THE photographs of soldiers of the First World War are very poignant, allowing us to see again the faces of men who gave their lives but it is, perhaps, from their letters that we can get a real sense of who they were.
David Woodcock of Sutton Coldfield has forwarded to us a cache of letters from the Great War that he recently discovered. He writes, "I found these letters in my grandparents' family Bible. I hope you will understand I do not have much information, partly because I was adopted but mainly the fact that, sadly, my grandparents passed away when I was very young and the Great War was not discussed in my presence.
"My grandparents were Eli and Sarah Jane Woodcock, who came from Golds Hill, West Bromwich. They had nine children but not all of them survived."
There were three letters in the Woodcock family Bible. The first is unsigned bu David believes it was sent to the family by one of his uncles. The writer was apparently recovering in hospital from some facial injury and his letter is full of typical concerns of a young soldier – his cigarette supply and news from home. We have reprinted the letter as written, including spelling mistakes:
"Dear parents, brothers and sisters, just a few lines in answer to your letter hoping you are quite well as it leaves me at present.
"Dear parents, I am going on alright so far but cannot tell you for sure when I shall be out of here but I dont think it will be long for I am better now but it as left a mark just under my left eye but not much. I shall stop in here as long as I can for they are sending anybody out to the front now.
"Dear mother, thank you for the money you sent me, I dont no wether you sent any fags or not. I have not got them but let me no if you sent any. I wish you had sent a sheet of paper and a envelope for its a bother to get them here, I got the stamp.
"Dear mother, if I were you I should have no bother and take no notice, you never said where the Zepps had viserted but let me know. I see in the paper that sevin out of one house in the midlands were killed and I was in trouble till I got this letter.
"Dear uncle, just a few lines hoping you are in the pink for I am alright and hope they keep me in here till the war is finished but I dont think it will be long now. I expect you are doing plenty of work.
"Dear parents, dont forget the photos. I will have mine took when I come out of the hospital and send it. I think that is all. Wishing you the best of luck from your loving son. Remember me to all, write back, XXX XXX. Dont forget the envelope and paper tell me if you sent any fags, I did not get them."
This young soldier had clearly been troubled by news of the Zeppelin raids on the Black Country in 1916.
The second letter is by the father of a soldier killed in the war. David thinks it was sent to one of his uncles who was a comrade of the fallen man. Presumably, this uncle had sent a letter to the parents of his dead friend and this was the response. Again we have reprinted it as originally written:
"22 Lloyd Street, Wednesbury, Staffordshire. Dear Mr Woodcock, I write these few lines to thank you for you kind & sympathetic letter but very sorry to hear of my poor son's death. I should like to hear how he died, was he killed outright or did he live for a time or if he left any message for his parents. I should esteem it a favour if you would kindly write some time and let me know if he did.
"I am thankful to God as he went to chapel & also received Holy Communion. It shows as he was trying to prepare himself for meet his God & I hope my Dear Friend as you will do the same as it must be a awful time out there. I have two more Dear Sons out there.
"If you have got any little simple thing belonging to him, if it is only a match box would you kindly send it as I have nothing belonging to him as a keepsake as he was my favourite lad. I only wish as I could have him sent over hear to be buried. I should be Happy then. Well my Dear Friend I will come to a close thanking you once again for your kind sympathy, wishing you & all your comrades the Best of Luck. Yours sincerely, Geo Stokes.
"PS should be glad to hear from you at any time."
The final page of the letter is written in a different hand:
"My husband has forgot to mention my name to you but my very kind friend I am pleased to think as he has got such kind friends as all off you in the place to think so much off him. May Almighty God please keep you all from such an awful fate as my poor son Lewis is the wish off his mother. God bless him."
Those few lines encapsulate the grief of parents, mirrored by thousands throughout the country who lost their sons in the war.
The final letter was written by the vicar of St Paul's Church, Golds Hill:
"St Paul's Vicarage, West Bromwich, Sept 16th, '16. Dear Mr Woodcock, your mother told me yesterday when I called that you were suffering from fever. I hope it is not of a serious nature. Probably by the time you get this letter you will be on the way to recovery. I daresay you will not object to a time of brief rest. Rest sometimes is good for us, it gives us time for reflection, I expect you have heard of the death of Private Thos Lynch of Canal Side, who lost his life by drowning at Bradwell-on-Sea, Southminster, Essex; the funeral took place at the West Bromwich Cemetery last Saturday: he leaves 5 children. These sudden deaths should make us put a high value on life – and make us prepare for that life beyond the grave, as the prophet says 'Prepare to meet thy God: meet Him now.' Give your heart to the Saviour, in Christ is the true life. As He says: I am come that they might have life – and as it is said: He that hath the Son, hath life. Don't let it be said of you: Ye will not come unto me that ye might have life. I hope when you come home you will come to church, I shall be glad to see you there. God bless you and God be with you. With all good wishes, yours sincerely Geo Havard, vicar."
Would the vicar's mix of gloomy news (the death of a local soldier) and exhortations to prepare for the afterlife have been much comfort to a sick soldier?
Finally, in the Woodcock family Bible was a printed sheet, published by the Dudley Herald, with a poem that must have meant much to those who had lost sons in the war.
The poem is by Private W. Harris, "the soldier poet". He is not a recognised figure and certainly not among the major war poets, his verse falling far below that of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon or Laurence Binyon, but his simple, sentimental doggerel clearly found favour. Most likely he was one of the thousands of young men in the trenches who were moved to try and record their thoughts and feelings in verse and he was lucky enough to have his writings picked up by his local paper.
But can anyone tell us who Pte W. Harris was?
This wartime correspondence was carefully put away in the most valuable book the family possessed but, as is so often the case, memories fade with the passage of time and as the older generation passed away they were forgotten until they were found once more around 100 years later.
They give us an insight into the life of a Great War soldier and the grief of parents who lost their loved ones.
Have you a story of the First World War to share? Have you reminders or photographs from those now distant days? Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or write to 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.