A letter to home from World War I

A letter to home from World War I

12 January 2021

This week is ‘Universal Letter Writing Week’ – an annual event designed to encourage us to take up pen and paper and write to someone. In this digital age, methods of communication have certainly changed and we’re now more likely to message someone with our mobile phone or send them an email – making the act of writing or receiving a handwritten letter quite special.

In World War I, writing home to let loved ones know your news was often the only way to stay in touch with them. This letter from the archives is from Private Wilfred Owens Reynolds, who was stationed in Gallipoli in 1915. It was written to his mother back home in Plymouth.

Reynolds scribbles a lot of information over two sides of A5 paper which would have been a precious commodity during the war. A Private would most likely have received his stationery from a Welfare Package, sent to serving soldiers by organisations such as the British Red Cross.

He describes ‘digging a communication trench to the firing line’ and writes that a single part of the trench ‘is about a mile distant’ – a small insight into the amount of effort that went into creating these key battle fortifications.

Front of the letter from WO Reynolds to his mum from The Box's archives

He tells his mother that ‘conditions here are improving’ and ‘our trench is very comfortable’. The Gallipoli campaign was a disaster for the Allied forces however, so it’s difficult to know if this was true or he was simply trying to reassure his mum of his wellbeing. In another part of the letter he describes how eerie it is to ‘listen to bullets whizzing about at night – especially when you don’t know where they’re coming from’, and says that they are ‘expecting to go into the firing line on Sunday’.

Reverse of the letter from WO Reynolds to his mum from The Box's archives

We know from the other letters and materials that we hold in the archives from Reynolds that after serving in the trenches at Gallipoli he was diagnosed with jaundice and sent to Egypt to convalesce. After further stay in hospital with enteritis - an inflammation of the intestine – we believe he continued to work in Egypt until the end of the War. He was talented amateur artist and his sketchbook contains some beautiful watercolours of the things he saw.

Egypt watercolour by WO Reynolds dating from 1918

The last letter written to his mother in the archive files is dated 11 November 1917 - exactly one year before Armistice Day. By preserving letters and other forms of correspondence we can unlock a wealth of information.

When was the last time you wrote to a letter? Why not put pen to paper this week and send a note to someone? In years to come it could be part of the archive material a researcher looks at to try and understand the strange times we’re currently living in.

With thanks to Megan Robins, Sales & Information Assistant