The first World War was an incredibly bloody fight, with the total number of military and civilian casualties at an almost unfathomable 38 million people. The sheer volume of death makes it easy to lose touch with the concept that every single one of the soldiers that gave his life had people he loved, including parents, wives, children, and friends. Handwritten letters left the battlefields daily, headed home, many of them written by men with the knowledge that he was just about to enter the lion’s den, hop over the parapet, or charge heavy machine-gunners. He knew that he faced almost certain death. Of course, some did live to return home, but many did not. These are some of those heartfelt letters, written from the desperate and muddy trenches of long ago.
1) Gunner Wilfrid Cove to his daughter Marjorie on Monday 4 December 1916. Cove would be killed in action in 1917.
My dear little Marjorie,
I have only just received your little letter which Mamma sent with hers on Nov 19th. Do you remember that you asked me to be home for Xmas? I only wish I could but there are many more soldiers in our Battery who are more entitled to the Xmas leave than I am, so am afraid you will have to do without Daddy this Xmas. Santa Claus will come as usual.
I think your writing and dictation just splendid, and your drawings are getting funnier than ever. I have pinned your crayoned tulips on the wall of my dug-out bedroom beside your photograph.
Daddy is as comfortable as possible. I expect even you would get tired enough to go soundly asleep in this dug-out. It would be a change from your pink bedroom. And how is little Daffodil getting on? I expect you quite enjoy the time when Mamma reads you more about her. It was Mamma’s book when she was a girl like you. Write again soon, dear, + send another crayoning to help cover the sand bags.
Heaps of love & kisses, which you must share with Mamma and Betty.
From your ever loving Daddy
‘At 3 o’clock the Germans started to shell us, and hit the trench that I was in about 15 times.
‘So you bet that when they were doing that I began to fancy that I should never write it at all.
‘The trenches around here are on ground that is full of dead, and when there is any digging on it stinks something dreadfully.
‘You are not to worry about anything, it is sure to turn out well in the end and then D.V. we must have some good times together.’
Each letter is sprinkled with the abbreviation DV, short for Deo volente, the latin for God Willing.
‘What a happy day that will be when we have a home of our own, I suppose that you would live with me in a state of bread and cheese and kisses, but not until I can afford to keep you.
‘No I won’t say that, when we can live together in a style that at least you are used to, but I shall if I can manage it live in the country, it is much cheaper as regards rent etc. and a nice motor cycle & sidecar for us to take some enjoyable runs together and which I can go to business on.
‘How does that strike you, with a nice front garden and a big one at the back, with a lawn where could take tea in the Summer.
As the months of war stretched on Fred’s thought of survival increasingly involved the prayers of those back home.
In January 1916 he wrote: ‘I am sure that if I do get out of this business safely, it will be mainly due to your and others applications to Providence for my safety.
‘Cause although I do say my prayers as a rule regularly , I am sorry to say that it is only when I am near or in the trenches, ’cause spiritually & physically I am a coward, I shirk from bodily pain and many a time I have to clench myself to keep from running away into shelter.’
3) Company Sergeant-Major James Milne wrote to his wife just moments before he was ordered over the top on July 20, 1918. It was to be delivered in the event of his death, but James Milne survived and was later reunited with his family.
My own beloved wife
I do not know how to start this letter. The circumstances are different from any under which I ever wrote before. I am not to post it but will leave it in my pocket, if anything happens to me someone will perhaps post it. We are going over the top this afternoon and only God in Heaven knows who will come out of it alive.
I am in his hands and whatever happens I will look to him in this world and the world to come. If I am called my regret is that I leave you and my bairns. I go to him with your dear face the last vision on earth I shall see and your name upon my lips, you the best of women. You will look after by Darling Bairns for me and tell them how their daddy died.
Oh! How I love you all and as I sit here waiting I wonder what you are doing at home. I must not do that. It is hard enough sitting waiting. We may move at any minute. When this reaches you for me there will be no more war, only eternal peace and waiting for you.
It is a legacy of struggle for you but God will look after you and we shall meet again when there will be no more parting. I am to write no more sweetheart… Kiss the Bairns for me once more. I dare not think of them my Darlings.
Goodbye, you best of women and best of wives, my beloved sweetheart. May God in his mercy look over you and bless you all… May he in that same mercy preserve me today. Eternal love from
Yours for evermore
We have just come out of the trenches after being in for six days and up to our waists in water. While we were in the trenches one of the Germans came over to our trench for a cigarette and then back again, and he was not fired at. We and the Germans started walking about in the open between the two trenches, repairing them, and there was no firing at all. I think they are all getting fed up with it.
5) Lance-Corporal Frank Earley, a young journalist who regularly wrote to his family from the front.
His letters were normally full of enthusiasm and excitement. In July 1918 he wrote, “As you see, I am still alive and well, and as usual enjoying life to the full.” It is only in his very last letter, on 1 September 1918,that his tone changed, as though he sensed something. The next day Frank Earley suffered a serious wound to his chest and died just hours later. He was 19.
Sunday afternoon, 1 Sep, 1918.
My dear Father,
It is a strange feeling to me but a very real one, that every letter now that I write home to you or to the little sisters may be the last that I shall write or you read. I do not want you to think that I am depressed; indeed on the contrary, I am very cheerful. But out here, in odd moments the realisation comes to me of how close death is to us. A week ago I was talking with a man, a catholic, from Preston, who had been out here for nearly four years, untouched. He was looking forward with certainty to going on leave soon. And now he is dead – killed in a moment during our last advance. Well it was God’s will.
I say this to you because I hope that you will realise, as I do, the possibility of the like happening to myself. I feel very glad myself that I can look the fact in the face without fear or misgiving. Much as I hope to live thro’ it all for your sakes and my little sisters! I am quite prepared to give my life as so many have done before me. All I can do is put myself in God’s hands for him to decide, and you and the little ones pray for me to the Sacred Heart and Our Lady.
I hope that you will not move out of the old house yet. Write and let me know when anything happens. I see that you went to Preston a few days ago. It seems years and years since I tried to get drowned in the canal.
Well I have not much time left and I must end.
With my dear love. Pray for me.
These letters serve to remind us of how lives are touched by war, but also to leave us in awe with how these soldiers, despite living each day inside of a virtual hellscape, managed to shield their loved ones from the daily terror that engulfed them.