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Photo gallery: Poignant tales of pride, grief and pain from Norfolk soldiers on the front line

11:01 31 August 2014

A new WW1-linked exhibition called Letters Home, which    Rachel Willis is co-ordinating, includes letters, diaries and postcards.
Picture by SIMON FINLAY.

A new WW1-linked exhibition called Letters Home, which Rachel Willis is co-ordinating, includes letters, diaries and postcards. Picture by SIMON FINLAY.

Archant Norfolk.

It was a cry for help, one of hundreds of thousands of letters written in desperation and with fading hope as a war which laid waste to a generation tore at the hearts of ordinary people far from the battlefield.

A new WW1-linked exhibition called Letters Home, which    Rachel Willis is co-ordinating, includes letters, diaries and postcards. Correspondence relating to the death of Private Neal.
Picture by SIMON FINLAY.A new WW1-linked exhibition called Letters Home, which Rachel Willis is co-ordinating, includes letters, diaries and postcards. Correspondence relating to the death of Private Neal. Picture by SIMON FINLAY.

Percy Stanley Skippon, a 19-year-old private, had been reported missing in action and there had been no news for weeks when his mother back home in North Walsham put pen to paper about her “poor boy”.

“I am stricken down with grief about him,” she wrote. “Is there not one who must know something about him. His last letter, he told me he was going into the trenches. It was dated 13 Oct [1915]. I have never had a word since…”

Nor would she, at least not from Percy.

Her “dreadful waiting” would eventually end with the news that would finally expunge all hope that he was “alive somewhere”, perhaps lying wounded in hospital or in a prisoner of war camp.

A new WW1-linked exhibition called Letters Home, which    Rachel Willis is co-ordinating, includes letters, diaries and postcards. Correspondence relating to the death of Private Neal.
Picture by SIMON FINLAY.A new WW1-linked exhibition called Letters Home, which Rachel Willis is co-ordinating, includes letters, diaries and postcards. Correspondence relating to the death of Private Neal. Picture by SIMON FINLAY.

The teenage soldier from Burnham Overy who had answered Lord Kitchener’s call for volunteers in the first few weeks of the war had been killed the same day as his last letter home - one of more than 200 men from the 7th Norfolks lost on an afternoon of annihilation and futility which marked their first major action of ‘the war to end all war’.

Almost 100 years on, the brief but tragic correspondence between a Norfolk mother and her boy’s company commander forms part of a poignant exhibition which opens on Monday, September 8 in Norwich Castle Museum as part of commemorations to mark the centenary of the First World War.

Letters Home, which features letters, diaries and photographs selected from the Royal Norfolk Regimental Collection, provides moving testimony to the impact of the conflict on ordinary men and women caught up in a global struggle without parallel.

Displayed in the rotunda, the myriad jottings, written from the front-line, from prison camps and from families back home, represent deeply personal responses to a war and a sacrifice that all but beggared belief.

Letters etched with private grief are mixed with notes of remarkable stoicism and paternal pride that even now, a century on, make for achingly painful reading.

In one, a mother from Frettenham writes of hoping to meet her son “in heaven”. “God knows,” she adds, “he has done his duty as far as he could.” In another, a 22-year-old widow from Norwich speaks of her “great and terrible loss” and adds: “We had only been married three years the day he was killed… it seems hard to believe that he is dead.”

Others among the mournful tide of correspondents touch on the wider picture and the repercussions of the loss of so many loved ones. Writing of a husband who had died doing his duty for “King & Country”, a widow from Hethersett comments that “he is the fifth to have fallen from the small parish to which he belonged”, while another widow with five “little children” to support wonders “what ever shall I do without him”.

To Rachel Willis, who has selected and arranged the temporary display, the letters shine an eloquent if often heart-rending light on the human cost of war with all its desperate hope and ultimate despair.

“As well as reminding us of the losses that were endured,” she says, “they reveal the emotional and financial strains that families back home suffered as a result and they are very poignant to read.”

The inspiration behind the exhibition was a desire to show how experiences on battle-fronts as far apart as the Western Front, Mesopotamia and Palestine were translated into tangible records to be shared with loved ones back home.

“I wanted to give a sense of what it was like for families waiting for news, the communications they would have received and the different ways in which they’d have found out about aspects of a soldier’s life and death in the First World War,” says Rachel.

“Diaries and, particularly, letters were a vital means of keeping families and service personnel in touch with one another. Around 12 million letters were sent to the front lines each week and it took, on average, two days for a letter to reach the Western Front from England, which was quite incredible given the circumstances.”

Rachel believes that in such difficult and worrying times written communications were never as important as they were a century ago. It is a conviction most movingly reflected in a collection of correspondence passed to the museum by the family of Captain John Hammond, a company commander in the 7th (Service) Battalion, the Norfolk Regiment.

Like many officers serving at the front, he had the painful duty of writing to next of kin, offering information and, wherever possible, comfort in their loss. Unlike most of his comrades, however, he was sufficiently moved by the grieving families’ responses to retain the replies sent to him.

“They are very powerful little documents,” says Rachel. “They show the distress that wives and parents went through and the great uncertainty that they faced.”

Several date back to the bleak aftermath of the battalion’s disastrous first attack in the autumn of 1915 which left so many families desperate for news about loved ones whose fate was uncertain.

Typical of these is a letter that was written by a Mrs L M Dunt from The Gardens, Sheringham Hall, on October 25, 1915.

“I am feeling so anxious about my son, not hearing any news of him now for some time,” she writes. “I shall be so thankful if you will kindly inform me [of] any news of him. I do hope he is safe. I am feeling so grieved at the loss of dear boy, his brother, who has lost his life in the same Regiment… “It is a great trial for us. He was so young, only 18, but he was so brave… The suspense is so trying…”

Captain Hammond’s reply is not recorded but it cannot have made easy writing or reading. Sidney Dunt had, in fact, been killed four days before his brother Harold died from wounds received in the same battle.

Such pleading notes as those in the Hammond collection take their place alongside letters written home from the trenches and diaries kept in action and, in the case of a private soldier taken prisoner in the early weeks of the war, under pain of punishment if discovered while in captivity.

Private Robert Sheldrake kept his prison camp journal hidden in the false bottom of a cardboard box filled with books, curios and keepsakes to avoid detection.

A reservist who was working as a postman in mid-Norfolk at the outbreak of war, he describes life in the camp with all its privations, endless routine and diminishing hope of an end to hostilities. “How many more months will this last?” he writes. “The usual answer is three or four months, it has been so ever since the war began. It helps to pass the time away…”

It would, in fact, be more than four years before he would taste freedom again and before anyone would have an opportunity to read of his experiences.

“It’s a really vivid account of the life of a prisoner of war,” says Rachel, “and as a contrast to it I have some correspondence by a Private James Benstead whose letters home are more typical of the sanitised records most soldiers sent home to their families.

“Reading them, you can tell he was conscious of the fact that they would be censored and that he was at pains to reassure his wife that he was well and everything was fine which, of course, it rarely was. But unlike Robert Sheldrake he doesn’t give anything away about the reality of his experience.”

In much the same vein is a letter from an officer in the front-line to the wife of a Norfolk soldier who had been killed in action. Written by a Lieutenant J G O’Donnell to the widow of Private Reggie Neal, of Paston, it is, says Rachel, “a deeply sensitive letter” full of admiration for the dead soldier.

Having described the manner of his death, O’Donnell writes: “I have known him for a long time and never have I had anyone who set such a fine example of courage and cheerfulness. He was always one of the first to volunteer for any difficult duty, and all his officers and non-commissioned officers and men join me in a message of the deepest sympathy in your great loss.”

He then concludes with a sentence that would become an all too familiar part of the language of sacrifice. “It may perhaps comfort you to know that he suffered no pain,” he writes, “but passed away almost immediately.”

“In so many letters dealing with the deaths of soldiers officers used a variation of those words,” says Rachel. “Sadly, it was often an untrue but heartfelt attempt to ease the pain of parents and wives back home.”

As well as highlighting the wealth of personal papers in the regimental archives, Rachel hopes the exhibition will give people a better understanding of a war that was waged far beyond the trench-bound killing fields of France and Flanders.

Alongside embroidered postcards and what is believed to be a unique casualty record book featuring more than 15,000 names of men serving in the Norfolk Regiment during the First World War, there will be the candid diary of an officer who survived the heat and misery of campaigning in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and letters home from a lance-corporal who did not.

Before sailing for Basra, Bert Hitchman, a regular in the 2nd Norfolks, had warned his “dearest parents” not to worry unduly if there were delays in his regular correspondence.

“Please do not get excited,” he writes on September 25, 1914. “Oblige me by waiting for a few days at least… because when I am in the firing line I shall have a section of men to look after and perhaps one mistake of mine would perhaps endanger those fellows’ lives.

“I must do my duty to my men and duty comes before pleasure… So please don’t write any foolish letters during the time I am in action because it may make matters worse for me.”

As it was, his family did not have long to concern themselves with letters, foolish or otherwise. For on April 14, 1915 the correspondence from their son abruptly ended as Lance Corporal Herbert Hitchman made his own rendezvous with death on the battlefield of Shaiba.

Instead of the songs he’d promised to sing on his return home, there would only be a long and deafening silence.

Letters Home, the first in a series of temporary exhibitions that will span the First World War centenary years, opens on Monday, September 8 and runs until August 2015 in the rotunda of Norwich Castle Museum. Open Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, and Sun 1-5pm, till September 28 and then Mon-Sat 10am-4.30pm and Sun 1-4.30pm until the end of June 2015. For details: www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk

The regimental museum is currently running research workshops in the Shirehall Study Centre on the second Wednesday of each month, 1.30-4pm. For more information and to book a place, telephone 01603 493640.

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