State Library of South Australia

Transcribing Tales: From ironworker to everyman soldier to star of the screen

Date: 21 March 2016

In 1914 Frederick Leopold 'Leo' Terrell was a foundry worker in Port Pirie and Broken Hill, holding tenuously onto work while economic times became grimmer, and recording his daily activities in a diary. He continued the diary throughout World War One, surviving Gallipoli and the Western Front, and returning home safely in 1918.

Diary of Leo Terrell
Diary of Leo Terrell

The legendary spirit of the Anzacs shines through in his words. One minute he's describing injury and death. The next sentence he's saying it's a lovely day to be alive. And the humour! On one occasion he writes that dinner

"consists of Bully - which is dried beef and bread, with a dash of strong hat dye (or tea) I think they call it".

The diaries were donated to the Library in 2003 as part of the Terrell Family archive [PRG 1331].

For the Centenary of Anzac in 2014 the Library began a project to make our fabulous collection of World War One diaries and letters readable online, beginning with the five diaries of Leo Terrell. Volunteer Lyndall Fredericks, one of our 13 wonderful transcribers, produced a mammoth 163 page opus, which can be read via the catalogue at PRG 1331/2. Going one step further, the Library has also digitised Leo Terrell's hand written diary for 1914, where it can be read on SA Memory - Part 1 and Part 2.

Leo Terrell's words were brought to life last year as part of several public events featuring readings from our Anzac diaries and letters. Audiences responded to his wry humour, down-to-earth reflections and all-round decency. The readings were enlivened by wonderful images of Leo and his sweetheart Clara Lewis. Leo wrote on the back of his photograph of Clara 'this photo went through Gallipoli campaign in Egypt 1915' and when he returns home they marry.

Clara Lewis the wife of Leo Terrell PRG 1331 21 15

Clara Lewis, wife of Leo Terrell [PRG 1331/21/15] 

His is the quintessential face of the digger - spare, a laconic smile, looking directly at the camera.

Frederick Leopold Leo Terrell PRG 1331 21 1

Frederick Leopold 'Leo' Terrell [PRG 1331/21/1]

It is no wonder that he has become the poster boy of the Library's magical Story Wall. Our Story Wall is a state-of-the-art architectural projection, using imagery and sound to tell the stories of South Australia. Everything you see is sourced exclusively from the Library's collections, treasures and exhibitions. If you haven't yet experienced the Story Wall, it's on every night from sunset to midnight in the Library forecourt. Leo's diary will continue to feature in the new episodes of the Story Wall throughout the year.

Leo's diary is worth dipping into online. His spelling is a bit rough and ready, but he is respectful, keen to improve himself through study, and is a good letter writer to family and friends:

4 August 1914.Started work once again at J & R Forgan Pt Pirie. Had a fair day of it. It appears to me that there is any amount of work here though nearly all other businesses are slackening on account of war in evening. Had game of cards. Got to bed at 10.35. Average wage for the six months I was in Broken Hill was as follows ₤3-12 3/13 total amount ₤93-2-6.

8 August Saturday. A lovely day good weather for Pt Pirie. Went to work as usual knocked off at 11.45. Fooled around all the afternoon. In evening went to the moving Pictures, wrote a letter to Alva Hales and one to Frank Spottiswood. Arrived home from pictures at 11 oclock and then went to bed.

17 August. Received two books from Penton Publishing Co Cleveland Ohio USA namely 'The Foundry' and the Iron Trades Review. Had a read in evening. Got to bed at 10.10.

The declaration of war saw the 25 year old Leo Terrell assess his working situation and put his affairs into order. He then enlisted in the 1st Royal Australian Naval Reserve Bridging Train as a sapper in the Signals Unit in February 1915. Here he is writing on the Greek Island of Lemnos in 1915:

23 July. Turned out at 7 o'clock am to find ourselves still in the same place. This is not what we expected, as we were in hopes of leaving for an island 10 miles from the Dardenelles. During the night a number of the war boats have disappeared. Wounded arriving daily. The French troops are no good here on their own as they are too exciteable.

24 July. Out of 1,100 of one regiment which proceeded to the Dardenelles only 50 returned and the highest officer was a sergeant, who had been through the Boer war, Boxer campaign, and retreat of Mons, and he states that in all these wars they were mere child's play compared to the landing at Dardenelles. Many of those who returned had as many as 11 wounds. But still they are full of spirit.

16 December. Had a busy day erecting evacuation pier at Suvla Cove or West Cove. The evacuation is in full swing. At 7.30 pm the 1st Division of our train left for the ship, leaving about 60 of us behind to make the last embarkation. If I have not the luck to get out of this I hope the finder will forward on same to Miss C. Lewis Cherry Gardens South Australia, as I may be unlucky enough not to come out of it.

27 December. This is my 26th Birthday and am spending it under queer conditions. But nevertheless, put the day in well, what with rifle drill & plum pudding, one has little to complain of. Since we have been on Lemnos, we have been getting 1 pint of stout a man as issue for troops. After tea went for a short ramble and ended by getting into a YMCA tent where we spent a pleasant evening among our own boys.

In June 1916 he is writing at Armentieres at the Western Front, as a bombardier, where his humour and acceptance of his situation shines through:

28 June. Took up our new billet in a row of old ruined houses. Things very quiet. There is a vast difference coming into action here and Gallipoli.

29 July. Still on guard and a splendid day it is too. Could not be better.

31 July. On sick list again. Have septic sores on my hands again. These are the only things I am troubled with and are due to no vegetables.

7 November [at Ypres]. A real beautiful day, raining in torrents, and one had to act the submarine for the best part. This Belgium appeals very much I don't think.

Sunday 22 April 1917. Turned in at 10.20pm feeling very weary and tired, not only in body but in soul, for the war is beginning to weary me.

24 April. The eve of Anzac day and a beautiful day too. The weather still keeps fine and it's a pleasure to be alive in such weather. A heavy bombardment raging.

Leo Terrell leaves the Western Front in May 1918 and is back in Adelaide on 3 August:

Sunday 4 August. Had a real day home, the first for a long long time. Had my dear girl with me and life still seems to have something in it worth living for after all.

To find out when a new episode of Leo's diary is released on our Story Wall, connect with the Story Wall Facebook page.

Story Wall Facebook page

Story by: Carolyn Spooner, Community Learning Content Librarian

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