While researching her great uncle, alumnus Captain Thomas Cotgrave Hewitt (BA 1904), Janette Mayne discovered his final letter from the Western Front on the University's website, Beyond 1914.
"Probably before I write again, our boys will be in the thick of it, and whatever turns up we are glad to have had our chance. Well mother dear, love to you all and God bless you. Your loving son Tom."
When Janette Mayne began researching her great uncle, alumnus Captain Thomas Cotgrave Hewitt (BA 1904), she thought she had the last letter the former school teacher had written during his 15 months fighting at Gallipoli and on the Western Front.
Originally from Toowoomba in Queensland, Captain Hewitt attended The Kings School in NSW from 1893 to 1897, before graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Sydney in 1904. He enlisted in the Australian Infantry Force in Toowoomba in April 1915.
Ms Mayne, together with her mother and daughter, had spent many hours in a labour of love, transcribing the hand-written letters that had been fondly kept by Captain Hewitt’s mother.
“I thought we had his last letter home before he was killed,” Ms Mayne explained, “until discovering the typed one on your website.”
The letter by Captain Hewitt was written on 27 July 1916, the day before he was killed in action, aged 35, in the Battle for Pozières, France on the Western Front. His service record states he acted “very gallantly and decisively in rallying his men.” He is commemorated in the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial.
Ms Mayne had discovered Captain Hewitt’s letter on Beyond 1914 – The University of Sydney and the Great War, an interactive website of biographies and archival information of members of the University community involved in the First World War.
She said she had immediately felt a “connection” with the person who had transcribed Captain Hewitt’s letters originally provided to the University.
“Knowing someone else had read and transcribed Tom’s letters, whoever it was read some of the exact same letters and typed some of the exact words that I did.”
Beyond 1914 was sourced using information provided to the University between 1916 and 1938 by more than 2000 former staff, students, graduates and their families.
Today, it provides an insight into the lives of University women and men before, during and after the war. It includes personal diaries, war service records, photographs, letters, postcards, songbooks and Christmas and condolence cards.
Before Ms Mayne got in touch, Captain Hewitt’s profile on the site included only a handful of his letters and a single photograph.
However, she has since generously shared her own research and copies of letters sent by Captain Hewitt and other members of his family. The letters, both humourous and poignant, are now publically available on Beyond 1914 for the whole community to read.
“It has been so good to be able to make our family documents available to a wider audience,” she said.
In one letter, dated 16 July 1916, less than two weeks before he died, Captain Hewitt threatened to stop writing to his mother if she continued to write about her fears of him being killed:
"Two letters from you…both very doleful because I am killed or something. What matters is if one is killed provided we win! Don’t be silly or I'll not write a line to you at all. As a matter of fact I have been enjoying exuberant health and been enjoying the time of my life."
He also joked about the large number of socks he had received from his mother and her friends:
"I got a very excellent pair of socks from you (28th pair) and as luck would have it I was very glad to get them as we have left most of our things elsewhere. Also two pairs that I gave away from Mrs Lee of Tenterfield. I’ve 128,634 pairs of socks now and have rented a deserted factory to store them in."
In another letter sent from Gallipoli, Captain Hewitt praises the courage of his troops.
"It is curious, but the chaps who turn up trumps in the tight corners are not always the ones that you expect. Several of my "old drunks" are among the best men we have. I had about five that I kept in the guard tent for the last week in Abbassia, for fear they would - with the best intentions in the world - get drunk on the last day and stay behind. Over here they are fine chaps. One of them is a Boer - another fought against him - but they are all handy men in a risky place."
University of Sydney Historian Julia Horne said opportunities for shared research were a particular delight of Beyond 1914.
“The website serves the community and the University, with families overjoyed to uncover letters or photographs from the University archives now in the public domain, and in return make additional contributions.
“It is a great honour and often very moving, to read the hand-written letters of men and women detailing their observations and personal experiences in wartime.”
This History Week (5–13 September), Beyond 1914 celebrates the first anniversary of its launch. Over the past 12 months, supplementary information has regularly been added to the site, thanks to the generosity of family historians such as the Maynes, special interest groups and volunteer citizen historians.
In August 2015, the site received a commendation in the Australian Society of Archivists 2015 Mander Jones Awards in the category of the best finding aid to an archival collection held by an Australian institution or about Australia.
Beyond 1914 receives generous support from the University of Sydney’s Chancellor’s Committee, Women’s College, St Paul’s College, St John’s College and St Andrew’s College, and the University of Sydney.
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