This is a guest blog post in the First World War Centenary series, written by Amanda Laugesen, author of Boredom is the Enemy: the Intellectual Lives of Australian Soldiers in the Great War and Beyond
While letters from home were the most cherished reading material for Australian soldiers serving far from home during the Great War, soldiers read a wide range of books, newspapers, and periodicals. Such reading served various purposes for soldiers, from connecting them to home, to education, to allowing for a brief escape from the realities of military life and the horrors of war.
Other than letters from home, soldiers eagerly anticipated receiving newspapers and periodicals from friends and family. One Australian soldier, Bob Bice, wrote home to thank his family for sending him newspapers from his home town of Nowra: ‘[a] person far from home finds even the advertisements of his home town very interesting reading.’ Newspapers from home informed soldiers about life back there and helped them endure the time abroad. Australian periodicals like The Bulletin were also very popular, with one soldier warning his cousin who was sending them to him: ‘it would be advisable to take cover off. The Bulletin is the most popular here and is sought after by about every man.’
Books were highly prized by many soldiers. Books were provided to soldiers through charitable organisations like the Camps Library. Books ranged from escapist fare such as the work of writers like Nat Gould, John Buchan, and William LeQueux, to more serious educational works such as Darwin’s Origin of Species and a range of popular political texts. For soldiers, escapist fare served an important psychological function in allowing a respite from the realities of war. Educational and political works connected soldiers to civilian occupations and aspirations as they planned for a life after the war. Reading was not confined to silent reading, either. There are many mentions of soldiers reading aloud to one another.
Reading was important to many Australian soldiers during the Great War, and this reminds us that soldiers continued to seek entertainment and opportunities to educate themselves even in the context of war.
For more on soldiers’ reading and other experiences of education and entertainment in wartime, see Amanda Laugesen, Boredom is the Enemy: the Intellectual Lives of Australian Soldiers in the Great War and Beyond (2012).