Listen: A letter from Gallipoli

By Sophia Garrett

A letter from behind the frontline, now held in the University of Melbourne archives, offers a glimpse into an Australian soldier’s life as he made his way to Gallipoli.

Photograph of William Ross Hoggart
Photograph from Victorian Education Department, Record of War Service publication (p56).
Copy in UMA collection 93/111

William Ross Hoggart from Middle Brighton, alumnus of the University of Melbourne and teacher at Melbourne Grammar School, enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in September 1914 at the age of 38.

He wrote this letter in 1915, just a few days before he was killed. It was addressed to the principal of the State Teacher Training College, where Hoggart studied, penned in response to correspondence he received from the College (letters were sent to alumni, staff and students in active service as part of a program to offer support).

Hoggart's letter was read aloud at the ANZAC day commemorations of the College for many years.

Hoggart was a captain in the 14th Battalion, commanded by Colonel John Monash. In this letter he refers to divisional exercises and records his impressions of Egypt and humorous aspects of life on board his transport vessel. He briefly refers to war propaganda as he prepares for battle.

The letter is read here by Mathew Williams.


Dear Doctor1,

We are lying in a harbour almost within sound of the enemy’s guns and yet you Melbourne folks know far more of the war than we. Most of our news is gleaned from month old Australian papers. Our regiment of 1000 fighting men, physically as good as anything at the front, is in splendid spirits, all ready for the business ahead. We are thoroughly equipped and have served out ammunition, “iron” rations and field dressings. I do not suppose that we will do anything very great and trust that we will do nothing mean. A stranger in the transport would not think we are on the brink of active service. The talk in the officer’s mess is more of what we will do after the war when we return to Australia. Every one nourishes the pathetic fallacy that he will “come through all right”. This cheerfulness is not confined to us. The men too are in high spirits: as I write a full-throated chorus of the National Anthem rings out. It is the ending of a “complimentary concert” tendered to our own regiment by the men of a New Zealand battalion whose transport is lashed to ours. I spent the afternoon reading Scott’s Pirate2 and listening to my diminutive Cingalee3 cabin boy who unfolded a wondrous tale of how he had “knocked out” a certain Chinaman who lives in the dim recesses of the fo’c’sle. This Homeric conflict was gone through in pantomime from the preliminary sparring for an opening until the delivery of the final deadly uppercut. This fiery Cingalee further informed me that he had at one time been body-servant to no less a person that Jack Johnson4. Hence his pugilistic prowess. I take his word for it and furthermore forgive him for much prior neglect of his cabin duties. I now know why the cistern that supplies my wash bowl was often empty, whereas the tin that receives the waste waters thereof was invariably overflowing. How could a man who had waited on the mighty Jack Johnson be expected to fill the one or remove the other? Our ship is worked entirely by “boys” of various colours – Lascars5, Japanese, Cingalese, Chinese, Madrasese6. The ship’s doctor is a Parsee and two of the mates are Japs. The black chief steward is obsessed with the number 10. At every meal the menu card shows 10 courses no more, no less. We live simply so he is hard put to it to fill the bill. He starts off boldly with soup then we have (2) steak (3) onions (4) potatoes (5) cabbage (6) marmalade (7) bread and butter and just when you think that you have him beaten he calls up his reserves and rounds off the list with (8) dessert (9) fruits and (10) coffee. These three items invariably end every meal. The dessert does not always materialise and the coffee is often condensed water.

You will have heard a good deal about our work in Egypt. At times we worked very hard but we also had our “glad days and jolly days”8. The most interesting part of the training was the Divisional work. This means the turning out of something like 20000 men and 10000 horses. You will understand that a division can only concentrate and display only once in a day. We generally had one day a week of this training and it was the most valuable of all. These manoeuvres were made as realistic as possible. We did several attacks with ball cartridge, the objective being dummy figures placed in trenches. In one of these we advanced under cover of shrapnel fire. The premature burst wounded a light horseman but not seriously. We also did some night work against trenches protected by wire entanglements. The only way to deal with barbed wire seems to be to throw it into the sea. If you cut it, it is still there. If you send out adventurous spirits with grappling irons they haul it up by the roots only to dump it elsewhere. “Though our Achin’ is cut off the accursed thing remains”9. I would like those people in Australia who call us “six shilling a day tourists” to see the regiment slogging home through the sand after a field day, the men in marching order with their faces greeny-gray from the caked dust. They perhaps have tramped 20 miles through the sand and have been “bucketed about” in an attack over the desert hills. And all they get for lunch is a scanty ration of bread and jam. Contrast them with the immaculate young men who in summer “camp” around the foreshore of Port Phillip and who send group photographs of themselves to the illustrated papers (crossed Union Jacks in the background) under the titles of The Lilies, The Daffodils or The Slipstones10. The climate of Egypt greatly surprised us when we arrived in February, the days were warm but the nights intensely cold. Minor poets and lady novelists write of the burning plains of Egypt. Try ‘em on the outpost line at 3 AM.

I have had a grand chance of seeing this wonderful old country and have found it a land of contrasts. I do not know whether you have been in Egypt or not. You find the intensest (sic) of culture and absolute desert, electric trams passing through fields painfully cultivated and watered by means of instruments which you see carved in the hieroglyphs of the temples, a climate which seesaw between a grill and a refrigerator, the 400 year old tombs lit by electric light, magnificent mosques rising from amongst squalid hutches, motor cars jossling (sic) camel trains, Marconi stations near the site of the ancient city of Om, an Australian army camped at Heliopolis. You could multiply these examples easily.

I have seen some 500 miles of the Nile Valley. It is one huge market garden and farmyard. In and around Cairo I have found time to visit the pyramids, the wonderful tombs of Sakkara, the Ali Mohammed mosque, the tomb of the Mamelukes, the Roman aqueduct, the great Delta irrigation works. A party of us spent two glorious days at Luxor where we saw the great temples of Karnak, Luxor and Amon Ra, the avenue of sphinxes, the colossi at Thebes, and, greatest of all, the tombs of the ancient kings. If you have been there you will know what a wonderland lies around Luxor. The tomb of Amenophis II impressed me most of all. The paintings and hieroglyphics on the walls of the passages leading to the tomb chamber are as fresh as if painted yesterday. The sarcophagus has been covered with a sheet of glass and the mummy unswathed. The old king lies as if carved from ebony, every feature and limb perfect. It is difficult to believe that he lived 1000 years before Socrates. In a niche nearby lie the bodies of his 3 favourite slaves and another niche was carved for his treasure chest. Why can’t we leave these old pharaohs undisturbed? A phrase of Charles Lamb’s about “meddlesome trouble-tombs”12 was at the back of my head all day.

I have had some admiration for the fellaheen13 who toil on their few feddans14 of land aided by the family buffalo, the family camel and the family donkey but his city bred brother is poor stuff. If he is wealthy he runs to fancy socks and loud suits and infests the city gardens. As far as superficial acquaintance with the situation here can be relied on there seems little chance of a rising against British rule15. The Moslem section may be against us but they have no method of organising or of obtaining munitions of war. It is impossible to buy rifles or cartridges in Cairo. The Gyppie army has been sent away down to Khartoum except for a few squadrons of cavalry and a few companies of infantry while their barracks are occupied by territorials and Indian troops. If it were allowed to quote figures the number of troops in Egypt and along the Canal would surprise you.

I wish I were able to tell you something of what is going on around us. We form part of a force of mixed nationalities which is under the control of an English general of repute16. If the expedition is successful the result should be historic and I for one will feel proud of having played a very small part in cancelling an event which happened in 145317.

I read your Christmas circular letter with pleasure and appreciate to the full the references you made concerning those members of College who are with the A.I.F.

Give my best wishes to Mrs Smith (sic) and tell her that I would be glad if she would call on Mrs Hoggart who will have an anxious time from now on. The address is 164 St Kilda St, Middle Brighton.

Yours sincerely,

Wm R Hoggart

1 Doctor John Smyth, principal of the Melbourne Teacher’s College, 1902-27

2 The Pirate by Sir Walter Scott, 1821

3 A person from Ceylon

4 Jack Johnson won the world heavyweight boxing title on December 26, 1908, when he fought the Canadian world champion Tommy Burns in Sydney

5 Lascar was the name once used to describe a sailor from the Indian subcontinent employed on European ships from the 16th century until the beginning of the 20th century

6 A person from Madras, India. Madras is now known as Chennai

7 According to tradition, the Parsees descend from a group of Zoroastrians who immigrated to Western India during 10th century AD, fleeing Muslim persecution in Iran

8 From the poem The Best School of All by Sir Henry Newbolt.

9 A reference to the Biblical story of Achan in Joshua 7, meaning ‘our problem has been solved but the cause of the problem still exists to cause other problems’

10 While clearly disparaging, Hoggart’s reference is obscure. He may be referring to the 19thC language of flowers which equates lilies with purity and daffodils with narcissism or perhaps that the men look ‘sharp’ as a slipstone is used by woodworkers to sharpen tools

11 A military caste, originally composed of slaves from Turkey, that held the Egyptian throne from about 1250 until 1517 and remained powerful until the early nineteenth century

12 Possibly a reference to Lamb’s The Essays of Elia

13 An agricultural labourer in an Arabic country

14 Area of land that could be tilled by pair of oxen in a certain time

15 British rule of Egypt took various forms from 1882until independence in 1922

16 General Sir Ian Hamilton

17 The end of the siege of Constantinople, resulting in Ottoman rule of the city


Letter: WR Hoggart to John Smyth, UMA collection (90/111)

Digitised copies of war service record for WR Hoggart, held by the National Archives of Australia. NAA series B2455, barcode 5284138

Information about the 14th Battalion

Shell-shocked: Australian teachers, their schools and families after Armistice
Dr Rosalie Triolo
Paper presented at National Archives of Australia in Canberra from the thesis ‘Our Schools and the War: Victoria’s Education Department and the Great War’. (18 March 2009) Photos of Captain Hoggart are known to exist in the following locations: Victorian Education Department p56. University of Melbourne Record of Active Service p21. War Services of Old Melburnians 1914-18. Melbourne Herald 5 May 1915 p8. Argus 6 May 1915 p8. Age 6 May 1915 p8. Sydney Mail 12 May 1915 p10. Table Talk 13 May 1915 p18. Melbourne Leader 15 May 1915 p30. Sydney Sun (Sunday ed.) 16 May 1915 p22.

Hoggart joined the staff of Melbourne Church of England Grammar School in 1908 and commanded the school's Cadet Corps. (War Services of Old Melburnians 1914-18'. p88, 125)

Read next: The story behind The Water Diviner

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