April 25, 1916 – Words of war play a vital role in saving sanity at the Front


Letters from loved ones were as important as bullets and shells for the British soldiers serving in Flanders as well as other far-flung corners of the world.

Cyril Newman, a lance corporal, wrote to his fiancée Winnie on receiving two letters from her: “I feel a different person. Ten years younger – a hundred times lighter of heart. We all feel like this. The arrival of mail is vital to our happiness. ‘No Post’ gives us a kind of malaise.”

Newman’s words appear in the Jessica Mayer book Men of War: Masculinity and the First World War Britain which details just how important letters were to the fighting soldier.

“As an on-going source of contact with the home front, letters served as a reminder of what men were fighting for, a conduit for news from home and an important emotional outlet for soldiers,” says Meyer.

This important medium is highlighted in the May 9, 1916, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser. Private Beecroft of Cottingham who is serving with the Motor Transport Section in Mesopotamia is reported as receiving a bumper batch of post from his parents: SEVENTEEN letters, FIVE parcels and TWO packets of newspapers.

But that story is knocked into the shade with news from another Cottingham man, Private Luther Botterill, who is stationed in Salonika. His friend had received ONE HUNDRED AND SIX letters in one post bag.

Clearly both stories have been caused by a bottleneck in passage but as Meyer says ‘the mobilisation of the Postal Service during the First World War was one of the most successful aspects of the British war effort’ with an average TWELVE MILLION letters a week being sent back and forth between the Front and the Home Front.

Most of the letters were dull and repetitive but local papers did a fantastic job in spotting the extraordinary nuggets nestling among the ordinary exchange of everyday life.

For instance, the editor publishes a story sourced from a letter written by Signalman Walter Garlick of HMS King Fisher who is appealing for a piccolo. “Will someone kindly make us a present of one, to enlighten our long nights at sea, when we are not on watch. The wireless operator on board as well as the mate, are both fine players and I assure you both would be very thankful to any kind person who would spare a thought to pass away the thoughts of danger.”

The Advertiser’s editor hammers home the message. “If any of our readers can comply with the request we shall be please to give Signalman Garlick’s full address or if desired will post the piccolo on to him.”

Sadly the mail does not just contain the maudlin and the mundane. The Advertiser reports that Mr and Mrs Gale of Caxton Street, Harborough have received official intimation that their son – who was previously employed at the market Harborough Co-operative Society is lying seriously ill in s Base Hospital in India.

And Mrs Dunkley of King’s Road, Market Harborough, has received information that her husband of the 2nd Leicesters has been seriously wounded in action.

Perhaps the worst kind of letter to receive is like the one sent to the mother of Private Percy Smith of Newcombe Street, Market Harborough.

The Hospital Matron wrote a ‘sympathetic letter’ explaining that Private Smith had died of inflammation of the shoulder and hip and had been buried on Easter Monday.

Private Smith, who used to work in the offices of Messrs R and W H Symington and had a number of brothers in the army, had seen ‘considerable service in France’.

  • Check out this week’s Harborough Mail for current news from the Market Harborough area.
  • My fellow researcher and De Montfort University colleague David Penman is conducting a similar real-time project with the Ashbourne Telegraph. Check out his Great War Reports.

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