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Military service: The soldiers' view

The soldiers

The Modern Records Centre doesn't have a large number of first hand accounts of the First World War written by soldiers - most of our archives relate to organisations rather than individuals - but the few that we do have include some vivid descriptions of the sights and emotions of war. Some of the highlights from the hundred documents digitised to commemorate the First World War centenary are described below.

Recruiting journey from Western Siberia

Macfee, on the British staff, proposed that all the British present should volunteer for War Service; it being, in his opinion, their duty to do so. This met with general approval, and it would have been difficult to escape from the moral obligation

In December 1914, an agreement made at a Christmas meal triggered what is "reputed to be the longest journey on record of any voluntary recruits" - from Western Siberia to London. In this post-war account, Donald Gill described his travels across Russia and Scandinavia in mid-Winter by horse-drawn sledge, train and ship, finally arriving in London in February 1915. He was commissioned into the Royal Garrison Artillery in March 1915 and, after crossing the Channel in June, spent the remainder of the war in France.

[From the papers of Lady Allen of Hurtwood; document reference: MSS.121/F/3/5/1]

'For England, Home and Beauty', c.1915

Of coward’s blood we are not born — ever faithful to our duty. We will fight and die, ’neath a foreign sky, for England, home and beauty

Patriotic printed song sheet containing lyrics written by Private E. Growcott of the Worcestershire Regiment, "wounded at Suvla Bay, [Gallipoli,] August 10th, 1915". It includes verses on the "loyal duty" of men from the Empire (specifically Canada, Australia and India) in joining the 'English' call to arms.

[From the Miscellaneous Collection; document reference: MSS.21/4571]

'On the way to the Sudan', 1915

We boarded the train next morning about 9 a.m., and were soon in the midst of the desert. I don’t suppose you have ever tried sleeping on the floor of a train travelling at forty miles an hour, but you can take my word for it that it is not pleasant. We had to that night

Many 'in-house' magazines and journals included letters and photographs of members or former colleagues serving in the forces. 'The Seaman', the newspaper of the National Sailors' and Firemen's Union, included a series of letters from S. Littlechild, formerly a member of staff at the union's head office, serving as a Private in the City of London Regiment. In this letter (published in the 21 May 1915 issue) he described his journey from Malta towards the frontlines in North Africa, and commented on the difficulties presented by the heat in Khartoum ("All we can do is to parade from 6 to 8 a.m., and after that no work must be done"). The following edition of 'The Seaman' (4 June 1915) recorded Private Littlechild's death.

[From the archives of the National Union of Seamen; document reference: MSS.175A/4/1/5]

Letter from 2nd Lieutenant Colin Gill, Royal Garrison Artillery, 16 July 1916

There is some faint chance that I may get leave about the end of Aout, D.V.W.P., and I deserve some, don't you think so? Six months of this enchanting war without even a week end - Zut

The archives of Lady Allen of Hurtwood include several jokey letters written by her brother Colin Gill whilst he was on active service in France. Gill was a talented artist and was later taken from frontline service to work as an official war artist - this letter includes a sketch illustrating the effect of the consumption of sausage, sent in a food parcel from home, on the local population. Gill also describes his experiences flying ("Didn't meet any Fokkers, fortunately - for the Fokkers") and jokes about the long duration of the war ("About 1970 I shall roll in, a gay young subaltern with one tooth and long white hair, home for seven days 'permission'").

[From the papers of Lady Allen of Hurtwood; document reference: MSS.121/F/3/4/3]

'Sparklets', September 1916

We heard one member of the company say recently that visiting his native city was not an unmixed blessing nowadays. Everyone else able to carry a rifle was either at the war or had been at the war, while feminine acquaintances spent most of the time making enquiries as to when the period of training would cease and the “Southerns” get to work

Whilst waiting for transfer to the front, the Southern Signal Company, Royal Engineers, published their own magazine, 'Sparklets', which contained local news, sports results, jokes, stories, letters from soldiers overseas and adverts for local companies. This issue (the third) includes an article lamenting the long (12 month) period of training that the company had gone through without seeing active service; a letter "from the front" which describes laying cable between the frontline trenches ("The remarks made by Andrews after misjudging the width of a trench and landing therein flat on his back in time to act as a buffer to two sturdy “Jocks,” and an empty barrow, were only equalled by those of Pilkington as he lay in a muddy trench in pouring rain pushing the cable leads through a hole and into the dug-out"); a profile of the censor, Lt. S.W. Belderson; and a story of a British Tommy's "cold-blooded contempt of certain death" to delay the German advance.

[From the archives of the Union of Communication Workers; document reference: MSS.148/UCW/6/1/8/3]

'The Epistles', December 1917

Yes; we are living in a tunnel, dark and cold, deep down in the gloom of life; and to "get" us properly one must needs dwell here also, existing with us day by day, eating the impossible food with us, washing in the same stagnant shell-hole water, lying on the damp earth or, if lucky, on hard boards, with a tin roof to keep the rain out, and catching the breath and nervously shaking as you hear the shells shriek overhead, or listen, with death knocking at the door of your heart, to the melodious hum of a Fritz 'plane, and wonder where the next four bombs will drop

The anarchist magazine 'The Spur', edited by the conscientious objector Guy A. Aldred (when out of prison), ran a series of articles by "Peter Pecker", the pseudonym of a soldier on the Western Front. The December 1917 issue includes a vivid description of the feelings of a soldier in the trenches - the hardships, boredom, terror, repetition, subjugation of individuality, absence of any "ethical standard beyond obedience", continual anticipation of violent death, alienation from those on the home front ("I feel as if you people did not half understand, and did not half care"), and thoughts on "our well hated camerade", the German soldier.

[From the Maitland Sara Hallinan collection; document reference: MSS.15X/1/296/1]

'The suppressed speech'

We want you to be able to teach them how to murder that vile animal called a German. Then try and experience what it is to have the feeling of the warm blood trickling over your hands.....

In the 1930s, as a new world war threatened, the No More War Movement published this speech by Company-Sergeant-Major Franklin, M.C., made to the Inns of Court Officers’ Training Corps on 19 July 1918, and endorsed by an attending commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel H.L. Stevens. Franklin used vivid (and psychopathic) language to describe the "delightful feeling" of killing the enemy at close quarters with a bayonet. He advised his audience of trainee officers to remove all sympathy for the "Boche" or "squarehead", and to kill wounded and prisoners as "the more of them we kill the better". The first circulation of the speech in pamphlet form, in 1918, was "withdrawn at the command of a superior authority".

[From the Maitland Sara Hallinan collection; document reference: MSS.15X/2/369/1]

Letter from John D. Young, 1 June 1918

Now the dead lay in this village street, and under the apple trees that were breaking into blossom, friend and foe lay alike in the long damp grass in their last great sleep. In the familiar courtyards where children had once played, the bursting shells had played havoc, flinging the old farmhouses in absolute ruin across the stone paved floor, covering the dead with broken brick and tile, in ghastly piles of debris, and scattering the heaps of empty cartridge cases where machine guns had been in action

John ("Jack") Young was a British soldier who had seen military service during the Boer War, subsequently travelled to the USA, New Zealand and Australia, and enlisted (as a Private) with the Australian Army in 1916. This long letter was sent whilst Young was recovering from his wounds in a convalescent hospital at Leytonstone, near London, and wasn't subject to military censorship. He describes some of his experiences fighting at Ypres, on the Somme and in Flanders, comments on the suffering of the French population near the front line, and expresses bitter dissatifaction with the "degenerate caste that brainlessly rule Britain and the British Army today".

The first two pages have suffered from water damage and may be easier to read if you choose the 'Text' (rather than 'Image') option. Another letter, dated 25 April 1917, has also been digitised and is available online.

[From the papers of Arthur Primrose Young; document reference: MSS.242/YO/2/14 and MSS.242/YO/2/35]

"Dear Comrade..."

Well I was the British Tommy who was on the Decaville train on the engine that helped to load you up, and if you can remember (perhaps you can) I made you comfortable and tried to console you

In 1921, Percy Collick, a former member of the Royal Engineers, tried to contact Gustav Waller, a German soldier badly wounded at the battle of Cerisy, in the Somme, in August 1918. The two had met when Collick was loading wounded German prisoners into railway ambulance wagons on the Decaville railway, Collick consoled the young enemy soldier, and in return the German wrote his address on the back of a photograph and gave it to Collick. The experience had obviously made a significant impression on Collick - he kept a copy of his 1921 letter to Waller, along with the photograph, and in 1965 added a note to say that he had received no reply.

[From the papers of Percy Collick; document reference: MSS.379/PC/6/5]

'Soldier-Poets of the War', February 1918

Through its soldier-poets the war has uttered its idealism, its faith, its joy, its dramatic force, and also its horror, cruelty, and brutal ugliness

The February 1918 issue of 'The Wheatsheaf', a magazine produced by the Co-operative Wholesale Society, included a review of a recently published collection of soldiers' poetry 'The Muse in Arms', edited by E.B. Osborn. The article is illustrated with photographs of Rupert Brooke and Leslie Coulson, but includes no mention of the two men who are perhaps now the best known of the First World War poets - Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfrid Owen - Sassoon was a controversial figure at the time, due to his vocal anti-war stance, and Owen was largely unpublished before his death in November 1918.

[From the papers of Albert Ernest Stubbs; document reference: MSS.126/AES/1]