Splattered with Somme mud, a small pocket diary kept by Private Stan Rosser throughout 1917 tells its own story of the life of an Australian soldier on the Western Front.
Some of its pages have been lost, and its penciled entries faded and barely legible, but the diary is treasured as a piece of family and Great War history by Stan’s descendants.
It tells of a young man caught up in one of the most momentous events of modern times, with wry observations of people and places. One of the most poignant entries is a simple request:
“If I should get killed, will the finder please return the notebook and its contents to my mother, Mrs WH Davidson, Tamborine Mountain, Queensland, Australia.”
Born in 1891 in Brisbane, Stan had farmed the southern end of Tamborine Mountain with his brother Jack Rosser, in the Fern Street area where they had lived with their mother and stepfather.
The brothers made their living delivering their produce to Canungra by horse and cart via the road now known as the ‘goat track’.
Stan was 24 when he enlisted in the AIF in Brisbane on February 14, 1916. Between May and December he trained with the Army Medical Corps before being allocated to the 8th reinforcements of the 49th Battalion on December 5.
His diary begins shortly before Stan embarked on the Demosthenes in Sydney on December, 22 1916, and opens with his rail journey from Wallangarra, noting: “we got a good reception everywhere we went”.
As 1916 came to a close, Stan was battling seasickness, writing on December 31 that he had been ill twice in the morning. However, he rallied as the ship was only a day from Fremantle and noted in his diary how, the day before, he had seen a whale “cruising about 20 miles an hour”.
A few days later, Stan was suffering from homesickness as well as seasickness, writing on January 4 “wish I was home feel very unwell”, the next day adding: “Dreamt I was home last night there is no place like it.”
There was an outbreak of cerebral spinal meningitis (the deadly meningococcal disease) on board the ship and on January 14, the same day Stan saw flying fish for the first time, a man was buried at sea. “Had the blues all day,” Stan wrote.
His spirits had improved by the time he reached Durban, which he declared “about the prettiest town I have ever seen”. Next stop was Capetown, where Stan wished he had more money to spend.
On February 3, Stan began working in the ship’s increasingly busy hospital. Eight days later, it was treating 200 sick men.
The ship put in at Sierra Leone, where there was a military funeral for another soldier who had died of meningitis. Of the burial Stan wrote: “The soil is red, not like ours.”
On February 13, as he marked his first anniversary in the AIF, another soldier died and it was Stan’s job to prepare the body for burial.
The ship finally arrived in England on March 3 and for the next weeks the focus of Stan’s diary entries were walks in the English countryside around the training camp at Codford, rifle and bayonet practice, drills and guard duty, the weather and food – or lack of it.
The Australian troops were reviewed by the King on April 17, prompting Stan to write: “Very impressive scene; King George a very little man.”
On May 3, Stan passed the test as a first class shot, achieving a score of 122 out of 125 on the rifle range.
Stan’s comment on May 7 that he “saw a flying machine” is a reminder that in 1917 aviation was literally just taking off.
It was not until June 14 that Stan and his comrades finally left Codford for Southampton, arriving at Havre in France the following day.
Stan’s first real experience of war was recorded on July 11:
“Fritz killed two men and horse knocked down; blood all over the place”.
Stan came under shellfire for the first time on the night of June 16, when one man, a sergeant in the pioneers, was killed.
On August 19, Stan recounted the shooting down of an aeroplane which “came down in a spiral fashion”.
The fighting became more intense during the next weeks, with Stan writing of seeing shellholes some 30 feet (nine metres) across and 12 feet (3.6 metres) deep while carrying barbed wire and iron sheeting to the front line.
Enjoying a well-earned rest from the front, Stan enjoyed swimming in the River Lys at Coyeques on September 6 and meeting “a Duncan boy from Canungra” on September 8.
The battalion returned to the front on September 25 and attacked the Westhoek Ridge line during the Battle of Polygon Wood. On September 27 Stan wrote of how “fritz counter attacked twice in the night but our guns sent him back”.
The Australians took Broodseinde Ridge on October 4 and holding the line on October 10, Stan hurriedly described:
“heavy shelling some close shaves by shells; very short of food; feel wet & cold; no sleep; cold all the time; feet swelled in my boots; no feeling in them”.
The next day he suffered a shrapnel wound to the side of the head. After being treated at a dressing station, Stan boarded an ambulance train bound for the 2nd AGH in Boulogne. Once there, he enjoyed the simple pleasure of a cup of hot cocoa.
Still suffering pain and deafness from his wound, Stan was pressed into service as a stretcher bearer on October 24, helping to unload nine train cars of wounded men.
Stan’s war weariness is evident on October 28. After reading that the Germans had broken through the Italian defences in northern Italy. he wrote:
“Things are going well for Germans according to the paper, giving Italy pie; I think it is time peace was declared as fighting will do no good. I for one am tired of this war”.
But there was still more fighting ahead, and Stan rejoined his unit on December 1 at Aigneville as the battalion was moved to the Somme area for training throughout December and the first half of January, 1918.
From late January into early February, the 49th Battalion held the line at Spoil Bank, 30 kilometres north east of Ypres and from April 5 to 7 was part of the attack at Dernancourt.
On April 10, when reinforcements for the 49th Battalion arrived at Corbie, which faced intermittent shelling, Stan was among the soldiers evacuated with trench feet. The casualty clearing station at Wagicourt recorded that he had double otorrhea – a discharge from both ears- most likely caused by his earlier head wound.
Stan returned to England on April 18 and, while he was recuperating at an Australian army camp on the Salisbury Plain, was smitten by a beautiful young woman.
Rosa Parnisari, who came from Bex in Switzerland, had been employed as a governess to the small daughter of the commanding officer, Colonel Graham. Stan and Rosa formed an attachment and, after a whirlwind romance, agreed to marry, but decided to delay their wedding as Stan believed he was returning to the front.
Stan never returned to France and was in England when the war ended on November 11. He and Rosa finally married at St Leonard’s Church of England, Bulford, in February 1919, with Stan’s brother, Jack, as best man and Helen Graham, the wife of Colonel Graham, as bridesmaid.
Like many soldiers at the end of the war, Stan took advantage of the opportunity to train for his return to civilian life. He saw motor transport as the way of the future and trained as motor mechanic, gaining employment driving a delivery truck around London.
Bringing his young wife, Stan returned to Tamborine Mountain in 1920.
He bought a Ford truck and became the local cream carrier, delivering the cans to Canungra to be transported by rail to the Kingston Butter Factory.
With a war service loan, Stan built a house in Fern Street where he lived until 1966, passing away at the age of 75.
Stan and Rosa raised five children, Paul, Helen, Allan, Patricia and Lesley. Their son, Allan, still lives in Fern Street near his sister, Patricia Johnstone, and was proud to show a number of photos and mementos of his father’s war service.
Among them is a little black doll, made from the wishbone of a chicken. This tiny talisman, made by Esme Lahey, the sister of Noel Lahey and Romeo Lahey, was carried by Stan as a lucky charm throughout the war.
Another treasure is Stan’s little pocket diary, now almost 100 years old.
“He didn’t let us read that diary for many years,” said Allan. “The war was horrific and he wanted to forget about it.”