Friday, 16 November 2012

Top five topics in soldiers' letters home

'I must tell you how delighted I was to
receive the Oxo' - a WW1 poster
from the stock cube company
The average serviceman in the Great War preferred to keep his letters home as ordinary as possible, steering clear of things that could worry his family. If trenches and warfare had to be mentioned it was usually in a matter-of-fact way, but many correspondents stuck to the more mundane things in life. So what were the most popular topics? Here are five of the most common that I have come across.

The weather nearly always got a mention, whether it was sweltering, drenching or freezing. 'It's snowing pretty thick and the ground is already white,' wrote Private Tom Fake from France to his young son in England in 1917. 'You will notice that some of the letters have traces of the pencil getting wetted, that is where the snow is falling on the paper as I write.'

Tiredness was another frequent theme, with servicemen sometimes having to go for days without proper sleep. One exhausted cavalryman wrote: 'The men and horses are busted, it's been a very hot day and I've only had about 15 hours sleep in the last eight or nine nights.'

Letters themslves were often a topic for discussion: how wonderful it was to receive them, who had written, who hadn't, who was owed letters. Most soldiers tried to their best to keep correspondence going, but it wasn't always easy. In a letter to his wife, Private Fake complained: 'I have felt like swearing whilst writing this letter, twice since I started a shell has burst close by somewhere and I think it's like his impudence to disturb me when I am trying to feel I am at home talking to you.'

Teeth problems were often complained about and so too were army dentists: 'I had nine pulled in the cruellest fashion imaginable,' fumed one Canadian soldier. 'I had five filled and that was even worse as he never killed any nerves but hurried it through and slapped in the filling as if he were using a schoopshovel.'

And finally, the deafening noise of artillery, which could sometimes be heard as far away as southern England, was often described in letters by newly-arrived troops in France. One young officer gasped: 'Guns were booming all around us, the sky was vivid with flashes - and the noise!'

This is an abridged version of an article that appears in November's Down Your Way - Yorkshire's nostalgic magazine.

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