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Voices from the past

A handwritten letter from Ben Champion to his beloved Francis Niland

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Posted on April 24 2019

A box of Anzac letters, diaries and photos has illuminated the experiences of ordinary Australians who served in the First World War.

Canberra woman Penny Ferguson discovered the trove in her late mother’s house and has compiled its contents as a book that is a rich resource on servicemen from the Hunter Valley region.

Penny’s grandfather, Lieutenant Ben Champion (1897-1978) from Wahroonga, northern Sydney, was just 18 when news arrived in Australia of the Anzacs’ landing at Gallipoli. The young militia cadet quickly gained his parents’ permission and enlisted in the 7th Reinforcements of the 1st Battalion.

He began writing letters and diaries from the moment he arrived at Liverpool Camp and then shipped out to Gallipoli and France – Lagnicourt, Broodeseinde Ridge and Passchendaele – rising quickly through the ranks to become a lieutenant. He also took photos of many men who did not return to Australia.

Ms Ferguson said Ben’s primary correspondent was his beloved Francis Julia Niland, 16, whom he called ‘Franc’ (or ‘Frank’), but he also wrote to Franc’s mother and other family members.

“The letters to Franc were personal descriptions of Ben’s wartime experiences, softened and abbreviated so she would not be too concerned for his welfare and safety,” she said.

“His journal entries describe in more detail the life of a young soldier and his mates at war, the songs they were singing and the books he was reading in the trenches, the changing perceptions of the enemy, his homesickness for his family and friends back home and how desperate he was for their letters.

“The entries change as the experiences of war mature and harden Ben and his mates.

“The diaries are enriched by Ben’s photographs of people, times and places, taken with his baby Kodak, waist deep in mud and a long way from home.”

Penny said she wanted the book to educate, commemorate and inspire Australians.

“The book gives access to those who served in the Great War, especially those who died single and childless and have no direct descendants to remember and commemorate them,” she said.

“Many of the men who returned home were damaged to varying degrees, either physically or emotionally, or both.

A group portrait of Australian soldiers (Ben Champion and his mates) seated on hessian bags
Egypt, 1916: Ben Champion and his mates, Billy Hunt, Harry Newing and Rupe Neil
A portrait of Lieutenant Ben Champion before he joined the Australian Imperial Forces
Ben Champion in his cadet militia uniform

“It is not often acknowledged how many men died within a few years of returning to Australia.”

The book has an appendix of all the soldiers mentioned in Ben’s letters and diaries, many of them from the Hunter Valley, along with a service summary for each individual.

“Thanks to Ben, extended family may now know more of their boys and remember them as fun-loving young men on their big adventure, rather than just memorialising them as heroes who made great sacrifices,” Penny said.

“Ben writes of his emotions, what he is seeing, events, customs and social history.

“After the war, his letters testify to the permanent physical and mental injuries he suffered.

“Loud noises and rain storms thrust him back to the crackle of gunfire and the rain, mud and blood of France.”

On 1 April 1918, Ben and his troops were resting near the hedges of Pradelles, north-west of Lille, when he was hit by an exploding shell and had to have his left leg amputated.

He was invalided to Australia the following August and, after marrying Franc, went on to become a dentist in Newcastle and one of the first members of the International College of Dentists.

His collection of letters, diaries and photos is held by the Australian War Memorial and has been published as Ben and His Mates.

Picadilly, London
3th March 1918

Dear old Girl,
My letters have been terribly skimpy of late. I haven’t forgotten you by any means but I’m all on pins and needles and cannot settle down or concentrate my mind on anything whatever. …
If your birthday happens to be on 5 May as I think it is then I wish you many, many happy returns of the day and hope this wretched war will be over before your next comes along. …
I absolutely hate going back to France, not that I’m funking it at all but the continual wear and tear and concert pitch is getting on my nerves. You can’t settle down to write but one keeps jigging about on your feet the whole time.
How I’m longing to be back. I’m very very homesick Pal. … London is such a huge dreary place too big and lonesome. What shall it be Frank, dentist, soldier, farmer or nothing at all. Why couldn’t this war have come a few years hence when I had some job at my fingertips? …
Butter is short, Sugar too. Bread will shortly be rationed and weighed out. Just imagine the bother if dear old Australia had to put up with that. … What a home must be like.
Great dairy country all the way down to Sussex, beautiful grassy fields too just like the Hunter Valley.
Well Franc, I’ll close now.
Love from Ben

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