Amanda Mason and Ellen Parton
Thursday 4 January 2018

During the First World War, letter writing was the main form of communication between soldiers and their loved ones, helping to ease the pain of separation.

The British Army Postal Service delivered around 2 billion letters during the war. In 1917 alone, over 19,000 mailbags crossed the English Channel each day, transporting letters and parcels to British troops on the Western Front.

Soldiers wrote letters in spare moments, sometimes from front line trenches or in the calmer surroundings behind the lines. Censorship dictated what servicemen were permitted to disclose in their letters. However, in practice, men often found ways to impart information, and their letters offer a powerful and highly personal insight into the experience of war.

Receiving letters from family and friends was also vital to morale, keeping men and women connected to the homes they had left behind. Letters written on the home front to family and friends are today a fascinating source of information about everyday life in wartime Britain.

We hold around 7,500 collections of personal letters from the First World War in our archives. Here are just a few of them.

private papers

Schoolboy Patrick Blundstone to his father

private papers

Schoolboy Patrick Blundstone to his father

Letter writing was a popular form of communication amongst all ages. Letters written by children during the First World War can be just as valuable a source of information as those written by servicemen. This letter from schoolboy Patrick Blundstone to his father contains a fascinating eye-witness account of the destruction in September 1916 of a Zeppelin airship near Cuffley in Hertfordshire by William Leefe-Robinson VC. 

Ms letter (4pp) written by Patrick Blundstone, a schoolboy staying at Cuffley, Hertfordshire (September 1916) to his father in London, describing in graphic schoolboy detail the landing of a Zeppelin in flames close to the house and the 'roasted' condition of the crew and mentioning the heroic action by 'Lieutenant Robertson' (aka Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson VC). Also with the letter is his collection of four postcards depicting the incident.

Read the letter in full below.

'Dear Daddy, I hope you are not alarmed, you should not be, unless you know where one of the Zepps went. I have heard that it raided London (up the Strand) and caused heavy causalities. But this I know because I saw, and so did everyone else in the house.

Here is my story: I heard the clock strike 11 o'clock. I was in bed and just going to sleep. Between 2 'clock and 2.30 o'clock, Lily (the servant) woke Miss Willy and told her she could hear the guns. Miss Willy woke Poolman and told him to wake me. He did so. Miss Willy helped Mrs Willy downstairs. We were all awake by now, we had a Miss Blair staying with us for the weekend. We saw flashes and then heard "Bangs" and "Pops".

Suddenly a bright yellow light appeared and died down again. "Oh! It's alright" said Poolman. "It's only a star shell". That light appeared again and we Miss Blair, Poolman and I rushed to the window and looked out and there right above us was the Zepp! It had broken in half, and was like this: it was in flames, roaring, and crackling. It went slightly to the right, and crashed down into a field!! It was about a 100 yards away from the house and directly opposite us!!! It nearly burnt itself out, when it was finished by the Cheshunt Fire Brigade.

I would rather not describe the condition of the crew, of course they were dead - burnt to death. They were roasted, there is absolutely no other word for it. They were brown, like the outside of Roast Beef. One had his legs off at the knees, and you could see the joint!

The Zepp was bombed from an aeroplane above, with an incendiary bomb by a Lieutenany Robertson (Johnson?). We have some relics some wire and wood framework.

The weather is beastly but Mrs and Miss Willy are jolly people, hoping you are all well, love to all. Your loving son Patrick.

Please don't be alarmed, all is well that ends well (and this did for us). We are all quite safe.'

private papers

Emily Chitticks to her fiancé Private William Martin

private papers

Emily Chitticks to her fiancé Private William Martin

Many touching personal stories are vividly brought to life through letters exchanged during the First World War. The correspondence between Private William Martin and his fiancée Emily Chitticks reveals one of the most heart-breaking of all of these stories. Emily wrote this letter to Will before she had heard the devastating news that he had been killed in action. Read the letter in full below.

A letter from Emily Chitticks to her fiancé Private William Martin while serving with the 2/1st Royal Devon Yeomanry in Essex and Norfolk (August - March 1916) and with the 8th Battalion Devonshire Regiment (20th Brigade, 7th Division) in France (from January 1917 until his death on 27 March 1917).

'My Dearest Will, I feel I must write you again dear altho there is not much news to tell you. I wonder how you are getting on. I shall be so relieved to get a letter from you. I can't help feeling a bit anxious dear. I know how you must have felt darling when you did not get my letters for so long. Of course I know dear you will write as soon as ever you can, but the time seems so dull and weary without any news of you, if only this war was over dear and we were together again. It will be one day I suppose.

Don't think dear I am worrying unnecessarily about you, because I know God can take care of you wherever you are and if it's his will darling he will so are you to come back to me, that's how I feel about it dear, if we only put our trust in Him. I am sure he will. I wonder how your Cousins are getting on dear. We are feeling very anxious about George, as no news has come from him yet. We can't understand why his wife doesn't write.

How are your hands now dear? Mine are very sore, so chapped, and my left hand has got several chilblains on it and they do irritate. I could scratch it to bits. Have you been receiving the books I have sent you dear. I am very pleased to say dear I am keeping very well indeed, and I trust you are the same.

There has been a bit of a fuss over Arthur this week. He has been trying to get in the Army unbeknown to his parents, but Mrs T. thought his parents ought to be informed about it, so she wrote and told them about him and he had to go home in hot haste last night. I guess he got in a fine row, but he won't say today. He is as miserable as anything. Really Will I never saw such a boy as he is. I am afraid he is going to the bad. I don't know if Mrs T. will keep him on or not. He says he has to join up in a fortnight, but as he is under age I suppose his parents could stop him. I don't know whether they will or not. For my part I hope he does go, he will be a jolly good riddance for there is nothing but rows and deceitfulness going on where he is.

Well darling I don't know much more to say now, so will close with fondest love and kisses from your loving little girl. Emily.

P.S. Cheer up darling, and don't worry about me. I am quite alright, only anxious to get your letters. There is good news in the papers. Love from Mum and Dad.'

private papers

Sailor Teddy Ashton to his sister Gertie

private papers

Sailor Teddy Ashton to his sister Gertie

The First World War was the first conflict to be fought on land, at sea and in the air - and around the world. Many of those who fought would never have travelled far from home before. Letter writing was a vital way of keeping in touch with family even across huge distances. This letter was one of a series written to his sister by sailor and former professional footballer Teddy Ashton when his ship HMS Albemarlewas stationed in Russian Lapland in 1916. Read the letter in full below.

A letter from sailor Teddy Ashton to his sister in Lancashire, August 1912 - July 1916 while covering his service in the battleship HMS ALBEMARLE when she was employed as a guardship in the White Sea, with particular reference to the monotony of their life on board the ship, the absence of any facilities ashore and the extremes in climate and hours of daylight between winter and summer.

'Dear Gertie, I have written two or three times recently so you may get them together. We have been very busy for the last few weeks and have got through a great amount of work. We are much better off again as regards potatoes and other food stuffs for we have had a great quantity of stores. I fancy we shall be here for a time yet anyway it looks like it with such a quantity of stores aboard. You will see I am telling you the same things over and over again. At least I know I have told you them once or twice but everything about is all of a sameness kind of thing. Ships here there and everywhere now. But soon we shall have a move that is when we can get through the White Sea. We shall have to look after all the shipping.

The snow is fast disappearing now. I came across an article in a paper the other day about this district and it said that 14 or 15 years ago bears used to roam around hear [sic], but there seems to be nothing around now excepting the wild fowl, which are very numorous. I believe salmon are numerous at certain times of the year.

The 2nd and 3rd of May we had a terrific snow blizzard. We should have left the ship to go away and do some work on another ship but we could not get away from our ship it was so rough. We have no night now, the sun goes down but it never goes dark, it is eternally daylight.

Of course I told you we have had an entire change round and I have a new job now, part of the ship. I have not half the time I used to have but I enjoy the robust work much better and I get to see much more with working away. We get up at 6.30 and work until 1.00 so we put a few hours in don't we. That is when we are working away.

Did you get the £1-0-0 I remitted? Let me know. I have remitted another £3-0-0 this month. Let me know if you receive this also. I shall probably send a little more next month or later. Don't hold the paper money. Bank it or keep it by you in gold until I come home.

Tell Dad I shall to him as soon as I can get enough to tell him about. Give my best love to everyone at home, I often think about you all. I am yours ever, Ted.'

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