The soldier’s messages to family and friends were cast overboard in sealed bottles, tossed to the ocean in the hope the communications would make it to shore.
“The practice of placing messages in bottles and throwing them overboard from transports appears to be fairly common amongst soldiers going to the front and not a few of these messages from the sea reach land safely.”
Source: Warrnambool Standard, Mar.10, 1916
Usually accompanied by a plea for the finder to deliver the bottle’s contents homeward, the uncensored, simple messages seem all the more poignant by their ingenious method of delivery.
Bottles were found beached along Victoria’s and South Australia’s coast, as troopships commonly steamed westward for foreign ports, through Bass’ Strait and the Great Australian Bight.
Bottle finders obligingly fetched washed-up bottles and delivered them usuall to their local newspapers, who took up the cause of publishing the soldier’s communications.
In true bush-telegraph style, media outlets nationwide reprinted the messages for the benefit of family and friends.
Some 313,814 Australian soldiers embarked during World War 1 and the collaboration between the Australian community in ensuring the delivery of soldier’s messages seems an intriguing example of pre and post-war social trust.
The effective bottle-post and bush-telegraph delivery of messages from the sea during the war years was charitably supported by the more senior media, and their conflict as to what was best in the nation’s interest is not really known but may be obvious in uncensored reprinting of messages. Another striking feature of the bottle-post method was the accepted, maybe even expected use of news outlets as a primary form of contact, raising questions about the perceived role which media played in post-war community.
Whilst bottle-messages were not uncommon to the sea-faring tradition of Australia they were usually confined to vessels in distress, or for mapping ocean currents.
The curious question arises whether soldier’s messages from the sea during World War 1 was a collective signal of a nation’s formative distress, despite assurances from soldiers that everything was “ok”.
This questions leads also to asking if the Australian public’s response in delivering bottle-messages was an individual or a national belief-system and practice.
In October 1914 the HMAT Geelong steamed out of Hobart with the first Australians who answered the national role-call. The vessel sailed westward for the war front through Bass’s Strait, conveying Tasmanian soldiers destined for Gallipolli after calling at Adelaide and Perth to add extra troops.
Private Frederick Henry Sharp, regimental #15 of the 12th Battalion,3rd infantry brigade leaned overboard HMAT Geelong two days out of port and cast a message overboard. David Clarke found Sharp’s bottle four months later washed up at Nullawarre on Victoria’s south-west coast. Addressed simply to ‘Miss V. Carman of Ulverstone in Tasmania’ the message was marked “Transport Geelong, 22nd Oct 1914.’ Fred Sharp’s war service records at the National Archives of Australia states Sharp was a telegraph operator who signed up just a month before he sailed. Sharp advanced to the rank of corporal and served the full length of the war in Gallipoli and France, before his return in January of 1919.
(Source: NAA, B2455:Sharp Frederick Henry,son of Hy, born Huon, enlisted Pontville,Tas)
Private Thomas Brown’s message overboard in March 1916 to his mother at Killarney, in Victoria’s south-west was found just a few days later on the Narrawong beach:
“Dear Mother, I am now writing you these few lines, and hope you get them all right. I am putting this note in this bottle, and going to throw it overboard.
We are about 50 miles from shore. We know when we get somewhere near Warrnambool. We are having pretty good weather so far. If it keeps like this the whole of the voyage we will enjoy it.
You can tell father that I am sorry I did not write to him, but I had not time for the last two or three days. It was nothing but running about everywhere getting things ready for inspection.
Well, Mother, I will close my short letter, hoping you get it all right. Remember me to father, sisters and brothers.
(Source:Tom Brown’s letter, Portland Guardian, 20 Mar. 1916, TROVE,NLA)
As private #4448 of the 14th Battalion Tom Brown served in France were he was wounded on the 7th August 1916. Tom’s brother, Private Clarence Brown #5053 of the same battalion was killed three months later, at Passchendaele and lay 15 days on the road to the dressing station before being buried, a simple wooden cross marking his final resting place. Despite his wounds Tom Brown was resent to the front but was again wounded, on the 11th April 1917 and taken prisoner-of-war at Remicourt. Tom was interred in a German war camp at Munster Lager before finally being expatriated to England, and he returned to Australia on the 2nd March 1919.(Source: War Service Records,B2455,NAA.)
Some message bottles reached shore swiftly: Charles Humm of Warrnambool tossed a message overboard to his wife and children on the 2nd August 1916. It was found on the Port Willunga beach just 11 days later by A Macguire of Aldinga.
However a message from Sapper T. E. Marks of the 1st Draft Reinforcements,Field Engineers to his mother Mrs M. Marks at Warrnambool wasn’t found till 19 months later and even then on a far-distant shore.
Written on pages torn from a diary dated 15th January 1917 Mark’s message was eventually found in July 1918 on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island, by Dan. A Williams, of Hokianga (Warrnambool Standard, 13 Jul.1918)
Messages sent home usually offered reassurance that all was well, but understated threads of apprehension included sea-sickness, length of time at sea, destination arrival and conditions on board ship.
On the 18th February 1916 as the transport “Ballarat” sailed past Warrnambool with reinforcements for the 14th Battalion, the husband of Mrs Nellie V. Brown of Kelp St tossed a message overboard to his wife. Private Jacob Brown #4447 wrote there were about 1500 men on board, and the first night out they slept on hummocks “packed in like sardines in a tin”.
The men were a lively lot, but were ‘good fellows’ Brown wrote,
“They were all merry and passed the time singing,”
“We had to get up a 3 am as it was not possible to sleep.”
It was expected the vessel was sail direct for Colombo, Jacob told his wife in his letter found washed up on the 13th April at Discovery Bay. W Thomson of Cape Bridgewater forwarded the letter to the Warrnambool Standard to be passed on to Mrs Brown.
A pencilled note on a brown paper bag was found in a bottle at Gaul’s Cave near Warrnambool on the 22nd Jan 1916 by H.W. Flaherty and W. Brown. The note was sent from the “Transport Demothenese” and cast overboard at Cape Otway on the 20th December 1915.
“Would finder please inform Messr Bower & Young, ‘Chronicle’, Williamstown, Melbourne, that Privates Groening, Dalburg, Duff, McAulon, Cavanagh, Williams and Hickey are on board, and not yet seasick, but expect to be any moment now.” (WS 29 Jan 1916)
A bottle cast overboard off Portland on Victoria’s south-coast by privates Griffiths, Lodge, Dodds, Bristow and Sherlock was found on the Anglesea beach on Monday 27th Nov 1916. The small piece of paper asked the finder to notify the Warrnambool Standard and said there were about 1700 troops aboard their vessel.
“Boys are feeding the fishes, but we are keeping our end up” the writer joked. (Warrnambool Standard 30 Nov 1916)
In March of 1916 M.J. Leddin of Tyrendarra East found a bottle containing “scraps of paper”, on the coast between Port Fairy and Portland with messages for Warrnambool residents. The son of Mrs Fotheringham of Jamieson Street reassured his mother “all the boys stuck together and were as happy as can be.”
Their troopship had left at 6am. wrote Private Fotheringham, adding he “was not seasick”.
Frank J. Grayson of Warrnambool received a message from Srgt Dave Byrne that he was “having a lovely time so far” and that their troopship was bound for Colombo, and Miss Gussie Swinton of Warrnambool was reassured that “all is well and we are having a good trip.”
On Christmas Day 1916 Corporal A. J. Day of Warrnambool cast a bottle overboard promising his mother he would “throw a second one, as near to dear old Warrnambool as he could”. The bottle was found on the 5th of January 1917 on the Queenscliff beach, by Miss Hilda Dowsing of the Methodist Parsonage at Footscray. Day’s father ran the Railway Refreshment Rooms in Warrnambool. (WS Jan. 5, 1917)
Mrs Andrew Mitchell of South Warrnambool and Mrs W. McLennan of Western Reserve in Warrnambool received messages in November 1916 from Private W. McLennan and Private F. E Wilson of the 2nd Infantry Brigade, 21st Reinforcements, 5th Battalion A.I.F. “We are having a delightful trip, all the boys are happy” they reassured the women. Their message was cast overboard on the 4th October and found on the 19th November 1916 on the western beach about 3 miles out of Robe, by John Lea of ‘The Hermitage”.
“We are not touching land for 22 days,” the men wrote,
“The first port of call will be Capetown.”
A letter from 18 ‘Warrnambool boys’ dated 16 March 1916 was cast overboard – “we don’t know where’ -but not found for another 18 months.
The men wrote “we wish to let our friends of Warrnambool and districts know that we are having a pleasant time on our way to the front.”
The men – Cecil T. Harwood , W.F.R.Robinson, Harold Noonan, P.J. White, A. Anderson, R. Tecrett, W. Carter, Punch O’Keefe, J.F.Gleeson, R.P. Perrie, W.Dolan, L. Parkinson, G. Fitzgerald, D.Coleston, W. Rowe, S. Reed, T. Adams and B.Bell had departed Port Melbourne, at 12.30 on March 14 they wrote.
Their troopship pulled into the outer harbour at Adelaide to “pick up some more mates,” and after a pleasant days leave they left “well and healthy at 7.30 am”
“We all hope to be back home when we win and have a sound victory.”The message was found in Nov 1917 and by then,according to the Warrnambool Standard, some of the men had “been through thrilling experiences and returned home.”
Men from the Western District of Victoria were represented in a letter washed ashore at Currie Harbour, on King Island on New Years Day 1916. Tossed from a troopship out of Melbourne the letter was dated 1 August 1916 and signed by J. Carney (Noorat), J. Cullen (Boorcan), D. Macanamara (Warrnambool), W. G Patterson (Terang), T.E. Riley (Caramut), J. Shelley (Geelong), E.J.Ayden, C.V.Fisher, J.W.Atkinson, W. Clifford, D.O’Neill, T .Jackson, C. Stewart and T. Pollock, Ewen Cameron. The bottle was found by O.J. Hardie of Currie Harbour and forwarded as requested to the Warrnambool Standard. (WS 16 Jan. 1917)
New Zealand papers also reprinted bottle messages including one found by W. Steere at Warrnambool late in 1916, from A.E Tremain of the 3rde N.Z Rifle Brigade.
Tremain’s father, Mr H.E Tremain of Wellington read the message in his local newspaper and immediately wrote to Steere as the letter had been sent by his son:
“We have not heard whether he had reached his destination,” Mr Tremain wrote
“I have only received one letter from him, posted presumably from Albany,”
Tremain senior forwarded copies of the original news-clipping to his son at the front in the hope they might reach him. On the 6th Jan 1917 A. E Tremain wrote from the war-front to Steere, to thank him for delivering his message.
“As we are going into the trenches in a day or so, we could not let this opportunity go without writing and thanking you for your kindness” Tremain wrote, and signed the letter along with 13 of the men from the 3rd N.Z. Rifle Brigade.(Warrnambool Standard, 1 Dec.1916)
Not all the messages reached shore in a readable condition. William Maloney found a bottle washed ashore at Gorman’s Lane below Tower Hill in January of 1917 but its contents were water damaged.
Sometimes objects accompanied the bottled messages: Private R Lock placed a small leather kanagaroo stamped with the words “Australia Day” in a bottle, along with a message written on Christmas Day 1915. Lock’s letter, printed in March 1916 also said a girl, masquerading as a soldier and a sailor had been found on a troopship. The girl was prosecuted in March 1916, the Standard later wrote.
The ‘bottle post’ delivered thousands of messages from the sea – and messages were often a soldier’s last. Sometimes curious incidents of fate marked a bottle’s finding:a letter by Private Eric Taylor of Sydney was placed in a bottle and dropped overboard near Fremantle on his sister’s birthday in 1915. Addressed to his parents at Haberfield in N.S.W the bottle was found three years later in East Africa,and the message from there arrived on the sister’s birthday in 1918. (Sunday Times, 6 Jan 1918).
A study of recovered bottles and their contents and the purpose and accuracy of their delivery might best answer questions about their meaning, their role in communication and a community belief system challenged by War.
Such a study might lead to a collaborative national endeavour to record the story of the Messages from the Sea for inclusion in upcoming WW1 commemorations, and foster another social trust between existing archival and memorial community services.
The National Archives of Australia contains digitized soldier’s service records and the National Library of Australia through its TROVE database has significant WW1 newspaper publications that could enable comprehensive study of soldier’s Messages from the Sea.
Jenny Fawcett 17th May 2014