‘Hidden gems’: British letters from first world war published online

Family history website makes cache of documents from National Archives available for public to view

On 19 April 1915, Ethel Andrews, a young woman from Sherborne in Dorset, wrote to the foreign secretary to ask about her brother. Pte Gordon Gray had been captured at the battle of Ypres on 2 November, was being held as a prisoner of war at a camp in northern Germany, “and I have not heard from him for so long,” she wrote to Sir Edward Grey.

“I send him a parcel every week which costs me 5s4d, & I do feel so broken hearted because I have not heard if he have received one. I should be more than grateful if you would kindly do something for me.”

A few months earlier, Lord Kitchener, the secretary of state for war, had been sent a letter by Henry C MacBryan, from Box in Wiltshire, asking about his son, Lt John Crawford William MacBryan, also a prisoner of war in Germany. From the soldier’s heavily censored letters, it was clear “that he is deteriorating in both mind and body”, his father wrote.

Letter from Henry C MacBryan.
Letter from Henry C MacBryan. Photograph: National Archives

“Now, my lord, it is with the greatest reluctance that I write to bother you when you are so overworked, but I do so because I rely on your great sense of justice. I may mention that I am giving all my four sons to the service of the country.”

These and other remarkable letters, held at the National Archives, are now being published online for the first time, part of a cache of documents from the British government’s Prisoners of War and Foreign Aliens department during the first world war.

Alongside hundreds of pages of official correspondence, there are dozens of poignant letters from the parents, sisters and wives of missing and imprisoned soldiers, either pleading for news of their loved ones, complaining about the conditions in camps where prisoners were supposed to be treated fairly, or imploring government officials to trace letters and care parcels that had never been received.

“This collection holds some hidden gems which have been held for over 100 years in the National Archives and published online for the first time for the public to explore,” said Paul Nixon, a military expert at the family history website Findmypast, which has published the documents. “It offers a unique glimpse into the experiences of these soldiers and their families during world war one. You can really get a sense of the trauma, confusion and dawning horror of those seeking answers and receiving fragmentary reports of conditions in PoW camps.

“This was a new era of conflict; at the time, there was a strong sense that war was governed by strict codes of conduct but by 1915, when many of these letters were written, families at home were waking up to the idea that their loved ones were suffering enormous hardships.”

Some of those details did make it past the German censors, among them a harrowing account that Tpr SG Law had concealed inside a split postcard, and which was received by his mother on Christmas Eve.

“We are being starved here,” he wrote. “We get rice water and horse beans only, no solid food, one load of bread for six days, several men have been run through with bayonets by the guard and a large number are being flogged and tied to a barbed wire post for six hours with their toes just touching the ground, they do this without any just cause … it is worse than being in hell.”

In many cases, the collection includes information on how the Foreign Office processed the pleas for help. Ethel Andrews, for instance, was sent a letter reassuring her that according to the US ambassador, whose country, then still neutral, was monitoring the PoW camps, parcels sent to prisoners “appear as a rule to arrive safely and without undue delay”. Separate records show her brother remained a PoW for the remainder of the war, and returned to live with his mother in Sherborne.

Lt MacBryan, similarly, survived the war and went on to help Great Britain win a gold medal in cricket at the 1920 Olympics. His brothers, however, were not so lucky. One, Edward, was killed in action in France in 1916, a second, Reginald, was wounded, and Gerard, the youngest, suffered from serious mental health problems after the war and “would start shooting wildly into the darkness”.

The collection is free to view on Findmypast until 14 November.


Esther Addley

The GuardianTramp

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