Yours truly, Cecil

Letter to Hazel, 17 August 1914
Letter to Hazel, 17 August 1914

I have been reading a collection of letters by Cecil Malthus, who spent three years in service in the 1st Canterbury Battalion during the First World War.

The letters, which were written to his wife-to-be Hazel, are on our website. They chronicle Cecil’s time in the army from when he went into camp in April 1914. They follow his journey from the training camp to Hobart, across to the east coast of Africa, through the Suez Canal to Cairo. Cecil writes of his longing to say goodbye to his family and Hazel. He writes of the difficulties he experiences sharing a small space with a lot of working class men. He writes of the comfort gained from a letter from home. He needs more writing paper and envelopes, please.

Cecil thought he was going to the continent. He thought he was going to have some training in England. He didn’t. He arrived in Egypt in December, 1914. After undergoing more training, he shipped out to Gallipoli. He knew that Hazel and his family had read about the Gallipoli campaign in the news. His letters were, I think, intended to tell Hazel that all was going well and he was okay. While he was there, he was hospitalized with scarlet fever. Hazel wrote frequently and wanted to know about his friends. It was quite sad to read that his friends had all been killed, injured or transferred. Returning to his unit must have been very lonely.

Letter to Hazel, 11 September [1916]
Letter to Hazel, 11 September [1916]
Cecil finally arrived in France in the spring of 1915 and he wrote that it was better in France. His letters became infrequent as it became harder to get anything sent off. He still replied to Hazel’s comments and questions, but said nothing about the war. On 11 September 1916, Cecil wrote what reads like a letter of goodbye. I’m sure that if I checked the official war records, I would learn that he was about to engage in a big push.

His letter dated 29th September was quite hard to read. I had become used to his handwriting, but this was an unfamiliar, spidery scrawl. He had been badly wounded and for him, the war was over. Cecil Malthus was discharged from the army on 5th April 1917.

Before he went to war, Cecil Malthus was a teacher at Nelson Boys’ College. His family lived in Timaru. Hazel Watters was a student at Teacher’s College. She wrote to Cecil every week. They got married after he was discharged from the Army.

“We are in the trenches again …

… this time for a longer term, but it is a very easy life. In my present shelter there is actually a four-poster spring bed, and picture prints of distractingly pretty girls round the walls. What do you think of that, within two hundred yards of the Huns? … Of course we are only in the front line part of the time, but it really is the best place …

Letter to Hazel from Cecil Malthus, 11 June 1916
Letter to Hazel from Cecil Malthus, 11 June 1916

Timaru-born Cecil Malthus wrote two books about his war-time experiences. Born in 1890, he spent three years in service in the 1st Canterbury Battalion from 1914. The Canterbury College modern languages professor first published ANZAC: A retrospect in 1965. In the foreword of the book he wrote:

I offer nothing but the truth for those who want to know what the war was like for the average man. Readers can believe that whatever I relate of my own experience is very nearly the same as what happened to their own uncle or grandfather.

A collection of Malthus’ letters has been digitised and made available online by Christchurch City Libraries. The letters are penned to his future wife, Hazel Watters. Malthus died on 25 July 1976.

This collection of letters and documents dates from April 1914 to his discharge in April 1917. The collection is not complete, and portions of some letters are missing. The letters follow Malthus’ progress from training in New Zealand to his experiences throughout the war, including time in Egypt preparing for Gallipoli, and his time in France. Malthus was injured in September 1916 and returned to New Zealand in March 1917.