Friday, 20 July 2012

The search is on for servicemen's letters

The Ball brothers with their parents
and sister - my grandmother
I’ve been quite taken aback by the response to my letter in the Bristol Evening Post, appealing for readers to get in touch if they had correspondence from the Great War. A number of people replied with tales that painted a vivid and varied story.

One told me about his grandfather who had fought in the Battle of Jutland and was one of the last men alive to have witnessed the scuttling of the German Fleet in 1919. Another reader's grandfather spent the entire war as a prisoner in Germany, captured in 1914 and not repatriated until 1918.

There were some very sad tales, like the soldier who joined up in 1914 as a healthy young man, but was discharged in 1919 with shell shock, to spend the rest of his life in an institution.

Other readers told me about brothers who had joined up and gone to fight - with only one coming back. This happened in my own family; my maternal grandfather managed to survive both Gallipoli and the Western Front, but his younger brother was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. On the other side of my family, three great-uncles went to war and, mercifully, all came back. They're pictured above, in uniform, with their parents' and younger sister - my grandmother.

Readers were also kind enough to send me copies of some marvellous postcards which were a real Edwardian feature of correspondence during the First World War.

Such an encouraging response to my letter in The Post made me realise that there was plenty of correspondence to fill the pages of my book, and I look forward to discovering a lot more.

It’s also reassuring to know that all over this country there are huge archives full of historical correspondence, so if my own enquiries hit a barren patch, I can always fall back on these. Museums are the most obvious repositories, among them the Imperial War Museums and the National Army Museum, both in London, where vast numbers of letters from the First World War (and many other wars) are held. These documents are available for the public to view, and helpfully they are catalogued online. The RAF and the Royal Navy also have their own archives. And a network of regimental army museums spread all over the UK is a veritable treasure trove of information. Click the Useful links tab at the top of this page for details of all of these.

If you have any letters from the First World War tucked away in old suitcases or at the back of drawers, I'd be very please to hear from you. Get in touch at .

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