The letters that kept our boys going

The horrors of trench warfare during The Great War not only turned young soldiers into men, it made them anxious and homesick.

Steven Russell

The horrors of trench warfare during The Great War not only turned young soldiers into men, it made them anxious and homesick. The evidence is there in letters home. Steven Russell learns more

A FIVE-acre building was put up in Regent's Park during the early stages of the First World War to handle parcels sent to the western front. It was reputedly the largest wooden building in the world, but soon turned out to be too small for the task . . . tangible evidence of the scale and importance of communication between home and the troops. Tons of useful gifts were dispatched with love to the boys risking their lives in dreadful conditions: socks and underwear, blankets, scarves, overcoats and mittens, soap and toothbrushes; and remedies for diarrhoea, louse, boils, blisters and constipation. There were cakes to supplement less appetising rations. Richard Foulkes's mother even sent him a pudding - and asked him to return the basin. When re-decorating the family home, Charles Ramsdale's mum posted swatches of the new kitchen wallpaper. This was “the stuff of home itself”, says Essex sociologist Michael Roper, “and it offered the most direct contact short of going on leave”.

Then there were countless letters and postcards. All these things - food from mother's oven, toiletries and clothing, words of encouragement on notepaper carrying the scene of home - were crucial in keeping up morale and easing the psychological strains of a terrible conflict.

The part played by families' letters and parcels in buoying what was essentially a young and amateur army is highlighted in Michael's new book, The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War. It shows how soldiers, in turn, adapted domestic habits (such as sewing) to the trenches. It reveals, too, how battlefield trauma exposed the deepest emotional ties of childhood - and how wartime experiences scarred soldiers' lives long after their return home.

The conflict was notably appalling, with large civilian armies opposing each other in trenches, using increasingly mechanised and deadly weapons. Violence was random and unpredictable, and troops never knew when death would come. About 70% of men were under the age of 30 and about 40% under 24. An average of 457 British personnel died each day during the first war, compared to 147 in 1939-45.

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For some returning soldiers, domestic life was difficult; and family ties - the ones that had sustained them from afar during the action - often came under stress. “Veterans sometimes enacted on their loved ones and carers the violence to which they had been subjected,” the author explains. Many were alienated, full of repressed anger and bitterness.

The effect on the supportive family back home shouldn't be underestimated or forgotten, says Michael, senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex. “I think it's a story that still needs to be understood. Above all, what people haven't understood is what it meant for families. What I'm saying is these experiences were contained in some way by families: they dealt with them; they allowed men to live a reasonable life.

“There's an awful lot of caring that had to go on for that to happen - dealing with these flashes of temper and this sort of thing. People who didn't get into a relationship with the idea of being a carer suddenly found that's what they had to do.”

He only had to consider his late grandfather for evidence of how the Great War could cast its shadow over families for nearly a century. Robert Roper was 19 when he enlisted in 1915. He served in Gallipoli and Palestine, and his hand and arm were scarred by gunshots wounds received in Gaza. In later life he would have nightmares and speak in his sleep, and was prone to angry outbursts at what he saw as incompetent politicians and uncaring capitalists such as Keith Murdoch - father of Rupert.

“We heard a lot about his war, and even amid the quiet and leafy suburbs of Melbourne something of its turmoil was communicated to us,” explains Michael, who came to Britain on a Commonwealth scholarship in his mid-20s and, while not expecting to, stayed.

For his book, the sociologist examined about 80 collections of First World War correspondence between unmarried men and their families - most of it held by the Imperial War Museum and invariably fragile, and often written in now-faint, supposedly indelible, pencil. Many of the letters ooze pathos.

“When I re-read them, I still get very moved,” admits Michael. “One of the things I think I've done is to rekindle something of what the emotional experience was for the reader and the writer; and in the end I think that's probably the main achievement of the book - its attempt to bring us back to a direct engagement with that, at a time when the eyewitnesses can't tell us any more.”

The first part, “Mothers and sons”, investigates what mothers did to support their sons during the war: those thousands of parcels and so on. (The Home Depot, which sorted mail, had a staff of 2,500 by the end of the conflict.) The second section, “Mothering men”, looks at comradeship and the relationship between maternal care and military survival.

“The rank-and-file soldier existed in a domestic world. He was responsible for keeping his kit in order. He would sew on buttons and patch uniforms using a needle and thread from his 'housewife'. If he wanted warm food, or a hot drink in the line, he heated it up on a brazier or tommy cooker . . . The experience of looking after themselves on the Western Front heightened these men's awareness of domestic matters, putting them all, in a sense, in mother's shoes.”

Officers also had responsibility for their men - although, in many ways, the rank-and-file soldier was often more skilled than officers who had less experience of life.

It's “Falling Apart”, the third part of the book, which examines what it meant to be physically subjected to the sustained violence of the front and asks how these experiences revealed themselves in peacetime.

Michael feels there's a certain weight on his generation's shoulders that the war, and the pain of warfare, shouldn't be forgotten. Trauma, his book argues, shapes people in the way no other experience does. “And trench warfare was constitutionally traumatic.”

Even when colleagues weren't being blown apart, life could be appalling. After five days of constant rain in trenches with “dead things unburied”, one Second Lieutenant wrote to his mother: “More tomorrow. I must lie down now and hope not to dream of finding all my men lying out in the pouring rain with only underclothing on - as I did the other night!”

The consequences for some unfortunate men played out in a range of acts upon their return: nightmares, mood swings, even suicides. There might have been a stiff upper lip culture, and the age of psychotherapy wasn't yet with us, but that didn't stop emotions coming to the fore. “Things could not perhaps be readily talked about, but I would say they were being expressed nonetheless - and usually to those most close to the veteran.”

A 21st Century reader of Great War correspondence frequently has to “feel” the tone to understand the true feelings of those on the front. Sometimes, Michael argues, military historians haven't proved very adept at looking beyond the literal to discover the poignant - instead being immersed in hardware and tactics.

“The sensations conveyed in letters, by comparison with memoirs, were relatively undigested and are often now opaque to us, forcing us to read between the lines,” he explains in the book. “What Freud calls 'parapraxes' - slips of the pen, grammatical errors, contradictions, repetitions and so on - give the merest glimpse of emotional states. In some cases, it is the very protestation of good spirits that suggests all was not well . . . The real value of letters as psychological sources becomes fully evident once we accept that emotional states are not wholly conscious, and take into account what is hinted at, unspoken, or unspeakable.”

One of the teenage officers Michael writes about had a man bleed to death on his lap, from a head injury.

“Seventeen years old, straight out of Sandhurst; what frame of reference has he got for anything like that? He writes 'One of the worst sights . . .', then he crosses it out and says 'One of the worst parts of war is the sights one has to endure . . .' That's a case where the sights are flooding his memory; he can't get rid of them.

“I'm interested in where composition breaks down - where meaning breaks down - and what that tells you, rather than something that's a literary epistle.”

The original letters were thus essential for his research. “You need the spelling mistakes, you need the wobbliness, you need the stains, you need the mud. You need the signs of the physical object - something that's been touched, folded up, sealed.”

Michael thinks his grandfather would have been pleased with the book - both for reminding subsequent generations what their ancestors endured.

“It was a book meant to be as much for families as academics. [The hardback costs a fair whack and is aimed at the educational market, but a paperback is in the pipeline.] I hope I've managed to make it accessible to everybody; it's a very hard line to tread, without lapsing into sentimentalism.

“I think of the book as a memorial, in a funny way, for the families and for the men. Academics sometimes feel a bit timid about emotion - they get embarrassed - but I think you have to take it on. You can't sit back and be forensic about it.”

What is life without emotion . . . “That's exactly right. Here's an extreme emotional experience that we need to understand for what it was and for what it was felt as being.”

The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War is published by Manchester University Press at �60. ISBN 978-0719079184

A pitiful plea from a frightened boy

AS he prepared to embark for France in late 1914, Stephen Brown wrote a postcard to his mother in Deptford, London. It shows a soldier gazing fondly at a photograph, about to start writing a letter. The caption, “I am thinking of you”, suggests a soldier who is confident in himself and concerned for his loved ones.

“But Brown's postcard has a flip-side, as letters home so often did,” says sociologist Michael Roper. “It opens with the standard conventions of the rank-and-file soldier, 'Just a few lines to let you know that I am quite well I am for the front on Teusday [sic]'. Brown continues: 'if you write to the Commanding [officer] and say I am only seventeen it will stop me from going get it here before Teusday for I cannot get a pass to come and see you don't forget from Stephen'.”

He would be killed at Ypres the following May.

“Brown's message hints at the conflicted situation of the civilian soldiers who constituted the mainstay of the British army in the First World War. They had been trained to shoot, and to thrust their bayonets into a man's guts, and on the Western Front they endured poor food, cold, mud, vermin and rotting bodies. Their own fathers had not undergone such severe tests of manliness.

“At the same time, fear could reduce them to little more than children. An outbreak of shelling led one - later very embarrassed - recruit to cry out for his mother. When men were dying of their wounds, General Seeley observed, 'in almost every case “mother” is the last word that crosses their lips'.

“Nearly ninety years after the war, just such a scene was etched in the mind of Harry Patch, one of the very last living veterans: 'when that fellah died, he just said one word: “Mother”. . . and from that day until today - and now I'm nearly 106 years old - I shall always remember that cry.'

“The stresses of trench warfare threw these men back on their deepest psychological reserves, their earliest memories and attachments.

“Wartime culture reflected the importance of the mail. Photographs show men writing letters cramped against trench walls or seated on ammunition boxes. Enclosed within their letters home, some men sent sketches of their comrades writing letters. In so doing, they expressed the personal and the collective importance of families to men serving overseas in the British army.

“This habit of letter-writing - which extended across social classes and regions - has been altered in some respects by digital technology. The soldier serving in Iraq or Afghanistan can communicate almost instantly with her or his loved ones by email or blog (although a superior officer still has to approve its content). And as the heated debates during 2007-8 about the blocking of social networking sites like YouTube and MySpace on US Department of Defense computers show, families and soldiers greatly value the immediacy that these technologies offer.

“By contrast the British soldier serving in Iraq in the First World War had to wait months for his mail, and even on the Western Front it would take 3-4 days to arrive. What the letter lacked in immediacy, however, it gained in its physical traces of a mother, father, sister or brother. Created by the hand of a loved one, the letter could be touched, kissed and kept safe in a tunic pocket.

“Amidst the collection of lewd postcards belonging to Albert Baker was a Christmas 1914 card from his parents: 'A link to bind where duty bids us part/A chain of thought stretches forth from heart to heart/from Dad and Ma.'

“Baker was killed at the Somme in summer 1916 and had kept the card during his 18 months of service overseas. It was the trenches that provided many of these men with their first experience of life away from home, and it was mail from home that buoyed their spirits.”

THE Great War highlighted the unique bond between a son and the person who gave him life. As Michael Roper points out, trench warfare “not only turned these young soldiers into men, it also made them anxious and homesick. Many yearned for their mothers”.

There were many examples of intense fear prompting men to seek something that evoked maternal memories and mimicked the physical protection and mental comfort of their mother: nestling against a roadside bank, for instance; taking refuge in a dug-out; or pressing their bodies to the ground.

There are also many documented cases of injured and fatally-wounded soldiers calling for their mother - sometimes with their dying breath.

The Imperial War Museum's collection of sons' correspondence from the western front shows almost six times more letters sent to mothers than fathers, says Michael. “That's not to say that soldiers didn't communicate with their dads, but letters don't seem to be a kind of masculine genre.”

The relative closeness of the fighting added a strange tinge to emotions. It was often said that folk on the south-coast could hear the guns in France - “That gives the families and the men an incredible proximity” - while sharing the same seasons and times of day made the experience intense.

“A mother could say, walking around the garden, 'It must be pretty hot in the trenches, because it's hot here.' Or 'It's autumn. It was a very cold night here last night. You must have been cold,' and they're sending blankets. They can act on their own personal rhythms to meet the needs of the sons.”

For relatives, a letter home was often seized upon as a sign that their son, brother, uncle and so on was still well - understandably, if somewhat irrationally, bearing in mind anything could have happened between the letter being sent and its arrival.

Michael says there is contemporary evidence of military personnel yearning for their mothers in moments of profound anguish.

“My feeling is that these experiences are probably more universal than you might think. Gender relations have changed - mothers are not full-time in the home the way they were during the First World War - but I still think at some level, in very extreme moments, young men fall back on the deepest relationships.”

ONE rewarding aspect of Michael Roper's research was talking to the relatives of Great War soldiers. He had to write for permission to use family letters in his book “and was completely bowled over by the amount of contact I had with many of them. They wanted to talk: by phone, by letter. They wanted to tell me about their ancestors. These were people who had direct contact with the veteran and felt those experiences should be known”.

His next project will be on the children of First World War soldiers, examining memories of their fathers and looking at families whose dads did not return. It will be based on oral history interviews. Anyone whose father served in the Great War, and who would like to be involved in the project, can contact Michael Roper by letter at the Department of Sociology, University of Essex, Wivenhoe Park, Colchester, CO4 3SQ, or by email on