing cafes.  Dancing and drinks go on together until most people are tight but it gets light in the small hours of the morning.  We then went home to the Metropole to our sumptuous bedroom in which there were electric light and marble washing font, a latrine, a wardrobe, a dressing table, hat and coat stand and a thick carpet on the floor.  The beds were usual continental wooden beds each showing white sheets and pillows which were scented.  When I got into bed I could not think of the contrast between the present and the past when I was in the Willeske trip to my knees in mud with the rain running down my neck and wishing I was dead, but such are the experiences of a soldier’s life.  One day pigging it out and the next living in the height of luxury.  The next morning we found our boots had been shined by the boots and we rose at 11am as we do not have breakfast when on leave and sallied forth to see the sights again.  First we visited Palis De Justice which covers six acres of ground and cost 52 million florins to build.  I think you mentioned having seen it once and if you were as much impressed by the enormity and magnificence of the place you will remember it yet.  After that we went down the Rue de Reginsee and saw the Cathedral Patel Sablon.  The Palais de Beaux Arts the synagogue, the park of little sablon place du Royal and Kings House.  We then visited the lace factory where real hand made lace “Brussels” is made and where they are happy to emerge without being 50 francs the poorer as the girls there are the best salesmen I have seen.  They did not make me buy anything as I am too experienced in the art of salesmanship.  I myself are to be impressed by anyone like that.  The next thing we inspected was the Palace of King Albert and lingered about in the vicinity in the hopes of seeing King Albert himself but were not satisfied so we went for a walk through his park and palace grounds and said that we had walked at least where he walked and had to be content with that.  We then caught a train, no fares required for soldiers, and went to the Cinquentenaire Quarter, but found we were too late to see the Wurt Gallery and then they closed the square.  We just examined the buildings outside and walked through the park and looked at the station etc.  After about two hours in this quarter we came back to the botanical gardens and strolled through the hot house and looked at the tropical ferns and plants for which the place is famous.  The gardens however are ridiculously small and there was nothing in there worth seeing partly because the gardens are neglected owing to the Hun occupation.  The next thing we saw was the cathedral of Gudule which I described on the view of the building.  It was now dark so we made it back to the starting point and had dinner at 7:30pm in the same café.  After dinner we went to the opera and the theatre royal, Monnaire and listened to Rigoletto which to our untutored ears did not appeal.  It was all in French and Italian and we could not understand it, but the music was very pleasant to listen.  The theatre itself is a magnificent building and was worth spending 10 francs to see it.  After the Opera we went to a tavern and had an oyster supper and then went to bed.  The next morning we caught the 9am train for Antwerp as I had always been curious to see that town.  The journey took an hour and we passed the Malines and the Plains of Flanders enroute.  The scenery was very pretty and was just like one of the scenes on picture cards and the windmills, red tiled houses and rows of poplars at waterways etc.  I think I have written enough to go in one envelope so we will leave the Antwerp trip for the present.  I have just heard of Nora’s death from influenza and I am sorry to hear it for all that family she was the most cheerful and made life possible for a visitor and frankly speaking I thought she was like a lily in manor.  It is a terrible pity she has gone.  I will close now.  Love to all from your affectionate son Walter.  7/3/1919

Dear Hilda,

I had a letter from you 2 days ago and learn that you have left your place at Drummoyne.  I feel sorry about it in a way but sure agree with you that you should be getting more for your work than you were.  However I suppose there are plenty of other places where you can earn a crust if you want to.  For all the fuss Gert as from what everyone says. She was a very lively kid and made the home bright etc.  Today we went to Chaleroi with the remaining of the battalion and amassed in the square of Marcinelle with the dregs of the division and were addressed by Billy Hughes.  I had a “front seat” as it were and Billy stood by a rickety table and talked.  I was so close that if it would have been me who would have picked him up if he had fallen as I really thought he would when he became vehement.  He gave us the usual soft soap and spoke of his experience of the peace conference and was not enthusiastic over the methods employed there.  He candidly did not think that the delegates were also doing much good and thought they were only filling in time.  He also spoke about retaliation of the attempted assassination of Mr Clemenceau the French premier to which he paid a tribute.  The address finished up with much clapping and cheering whilst he was speaking it rained a smart shower and one of our officers held an umbrella over him and someone else put a mackintosh over his shoulders and we were all amused at his protests. He is popular with the troops as he is Australian in his manner of talking and gets straight to the point and is tearing into the heads in politics like one thing here and is making friends and enemies wholesale.  He wont stand any fooling about and quite right to as he reckons we fought for our interests in the pacific and says they should not be tampered with.  Well old bean can’t say when I’ll be going home for certain but suppose I will eventually arrive.  The present rate of repatriation is 15,000 to 20,000 a month but owing to strikes the shipping is hard to procure as there are still about 100,000 to goodness knows where my turn comes in.  Well bon soir old thing well close with best wishes from your affectionate Brother Walter 23/2/19.

 

 

Dear Mother,

We have moved again and are now at the above place which is really a suburb of Chaleroi and 7 kilometres from city.  It is connected with Chaleroi by a 15 minute tram service so that we are able to spend a good deal of time now in Chaleroi looking over coal mines and factories etc.  The Belgium people around this place are rather hospitable and are quite eager to do things for us so far the civillians have been on the best of terms.  I have been in Chaleroi several times now and have seen a bit of civilian life.  One night I visited the Café Central were they dance to the music of an orchestra of violins.  When not dancing the people sit at tables and drink and the orchestra plays and every now and then the men and women get up and dance in the centre of the room waiters continually bringing drinks and and thus keeps going round collecting stray francs for the orchestra this letter seems to be the most frequent thing that happens and one is lucky to get out under 20 francs in an evening these dancing cafes are rather lewd establishments and in fact could be classed as immoral and would make our Australian wowsers cry tears of blood.  Then there is a museum of wax works run by a medical society and whilst it is instructive and open to the public I don’t think it would be acceptable to the general public in Australia.  It chiefly goes in for illustrating results of diseases and when one has had a look at the place one feels uncomfortable for a week.

The French and Belgians believe in making everything public and some of the things we hear and see over here would as I say make our wowsers cry.

The weather now is cold and 7º frost was registered last night.  The ground has been frozen hard snow.  Several casualties have been the result as people just simply slip and break their necks, arms and legs etc. One of the lads was frozen to death the other night having become inebriated and slept in the snow the troops were considered fair game by the Belgian kids after the first fall of snow and they got snow balled mercifully as they marched into this place and could not retaliate.  They always take it in good part though and give as good as they get.  Uncle George gave me a solid silver case when I left him last week  It has my monogram inscribed and must have cost 3 pounds.

Yours affectionately

Walter 10 Feb 1919.

Dear Hilda,

I have written to nearly all the members of our family during the 10 days I have been in this village so must not forget your dear old self.  Especially as I have received two letters from you.  I am occupying a billet in a French place half farm and half estaminet and have a rough wooden bed in the past which used to be this estaminet.  The shelves are still here and there is the usual stove for supplying warmth during the wintry evenings.  However ? been sold in the way of drink here for the past four years and the room was used by four Hun officers during that period.  Huns have a crude way of making themselves comfortable.  They just took all the beds in a place and tumbled the people out to sleep on hard floors.  Where they wanted a fire they made the French collect fuel for them.  My batman a Scotchman named McKinlay does all that is required in that line.  He pinches coal from unauthorized places and makes a fire and brings me my breakfast to me in bed and washes my pajamas and shirts etc and generally coddles me up in such a way that I’m sure I don’t know how I will manage when I get to a place where I have to do without such a luxury as a batman.  In return he gets out of parades gets the same food as I do and gets about 20 francs a day so that we are both satisfied.  I think I will have to get married when I return.

Did I tell you I bought a camera?  It is an Insignette ? which uses films.  All that is necessary is to take the photos and send the reels of films away to be developed.  I spent the afternoon taking photos.  I took a photo of a mined crossroad and a  dud shell by the grass and a chateau in wood which was used as a French prisoner of war compound today.  I expect to be formally presented with my military cross ribbon shortly by the Corps Commander General Hobbs which means that I shall have to walk to some place about 6 kilometers away to get it.  I don’t know when I will get the medal itself, probably not till I go home as I don’t think I will be able to get it from George Rex.  Mrs Hookham wrote today and seemed very down hearted in the mouth because I told her I probably would not have a chance of visiting her.  Poor old dear she thinks I am a real duck.

Your affectionate

Walter 9.12.18

Dear Grace,

Thanks for your many and numerous interesting letters which I have had from you of late.  I am rather sorry to hear of Khakis bad fortune in becoming a casualty.  I suppose he had been taken by stretcher to the casualty station.  Did he remain there or did he remain on duty like a true Australian Captain?  At present I am billeted on a farm house full of pigs, fouls and small children.  All of which continually wallow in the mire outside and am hanged if I know which is the worst of them.  The pigs grunt and so do the kids.  The fouls make a fuss over one egg.  The village we are in is composed of a main street and a church and a chateau where once upon a time a French Lord used to hang out.  It is situated in a valley and when we are half a mile from it is so small.  If one of the villagers happens to lose a thing as such as a bucket down a well the whole neighborhood turns up and discusses matters and produces a scene such as back at Irish parliament ie. Everybody talks and nobody listens.  These Froggies amuse me with some things and at others they make me despair.  Last night we had a swell feed in our company mess.  We invited the officers of another company for dinner and we sang some songs and got the Italian photograph to work and generally had a riotous time until about 10pm when we had to stop on account of it being the fact that we had to call our roles at a tattoo.  We often get on the Beams like that above and it makes the time pass more smoothly.  We do not always go on worrying about the war.  We only think of the war when we are right in the trenches and have to.  That pall of Kelly’s who was in our platoon Sheriff I think his name was.  He was killed recently on one of our little bits of trench.  He used to work at the post office at Kogarah.  I suppose you are feeling quite a young woman as you have had another birthday.  I hope I am back for the next one.

Give my love to all from your affectionate brother.

Walter  12 August ????