Sunday, March 11, 2018

Envelopes of pain

It was the news no one wanted to hear; it was the knock at the door that everyone dreaded. Donald Overall was a young boy, but it was a morning he never forgot:
I remember the day we heard very distinctly .… Mother and I were downstairs in the main hall when the doorbell rang.  I was hiding behind her as she was handed an envelope.  I remember she opened the letter immediately.  I didn’t know what it said, but she screamed and collapsed on the floor in a dead faint. I tried to wake her up; I didn’t know what was wrong. I was holding on to her skirts and called out for help and an elderly couple who lived in a lower flat came out and comforted both of us.  Mother came round slowly and they eventually got her upstairs into the bedroom. She was there for about ten days and it was while she was getting better, that she turned onto her side and said to me, ‘Your father’s dead, he won’t come back.  Now you are the man of the house, you must do things as best as you can.’ And I said, ‘Me, Mum?’ I was five years old.  That changed my life; it had to.*

Families of the war dead received news of their soldier’s death in a variety of ways: officers’ next-of-kin received telegrams (Australian telegrams were pink), while the families of the other ranks typically were sent an official form in the mail (British death notices were sealed in buff envelopes). Notification was slower during major offensives with heavy casualties, and a fellow soldier might write the family if he saw a man killed or found his body.  Some families heard the news through word-of-mouth from a soldier on leave, and officers or chaplains might send a personal letter if they had the time.  It was also possible to receive letters from the fallen soldier, written before his death but arriving after official notification of his death had been received. 

War Time

Telegram sent to Mrs H Allen,
notifying her of the death of her son
Young John, the postman, day by day,
In sunshine or in rain,
Comes down our road with words of doom
In envelopes of pain.

What cares he as he swings along
At his mechanic part,
How many times his hand lets fall
The knocker on a heart?

He whistles merry scraps of song,
What'er his bag contain—
Of words of death, of words of doom
In envelopes of pain.
            --Mary Eliza Fullerton 

Over 60,000 men from Australia died in the First World War, and an estimated one in every four families mourned a son or husband who had been killed.** But for those living thousands of miles from the battlefields where their loved ones had died, there was no object to which their grief could attach.  They were deprived of bodies to prepare for burial and graves to visit, and as historian K.S. Inglis notes, “the war which created such unprecedented levels of bereavement may actually have tended to reduce its public expression. The British government discouraged deep mourning as bad for the nation’s morale.”†  In “War Time,” the only physical link with the dead soldier is the envelope that brings the news. The jarring contrast between the carefree postman and the “words of death, words of doom,” implies that society expects mourners to internalize their emotions, to seal them in metaphorical envelopes of pain. 

Mary Eliza Fullerton was an Australian writer and activist who campaigned for women’s rights and protested military conscription.  In his history of Australian women writers, Dale Spender writes,
Mary E. Fullerton
Given that Mary Eliza Fullerton is acknowledged in H.M. Green’s History of Australian Literature, it could almost be said that here was one woman poet who had ‘made it’ into the literary canon—except of course that she rates no mention in the Oxford History of Australian Literature, or in Geoffrey Dutton’s Literature of Australia, and she is not included in the Oxford Anthology of Australian Literature. Why she should have been omitted from these later surveys and selections is a matter for speculation, for it cannot be because she was unknown or that her work was without merit…. Mary Fullerton wrote provocative polemic poetry which still makes its point today.”††
Her poem “War Time” appeared in The Breaking Furrow, published in 1921. 
* Richard van Emden, The Quick and the Dead, Bloomsbury, 2011, pp. 108-109.
** Bruce Scates, “Bereavement and Mourning (Australia),” 1914-1918 Online International Encyclopedia of the First World War,, Accessed 10 Mar. 2018.
† K. S. Inglis, Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape, Melbourne UP, 1999, p. 98.
†† Dale Spender, Writing a New World: Two Centuries of Australian Women Writers, Spinifex, 1988, p. 203.