Uncle Tom: Tom Humphrey Donaldson

posted in: Donaldson, Stories, Uncategorized | 0

Among the various postcards surviving from my great-grand father’s war service, are a few addressed to his children and sent while on leave to England sometime during the Great War. One set of these cards preserves the story of Robert Johnstone Donaldson’s younger brother, Tom Humphrey Donaldson, who served as  Corporal in ‘C’ Company of the 7th Battalion AIF and was wounded in July 1916.

There are four postcards in total, one to each of Robert’s children, Godfrey, Lucy and Robert, and one to his wife, also named Lucy. Each card gives us a different segment of the story. They seem to have been sent in a bundle (via Vancouver), as only the postcard to his wife, Lucy, is fully addressed. While these four postcards are externally about Tom Humphrey Donaldson, who I will write on at a later date, my current interest is that they provide an interesting glimpse into Robert Johnstone Donaldson as a husband, father and brother.

To the eldest, Lucy (about 9), Robert wrote:

Dear Daughter,

This is a very old
cross at Chichester, in
the south of England.
Don’t you think it is
Lots of love,


It is interesting that Lucy’s postcard makes no mention at all of her Uncle Tom and only Robert’s (below) has any detail regarding the injury! This distance from his daughter is interesting and I wonder whether it indicates that Robert was trying to shield her in some way from wartime realities. Another possibility might be that the postcards can be read as a group, with each member of the family reading for contents of the other.

To Godfrey, his eldest son (about 8):

Dear old Gof.

This is a picture
of the hospital where Uncle
Tom is. It is such a
pretty place, with big
gardens all around.


The hospital, Graylingwell War Hospital was located in Chichester, West Sussex. Tom was evacuated here from the field to recuperate from a wound listed as a GSW (Gun-shot Wound) to the left shoulder. The hospital was originally an asylum but was converted to a war hospital around 1915. The gardens mentioned included a sizable area for vegetables, two farms and the landscaped areas visible in the postcard. The main building was demolished at the end of 2012.

To Robert, the youngest (about 6):

Dear Bob

These are some pictures
of Chichester, where Uncle
Tom is in Hospital. A piece
of a shell went into his shoulder,
but the doctor has cut it out
+ <sic> he is getting better. Be good


This is the only postcard to mention Tom’s injury, perhaps a concession to a youthful interest in the gory, or just a father’s attempt to reassure his youngest son. Although his injury was officially listed as a gun-shot wound, Robert here suggests a shrapnel wound of some kind in the shoulder. Either wound was quite possible in the early stages of the Battle of Pozieres, in which Tom found himself. Not only were there numerous German counter attacks, but also heavy shelling.

Finally, to his wife, Robert wrote:

Very interesting Cathedral.
Explored it with Tom.
Everything going well with
us, very little excitement.
K.B. – and now don’t forget
this – G.F.


This final postcard is very causal in tone and I believe Robert thought Tom’s injury to be quite straightforward. Certainly both he and Tom must have been quite desensitized to the realities of warfare at the front by this stage. The other interesting thing about this postcard is the final two, cryptic lines. I can’t work out what they might mean but there is at least one other cryptic postcard in the collection. Some others might have ideas but I think it is safe to say that in some way the cryptic sections are intended to thwart war-time censors who would have read all correspondence for security reasons. In this case, I think that the information being hidden is sentimental, rather than military! We will probably never know.

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