Trove Tuesday: Letter from the Front

Private William Suttie, son of William Suttie and his wife Catherine Purdie, wrote to his father from France in the last months of 1917, and the letter was published in the Singleton Argus, presumably because Private Suttie’s letter contained news of other local lads.

William Suttie was born in Pathhead, Midlothian, Scotland in 1896 and emigrated with his father in 1911. His mother and other siblings followed in mid-1912.

1917 'FIGHTING IN FRANCE.', Singleton Argus (NSW : 1880 - 1954) , 29 December, p. 5, viewed 24 September, 2012,

This letter really gives us an insight into what was happening in the trenches and how communities stayed connected, even on the front. I decided to do a quick search on all the names that Private Suttie mentioned to see what I could find.

As mentioned in Private Suttie’s letter, Jamie Coe (James Mather Coe) died on 12 October 1917 at Passchendaele. He is commemorated on the Menin Gate in Ypres, which I visited in 2009 – an amazingly moving site. I highly recommend a visit to Ypres, and the In Flanders Fields Museum (which is second only to the Australian War Memorial in excellent war museums – and I have been to a few)!

Bert Watson (Albert Victor Watson) was indeed promoted through the ranks of the AIF, firstly to Corporal and then to Company Quarter Master Sergeant. Before the war, he was a Railway Officer with NSW Railways in Newcastle, so there is correspondence in his file between his employer and the army regarding permission to enlist, and his pay once he was promoted. He awarded the Belgian Croix di Guerre, in addition to the Victory Medal, 1914-15 Star, and the British War Medal.

Billy Smith is a little harder to track down – as you can imagine, there are over a thousand personnel files for William Smith. I am not prepared to guess which one is the right one.

Bill Dimmock (William Dimmock) was the eldest of the bunch of Greta “boys” that Private Suttie mentions, he was 40 years old when he enlisted in 1916. Bill made it through to war, returning to Australia in 1919. William’s eldest son, Samson, also joined up in 1918, just after his 18th birthday, also returning safely to Australia. Bill’s second son, William James enlisted on 8 May 1918, only to be discharged on 13 September 1918 for being underage. He even supplied a tampered with birth certificate to try and prove his age, but the army received confirmation from the Registry Office that it was a fake and sent him packing.

Sam Waring (Samuel Waring) enlisted in Sydney in April 1916, but was from Greta. He was also promoted whilst in France from Private to Corporal. He returned safely to Australia in 1919.

William Suttie’s own record also allows me to paint more of a picture than simply knowing his “numbers”.

According to his description on enlistment, he had tattoos on his chest and both arms, something I did not expect from the stories I always heard about his upright (or uptight) Presbyterian upbringing.

In December 1916, Private Suttie spent a week in hospital sick. He was also reprimanded (and fined 14 days’ pay) for being AWOL for five days in the month before he embarked for France from England after recovering from bronchitis. I wonder where he went for five days. Did he go up to Edinburgh and visit his family?

He was wounded in action only four months prior to writing the letter, and spent a month in hospital in France, before returning to the front and going over the top with his mates.

William returned to Australia, married Iris McElvoy in Sydney in 1922, and started a family of his own. I am actually descended from William's sister Christina Purdie Suttie, and I will write another post soon about their parents.

All the Trove Tuesday posts are listed here. Please join in, and share some of the treasures you have found on Trove.

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