With Remembrance Day just around the corner, I thought it timely to revisit the story of the Fryer brothers and share some of their letters and postcards which are representative of the humanity and filial affection of these four young men. To remind yourself of their story, revisit my blog from September 30th, “The legacy of war”.
The Fryer’s mother Rosina and sister Liz were the most frequent recipients of letters and cards, but William and Jack in particular were solicitous in writing to their youngest brother, Walter. Walter was only nine years old when Will and Jack enlisted, and their cards home to him are characteristically light and jolly, and signed with a long line of kisses. They frequently express an optimism about an early termination to the war and return home. While still in Egypt for Christmas 1915, William wrote to Walter, “Dear Walter, Just a PC to let you know that we had a merry Christmas & I hope it will be a happy new year & will see us all back in Australia again. I hope you had a merry Christmas with plenty of presents & plum pudding with money in it. I suppose you will be getting ready for school again when you get this so you will not have much time to write but I will send you a PC as often as I can. Love & kisses from Will”
The letters demonstrate the deep love and respect the brothers held for their mother and sister, and their communications betray a concern for their welfare, particularly in respect to money. The departure of four contributors to the family income must have been noticeable, but all four brothers elected for part of their army pay to be sent directly to their mother, who apparently carefully kept it aside for them. In September of 1916, Charlie wrote to her, “Mother never bother about keeping my money for me, use the lot of it because I will not want it when I get back. I will be satisfied to get home.” In response to news that Liz had collected a prize for most popular woman, presumably at a local event, Charlie replied, “I am glad you took the prize for most popular woman but if Mother had been there you would have had to take a back seat I am afraid. Do not think I am against you, never that.”
One of the most touching items in the collection is a rare postcard from Rosina Fryer to her eldest son William. Most of the correspondence in the Fryer collection is from the brothers to family at home – very few letters travelling in the other direction have survived. The practicalities of carrying and keeping personal belongings in the trenches make surviving letters from home much more of a rarity. This postcard captures a poignant suggestion of how every day family life was constantly overshadowed by anxiety for those fighting abroad. “My Dear Will. This card stuck me as how you wrote to take me on your knee and torment me so I thought I would send it along to greet you as we were laughing the other day about how you used to tease and tell Bob how I used to teach you all these tricks. I often wonder if we will ever have the good jolly times again but we must hope so. Good bye with love to you all three over there. Mother”
On November 11th, the Fryer Library will launch an online exhibition featuring the papers in the John Denis Fryer Collection. Watch the Fryer Library homepage for news of the exhibition launch https://www.library.uq.edu.au/fryer-library/
When I was approached by the Springsure Hospital Museum to create a WWI display, I thought it would be an interesting opportunity to research the medical advances made during the war necessitated by the unprecedented injuries inflicted by this new industrial warfare. The idea for the exhibition was inspired by a memorial plaque from a ward built in 1925, paying tribute to the men of Springsure who had served in the Great War. The impacts of death and wounding from WWI were amplified in these remote Queensland towns which relied on the labour of strong young men to operate and survive. In investigating Springsure soldiers whose experiences would assist in the telling of the medical history of WWI, my attention was seized by four remarkable brothers and the research took on a momentum of its own.
Many who have spent time in and around libraries in Brisbane will doubtless be familiar with the Fryer Library at the University of Queensland. But how many are familiar with the story behind the thoughtful looking young man in a Lieutenant’s uniform whose photographic portrait hangs behind the reception desk? Perhaps few are aware of the story of his tragically short life, and the price he and his three brothers paid for their service in France.
The Fryer brothers were initially of interest to the exhibition as their parents, Charles and Rosina Fryer, were for a time Wardsman and Matron at the Springsure Hospital, and Jack, after whom the Fryer Library is named, was born there in 1895. Although the youngest of the brothers of eligible age, Jack was the first of the four to successfully enlist, but was closely followed by William, the eldest, then Charles and Henry.
William was the first to suffer the serious physical consequences of war, and was severely wounded at Mouquet Farm in September of 1916. Although according to his brother Charlie’s letter home he was “alright, happy and laughing”, William’s injuries were severe enough for him to be returned to Australia, unfit for active service and his capacity to earn his living at his former occupation as a labourer was estimated to have been reduced by half.
In the same action which saw William’s active military career ended, his brother Charles was buried alive three times by exploding shells, only narrowly escaping with his life. Charlie suffered through the appalling Somme winter of 1916/17, struggling through the worst conditions experienced in 60 years, and like thousands of others, suffered exhaustion, constant stress, and trench foot. Charlie’s letters home cannot disguise his homesickness, as he longs for the “old bush life in the bush of Queensland, where you can get wood for a fire and a free old life”. Witnessing his friends killed around him weighed heavily on him. Charlie stoically endured the horrors of the Somme until he too was killed in action near Bullecourt on April 5th, 1917.
Henry had joined his brothers in France somewhat later, but was precipitated into the grim trench warfare of the Western Front and sustained a fractured elbow from a gunshot wound at Messines in 1917. Also declared unfit for active service as a result of his wounds, he was returned to Australia.
As the only brother remaining on active service, Jack wrote to his sister in June of 1917 “S’pose it’s my turn for a clout now”. As a Lieutenant, Jack’s chances of wounding or death were high, with the average life expectancy of Lieutenants on the Western Front estimated during some stages of the war at as little as three months. Despite the grim odds, Jack endured for over another year, finally receiving severe gunshot and shrapnel wounds during an attack on his trench at 4am in August of 1918. Unfit for further active service, he remained recuperating in England until after the end of the war, at which time he returned to Australia.
On returning to Australia, Jack re-entered the University of Queensland to continue his studies which had been interrupted by the war, but failing health in 1922 led to him missing his final exams to receive treatment for tuberculosis at a soldier’s convalescent home in Brisbane. It is likely that he contracted the disease in the squalid conditions of the trenches, and there seems to be an understanding within the family that his lungs had already been weakened by a poison gas attack in 1917. Alarmed at his sudden decline, his mother traveled to Brisbane to collect him and bring him home to Springsure where she could nurse him. All efforts were in vain however, and Jack died in February of 1923 at the age of 27.
The stories of Jack Fryer and his brothers are most eloquently told in the letters they sent home from the front, now held at the Fryer Library. While they commented very little on the experiences they encountered in places now etched in the Australian collective memory, their personalities come alive through their letters – their concern for each other and their friends, the family jokes they share, and their desire to allay the fears of those left at home. The Fryer letters build a picture of a close, loving family with a dynamic probably more familiar to the 21st century than the early 20th, and the grief of family and friends at Charlie’s death in action and Jack’s terminal illness following the war is still palpable.
During a recent visit to Springsure, I was privileged to meet and talk with relatives and descendants of the Fryer brothers, and others in the community who remembered them well. Together with their letters and photographs, this provides such a tangible link with the past so as to make it appear so much more immediate. My thanks to the Fryer Library and the Springsure community for assisting with this research.
Keep watching the MDO blog as more of the Fryer story unfolds in the lead up to the exhibition at the Springsure Hospital Museum.
Jo Wills and I recently visited the Underground Hospital in Mt Isa. The underground section of the hospital was built after Darwin was bombed by the Japanese in February 1942. There was a belief that Mt Isa could also be bombed and that precautions needed to be taken to secure the operation of the hospital. Local miners volunteered to work in their spare time and on weekends to build the facility. A H-shaped underground “bunker” was dug out of the solid rock in the hill beside Mount Isa’s Base Hospital over a sixteen week period. After the war the hospital was forgotten about and in 1999 it was rediscovered and restored over time. Today the museum also includes a substantial hospital and medical equipment display above ground as well as an underground experience complete with objects and props. The underground experience details how the hospital would have operated if it had become operational.