Holding the hand-written letters, I was amazed.
They’d been sent by my great-uncle Robert Moore from France during the First World War.
Written to his sweetheart, Carrie, they told of his time in the trenches.
They’d just been given to my mum, Shirley, by Carrie’s niece. After Carrie passed away, they’d been found tucked away in her garage, in a dusty old box tied up with pink ribbon.
Scanning them, it was clear they were all in the same writing - apart from one. It wasn’t from Robert, it was from Carrie’s brother who was also fighting.
Robert Moore is dead, it read. A stretcher-bearer on the front line, Robert had been killed alongside his friend Edgar Granger and two other men, during a battle. Devastated, Carrie stayed single for the rest of her life, treasuring his letters.
‘I’ll photocopy them before we give them back,’ Mum said. Back then, I was just a teenager and Mum was busy.
‘One day we’ll go through them and find out more about Robert,’ Mum vowed.
That’s because Uncle Robert and his friend Edgar had a special place in our family’s history. In fact, their friendship left a legacy that lasts to this day.
Meeting in 1916 at an army training camp, the pair became mates. Robert’s family owned a farm called Moore Park, near Gunbar, NSW, while Edgar’s were from Collector, 500km away near Canberra.
Two country boys, they didn’t drink and loved life outdoors. Sent to the front lines, they helped injured men and carried out last wishes – posting farewell letters to loved ones and sending on keepsakes like watches.
Then, just weeks before the war ended, they were killed by the same shell and buried just a grave apart.
When Edgar’s mother Elizabeth heard the tragedy had claimed Robert too, she sent a condolence letter to his mother, Sarah, at Moore Park. After that, the grieving mothers found comfort in writing to each other.
When two of Robert’s brothers, John and Frank, headed to Sydney, they called in at Collector to pay respects to the Grangers. And while Robert’s death had ended his and Carrie’s romance, it ignited another.
Sparks flew between John and Edgar’s elder sister, Katurah. Soon, the couple were smitten and when they tied the knot in February 1923, the Moore and Granger families came together.
But at the wedding, Cupid’s arrow struck again. John’s brother and best man, Frank, hit it off with Katurah’s younger sister Myrtle, and three years later they were married too.
John and Katurah named their first child Edgar Robert, after his lost uncles. The two couples lived on neighbouring properties on the Moore’s farm. In time, Frank and Myrtle had children too, including my mum in 1929.
As two sisters married to two brothers – and neighbours! – the families were incredibly close.
For Mum, her cousins were more like siblings.
And she knew that the small wooden crosses her mother placed at the war memorial every Armistice Day were for her dad’s brother, Uncle Robert, and mum’s brother, Uncle Edgar, but she knew little else.
Back then, people were tight-lipped about what they’d endured in the war. My grandmother Myrtle never told me anything either, but we spent happy hours gardening together when I was small.
Then, a few years after we were given Robert’s letters, I had an idea. ‘I’m going to type them up,’ I told Mum. That way, they’d be easier to read.
Poring over the photocopies, Robert’s sense of humour shone through. When Carrie told him rabbits had eaten a farmer’s crop, he wrote: If those rabbits were here, we would have had them cleaned up by now.
‘He means they’d have eaten them!’ I smiled.
Then the letters got longer and more in-depth. All correspondence was vetted to make sure troops weren’t sharing too much about the harsh reality.
But Robert wrote about getting concussion from an explosion and bleeding from his ears.
By early 1918, Robert had lost a close friend but was starting to see that, in time, we would win the war.
Sadly, on September 2, 1918 – just over two months before peace came – he and Edgar were killed.
Learning so much about what they went through, Mum and I decided to delve into our family history. Speaking with our extended relatives, we filled in gaps and found more photos and stories. My aunt even pulled Robert’s medals out of a cupboard.
And after my grandmother Myrtle passed away in 1990, we came across an incredible picture in her precious photo album. Staring into the camera were Robert and Edgar in military uniform.
The photo had been taken in Vignacourt, France, near the Somme battlefields. Putting the image on my blog, it was spotted by someone who tipped off the Australian War Memorial.
They were thrilled to see it – because they held the negative! It was from one of 800 glass plates taken by two French photographers showing Aussie diggers, which were printed into postcards and posted home.
So far, only 165 men have been identified.
Now, a century on, we are pleased to be able to share our family’s story.
On the 100th anniversary of that fateful shell, I joined Mum and her cousins in laying a beautiful wreath in our uncles’ memory.
And on November 11 we will mark the Centenary of Armistice by remembering the sacrifice so many soldiers made, and how two mates brought two families together. ●
that's life! worked with the Australian War Memorial on this story. To read more about the impact of war on Australia visit their Memorial Articles.