One hundred years ago William Glasgow was in the thick of things at Bullecourt in France. Early April 1917, Brigadier General Glasgow, commanding the 13th Brigade, was asked to take over from Cam Robertson. Cam Robertson (James Campbell Robertson), a Queenslander from Toowoomba, was the commander of the 12th Brigade. His accidental wounding at the end of March necessitated the temporary change of command.
On the April 12th, Glasgow addressed his wife’s Belle’s complaint that “a letterless day was dreary and endless”. He explained, “I am very busy and find it difficult to find time to write daily. I took over from Cam Robertson and am forward again”. Censorship and perhaps a desire to spare her the full horrors his men endured prevented him from revealing more details except to assure her “when one is forward and pushing there are worries” which do “not allow of thoughts other than the work at hand”.
The day before he wrote this letter, the 12th and 4th Brigades of the AIF with the 62nd British Divisions attacked Bullecourt. The attack was disastrous. The tanks which were supposed to support the Australians either became stuck in thick mud and were destroyed or broke down. The Australian infantry pushed on and managed to break the German lines but because no one was sure how far they had advanced, supporting artillery fire was withheld. The Australians were trapped and some forced back. 1,170 Australians were taken prisoner, more than any captured during a single battle during the war. An aditional 2,130 men were killed or wounded.
William Glasgow came out of the line at two-thirty in the morning and received three letters from Belle. As Belle’s letters to William did not survive the war the only clues about what she wrote are in William’s replies. Because Belle hadn’t heard from William for a few days, couldn’t imagine his life in France and was separated from her daughters and family in Australia she was feeling lonely and insecure. William wrote, “You are a queer old thing. You’re hungry for a little bit of love and affection. Has it not been forthcoming?” The incongruity of leading so many men to their death or capture, coming off the line and receiving her letters detailing her domestic life, “so glad you are getting a new frock”, is startling. It’s possible, the normality of these letters and seeing Belle when he was on furlough were essential for him. All his letters during early April express his feelings for her. On 7th April, “my whole love goes with this, how I wish I was being enclosed with it” and on the 12th, “how I would like to be alone with you.” He tells her he will send a wire on their anniversary which is a few weeks away and his pleasure at being her husband. It is unlikely his friend Cam Robertson, who had been away from his wife and family in Toowoomba for more than three years received daily letters. Cam was granted two months’ home leave later in the year but was back in the field by the middle of 1918.
Even though the first attack on Bullecourt achieved little and left the Brigade decimated, Glasgow told Belle he was proud of his men. “Any success that comes to my brigade is the men and the battalion officers. Once men are launched it rests entirely with them and they do the work. They had a very strenuous time in and struck appalling weather – the worst I have seen in France.”
William Glasgow’s letters to his wife Belle are part of the State Library of Queensland collection and are available online – http://www.slq.qld.gov.au
Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.