History of the Vale

Dear Mother, Dear Wife: the importance of letters from home

One of many remarkable feats of organisation during the First World War was the continued reliability of the Royal Mail, which continued to provide swift and relatively accurate delivery under challenging conditions, even up to the frontline itself.

First-World-War-so_2786176bThe following article is an extract from chapter 5 of Worcestershire’s War: Voices of the First World Warby Maggie Andrews, Adrian Gregson, and John Peters (Amberley Press, 2014).

The bonds between the Worcestershire soldiers and their homes and communities were nurtured by the heavy traffic of letters and parcels that were sent between them and their mothers, wives, friends and family. In 1916, 5,000,000 letters were sent each week from the British Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium to Britain. The post which could travel from the Western Front to Worcestershire in only two days was key to the emotional survival of men in the fighting forces who cherished being able to hold letters written by their loved ones only a few days before.  Post from home assured soldiers they were not forgotten, it symbolised the caring and love of the homes that they felt they were fighting to protect. Studdart Kennedy, the Church of England vicar from Worcester who ministered to soldiers at the Front, described the significance of letters and parcels for the morale of men on the front line 3rd despatch printed 26 February 1916.

When your boy is up the line that letter is needed in another way. He comes back to rest, drenched to the skin and shivering with cold and his first thought is always, so they tell me, letters from home. Picture to yourselves his face as the pile in the Sergeant’s hand grows less and less and still his name has not been called. See him turn away and go to his corner without his hope and with the blankness of his heart and remember that next time the letter may be there, the name may be called, and no answer made, because they are carrying something on a stretcher out of the clearing station. The voice that should have answered gladly will never answer anymore.

Men in the armed forces continued to emotionally identify with their families communities and they wrote particularly to their mothers or wives to ask about their family, friends and pets. In return they received parcels of food, letters, copies of newspapers and magazines.

Private Jack Bird, from Tenbury Wells, was married, with a daughter and another child on the way when he volunteered in 1915. He served as an ordinary soldier, initially with the sixth, then with the second Battalion Worcestershires.  His letters indicate he had a good education and was accustomed to writing; in fact, he tried unsuccessfully to get a commission in 1916. Training and injuries meant that he spent a considerable amount of time, the majority of his war service well away from the battlefronts. This was a typical experience but was not without its challenges for many of soldiers had not previously travelled beyond Worcestershire.  During these often tedious times keeping the image and the idea of home alive in the imagination sustained men. Home and family were vital for the emotional survival of men in the armed forces in wartime.

Jack’s army career began when he left Worcestershire on 9 March 1915.  After getting kitted out in London, he travelled to North Holmword, Dorking, to begin training. He wrote very regular, sometimes daily, letters to his wife, and on March 17 1915 he described how he was settling into his new billet in Walney House.

I am getting on better in my billet now, I have dried up once or twice for Mrs Francis and I get so much in the way of rations that it nearly keeps them as well as us, and so she makes out with a few extras, I do feel fit and what I eat at breakfast would surprised you, I do like the photo of you and Baby. I hope she is not being too spoilt. Are you feeling alright? A few cakes to take out at mid-day would be nice, but you needn’t worry, we do very well.

Despite the physical distance between them both, he and his wife struggled to continue their traditional roles; he is the provider she continues to take on domestic and caring roles. He is frequently concerned about whether she has enough money; and like many other soldiers he quickly discovers there is a need for him to provide some of his own kit and food.

In early 1916, Jack wrote to his Mother and Father from France in 1916, demonstrating how much the small details of home played on his mind, and that of his fellow soldiers.

I hope you enjoyed your Xmas all right there was no enjoyment over here for we are miles from anywhere we done no work Xmas day but we were penned up almost nowhere to go. I was glad to get in bed but shan’t sleep thinking about home and the children wondering what they had been doing. It is the first year that I have not been able to put anything in their stockings and I hope it will be the last.

All manner of food stuffs were sent through the post  – fresh fruit, fish, rabbits, cakes.  This was, naturally, not without its hazards.  On July 4  of 1915, Jack wrote:

I was so pleased to find two parcels one from Olive and I started on her little cakes at once and gave some away. Ted sent cherries but he had packed them in a composition collar box and most of the cherries were flavoured with camphor. Still they all went the same way.

Later in the year, Jack’s wife sent him a Christmas pudding through the post, which he boiled up and divided into 10 pieces to share with his friends, saying that ‘it was very good’.

Sadly, not all of life’s comforts could be sent by post.  Later, on Feb 28th 1917, Jack wrote from the front:

We have been having a rough time of it out nearly all night in no mans land with shells bursting over us it is not a pleasant sensation but you get use to that. I have forgot the taste of beer I have not had any for 6 weeks.

Many of Jack’s letters are included in Worcestershire’s War – they are bright, chatty and always positive, despite the difficulties he underwent.  Even when writing from the front under heavy shelling, his first thought was for the family.  On 29th May 1918, he wrote:

Thank-you for the letter dated 22nd. Now there is only one unaccounted for. By the same post I received the Tenbury Ad. and Parish Mag. and thank-you for both. I like the snaps very much indeed, both children look fine and jolly, The boy [his son, born in Sep 1915] in particular looks older and bigger, I think a proper little boy…

How is the school kitchen going ? Do you get as many children as at first ?  I am glad to think you have had Mary for a week, and now I hope you have Miss Amphlett for a bit. I am not going to worry about Father, he seems to have good appetite and goes about. I should think it’s only the heat you seem to have had of late that has pulled him down. “Jerry” thinks we want livening up a bit now, or else he wants to get his own back. He is pretty harmless. The are just coming round for letters. They had to go up so far to be censored and probably get to the base by Friday and then on.

As the pressure increased at the Front, so did his determination to keep in touch. He sent a quick postcard on 27th Sep 1918.  

I left the base Tues morning and am now at Batt[alion] Base I expect to go up to the Batt, this evening Friday. Will write you a decent letter as soon as possible but thought you would like a card in the meantime We arrived here yesterday dinnertime – some journey. Will write tomorrow or next day certain.

Jack was killed in action on September 28th 1918 at about 7pm.

SOURCES

To gain an insight into how the General Post Office managed to maintain such a good service, read this article on the Post Office Historical Archive website, or this one, from the BBC History Magazine.

Worcestershire Regimental Museum Ref. 2007-136
Jack Bird Pte 34682: 6th Battalion then 2nd Battalion Worcestershires, transferred to Labour Corps. Finished in D company 13th Platoon of 14th Worcestershire Pioneers, no.415243.

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