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The Dreamer and the Cheerful Thing.

Bob and Harold Snape in the First World War

Some months after my grandfather Bob Snape’s death in 1977 I collected two old trunks full of memorabilia from his last home, in Sandringham. What a treasure it turned out to be: jammed full of papers, comprising correspondence, diaries, short stories, a poem or two, much of it typed, some of it hand-written, some official-looking documents and some music scores roughly sorted into manila folders, and a variety of souvenirs and ephemera. There were also half a dozen ordnance maps, aerial photographs of some Western Front battlefields and some battered old albums containing postcards, of WW1 France and Belgium, but also of England and Wales. These have since been catalogued on the Warrnambool RSL Victorian Collections page.

Bob’s treasure trove tells the story of his experiences during the war, and that of his younger brother Harold who also fought. Bob was a prolific correspondent and diarist, whilst Harold’s own tiny pocket diary alone ran to approximately 40,000 words. Near the end of his life, Bob told me, “You can burn the lot for all I care. You decide when I’m gone....”

Walter J.R. Barber

“......... When We Were Two Little Boys.”

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The beginning of a long friendship: Bob and Harold were inseparable as children.

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Bob and Harold's Parents.

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John T and Rosina Snape married in Parkville in 1890. Rosina’s extended family, the Cooks, moved out to Taylor Street, Moonee Ponds and the Snapes soon followed, settling just a few doors away. The Snapes had three sons: Robert Oswald, born 1892; Harold John, born 1893; and Frank Wellard, born 1895. The boys were devoted to their doting grandparents and numerous aunts. JT Snape’s roots were in coal-mining and canal-building engineering in the north of England and South Wales. On leave in England during the war Bob and Harold visited this extended family.

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Madge

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Bob Snape’s wife Madge was born in North Fitzroy in 1890. Her parents, Andrew J McLaughlin and his wife Bridget Therese (née Slattery), were a working-class, Irish Protestant/Roman Catholic couple. Young and beautiful with primary schooling and a good singing voice, Madge worked in Victorian Railways station tea-rooms, where she may have met Bob Snape before he went to war. Her father had forbidden any of his daughters from marrying a soldier, so any reference to their romance and hasty, secret Registry Office marriage have been torn from Bob’s journal. She wore her ring on a string around her neck.

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The Snape Boys go to War

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As a boy Bob was asthmatic, but he became a strong swimmer. He was a gentle, religious man who attended the Methodist Church and later, the Church of Christ Scientist. He was a pianist and organist and worked as a clerk. Bob enlisted in the army in July 1915, as a Medical Corps Stretcher Bearer.

By contrast his brother Harold was the dashing sportsman of the family. Harold was a trained draftsman and joined the Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train, transferring after Gallipoli to the Artillery. He even applied (unsuccessfully) to transfer to the Australian Flying Corps.

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Travelling on the H.M.A.T. ‘DEMOSTHENES’

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Bob sailed from Melbourne on 29th December 1915, bound for adventure (and possibly to escape from a hasty marriage). He sailed on the HMAT Demosthenes as part of the 8th Reinforcements, 6th Field Ambulance, Army Medical Corps.

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Best Mates

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Bob trained in Egypt, where he was reunited with Harold in February 1916. Upon his arrival on the Western Front, Bob applied for Harold's transfer to 2nd Division HQ, and in September 1916 Harold arrived at the 2nd Division HQ on the Somme. The brothers worked together at Fricourt Château for two months. However Harold missed the action at the front, and soon transferred back to the Artillery against his brother's wishes. Bob followed Harold's progress and always knew where his brother's gun-battery was on the line and, with a little time off, he would find his way to the 46th Battery's Wagon Lines to see Harold and visit the local estaminet, or pub.

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Schloss, or Chateau, Fricourt

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Bob and Harold worked for 2nd Division HQ in the basement of this ruined château for two months in late 1916. This postcard, painted by a German officer, shows the ruined château during the 1914/15 German occupation of that part of the Somme district, near Albert.

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Short War Biographies

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Bob and Harold's war diaries and letters describe their experiences during the war.

Harold enlisted as a driver with the1st Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train, a horse drawn engineering unit, in March 1915. He served on Gallipoli from 7 August until the Evacuation. This photograph shows Harold visiting a gun crew at Gallipoli. After Gallipoli he was an artilleryman on the Western Front.

Bob arrived on the Western Front on 9 April 1916, and applied for a stenographer's position at the 6th Field Ambulance HQ. From 23 June to 30 November 1918 Bob served as confidential clerk to General Sir John Monash, commander of the Australian Corps.

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Harold in Training

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This photograph shows Harold Snape after completion of a course at the Royal Artillery Cadet School at St. John’s Wood, London, July 1918. Soon after this he transferred as 2nd Lieutenant, 47th Battery, 12th Field Artillery Brigade, 4th Division, AIF.

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Harold Gassed at Fricourt Wood, 15 /16 August 1918

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During the Hundred Days Offensive, Harold, newly commissioned 2nd Lieutenant, was with the 47th Battery stationed in Fricourt Woods, very close to the old Chateau that he had once shared with Bob. On that warm night they felt that there was little risk from poison gas, so Harold and some of the other members of the gun-crews slept without their masks. A late night gas attack caught them unprepared, and a number of soldiers were affected. Harold was taken to No. 55 Casualty Clearing Station and thence, by hospital train to No. 8 General Hospital in Rouen, arriving on 18 August, 1918. Matron Roscoe wrote this letter to notify Harold’s family that he was a patient.

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The Death of Harold

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Harold died on the morning of 19th August 1918. Bob was given leave to try to see Harold in hospital but arrived too late. Matron Roscoe wrote this letter to Harold’s family after his death. Her words, penned whilst dealing with a ward full of desperately ill and dying young men, show great emotional and physical strength to write one more letter to a family on the other side of the world to let them know the fate of their boy.

Bob was devastated by his brother’s death and never really recovered from the trauma.

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The Dreamer and the Cheerful Thing go Walking

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This photograph shows Harold's grave.

Bob was prone to fits of depression during the war, and seems to have been deeply affected by his long enforced absence from home and his loved ones. In a poetic and powerful letter to his father he describes a dream he had, written the day before Harold was gassed.

EXCERPT: Bob’s letter to his father, dated 14 August 1918.

The dreamer was meandering through the tired village of -------- when he bumped into the Cheerful Thing.

“Well?” said the Dreamer.

“Quite well!” said the Cheerful Thing.

Two lorries rumbled past. “Curse the lorries;” muttered the Dreamer, they smother us with mud in the winter, and in the summer they choke us with dust.”

“C’est la guerre!” said the Cheerful Thing, and then added: “Suppose we walk as far as the Canal?”

Arrived at the canal, they sat on the grass on the bank. “I love the smell of the reeds,” remarked the Cheerful Thing. No reply from the Dreamer – he was dreaming of something else, far, far away.

“Nothing doing on the Canal nowadays, what!” continued the Cheerful Thing. “I should have liked to see it in the pre-war days. I can fancy the laden barges gliding slowly past and the horse jogging along the towpath. And look at that lock with the big hole alongside where a bomb has just missed it. Yes, everything seems strangely deserted now: but the water, which has no soul, still keeps flowing, flowing as though nothing has changed. It knows no war. Ignorance is bliss, etc, etc: or one might say: ‘Wars may come and wars may go, but I go on forever’.”

“I wish this war would go; it came quite a long time ago,” said the Dreamer, forcefully, (coming back to earth again with a thud).

The Cheerful Thing gazed carelessly down the Canal. “You don’t see these things in Australia,” he remarked presently.

“Seldom,” answered the Dreamer.

“Rather pretty and peaceful, don’t you think?”

“Yes, but I’d give all their canals for any little Australian creek at present.”

“You don’t say! What creek would the gentleman like?”

“Oh! any old creek. Even the Moonee Ponds, with all its dead pets thrown in.” “I’d like a river for every cat or dog that has finished up in that picturesque and pleasant stream, what?”

“What’s that silly song that goes, ‘I want to get back; I want to get back?’ “ asked the Dreamer, suddenly. “Those confounded words will persist in repeating themselves in my brain.”

“Better see the doctor,” suggested the Cheerful Thing. “Go on sick parade in the morning and get painted with iodine or something,” he added cheerfully.

“Don’t be mad: I’m always like this when I’ve received mail from Home.”

“Trouble is, old man, you think too much.”

“Can’t help it. When the Australian mail comes in, up goes my barometer; but when I’ve finished the last letter, bang goes everything. I fold up the sheets and replace them in the envelopes – then look around me and realise that I am still in France, some 12,000 miles from dear old Home.”

“Dear, oh dear!” said the Cheerful Thing, with a mock sigh. “Well! What’s wrong with France, anyhow? Most delightful place! Delightful climate – er, in summer I mean; and delightful language -- when you happen to see a civilian about, to talk to.”

“Yes, but Australia means Home – and that makes all the difference in the world,” snapped the Dreamer.

“Mid châteaux and shell-holes tho’ we may roam, Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home,” chanted the Cheerful Thing.“Shut up, can’t you!” cried the Dreamer, “I’m feeling rotten enough now.”

“Well! I guarantee to either kill or cure. I say! After the war, they reckon one will be able to reach Australia in a few days by aerial means.”

“Why, I can reach Australia in a moment, by merely closing my eyes,” said the Dreamer. “I was actually there last night, though I don’t often dream of it nowadays.” I had caught the 20 to 6 from Flinders Street – the same old crawling train. Stopped once on the viaduct and twice between Spencer Street and North Melbourne, and landed me at the old Essendon station about 5 past six. I looked about for my father as I made my exit from the station, but, as he was nowhere to be seen, I concluded he had missed his usual train and would probably be following on the next. I dashed through the twisty old subway and walked briskly down the same old Buckley Street hill, then rushed in the Lorraine Street side gate. Saw my mother standing at the back door and gave her an impulsive kiss. I then had a bit of a wash and slipped into the drawing room for a few minutes on the piano while waiting for father to arrive. My brother Harold was already home, and engaged in printing some photos. Five minutes later, Father and my brother Frank arrived together, and we all sat down to the tea-table in just the same old way. I was just taking my mouthful of soup when something seemed to go wrong and I found myself lying on a board floor, with the first rays of the morning sun trying to struggle through the cracked and dirt-stained glass of our billet’s windows.” The Dreamer finished up with a lump in his throat.

“I was dreaming; I was dreaming! There was sadness in the air,” warbled the Cheerful Thing.

“Jove! It begins to get dusk early now,” interrupted the Dreamer, “I think we’d better return to work again.”

“At night when ‘tis dark and lonely, In dreams it is still with me,” hummed the Cheerful Thing as they rose to go back.

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