A number of small personal archives from the York and Lancaster Regiment were recently digitised by the First World War Archives Project. Joe Williams, a remote volunteer for the project, explores the importance of soldier’s mail in light of these.
Life on the Western Front could be deadly, but it could also be dead boring. Waiting around for orders, marching to new locations, digging trenches :- when the fighting ceased, there was little to do. Moreover, it was an isolated life: men were separated from their families and jobs for long periods. Consequently, morale could be low. Soldiers coped with this by engaging in a variety of activities but letter writing was perhaps the principal way of staying “in the pink”, as can be seen from the sheer volume of surviving letters sent and received by certain soldiers of the York and Lancaster Regiment. As Allan Simpson put it in his letter to his mother, “It’s a soldiers privilege to grumble.”
Military officials were obviously aware of this. A cursory glance at the dates of letters to and from soldiers indicates, perhaps surprisingly, a rough delivery time of four to five days. Despite a significant disruption to traffic across the English Channel, the quick processing of mail was prioritised to ensure soldiers never felt cut off from their home lives.
Surrounded by battalions of other men, correspondence, in essence, was a means of keeping in touch with and reassuring loved ones they were “still alive and kicking” (Allan Simpson to his mother). Simpson derived great enjoyment making light of his seemingly dire circumstances in observations to his mother, while Charles Spurr sent home gifts to his children in letters from “Your Dada”.
Indeed, the idea of persons “waiting” was a major theme of soldiers’ correspondence, particularly in letters received. Mail sent by wives and girlfriends reminded soldiers of who exactly was “waiting” for them. One postcard sent to JE White is subtitled “To my dear Soldier Boy…”. Letters could therefore be a comforting reminder that, in spite of the boredom and destruction, men still had a stake in their families.
As livelihoods were put on hold, letter writing also allowed soldiers to maintain a semblance of involvement in their professions. As a village mechanic, Fred Bluck’s correspondence with his sister allowed him to make important business decisions in absentia. Similarly, information pertaining to “the pit” was frequently relayed to Bluck. As normal life was so profoundly disturbed by war, these letters provided soldiers with a reassuring alternative reality. The sending and receiving of “things” was a further boost to trench morale. Fred Bluck sent washing regularly while at training camp in England and in return was the recipient of money, mended equipment and birthday presents (a signet ring on one occasion). Others received consumables in scarce supply in France and Belgium, such as cigarettes and cakes. Without these items, soldiers’ only possessions were their indistinguishable military provisions and their only income their meagre army wage. With them, however, they could not only live a little more comfortably, but also feel somewhat more individual, and thus happier.
Written correspondence was not merely a means of passing the time. It created a bridge with a real past and a possible future which made their military existence a fraction more tolerable.