hazel catkins

First World War: letters from the trenches

Writing home during the war was a constant concern for the soldiers in the trenches. They wrote as often as they were able. To receive a letter back from a loved one was a (usually but not always) happy event for a man and his comrades, as the letters were shared and read out loud. It kept the men connected to their loved ones and the lives they had once lived (and hoped to return to if they survived the war). It did not matter which side the soldier fought for, the kindest thing a friend, lover, or relative could do was write.

The letters were censored on all sides. The soldiers were not suppose to write about their geographical location, and troop movements, strategic commands they had received. They were not suppose to write about combat experiences… but they did, and the letters often slipped by the censors. With the amount of correspondence which occurred it was impossible to censor every letter so the censoring was of a representative sample only.

A British Soldier writes home

A French soldier receives a letter from home

German soldiers pass the time smoking, reading and writing home

Russian soldiers write home while serving on the Eastern Front during World War I

Canadian Soldier Writing Home

Salvation Army worker writes letter for a wounded soldier during World War I.

Some Letters:

1. Dick to Molly 

Dear Molly, 

A Happy Christmas. I am sending this to my aunt to forward to you as I do not know the address. Please tell me your [sur]name as I have forgotten it. 

Yours, 

Dick 

2. Frau S 

to her husband’s commanding officer 2 January 1917 

Dear Leader of the Company! 

I, the signer below, have a request to make of you. Although my husband has only been in the field for four months, I would like to ask you to grant him a leave of absence, namely, because of our sexual relationship. I would like to have my husband just once for the satisfaction of my natural desires. I just can’t live like this any more. I can’t stand it. It is, of course, impossible for me to be satisfied in other ways, firstly, because of all the children and secondly, because I do not want to betray my husband. So I would like to ask you very kindly to grant my request. I will then be able to carry on until we are victorious. With all reverence,  

Frau S 

(Oh I bet her husband got a merciless ribbing for this one! I wonder if it earned him some sort of manly stud nickname)

 3. Gunner Wilfrid Cove to Ethel Cove  

Tuesday 14 November 1916 

 My Darling Ethel,

I hope you have received my birthday present, but in case you haven’t here’s again wishing you many many happy returns of your birthday. It is the first of your birthdays that we have been apart since you were sweet 17 that I can remember. I hope it will be the last. Heaven send that by your next birthday – or mine come to that – this terrible war will be over & that we may both be spared & united on each of our birthdays and those of our dear little kiddies & for many years to come. It causes me many regrets and much sorrow when I remember that my selfishness has more than once caused you unhappiness and I sincerely hope that my future conduct will make you realise that notwithstanding my shortcomings I do love you with all my heart and realise I have one of the best wives in the world. 

I can now quite understand the Late Lord Kitchener’s preference for bachelors as soldiers. He must have realised, altho’ a bachelor himself, that it is not the coward’s fear of death but the fear that by death many a good soldier may thus be prevented from rejoining the wife & family he loves so much. I have just that very feeling myself at times when the shells are dropping all around us and the air is whistling with them. 

Goodnight my darling. Longing and hoping for a letter from you tomorrow. Xxxx 

4. Gunner Wilfrid Cove to his daughter Marjorie 

Monday 4 December 1916 

My dear little Marjorie, I have only just received your little letter which Mamma sent with hers on Nov 19th. Do you remember that you asked me to be home for Xmas? I only wish I could but there are many more soldiers in our Battery who are more entitled to the Xmas leave than I am, so am afraid you will have to do without Daddy this Xmas. 

Santa Claus will come as usual. I think your writing and dictation just splendid, and your drawings are getting funnier than ever. I have pinned your crayoned tulips on the wall of my dug-out bedroom beside your photograph. Daddy is as comfortable as possible. I expect even you would get tired enough to go soundly asleep in this dug-out. It would be a change from your pink bedroom. 

And how is little Daffodil getting on? I expect you quite enjoy the time when Mamma reads you more about her. It was Mamma’s book when she was a girl like you. Write again soon, dear, + send another crayoning to help cover the sand bags. 

Heaps of love & kisses, which you must share with Mamma and Betty. 

From your ever loving Daddy 

(A photograph of Gunner Wilfrid Cove’s daughters and a letter from Marjorie were found in his breast pocket when he was killed in 1917) 

Gunner Wilfred Cove’s daughters, Marjorie and Betty.

A letter from Marjorie to her father Gunner Wilfrid Cove.

 5. Ivy to Private John Bateman Beer 

 24 August 1917 

 My Dear Jack, 

 For the last month I have been endeavouring to pluck up sufficient courage to write and tell you that everything must be over between us. No doubt you will think me awfully unkind and perhaps fickle to write this while you are away, but this matter has worried me a great deal, and I have been halting between two opinions, as to whether it would be kinder to let you know now, and let myself be called unfaithful, or to wait until you come home, although knowing all the time in my heart that I was untrue. 

When you went away, and I told you that I loved you best, I really meant it Jack, but such a lot seems to have happened since then. I really thought that I had forgotten Charlie in my love for you, but it is no use Jack, I cannot help loving Charlie best. I suppose it is because he was first. At first I made up my mind to fight it down and be true to you, and if you still wish to keep me to my promise under the circumstances, I will do so. Don’t take this too much to heart Jack. I am not worth it but don’t think me altogether heartless. I would not hurt you dear unless I could help it, but unfortunately we cannot control our own feelings. 

Will you believe me when I say that I am very sorry, for I am, more so than perhaps you think. Anyway, forgive me if you can, and I trust that you will still let us be friends, whatever happens. One word about Charlie before I finish. He would have waited in honour bound until you came home. All at home send their love to you. Trusting this will find you in the best of health, 

I remain, Yours Very Sincerely, 

Ivy

6. Lothar Dietz to his mother, 1915

You at home can’t have the faintest idea of what it means to us when in the newspaper it simply and blandly says: “In Flanders today again only artillery activity.” Far better go over the top in the most foolhardy attack, cost what it may, than stick it out all day long under shell-fire, wondering all the time whether the next one will maim one or blow one to bits.

For the last three hours, a corporal has been lying groaning on my right, here in the dugout, with one arm and both legs shattered by a shell. Anyone who is badly wounded generally dies while he is being got out of here …

Only 60 yards away from us are the English, and they are very much on the alert as they would be only too glad to get back our hill. Six hundred yards behind here is our reserve position, a little wooded valley in which the most frightful hand-to-hand fighting has taken place. Trees and bushes are torn to pieces by shells and larded with rifle bullets. All about in the shell holes are still lying bodies, though we have already buried many.

As one can’t possibly feel happy in a place where all nature has been devastated, we have done our best to improve things. First we built quite a neat causeway of logs, with a railing to it, along the bottom of the valley. Then, from a pine wood close by which had also been destroyed by shells, we dragged all the best tree-tops and stuck them upright in the ground; certainly they have no roots, but we don’t expect to be here more than a month and they are sure to stay green that long. Out of the gardens of the ruined châteaux of Hollebecke and Camp we fetched rhododendrons, box, snowdrops and primroses, and made quite nice little flower-beds.

We have cleaned out the little brook which flows through the valley, and some clever comrades have built little dams and constructed pretty little water-mills - so-called “parole-clocks”, which, by their revolutions, are supposed to count how many minutes more the war is going to last. We have planted whole bushes of willow and hazel with pretty catkins on them and little firs with their roots, so that a melancholy desert is transformed into an idyllic grove.

Every dugout has its board carved with a name suited to the situation: “Villa-Woodland-Peace”, “Heart of the Rhine”, “Eagle’s Nest”, etc. Luckily there is no lack of birds, especially thrushes, which have now got used to the whistling of bullets and falling of shells. They wake us in the morning with their cheerful twittering.

(killed on April 15 1915, near Ypres).

Although the wind felt bitterly cold, it was a fine, bright day and Algy was in high spirits. Leaving the Sound behind him, he flew back up over the moorland, towards his home. The sparkling blue waters of the burn looked too pretty to pass by, so he found a perch in a hazel bush, and rested in the rare winter sunshine for a while. Algy was especially happy to see plenty of catkins on the bushes; spring was not very far away now!