A Tragic Paper Trail
WWI Documents Delivered to Private Clouten’s Parents
In 1925 William and Jane Clouten of Tacoma added the final letter to this pile of correspondence they had been collecting. Creased where they had been folded for dispatch, the documents’ worn edges and dog-eared corners suggest they may have opened and read many times. Each document was a terrible reminder of the loss of their dear son Leslie.
On 29 June 1917, a messenger had knocked on their door in Toronto, Lake Macquarie, to hand deliver a telegram. Its brief message: ‘Reported Private Leslie Clouten wounded…’ must have been greatly concerning. Leslie was in France, serving with the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).
Shortly after, the Cloutens moved to Weston, and opened their Toronto Fish Company Supply. A letter they received there, about Leslie’s removal to an English hospital, may have given them hope. But in May 1918, they received the letter they had probably been dreading – it informed them of Leslie’s death. He was just 22 years old.
Then three Red Cross letters followed, containing disturbing eyewitness reports, including how Leslie had been hit by a bullet and was supposed to leave the front for treatment but would not go. The following day he was hit by a shell and died.
Other items the Cloutens collected in their growing pile of painful correspondence included letters about Leslie’s personal effects, the location of his grave and his headstone inscription, a war service scroll and photos of his headstone.
During World War I the Australian Government and Red Cross sent tens of thousands of typed letters by post and hand delivered telegrams like these, to keep families informed about those serving at the front. Urgent information was sent by telegram, transmitted along telegraph lines and converted by the receiver into a written message.