Letters from the trenches

Private Philip Luxton: ‘I find it very lonely now that I have lost my chum’.

Private Philip Luxton: ‘I find it very lonely now that I have lost my chum’.

Thinking of writing to your far-flung family members this Christmas? Read about the letters soldiers sent from the trenches to their loved ones a century ago in Jacqueline Wadsworth’s new book, and gain a little flavour of the letters below. Jacqueline gives a taster…

Once read, never forgotten…

During the two years I spent writing my new book, Letters from the Trenches, I sifted through many hundreds of letters, diaries and postcards from the First World War, and I can honestly say there was never a dull moment. Even the most mundane correspondence was fascinating because of the extraordinary circumstances in which it was written.

Every now and again, however, a line from a letter or card would jump out and stop me in my tracks, not because it expressed the horror of war, just the opposite in fact. The most memorable lines were those that revealed that compassion, humour and stoicism still endured despite the savage fighting, and below are some of the most moving …

‘The bearers lowered the stretcher several times to rub his hands

Even in the chaos of battle, soldiers never failed to take care of each other and this was movingly described in a letter from an Army Medical Corps captain to the father of a 21-year-old Second Lieutenant Charles Alderton who was mortally wounded during the Battle of Cambrai. ‘Two stretcher bearers of ‘C’ company carried your son back,’ wrote the captain. ‘One of them told me that Mr Alderton had no pain, was very quiet and complained only of his hands being cold. The bearers lowered the stretcher several times to rub his hands. So far as I can gather he said nothing further.’

Second Lieutenant Charles Alderton: 'The bearers lowered the stretcher to rub his hands'.

Second Lieutenant Charles Alderton: ‘The bearers lowered the stretcher to rub his hands’.


‘It cut me up awful when I heard he was killed’

Strong bonds were forged between men in the trenches and it could be heartbreaking when friends were killed. ‘I find it very lonely now that I have lost my chum,’ confided Philip Luxton to his wife in 1915, ‘it cut me up awful when I heard he was killed.’ Just a few months later Private Luxton, too, would be dead.

 ‘I should like to go as far as Stroud and see your Aunt’

Rifleman Tom Fake served two long years on the Western Front, but when the conflict finally came to an end, celebrations were the last thing on his mind.  In a war-weary letter to his wife in Bristol, all he could think about were the simple pleasures he had missed so much: ‘It is just two years ago today I sailed to France, and it seem s to me like five. Yes I hope we shall have a real good time when I finish up this game, and as you say we will have an outing together. I should like to go as far as Stroud and see your Aunt.’

‘Oh the poor little sparrows’

The letters of Private Edward Kensit, who worked as a botanist in peace time, were full of poignant detail about how the war had affected life in northern France. He didn’t try to hide his sadness: ‘Oh the poor little sparrows here feel the war as there are numbers with broken legs and wings,’ he wrote in the spring of 1916, then a few days later: ‘Shelled in billets, and during all this time there was a little boy selling sweets in the front trenches.’

Botanist Edward Kensit, pictured before the war.

Botanist Edward Kensit, pictured before the war.

He was led away, as I stood there, to be executed

Even battle-hardened soldiers of the regular army found themselves shocked at times by what they saw. Sergeant George Fairclough, a veteran of the Boer War, sounded numb when his wrote in his diary of August 1914: ‘I saw a Lt Colonel of the French artillery in the market square, he had just been convicted of selling secrets to the Germans and was sentenced to be shot, he was led away, as I stood there, to be executed.’

‘We were told not to pick blackberries while advancing’

Fun-loving Cecil Cadmore, 18, couldn’t help seeing the funny side of the somewhat muddled Army exercises that were meant to prepare him and his fellow soldiers for war at training camp in Hampshire. In 1915 he wrote this tongue-in-cheek letter: ‘Last Tuesday we were doing wood fighting. Before we started we were told not to pick blackberries while advancing. We went thro’ one wood in fine style & across & into another wood. We surprised about 60 of the enemy & captured them, & then got cussed for leaving the first wood.’

‘With all Auntie’s love’

Private Frederick Wood no doubt felt like a man when he arrived in France, aged 18, with the Somerset Light Infantry in 1915. But his favourite aunt still thought of him as the little boy she had always doted on, judging by the greeting she sent him that Christmas: ‘To Freddie, with all Auntie’s love and best wishes for a happy Christmas, Auntie Pollie.’

Private Wood would never grow beyond his teenage years. He was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, aged 19; his body was never found.

A postcard send with fond wishes from his auntie to Frederick Wood.

A postcard send with fond wishes from his auntie to Frederick Wood.

Letters from the Trenches is published by Pen and Sword Books, RRP £19.99, available in shops and online.

The book will be reviewed in Family Tree’s January’s issue, in the shops from Monday 29 December, and will be offered to magazine subscribers at a discount price.













Teenage soldier Frederick Wood and the postcard sent by his loving aunt.

Teenage soldier Frederick Wood and the postcard sent by his loving aunt.


Shell Shocked Britain: the mental health legacy of WW1

Shell-Shocked-BritainKaren Clare delves into a fascinating new book exploring the impact of shell shock on our First World War relatives – and the legacy of a nation traumatised by conflict.

In recent weeks, as the spectacle that was the Tower Hill poppies captured the hearts and minds of millions, thoughts turned to acts of remembrance and the sombre 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. As family historians we are more used to tracing the dead than the living and the Great War centenary has provided a focus for many researchers, and the catalyst for others to learn about the lives of relatives lost in the conflict.

But what about those combatants who survived and returned home, traumatised by their experiences? What happened to them, how did the authorities respond and their families cope? [Read more…]

Lest we forget: Who will you remember?

Gilbert Blackburn

Gilbert Blackburn, c1915.

With the centenary of the start of the First World War upon us, the Family Tree team each remember an ancestor who fought in the conflict.

[Read more…]

Have you downloaded your poppy yet?

Poppy appeal appPocket App, the UK’s largest independent app developer, has developed a new mobile app in support of The Sun newspaper’s Poppy Appeal. Available to download on any iPhone or android device, the My Poppy app allows you to contribute to The Royal British Legion Remembrance fundraising campaigns.

Users can donate via text message to the Royal British Legion’s campaign to support UK Armed Forces, veterans and their families. Once you have donated, you will receive an in-app digital poppy which you can share via social media or download to set as your mobile phone wallpaper.

Your digital poppy will also be added to a virtual poppy field online, where you can see all of the other poppies and a running total of how many people have donated.

Paul Swaddle, Pocket App CEO, said: ‘It’s all about helping people engage with this great charity in new and exciting ways.’

Robin Garton, creative director of News International, said: ‘It’s great to be working in collaboration with an organisation with as much foresight as Pocket App, who we know work with and support many charities. It’s clear that the world is becoming more and more mobile-orientated and we are always trying to find innovative ways for the next generation to remember and show their support for our active as well as fallen heroes.’

News International’s Sun Poppy Appeal, My Poppy, runs until 11 November 2014. The My Poppy app is available for free download from iTunes and Google Play. You can also search for My Poppy in your app store. Find out more about the Royal British Legion and the Poppy Appeal by visiting www.britishlegion.org.uk.

Seeking the people behind the posters

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Think of the Second World War propaganda machine, and it can seem a very large and impersonal concern. But consider the artwork, particularly the photographic images and posters that were created to help encourage support for the British war effort, and the faces we see peering back at us from across the decades are those of real people – our ancestors. But who precisely are we seeing?

Now, as family historians, we’re certainly not happy to settle for the broadbrush approach to history – we want to know the details exactly. Yes – the hard and fast facts of names, dates and places never lose their appeal.

With the 75th anniversary of the start of the Second World War upon us, while many of those who lived through those years are still around to inform us, let’s do our best to find out these people.

Perhaps you were one of the children featured in a WW2 propaganda photo or poster? Perhaps you were a cheery housewife helping with the make-do-and-message? Or the victim of an enemy bombing raid? Not all propaganda was upbeat – just as we see images on the news of injured children tucked up in hospital beds to tug at heart-strings today, so it was in the war-torn Britain of the Forties. So, if you were the subject of a WW2 poster or photo, or perhaps one of your family members was, we would love to hear from you.

In our October issue we ran an article on WW2 propaganda posters by Home Front historian John Leete, so please either get in touch directly with John (email homefronthistory@btinternet.com), or via the magazine (email Helen Tovey helen.t@family-tree.co.uk). Click here to read John’s fascinating article.

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