Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

John Duncan McRae papers, 20 March 1917-27 September 1917
MLMSS 1031/Item 5

[Transcriber’s note:
Private John Duncan McRae of Newtown enlisted in the A.I.F. at the age of 22 and left Sydney on the "Suevic" in November 1916. He disembarked at Devonport, England, on 30 January 1917. The first letter (with the first page missing) is to his mother and father during his training at Rollestone Camp in Wiltshire. He describes his training, guard duties and, in particular, an officer’s funeral in which he was one of the firing party. He lists the music played by the brass band and some of the songs sung by the men as they marched back to camp. There is a photograph sent from France of a group of those soldiers with him, listing their names. The third letter, written from France in September 1917, is from Chaplain W.K. Douglas, 12th Battalion, A.I.F., who was with Private McRae when he died, after being wounded in action, on 19 September 1917 and who conducted the burial service at Dickebusch near Ypres.]

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20 Mar. 1917

to-day (Monday) has not seen a spot of rain & so I expect the shower has passed over for the present at least.

Then, again, we are finding our drill more interesting because we are daily feeling more ‘fit’ in ourselves. My feet are improving every day, and every soldier knows only too well that his feet are his greatest enemy, or his greatest friend, according to their weakness or otherwise. We have now had two lectures on ‘the care of the feet’ and by following out the instructions given there, most of us have greatly benefitted. And further, it has been a great surprise to me to see how quickly & how wonderfully the human organism adapts itself to its environment. As a result of this adaptation, we can now stand cold & wetness in a way impossible before. One’s diet helps in this a good deal. For instance you would be surprised to see me devouring with a vengeance fat bacon & fat mutton, etc. etc. etc. We don’t pick & choose at meal time but simply start at one side of the plate & stop when we get to the other side.

But even apart from these things, our drill in

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itself is very interesting now. Last Monday we left the elementary stages of our work & entered what is called here "The Bull Ring". Our days are divided into hours & each hour we have a change of drill & instructor, just as in the High Schools in Sydney. Each morning we commence with the hour’s march to warm us up & then we spend our time at bombing, bayonet-drill, open order work, lectures, Company drill & physical training. Some of our men have been doing the musketry course, but only a limited number can do this at once & so I have to wait my turn. Others likewise are having instruction re gas.

For the last few days or so I have been away from the "Bull Ring". On Thursday I was on guard & had a rather cold time in the guard-room. The duties of the guard are twofold, viz. to protect certain of the buildings here, such as the bomb-shed, & also to guard the prisoners. I was on the latter duty. We answered the bugle at 3.30 p.m. & went in went on duty at 4. Guar Change of guard here is done in

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proper ceremonial order & is carried out with a fine brass-band accompaniment. We march with fixed bayonets behind the band to the guard room & after exchanging salutes with the old guard, take up our post. The duty lasts for 24 hours, 2 on & 4 off. My post was just outside the cell door & I had to see that no prisoner got away & was armed with a short bayonet. We are not supposed to leave the guard-room for the period of duty & so as it is too small to sleep in we stoke up the old stove & sit around it like a number of Dante’s dream-figures in the nether regions. We are well fed here on guard & receive tea during the small hours of the morning. At 2 in the morning another lad & myself (the lad was the one with whom I slept on "Suevic’s" forecastle & about whom I told you) went to the cook-house for the bucket of tea & while there gave the cook the wink & managed to secure two cold bloaters apiece & with these & half a loaf of bread made a good supper for ourselves. I might

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mention that one bloater apiece constitutes the allowance for an ordinary breakfast. So much for our Bacchanalian festivities at Rollestone.

On Monday last I & a detail of 40 men, including myself, was chosen to act as firing-party at an officer’s funeral. This entailed a fair amount of ceremonial work & for a day & a half we were rehearsed in this and on Tuesday afternoon attended the funeral. We were very specially cleaned & polished up for the occasion & were somewhat proud of ourselves, I am afraid. From Rollestone we marched 4 miles to meet the gun-carriage & we were lead by our full brass-band with the drum-Major wielding his baton in front. A number of mourners, including officers & 200 men went with us. After meeting the gun-carriage we lead the procession, marching in two lines, one on either side of the road, in slow-time the band rendering in grand, pompous style the Dead March in ‘Saul’ & Chopin’s Funeral March. After the ceremony in the Church we marched to the Cemetery & there after resting on our ‘arms reversed’ during the service, we

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fired the final salute over his grave & presented arms with fixed bayonets while the ‘Last Post’ was being sounded by the buglers. This done we formed into column & route marched back to camp to the tunes "Keep your eye on Germany", "Australia Will be there", "Put your troubles in your old kit bag", "Get out & get under" etc., for in military life all mourning ceases once the warrior is placed beneath the clay. We got back to camp by 6.30 after completing a 9½ or 10 miles march. The whole ceremony was grand & well worth witnessing & the march with the full band was most enjoyable.

I think a good many letters from home never reach me for I have only had one or two from Brown St. during the last fortnight. Perhaps it is only delayed & I may get it all in a bunch some of these days. I heard from Leonie & Aunt Enid & Ken & Jack, Gordon & Cruiky last week as well as from my Birmingham friend. From the way she writes I think it is just as well that I was not at her place too long while we were on leave. The poor wee girlie has

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the measles just at present & perhaps this accounts for her apparent love sickness. However I am afraid I will never see her again, worse luck (for her).

As there is very little excitement to be got here in camp I have been spending my Saturday & Sunday afternoons by taking long walks into the surrounding country. Alan is not too fond of walking & so he has not come with me of late on these excursions. The country & villages around here are just as Wordsworth pictured the English rural scenery & I think I will can now better understand & appreciate his feelings in this respect than ever I did before.

And so in the best of spirits & with tons of love for you both & for all at home.

I am as of yore
Your affec. Son in khaki
Duncan xxxxxx

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Dear Mother & Father

This is a group taken in Shrewton Village and all the lads shown here were in "Isolation" with me, and belong to our reinforcement, that is excepting the two guards.

From left to right:-

back Row standing:
Corp. Stewart (guard) Ptes. Kelly, Urry (Guard), Piggott, Brimblecombe, Hayes, A. Cryer, Thompson, F. Cryer, O’Connell, L.Cpl. Pepper.

Middle Row Seated
Ptes. Kearins, Walker, McRae, Atkins, Mott, Taylor, Williams.

Front Row, on ground
Ptes. Cavanagh, Lloyd, Williams (Snowy), Walsh.

My favorites are underlined, but most of the boys are nice in their own way, if once properly known. As the photographer lost the film plate, this is the only copy I could get.

Yours affectionately,

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[Photograph of group whose names are listed on previous page]

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Dear Mr. McRae

Just a line to tell you I attended & was with your boy – Pte. J.D. McRae – at one of our Main Dressing Stations where he died. His wounds were severe, though he was in little pain & for a while we were hopeful of his recovery. But it was not to be – he gradually sank & passed peacefully away during the night of the 19th.

His thoughts were with his home people all through, & several times he asked me to send you his love.

I buried him the next day in a military cemetery at Dickebusch – a place near Ypres. The grave is registered & marked with a cross & you may be sure will be looked after as you would wish.

With all sympathy in your sorrow.

Yours sincerely
W.K. Douglas
12th Bn. A.I.F.

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[Photograph of funeral procession with the following caption:]
Carrying a fallen comrade to his resting-place behind the lines. Another little cross will be added to the long row. (Official photograph.)

[Transcriber's note: Dickebusch – now spelt Dikkebus – Page 9]

[Transcribed by Judy Gimbert for the State Library of New South Wales]