Signed up

• Reginald Walters raises a mug with the 12th Reinforcements of the 10th Australian Light Horse. Photos supplied

Museum focuses on soldier with a message

ARTIST and soldier Reginald James Walters completed his apprenticeship as a signwriter in 1913—a year later war broke out.

By 1915 he was serving with 10th Australian Light Horse in the Egyptian desert, having joined the 12th Reinforcements before they sailed from Fremantle.

Trained in art and drawing at Perth Technical School, officers found his talent a useful morale booster and made him an “artist at war,” and his works are now on display at the Museum of Perth.

He would draw postcards and comical pieces, and his signwriting skills were put to good use creating chalkboards to advise soldiers of goings on around camp.

• Signs drawn by Reginald Walters during the Great War.

Some advertised memorials, others informed soldiers of entertainment on offer like the troupe the Whiz Bangs—10 Australian soldiers who’d been wounded in war and put on shows for their comrades.

While he spent much of the war with chalk in hand, his diaries reveal a yearning for life-threatening action, and he even tried to transfer to a company that was about to be deployed to war-torn France.

His commanding officer refused the transfer, preferring to keep his artistic skills in camp.

His diary records that on February 17, 1916 he was “disappointed today as all the boys have gone on a ride for a couple of days. After being saddled up with full equipment at the last minute the colonel sent down to have some more signs written”.

The August 5, 1916 entry records him on the brink of action amidst the Romani Battle, saying “we are just waiting to get right into it for the first time. Machine guns are rattling just a hundred yards away”.

• Reginald Walters in 1915.

The tone darkens on August 7: the artist records having to crawl under Turkish machine gun fire, when a friend, James Frost, a veteran of the Gallipoli campaign, “was shot through the arm and heart”.

He writes that the battle, which saw them take 500 prisoners and five Turkish machine guns, “was considered a great win for us. But after being in action for the first time and seeing a mate killed alongside of me it makes one wonder however such a mad and horrid state of affairs can exist. But one must not be sentimental here. The other man is out to kill you, so it is best to get him first.”

The final entries, more than two years later, reveals relief at the end of the war.

5 November 1918: “Peace with Turkey and Austria now official so hurrah, home soon. Parcel from my little girl today, also letters. Am feeling goodo.”

The exhibition Reg Walters, An Artist at War is at the Museum of Perth, 8-10 The Esplanade, until January 25.

Walters lived until the early 1980s.

by DAVID BELL

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