Revealing personal stories from the First World War

Guest Post - Eliza Copeland

Eliza spent a week with the Digitisation Team as part of her work placement for her Diploma of Library and Information Services. She worked with letters written from soldiers who served in the First World War.

On my first day with the Digitisation team, I was told that I would be digitising at least three letters from the Fryer Library's collections and that I would get to choose at least one more. It seemed an incredible task to entrust with someone so new—what if I chose the wrong letter?

There was no need to worry, of course. Almost immediately it was apparent that there were no wrong letters—each and every one of them were filled with comments and facts and observations, little hints about the person who had written them and the person for whom they were intended. A name, for example, carelessly considered, calls up a wider idea of their world:

There is a Colonel St. John on board for India, I’m wondering who he is. Isn’t there supposed to be a relation of ours, a Colonel St. John in India? If he’s got Fancourt in his name I’ll chance it and try him.” (Sydney Fancourt McDonald, p. 2)

My goal for the project was to select the letters, digitise them, and make a transcript for each (so the handwriting was searchable). I prepared myself—set up my computer, opened a Word document, took out a pen and paper—and I laid the first page of the first letter out neatly in front of me with an appropriate amount of awe and began to read.

I had thought in the beginning that it might be difficult to understand—that they would be stilted and formal letters, old-fashioned and out-dated. That was, I thought, the reason that items like this were digitised: because they are old and a glimpse of the past and about the war, and these factors have a certain value attributed to them. What I found, however, was that these letters were immediately accessible. True, phrases like “bountiful harvest” and “thorough scoundrel” litter the pages (the latter comes from a small story that McDonald writes to his mother, which is not to be missed). But the language is understandable and conversational—they write about the weather, about their journeys. They write about friends and mateship and home. Home especially. They write about foreign sights in foreign lands that remind them of home, or starkly that they are not home. I found that brothers have always been lax in writing to their sisters—“Dear Claris, I suppose you have been waiting for a letter from me as it is about three months since I received [yours]” (Pratt, p. 1)—and that friends have always sent one another funny cards—“Dear old Macd, I have got your rather saucy card all right” (Keynes, p. 2). There are the descriptions of war, too, that make these letters what they are: key insights into the lives and roles of Australians in that important point in our history.

The letters were far more accessible than I had been expecting—immersive, interesting, funny at times and deeply personal. Of those I found in McDonald’s collection, I am glad that I didn’t have to pick just one. The array I selected—two that McDonald wrote to his mother and one a friend had written to him—give a more expansive impression of McDonald and the environment in which he, and the other writers, inhabited.

Digitising these works was an incredible experience—they were already so accessible, through language and story and person, and it was thrilling to be able to take these open and honest accounts from our physical collection and share them with a broader audience.


Austin Pratt, Ashlawn Red Cross Hospital, Rugby, England, to his sister Claris, 29 May 1915, John Joseph Murphy Collection, UQFL 99, Box 5, Folder 25, Fryer Library, The University of Queensland Library.

Hugh Gordon Garland, Moasca [Moascar] Camp, (near Ismailia), [Egypt] to Mr Sowden, 15 Feb 1916, Father Edward Leo Hayes Collection, UQFL2, item 1086, Fryer Library, The University of Queensland Library.

Sydney Fancourt McDonald, Marmna [?], [Egypt] to his mother, 20 Mar 1914’, Sydney Fancourt McDonald Collection, UQFL152, Box 1, Folder 3, Fryer Library, The University of Queensland Library.



Last updated:
17 December 2019