• Trenches
  • Age 9 to 11 (KS2)
  • Age 11 to 14 (KS3)

Why were letters so important in the First World War?

Discover the story of the nine year old with a plan, a soldier who shared his experiences with his parents and a young woman who was proud to do her bit for the war effort. 

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Trench Tales: Part Two

Part of the Adventures in History series created during the UK lockdown in Spring 2020.  

Ahoy! Welcome back, welcome on board, come on in. Our last Adventure in History took us to look at some of the very first objects that the museum collected and we discovered that they were collected while the First World War was still being fought and that was because in the midst of a terrible war it was felt that a museum should be created to tell the story of everyone that had made a contribution since 1914, so that when the museum opened amongst those 150,000 first objects, every man or woman from across what was then known as Britain's Empire and even the stories of children and animals would be represented in that very first collection, there would be something that showed the contribution that each had made to the war. All of these objects are your objects, we just look after them for you and when it is safe to do so, you'll be able to come back to the museum and discover each object's story for yourself. Until then, you're at home, I'm at home and here we are back on board my boat for our second Adventure in History, looking at the trenches in the First World War and our first object this week is rather small and fragile and quite surprising.  

It's a letter. Nothing too unexpected about that you might think given that we're talking about a time where the main form of communication between people was to write letters except that this one was written by a nine-year-old boy. His name was Alfie Knight and he lived in Dublin. Now the First World War was an important time in Ireland's history and if you'd like to know more about that, please do go to the IWM website. So, Alfie is nine and he decides to put pen to paper, and he writes not to family, not to friends, no he's writing to the British government, he is writing to a particular department in that government the War Office and he's writing to the head of the War Office, a certain Lord Kitchener. Field Marshal Kitchener in fact which is quite a rank in the Army. Now you might know Lord Kitchener not by his job title or his rank but because his image has become very, very famous. You probably recognise this poster. It's quite funny how sometimes objects take on a life of their own because in fact during the First World War this poster wasn't widely used at all, it's only after the war that it's become one of the most familiar objects associated with that time.  

So, we've got Alfie at 9 writing his letter - why? Well, he says that he would like to volunteer to join the British Army. He makes his case really well; he says that he can be super quick on his bicycle so he could take messages from the soldiers in the front trenches to the soldiers that were further back really quickly. He also says that he's pretty good at fighting in fact he often beats boys twice his size in a fight. He ends his letter by saying 'put me in uniform and I'm sure I would give a good account of myself'. Now what's really surprising about Alfie's letter is why a boy as young as Alfie would want to volunteer in a dangerous and horrible war and how he knew exactly what job he wanted to do and who to write to get that job. Now of course, Alfie was many years off the required minimum age of 18 to join the army but we do know of lots of soldiers who had joined up after lying about their real age and this is a great thing about working at the Imperial War Museum because when an object makes you think of a question, you look around at what the curators have displayed nearby, and you find possible answers. So why were so many men keen to enlist and think of war as an adventure.  

Well behind Alfie's letter is a wall of recruitment posters that portrays war as just that, a big adventure and encouraging young men to do their duty. Next to Alfie's letter is a doll meant for children and when you look at the face of the doll, do you recognize who it is? Yes, it's Lord Kitchener that same person who was on the recruitment poster that we saw earlier. And just around the corner from where Alfie's letter is displayed is a trench football game and this was meant for children, it was a bit of a skilful game. You have to tilt very carefully the trench football board to manoeuvre a tiny ball bearing through a maze of trenches, avoiding the shell holes. And of course, all of this is quite deliberate, it's a way of presenting war as a game, as an adventure. The British government needed men to join up and so now we can see the sorts of images that Alfie would have seen as a nine-year-old boy.  

But what about those men and women who were older than Alfie and were able to enlist? When they were sent far from home, how did they keep in touch with their loved ones? For us today we have the advantages of instant messaging, maybe even video calls to keep in touch with friends and family, but in the era of the First World War it was more about the written word on postcards and letters. And I've got some rather beautiful postcards here on the boat and they're not even printed they're actually made of fabric, and they've been hand stitched, hand embroidered on the front and then the message is written on the back.  

Some of the most interesting postcards and letters that I have read in the museum were sent by Albert Tattersall. Now Albert was 21 in 1914 and he sees those recruiting posters that we saw with Alfie's letter, and he joins the 20th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment. And while he's on training, he starts to write back to mum and dad and his younger sister and younger brothers about life in the army. In one of his letters, he describes what sounds like a really gruelling march with about 26 kilograms on his back including a very heavy woollen blanket, he writes. So, they are marching around 15 miles with this 26 kilograms - what does that look like? So, I've been back to the onboard gym and again fetched out the 2.5 kilogram plates. We've got two on board so together, five kilograms I would need another eight of these plates to get close to the weight that Albert and the other new recruits were marching with on that route march. I wonder how many books that would be in your school bag, to get to that weight. Quite a few, I think.  

Once Albert is off to France, he continues to write home and it's postcards sometimes asking for cigarettes - men like Albert didn't realise the risks to their health of smoking - but he does ask for other home comforts as well and then there's some slightly longer letters in which he describes playing cards or games of football that he's taken part, in when the men are behind the lines, away from the front line fighting and having rest and recuperation time. He reassures his mum in another of those letters that he's getting a bath once a week – just think about the next time you complain about being ordered to have a shower and in one of his most amusing letters from February 1916, I've read that he jokes to Mum and Dad that he's doing so much digging that when he comes back home, he'll be qualified to be a coal miner. When Albert is writing the letters to Mum and Dad, he often starts off by thanking them for their letters to him and particularly the news that they tell him of home and just like that Princess Mary gift box that we saw in last week's Adventure in History, it was so important to keep the spirits up to know that there were people back home who were thinking of you, who loved you who wanted you to know that you were still in their thoughts. And this was very much recognized by the Army Postal Service which over the course of the First World War delivered around two billion letters and at the Museum we have 7,500 separate collections of letters that we look after. 

But it wasn't just letters that were destined for those postal sacks and delivery to the fighting front. This photograph was also posted to a loved one. I wonder if together we can unlock some of its story. Look carefully, what can you see? What is shown in the photograph? Where might it have been taken? What's been worn and is that some writing down in the bottom corner? What does it say? What we have here is a young woman sitting looking straight out at us. Behind her is a painted background and she's in a rather fancy chair that doesn't seem to match the sort of clothes that she's wearing. You know it reminds me of those formal photographs at school, you know normally in the summer terms the official photographer arrives and you’re photographed on your own or if you've got brothers and sisters, you're pictured together. And what about the writing that we notice? Can we read what that says? It's “Yours lovingly, Sis'”.  

So, this is a formal photograph being sent from the woman to her brother. What about the clothes, what do we notice there? Starting at the top is quite a baggy hat and there's long-sleeved shirt or tunic, a tie being worn and it's a badge on the tie? And she's also got some trousers on as well. These are all terrific details to notice, and they do help to start to unlock the story of this photograph.  

The woman looking right out at you is called Caroline Rennles. She was born in 1899, that meant that when the First World War started in 1914, she was old enough to join one of one million women who were doing vital war work to support the First World War. If she was born in 1899, I wonder if you can work out how old she was in 1914. The brother, young Bill as Caroline used to call him, so this photograph was being sent to him he was joined, he'd joined up into the Royal Marines and so this picture was a vital link between sister and brother but also Caroline herself. Her job was a vital link between the efforts in Britain on the home front and the efforts of the soldiers on the fighting front. And to work out what that job was we need to return to those clothes, particularly those trousers. It's really difficult to imagine and quite easy to giggle at how shocking it would have been for a woman before the First World War to have been seen in trousers let alone short enough to be seeing Caroline ankle. Before the First World War, women were expected to wear long skirts, long dresses but because of the work that Caroline and women like her were doing, trousers thankfully became much more acceptable clothes. But we've got to remember Caroline is not wearing her trousers for reasons of fashion but reasons of safety.  

Caroline was a munitions worker. That means she was creating shells like this one. It's like a very large heavy bullet, she was working with high explosive so when she arrived at work at 7:00 in the morning she had to change out of her ordinary clothes and into her working overalls and those trousers, making sure nothing in her pockets could go into the factory and create a spark and a possible explosion. She's filling the shells with high explosives, and she's got to make 60 of these in a day. If she makes her 60, she gets a 5 shillings bonus, that's about 60 pence in today's money, quite a significant sum in those days and Caroline was really proud of her quick fingers. She said normally in a day she'd make 60-65 of these shells and then help two or three of the other girls to make up their total so they got their bonus as well. The work was tough. Remember Caroline started work at 7 a.m. in the morning and she would work through until 7 p.m. at night, often falling asleep on the train home back to London Bridge. She would do 13 days in a row you got the 14th day off - one day off – and then worked straight through for another 13 days for 12-hour shifts. If she was late, you were sent home, no day's work, no days' pay for that day. So really, really tough work but let's look back at that photograph. I think Caroline is incredibly proud of the job that she is doing she has chosen to be photographed in her work clothes. We noticed there was a badge in the middle of her tie - it says, “on war service” and this was showing that the work she was doing was vital to the war effort and she was, she was proud, and we know she's proud because we've unlocked a lot of her story by looking at the photograph, but it can't speak to us. But Caroline did. Before she died at the age of 86, she spoke to an interviewer in the Imperial War Museum Sound Archive. She's one of 34,000 separate recordings of individuals who spoke about their war service and more importantly, their thoughts and feelings about their earlier lives and how they were affected by war.  

I hope over the last two weeks of our Adventures in History that you have learned a little bit more about the life of people in Britain during the First World War. Tune in this Friday to our social media channels for a First World War quiz to test your newfound knowledge. Imperial War Museums are a charity and if you feel able to donate to help us keep bringing history alive and telling these important stories, please also go to our website to find out more.  On our next Adventure in History, we will be thinking about some more people like Caroline who were vital support to the fighting front. We're going to look particularly at medicine and people who are doing unexpected roles caring for the wounded and providing first aid. Until then, thank you very much, farewell and see you on our next Adventure in History! 

Curriculum Links and Learning objectives

  • KS3/4 - Challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world, 1901-present.   

  • GCSE - Warfare and British society, c1250-Present. 

  • To explore how war work on the Home Front supported fighting in the trenches.


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