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Soldiers' letters

Soldiers' letters have a particular quality of their own. They are written by men, often overseas for the only time in their lives, who describe their experiences of foreign lands, the privations and monotony of life on campaign and the brief periods in battle. Such letters are comparatively scarce as many have been thrown away either by the recipients or their relatives. By contrast official records are often retained for legal or administrative reasons and are less likely to suffer this fate. Letters are for the recipient's eyes only - why should anyone else be interested?

The quality of a soldier's letters partly depends on the nature of his service - some people had a "quiet" war - and his skill as a writer. Many more letters survive for officers, particularly in the early period, than for other ranks. The letters can be divided roughly into two types; the correspondence sent by men on active service to their relatives, and the ones sent by destitute or aggrieved men, often ex-soldiers, writing to men of influence and hoping for redress. Our earliest letters date from the English Civil War and provide examples of each.

Sir Samuel Luke was Parliamentary commander of the Newport Pagnell garrison during 1643-45 and his letters reveal the problems encountered in paying and supplying his troops and maintaining the defences. On 26 October 1644 he reported to the Bedfordshire Committee that a hundred yards of the works had fallen down, while the pay of his gunners and officers was so far in arrears that he feared they might desert when the Royalists approached. He requested 200 out of the next tax. [Ref: TW910, other examples between TW896-1014]. Sir Samuel Luke's letter books for 1644-5 are at the British Museum, but a published version is available here (Bedfordshire Historical Record Society vol.42, 1963). We don't really know what the common soldiers thought about the war, but Robert Lovett at Elstow ended his days sick and in debt. In 1654 he wrote to Sir William Boteler asking for help. [Ref: X786/1-2].

The most plaintive example of a begging letter here was written in 1757 by a woebegone officer during the Seven Years War between England and France: "I was a Lieutenant when General Stanhope took Minorca, for which he was made a Lord; I was a Lieutenant when General Blakeney lost Minorca, for which he was made a Lord. I am a Lieutenant still" [Ref: OR1912]. This officer clearly did not have a Field Marshall's baton in his knapsack, but it was nothing compared to the inglorious military career of Henry Rugeley of St. Ives, Hunts.

Henry Rugeley emigrated with two of his brothers to Charleston where he joined the loyalist militia [Ref: X311/56] in 1780 during the American War of Independence. In March 1781 Henry wrote to his parents at St. Ives mentioning that he had been captured by the rebels the previous November and imprisoned in Virginia for four months [Ref: X311/109]. However, Henry's letter reveals only part of the story and shows the danger in relying too much on correspondence alone as source material, for writers usually want to show themselves in the best possible light.

Henry Rugeley did not mention that he was captured in humiliating circumstances, but we know that Colonel James Washington bluffed him into surrendering his post by throwing up an earthwork and mounting some logs behind it to resemble field guns.

From the Napoleonic wars onwards soldiers' letters became more plentiful and there are some examples in the Whitbread [Ref: W1/5419-5543] and Williamson [Ref: M10/5/16-43] papers. One of the most interesting was written by Private James Dilley of the 1st battalion, 40th foot, to his parents at Southill in November 1811:

"I suppose that you wonder at my long silence in not sending to you before but I Recevd. a very sever wonds at the sege of Barajoys [Badajoz, Spain]. A shot went in at my Belly & it was Cut out of my side but by the Blessing of God I am quite recovered..... I was wonded on the 5 of May after a sever action which Took Place on that day the French salled [sallied] out of the Town in order to take our Baterys but was repulsed by our Picquets which I was on, the shots flid [flew?] like hale on every side which every man that was on the same duty with me was ether kild. or wonded....I lay in Hospital 4 months & had no oppertunity of sending [a letter] we was forst to leve Barajoys to the French & march to the Planis of Alverder wher the Serverest action took Place that Ever was fought [at Albuhera, 16 May 1811] the ded Covered the ground for a long way Round.... I hope to God that my brother will never think of going for a soldier for I Cannot Express the Sufferings in the Compass of a letter that we under go in this distressed Country."[Ref: W 1/5508].

James Dilley survived the war and was buried at Southill in 1838. He was only forty-six years old.

Britain did not fight a major war between 1815 and 1854, so there are few letters for this period. During the Crimean War local newspapers published letters from local men and these are in our card index under WARS & TREATIES: Land Warfare: Crimean War. There is also the original diary and letters of Sir John Burgoyne of Sutton, who was a captain in the Grenadier Guards and severely wounded at the Battle of the Alma. His diary [Ref: X143/20] has been published (BHRS vol. 40, 1960), while his unpublished letters to his mother [Ref: X143/21] mention the arrival of Florence Nightingale. "40 unprotected females have now arrived and are a regular subject of ridicule. The very commonest medicines and appliances are wanting, & men are dying by scores for want of them".

John Hatfield Brooks of Flitwick served with the 1st Bengal Light Cavalry as a major during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. In 1893 he lectured on his experiences at Flitwick parish room. The manuscript of his talk survives [Ref: LL17/303; published BHRS vol. 40, 1960] as well as the original diaries [Ref: LL20/1-2]. By contrast Albert Culpin, son of the Rev. Ben Culpin, minister at Shillington Congregational Church, never saw active service. He seems to have enlisted in the 41st foot in 1877 almost by accident and he deserted soon afterwards:

" will be sad when you here I have listed in the army. I cant make out how it was I left Hitchin, but I must have been a fool like a great many who join .... When I got to London .... I did think a little about joining the navy. I asked a police[man] the way to Westminster.... He said come and list in something better so the Sargent gave me 1 shilling at St. George's barracks, so I come to London on the 3rd and listed and pased the doctor all before 12 o'clock on Sunday the 4th... I will tell you a bit about food and bed breakfast bread and coffee, for dinner, meat and potatoe; tea, bread and tea; straw bed and pillow, 2 blanckets and 2 sheets - it makes me think about your good beds. Don't break your hearts about me - I fancy I coud here you praying for me" [Ref: X345/1].

When the second Boer War broke out in 1899 the Bedfordshire Times was quick to publish letters from local men [Ref: BP43/2 for partial index] but surprisingly few originals survive in our holdings. During the First and Second World Wars a vast quantity of letters were written and only a few of the more interesting examples can be given here, but they are all in the WARS & TREATIES section of the card index. The static nature of trench warfare and strict censorship, particularly after the Somme battles of 1916, mean that many letters are mundane, but there are exceptions.

John Longuet-Higgins, an officer in the 13th London Regiment, wrote vividly of life in the trenches in 1914-15 [Ref: HG12/10/113-135] until he was wounded. He told his mother about the Christmas truce of 1914:

"An informal Truce was arranged and men & officers from both sides got out of the trenches & exchanged news & souvenirs in the neutral ground in between. Not a shot was fired for 3 days & when we went in on the night of the 26th we found the truce still going on...." [Ref: HG12/10/126].

The First World War was the first air war in history. Captain Stephen Starey wrote to his parents at Milton Ernest describing a dog-fight in February 1917. "I....had one of my control wires more than halfway severed by a bullet also the ...wheel on which it operated - also a main spar in my left top wing splintered besides several holes in my bottom plane - which merely pierced the fabric." "I was merrily diving on a hun which was about to attack a photographic machine which we were escorting when a S.[ingle] Seater Hun got on my tail and started pooping off - I thought it was one of our own fellows & did not worry at first but on turning round saw this Hun then being engaged by one of our own fellows." [Ref: SY202]. .

It was only after four disgustingly bloody years that Corporal Hector Newman, a Woburn Sands man in the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, was able to write of the armistice celebrations:

"When I went over to the Cpls. mess at dinner-time there was beer in buckets, bowls, huge jugs, piano going, dancing. As soon as you stepped in a bucket of beer was put in front of you & you had to drink out of it or have it thrown over you." [Ref: Z251/185].

Cyril Verdcourt of Luton trained at Landguard Camp, Felixstowe,before being sent overseas with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in April 1919. He wrote 184 letters to his parents in eighteen months [Ref: Z549/17], but confessed that he was "...puzzling my brain for some news for you, but really each day is so much alike that I can think of very little and must desist." [Ref: Z549/17/46]. Things changed on 6 January 191 when the aggrieved soldiers revolted: (Ref: 758/1/5/142)

"Excitement prevails here, for this morning the whole of the Eastern Command stationed at Felixstowe rose in revolt headed by the Beds.... The General and some members of his staff tried in vain to soft-soap us into a return to duty. An appeal to our loyalty left us unabashed, and upon the Union Jack being flown from above, several voices yelled "Let's have the red one" [Ref: Z549/17/99].

As we all know the peace only lasted two decades before World War broke out again. At the moment we have few letters of the period but there are two significant collections; letters to Albert Grimmer of Ampthill [Ref: X291/253/159-179] and letters sent home by Northill men [Ref: P10/28/12].

The result of war is always suffering in many forms. Corporal Hector Newman, writing in November 1918, can have the last word:

"But oh how sad for those whose loved ones will never return. God bless them. They've given their lives for us that we might live. How noble of them. What a day when those who live return, the maimed, the halt, the blind, a grand sight, but yet so sad. Do people realise what it all means?" [Ref: Z 251/85].