Tuesday, January 06, 2009

My Dear Brother and Sister. Bear witness: World War I

Above: page 1 of the letter.

A few weeks after the anniversary of Armistice day in 2008, I was sitting in my library scanning the shelves for something to read, as the weather was inclement and I was alone.

This was before Christmas and I had just exhausted the last page of the last book that I had in the house that was of interest to me as a reader. I scanned the shelves, my gaze eventually coming to rest upon several volumes of Shakespeare that rested on their sides, one upon the other, on an upper shelf.

The volumes had been left to me by my departed Grandmother Elisabeth and over the years there have been several times when I lifted them from their resting place and read one or other of the great bards plays. There had always been one volume which I had avoided perusing, due to it being a collection of his lesser plays, and he did write oh so many plays.

I slid it from its place between the other six volumes and began to read.

There is no publication date on the hardback books, but inside a clue to their antiquity. Photographs, or what I had always assumed were photographs punctuated the volumes every thirty or forty pages. One night a year or so ago, I had grown curious as to the origins of the books, as the actors represented were dressed in a manner I would normally associate with the 1800's. So, I looked more closely at them. After some study, they revealed themselves to me, not as photographs but daguerreotype, a photographic etching process introduced circa 1853, almost akin to etching The daguerreotype is a unique photographic image allowing no reproduction of the picture. The daguerreotype ceased its brief life of popularity by about 1900.

So, lifting page after page, and passing daguerrotype by daguerreotype I eventually settled on Henry III, and began to read. I turned the page, and before me lay, not the bards prose but scrabbly handwritten pencil, on what appeared to me at first as traditional school jotter paper.

At this point I assumed that I had discovered a fragment of ancient family correspondence.

Perhaps between my Grandfather Thomas and another relative, or perhaps even one of my Grandmothers letters. I turned the fragile sun bleached pages gently in my hand. At first glance the letter was indecipherable, but pushed on by a hand reaching out to me from the past I began to examine the letter in detail.

The first page seemed to have no date on it, nor a return address, or even a name of a person to whom it was addressed. What it did have was seven digits placed neatly in the center, at the top of the initial page, at first I thought they were a date. The digits were not. They were an unknown quantity.

The letter was addressed "To my dear brother and sister" and for a date, the page simply noted in its painstakingly neat, though time faded handwriting "Tuesday". It started traditionally enough thanking these faceless, most likely long dead, siblings for their delightful Christmas presents. The next few words were bleached by time and sunlight eventually becoming legible in the first odd statement that gave birth to an odd feeling of excitement deep in my stomach, the letter said how the presents the unknown author had received were greatly enjoyed by "the boys" who had a great laugh at them. The first page ended, leaving me with none of my preconceptions witch which I began reading.

The letter went on, overhead looped l, followed by underline looped p's and f's. The second page was a little clearer having been spared the sun, but oddly enough had not been spared the touch of water.

My eyes grew slowly more accustomed to my ancient friends hand. He began to tell me, that he had managed to keep himself fairly clean. At this juncture I had little place or time for the letter, for it neither corresponded to my idea of a Christmas thank you letter, nor had it fallen into a rhythm of any other letter that I recognised, yet. Two lines down was the killer sentence. Our confidant revealed to me that they had managed to keep themselves fairly clean, compared to.

Compared to what?

Compared to the Germans.

And here in my hand lay a bullet of information, that had travelled through time and space until finally reaching me, here in the placid hills of Ireland, far from the poppy strew killing fields of France which lay dormant for the author and men like him, for just less than a century.

I rose to my feet, unable to remain at my chair with the burgeoning excitement that was rising from my stomach to fill my chest and then spread outward to my arms, legs and their digital extremities.

Who was this man, who is this man that speaks to me from the mud and death of the killing fields of World War One, who is he, a random particle caught up in the winds of history the last evidence of whom had somehow ended up in a volume of Shakespeare my Grandmother had bought in some 2nd hand bookshop, or perhaps a friend of her's as many of her Irish Protestant generation had died in the vain hope of birthing home rule in their native land as a result of the urgings of Redmond, whose plaintiff cry to the British of the loyalty of their Irish subjects, who would fight for them in this great conflict if only they instituted a modicum of self-determination back home? A sacrifice that was stricken into redundancy as the 1916 rising attempted to wrest the island back from it's conquerors and into the arms of the natives.

This soldier may even be a distant family member whose sacrifice was erased by a refusal to talk about his involvement in the British Army, a taboo in Ireland after the war, even with thousands from this island dead upon the rotting flesh pile that once was to hold the great libertarian torch of home rule.

We Irish are great at the art of forgetting, we are the comforting voice that draws the anesthetic blanket over the eyes of a history which we do not want to confront.

I turned to the last page.

I stared at that last page for some minutes, unable to acknowledge the blow that fate had piled upon me. It was not the final page of that letter, and no signature, no evidence of who this solider, this person was, this man who spoke to me out of the nightmarish industrial butchery that was the first world war, the first science fiction war to be fought on this planet, with its wings of death, air of poison and asphyxiating subterranean living.

There was no name, no signature, no mark to bear witness to the name of he who had passed.

Except the strange six digit number on page one of the letter, the number that was not a date.

I thought that it might perhaps be a personnel number. The man who scratched this letter from the trenches, in rain and shine, bombardment and uneasy silence (witnessed by the severe change in handwriting evidenced throughout the letter) deserved to be given a name.

My first port of call was the online edifice of the Imperial War Meuseum. There, after minor perusing, I found a contact email for queries about the lost sons, and abducted children of Empire where the "Sun never sets" . An empire which now, like the author is deep in darkness, but the letter is here yet.

In less than two hours I received a mail back, advising me on books to reference, and even an online database of soldiers that had received medals in the war. I was advised that several different sections of the British Expeditionary Force, as it was then named had their own personnel numbering systems, an that the one number might apply to more than one soldier.

I entered in the number into the database and from its cold digital annals came four names, the names I have listed below:

Medal card of Corfield, William J
Corps: Royal Field Artillery
Regiment No: 170950
Rank: Driver
1914-1920 WO 372/5

Medal card of Salt, Fred
Corps: Labour Corps
Regiment No: 170950
Rank: Private
1914-1920 WO 372/17

Medal card of Jackson, Alfred
Corps: Royal Engineers
Regiment No: 488569
Rank: Sapper...
1914-1920 WO 372/10

Medal card of Quinn, William
Corps: Army Service Corps
Regiment No: DM2/170950
Rank: Private
1914-1920 WO 372/16

At this juncture, I have yet to determine for certain, and perhaps I never will determine for certain, which of these men the author was, but this task is not limited to my own efforts, I invite you, the reader of this piece to review the letter, my partially complete transcript of which is included below, as this blog post serves only as an introduction to the primary historical source of the text itself.

I am sure that I have made errors, and in fact will be reviewing my transcription of the letters pages to clarify and replace possible mis-transcriptions, but it is my fervent hope, that you see the value that I see in the ancient communiqué, and see fit to read and transcribe it yourself, forwarding me on any alternative interpretations you have of its text. It is the least we can do for this man, and for the men of his time, on both sides that fought and died in this "Great War to End all Wars".

The Letter:


1 (70950?)


To my Dear brother and sister.

Please convey my best thanks for your extreme kindness in giving me such very nice presents. It would have done for both of you to hear the boys laugh, (when I have/has got out?) the "CamelChaser" (I mean? ) the fine (coat?) as a matter of fact (the/for/ _ _ of my F _ _ _/ ten of my friends?) if I first don't get them.


out but on the whole we keep ourselves fairly clean but perhaps it would shock you a bit to hear the chaps offering to exchange two little ones for one big one. but I think that we keep ourselves wonderfully cheery. compared to the Germans for they are very filthy. The (s a/u la p/g/y? f i/e ant) of which is really dirty is our clothes but then for (safh r/n?) to see the state of the fields out here (your? for? from?) one (nip? rip?) to (f/y l? a/u? i/r/n/m? flair/flour/four?) knees (in?) (/had/mad?) (fear/fean?) scarcely started on (form? from? four?)


feet and the cold is awful but withal we are cheerful but it is quite a (con y/j ier? conjure?) to try and get your clothes dry (when you're only?) (poss e/i? ) (what for?) stank up in one (fenh? k?) the most convenient method is to let them dry on your (Shg __/shoulders?) been one of lucky ones out here and am still going strong but (rye/try?)(harder?) a good year. (ren/men?) fallen in our section (since?) we came out. We got a new sergeant recently as our old


one (went?) die. He is a very nice fellow one of the sort who gets the name of (shit/shil/hit??) - a - (lus/us) out here which means brave as a lion (him/lion??) we get on very well together one officer is also a very brave fellow, in fact it would be hard to beat them as a pair. But the section as a whole are a set of devil-may-care fellows the more dangerous the job the more merry (we?) are about it. We got one of our fellows back yesterday who has (been?) in hospital for some considerable time


and he was jolly glad to get back amongst us again. So we cannot be such a bad lot. I don't know if I told you that the section is almost all post office chaps (operators/operations?) a much superior fellow to the ordinary Tommy we are part and parcel of the intelligence department and our particular work is keeping the lines of communication open at all costs for (may?) perhaps have noticed them at home where we were to (blue/dlue/have?) (white?) bands on each arm so that everyone


may know also that they will clear out of our way when we are working (also we?) can generally give information if required. The worst job our fellows (get is?) being chosen in a (listening?) party if you are chosen for that duty you have to go out in front of the trenches a good (way?) to (report?) what (we/au/the?) guns are doing needless to say that is a right job and the darker the night the better for the purpose and if a sniper happens


to see you he gets very busy. but on the whole (my/our) work is very interesting and we have done our bit towards taking the back of the "aliman" as the French people call the Germans. I can tell you for a fact that the particular fact that we are in (________) (whacked?)) hell out of them. If we knew (then?) half what we know


about their actions in towns we have chased the germans out of you would not have an atom of pity for them when I tell you what the (very?) children of ten years of age suffered at their hands. fancy a mother of a child of that age telling you such a frightful tale I



know it to be true that is one reason why we have very little pity for them again they have treated our wounded (wounded was underlined twice) scandalously but but this takes little effect on us we don’t feel the least bit downhearted as a matter of fact if it were possible I should like to see some of the


grumblers out here if only just to see us go up everyman including officers is singing some of the latest songs "when Irish eyes are smiling" or some other good chorus song and chipping one another as to what the result will be but when we start (work?)


all the fun stops and nothing remains but that grim determination to do our bit and do it properly and our officer is the sort of man to see it properly done and if he finds anyone neglecting their duty he's just the sort to make them remember it but we are with him to a man (and/as?) we


are with our sergeant for of course we have more dealings with the sergeant than with our officer but as a matter of fact I am generally chosen to go on jobs with our officer one of our last jobs was right up in front of the guns but he paid not the least bit of attention to them


needles to remark I couldn't as I had to get on with my work. it was a case of some (grieves/graves?) had been smashed. I had to be joined up well. I got my job done to the satisfaction ("as a matter" crossed out) I might say I am quite an expert lineman now the work itself is not very difficult it is the


conditions under which we work and the great thing is to be sure your (joints/points)? Are absolutely correct. but linesman going out in the dark to look for a defect in the wire have to be very careful that some of the aliman are not waiting for them to put his lights out. now I think I have given


you a fair idea of our work and it has taken me several days to write this letter. Please ask Hannah to excuse me not writing her direct but I will do so the first chance I get. What I want you to send me is a small glass for sharing with


3 sides which folds up into one. (the next four words are underlined) It does not break. My wife sent me one but it lasted no time. I do not like to tell her it is broken. I tell her very little of what happens out here for she is very nervous and she would become more fretful than ever. I thought she would have been far more plucky

LINK to the original scans of the letter.

The Census that is referred to in the comments section:

Peace and Hope