The Post Office delivered 12.5 million letters to soldiers each week throughout the Great War. It was an expensive operation but letters were deemed crucial to maintaining morale, both in the trenches and on the home front.
I discovered a box of wartime correspondence among some family papers this year, from my grandfather’s first cousin Walter Brabyn, a teenage soldier, to his parents and sister. Enlisted into the 1st Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment just after his 18th birthday in 1917, Walter was swiftly despatched to the heavily fortified front line in northern France.
His letters are deeply affecting, showing the boyish naivety of the young Tommies sent off to the trenches, but also how quickly they grew up. In the first missive Walter begs for parcels of chocolate and cake, but by the next he writes with solemn pride of his elevation to the rank of paid lance corporal: “I feel that a trust has been confided in me to which I must do my best to live up.”
Only the faintest glimmer of homesickness ever creeps in. “We are a long way from Blighty here,” he notes in one letter. Otherwise, a brazen jollity dominates. He concedes that “grub is pretty short” but adds earnestly that the dugouts in which he and his comrades sleep on wire netting mattresses are “quite cosy”, and free from rats.
A series of small vignettes in his letters captures the nature of trench life. Boredom, relieved by both back-breaking work and humour, dominates. “We had a laugh last night, when everyone was standing round some sandbags yawning and in the last stage of fedupness some funny Johnny in the next bay began to warble ‘the end of a perfect day’.”
Most heart-rending of the correspondence is the letter written to Walter’s mother by his commanding officer. It reads: “I am writing to give you information of your son – who was with me in the recent heavy fighting on the French front. To be as brief as possible – on the morning of 2/6 we were heavily attacked and your boy was hit in the left arm . . . It is difficult to say whether or not your boy succeeded in getting away. I will try and get some information and let you know.
“Just a final word to tell you what a fine example your boy set to his comrades in the face of a grave situation and did not even murmur or complain after being wounded when he must have endured a lot of pain.”
He continues ruefully: “Providence still seems to smile on me – this is my third time being the only surviving officer of the company in six weeks.”
Fate was less kind to Walter, who was taken prisoner in the Ardennes. A dictated note was his penultimate letter home: “I have been wounded and they have had to amputate my left arm near the shoulder. I am unhurt otherwise. I am going on well.”
In a final missive dated 6 June 1918, he explained that he had suffered gangrene, but wrote: “I hope I shall be better soon, and will see you all again perhaps, and have a change of grub. Best love to you all.”
Less than a fortnight later he was dead, a fact of which his family was informed in a cursory note from the War Office a year later. I had never heard mention of him in my family before discovering his letters but he is far from being yet another faceless soldier who went early to his grave: the existence of these letters makes his memory, in some small way, endure.